For too long, governments have been obsessed with the notion that young people need more sex education, not less. The latest excuse to ramp it up is the number of sexually transmitted infections which, to be fair, has risen to pretty grim levels. In 2015, 141,000 new cases of STIs were diagnosed in 20- to 24-year-olds, and 78,000 discovered in 15- to 19-year-olds.
The Local Government Association (LGA) has said that compulsory sex and education ‘could make a real difference in reversing this trend’. But I’m not convinced at all given the reality of sex education in Britain. The fact is that our nation’s young people are some of the most inundated in the world in regards to information on the subject. This surplus has paradoxically done anything but tackle STIs, sexualisation and the rest. Just look at the STI figures!
In the last few years, campaigners’ preoccupation with making sex education compulsory has masked the fact that it has actually been wheeled out rather extensively at schools across the country. After all, what PR-wary head would ignore the issue? And if it’s not schools, teenagers can find vast resources on the topic from television, magazines, books, leaflets at the GP surgery or advisory centres like Brook. Sex is everywhere.
What no one will ever stop to realise is that with this ever-pouring tap of information, the issue of sexualisation has not gone away. It has, in fact, increased to the point that young people’s health is now at risk. But campaigners say it’s time for more, more, more!
The issue with sex education is that it often overestimates the prurience of young people. During my own such classes at school, not all that long ago, teachers talked to us as if we were mini Russell Brands, dying to pounce on each other — and sex was communicated as a mechanical function, like getting a bunsen burner to work. Overall, I felt that the adults often projected their own fascinations on to my year, who varied in levels of ‘sexual readiness’.
People also forget that sex education doesn’t start and stop at school. Children go home where they are blasted with information from even the most well-intentioned TV shows. Many of these simply reiterate the covert message from sex education classes: you should be having lots and lots of sex!
If anything, it seems to me that — contrary to the experts’ opinions — the reduction of sex education could improve health outcomes, not least because it takes away the expectation of sexual activity in teens. From every angle, young people are taught that sexual exploration is synonymous with ‘liberation’ and ‘growing up’. For some, it’s too much, too young.
The LGA’s focus on sex education also distracts it from delving into big contributors to STIs, like Tinder and drinking; two things that often go hand in hand. People forget that dating apps have a hugely detrimental effect on relationships, contributing to the sort of sexual reductionism that has led to STIs. This, itself, is a direct result of sex education, which has served to separate sex from commitment, love and care. Even the idea that you need ‘love’ for sex is now seen as archaic and laughable — though it is the very sort of thinking that could cut down STIs.
We have to face up to the fact that, far from protecting young people, sex education has only contributed to the very culture that sexualises them. That there are more STIs floating around is not the reason to crank it up. It might just be the reason to slow down.