Writer and broadcaster

Sex education fails when it’s all about sex and not emotions. Published in The Week.

IT WAS the last term of primary school and I snuck into the library to look up how babies were made. I had a niggling doubt that they were “sent by God when you got married” as my mother had told me. It took me several minutes to take in the information, looking at line drawings of the male and female reproductive parts.

This memory is branded into me because, up until that point, my faith in my mother was unshakeable. So my immediate thought was the book is wrong. And then the second, and far more profound shock wave hit: no, my mother was wrong.

We are meant to be more savvy about sex, now, aren’t we? And yet, The Times reports today that “teenage girls are falling victim to degrading sexual violence and exploitation by their classmates because schools fail to give pupils vital information about sex and healthy relationships”.

This conclusion was arrived at after a two-year inquiry by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups (CSEGG). Unfortunately, many will read the “gangs and groups” bit and think it doesn’t apply to them, or their children.

Straight sex education – reproduction, puberty – is a compulsory part of the national science curriculum. But relationships and consent – the more emotional side of sex – aren’t. The place to put them, you’d think, would be in Personal, Social and Health Education.

But PSHE is not compulsory (the sex education part of it is) and parents can withdraw their children from any sex education that doesn’t fall within the science curriculum. Confusing on so many levels, isn’t it?

There was recently a call for MPs to support the new Clause 20 of the Children and Families Bill, which would have seen consent and relationships education as part the national curriculum. A completely sensible, responsible idea. But guess what? The House of Commons voted against it on 11 June.

Sex isn’t just about science. And while we continue to make it just about science, and devoid of emotional content, it’s not a great leap to see how sex may one day become just about porn.

At a recent talk at a local school that I went to, one of the mothers said she didn’t want her child knowing anything at all about sex until the child was older. Her view – the “wanting to keep them innocent for as long as possible” tactic – isn’t unusual.

And yet Sue Berelowitz, deputy Children’s Commissioner for England, said when presenting the CSEGG report: “The evidence is absolutely compelling that pretty much 100 per cent of boys from 13, 14 upwards are looking at adult pornographic materials, including extreme and violent images and there is a correlation between the looking at and the carrying out of such acts.”

She went on to give the example of an 11-year-old girl who was raped over three days by ten boys aged between 13 and 14.

If children don’t get reliable and relevant facts from the adults they trust, they will turn to other mediums. When I was nearly 11 I discovered a book that was, fortunately, factually correct. Hard core porn (which children on a computer without parental controls are only two clicks away from) isn’t. And far more damagingly, it is distortive. It raises the fear that a generation of children will think they know everything about sex without actually knowing anything at all.

I am fortunate that in my day job I come across people who work with children: psychologists, advisers, psychotherapists, psychiatrists. They have taught me that you don’t ever sit down and have “the chat” about sex. You have chats, plural. Chats that often take place over several years as the questions get more complex.

Sex (and drugs, but that’s another story) should be openly discussed around the kitchen table. Questions should be answered simply and factually. Children tend to ask questions they can handle the answers to, which is why it’s important to listen to the actual question asked and answer it, without spinning off.

This may involve adults saying grown-up words to their children and not being afraid. Sometimes it involves answering a question when you are driving or would prefer to be doing other things. My eldest asked me about contraception and abortion at the dinner table with my 83-year-old father present.

However, if you make children feel they can’t ask questions, they may not ask again. Of course, even talking openly doesn’t guarantee anything, they may still grow up to be crack whores. But if children feel home is the place where they can get proper, un-hysterical information – especially until schools start providing a more rounded sex education – they may just come back to tell you if things get tricky for them. ·

First published in The Week on 26th November 2013.