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Why Classroom Sex Education Fails Teenagers

Mal Fletcher
Posted 11 February 2015
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ALMOST HALF TEEN GIRLS COERCED INTO SEX. Some polls are not worth leading.

A new UK-based international report into sexual behaviour places England at the top of four other European countries for adolescent sexual coercion and violence.

The report, which sampled 4000 children aged 13 to 17, shows that hundreds of thousands of teenage girls in Britain are being coerced into sexual activity by a boyfriend.

The study, undertaken by Bristol’s School for Policy Studies, shows that two in five girls aged between 13 and 17 have endured sexual coercion in various forms. Twenty percent of girls have suffered violence at the hands of a boyfriend.

A spokesperson for the NSPCC has said that, ‘The levels of victimisation revealed by this research show action is urgently needed by the government to make updated sex and relationship education a statutory right for every child and young person.’

Actually, this study reveals two lessons which we ignore at our peril. The first is that sex education in schools is failing. 

It is not failing simply because the type of instruction is lacking. It is failing because governments, via their proxies – public and private schools – are not best placed to provide the type of education young people need most.

It may fly in the face of accepted political orthodoxy, but it is still true that government agencies are less well equipped than parents to provide nurture for children.

This is perhaps particularly true in the highly emotive and individualised area of sexual development, identity and behaviour.

The Bristol study shows that many families are failing their children, with parents perhaps assuming that sex education is something best handled by ‘the experts’ in schools.

There is a vast difference, too seldom acknowledged, between providing young people with biological information and discussing – in some cases, promoting – the details of various sexual techniques.

In an age saturated with overt sexual material in the media – and even more so, online – many teenagers learn the basic mechanics of sexual behaviour from an early age.

What many lack, however, is the emotional maturity to properly handle their curiosity, their hormones or the rapid physiological changes they’re experiencing.

This is why parents are so important to their children’s sexual development.

They, not government proxies, are best placed to offer the patient nurturing teens need as they negotiate the sometimes traumatic phase of sexual awakening.

What’s more, healthy parenting provides the needed insight into how emotionally prepared an individual child is to receive instruction. It is self evident that children mature in different areas of thought and behaviour at different rates.

Information that will help one child at a given age might actually do more harm than good for another at the same age.

Classrooms provide a great environment for collaborative learning. They’re not so useful when it comes to helping individual children process sensitive psycho-emotional material.

For this reason a number of children’s agencies are calling on schools to offer more in the way of relationship training, as distinct from purely sex education.

Schools clearly play an important role in supporting children’s relational development. Respect for the opposite sex, for example, should be an overt part of every school’s value system and clearly communicated to its students.

Where sexual relationships are concerned, however, schools will never offer the best source of primary instruction or support.

If schools could play that role, we might be seeing rates of sexual coercion and violence dropping rather than rising, as they apparently are.

It is because sex is not simply a mechanical act and that its best context is a committed relationship, that a well-rounded sexual education requires a form of ‘coaching’ as well as mere instruction.

Children need personal mentors through the development phases, not simply teachers.

Parents, and personal carers, are best placed to offer this. They alone can be with the child through the ups and downs of development, picking up the pieces if or when something goes wrong.

Teen pregnancy rates, never low in the UK, are often used to demonstrate that parents can’t do the job; that government must step in to fill the void, via schools.

Indeed, government agencies have lately become quite aggressive in trying to ensure that even privately-run schools provide instruction not just in biology and basic sexual technique, but in alternative sexual lifestyles.

Strangely, the ultra-liberal political lobbyists who insist that governments should stay out of adult bedrooms, also boldly assert government’s right to invade the bedrooms of adolescents.

Yet these new figures show that while sex education has become ever more graphic, children are becoming less well prepared for meaningful relationships.

In some ways, it may set them up to believe they’re capable of building deep and lasting relationships when they are not.

In most cases – there may be exceptions, but perhaps only a few – young teens haven’t yet developed the emotional perspective to build satisfying and fulfilling relationships that will stand the test of time.

This is why those parents whose children have been involved in sexual liaisons with teachers are so strident in pursuing justice.

While the child might argue the presence of a consensual relationship, the parent sees only cynical adult manipulation of youthful trust and curiosity.

The second lesson to be learned from this study is that media companies – and in particular social media groups – must take seriously their role as promoters of child welfare.

In this country, media companies for the most part do a good job in this regard.

However, on occasions they could do more to support parents, rather than, as sometimes happens, undermining their best efforts.

Nothing is gained by crying (as some media folks and teacher do): ‘But so many parents don’t do what they should anyway!’ Accepting the lowest common denominator simply reinforces it as the norm.

Media companies have often demonstrated their ability to encourage proactive change within mindsets and behaviour – especially among the young.

Hugely influential social enterprises such as Live 8 and the Make Poverty History campaign first gained traction among young adults because of the support of multi-national media companies.

As a result, consumers decided to become activists in pursuit of great causes.

Promoting positive social change is even more visible when it comes to the world of social media, where the young themselves drive the campaigns.

Without the aid of internet social platforms, the Arab Spring would not have happened. Neither would the Women2Drive campaign in the Saudi states or the clean up of English streets after the riots of 2011.

Some of these campaigns met with mixed success, but the fact that they happened at all is testament to the support social media provide for innovative collaboration.

It is time for social media and media in general to start censoring sexualised material that is clearly harmful to children.

Censorship is not the dirty word some would have us believe it is.

Every government, of whatever political persuasion, practices censorship, particularly where children are concerned.

Films are given certain ratings – though arguably ratings are not supported with adequate legislation against abuse.

On British television, the watershed is designed to rule out adult programming when it might be seen by children.

These are both forms of soft censorship.

Some argue that the TV watershed is an anachronism, which has little impact in the age of the mobile internet.

This, however, provides part of the reason for strengthening the watershed – and applying some type of censorship to public internet sites. The more potentially damaging material is available to children, the more censorship is needed.

When it comes to social media companies, of course, a more realistic approach would be to encourage greater self-censorship.

For their part, governments might take a carrot-and-stick approach to these groups. They should be offered incentives – possibly tax breaks or government contracts – as the carrot, with tighter regulation as the stick.

Without completely killing its frontier spirit, the cybersphere must be seen more as a public utility than a private fiefdom for billionaire cyber-CEOs.

Does government have any role to play in providing sex education? Its major roles should include supporting parents in their training of children for relationships.

It should provide strong legal protections against the promotion of material that might be injurious to children. It should maintain reasonable and realistic provisions against bullying or violence.

Government should also offer, as part of school curricula, training in the biology of sex – and general support in the development of healthy respect.

It should not, however, operate with the deluded belief that government proxies are best equipped to be the primary instructors on sex.

Parents must step up to the plate on that one – and have the support of government, schools and social media in doing so.

What’s your view?

In your view, should parents be more involved in sex education with their children?



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