Some things should never be entrusted to parents, and sex education is one of them.
Consider the facts – currently, child abuse dominates the news, with widespread concern about the rise of cyber bullying and “sexting” by children as young as eight. Half of all court time is now spent dealing with rape and child abuse and one in five prisoners are guilty of a sexual offence. Three decades ago, porn was sold via top shelf magazines and DVDs, but now it’s available to the smartphone generation at the click of a button, with every single perversion catered for. Parents routinely give their children phones as a safeguard – but what are they unleashing?
In this environment, it’s not surprising that politicians, charities, the Church of England and law enforcement agencies all united to praise Government plans to introduce compulsory sex education in all schools from the age of four.
Parents, though, have reacted very differently. Half the mums I’ve been speaking to are furious that their tots are going to be acquainted with words like “genitalia” – and some said they weren’t happy that the stark facts about how a baby is made being part of the school day. Personally, I’d rather the real words were used, other than airy fairy terms like “bits” and “fairy garden” and embarrassing clichés about how humans reproduce. Most parents are hopeless at talking to their kids about sex in a calm and considered way.
When I was about ten, mine just left a leaflet in my mother’s knicker drawer, knowing that I would read it. I didn’t find out anything about masturbation or even know what all the parts of the female anatomy were called until I studied biology at secondary school.
Now, porn is our living rooms, body parts are displayed as “free expression” on the street and as we shop in the local supermarket. Flesh and sexual imagery are pretty hard to ignore, whether you’re four or 104. In this hothouse environment, teachers are best placed to deliver valuable life-messages about relationships, and appropriate behaviour.
Teachers spend far more time with children than most parents. They are trained to deliver rudimentary social skills, and impose boundaries, while most parents spend their time out at work, watching television, lavishing treats one minute and imposing rules the next. And all the time their teenage offspring remain closeted in bedrooms viewing God knows what online.
Boys and girls are routinely pilloried if they refuse to participate and swap sexual imagery and pictures of body parts. Many are blackmailed and bullied, without parents having a clue. Low self-esteem and anorexia are soaring as a result of a breakdown in sexual education. Primary school teachers operate in a carefully controlled environment – the best place to start telling very young children about their bodies and how to develop meaningful relationships. Of course very small children are not going to be told inappropriate details – sex instruction is part of a wider conversation about trust, and the meaning of consent. Hopefully, by the time they reach secondary school they will have the equipment to withstand difficult pressures from social media and their peers.
Sadly, the Health Minister’s good intentions will be scuppered from the outset if she allows parents to withdraw their children from sex education lessons – which I predict many religious groups will do. And why should faith schools be allowed to teach a special version of the curriculum? Sex education has to be compulsory, with no exceptions – political correctness has gone way too far. Religion is being used as a means of separating children and instilling divisions when we need to build community, not division.
Critics complain that children are “losing” their right to a childhood, but turn on the television or go online and see that rape, abuse and grooming have become the fodder of prime time entertainment, with series like National Treasure and even Poldark highlighting it as a cornerstone of a storyline. The highly praised new series of Broadchuch, which aired on ITV this week, included the harrowing story of rape and a teenager caught “sexting” at school. Worthy drama or capitalising on our (justifiable) fears?
The police say they cannot cope with the rise in child abuse – they are currently investigating 70,000 allegations and make 400 arrests every month. The only way to combat child abuse, and protect childhood, is through compulsory sex education.