Why We Need To Teach Pupils Sex Is Not Just About Warding Off Groomers And Avoiding STIs

Elsie Whittington
School sex education is failing students by focusing too much on the legalities of rape, sexual violence and exploitation and not concentrating on the more every day, early experiences of sex that most young people encounter.

School sex education is failing students by focusing too much on the legalities of rape, sexual violence and exploitation and not concentrating on the more every day, early experiences of sex that most young people encounter.

It is understandable, in the wake of high-profile grooming cases that schools would want to prepare pupils for that risk. But in doing so, the majority of pupils are not learning the equally vital lesson of how consent can help them have better, and more pleasurable sexual experiences.

 

It is so vital that this is addressed as we move towards Sex and Relationships Education and PHSE becoming statutory in all schools in two years' time.   

 

The messages that many young people receive about sex, for example from formal education, mainstream media and porn, often provides polarised sexual experiences.  

They are told about 'bad sex', ranging from contracting STIs, rape and sexual exploitation and 'good sex' - mind blowing orgasms, usually represented by a heterosexual couple enjoying penetrative intercourse. 

 

In reality most peoples' experiences lie somewhere between the two.

People do have sex they don't want, they experience pressure and worry about their reputation among their peers. They desire sexual contact, and specific sexual acts, but often don't have the words or confidence to articulate that to others.

 

What's missing in education and campaigns about consent are conversations that look at the more every day and less extreme experiences of sex and relationships.

When we talk about consent we commonly think of it as seeking and giving a 'yes' or a 'no'. When I've spoken to young people about consent it's clear that this is not a common, or even desirable, practice due to fear of rejection and a lack of confidence.

As one teenager told me: "You do want consent, but you're too scared to ask for it". In the moments that lead up to intimate contact, it's natural to be scared of rejection, acknowledging what you want, making things awkward and disrupting the flow of what might, ideally turn into something really good.  

 

This has come up time and time again in the interactive and participatory research I have been doing with people aged 13-25 where we've been thinking about consent more broadly and 'in the moment'. 

It's all very well to suggest you can 'just ask' someone if they want to do something, but the realities of doing this are complicated and shrouded in societal and cultural practices of silence and awkwardness when it comes to talking about sex.

 

Many educational resources and sessions fail to teach young people about the subtle and awkward every day experiences that they are likely to face as they negotiate sexual and romantic relationships.

That is why I have been working with the sexual health charity Brook, the University of Sussex and Onclick to create new, research informed, free resources on consent and pleasure to be used in schools around the country. 

 

The consent resource talks about but then moves away from the law, and ideas that consent is simple and easy to give and to get. 

It explores those grey areas through a "consent continuum" that I have devised which covers not just the polar opposites of rape and actively consented sex but non-consensual sex and passive consent that lie in between.

Talking and teaching about the grey areas may seem a difficult task but this research shows that by engaging in young people's uncertainty and awkwardness about wanting, being ready or being open to sex, we are building the skills they need to be able to be clear and to communicate their choices. 

 

Everything we've put together has been based on the experiences and suggestion of young people to make sure the resources are relevant and engaging.

 

While everyone needs to be taught about consent, it needs to be done in a way that focuses on how more communication, although awkward to begin with, is likely to enable more pleasurable experiences in the longer run, rather than simply teaching that consent is important so that you don't get in trouble with the law. 

Only addressing extreme and clear examples of sexual violence fails to address the more common and subtle pressures, expectations and practices that occur on a much more regular basis. 

 

Being able to talk about sex is a key part of safeguarding.  If young people do not have the words to acknowledge and understand their own desires and the desire of others, they cannot keep themselves safe, establish boundaries or speak up when these boundaries are crossed. 

By exploring the grey areas and embracing the awkward, we can still help young people to be aware of the threat of exploitation but can teach them a whole lot more besides.

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