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Sex, lies and stereotypes

On March 20th, several months later than planned the Government published new draft Guidance on Sex and Relationships education for schools. Mike Davis looks at past and present sex education while David Floyd reports on new initiatives to reduce teenage pregnancy.

The British establishment has a deeply conservative attitude to sex. It's the top shelf in newsagents, it's secretive visits to call girls and massage parlours, it's marriage (strictly heterosexual). It's not talked about. It's repressed. A vast double standard was erected from Victorian times until the sixties. There had always been the saucy seaside postcards but changes in laws regarding homosexuality, divorce, abortion, the advent of the pill and a more 'permissive' climate began to change attitudes. The tabloids, satellite and cable TV have further opened up sex, but as a commercial product. The Internet offers previously unimaginable access to naked flesh and sexual encounters of every sort.

So it is not so surprising that Britain boasts the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Europe, that violence against women and rape is a huge, largely unreported area of crime, that child sexual abuse is extensive.we have been a nation in denial. But moreover, we have been a people in ignorance. No wonder children are confused. On the one side sex surrounds them, on the other misinformation, prejudice, ambiguity.

One of the first moves by the new government was to commission the Social Exclusion Unit to report on the issue of Teenage Pregnancy. A 100 page report was produced in 1998 which made some thoughtful recommendations. Besides a national campaign of information and targeted initiatives to reduce school girl conceptions (see below) the report also recommended an updated guidance to schools on sex and relationships education. This was due out last Autumn. However, it became embroiled in the furore over the Government's welcome intention to repeal Section 28 which helped stir up so much anti-gay prejudice under the Tories. Although Section 28 never applied directly to schools and teachers, its injunction against local authorities 'promoting homosexuality as a pretended family relationship' caused confusion and aided the climate of homophobic bullying in and out of schools.

Instead of getting the Guidance out promptly, the Government allowed the Daily Mail to make the running with its campaign for 'marriage'. The proposed guidance became tangled up with efforts to repeal Section 28 and in particular with Tory Lords keen to disrupt Government plans as a response to Lords reform. The right wing Christian Institute worked closely with Baroness Young to mount a scare campaign against repeal and to amend the new Guidance. Baroness Young opened a room in the Lords where she displayed evidence of teaching materials purporting to corrupt the morals of the nation's children. Perfectly sound health education videos somehow got labelled 'How to become a Lesbian' while any teaching material that showed homosexual relations in a positive way were branded as anti-family and evil.

When the Government recently tried to amend the Learning and Skills Bill in the Lords to include the Sex and Relationship guidance they were narrowly defeated. Baroness Young complained, "marriage is hardly mentioned.it's all about sex and relationships". This of course, is precisely what it is supposed to be about. The fevered imaginations of some noble Lords ran so high that during the debate on March 23rd Lord Moran bemoaned the fact that "stable relationships.could even include any union outside marriage." He gave examples of "necophiliacs, transvestites and sado-masochists who had been living together for some years" to which the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Russell interjected "is the noble Lord suggesting that necrophiliacs have relationships?"

The DfEE's efforts to provide new and improved guidance to schools on sex and relationships education is a welcome advance on virtually everything produced up until the 1970s. International and local research demonstrates that schools are the most important place for young people to gain information and skills to equip them with the knowledge and skills to enjoy a safe and fulfilling sexual life. Confident, enlightened and open education about sex and relationships, within a confidential environment, starting from an early age, will make a major contribution to this aim and to reducing unwanted pregnancies. Unfortunately, the draft Guidance: Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) will not be the 'user friendly' guidance teachers need. Teachers require authoritative guidance that is clear, practical and free of ambiguity and value judgements.

Although the Guidance represents a huge step forward it remains deficient. A whistle-stop tour over the past century of efforts at providing sex education indicates a tortured journey. Throughout the first half of the century there was little public discussion of sex, let alone sex education in schools. It was virtually a taboo subject. Efforts to include biology in the school curriculum came from moral conservatives keen to provide a basic awareness of sexual hygiene as protection against sexually transmitted infections (venereal diseases as they were then called).

There was little formal encouragement of sex education. The Board of Education recommended sex education in schools in 1927 but it was discretionary. Most school text books ignored the subject. Fureau and Smart's Human Physiology, a leading school text book (published as one of Longman's Elementary Science Manuals) still did not deal with sex organs or reproduction in its 1930 edition.

Local Authorities were similarly discreet. A London County Council Memorandum on the Curriculum for Science (July 1935) suggested the study of the reproduction of flowering plants and the life history of frogs and birds but concluded: "It will generally be agreed that class instruction in senior schools should not include mammals."

The great 20th Century sexual health pioneers: Havelock Ellis and Marie Stopes wrote and campaigned widely for information and education about sex. In her best seller, Contraception (first published in 1923) Marie Stopes talked about sex, planned parenthood, orgasm, sex for pleasure, sexually transmitted diseases. In those pre-pill days she recommended the cap and chemicals as the best form of contraception. Havelock Ellis generally recommended the condom.

In the 1946 edition of Contraception Dr Stopes reminded readers that the Ministry of Health finally agreed "to public demand that contraceptive information should be available through Centres and Clinics subsidised by the Ministry of Health." While Stopes was advocating this kind of education the Ministry of Education was publishing Health Education. This was a 100-page plus booklet circulated to schools. It was founded very much on the medical model of health education.

The booklet did not mention sex or contraception once. In the section on 'Health Education and School Curriculum' we find a sub-section headed 'The last year of school life'. It recommends pupils should be expected to know: how to keep healthy and clean; how to render first aid; how to do sick nursing and know something about infant care ("in the case of girls"); where local clinics, Welfare Centres and hospitals are situated and so on. No mention of reproduction, sex or contraception. In the section on 'Healthy Body and Mind' there was plenty on the structure and function of the body, school fatigue, but nothing on sex. In the 'Biology and Health' section.nothing on sex. In the 'Mothercraft' section an unquestioned responsibility of girls to care for the upbringing of children and infant welfare, but nothing on sex and reproduction. And no mention of sexually transmitted infections (despite a growth following World War 2).

In 1943 the Board of Education produced a pamphlet, Sex Education in Schools and Youth Organisations noting the need for suitable instruction in schools, with parental backing, before strong emotions develop. Few teachers carried out the recommendations.

On the eve on the 1944 Education Act only about one third of secondary schools made any provision for sex education-chiefly through special lectures. Formal sex education remained normative in tone, inculcating a general respect for the ethics of married life and condemning extra-marital sex or 'deviant' sex.

The Crowther Report-15-18 (1959) encouraged the conscious use of sex education to inculcate the values of chastity, marriage and family life. The Newsom Report (1963) on 'average' and 'below average' children did move forward. It recommended that "positive and realistic guidance to adolescent boys and girls on sexual behaviour is essential. This should include the biological, moral, social and personal aspects." However it went on to say, "Religious instruction has a part to play in helping boys and girls to find a firm basis for sexual morality based on chastity before marriage and fidelity within it." It also suggested married teachers were best equipped to handle the teaching of sex education.

In his 1973 survey The Sexual Behaviour of Young Adults, Michael Schofield found that only one in ten boys in his sample and one in five of the girls had "adequate sex education." The late 1960s and 1970s saw something of a book boom around sexual matters. However, most school texts were highly moralistic and usually confused or conservative about different sexual orientations. Homosexuality, for example, was seen as a 'psychological disturbance'. (Julia Dankus, A Textbook of Sex Education, 1967). Some were positively dangerous. One suggested, "Your eggs won't get fertilised until you are quite grown up and have a husband." The Little Red SchoolBook (1971) translated from the Danish was legally supressed. It gave sensible advice about drugs, school work and sex.

By 1986 attitudes had progressed and the HMI Curriculum Matters: Health Education 5-16 talked of teaching about the physical aspects of sex combined with a consideration of the qualities of relationships in family life and personal responsibility.

There had been high hopes for the new Guidance. The title of the draft Sex and Relationship Education Guidance gives a clue to its strength and weakness. At last we have guidance that proposes sex education is more than just plumbing - names of body parts, how babies are made, puberty - but also "lifelong learning about physical, moral and emotional development. loving relationships, respect, love and care."

But why the singular 'Relationship'? Do we only have one relationship in life? Is this the way 'marriage' is to be introduced as the one and only life-long sexual relationship young people will have? Children today are growing up in a huge variety of relationships: heterosexual, gay, step, foster, 'looked after', single-parent. What's important is security and love. If we are talking of just one relationship i.e. heterosexual marriage, are we not both stigmatising children in different home circumstances (something the draft Guidance warns against) and suggesting only sex within marriage is legitimate? Marriage is important, but it is not the only form loving relationships or child-rearing circumstances take.

Nor is sex just about having children. In amongst the 'safe sex' education on Sexually Transmitted Infections and HIV/AIDS the pleasure principle should get a look in. And why will it still remain optional for primary schools to teach SRE? The message from the Teenage Pregnancy Report was that the earlier information and skills about sex are taught, the better chance young people have of staying safe and avoiding unwanted pregnancy.

Is it not self-contradictory to promote essentially heterosexual marriage while gay marriage is forbidden and the definition employed in the draft Guidance explicitly states that SRE "is not about the promotion of sexual orientation"?

Nor is the voice of young people clear in the Guidance. Parent partnership is understandably encouraged, but what about partnership with young people, directly, through School Councils or other agencies? What do young people want to know and how do they want to learn? A glance at the letters columns in Just 17, Bliss or More indicates the concerns of young people about sex in relationships. They want to know about safety, making and sustaining relationships. But they also want to know about orgasms, erogenous zones, the clitoris, none of which get a mention in the draft Guidance.

The needs of lesbian and gay young people must be addressed more fully within the Guidance and particularly the issue of homophobic bullying. Every day thousands of young people are insulted and victimised over their actual or possible sexual orientation. Schools and youth services need to be clear that they must meet these young people's needs and be given clear guidance on how to do it.

The Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE)/Citizenship framework provides the most effective and coherent curriculum location for the delivery of SRE. This is emphasised although the Guidance reiterates the Science curriculum without detailing what would be taught at each Key Stage in PSHE/Citizenship. Links between SRE, PSHE and Citizenship and the National Healthy School Standard need to be made much more explicit with a 'how to' manual that provides more detailed information and support to schools.

There is much in the Guidance that is positive. We have come a long way. Government officers and ministers will now be examining responses to the draft Guidance and have declared an intention to push through updated Guidance and repeal of Section 28. Ministers need to follow through their commitment to a modern and enlightened approach to sex for young people that empowers rather than cowers in the face of the forces of sexual dishonesty and repression.


May/June 2000