The government’s draft curriculum on sex education falls short on LGBT experiences, sexual violence and pornography
I had just turned 11 when Salt-N-Pepa released a track that made my ears burn on first hearing: “Let’s talk about sex baby. Let’s talk about you and me. Let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be. Let’s talk about SEX.” It was quickly recorded on to a cassette and listened to surreptitiously. God forbid my parents should hear and think I wanted to talk about sex with them. But of course, as a preteen and then teenager, it was a conversation I did want to have. One I hoped would make me feel normal amid the swirl of overwhelming hormones.
My parents were, for their part, ordinary in their attitude towards “the talk”. They could be best described as squeamish, preferring to be vague on details but with a huge dollop of fear because … PREGNANCY. They were, and are, not alone. Ineptitude sits close to denial; both act as effective weapons for those who’d rather shirk a tricky responsibility. On this matter our schools have proved no different. Deemed best placed to curate discussions around sex, they have done so with an incompetence that has left young people unable to talk about the good and bad of s-e-x.
Britney Spears was dressed in a school uniform demanding “Hit me baby one more time” when the current sex education curriculum was first published. That year Monica Lewinsky was pilloried by public opinion that was too sexist to recognise that the 22-year-old intern might be a victim in the grim spectacle. Our schools largely ignored these teachable moments and were silent on such milestones. No wonder then that it is a curriculum feminists have long criticised for inadequately meeting the needs of today’s young. Where is talk about consent, sexting and the explosion of online pornography? Nowhere. Why is there such a reluctance to arm young people with the information and discussions they need to go on to have healthier sexual relationships?
Thankfully in the government’s new relationships and sex education (RSE) draft curriculum there is now explicit mention of these issues, and on Wednesday the Department for Education (DfE) closes its consultation on it. Yet there is still a danger it could fail many of our young by repeating old mistakes – and by ignoring the issues young people want to talk about.
It’s clear from the draft curriculum that violence against women and LGBT experiences are still issues seemingly difficult to broach – best handled with the language of ambiguity or outright silence. There is talk about coercion, but no room to place that in the context of gender inequality.
There is, too, a repeated return to the centrality of marriage, admittedly with an acknowledgment that this includes same-sex marriage. Yet this jars with making the teaching of LGBT relationships discretionary. It is why the feminist organisation Level Up is calling for people, especially the young, to have their say and respond to the government’s draft consultation. The aim is to let the government know that LGBT experiences should be an integral part of sex education rather than a tacked-on optional extra. To ignore this would be to let down the thousands of LGBT young people grappling with their sexual identity, who are already made to feel out of place. A survey by the government itself found that for 31% of young people, it is a priority that they are taught about gender and sexual identity.
We all have stories of that one sex ed class where a teacher, usually barely able to contain their own discomfort, instructs a class of giggling teenagers on how best to place a condom on a cucumber. It tells us much that the memory of sex education for so many is one of awkward tittering – and a very clear sense that sex is something to be feared if not avoided.
But even in that scenario, most could at least say they found their sexual identity reflected in the content of discussion. The same could not be said for LGBT students whose teachers were legally bound under section 28 to desist from teaching “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. Fifteen years on from the repeal of the act, and despite proposed changes to the curriculum, RSE in many schools might be more accurately described as heterosexual sex ed. If schools can decide to opt out of teaching LGBT experiences, the government must accept that those relationships will not be normalised and LGBT young people will be made vulnerable as a result.
That LGBT students would be given sex ed without seeing themselves reflected is a repudiation of their sexual identity. It is the type of silence that can easily breed self-doubt and loathing, not to mention bullying and coercion. This new curriculum is supposed to be a step forward. Instead it feels like we are stuck in the past.
• Lola Okolosie is an English teacher and Level Up board member