The status of sexual education in the UK: a closer look at current challenges. What is happening?

The phrase 'sexual education' on a chalkboard, surrounded by illustrations depicting various topics related to sex and relationships.

Credit: Getty Images / Dusan Stankovic

If there’s one thing that unquestionably brings everyone together, it’s the fact that we all received inadequate sexual education in school. However, certain members of parliament in the United Kingdom believe that children are being taught too much.

In May 2024, reports surfaced indicating that the government is considering prohibiting schools in England from delivering sexual education to children under the age of 9.

In March 2024, Conservative parliamentarian Andrea Jenkyns stated in a parliamentary debate that she advocated for a complete prohibition on sexual education in schools. “As a mother of a young child in primary school myself, I do not wish for him or other children to be educated about sex at all, whether heterosexual or homosexual,” she stated. “I also oppose children in primary school being instructed about changing gender – we must safeguard the innocence of children and their childhood, especially at such a young age.”

On social media, Jenkyns’ remarks have incited a mix of support, opposition, and general unease, with some endorsing her view that sexual education poses a threat to innocence, while others hold the opposite opinion. Her statements did not emerge in isolation. In reality, they are just a small part of a widespread moral hysteria regarding sexual education that has been escalating in the political sphere over the last few years, with the ongoing “trans debate” in the British media being closely intertwined and often cited as the primary rationale for banning sexual education altogether.

Several government officials have raised concerns about the content of sexual education, contending that there is an excess of LGBTQ+ and sexual material, despite a lack of substantial evidence supporting such claims.

As apprehensions about the future of sexual education intensify, we have examined the predominant comments about sexual education from the political realm over the past year and conversed with experts to grasp the current status of sexual education, pinpoint the areas that truly need enhancement, and elucidate why much of the apprehension surrounding these lessons is unfounded.

What’s unsuitable about sexual education?

Apprehensions regarding the material taught in sexual education have been expressed by politicians and parents alike. It is challenging to identify precisely when and why this apprehension began, but it is crucial to consider the context in which these discussions are unfolding.

In 2018, the FOSTA-SESTA bill was enacted in the United States to combat trafficking, but unfortunately fails to differentiate between consensual sex work and trafficking, thereby causing complications for all sexual content on the internet. As the bill primarily targets the internet, its repercussions are felt worldwide. While its aim is to combat online trafficking, it affects individuals engaged in consensual sex work, encompassing almost anyone discussing sex on the internet. This includes online sexual education. Consequently, all forms of sexual information are frequently flagged by social media algorithms as sexual solicitation, resulting in the scarcity of sexual education resources online.

Furthermore, “Don’t Say Gay” bills have been passed in numerous states in America, from Florida to Louisiana, echoing Section 28, which prohibits LGBTQ+ individuals from expressing themselves freely and accessing necessary education in schools.

These efforts may be influencing dialogues in the UK. Here, concerns about sexual education are less centered on trafficking and more focused on several exaggerated myths:

  • Encouraging children to embrace transgender identities during sexual education classes.

  • Sexualizing children through sexual education.

  • Alleging that learning about sex robs children of their innocence.

Most of these myths were reinforced in Jenkyn’s speech, yet she is not the lone politician to take a stand against sexual education in some form. Notably, parliamentarian Miriam Cates has been a leading voice in this discourse. Back in March 2023, she asserted in a parliamentary debate that British schools were providing “explicit lessons on oral sex,” instructions on “safely choking a partner,” and asserted that there are “72 genders” being taught during RSE classes.

Cates contended that these lessons are “inappropriate for the age, sexualizing, and undermining parental authority” and called for a review of RSE materials in secondary schools, a commitment that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak expressed would be fulfilled by the end of 2023.

However, the parliamentarian did not furnish direct evidence to support these claims. In response, James Bowen, the policy director for the NAHT, the organization for school leaders, stated that they have not uncovered any substantial evidence suggesting that students are being exposed to unsuitable material for their age on a widespread scale – otherwise, he believes they would have addressed it on a case-by-case basis.

Notably, the report does not cite specific sources regarding the instruction of “safe choking.” Instead, it references content from Cliterally the Best, a blog and prominent sex-positive Instagram account, which is not currently utilized as educational material within the British RSE curriculum.

Andrew Hampton, an education specialist and the author of Working with Boys, Creating Cultures of Mutual Respect in Schools, suggests that much of this moral panic may stem from the common classroom technique of openly and impartially teaching sexual education, which some politicians misinterpret. Hampton posits that children are likely raising questions about choking unprompted, particularly as it has become more prevalent in pornography and intimate settings. Consequently, teachers are merely fulfilling their job duties by explaining the concept when questioned.

He explains: “A prevalent strategy in schools for sexual education is to have students call out words or concepts related to sex or any queries they have, after which the teacher elaborates on those concepts on the board.”

Hampton underscores that due to the surge in choking portrayed in pornography, social media platforms like TikTok, and mainstream media, children are likely inquiring about it during sexual education classes. “So, if questioned, a teacher might clarify the matter and outline associated risks,” he asserts.

Amidst calls for an overhaul of RSE, Secretary of State for Education Gillian Keegan declared last October that she had instructed schools in England to permit parents to review the materials utilized in their children’s sexual education classes. She cautioned headteachers that there can be “no exceptions, no equivocations” about this directive.

Since the report organized by Sunak is not yet finalized (or at least not publicly accessible), there is currently no evidence supporting these allegations, despite mounting apprehensions of a moral panic. Consequently, the source of the notion that children are being instructed excessively remains speculative. Are children truly receiving an excessive amount of sexual education?

Sex education remains inadequate

The brief answer is no. It is unfounded to suggest that children are receiving an excessive amount of education beyond their years, as relationships and sexual education (RSE) has only recently become a mandatory subject in schools in the UK, specified by legislation as recently as September 2020.

Moreover, it is incorrect to insinuate that children are being educated excessively on LGBTQ+ subjects, as some politicians, including Cates and Jenkyns, seem to believe, given that it was only in 2003 that teachers were permitted to provide guidance and teachings for homosexual students due to Section 28.

Sex education is still in its formative stages, as evidenced by a survey from 2023 revealing that 58 percent of young individuals reported receiving insufficient instruction on certain topics they deemed important, such as details about pornography; and young students are interested in their sexual education incorporating more ‘frank discussions’ and more information about ‘realistic sexual circumstances.’

Addressing claims that sexual education excessively emphasizes LGBTQ+ themes, a survey conducted by the Terrence Higgins Trust on young people aged 16 to 24 illustrated that one in seven respondents had not received any sex and relationships education (SRE) during their secondary school years, with nearly two-thirds receiving instruction at most once a year.

Data from Safe Lives further indicates that LGBTQ+ students feel notably less at ease, less assured about where to seek assistance for relationship or sexual abuse, and a disproportionate number possess limited knowledge about identifying toxic and healthy relationships. Most LGBTQ+ students (61 percent) disagree that LGBT+ relationships are sufficiently integrated throughout RSE, despite it being a legal requirement.

Despite the overwhelming evidence emphasizing the crucial necessity and need for expansion rather than curtailment of sexual education, Sunak declared at a Conservative Party press conference in October that they will endeavor to give parents the authority to supervise their children’s sexual education at school and withdraw them from classes if they deem it necessary. While this may appear equitable to some, there are numerous reasons why granting parents such control over their children’s sexual education is a perilous proposition.

Why parents should not veto their children’s sexual education

The notion of allowing parents to dictate their children’s sexual education frequently arises in the sexual education debate, yet it is fraught with peril.

Studies conducted by Planned Parenthood reveal that more than 20 percent of parents refrain from discussing sex with their children at home, and those who do engage in these conversations often overlook critical topics such as consent. Consequently, if children are withdrawn from school sexual education classes, they are unlikely to receive this essential information elsewhere.

Depriving children of RSE significantly impacts their sexual development. Anabelle Knight, a certified sex educator at the sex toy company Lovehoney, contends that the absence of sexual education in schools leads to deficient sexual behaviors and understandings among adults, particularly in marginalized groups.

Harvard Medical School findings indicate that comprehensive RSE plays a role in preventing sexual violence, while research from the Council of Europe reveals that it generally fosters safer and more inclusive communities for children. Similarly, a study published in The Journal of Adolescent Health analyzed the effects of sexual education over a span of three decades, identifying a correlation between comprehensive sexual education and enhanced grasp and acceptance of “sexual diversity, dating and intimate partner violence prevention, development of healthy relationships, prevention of child sex abuse, and bolstered social/emotional learning.” The study underscores that for these beneficial social developments to take place, children must commence RSE in elementary school (primary school in the UK) and these lessons must encompass LGBTQ+ inclusivity.

Knight notes that individuals in the LGBTQ+ community must seek alternative sources for the sexual knowledge they should have acquired in school. She asserts, “One of the most prevalent – and easily reachable – venues to acquire sexual knowledge is through pornography, which often portrays an unrealistic, predominantly male-centric perspective on sex and intimacy.” In essence, the lack of sexual education in school exerts profound repercussions on our relationships, including those with ourselves, in later life.

Teaching consent is deemed one of the most crucial lessons that individuals of all ages can learn, and ideally, the sooner, the better. “It is not only vital for children to understand that they have autonomy over their bodies, but also to respect the boundaries of others,” she emphasizes.

Elucidating further, she states, “Educating children about consent and sexual relationships before they encounter them ensures that they are better prepared when the time comes. Before making a well-informed decision, individuals must be… informed.”

Additionally, some parents do not prioritize their children’s best interests. Certain parents may prioritize their political ideologies over their children’s well-being. Some parents harbor homophobic sentiments and are averse to their children identifying as LGBTQ+ individuals, leading them to impede their children’s sexual education to prevent them from acquiring this knowledge due to their personal motivations.

This reality is challenging to confront, especially considering that some parents are abusive towards their children. The Office of National Statistics reports that 37 percent of children who are victims of child sexual abuse are targeted by a family member or family friend.

Considering all these factors, Knight emphasizes the necessity for children to receive sexual education from a professional, regulated, and secure source, asserting that parents are not the suitable alternative for this purpose.

While discussions surrounding sexual education intensify, journalist Sophia Smith Galer revealed in a report by VICE that the UK government has only utilized half of the £6 million allocated in 2019 for mandatory sexual education in schools. This underscores the deficiency in sexual education provision rather than an excessive one. Instead of fixating on unsubstantiated rumors, it may be more beneficial to focus on the substantial improvements that remain to be made, adhere to evidence-based recommendations for promoting safe sexual development among young individuals, and reevaluate the allocation of funds in this domain.

UPDATE: May. 15, 2024, 11:15 a.m. CEST Added new government plans to ban sexual education for under 9s in schools in England.

Bella Anderson

Bella is a tech enthusiast turned journalist, passionate about decoding complex innovations into understandable insights.

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