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Get sex out of the classroom closet

The media's craving for salacious copy hinders what really goes on in schools, says Ewan Aitken

fter seven years in front-line local government politics at both city council and national level, I am used to much of the print media regularly failing to let the facts get in the way of a good story. Sometimes when I know the details of a story, it scares me just how far the truth is from what is printed, even in some of the so-called quality papers.

It happens in many subject areas but there is no doubt that when sex is involved, the siren call of salacious copy seems to mist the judgment of even the most professional of journalists.

When challenged, we are told that sex sells. This kind of thinking has led to a serious challenge for us as a society. Sex has long been a commodity but now it is accepted as the method of selling as well as the subject of the sale. We use the idea of sex to sell everything from cars to clothes, food to furniture, shampoo to shoes, and sadly much more.

Perhaps we should not be surprised. If it wasn't for sex, none of us would be here. Sexual relationships are fundamental to our existence as human beings. It's not the act of sex that makes us human. All of the animal kingdom procreates through sex in some way. What makes us different is the emotional consequences of sex for our self-awareness, not just sexually, but in all of life.

Sexual self-understanding is a precious thing, to be nurtured and explored with sensitivity, care, thoughtfulness and delight. In my view, exploration of our sexual identity is one of the ways we can discover our spirituality, our sense of the other.

Which is why the use of stories about sex - on which many newspapers thrive - is dangerous. For instance, I was very annoyed at recent headlines in a Sunday broadsheet, about the developments in guidelines on discussions about homosexuality. With billboards screaming about "gay sex lessons" and the story suggesting that teachers will be told how to "teach gay sex", it created a sensationalism that will only help to undermine what has been careful and thoughtful work to support school staff in what can be very difficult circumstances.

Sadly, the story was then repeated in some of the daily papers with similar sensationalist headlines, adding fuel to an unnecessary reactionary fire.

It's difficult enough to be a gay or lesbian teenager without the papers seeing scandal in teachers acknowledging your existence.

We ask a great deal of those teachers who have to teach sex education to groups of young people, all of whom will be at a different place in the search for their sexual identity, and to do so without judgment and supporting each of them as individuals. We also expect them to help in providing a personal moral framework for young people's sexual decision-making that is consistent with the one their parents give them, or in other cases replace the lack of parental guidance.

The pregnant West Lothian 12-year-old has provoked stories that brought similar pressures. One paper screamed: "One third of pregnant 12 and 13-year-olds in Scotland come from Lothians", which seems a terrible indictment until you realise that one third of the number of pregnant 12 and 13-year-olds in Scotland comes to the grand total of just five.

There are thousands of 12 and 13-year-old girls in the Lothians, yet those and other stories were questioning how effective sex education was in schools and asking if it needed to be reviewed. No, is the answer, at least not just because five girls became pregnant.

There is no doubt that there is a real issue about teenage pregnancy in Scotland. It is not unconnected to our whole attitude as a society towards sex. The Church of Scotland's recent angst over civil partnerships is a case in point - a battle between those who want to nurture sexuality as God-given and those who think God has nothing to do with sex.

It's not pupils that need sex education. It's all of us. We give out too many mixed messages. One day it's a commodity, next day it's a scandal. One day it's an advertising tool, next day it's for the procreation of children and nothing else. One day it's a little bit of titillation, the next it's a shock that 12-year-olds are pregnant. One day gay comedians are top of the bill, the next it's outrageous that we are talking about homosexuality in the classroom.

If ever there was need for a sexual revolution it is now. A revolution that means being free to talk openly about our sexuality even in the classroom and to stop telling tales that sell our sexual souls.

Ewan Aitken is education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and executive member for children and families on Edinburgh City Council.

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