GP, media doctor and author of healthcare books par excellence Dr Miriam Stoppard gets involved in conversation s with children that many teachers - and parents - would run a mile to avoid. When she's invited into schools,she tells them that she wants to hear all the things that they've always wanted to know about but have been afraid or too embarrassed to ask.
Sex Education: Growing Up, Relationships and SEX is her latest Dorling Kindersley publication, following on from Questions Children Ask. And it proves again, for anyone who might have doubted it, that she is a pretty intrepid sojourner into the deepest, murkiest areas of young sexuality.
In Sex Education, she has attempted to reach those parts of human experience that class teachers usually can't. Or won't. And it's Dr Stoppard's view that perhaps that's as it should be.
"I don't think classrooms are the most conducive environments for discussions about these things. Kids say to me: 'It's difficult to look my geography teacher in the eye and talk about masturbation.' Kids are disappointed in adults and in teachers and they'd really rather be taught about these issues by sixth-formers."
Until that golden age comes, she has produced a book designed primarily for home use but one that can also work as a catalyst for discussions in PSHE classes for 12 and 13-year-olds. The first half of the book focuses on the social, anatomical and emotional side of growing up, all the non-sexual angst-making stuff. Stoppard looks at friendships, acting responsibly, self-esteem. The second half gets into the nitty gritty of negotiating your way through sexual relationships, with an emphasis on being in control of things. Here, she deals straightforwardly with everything from masturbation to gay sex, contextualising them within an emotional framework.
Under each two-page section, she gives background information, some answers to commonly asked questions, who you can turn to for help, then practical suggestions for standard scenarios, illustrated by cartoons. So under "How to Approach Boys," for instance, she sets a feminist agenda by telling girls that they can call the shots as much as boys can. She gives reassuring an-swers to questions such as "how will I know if he likes me?" ("He'll either," in case you're interested, "stay and talk or he'll make an obvious excuse to get away. Don't worry, you won't be left in any doubt either way.")
There are also a few do's and don'ts, although encouraging a girl to boost a boy's ego is not only faintly medieval but is, in my not inconsiderable experience, possibly asking for trouble. Strangely, there is no such suggestion on the next page for "How to Approach Girls". The most girls can expect from boys is some eye contact and a couple of jokes ("but make sure they're clean ones!").
When things get a bit hotter in the sections dealing with sex, Stoppard encourages personal responsibility. "The book is highly moral and I'm proud of that," she says. "But my morality is not preachy and it doesn't come from the standpoint of judgment. It's more about thinking about your actions and motivations." She concentrates a great deal on exploring the reasons for and against having sex, through cartoons and commentary, and looks at alternatives. Most importantly, she asks readers to consider their feelings and actions honestly.
While the scenarios are cleverly universal (boy fancies girl but doesn't know what to do about it; girl stands up her best friend when she's asked out by a boy; girl in mid-snog with boyfriend feels things are getting out of control), Stoppard's occasionally aphoristic language will sound wince-inducingl y out of date. Telling a 13-year-old girl to "think about PERSONALITY rather than looks" and "People mature at different rates - but one thing's for sure - you shouldn't even think about having sex if you don't have a mature attitude to it" have even less meaning for adolescents than they do for their parents.
In a classroom setting, where Dr Stoppard sees the book being used as "a springboard in sex education", its effectiveness will rest with how comfortable teachers are with the subject matter.
The poor geography teacher doing PSHE will probably not be asked questions about the finer details of oral sex (yes, it's in there). But there are plenty of less graphic issues that he or she would be comfortable in throwing out to the class. Especially, if like Dr Stoppard's suggested chat-up lines, they are rehearsed well beforehand.
Sex Education by Dr Miriam Stoppard is published by Dorling Kindersley at #163;5.99