It isn't always that easy. Adrian King looks at a book that could make it more so
Sex education has long suffered from our traditional cultural reserve, which can make talking about sex seem awkward, even between adults who love each other. For teachers raising the subject with teenagers, it may be easier to talk about almost anything else, despite, or perhaps because of, the wealth of explicit and permissive images on television and film.
The subject of sex education reached the top of the educational priority list briefly in 1994, and the Department for Education and Employment circular The Education Act 1993: sex education in schools was an official green light to broach the subject in classrooms. So why hasn't it become any easier? And why do we still have the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe and increasing levels of sexually transmitted diseases among 16 to 19-year-olds?
These are complex questions, but one thing is certain - unless we understand the issues which we (and teenagers) must grapple with, and unless young people feel involved with their sex education lessons, little will change.
Although sex education is a requirement in all secondary schools, many remain reluctant to treat it as such. If some teachers still assume sex education is confined to consideration of legal sexual intercourse between a boy and girl of similar age and race, or who believe (wrongly) that they are forbidden to discuss homosexuality, Teenage Sexuality will widen their understanding sensitively, and with admirable attention to detail. And it provides enough research-based wisdom to extend the knowledge of even the most experienced sex educators.
The book raises and considers vital questions, too. How does sex education challenge stereotypical behaviour (which often means boys "performing" and girls giving in)? How should teachers address the age-old male view that sex with a condom is like eating a toffee with its wrapper on? What should we do to counter the belief that, in any case, condoms are only for new or short relationships, while the Pill (which offers no protection against sexually-transmitted infections) is for long, faithful, trusting partnerships?
Edited by staff from the respected Trust for the Study of Adolescence, the book offers a series of chapters from specialists in their field, dealing with such vital topics as negotiation within relationships, risks in sexual behaviour, HIVAIDS education, strategies for preventing unplanned pregnancies, lesbian and gay identity and a peer-led education project (the excellent APAUSE programme, which reminds us that developing knowledge carries no guarantee of behaviour change).
Time for reading may be precious, but in this case it will be well rewarded.
Adrian King is an independent health education consultant