Young people are never very far from misinformation about sex, whether it’s impossible beauty standards, unrealistic expectations or the idea that everyone’s experience of sex is the same. That means that relationships and sex education (RSE) is crucial. It also means it’s important to be aware of what’s influencing your pupils. There are many sources of both unintentionally inaccurate and deliberately misleading information out there, including advertising, social media and religious and cultural expectations, as well as schoolyard rumours and legends.
Then there’s the problem of porn. It’s easily accessed by young people who do not yet have the media literacy skills to interpret what they are seeing. They can assume that the common tropes – hairless bodies, large penises and gendered power imbalances – are norms that they should emulate, expect or judge themselves or their partners by.
There are so many prevalent myths for pupils to pick up, and they may have unquestioningly accepted them as fact; it’s a case of not knowing what they don’t know. Here are some of the most common myths, and ways to tackle them.
Myth 1: The pill protects against STIs
Many pupils don’t realise that birth control is just that, and only then when used correctly. Hormonal contraception does not prevent STIs and it’s essential for young people to know this. STIs are preventable but on the rise (among young heterosexual people in particular). According to a Public Health England report from 2018, there was a 22 per cent rise in cases of gonorrhoea in England in 2017 compared with 2016 and a 20 per cent increase in syphilis. It also reported that the impact of STIs remains greatest among those aged 15 to 24.
It’s important that pupils are taught correct condom use, being reminded to ensure that they are in date and intact, and that they are not inside out. It’s also important to impart the continuum of risk of STI transmission. Pupils should be taught to rank the riskiness of romantic and sexual activities in terms of contracting or sharing an STI. There are a number of classroom activities that recommend creating a spectrum line for activities, from non-contact, hugging or kissing on the cheek, all the way to protected or unprotected oral, vaginal or anal sex.
Myth 2: Heterosexual sex is normal sex
There’s a long history of cultural erasure of LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) and it is important that discussions in RSE don’t perpetuate this but are inclusive. LGBT History Month (February) is a prime time to address this, but it should be a consideration all year round. The Scottish government has recently pledged to embed “LGBTI-inclusive education” in its national curriculum, which has been hailed as potentially transformative for the mental health and treatment of LGBT+ young people who have so often been bullied, harassed and excluded by institutional homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.
This also offers support to young cis people who experience bullying and low self-esteem due to the stereotypes of assumed gender and sexual identity. Even when gay and trans issues are included, many pupils on the sexuality and gender spectrum can feel erased by the often-binary nature of RSE discussions. Be sure to include and acknowledge bisexual and asexual pupils, as well as those who identify as non-binary or gender fluid. Talk about sexual activities by name of body part (anal sex, oral sex and penetrative sex, rather than gay sex or straight sex) to be inclusive and also to clear up misinformation around risk.
At all times, challenge common myths, like the idea that all relationships include sexual intercourse, that gay men all practice anal sex, that penis-in-vagina sex is the only real sex, that bisexual people are greedy or slutty, and that your gender identity must match the gender you were assigned at birth.
Myth 3: If you say yes once, you’ve consented to every future sexual encounter with that partner
Let pupils know that consent needs to be revisited vocally and often, and that it can be renegotiated in a positive way and withdrawn at any time. Pupils should be reassured that withdrawing consent is always OK, and that it isn’t considered “being a tease”.
They should be taught that there are lots of ways to reach orgasm, that penis-in-vagina sex is not always a successful way for women to reach orgasm at all, and that lots of things feel nice leading up to or even instead of reaching orgasm. Orgasms can happen at different times during sex; a man ejaculating or a couple reaching (the unlikely) simultaneous orgasm does not have to be the “finale” of a sexual encounter, even though many porn videos end this way.
Myth 4: Masturbation should be a secret
Pupils should know that masturbation is not shameful or dirty. They should be reassured that it is a healthy, safe and enjoyable way to explore their own sexuality, as long as it is private or alongside a consenting partner, and doesn’t happen so often that it disrupts other activities.
Sex toys are rarely discussed in RSE but are an important topic, as pupils may be improvising sex toys at home. They should be advised to ensure sex toys are cleaned and stored safely, that condoms are used when sharing between partners, and that improvised toys may not be fit for purpose and can cause injuries.
Myth 5: There is such a thing as a perfect body
Many young people worry that their bodies don’t measure up to the airbrushed, contoured and heavily made-up ones they see in the media and in porn, and this can have a huge impact on positive body image, self-esteem and mental health. Pupils need a lot of reassurance that everyone’s bodies, particularly their genitals, are different and all are valid. Representation should not only include frank talk about pupils of all genders and cultures, but should reinforce that disabled people have sex and have sexual desires, despite being left out of many mainstream conversations and representations of sex.
You are your pupils’ most valuable resource in school, and providing a safe and knowledgeable place for them to turn has exponential value. To support them to make healthy choices when you’re not around, it’s important to signpost resources outside of the classroom. They may not have the digital literacy to seek out websites and organisations that will offer accurate information, so be sure to point them in the right direction, towards places such as Scarleteen, Bish, and FPA.
Chella Quint is a menstruation education researcher, a former head of PSHE and founder of #periodpositive