Newspaper reporting of sex education has led to the popular assumption that it corrupts young pupils and led to widespread belief that discussion of sex as a pleasurable activity should be taboo in the classroom, researchers report.
Academics from Greenwich Primary Care Trust and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine studied articles about sex education in the national press, including The TES, between September 2000 and August 2004. They said nearly a third of all articles were either unsupportive or critical of sex education programmes. Half of all tabloid articles were critical.
Several newspapers said sex education encouraged early sexual experimentation. Many commentators felt lessons were over-explicit, defeating parents' efforts - according to the Daily Express - to "shield their children from the brutalities of the world".
Newpapers were not above using extreme, emotive language. The Daily Mail spoke about the risks of paedophilia, with sex education turned into a "semi-pornographic" experience, and young children being "groomed by the syllabus".
Most newspapers said teaching sex and relationships education at primary school would result in the loss of childhood innocence. Primary sex education was justifiable only "if it was designed to put young people off sex," according to the Daily Express.
The Daily Mirror echoed this, claiming that sex education encouraged earlier experimentation.
Even left-leaning or liberal newspapers described an on-going battle for children's innocence. The Independent, for example, has stated that it is the role of primary school sex education to combat the cultural "sexualisation of childhood".
Many newspapers believed that parents were the ultimate authority in sex education, but the "progressive sex lobby" repeatedly undermined the moralising efforts of "beleaguered parents".
Any mention of sexual pleasure in lessons was seen as reason for criticism. Classroom discussion of non-penetrative sex was roundly discouraged.
The Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph also reported on the success of abstinence education programmes, despite research highlighting its negative consequences. Such articles, the researchers say, have had a consistently negative impact on the quality of sex education offered in schools.
Criticism of specific programmes creates an over-riding impression that sex education classes are corrupting young pupils. Pressure to avoid mentioning the pleasurable elements of sex, the researchers warn, prevents teachers from discussing why teenagers might have sex in the first place.
And condemnation of references to non-penetrative sex means that safe-sex messages are not allowed to go further than lectures on condom use, they say.
Ultimately, the researchers conclude, the right-wing press wields a disproportional influence over the sex education curriculum.
"Teachers are underconfident and wary of overstepping sensitive boundaries for fear of wider censure," they said.
The researchers may have gained more material this week from coverage of a letter by MPs calling for compulsory sex education in primary schools.
The Daily Star quoted a critic of the plan as saying it was "wrong to experiment with young children in this way".
`How do national newspapers report on sex and relationship education in England?' by Piers Simey and Kaye Wellings, will appear in the next issue of the Sex Education journal (vol 8, 3).