'Sex is more than just biology'
Soap-opera characters accused of rape and film characters who have sex with apple pies both offer valuable sex education lessons, according to academics.
Michael Reiss, of London university's institute of education, said that showing pupils 10 minutes of a decent soap opera could lead to genuinely interesting discussions about gender and sex.
"It may be a discussion about condoms, or about whether girls should approach boys at the school disco. Sex should not just be about biology lessons," he said.
His comments came at a one-day conference at the institute this week, where academics launched a new sex education pack, which encourages pupils to discuss the portrayal of sex in the media.
The free pack, intended for key stage 3 pupils and being sent to schools, asks teenagers to examine images of sex in soap operas, magazines and advertising campaigns. It includes lesson plans, fact sheets and a DVD, designed to stimulate debate about the media's agenda and that of the intended audience.
David Buckingham, who designed the pack, said: "We need to recognise the importance of the media in teaching young people about sex and relationships.
"Kids need to learn to evaluate media messages, and question how far they should trust them."
Professor Buckingham said many young people were sophisticated media critics, quoting teenagers who attacked the American drama, Dawson's Creek, as unrealistic and too didactic.
The pack focuses on Grange Hill, the children's TV drama, in which two characters have sex and then regret it. The girl later goes to see a counsellor, claiming that the boy has raped her. Professor Buckingham said:
"This programme generated debate, because it left gaps for kids to draw their own conclusions. It wasn't simply preaching."
He said the packs did not use dramas such as Footballers' Wives and teen magazines to teach sex education. "We are teaching about the media, not teaching through the media," he said.
Rebekah Willett, of the institute, said teenagers should be able to debate and judge what they observe in the media. She spoke to several girls about their perception of the ideal body. Dr Willett said: "The girls make a connection between the clothes people wear and people's feelings about themselves, and the injustice of large people having to live in a world of fashion designed for slim people."
Academics dismissed the notion that the media offered images of sex and sexuality without morals. They discussed the Hollywood film, American Pie, in which a teenage boy tries to have sex with a freshly-baked apple pie.
Sharyn Pearce, of Queensland university of technology, Australia, said films had become increasingly explicit, but that their messages remained conservative. She suggested American Pie was a modern-day version of the post-war sex manual, promoting marriage and the status quo.
"Messages need to be sugar-coated to be palatable," she said. "The gross-out comedy is the sugar-coating, but the film guides boys to become like their middle-class, heterosexual fathers.
"It's an endorsement of a patriarchal social order, rather than a subversive take on contemporary teen identity. It's a conservative film with a veneer of sexual radicalism."