Sex is still a dirty word

26th January 2007 at 00:00
In a porn-saturated world, some people say it's time we were less coy in class. Adi Bloom reports

While children live in a highly sexualised world where access to pornography has never been easier, there is a still a bunker mentality to sex education, according to one academic who has analysed the impact of a film that was banned in schools in the 1970s.

Growing Up features close-up images of genitalia in various stages of arousal, footage of an adolescent boy and girl masturbating, and shows a naked couple copulating on a bare set. The sex education film, made in 1971, was banned by several local authorities and is unlikely ever to have been shown to secondary school pupils. But, in an article to be published later this year, David Limond, lecturer at Trinity College, Dublin, argues that its impact is still felt in sex-education lessons today.

Growing Up was directed by Martin Cole, a lecturer and founder of the Institute for Sex Education and Research. Dr Cole was also involved in dubious surrogate-sex therapy, in which the therapist acts as sexual partner to the client, but Dr Limond still believes his film has currency.

Dr Limond says that when the film was released, sex education had changed little since the war. It still focused on the biological facts of reproduction and on arguments in favour of marriage. Dr Cole's film, aimed at 13 to 15-year-olds, was intended to bring sex education into the era of sexual liberation. So, as an adolescent boy is shown masturbating, the narrator comments: "Masturbation is important to development, and may provide a natural and healthy sexual outlet for adolescent boys for several years."

Dr Limond says: "Cole (wanted) enjoy sex as much as he did, and thought that Growing Up would be a useful first step on the journey to a sexually liberated society."

Birmingham was the first authority to ban the film from its schools. The National Association of Head Teachers said it was "horrified" by what it saw. Margaret Thatcher, then education secretary, expressed her distaste for the film and said that she would prefer schools not to use it in lessons. She was subsequently pressed into giving parents the right to withdraw children from sex education classes. Since 2000, sex education has been mandatory in all state secondaries. But the subject still causes debate, with new initiatives often the subject of controversy.

"Current materials for children don't even use explicit cartoons," Dr Limond says. "Sex is still veiled and mysterious. But once you're in the adult world, anything goes. There has to be a better transition.

"In many respects, Growing Up was thoroughly unerotic. But if anyone tried anything similar today, people would immediately revert to positions that were entrenched 30 years ago."

So, he says, Growing Up has set limits to sex-education lessons that have not been transgressed since.

"The film proved to be the pale beyond which many politicians, parents and teachers were not, and are not, prepared to go," he says.

'Martin Cole, the Growing Up controversy, and the limits of school sex education in 1970s England' will be published in the journal History of Education.


1986: Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin, a picture book depicting the domestic life of a girl, her father and his male partner, was discovered in the Inner London Education Authority's library. It led to Section 28, prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality in schools.

2003: A teacher attacked the government-backed sex-education scheme Apause (Added Power and Understanding in Sex Education), claiming that the course, which encourages teachers to consider how they would respond to questions such as "What does semen taste like?", was "morally irresponsible".

2005: Government advisers proposed that primary pupils should be taught personal, social and health education, and that their teachers should answer questions about where babies come from. The press claimed "children as young as five are to get compulsory sex lessons".

2007: New legislation bans businesses from discriminating against homosexuals. Christian groups protest, fearing that faith schools would no longer be able to promote marriage in preference to civil or homosexual partnerships.

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