Teenagers want more realistic lessons on sex

31st October 2008 at 00:00
Last week, compulsory sex education from 7 was backed by a powerful review group. But pupils say existing lessons have little relevance to their lives

Outdoor sex, anal sex and how to achieve female orgasm are all subjects that teenagers would like to see addressed during sex education lessons.

And many teenagers feel that the topics usually covered in such lessons, such as contraception, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, have little relevance to their own sexual experiences.

Last week the Government announced plans to make sex education compulsory in primary and secondary schools. But Julia Hirst, a sociology lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, believes it also needs to make dramatic revisions to lesson content.

Dr Hirst interviewed 15 pupils in Year 11 about their sex education lessons. She found a striking difference between the way sex was presented to them in lessons and the reality of their sex lives.

For example, only two of the teenagers had ever had sex indoors. Julie, one of the interviewees, said: "I've always had my clothes on, or most of `em. I've never done it inside in a comfy warm bedroom or bed even, and I've been wet and freezing lots of times."

Her classmate Josie said: "You have to get all mucky and get leaves on your bum. It's nowt like you thought it were gonna be, like in films and sex education lessons."

Dr Hirst believes dealing with lack of privacy, lack of time and weather conditions are vital areas for inclusion in lessons. She says teenagers' sexual experiences are rarely as conventional as classroom discussions would suggest.

Angela, another of the interviewees, said: "In sex education, you either have sex - as in, with a willy inside ya - or you don't. Well, it's not true. There's all sorts goes on between that."

In fact, anal sex was common among teenagers. It was seen as a way to avoid pregnancy or to have sex without a condom.

Dr Hirst said: "That no individuals had considered the potential for transmission of infection through unprotected anal sex highlights the significance of this omission from sex and relationships education."

The over-emphasis on vaginal intercourse also meant that girls saw sex as a means to satisfy boys' needs, rather than as a mutually pleasurable activity. "How are you meant to admit ya like it?" said teenager Maisie. "Teachers would think you were a slag."

She then asked Dr Hirst: "Can you tell us anything about how to get it going again when it's finished? Cos, like, you don't always feel you've had enough."

Dr Hirst concluded that, to prepare pupils for emotionally and physically healthy sex lives, schools should take their needs into account. "It is only through honest and open communication that students and educators can arrive at a shared sense of what sexual competence might mean, and therefore what sex and relationships education seeks to achieve," she said.

David Evans, chief executive of the Health Behaviour Group, which delivers sex education programmes, agrees. "Sex education generally doesn't address the relationship needs of young people," he said.

"But the challenge is creating an appropriate curriculum that matches up their needs with an appropriate learning style.

"You can create a curriculum that's too difficult for teachers to deliver because they lack training and support. Or you could have a brilliant teacher who simply isn't allowed to teach the curriculum because of political impediments.

"Young people's needs and what's actually deliverable in the classroom aren't exactly joined up."

- "Developing sexual competence" by Julia Hirst appears in the November edition of the Sex Education journal, published by Routledge

Leading article, page 28.

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