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Vicar's missionary position

A Church of England vicar has criticised school sex education textbooks which ignore homosexuality and masturbation and give teenagers the impression that the "missionary position" is the only form of heterosexual intercourse.

The Rev Dr Michael Reiss, reader in education and bioethics at Homerton College, Cambridge, believes that too many books aimed at 14 to 16-year-olds make sex "sound boring, or at any rate devoid of all passion or excitement". They also tend to be sexist and underplay women's sexuality.

Dr Reiss, a biology lecturer who helped to draw up Cambridgeshire's sex education guidelines, scrutinised 15 science textbooks and found that they offered very different pictures of human sexuality. "Some are sensitively written, comprehensive and helpful," he says. "Others, though, are sexist, fail to tackle personal issues to do with menstruation, ignore lesbian and gay issues and either omit or fail adequately to deal with cultural issues. "

In a paper presented at the BERA conference in Belfast last week, Dr Reiss explains that the textbooks' defects are significant because most school sex education continues to take place in science lessons for 11 to 16-year-olds.

Complaining about the sexism he found in the textbooks Dr Reiss points out that only five mentioned the clitoris whereas every book referred to the penis. Ejaculation was discussed in 12 books; female orgasm in just five.

"Women were mostly viewed as passive (supine) receptacles into which sperm are deposited," he says. "And only one book made a fleeting reference to there being a variety of positions for sexual intercourse."

Dr Reiss, the priest of three rural parishes near Ely, also found that masturbation was omitted by 13 of the 15 texts. "This suggests that the authors are avoiding the issue," he says. "While it may be difficult to write about masturbation, it is probably easier than talking about it ... careful writing in this area could do a significant amount of good."

Contraception was another topic that received too little attention. One book ignored it while most of the others indicated that it was the woman's responsibility.

The same number made no mention of homosexuality and Dr Reiss says that the three that acknowledged its existence "all give the impression that homosexuality is a sort of second-best option which the reader may well grow out of".

"The representation of human sexuality in science textbooks for 14 to 16-year-olds," by Michael J Reiss, Homerton College. Cambridge e-mail: mjr1000@cam.ac.uk

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