Why you need to be teaching sexual citizenship

Teaching pupils to engage positively with their sexual identity is key to tackling sexual harassment, says one expert

Kate Parker

Sex education: Why teaching sexual citizenship in schools is so important

“It's really hard to talk to young people about what makes sex safe if you're not going to talk about pleasure,” says sex and relationships adviser Jonny Hunt. 

“As adults, we don’t want to [do this] because they’re teenagers. We don’t want to encourage them or mention that it’s fun. All the messages we give kids are negative: don’t get pregnant, don’t ruin your life, it’s illegal to have sex until you're 16 and if you do you're breaking the law.  

“There's no positive conversation around consent. Young people ask me, 'What makes sex enjoyable?' And the way you find out what's enjoyable is you talk to your partner. You say, 'is this OK? Does that feel good? How about that? Would you like to try this? Do you want me to carry on? Do you want me to stop?' That’s consent. But when we talk about consent with our young people, it’s negative: we don’t talk about pleasure.”

Feeling uncomfortable? Does the thought of talking to your students about sexual pleasure make you squirm? You’re not alone, says Hunt. He has spent around 20 years working with teachers and students, training professionals on how to deliver an inclusive relationships and sex education (RSE) curriculum – and not once has he met an adult whose own sex education was brilliant. 

“For most of us, it was awkward, difficult, too little, too late, and not the right sort of information. As an adult, you're standing in front of your class, trying to have the conversation with your class that nobody has ever had with you,” he says.


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But however uncomfortable you may feel about it, flipping the conversation, being open about pleasure, and teaching students to positively engage with their sexual identity is more important than it has ever been, says Hunt. 

Improving sex education in schools

Why? Well, in the past six months, it’s become abundantly clear that sex education in the past has not worked. In June, an Ofsted review into sexual harassment in schools found that harassment had become “normalised" for children and young people, and the watchdog made it clear that leaders have a responsibility to act on this.

What's more, from September schools will need to be following the government's new relationships and sex education guidance in full, as well as the updated Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance, which places new emphasis on address sexual violence and harassment, including peer-on-peer abuse.

Tackling all of this is a daunting task – but there is one concept that should be at the centre of your approach, says Hunt: "sexual citizenship". 

What exactly does that mean?

“The term sexual citizenship is about your life skills in regards to sex and relationships: how to manage your feelings, understanding what consent is, knowing what your rights and responsibilities are. All of these things lead to healthy sexual relationships,” Hunt explains.

The phrase was first coined by two researchers at Columbia University in New York: Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Khan, who were investigating sexual harassment and violence on university campuses. 

They found that although students in the US were prepared for university life by adults in terms of ensuring they got the right grades, did voluntary work and submitted a strong application, there was no advice or guidance on how to foster healthy and pleasurable sexual relationships. Put simply, they weren’t taught how to be sexual citizens. And neither, says Hunt, are school students here in the UK.

When the Ofsted review into sexual harassment in schools came out, Hunt says he spoke to sixth-form students who were going on to university and found that there was a huge gap in their preparation for the realities of higher education.

"I asked them, ‘Have you sent off your Ucas [university applications] form? How many adults have you talked to about that? And have you been to open days?’" The answers were 'yes'. But when I asked them if they’d had conversations around positive sexual relationships, they said 'no'," he says.

“We're really good at setting up young people for their future educational attainment and job prospects, because we know that will have a massive influence on how happy they are. And yet this is another thing over here that [will also have a big influence] that nobody's talking about,” he adds. 

How to teach sexual citizenship

According to Hunt, teaching sexual citizenship is a crucial part of preparing young people for later life. So, how can teachers embrace this concept and effectively embed it throughout their RSE curriculum? Hunt has some practical suggestions here.

1. Don't make it a box-ticking exercise 

There is a tendency for RSE topics to be covered through one-off sessions, which are then never followed up on – but this means that students won't get the chance to process what they have learned and come back with questions.

“I've seen theatre groups come into schools and do an amazing production on sexual exploitation, but then leaders put a big tick in a box and never talk about it again,” Hunt says.

“That should be just the start of the work. A student might go home, talk to their boyfriend about it, and then have other questions. There needs to be those conversations in the weeks afterwards."

2. Avoid blame and shame

Too often, adults will inadvertently create an association for young people between sex and feelings of blame and shame, suggests Hunt.

"A lot of schools say, ‘It's illegal to sext when you're under 18 and you'll get in trouble, have a criminal record and people will share your pictures and it will be out of your control,'" says Hunt.

While it is important that young people understand the law, only discussing sex in such black and white terms can be counterproductive, he argues. Instead, schools need to be sending more "nuanced" messages.

“When you have two people who fancy each other, and they get to a certain age, it is normal to exchange sexual messages – teachers can say that, while also concentrating on negative behaviours,” he says.

3. Make space for conversations

Sometimes, teachers will need to forget about having a detailed lesson plan and instead lead with a discussion, Hunt suggests. 

“Give students the space to talk about what bothers them, instead of having a fixed idea of how the lesson will go. For example, if you talk about contraception, and a child is gay, they may think: this has nothing to do with me. Lads will often think about condoms, and that anything else is a 'girly' thing, and then not care,” he says.

“Whereas if you start that session off with 'What makes sex safe?", it doesn't matter who's in that room, it’s a conversation for them: you can talk about contraception but also consent, healthy relationships, STIs, and reputation.” 

4. Let the students teach you

While teachers can try to keep up to date on the latest technology, and the negative impact it can have on sex and relationships, it is likely that students will always be two steps ahead of you here. 

That means you shouldn't be afraid to let them tell you what they need more support with.

“There are new worries: deepfake, upskirting and cyber flashing – but young people will tell you about them, and where you should be focusing your attention," Hunt says. 

5. Draw on current events

The new RSE guidance places emphasis on choosing teaching resources with care. This can be difficult to do if you are a non-specialist. Teachers need to be wary of who is producing the resources and what agenda they might have. To avoid problems here, Hunt suggests that teachers could use real-life stories from reputable news sources, such as articles about the recent changes to abortion law in Texas. 

“Put up a picture of the story, and then give different groups the same article written in The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Mail. Ask them what happened, and you’ll find that each group will tell you something different. It's really interesting to show how the story has been influenced by the source, and it teaches them not to trust everything they read, to consider where it came from and why it’s been written,” he suggests. 

6. Make it a priority

Finally, Hunt says that teaching sexual citizenship is something that all staff need to buy into, and that it must be a priority throughout school at all times.

“One Year 10 girl told me that recently a boy had called her slag as a teacher walked past. I asked her what the teacher did, she said, ‘Nothing, they just told him to tuck his shirt in,'" he says. 

"Young people feel that there is more emphasis around uniforms being perfect than there is on how to talk to each other. Schools need to prioritise relationship policies that are focused on how we treat each other, rather than behaviour policies that are all about giving students detentions.” 

Jonny Hunt's book Sex Ed for Grown Ups is out on 24 September

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