Sex Ed: Just Ask Oprah

Sex Education is a topic that is hotly debated in Northern Ireland. Writing about her experiences the former Alliance party candidate, Kate Nicholl argues for a different approach to the issue.

I went to a conservative, religious, rural Zimbabwean primary school, where extra-curricular classes for girls included Young Ladies Club – a place where you learnt to embroider, match your clothes and talk about what sort of wife you hoped to be. So it was perhaps surprising that on one particular issue my school was pretty progressive. When we turned 11, we started “Life skills” where different mums took a weekly class – these discussions may have been heavily influenced by material from the Oprah Winfrey magazines… But they allowed us to talk about relationships, the future, racism, things we struggled with – and we talked about sex. By the late 1990s it was estimated that 25% of Zimbabweans between the ages of 15 and 49 were living with HIV, and the 1999 Aids Policy meant we quite rightly began learning about the risks and how to mitigate them from a very young age.

I found it strange when I moved to Belfast (a place where the electricity and phone lines worked – and Young Ladies Club was not a thing) that the very first mention of sex was in a biology classroom. Even more surprising? We were 15 years old. Relationship and Sexual Education (RSE) is a statutory element of the school curriculum, but there is no standard pattern to the provision of RSE in schools. The Family Planning Association has a great fact sheet and gives a breakdown on what the Education Department has done so far and how current provision stands (Kate’s brief summary: it’s up to the schools to decide just how much they’re willing to teach): It’s not just Northern Ireland that’s behind, today the House of Commons has its second reading of the Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE) Bill which would require the education secretary to ensure that PSHE becomes a statutory requirement for all state-funded schools. If John O’Dowd’s reading this – the bill also includes provision that RSE and “education on ending violence against women and girls” be included within schools’ PSHE programmes, something similar would be awesome.

My intuition always told me we should be taught more from a younger age, but it’s only in the past few weeks that I’ve fully appreciated just how necessary updating and unifying our approach to RSE actually is. I work in an office which hosts work experience students on a monthly basis – invariably the question is raised about what changes they would like to see in their schools. Last month four sixteen year olds gave me identical independent answers: they wanted better sex ed. They all wanted to be able to discuss relationship and sex issues in an environment that was not restricted to clinical explanations or moral judgement. They wanted to talk about how they should help their friend whose boyfriend was a lot older than her and pressuring her to have sex, they wanted to talk about how homophobic jokes made them uncomfortable because their uncle was gay – not all of them felt comfortable discussing these issues with their family and biology textbooks and inspirational quotes about abstinence weren’t providing the answers. When I was at school I knew a girl who lost her virginity without telling the guy it was her first time because they were scared of being called frigid. I knew kids who only felt they could come out as gay after they went to uni. I remember a teenage couple who had a crisis pregnancy because they placed far too much faith in gravity… this was the reality. We weren’t given the information we needed then and anecdotally it doesn’t sound like there’s been much improvement.

If you think young people will only have sex because someone teaching them put that idea in their head, then (said nicely) you’re clearly deluded. A 1993 WHO review of 35 sex education studies in the USA, Europe, Australia, Mexico and Thailand found no evidence that sex education leads to earlier or increased sexual activity. I am also convinced that the only guaranteed result in avoiding the topics of gender identity or sexual orientation is that it will perpetuate intolerance. What is there to fear from age appropriate education? If we’re serious about creating the sort of society which values the importance of tolerance and respect – which promotes consent, health and safety – then we need open, honest, regular, age appropriate discussions. And that should be compulsory. Just ask Oprah.

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  • Sir Rantsalot

    ” the sort of society which values the importance of tolerance and respect – which promotes consent, health and safety”
    These sorts of phrases are meaningless nonsense. They are usually trotted out by people who want to sexualize younger and younger children. Perhaps you could explain in your own words rather than repeat cliché phrases?
    I think the mechanics of sex and the consequences should be taught around the age of sexual maturity. There should also be a teaching on morality to wait until adulthood. Simply to wait. There should also be an example of a real life teenage girl who got pregnant and had her life ruined and cut short by having to care for her baby.
    The emphasis should be to wait and be aware of the life ruining consequences.
    In this debate we need to be aware of the people who seek to encourage younger and younger sexuality and actually want to encourage children to try sexual activities at a younger age. Usually labeled as liberal.

  • aor26

    Reading this has taken me back to the sex education I had in school. The sex education was in Biology class only. The scene was actually rather comical but not at all helpful for relationships and sex.

    The teacher was a middle-aged man probably nearing retirement and he was clearly very uncomfortable teaching twenty 13 year old boys about sex. His focus was on getting the boys to stop laughing and making jokes and we were shown a video explaining some things that most of us were probably already well aware of. I’d guess I was amongst a majority of boys in the room who had already viewed pornography. A detailed illustration was flagged up on the screen of an erect penis entering a vagina and one boy said loudly for the whole class to hear ”not a very big dick like”. At this point steam began to emit from the teacher ears and the boy was ejected from the class room as the rest of the boys roared in laughter.

    We were set the task of drawing a penis and a vagina and labelling the main parts such as testes or fallopian tube in our note books. I was sitting at a desk across from two other boys and the chubby one scrutinised the tall one’s drawing of the sexual organs and said in the broadest Belfast accent ”Look at the fucking state of your dick!!”

    The education was geared toward ticking the correct boxes on the exam paper and was of no use in teaching a young boy about sex and relationships and those fascinating beings that were in the school two miles down the road; girls.

    I gather from reading this piece that sex education in Zimbabwe was superior to what I got here.

  • Kate Nicholl

    Thanks for responding Sir Rantsalot, I was worried I got off lightly there! I actually chose those words very carefully – but I’m happy to explain my reasoning. Tolerance is important because we have huge problems with things like homophobic bullying so incorporating issues like sexual orientation into RSE is in my view vital. Respect and the concept of sexual consent is a key way to combat rape culture, teaching boys and girls that no means no is imperative. Obviously health and safety is about being aware of the risks and how to stay safe – which may, as you advocate, be by not having sex. No one should have sex until they are ready but when they are, they should have access to all the information they require. I stressed age-appropriateness because of course how you talk to different age groups must be dealt with sensitively. Regarding “People who seek to encourage younger and younger sexuality and actually want to encourage children to try sexual activities at a younger age. Usually labeled as liberal.” That sounds more like the description of someone who should be in prison, and certainly doesn’t sum up the intent behind this article!

  • Heather Richardson

    “I think the mechanics of sex and the consequences should be taught around the age of sexual maturity.”

    Many girls start menstruating when they are still at primary school. The UK’s youngest father impregnated his girlfriend when he was 11. In 2010 two boys, aged 10 and 11, were convicted of the attempted rape of an 8 year old girl. Surely ‘the mechanics of sex and the consequences’ need to be taught *before* sexual maturity?

  • Zig70

    Boys don’t need education on the mechanics. Maybe girls do. The only mechanics may be how to undo a bra with one hand or to spot the now rarer front fastening. Better to teach them female politics. The power of compliments and flowers, why shoes are important. I could go on digging.

  • carl marks

    So in brief, wait until the damage is done and let kids learn about sex from their equally uninformed friends as puberty hits them.
    No change then, strange that the present system is not working and your idea for sorting the problem is more of the same!