Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) – What Straight Boys Need to Learn…

In the past 18 months we have seen the unpleasant side of male sexuality exposed many times. Andrew Tate was reportedly making significant money by promoting misogynistic ideas to young men through social media. Apparently, he was gaining in popularity with young men until Greta Thunberg caught him with her “[email protected]” response to his attack on her. Russell Brand is in the news again; he lost his job with the BBC back in 2008 over his shocking on-air comments about a girl he had sex with, but continued with his ‘comedy’ career making jokes about women and is now accused of sexual assaults between 2006 and 2020.

Last week, journalists on GB News were suspended over an appalling on-air rant about the attractiveness of a female journalist and in the previous week, in a Spanish town called Almendralejo, 20 female pupils reported receiving naked photos of themselves that had been created using Artificial Intelligence. This is just a new twist on the appalling sexual harassment that many girls report suffering at school and university, first exposed by the ‘’ website.

So, what is going on? Are boys and men naturally cruel? Is there truth in the 1960s accusation that ‘all men are potential rapists’?

I would suggest that those are the wrong questions. A more useful question is what can we do to help young men grow up with more empathy towards women?

Males and females really do have different outlooks on sex, partly because of the biological difference in our bodies. As well as the enormous differences in physical strength and our ability to defend ourselves, in straight sex our male bodies are not penetrated, an action that most men tend to look upon with anxiety and fear. Having part of another person inside your own body is a breach of intimacy on a different level and this difference in perspective is behind some of the misunderstandings between the sexes.

Currently in N. Ireland, we have a debate over what should be taught in Relationship and Sex Education in our secondary schools, with new guidance due from the Department of Education by 1 January 2024. Much of that debate is centred around whether schools should explain contraception and availability of abortion, because of the moral opposition of some to abortion, but I would argue that a more important issue needs attention – that of teaching empathy to young males.

In their early years male children are just as kind, affectionate and loveable as female children but during the emotional chaos surrounding puberty some male children can lose their way. Secondary school teachers will be aware of how a good Y9 class can go off for summer and return, noticeably taller in September to Y10 for a year of developing acne and in some cases, anger. For some boys the testosterone high is almost like being drunk and for the next couple of years their personality can be knocked off balance. This is not an excuse for poor behaviour, but rather a warning of the need for remedial pastoral care.

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Absence of Male Role Models

Remember that significant numbers of young men may have no father at home and possibly no sympathetic male role models. At primary school the only male staff my children encountered was the school principal. Even in secondary schools, much of the RSE is undertaken by female teachers – male teachers tend to shy away from the risks involved, so another opportunity to have males being good role models & demonstrating appropriate standards of behaviour is lost.

Boys may try to learn how to be a man and how to relate to women through sources like the internet. The pornography that is available online today is much more toxic than the paper-based sources of 30 years ago, with few attempts to show the giggly, fun side of sex. Boys are more likely to encounter pornography that emphasises male dominance and power in sex with displays of violent acts like strangulation during sex. (Thankfully this is now illegal.)

Schools vary enormously in what and how they teach Relationship and Sex Education and attempts to standardise the facts that are delivered to our young people are to be welcomed, but of equal importance is teaching boys how to improve their emotional intelligence, how to talk to girls and how to treat them with respect.

Most adult males can probably remember with embarrassment an occasion where we failed to behave with appropriate kindness and consideration towards a young woman we were interested in. (Yes, I know some of us are gay, but that is an issue for another article.) We remember how our focus was on our own anxiety and our own discomfort at the situation, rather than on the feelings of the young woman. As a school teacher I have witnessed teenage boys distraught over romances or infatuations gone wrong, young males can be every bit as devastated over love as young females, but are as likely to receive teasing as sympathy.

Emotional intelligence can be taught, empathy can be developed. English teachers will know of Stephen Pinker’s assertion in The Better Angels of Our Nature that reading novels where you experience life through someone else’s eyes promotes empathy, but we need something more focused.

I am hopeful that those involved in revision of Relationship and Sex Education guidelines for next January are considering ways of helping boys learn empathy with the opposite sex. I also believe that training should be given to all secondary school teachers (not just the males) to encourage us to model good behaviour to pupils and never collude in the ‘boys will be boys’ mentality.

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