A teacher once described school to me as a place where you're told fewer lies as you get older. And maybe this is harmless in some subjects, but when it comes to sex ed this is an undeniably dangerous policy. Because while not all teenagers are into physics or history, they're all very interested in sex.
A new meta-study of sex ed in 55 countries, published in BMJ Open, has found when schools treat sex like just another academic subject, they do a really bad job. It didn't matter where in the world these students were learning about sex—New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, Sweden—teenagers everywhere reported really similar experiences of sex ed: it's negative, heterosexist, and out of touch.
The researchers found teachers are likely to be both very embarrassed and poorly trained, ill-equipped to answer pretty basic questions like what is the definition of fisting? I know because I'm one of those teachers, trying to educate students about sex and gender issues in New Zealand.
One of my colleagues recently got an anonymous note in a session for 12 and 13-year-old boys that read, "Do I have to cum on her face?" In this situation, the teacher didn't just have to teach the students something new, but also faced the much harder job of unteaching the shitty lessons this kid had learned from porn.
The issue of how much porn kids are watching, and how young they are starting to watch porn is something that's consumed this whole debate. And it is shocking when you read that the average age in the United Kingdom when boys start watching porn is 11. But you know what should be scaring you? That's years before schools begin their sex ed campaigns.
By the time schools get around to talking about sex, many young people's expectations about sex have already been set. For a lot of kids, porn has the monopoly on teaching what's normal, what's expected, and what their partner might want.
Let's be real. We have sex because we enjoy it. Image via Wikimedia Commons The idea that schools aren't great at teaching sex ed isn't new. But the global scale of this study shows the problem is systemic. No school anywhere wants to be singled out for encouraging kids into early sexual behaviour. As bureaucracies that are largely funded by the public dollar, schools often tow the line and reinforce social norms, rather than challenging them. And so they hold off, or focus on practicalities like how not to get pregnant or catch an STI. But by focusing sex ed on the biological, kids miss out on learning why most people have sex—which is obviously because it feels good. Specific studies within this research found that boys, who are expected to know what they're doing, can't ask questions that highlight their inexperience. Conversely, girls can't show interest in the class in case they're seen as sluts, especially since attacking a girl's sexual reputation is still the most effective way to bring her down. And with schools narrowly defining sex as a penis going into a vagina, there are a lot of questions that aren't being answered. What about gay kids? The transgender kids? Those who want to know about oral sex or how to make a partner feel good? From my experience in schools, teenagers just want real information. Not something rote, not something that fobs them off, or something that just fills a gap in their knowledge. Once they are comfortable, the experience can be illuminating for everyone—I've turned down offers to see a transgender boy's nipples (I was shown anyway). Another time I heard a lesbian rationale for short fingernails as an explanation for nail-biting. And generally speaking, the bounty of hickeys in my classroom prove the kids aren't afraid to show off the fact they're having sex, or trying. But at least let's be real about the whole thing. We have sex because we enjoy it. The new generation of people should be aware of that, and know how to make that happen in whatever context makes them happy, while considering the safety and feelings of their partners. For any school, that should be the true goal of sexual education. Follow Laura on Twitter