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A Brief History of British Sex Education

We've moved on from the 1930s videos depicting the sex habits of mold and flirtatious spiders, but school teachers still feel the British sex education curriculum is wildly out of date.

Image via Flickr user Quinn Dombrowski.

In the 1936 sex educational film Trial For Marriage, John Taylor arrives in London, and falls in, as his cousin Henry puts it, with a "fast crowd," including absinthe-swilling bohemian beauty Hermione ("she seems to think studying art is an excuse for anything," sniffs Henry). After contracting gonorrhoea, John, who's engaged to a terribly nice girl, finds himself in a dream sequence, under trial in The Court Of Public Opinion. The defence lawyer pleads his case: "My client had no education in early years at home or school on the true meaning of sex in life." Nonetheless, John goes—in the legal sense—down.


But his plea seems, for many, to be as true now as it was then. Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) in schools still varies widely in quality, and some young people are still dangerously under-informed. A doctor I know did some training in a genito-urinary medicine clinic a couple of years ago, where she came across a 15-year-old girl, six months pregnant, who seemed to have absolutely no idea how she could be HIV positive: she thought that only men could catch the virus through anal sex. A 2013 survey in Scottish schools found that 27% of pupils thought that "no" sometimes meant "yes"; as Jo Fuertes-Knight and Cliff Joannou have argued so well, issues around consent and same-sex sex education, are under-taught.

Brook, the charity that provides sexual health information and services to young people, found in a 2011 report than one in four of school pupils reported getting no SRE at all. Half of pupils felt that what they did get didn't cover what they needed to know. But the Commons Education Committee's call for mandatory, statutory SRE in primary and secondary schools last week was still met with the usual rumblings about preserving innocence. It's really hard, in the face of stories and statistics like those mentioned, to understand some politicians and parents' groups fear and foot-dragging. Maybe a fumble into the red-faced history of sex education through the decades might shed some light.


In the early decades of the 20th century, much public sex education was left to the pamphlets and films of associations such as the National Council for Combating Venereal Diseases, which, cheerily, shared a building and some staff with the Eugenics Education Society (even birth control pioneer Marie Stopes was a fervent eugenicist); these groups framed sex as dangerous, only to be undertaken with the right sort of people when strictly necessary. "In the late 19th and the early 20th century, sexuality was very threatening," says historian Dr Hera Cook. "There's an estimate around 1920 that one in ten people in London had syphilis, and if you can't control your fertility and you're on a limited or minute income, then getting pregnant is a huge threat."

In schools, there was little in the way of formal sex ed beyond ad hoc anatomy and reproduction basics. But the First World War, with its movements of soldiers and subsequent risk of temporary dalliances, saw the first sex education film: Whatsoever A Man Soweth, made to warn Canadian troops in 1917 with images of pox-rotted toes—"a syphilis sore seething with spirochetes"—and the stern lesson that "there is no such thing as a safe prostitute." You can watch it on the BFI's DVD The Birds And The Bees, a collection of sex education films from 1917-1973. 1932's The Mystery Of Marriage "illuminates" what goes on in the marital bed via the sex habits of sticklebacks, mold, and supposedly flirtatious arachnids. ("This affected coyness is not confined to the spider world!")


During the Second World War, films such as Love on Leave and Six Little Jungle Boys capitalized on the popularity of cinema to stress the importance of manly restraint in the face of loose, diseased women. The state began to take sex education into its own hands after the end of hostilities, yet, as today, the fact that it was not compulsory meant that many schools neglected sex ed, believing it was best left to parents.

Sheila Wilson, from Cornwall, attended a mixed state school and got her first and only taste of sex education at the age of 15 in 1949. "We went into our classroom and there was a large diagram of an undressed man. We weren't given names, we were just shown a picture of the accoutrements in the diagram. And then we were shown a picture of ourselves and, as they pointed out, there was quite a difference. But nobody said why there was a difference. That was it." As an only child with a mother who never discussed such things, when she got her first period, she was terrified.

Through the 50s and 60s came big, sexy changes: the introduction of the pill, the decriminalization of homosexuality, the legalization of abortion, and the beginning of feminism's second wave. "From the late 50s, you start to get much cheaper color printing and photography," says Dr. Cook. "So you get this huge flood of much better information. If you look at Marie Stopes' drawing of a vagina, you've got this featureless tube. It would be extremely difficult if that was all you knew about what was down there."


But this didn't always filter through to the classroom: some, such as former Slit Viv Albertine, who attended a liberal comp in Muswell Hill, were lucky. "We did have sex education, but I was always slightly ahead because of my mother's straightforwardness," she says. "It was never a shock. I think we all went on the pill as soon as soon as we were having sex. I did make a mistake a bit later in life where I thought if I put pessaries up me that that would be enough without a Durex, and I got pregnant. So there was still a naivety about me, but in terms of the deed, it was quite an open time."

Not for everyone, though. My father, at a state school in the Highlands in 1964, was given the facts by a visiting doctor. "He wanted to be Billy Connolly, tried to be funny, so he told us that if we were in a rowing boat with a girl, and we both needed a pee, that girls had bigger bladders because of their wider pelvises, so not to be shy about going over the edge, because otherwise you'd get blood poisoning when your bladder burst. Then the talk was genital warts all the way through to syphilis, your bits falling off, going blind, all that sort of stuff."

A 1970s film about the importance of using contraception, ending with the line, "There's no need to make an abortion of it."

At the start of the 70s, debate around the suitability of sex education materials flared up over the 1971 film Growing Up, whose erect penis shots, real masturbation, and intercourse scenes led to director Martin Cole of the Institute for Sex Education and Research being flooded with hate mail such as, "I suggest that in your next film you show yourself being buggered by a long-haired hippy. That will make them sit up."


Yet if you watch the film now, it seems, with its faded frankness, as usefully un-erotic as flat-pack instructions: if someone had shown me a film of what penises, masturbation, and sex actually looked like at primary or early secondary school, I'd have probably cried with gratitude. "The thing I really love about that film," says Dr. Cook, "was that Martin Cole was telling us that it was OK to look at bodies. I think that the English are still pretty uncomfortable about looking at bodies and being relaxed about it."

In the 80s, sex ed was shaped by two scary forces: HIV and Tories. Public consternation about school materials continued with a tabloid fuss over the children's book Jenny Lives With Eric And Martin, about a young girl living with her father and his boyfriend. The Daily Mail-stoked outrage over this "homosexual propaganda" was one factor in the Thatcher government's introduction of Section 28, which outlawed the "promotion" of homosexuality by local authorities. It wasn't actually applicable in schools and didn't create a criminal offense, but it undermined the confidence of teachers in broaching the subject. I spoke to a primary school teacher in south-west London who feels that the curriculum is still out-of-date where LGBT people are concerned.

"Being gay, being a lesbian, being transgender, all of that stuff is not present in the curriculum for the age that I teach, but I've got children who have members of their family who are gay… It's very underwritten in that respect, and that's not good for 10-year-old children, because by the age of 10, a lot of children know if they're gay. They're struggling with this curriculum which is like, 'You have the man and the woman…'"


The increasing threat of HIV in the mid-80s led to a huge government awareness campaign, but again, all this wasn't always seeping through to all kids: Andy Langton learned about sex at school in Yorkshire in 1986, at the age of 14, but remembers nothing about contraception. "You read this chapter about the male reproductive bits, a bit about the female reproductive parts, and then there was a bit about how it all comes together. But it was all textbooks.'"

In 2007, the UK Youth Parliament's Are You Getting It? survey found that, according to young people themselves, the SRE they were receiving was too little, too late, and far too biological.

The 90s brought John Major's Back To Basics appeal to traditional moral values, and the moral panic around single mothers also led to a renewed focus on reducing teen pregnancies. This is my era: I recall a video which showed us a real live birth. Several contemporaries also remember this film, and we're all agreed that the image of a baby's bloody head crowning does a wonderful job of putting you off your vagina for a few years. Other experiences range from a teacher unable to actually say the word sex, to one so keen they shared her placenta recipe. In 1999, under a new Labour government, the devolved Scottish government repealed Section 28 (England would follow suit in 2003), and sex education was renamed "Sex and Relationships Education" to emphasize that children needed an understanding of more than the basics.

You would have thought that the increased access of children to sexual information on the internet would inevitably have thrown more emphasis on the relationships aspect in the 2000s and beyond; the density of purely sexual information makes the skills for navigating it all the more important. But in 2007, the UK Youth Parliament's Are You Getting It? survey found that, according to young people themselves, the SRE they were receiving was too little, too late, and far too biological.

Yet in 2012, a Channel 4 sex education film, Living And Growing, that showed some pretty innocuous cartoon sex, was withdrawn after protests by some parents. Older people still view clear information about sex as inherently corrupting, though Brook's research also shows that young people want sex education, and they know what they want from it: everyday language, better trained teachers, more input from young people and teaching without embarrassment. One young person told them: "I think SRE should be taken more seriously by the government and the Department of Education. I think they need to step up a bit faster… I think SRE would stop people getting into abusive relationships. You should be taught to recognize when something is right."

My south-London primary teacher agrees: "It's important to have an open forum to discuss these things. But we have to make sure that the teachers are properly trained and feel totally prepared, and it's got to be a mandatory subject. It's got to be something that we allow proper timetabling for, and that everybody does it in the correct way, and they do it in the same way."

If it's taught well, it seems that SRE needn't be mortifying for anyone involved. "You wouldn't believe it, the feedback that I get from the children: the energy and electricity in the room, and the attention, their eyes are on sticks. They cannot believe that I've said the word penis. They really wanna know, and they really listen to everything that you say. It's a real pleasure to teach, and you really feel like, 'I might have taught you something that you'll learn forever.'"

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