How did you learn about sex? Probably at school to some extent, from parents, books or some online posts, through friends and maybe even movies or porn, right? And where did you learn what sex is ACTUALLY like? Probably through experience, right? Or maybe the shattering of that illusion is in your future. Okay, I’m just being dramatic.
My point is, with relationships and sex being such a big part of our lives, it’s insane that most of us spend so little time learning about our bodies and what they can feel and do. This cluelessness doesn’t protect a person from believing false information (from sources like social media, porn, movies) when they have no foundation of knowledge to disprove these “facts”. Critical consumption of information is especially important when, thanks to the internet, we are more exposed to sexually explicit content than before. Who hasn’t heard some fair tales about hymens, the “tight vagina”, cookie-cutter vulvas and penises, orgasms, BDSM or the lack of communication during sex? These concepts are so pervasive in our culture that they can really affect peoples’ sexual lives if there isn’t an equally loud voice advocating a change and countering these myths.
And how do we counter all these misconceptions about ALL the different aspects of sex?
So, we’re nearing the end of the first school year, where relationships and sex education (RSE) was made compulsory in secondary schools by the government. This was initiated in September 2020 so that children can be introduced to knowledge of intimate relationships and sex in a safe and inclusive environment. Very rightly, the government concludes that the knowledge gained from learning these subjects will help improve students’ own and others’ wellbeing and enable them to make informed decisions. The government has specified the legal duties that schools must comply with when delivering RSE and health education. However, while this is a step in the right direction, it places the responsibility of administering and providing quality sex ed on schools and individual teachers, which gives schools flexibility but also doesn’t ensure a national standard.
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Is this enough? Well... I, for one, know the importance of having a teacher comfortable with teaching sex education. I went to school in Finland, where I found my sex ed seriously lacking. During our hour of sex ed as part of our health module, we got a whistle-stop-tour of STIs and contraception while being shown diagrams of female and male reproductive organs by an increasingly uncomfortable teacher. The awkwardness culminated when a basket of condoms was circulated around the class amongst wary students. We didn’t learn about consent apart from the obligatory slogan of ‘no means no’; we didn’t learn about different sexualities or sexual pleasure. And this was in a country that is quite comfortable with nudity when it comes to the sauna - no blushing, no awkwardness - yet that comfortableness with the human body just doesn’t transfer to the classroom when teaching about a natural part of our lives.
From a young age, I’ve turned to books for answers, so out of curiosity, after the class, I furtively read the chapters on puberty and sexuality at home and there it all was. The information about our ‘changing bodies’, different sexual orientations and most importantly a few sentences saying how completely natural and okay the curiosity and pleasure we feel when exploring our bodies is. Now of course I know that the book did not contain ‘all’ about RSE; there was no mention of gender expression or racial or anatomical diversity. But it was still loads better than what we got during class. Why couldn’t we be taught about this in school if all the information was already here in our textbooks? Why instead, did we get taught by a teacher who was visibly uncomfortable and tight-lipped, lending to such a tense atmosphere? I know my experience with sex education was in Finland, but the thing is, talking with students at Kings, it’s become very obvious that sex ed given to young adults in all countries around the world is often lacking or sometimes even, nonexistent.
So yes, the current guidance for schools emphasizing the importance of comprehensive RSE is amazing. But by placing the responsibility on individual schools without offering a framework for top-down training and empowerment for teachers to deliver this knowledge, it’ll only serve as an idealistic government target. The guidelines won’t help support schools enough to actually achieve these targets and do nothing to acknowledge, let alone bridge, the gap in the quality of teaching that students receive in various schools. it will do nothing to bridge the gap
I value what Sexpression UK aims to do with near-peer RSE educators, who don’t shy away from RSE topics and choose to volunteer out of passion for delivering good sex ed. This hopefully means that the students we teach receive better sex ed than we did. The lessons we deliver now emphasize providing factual information about STIs, contraceptives, consent or sex in the media with the goal of empowering young people to make their own educated choices. However, the limited time and lack of diversity in our teachers still mean that issues disproportionately affecting some students won’t be covered in the classroom. This leads to topics such as rape culture, harassment, the fetishization of bipoc, transphobia and homophobia still not being addressed outright in all their intricate complexities. When issues like this aren’t discussed within the relative safety of a classroom with everyone present, it contributes to ignorance in those that are not affected and who do not encounter it on social media.
Good RSE can lay a strong foundation for a young person’s journey when they know to respect their own and others’ boundaries. It can de-mystify sex so that students know about different ways of giving and receiving pleasure and more importantly understand the importance and normalcy of communicating with a partner before, during and after sex.
Since it will take a while for schools to universally deliver comprehensive RSE, it’s important that we make discussions about topics such as sex, sexuality, gender expression, consent, our bodies, and pleasure a part of our daily life. And that is what we aim to do with Sexpression.
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Written by Uma Walgama. Edited by Malina Aniol