Sex education is under threat in the UK. What’s going on?

<div>Sex education is under threat in the UK. What’s going on?</div>
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The words 'sex education' on a chalkboard, surrounded by drawings depicting various sex and relationship related themes.

If there’s anything that undoubtedly unites everyone, it’s that we all had terrible sex education in school. Yet, some members of parliament in the United Kingdom are under the impression kids are learning too much. 

In March 2024, Conservative member of parliament Andrea Jenkyns said during a parliamentary discussion that she supported a complete ban on sex education in schools. “As a mother of a primary school age child myself, I do not want him or other children to learn about sex full stop, whether that’s straight or gay,” she said. “I also don’t want to see children at primary school being taught about changing gender – we need to be protecting the innocence of children and their childhood, especially at primary school age.” 

On social media, Jenkyns’ comments have resulted in a mixture of support, opposition, and general concern, with some agreeing with her that sex education is a danger to innocence, and others believing the opposite. Her comments have not occurred in a vacuum. Rather, it’s a small part of a widespread moral panic towards sex education that’s been brewing in the political arena for the last few years, and the ongoing “trans debate” in the British media is intrinsically linked, often used as the key reasoning to ban sex education in the first place. 

Many members of the government have shared worries for what’s being taught in sex education, expressing that there’s too much LGBTQ+ content and sexual content, though there’s little evidence pointing to a real issue. 

As concern continues to grow for the sex education’s future, Mashable analysed the key comments about sex education from the political arena over the last year and spoke to experts to understand the current state of sex education, which improvements really need to be made, and why a lot of the concern over these lessons is misplaced. 

What’s inappropriate about sex education?

Concern over what is being taught in sex education has been expressed by politicians and parents alike. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when and why this all started, but it’s important to consider the backdrop on which these conversations are happening. 

In 2018, the bill FOSTA-SESTA was passed in the United States, which was designed to help stop trafficking but regrettably doesn’t distinguish consensual sex work from trafficking which causes problems for all sexual content on the internet.. And because the bill focuses on the internet, it has impacted users across the world. Though this bill is designed to stop trafficking on the internet, it affects those who are consenting to sex work too, and that loops in just about everyone who talks about sex on the internet. That includes, of course, online sex education.The result: sex information of all kinds is regularly flagged by social media algorithms as sexual solicitation, and sex education online is getting harder to find. 

What’s more, “Don’t Say Gay” bills have been passed in multiple states in America from Florida to Louisiana which mirror Section 28, prohibiting LGBTQ+ people from expressing themselves fully, and being able to access the education they need in schools. 

It’s possible these moves are influencing conversations in the UK. Here, concerns about sex education are less focused on trafficking, though, and instead appear to boil down to a few sensationalised myths: 

  • Children are encouraged to be transgender in their sex education classes.

  • Children are being sexualised by sex education.

  • Learning about sex causes children to lose their innocence.  

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Most of these myths were reinforced in Jenkyn’s speech, but she’s not the only politician to take a stand against sex education in some way. One of the most prominent voices in this debate is member of parliament Miriam Cates. Back in March 2023, she claimed during a parliamentary debate that, during RSE classes, British schools were teaching “graphic lessons on oral sex”, lessons in “how to choke your partner safely” and that there are “72 genders”. 

Cates then claimed those classes were “age inappropriate, sexualising and undermining of parents” and called for a review of RSE materials in secondary schools, which prime minister Rishi Sunak committed to delivering by the end of 2023. 

The politician didn’t provide any direct sources for these claims, and in response, James Bowen, director of policy for the NAHT, the organisation for school administrators, stated they “have found [no proof that] suggests students [are] being exposed to materials that are inappropriate for their age is a widespread issue – if it were, we would anticipate that it would have been addressed on a case-by-case basis.” 

Notably, the report also doesn’t detail any specific sources for the claim that “safe choking” is being taught in schools. Rather, it includes content from Cliterally the Best, a blog and popular sex positive Instagram account, which isn’t currently being used as education content as part of the British RSE curriculum. 

Andrew Hampton, education expert and author of Working with Boys, Creating Cultures of Mutual Respect in Schools believes that, sadly, some of this moral panic could stem from typical classroom strategies for teaching sex education more openly and non-judgmentally, and that this well-meaning practice is being misinterpreted by some politicians. For instance, Cates alleges that children are being taught how to safely choke each other. But Hampton thinks it’s more likely that children are asking about choking unprompted, especially as the sex act becomes more popular in porn and in bedrooms, and that teachers are simply doing their jobs by explaining what it means.

He tells Mashable: “A common strategy in teaching sex education in schools is to have kids shout out words they’ve heard relating to sex or anything they want to know more about, and then the teacher will write those words on the board and offer further explanation.” 

Hampton explains that because there’s been a recent rise documented in choking in pornography, on TikTok, and in popular media, it’s likely children are asking about it in their sex education classrooms. “So a teacher might explain it, and explain the risks too, if a child asks about it. But it won’t be that choking is actually part of the lessons,” he says.

But, doubling down on this supposed need to change up RSE, the Secretary of State for Education Gillian Keegan said last October that she had written to schools in England ordering them to make the materials used in children’s sex education available to be seen by parents. She warned headteachers there can be “no ifs, no buts, no more excuses” about it. 

The report Sunak organised is not yet complete (or, at least, not available to the public), so there is still no evidence available to suggest any of these accusations are true, while evidence of a moral panic piles up. So, where is this idea that kids are learning too much coming from? Are they learning too much?

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Sex education is still falling short 

The short answer is no. It’s an odd sentiment to suggest kids could be learning too much beyond their years as relationships and sex education (RSE) as a mandatory subject in schools has only been part of UK legislation as recently as September 2020

It’s especially inaccurate to suggest children could be learning too much about queer topics, as Cates and Jenkyns seem to believe, since it only became legal for teachers to share advice and learnings for homosexual students in 2003, thanks to Section 28.

Sex education is really only just getting started The same year that sex education became mandatory in the United Kingdom, 58 percent of young people reported not learning enough about certain subjects they found to be important, such as information about pornography, and a survey from 2023 proved students want more their sex education at school to include more ‘open discussions’ and more information about ‘real life sexual scenarios.’ 

As for the allegations that sex ed leans too far towards LGBTQ+ topics, a  Terrence Higgins Trust survey of young people aged between 16 and 24 further found that one in seven had not received any sex and relationships education (SRE) during their time at secondary school, with almost two thirds given lessons a maximum of only once a year.

Data from Safe Lives also says LGBTQ+ students feel significantly less comfortable, less confident about where to go for support about relationship or sexual abuse; and a notably smaller proportion have a strong understanding of toxic and healthy relationships. The majority of LGBTQ+ students (61 percent) disagree that LGBT+ relationships are being threaded throughout RSE, even though it’s legally required. 

Despite all the evidence that sex education is paramount and needs development, not reduction, Sunak announced Conservative Party’s press conference in October that they would work to allow parents to oversee their children’s sex education at school, and be able to pull them out of those lessons if they saw fit. While that might seem fair enough to some people, there are myriad reasons why giving parents this kind of control over their children’s sexual knowledge is a very bad idea. 

Why parents shouldn’t veto their children’s sex ed 

Allowing parents to control their children’s sex education comes up a lot in the sex education debate, but it comes with a lot of dangers. 

Research from Planned Parenthood found that over 20 percent of parents are not talking to their children about sex at home, and the ones that do speak about it are likely to skip important conversations like consent. So, if children are to be pulled out of school sex education, they’re unlikely to get it anywhere else. 

Missing out on RSE has a significant effect on sexual development. Anabelle Knight, certified sex educator at sex toy company Lovehoney, tells Mashable that a lack of sex education in school has a direct consequence of poor sexual behaviour and understanding in adults, particularly in groups that are underrepresented in the teachings. 

She’s right — Harvard Medical School found that comprehensive RSE helps to prevent sexual violence, for instance, while another study from the Council of Europe found it generally forms safer and more inclusive communities for children. If that wasn’t enough, one study from XX studied sex education and its effects on children as they develop into adults for an entire three decades, and linked thorough sex education to a better understanding and appreciation of “sexual diversity, dating and intimate partner violence prevention, development of healthy relationships, prevention of child sex abuse and improved social/emotional learning”. The study also notes that for the best chances of these social developments occurring, children need to start learning RSE in elementary school (primary school in the UK) and those lessons need to be LGBTQ+ inclusive. 

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For example, she explains the LGBTQ+ community has to look elsewhere for the sex information they should have learned in school. “One of the most common – and easily accessible – places to learn about sex is in pornography, which portrays an unrealistic, often male-centric view of sex and intimacy.” In short, not being offered sex education in school has drastic consequences on our relationships, including that with ourselves, in later life.” 

Knight explains that consent is one of the most important things that people of any age can learn, and arguably the younger the better. “Not only is it important for children to learn that they have autonomy over their own bodies, but also that they must respect others’ boundaries,” she explains. 

“Teaching children about consent and sexual relationships before they experience them means that they are much better prepared for when they do. In order for anyone to make an informed decision they must first be… informed,” she adds.   

Some parents also don’t have their children’s best interests in mind. Some parents will prioritise their political beliefs over the safety of their children. Some parents are homophobic, and wouldn’t be okay with their children being queer of any kind, and may block their children from sex education to stop them from learning about it due to their own ulterior motives. 

It’s a difficult reality to reckon with, but some parents also abuse their children. 37 percent of children who undergo child sex abuse experience this from a family member, or a family friend according to the Office of National Statistics.

With all this in mind, Knight says it’s vital for children to learn about sex from a professional, regulated, and safe source. Parents are clearly not the right option for this. 

While panic over sex education contents increases, journalist Sophia Smith Galer found in a VICE report that the UK government has only spent half of the £6 million it promised in 2019 to spend on compulsory sex education in schools. This is demonstrative of a lacking sex education, not an overbearing one. Perhaps, instead of focusing on rumours without evidence, we should instead consider the glaring improvements left to be made, what the science says about supporting young people’s safe sexual development, and the misplacement of funds in this space. 

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