On the Frontline: The birds and the bees

On the Frontline: The birds and the bees

Simon Forrest

When she assumed the role of Secretary of State for Education and Equalities in July 2016, Justine Greening raised hopes and expectations that after decades of lobbying, advocacy, parliamentary debate and committee consideration, Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) might become a mandatory element of the curriculum provided to children and young people in primary and secondary schools in England. Referencing a report on sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools to parliament by the Women and Equalities committee Greening was widely reported as saying that SRE was one of things ‘at the top of her in-tray’ and that, ‘it was time we looked at doing a better job’.

The report from the Women and Equalities Committee had marshalled evidence showing widespread sexual harassment of girls and young women: a third of 16-18 year olds reported unwanted touching; 40% reported an having an intimate relationship where they experienced some sort of sexual violence from their partner; that sexual name calling and joking is ubiquitous; and, that around one in four 16-18 year olds had seen sexual pictures on a mobile ‘phone a few times a month or more. The committee noted that young women think about what they wear, where they go and feel anxious about their bodies because of fears about harassment. They carefully consider the risk before speaking out in class.

The Committee was clear in identifying the role that SRE could play in ensuring that children and young people understand gender equality, sex and consent and that making it statutory – they carefully noted that the elements which currently are so framed are few, and are largely associated with the content of the science curriculum and hence not focused on relational aspects of young people’s experience – would resolve problems with patchy, inconsistent provision, the anxieties of schools and teachers about doing the work and would meet a request for action articulated by young people, parents, health professionals and other statutory and non-statutory agencies working in the field.

No wonder this was top of Greening’s in-tray. But I say: don’t hold your breath. We have been here before and this is an area of public policy and educational practice in which, at best different moral and ideological positions are in tension and at worst engaged in a total face-off. Those arguing for a new mandatory status, a wider, more inclusive relationship-focused SRE have a long history of being disappointed.

As recently as February 2015 the same conclusion about making SRE mandatory was reached by the Commons’ Education Committee. Their recommendation was clear,

‘…that the DfE develop a workplan for introducing age-appropriate PSHE and Relationships and Sex Education as statutory subjects in primary and secondary schools, setting out its strategy for improving the supply of teachers able to deliver this subject and a timetable for achieving this. The statutory requirement should have a minimal prescription in content, and should be constructed with the aim of ensuring that curriculum time is devoted to the subject. Alongside this, statutory guidance should be developed to enhance schools’ duty to work with parents in this area and secure and effective home-school partnership. (Paragraph 148)

The Government, in July of that year, responded, declining to take this step but committing to develop further measures to improve PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education the context in which SRE outside the science curriculum is taught). The chair of the Education Committee, noted that,

‘The response made by the Government today is disappointing. Ministers entirely sidestep the call made by MPs in the closing months of the last Parliament to give statutory status to PSHE. They also reject or brush over nearly every other recommendation made by the previous Education Committee in their key report published five months ago. It is unclear why it should have taken the Government so long to publish such a feeble response’.

Those of us long enough in the tooth to have been around SRE during the last 25 years will recognise this pattern – rising awareness or concern about an aspect of young people’s experience with regard to gender, sex or sexuality; parliamentary debate and sometimes a committee report. Often a recommendation for more action, including better SRE, followed by at best limited and typically no governmental action.

We will also be sadly familiar with the content of other recent reports detailing the patchiness and poor quality of Sex and Relationships Education (SRE). In their report of a survey involving 900, 16-24 years olds, The Terence Higgins Trust (‘SRE: Shh… No Talking’ report) found that 1 in 7 respondents reported receiving no sex education at all, 61% less than a lesson a year and over 75% said that they had received no information about consent, LGBT relationships, sex and pleasure and gender identity. Similarly, the Sex Education Forum in its survey of 11-25 year olds echoed the concerns of Women and Equalities Committee, finding that a third of respondents had not learned about sexual consent, adding that 60% had not learned about pleasure and 53% had not learned how to recognise when someone is being groomed for sexual exploitation. The National Union of Students undertook a survey of its members in 2014 that reported a strong bias towards biological over relational aspects of sex education and a high degree of exposure to and use of pornography, especially amongst young men, with 40% saying that it made them understand more about sex.

The questions we need to ask are: are why is this a consistently problematic issue for Government and especially Conservative administrations?  What is it that impedes policy development?

The answers are not straightforward. In fact, it is worth noting that the record of recent governmentsis mixed. The Conservative government of the late 1980s did take action to increase and amplify the importance of SRE. In response to the emergence of HIV/Aids the then Secretary of State for Education, writing in an iteration of guidance to schools on sex education, noted that  ‘education about Aids is an important element in the teaching programme offered to pupils in the later years of compulsory schooling’ (DfES, 1987). Yet one year later brought into law the notorious ‘Section 28’ of the Local Authorities Act that ruled that Local Authorities ‘”shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship“.

Subsequently we’ve had the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy (TPS) introduced by the Labour Government in 1998 and revised guidance of SRE in 2000. In 2000 (following an attempt in 1994 by Edwina Currie) the age of consent for same sex relationships was equalised with heterosexual young people at 16. In 2003 Section 28 was repealed.

Both the TPS and the guidance of 2000 sought to create a clearer and more supportive context for SRE but have still left many decisions about exactly what is taught and when to the discretion of Schools.

The ambivalence about sex and sexuality reflected in these policy developments encapsulates two key dimensions of the problem with and around SRE. As a response to public health concerns it can be understood, represented and supported as a legitimate action to protect and promote health and wellbeing. But where it seeks to acknowledge or support sexual self-determinacy at the edge or beyond the norms of heterosexuality,  conceived as not only an identity and orientation but a way of life characterised by a very particular understanding of ‘family values’, it begins, potentially, to be perceived as transgressive, subversive and inappropriate.

Deciding what to do about SRE is so difficult because it not clear what it is really about or for, and because of the particular sensitivities that surround any discussion involving sex and young people. To project this into the context of education only makes matters more complex and potentially inflammatory because it amplifies the need to grapple with a difficult issue at an intersection where the personal, the public and the political meet.

The questions which occupy us at this intersection become freighted with meaning and implications far beyond their apparent straightforwardness. We ask, what should we teach, when and how, but where this takes us is not simply into the weighing of evidence or consideration of rights but into much bigger, deeper and longer lasting socio-cultural and political preoccupations.

These have remarkable intractability. It is only a century ago that Sigmund Freud in his response to correspondence from a Dr Furst seeking advice on the implications of Freud’s work on childhood sexuality for education noted that the concerns underpinning Furst’s query were that knowledge about sex might corrupt innocence and lead to experimentation and that release of some kind of animalistic sexual drive would ‘corrupt middle class social order’.

The evidence that the first two concerns are unfounded is compelling but what of the third? Is it really the case that the problem with SRE is that it poses some kind of threat to established social and associated moral order?

That depends on what we think the world is like and what we think it should be like. If we conceive of sex and sexuality narrowly, with heterosexuality as the norm, dyadic life-long partnerships as the ideal, men and women in fairly rigid traditional gender roles raising families with their sexual expression circulating around expression of love and procreation, then it is likely that the reality of the rich, complex, dynamic and diverse nature of human experiences of gender, sex and sexuality will be troubling.

The growing body of research, especially from the 1940s onwards in the UK, sheds light on the sexual attitudes, lifestyles and behaviours of young people. It reveals the extent of pre-martial sex, of same-sex experiences, of non-procreative sex, but also problems with coercion, partner pressure (principally experienced by young women in their relationships with young men), lack of power to mitigate or reduce risk of harm, disease and unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. This paints a picture of more diverse identities, and potentially exciting, risky and also dangerous sexual lives.

Equally, the ongoing development of both political and social movements – particularly second and third wave feminism and LGBT+ rights – has provided a new set of challenges to previous established socio-sexual orders and assumptions about sexuality, gender and power.  In the overlapping worlds of research, politics and the mass media – the digital environment brings new ways of meeting, being, engaging and access to sex –  the irresistible emergence and visibility of new sexualities and identities, practices and relationship possibilities means the terrain feels ever shifting.

It is no surprise then that on the frontline, in the classroom, SRE feels difficult. How are we supposed to know, understand and represent this, to communicate it, and to what purpose? How do we reveal the possibilities, the problems, the risks, or to try to rein these into a coherent, safe, existing socio-moral matrix? No wonder SRE is near universally described by young people as ‘too little, too late and too biological’ and teachers feel a lack of confidence and safety in their practice. It feels like gender and sex are everywhere and nowhere in the School.

Attracted to the ideological significance of SRE, the way it taps into wider social concerns about sex, sexuality and gender, the mass media also pose a threat to doing the work. Channel 4’s screening of a programme proposing a prospectus for a ‘GSCE in sex’ gives a sense of some of its main components. Those questions about the what, when and how much SRE were front and centre. The keen-eyed observer may also have noticed, especially in the attention some of the mass media paid to the presenter, Goedele Liekin’s background as sex therapist, UN Goodwill Ambassador and former Miss Belgium, that most particular cultural feature of any discussion about sex education in Britain: the undertone of what Ronald Persall famously termed prudish prurience – a cocktail mixing a hint of repressive moralistic concern with a pleasure in possible titillation that comes with talking about sex.

What is so striking is that all this anxiety is positioned alongside a growing body of evidence that SRE works – it can enable young people to have better, more equitable, more satisfying relationships and reduce risks of harm to sexual health. To take one example, no lesser authority than UNESCO has been absolutely clear that SRE is critical to HIV/Aids prevention and also central to global commitments to self-determination, gender equity and reduction in gender-based violence, sexual abuse and sexual abuse and coercion.

If it is the moral dimension that is really preventing us from operationalising this how can we understand that and act in relation to it.

I have two ideas. First, let’s look back at the report produced by UNICEF in 2001 (UNICEF, 2001) which explored pregnancies in rich nations. UNICEF proposed the following. First, that teenage pregnancy as a problem is a product of its time. It is because (in rich countries) it has come to be regarded as a significant social disadvantage to become pregnant in your teenage years because the world increasingly sees as the norm an extended education, delayed childbearing, smaller families, two-income households and careers for women.

Second, that most policy responses fall into two broad camps. In the one, where the underlying premise is that reducing teenage births is a social good because of the disadvantages they tend to bring, the solutions proposed incline towards earlier and more comprehensive sex education, more liberal abortion laws, and freely available contraception. In the other, ‘where the underlying motive has a strong religious dimension, including perhaps the axioms that sex and childbearing before marriage are wrong and that abortion is unacceptable, then the solutions are more likely to revolve around abstinence campaigns, restrictive abortion laws, reform of benefits systems and ambiguity at best about sex education and contraception’ (UNICEF, 2001: 7)

This seems very helpful to me. A reminder that it is not only the issue we need to focus on but to understand where we see it from.

That said, so powerful is the more conservative understanding and presumptions that come with it that even where we want to make more liberal responses we can see these being configured and influenced by the polar thinking. No surprise then that research repeatedly points us to the dominance of SRE by discourses and scripts in which danger trumps desire, the dynamics of gendered power relations fixed in heteronormativity position young women as gate-keepers of sex, to be on the alert against and responsible for managing heterosexual male sexual desire and where potential negative social consequences, including unplanned pregnancy, sexual ill-health, reputational damage and stigmatisation, always predominate over a sense of agency and self-determination.

We see this very strikingly in the work of Pandora Pound and colleagues (2016) who undertook a synthesis of young people’s views of school-based SRE. They found, quite remarkably, that over 25 years and countries as diverse and different as the USA, UK, Japan and Iran, highly consistent reports of SRE coming too late, lacking information about contraception, health services, emotions, what sex involves and pleasure. Sex seems near universally to be perceived as being presented negatively.

The apparent lack of impact on views of SRE policy change in the UK context was also striking. But, what really took me back was their analysis that the wider changes, the equalisation of ages of consent, repeal of Section 28 and introduction of same-sex marriage had registered as significant. Young people just thought it was a shame that SRE hadn’t caught up.

This seems particularly important to me. Could it be that what we need is cultural change around gender, sex and sexuality, particularly permissive change, to help move the terrain and reframe the possible answers to the question of what SRE is for, when it should be done and what it should comprise?

It could that the immediate concern about whether SRE is made mandatory is important but not sufficient in and of itself to move us from the here of dissatisfied and ill-served young people to the there of inclusive, positive comprehensive SRE.

We probably need to come to terms with children and young people having sexualities and an interest in sex, a right to sexual identities and lives and to replace the discourse of danger with a discourse and scripts of pleasure and responsibility. To begin to think about helping them be ‘better lovers’ with sexual identities that suit them, interactional competency and confidence and a clear understanding of autonomy and rights.

I don’t want to stop being concerned about sexting or use of pornography which right now seem likely to preoccupy debates about the content and purpose of SRE but to see what lies behind this. The work we need to do, to go back to, on altering the gendered power relationships configured in heterosexuality, allowing pleasure, the body and the person back into a broader cultural project of change.

Go ahead and prescribe Justine but don’t forget that changing sex education alone won’t change the world; you have to change the world in which it takes place at the same time.

By the way, Freud’s answer was, What is really important is that children should never get the idea that one wants to make more of a secret of the facts of sexual life than of any other matter which is not yet accessible to their understanding… Above all, it is the duty of schools not to evade the mention of sexual matters. The main facts of reproduction and their significance should be included in lessons about the animal kingdom, and at the same time stress should be laid on the fact that man (sic) shares every essential in his organisation with the higher animals. … Enlightenment about the specific facts of human sexuality and an indication of its social significance should therefore be given to the child at the end of his time at his elementary school and before he enters his intermediate school – that is to say, before he is ten years old.’ (1907:180)

Department for Education and Skills (1987) Sex Education at School, Circular 11/87, London: DfES.
Freud, S. (1907) The sexual enlightenment of children (An open letter to Dr M. Furst) in On Sexuality: Three essays on the theory of sexuality and other works. Pelican Freud library Vol. 7 Harmondsworth : Penguin Books Ltd.
Persall, R. (1969) The Worm in the Bud: the world of Victorian sexuality. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Pound, P., Langford R. and Campbell, R. (2016) What do young people think about their school-based sex and relationships education? A qualitative synthesis of young people’s views and experiences, BMJ Open, 6:e011329
UNICEF. (2001) A league table of teenage births in rich nations. Innocenti report card No. 3. UNICEF Research Centre: Florence,

Simon Forrest is a Professor in and Head of the School of Medicine, Pharmacy and Health at Durham University and a Co-Director of the University’s Centre for Sex, Gender and Sexualities. He is also Chair of the Board of Trustees of the international AIDS Charity AVERT.  Simon’s background spans teaching in Secondary and Further as well as Higher Education and also work in health promotion. During the 1990s he became involved in research into young people’s sexual attitudes, lifestyles and behaviours and evaluation of interventions seeking to improve sexual health particularly in the context of Sex & Relationships Education (SRE) in Schools. He a long-standing interest in the specific areas of peer-led approaches to SRE and young masculinities and men’s health.