The debate over how to teach sex and relationships doesn't seem like much of a debate at all.
Turn on the 6 o'clock news. Any station will do, though some will demonstrate my point more than others. What content are you inviting into your home? The odds are good - almost guaranteed, in fact - that you will see a corpse. You will probably see a person wielding a firearm. In today's climate you're likely to see a government at war with its people. Guaranteed you'll hear of at least one murder. You'll see violence so senseless that you... well, nothing. If you're like millions of television viewers, you are generally unmoved by it.
How many people have you murdered?
If I did a survey of people reading this blog, and asked how many people had murdered someone else, I imagine my affirmative response rate for that question would be low. Most of us have, at best, a cursory, distanced relationship with that level of violence.
Go back to the news. What won't you see? Well, in Canada and the UK, you're not likely to see a penis or a vagina at all, and if you do it'll be an animation, or they'll be a clear censorship bar or pixelation of the image. Breasts may make a casual appearance, provided they too a blurred out.
If I did a survey of this blog's visitors and asked how many had genitals, I'm quite sure more than 99 per cent of readers would confirm that they, in fact, do have genitals.
So I don't understand this discomfort with talking about them, or what they are for. As a generalisation we seem completely comfortable with the most egregious forms of violence being shown in prime time, but sex is danced around. Alluded to. We have to infer it from TV sitcoms showing two people in bed together with mysterious, L-shaped sheets that cover a woman's chest while leaving the man's bare (and that's just heterosexual relationships. I'll have more to say on the characterisation of homosexual relationships in prime time in a later blog).
A culture lacking frank sexuality.
People are spun into dizzying psychoses trying to assess their sexual character against an ambiguous standard, and regardless of how sexualised our culture seems to be, it lacks simple, frank sexuality.
This is having a seriously detrimental effect on the healthy development of our young people, not because "being human" is changing so drastically, but because (and it's no secret) access to sex is everywhere. There was a day when "sex" was the most-searched for word on every search engine, though I suppose people have either become more refined or more explicit in their search keywords.
Personal electronics mean even the most innocently curious person can suddenly have gigabytes of information at their fingertips. And I do mean innocent curiosity. It is well within the bounds of reality to expect people to be curious, and it is silly and negligent of us to ignore this fact using an outdated shield of "propriety." There is nothing improper about the curiosity, but there are ways that we can harness that curiosity as educators, as we seek out positive, healthy, developmental lessons for young people.
Sex education is not keeping the pace with pornography.
Recently, Guardian Teach tweeted a link to a well-curated resource list.
The list comes on the heels of a BBC article claiming (quite correctly) that sex education is not keeping the pace with pornography, and as a result young people are poorly prepared for "real world" (my phrase, not theirs) sexuality (ie: outside of a classroom/laboratory/textbook setting). There is no shortage of anecdotal data to indicate that people's perceptions (whether they are young or old) are substantially, significantly altered by what they have viewed, whether they were seeking it out or not.
I am not here to make an argument that "all people are sexual beings" nor am I here to claim that "sex is beautiful and should be celebrated." Those opinions have existed for a long time, and have been expressed clearly elsewhere. I simply want to say that our current approach is damaging, monumentally slow to change, and too heavily politicised.
Don't put me in charge. But if you did...
If I were asked right now what I would propose, if I had some say in the sex and relationships education curriculum, I would base any proposal around these five foundations:
1) Access to sexual content is nearly impossible to control.
2) People young and old have an innate curiosity about the mechanics, the biology, and the emotions of sexual relationships.
3) The access to content, coupled with the deep sense of inquiry around sexual relationships, can create some significant, meaningful teaching and learning opportunities.
4) The best teaching opportunities will take into account the social context of the subject matter, and the sensitivities that range from class to class.
5) Shying away from sex and relationship education, even as it becomes more challenging, has never worked and will never work.
My measures of success would be manifest across the statistics available, and I would look for successful indicators in:
- Student feedback: do the learners feel they have a better understanding (not just a better impression of) the subject matter?
- Teacher feedback: did conversations about sex and relationship education become more mature, more discursive, and more educational over time?
- Are students more adept at discussions the scientific aspects of sex? Can they identify the connection between sexual content on the Internet, and sexual assaults? Can they identify (and therefore avoid) the dangers associated with their own sexual expression online?
- Has there been any impact on the rate of locally-reported STIs, underage/unplanned pregnancies, or sexual assault?
- Has there been a positive change in the number of people seeking advice about contraception, family planning, and/or safe sex?
- Have pastoral/religious organisations noticed a positive trend amongst their populations?
I'll conclude by summing up my original point: why are we so tolerant of prime time violence, but so squeamish about sex?
How much positive change could we make if we approached its teaching, not as a rite-of-passage, or a taboo, or an embarrassing and awkward lesson plan that is sure to break classes into fits of laughter? But rather, as a fairly universal human experience, which has a social and a scientific basis, and which can be understood better by seeking out answers with the guidance of people who know how to find the answers they need, and not the first answers to come up on the search engine.