Peter Tatchell says sex education should celebrate sexual pleasure and combat sexual shame and abuse.
Sex education in schools is too often anti-sex. It focuses on the potential negative consequences, such as unwanted pregnancy, HIV infection and on sexual addiction and abuse. But what about the joy of sex? Pupils don’t hear much about sexual pleasure in their sex and relationship education (SRE).
Instead, there are endless warnings about the risks and pitfalls. Moralism is rife: don’t do this, don’t do that. The nasty consequences of the more sensational sexual diseases get plenty of coverage. Impotence! Infertility! Insanity!
This erotophobic bias sends out the message that sex is bad and dangerous. It fuels a sex psychosis that makes young people fearful and anxious about a human activity that ought to be a source of great pleasure and happiness.
SRE lessons need a major overhaul.
From senior secondary level onwards, SRE should tell the truth: sex is good for us. It is natural, wholesome, fun and, with safer sex, healthy. Good sex can have a very positive effect on our mental and bodily wellbeing. It is the equivalent of a physical workout and lifts our spirits. The exhilarating rush of a powerful orgasm has profound psychic reverberations: creating feelings of elation, cleansing, inner peace and sublime contentment. It is no accident that surveys of human happiness have found a correlation between being happy and being sexually fulfilled. The two tend to go together.
Research by Dr Merryn Gott of Sheffield University found that having an enjoyable sex life boosts a person’s self-esteem, confidence and sense of wellbeing. It also discovered that good sex helps sustain a good relationship; easing tensions and strengthening feelings of togetherness and commitment.
It is true, of course, that sex is not essential for health and happiness. Some people get by without it. But most of us find that regular, quality sex enhances our life and relationships.
Another SRE focus should be overcoming the harm caused by sexual guilt and shame. Pupils need to know that sex is not dirty. The naked human body is not obscene. Homosexuality and bisexuality are not immoral.
Why, then, do many schools fail to do enough to challenge the Victorian-era sexophobia that still wrecks the lives of large numbers of people?
There is something seriously wrong when many adults feel ill at ease undressing and being naked in front of their partner. Some can only have sex in the dark, in a bed and in the conventional way. Many are so fearful of sexual pleasure and release that they barely make a sound when they climax.
Some repressed gay men cannot cope with anything other than quick, furtive liaisons. Others suffer from post-sex guilt and depression. Plenty of heterosexual males feel anxious about same-sex desires, even though they are common and part of the natural spectrum of human sexuality.
Such sexual hang-ups should not exist in 2017. The fact that they do is, in part, a reflection of the failings of SRE and strengthens the case for reform.
Sexual shame causes immense human misery — not just frustrated, unhappy sex lives, but actual psychological and physical ill-health. Phobias, neuroses, panic attacks and eating disorders sometimes originate from guilt about sex and a lack of sexual and emotional fulfilment.
Ignoring or tolerating the internalised puritanism that causes sexual and relationship dysfunction is incompatible with the ethos of a responsible education system, which is to care for the present and future welfare of children.
There is, therefore, a moral obligation on schools to challenge sex-shame pathology.
Youngsters should be encouraged to feel relaxed and comfortable with their bodies and sexuality. The best way to achieve this is by talking openly and frankly about any and every sexual issue that concerns them. Nothing should be off-limits.
In particular, to combat unhealthy sexual fear and remorse, sexual pleasure ought to be normalised and legitimated by treating it like any other form of pleasure. It is something to enjoy and feel good about — provided it is consensual and no one is exploited, harmed or abused.
There is another very important reason why teachers should challenge anxieties about sex. Sexual shame helps sustain child abuse. Adults who sexually exploit youngsters often get away with it because the victims feel embarrassed or guilty about sex and are therefore reluctant to report abuse. This reluctance is reinforced by strait-laced cultural attitudes, which still linger in some quarters. They tend to regard sex as something sordid that should be kept hidden and private. These attitudes are a godsend to abusers, who depend on guilt and secrecy to carry out their molestation undetected.
To combat the sexual shame that inhibits the exposure of abusers, sex education lessons need to encourage young people to have more open and positive attitudes towards sexual matters. Pupils who feel at ease talking about sex are more likely to disclose abuse — and to thereby help stop it and bring the abusers to justice.
Is the education secretary Justine Greening listening? Not so far. Are her Labour and Liberal Democrat counterparts pressing for these revisions in SRE? Not yet. If they believe that child welfare comes first, as I do, they’ll make SRE reform a top priority. I’m still waiting.
By Peter Tatchell
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