In a society most would call progressive, why does the majority of the SRE curriculum reinforce outdated ideas of heteronormativity, sexism and purity backed by religious ideas?

Vague guidelines

The experience of sex education in UK secondary schools differs greatly as there is no rigid curriculum which has to be enforced. However, the government’s sex and relationship education guidance (2000) does state that certain issues should be covered including puberty, menstruation, contraception, abortion and STIs. Yet it is the case that not only are many of these issues absent from most people’s experience of the curriculum, but many are taught with bias or misinformation.

A huge issue is the lack of LGBTQ+ inclusion. As a society we have came a long way since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1966, and many would argue that we have put the days of homophobia behind us. But this is evidently not true concerning many aspects of society, including sex education. Though some schools may be inclusive, too many still reinforce homophobia. This is done by excluding the teaching or mention of any sexuality other than heterosexuality, thereby invalidating many young people’s identities.

Government guidelines state that:

‘there should be no direct promotion of sexuality’.

Yet many still hold the view that talking about sexual orientation will encourage people to adopt it — as though it is a lifestyle choice rather than something innate in us all, whatever that orientation may be. If anything, any alleged increase in young people identifying with a sexuality other than straight due to more open and informative discussions in the classroom, is arguably down to them feeling safe to express themselves.

As a society we need to take a look in the mirror and accept that if we’re not okay with people identifying with a sexuality/gender identity other than straight/cisgender, then we are not as progressive as we give ourselves credit for.

Knowledge is about choice

It is widely accepted that we are in a mental health crisis with high levels of mental illnesses and a crippling lack of resources to combat this. The reality is that in a classroom of teenagers there will be a variety of sexual and gender identities which are being suppressed. Perhaps if sex education allowed them to be discussed factually and without stigma this issue could be relieved somewhat.

Another hugely problematic issue in the current education system is the teaching of abortion. It is a highly sensitive area that should be taught in a fact-orientated, non-judgemental way. But this is very rarely the case.

Government advice states that:

‘the religious convictions of the pupils and their parents should be respected’.

Religion has no place in the mass teaching of medical procedures. If a woman holds personal beliefs that would influence her decision should she become pregnant, then that is a valid position which ought to be respected. But when we’re talking about informing potentially vulnerable young people about their options in a very difficult situation, there is no place for guilt-tripping and outdated or misinformed ideas which suit some people’s beliefs and not others. To say that pupils and parents’ religious convictions must be respected, is to admit that in one school abortion will be taught as morally wrong and in another as entirely acceptable.

Why should some young woman be made to feel shame because it suits other people’s beliefs?

By teaching the medical facts of abortion as well as its potential social and psychological implications young women can be informed and equipped to make the right choice for them. This move will not promote abortion as a default response. It is not being glorified, but presented for what it is: an option. In my own experience, we were shown a drama depicting the regret a woman feels after having an abortion, with no counter situation showing how sometimes it is the right decision. Government guidelines may state that a teacher’s personal opinions shouldn’t influence their teaching of the course material, but the converse is almost inevitable given that this is such an emotive issue.

I was told that I would feel differently about being pro-choice if I had a younger sibling. I can safely say that four years later my opinion remains the same.

Is sexism the problem?

Our sex education system is arguably rooted in sexism. There is a palpable lack of teaching about consent, rape and contraception — things that are considered women’s issues in a heterosexual relationship. From my personal experience of a Catholic sex education, the very little that we were taught was overwhelmingly the idea of purity. To reinforce it, we were shown a video of teenagers in the USA who wore rings to symbolise waiting until marriage. Now there is nothing wrong with this as a personal choice. But when alternatives aren’t even discussed, there is that sense that for those who choose not to follow this admirable path, they are committing a moral error that somehow renders them morally defunct.

Women’s sexuality in general is an area that has historically been dismissed. The ‘woman’ has always been seen as a figure incapable of making informed decisions, so naturally she must be protected (form herself, presumably). This antiquated stance won’t do. We must teach men and women alike what a respectful and healthy relationship is. With knowledge, women will be in a much safer and informed position when it comes to sexual assault, pregnancy and abusive relationships.

As a country we need to think seriously about the kind of society we want young people to grow up in and promote. Many of the social problems we see today started in a school classroom, during those precious and precarious teenage years. A more comprehensive and open sex education system — rather than one two-hour lesson a year, as was my experience — may help to alleviate some of these preventable social concerns.