Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) has long been known as the dreaded subject amongst students and teachers alike. For students, it offers limited insight into a topic they are already quite familiar with through social media. For teachers, it is awkward to organise and difficult to teach pupils who resist much of what is being said. 

SRE Taken to Extremes

I consider myself one of the lucky ones. The secondary school I attended hired an external company to teach SRE throughout sporadic sessions spread across a week. This not only avoided the strange mental experience of having a physics teacher tell you about the importance of consent but also gave us an opportunity to voice our concerns and questions in a space away from our day-to-day school lives. We were given sessions that gradually built up content on a yearly basis, covering a range of topics such as queer sex and where to find the closest sexual health clinic. As a woman, I found it both empowering and comforting to know that I would be prepared, as and when I chose to have sex —  which is what SRE should really be about. I must have also paid more attention than my peers since they did not share my enthusiasm for how valuable those lessons were.

Despite my positive experience with SRE, it was within this same school that I encountered discrimination from a teacher on the subject matter. I was in a relationship at 15, and it was exactly as you would imagine a teenage relationship to be — harmless and juvenile. After hugging my partner goodbye one afternoon, an older male teacher approached me.

‘Be careful, make sure you’re keeping it appropriate.’

At first, I was confused. Had I broken some school policy? It was only after he left, that I realised what he was referring to. The Hug. Really, a hug? I assume this teacher knew of the relationship; it’s the only explanation for his warning to me.

This, however, was not a standalone occurrence. During that month, the same teacher continued to comment on any display of affection he saw between my partner and me. Interestingly, the same teacher also taught my partner, yet it was only me whom he chose to berate. Soon enough, a deep embarrassment grew within me. Finally, I stopped all displays of affection almost immediately following this comment: ‘[That I] wouldn’t want things being said in the staff room.’

I was distraught and complained bitterly to my parents. They took his side.

SRE for Adults?

If SRE is to be effective, we must teach the message that safe and loving sex is appropriate to adults as well as school pupils.

I am not suggesting that students should be encouraged to have sex on school premises, or pressured to have a relationship. I am saying that they should not be facing contradictory messages and intrusive comments.

Parents and teachers need to understand that sex education has changed considerably from their school days. ‘A woman must be careful of who she gives her body to’ is a vague and culturally loaded statement that belongs in the past. This generation belongs to the era of sexual empowerment and that means having the stamina to say ‘no’ when necessary.

I believe this to be a positive thing. Even if parents are fearful of their child having sex ‘too early,’ appreciating that times and attitudes have changed should quell some of their fears. Lessons that focus on removing peer pressure around sex and relationships by encouraging individual autonomy ultimately lead to safer sex.

Towards a Modern SRE

Sex Education should reflect the times. Certain teachings have become outdated with the rise of the sexual liberation movement. SRE should evolve accordingly. As well as teaching biological facts, it needs to encompass the philosophical and sociological elements of sex to achieve the best results.

SRE taught me that I was capable of ‘owning’ my body. Then my superiors informed me that hugging was inappropriate. I cowered away, ashamed that I had allowed myself to behave in a manner that gained the disapproval of teachers and parents — an attitude against intimacy that I am still fighting against today.

SRE is not, and should not be, just for students. Everyone needs to be updated.

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