Young people really don’t like the way they’re being taught about sex in school. They find the information too negative and scientific, as well as moralistic and irrelevant. They also say it’s presented in a way that makes them feel vulnerable and embarrassed — not just for themselves, but for their teachers, too.
Those are the findings from a new study published earlier this week in the journal BMJ Open. For the study, a team of British researchers from the University of Bristol reviewed 55 previous studies that had examined the views of young people — mostly aged 12 to 18 — who’d received sex-and-relationship education in 10 countries (United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Iran, Brazil and Sweden) between 1990 and 2015.
Despite the studies’ wide geographical and time-span differences, the opinions of the young people were “strikingly consistent,” write the researchers. “It might be imagined that some studies would produce highly contrasting data, such as the studies from Japan or Iran, but this was not the case; Japanese and Iranian students’ main concerns reflected those of their peers elsewhere.”
Two major themes
The students’ concerns tended to have two main themes, as the researchers explain:
First, schools have taken insufficient account of the ‘specialness’, or distinctive nature, of sex as a topic. Sex is a potent subject that can arouse strong emotions, reactions and feelings — of anxiety, embarrassment and vulnerability among others — yet the prevailing approach within schools appears to be to deny that there is anything exceptional about the topic and to attempt to teach [sex and relationship education] in the same way as other subjects. This negatively affects the delivery of [sex and relationship education] and renders young people vulnerable.
Second, schools appear to struggle to accept that some young people are sexually active. This leads to [sex and relationship education] content that is out of touch with many young people’s lives and a failure to discuss issues relevant to sexually active young people.
From the students’ feedback, it was clear that many felt embarrassed and uncomfortable in sex-education classes, particularly when members of the opposite sex were in the classroom. Students feared being humiliated in front of the peers. Young men said they often acted out in the classes to hide their anxieties about not being sexually knowledgeable. Young women said they worried about young men attacking their sexual reputations if they spoke out in class.
“Some people are too scared to say things, so they cover that up by being noisy and disrupt the class,” one young man said. A young woman made a similar observation: The teacher, she said, “can’t really talk to us properly about it because the boys start making snide remarks and everything like that … so you get to the stage where if you do want to ask anything you won’t ask it because the boys will start making remarks.”
Concerns about confidentiality
The students also felt vulnerable about being taught sex education by teachers they knew. They worried that the teachers could not be trusted to maintain confidentiality, and said it was awkward (or “cringey,” as one student put it) to see the teachers around the school after discussing sexual and personal matters with them. Students also said their teachers could be moralistic about sexual matters and seemed to have difficulty accepting that students were sexually active.
As for the out-of-touch content, students said sex was too often presented in a way that was “overly biological,” “narrowly focused,” “technical” and, above all, “irrelevant.” Teachers tended to approach sex as a “problem to be managed,” and focused inordinately on unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, the students added.
“This approach was also observed to de-eroticise and disembody sex,” write the researchers.
The students also pointed out that their sex education classes barely mentioned homosexuality, “rendering lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students invisible.”
“All they ever do is talk about the dangers of sex … and nothing about the pleasure,” one student said. “They don’t mention anything about same-sex relationships or homophobia. I think they should so more people are aware,” said another.
Needed: specialist teachers
The researchers suggest that the best way to improve sex education is to take that responsibility away from the students’ own teachers and hand it over to highly trained, specialist teachers.
“Young people want to receive [sex and relationship education] in a safe and confidential environment where they could participate uninhibitedly without being singled out,” the researchers write. “They suggested group discussions, skills-based lessons, demonstrations and diverse activities, appreciating dynamic teaching techniques. Some advocated small group teaching or smaller classes that were easier to control.”
“Unless we get the delivery right, young people will continue to disengage from [sex education], and opportunities for safeguarding young people and improving their sex health and be reduced,” they added.
FMI: The study can be accessed and read in full on the BMJ Open website.