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Young people around the world say sex education is negative, moralistic

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.

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.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/15/2016 - 10:21 am.

    Yet another example

    of a truism:

    Schools do not lead communities. They reflect them.

    If schools do a poor job with sex education – and my experience as parent, teacher and observer is very much in line with what the study above points out – it’s because parents are generally uncomfortable with the subject. I’ve not lived in other societies, so I can’t speak with any real expertise on how this topic is approached elsewhere, but what I’ve read (subject to the limitations that go with a “read-only” experience) suggests that, while not yet ideal, there ARE at least some European countries that do much better with this than we do, largely because they’re open to admitting that young people might be sexually active.

    Here in the U.S., with the cloud of the Puritanical still hanging over our shoulders, schools are reluctant to approach sexuality from a standpoint other than that of a problem to be managed because the dichotomy in our culture, which sexualizes virtually everything, while simultaneously labeling genuine sexuality negatively at every opportunity, makes it very difficult for children raised with that very mixed message to then turn around and provide a sensible context for sexual questions from their own children when the time comes.

    A child of the 50s, I should add that my own sex education consisted – in its entirety – of my mother, an RN who grew up in the 1930s as the only child of a pediatrician, handing me a copy of “Ann Landers’ Life and Love for Teenagers” when I was 13 and saying “Let me know if you have any questions.” It’s fair to say I had many, many questions, none of which I asked my mother…

    Pop culture, religious contradictions, fear and control issues among adults, the profit motive inherent in capitalism, and numerous other factors all play a role in the confusion and contradictions that characterize the American approach to sexuality and sex education.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 09/16/2016 - 08:01 am.

    How about you have to be at your grade level in

    Reading, writing and math before you have a sex education class? With graduation rates and our world ranking in education going down, shouldn’t we be more concerned about basic skills 18 year old graduates will need to compete in the real world after they leave public schools? I wish the Dept of Education worried about 18 year olds, after they left public education, as much as they claim to care about them when they are bringing in tax dollars as 6 year olds.

    How about we do a study on what public schools should do to raise our world standing in education??? Just like in the Land of Oz, disregard the man behind the curtain (real issues) just listen to what I’m telling you (sex education is negative). It blows my mind what we have accepted from public education and the undying support it receives from liberals/progressives. We can and should do much better especially for our lower income students. Shameful….

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/16/2016 - 09:07 am.

    My Experience Was Similar to Ray’s – Just a Book

    I can’t help but think that the best approach to sex education would involve four things:

    1) the assumption that ALL kids in the class already are or soon will be sexually active.

    2) teaching the broad variety of attitudes, historical and current, about sexual activity: when it’s appropriate, when it’s not, including the attitudes programmed into the kids by gender stereotypes and their tendency to use sexual activity to establish their gender bona fides, especially boys using sex to establish their “manhood”…

    including the appropriate use of masturbation to satisfy your overheated adolescent needs lest you treat your sex partners not as real people with their OWN needs, but simply as the equivalent of blow up dolls whose only purpose is to assist you in meeting your own needs and impressing your friends with your masculinity.

    3) how to keep yourself emotionally and physically healthy as you move into and out of relationships and become involved with various sex partners.

    4) how to do sex well, both for yourself and for your partner.

    Sex is a normal and natural, God-given part of life. Doing it well, respectfully, safely, playfully, and joyfully, is a life-enhancing experience. It should be taught with this in mind.

    Pregnancy, child birth, family life, and marriage should be a SEPARATE class.

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