• Emily Parkman

Condoms, Bananas and Wet Dreams: Is the UK’s Sex Education Good Enough?


Art by @fempowerart

Picture the scene: you’re suddenly 13 again, sitting in a run-down, 1970s-built classroom, surrounded by giggling schoolchildren. The matronly woman standing at the front of the class sternly gazes down her nose at the rabble, and menacingly holds up a condom, accompanied by an anatomically very questionable wooden penis. Welcome to sex education!


When thinking back to their sex education lessons, young adults routinely comment on some common themes: it was out of touch, irrelevant, embarrassing. Thankfully, sex and relationships education in the UK has changed hugely over the past two years, and, most would argue, for the better. To understand the significance of these changes, it is worth considering some of the history and the laws surrounding sex and relationships education in the UK.


In 1988, Margaret Thatcher’s government enacted Section 28 of the Local Government Act. Often cited in popular culture, Section 28 was a divisive and damaging piece of legislation banning the “promotion of homosexuality by local authorities.” What this essentially amounted to was young people being actively discouraged from learning about LGBTQIA+ relationships, leading to shame, bullying and stigma for LGBTQIA+ individuals, and instilling ignorance, fear and hate in those identifying as straight. Despite its clearly negative impact, Section 28 was not repealed until 2000 in Scotland, and 2003 in the rest of the UK.


The introduction of the Equality Act in 2010 began to pave the way for inclusivity in relationships and sex education, as it required schools to have “due regard” to prevent discrimination against, and advance equality of opportunity for, those with so-called “protected characteristics” – which includes sexual orientation and gender reassignment. This led to some school leaders choosing to incorporate the discussion of LGBTQIA+ relationships in their education - though it’s important to note that at this point, these lessons were not statutory, meaning parents could withdraw consent for their children to attend.


2017 is when real change started to happen: the Children and Social Work Act mandated that from September 2020, sex and relationships education would be required to be taught in all English schools. This brings us to the present day, where relationships education must be taught in all English primary schools, and relationships and sex education in all English secondary schools. The mandatory element of these sessions means that schools are legally required to deliver them, in line with the National Curriculum. You could be forgiven for thinking that no more change is required from this point – job done, right? However, there is still much change which needs to be enacted before sex and relationships education is truly up-to-date and inclusive.


Attitudes towards sex and relationships education vary widely, and sadly, some groups still use religion or faith as an excuse for homophobic behaviour. Birmingham’s 2019 protests were a prime example of this, in which largely Muslim parents protested at Anderton Park school for 8 weeks, outraged at the fact that the headteacher had chosen to include the topic of LGBTQIA+ relationships in the primary school’s relationships education curriculum. The complexity of this lies in the vagueness of the government’s guidance: it does not stipulate whether or not schools should teach about LGBTQIA+ in their curriculum, instead weakly stating that “primary schools are enabled and encouraged to cover LGBT content if they consider it age appropriate to do so […] there is no specific requirement for this.” The lack of a definitive stance on such an important issue is clearly laying the path for parents to decide to deny their children the opportunity to learn about the relationships with which they will undoubtedly be surrounded as they grow up, despite the fact that the lessons should be a mandatory requirement.


Aside from learning about the different types of relationships young people may experience or see around them, why else is sex and relationships education important? In the past month we have seen swathes of young people bravely come forward to disclose their experiences of sexual abuse, assault and harassment, following the tragic death of Sarah Everard. Many conversations have followed, surrounding how we can fight this “new” pandemic – which, ironically, is not new at all; as anyone who has attended a British secondary school will attest, sexual abuse, harassment and assault has always been a poorly-tackled problem. Sex and relationships education could be the perfect place to begin to undo the years of systemic patriarchal values which have been embedded into our culture, as suggested by leading sexual health charity Brook, who have identified sex and relationships education as a key element in the prevention and reduction of violence against women and girls.


Further to this, and perhaps slightly more subtle, yet still as insidious in its promotion of patriarchal values, is the distinct lack of discussion of female anatomy and pleasure in sex education. In an interview with Refinery29, Lucy Emmerson, the director of the UK’s Sex Education Forum, expressed concerns that only “one in 10 or one in 20”schools are teaching relationships and sex education in a positive manner which includes lessons on anatomy, and female and male pleasure. It could certainly be argued that if more emphasis was placed on the teaching about sex for pleasure, rather than purely for reproduction, especially a focus on female pleasure, could reduce the culture of slut-shaming which we have sadly grown to see as an inevitable experience for women. Of course, breaking a culture which has been present since the beginning of time will take a huge amount of effort, but where better to start than with the education of the next generation?


It’s safe to say that while sex and relationships education has dramatically improved since the draconian times of Section 28, we are nowhere near finished in fighting the battle for a truly inclusive and modern curriculum. It is imperative that the government take action to remove loopholes in the law which allow schools to avoid teaching about LGBTQIA+ issues, and introduce a focus on educating young people properly on consent, predatory and unwanted sexual behaviours, and standing up to these behaviours when they are seen or experienced. As time goes on with the new curriculum, it could be hoped that these topics will become better embedded into everyday teaching in schools. However, hope is not a firm enough plan of action for such a serious topic as this, and we would be better placed to encourage better training for teachers to enable them to have these sometimes-difficult conversations.


For more information about how you can encourage improvement in sex and relationships education, Brook and Everyone’s Invited have some fantastic resources.


Words by Emily Parkman

Art by @fempowerart