By Michelle Osborne (she/her)
artwork: Ella Edwards (she/her)
Sex education is a tricky topic.
Everybody’s experience with it is different. It can depend on which country you grew up in, the school you went to, whether you’re religious, or even simply what your parents choose to tell you. This education impacts our futures and our relationship with sex.
With season 3 of Netflix’s Sex Education released this past October, we are again thinking about how important it is to educate teenagers about sex. The TV series is mainly based around teenagers learning all about sex, covering topics such as not being able to orgasm, sexual assault, and breakups. The most recent season (spoiler alert) seems to delve into what can happen if proper sex education is not provided in schools and the suppression of natural sexual instincts.
To me, the TV show poses some interesting questions regarding the standard of sex education in the United Kingdom. The entire Sex Education universe is supposedly set in the UK and the main characters are focusing on their A levels. Obviously, it is a fictional programme, but there are elements which contradict the actualities of life as a school pupil. Firstly, how many typical British schools don’t impose uniforms? And why do they all seem to take the same subjects, and why is it a weird mix of English and science? It’s not impossible, but it just seems unlikely. Given the show’s 70s and 90s aesthetics, mixed in with modern-day technology, it’s evident that the creators were not aiming towards a clear-cut realistic portrayal.
So, how does the sex education in the TV show compare to that of real schools in the UK?
In England, relationship education is mandatory and begins in primary school. This covers ideas such as different types of families, friendships, and recognising abuse. It is also mandatory to cover LGBTQ+ families within this relationship education. However, parents can choose to opt-out of sex education in England, until 3 terms before the child turns 16. Schools can also be flexible in the level of education they give, with faith schools being able to teach within their faith.
Scotland has similar laws. The Scottish Government has published guidance on relationships, sexual health, and parenthood in state schools. This includes teaching about LGBTQ+ relationships and sex, with Scotland being the first country to make this a compulsory part of sex education. However, faith schools, which 1 in 5 children attend in Scotland, can pursue their own guidance on sex education. In both England and Scotland, faith schools can alter their sex education to fulfil their religious agenda.
I was one of those students to attend religious schools. Often, I laugh about my 18 years of religious education. Each week until the age of 11, I was taken to Mass on Sunday; between the ages of 4 and 18, I received lessons in Catholic education in school almost daily. There is no doubt that Catholic education has infiltrated my brain and changed the way I think. While I do not believe in a Catholic God, I would admit that I am culturally Catholic.
Does this change my education and views on sex? Absolutely. But it’s not always in a bad way.
My sex education began in primary school. Before 2020, no form of sex education was mandatory in primary schools in England. I remember taking home a letter to get permission to attend the lessons, but some parents chose to opt their child out. It was in these lessons that I learned about periods, which terrified me. I didn’t realise I was going to start bleeding or experience cramps, or that this was how I would make a baby. It was a shock, but certainly the right time to introduce it. They also briefly introduced the idea of sex and where babies come from, refraining from being too in-depth.
Then, I went on to secondary education, where I attended a private Catholic school. My first-year flatmate once described private Catholic schools as ‘breeding grounds for horny teens’ – I could not describe it better. Most people in my year had begun having sexual relations before 16, including me. Catholic schools unfortunately often lack the self-awareness to educate their horny teens on anything further than sexual abstinence. Well – we all know how saying ‘No’ to teenagers goes.
My school had ‘Education in Personal Relationships’ days which taught us about things outside of the school curriculum. During the year that I got my first boyfriend, the school presented EPR days all about sex. We gathered in the school hall to listen to our white, middle-aged, Catholic Religious Studies teacher awkwardly lecture us all about how sex is wrong. We were prepared to have a boring day, and I had an escape card – going for a doctor’s appointment with my mum midway through, with my mum planning on getting me on the pill. I considered this act a protest against exactly what this day was about.
The teacher stood up. Clearing his throat he began: ‘As we are a Catholic school, I must tell you about how the best form of contraception is natural contraception’. There was some relief; he wasn’t trying to tell us not to have sex. For 5 minutes, he droned on about church teachings. But then, to our surprise, he stopped. Suddenly, he was discussing the featured lessons that we were going to have – one on sexually transmitted infections and another on contraception. I was lucky that my school was choosing to invest in sex education.
This day stands out during my education. I returned from the doctors to see all my classmates trying to put condoms on dildos, and my boyfriend told me that I didn’t need to worry about the pill as he knew where he could get condoms for free. Everybody seemed genuinely interested to know about how to be safe with sex, but also relieved about the openness of the school. We were lucky, as our teachers were very supportive in teaching us about this vital thing.
Unfortunately, my friends who attended other schools were not so lucky. The state-Catholic school across the road received the advice that I feared: abstinence is best. Some friends avoided sex education altogether in school, and now fear the topic being brought up due to embarrassment.
I feel extremely happy to talk about sex and relationships – I believe this is down to my education. I have always been able to discuss the good and bad in my sex life with those around me, and this has come from recognising good relationships from primary school level. Good sex education has made a positive impact on my life, and I do believe that good sex education should be mandatory on a nationwide level.