Today we're very proud to hand over the EFC blog to Laura, a sixth form student from Bristol. Here's her insightful, eloquent take on sex education, young people and choice.
I never thought much about sex education before, but recently a number of events have occurred that have made me consider how important it really is. A number of weeks ago I had a discussion with a Christian friend about abortion. He’s quite vocally ‘pro-life’, very confident in his views and came to the discussion armed with lots of statistics and “evidence” for his position. I, on the other hand, was caught completely off guard, produced a couple of unintelligible splutters of incredulity, and completely failed to make any sort of coherent point in favour of choice. I left swiftly. He probably laughed.
Later on I managed to collect my thoughts in a more articulate manner and wrote a post for a blog aimed at teenage feminists, detailing all the things I should have told my friend about how important the right to choose is to me and to millions of women around the world. Although completely useless in terms of convincing him or anyone else I know, it was at least quite cathartic, and it made me feel a little better.
That was until I next had a conversation with this friend, when he told me about a planned display by the RS department at the sixth form centre I attend, on the subject of abortion, which would apparently include a graphic picture of an aborted fetus. This struck me as unquestionably wrong – teaching different religious positions on abortion is one thing, but using shock tactics like this to push a particular moral and political stance another entirely. So I contacted Education for Choice and told them about what was going on. The advice they offered me was really helpful, but what was most valuable to me was simply knowing that there are people out there who agree with and support me, and this gave me the confidence I needed to voice my concerns more publically.
Since I first contacted Education for Choice looking for guidance, the plans for an aborted fetus picture in the RS classroom do not seem to have come to fruition. There is a display board dealing with abortion, but this currently consists mostly of a few hand-made posters. They aren’t entirely accurate - and I’ve taken to writing my own helpful corrections on post-it notes and pasting them on top of inaccurate information – but they at least seem to be avoiding taking on an obvious moral stance. I also put a few information postcards from Education for Choice in the library, which seem to have been of some use to my fellow students (they’re all gone at any rate, and I’ll be bringing in my remaining stash next term to make sure that everyone gets access to the information they need).
There have been a number of other problems, mainly to do with the influence of a ‘pro-life’ church group at the school, who have taken it upon themselves to spread their own message of abstinence and forced pregnancy, but I think my peers are sensible enough to know what information is and isn’t real. According to them, abortion is always wrong, premarital sex is “perverse”, and, from what I’ve heard, the morality of contraception is a bit iffy too. I thought they could benefit from a bit of pro-choice love as well, so I sent them a nice letter and some Education for Choice information sheets on religion and abortion. Surprising, they haven’t replied.
All this has got me thinking about abortion and choice, but also about the wider issue of the provision of sex education in schools. My own sex education was patchy, but definitely better than a lot of young people get. My year 6 Primary School class was shown a series of videos from which I can remember an animation of a band of naked cartoon characters engaging in a joyous, bouncing activity that I can only describe as a “frolic”. To the 11 year old me, who had no prior knowledge of such things, this experience was just confusing. Next there came a succession of lessons and presentations in years 8 and 9 which consisted, most memorably, of a very scary, very explicit slideshow of STIs and the classic put-the-condom-on-the-much-larger-than-life-rubber-penis game. This particular lesson descended into anarchy and the only knowledge I acquired was that condoms make quite good water bombs. So, all in all, not great.
When I think about the abstinence-only programmes that are so popular in the USA and how overtly damaging these can be, I think I’ve gotten away quite lightly. But still I think young people in the UK are being badly let down by a system that is inconsistent, largely unregulated and at times virtually non-existent. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see where things went wrong for me in terms of my knowledge of sex and relationships and there are so many things that I now wish I had been told:
1. It’s okay to have sex. Seriously, do what you want with your body. You know best. If it feels right, go for it. If you don’t want to or you’re not really sure, it’s probably best if you don’t just yet. Nobody else should tell you what you should or should not do with your own body. If you want to have sex, that’s fine. If you want to scrawl the words to a Shakespeare sonnet over your body or roll naked in ketchup, that’s okay too! Don’t let anyone tell you that there’s anything wrong or sinful about wanting to have sex or explore your body. There is no right or wrong way to have sex, so, as long as both you and your partner are having a good time, you’ve got nothing to worry about.
2. It’s okay not to have sex. If you want to wait until you’re older, or until you get married, or just until it feels right, you should do that. There can be a lot of pressure from friends and from the media to have sex, but try to stay true to yourself and stick to what you want to do, not to what someone else says you should be doing. It’s not weird not to be interested in sex, and you do have the right to say no.
3. You can say no. And unfortunately, sometimes you may not be listened to. Sometimes you may not feel able to say no as loudly as you wish you could, or push someone away as hard as you feel you ought to, but it’s always wrong for someone to try to force or coerce you into having sex with them, and it’s never your fault. There are organisations you can contact if something like this happens to you, and you will be listened to and respected. But you never owe someone sex, no matter what they’ve done or said to you and a good person will always respect your decision when you say you don’t want to sleep with them.
4. You can say yes…and then no. You are perfectly within your rights to say yes to sex and then part way through to say no, and any decent person will stop having sex with you immediately. Likewise, you can say yes to some sexual activities and no to others, even if you have engaged in them with your partner before.
5. If you become pregnant, there are people who will support you, and there is more than one option available to you. A good pregnancy advice centre will never tell you what you should do upon finding yourself pregnant. You have a right to open, unbiased information about a variety of pregnancy options, from parenthood to adoption or abortion. You should never have to feel that you are obliged to choose any path you don’t feel comfortable with.
There is a common misconception that the effectiveness of sex education programmes can be measured by the amount of young people who do or do not contract an STI or become pregnant. However, I would argue that, whilst these are very important indicators of whether a programme is effective in educating young people, they are a small portion of what it is important to convey to teenagers about sex. Instead, sex education should be focused on empowering young people to make informed decisions about our bodies, to convey to our partners what we do and don’t want from sex, to consider what sex means to us and to those around us, and to allow us to explore our own feelings about sex and relationships. I think we would find that if sex education aimed to deliver these things, we would discover a generation of young people who not only had the knowledge to protect themselves against STIs and unplanned pregnancy, but were also secure in themselves and their sexuality.