Photo by Library of Congress

We need to talk about Sex Education

Relationship and Sex Education classes for children are being taken over by outside providers with their own agenda

Artillery Row

Never did I think I would be explaining to my children’s teacher why I was concerned about a Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) organisation that promotes the use of butt plugs whilst simultaneously proclaiming that “virginity benefits no one” being brought into the classroom — but welcome to 2022.

The teaching of RSE became compulsory in secondary schools in England in September 2020. No doubt in part because of the understandable reluctance of teachers towards sliding another condom on a cucumber, many schools are opting to bring in external providers to deliver RSE.

These external providers, however, are subject to little regulation or scrutiny. According to Department for Education guidance, schools should be ensuring that external organisations deliver lessons which are evidence-based, age-appropriate and avoid reinforcing stereotypes or promoting political positions — in order to help pupils “be safe, happy and prepared for life beyond school”.

In reality, many RSE providers are not following these guidelines, and schools are not asking the questions they should of the material being used. Nor are they questioning the wider messaging of the organisations they are commissioning. Instead, external RSE provision is a wild west of competing providers, each vying to be more “edgy” and “cool” than their rivals, with little regard for safeguarding or even a basic understanding of child development.

When I got the letter from my children’s school stating that RSE would be delivered by an external provider, I immediately looked them up on the internet. Scrolling down their Instagram page, I discovered that the organisation which would be running sessions with my 11-year-old daughter was promoting “world hand job day”.

Expanding my research across a range of RSE providers delivering sessions in schools, I came across content aimed at children and teenagers, including promotion of Bondage and Discipline + Sado Masochism (BDSM), explanations of what a swinger is, and celebrations of “sex toy day” which included a handy link to purchase a toy called an “anal training set” (a fancier name for butt plugs).

I discovered that there is a National Lingerie Day (who knew), where children are invited to celebrate the fact that “some people choose to wear lingerie for lots of different reasons” — the associated hashtags were #MensHealth and #MensSexualHealth. I assume this is advocating for kink practices or perhaps the fetish of Autogynephilia — where men are sexually aroused by the thought of themselves as female. For the parent who might be a bit concerned about the suitability of this messaging for their child, fear not, because our kids are reminded of their obligation to the planet and urged to “buy sustainable” when purchasing their lacy undies.

Let’s be clear, if any of the above practices float your boat, crack on, you’ll get no judgement from me. But why it might be necessary for children and young people to be educated through a tick-list of adult sexual practices, in order for them to be “safe, happy and prepared for life beyond school”, is far from clear.

Indeed, some of the “boundary pushing” appears downright dangerous. One Instagram post declared, “virginity benefits no one” and another stated, “Virginity is a Myth”. I vociferously beg to differ on that — virginity benefits children a great deal.

This is safeguarding in the simplest of forms. The age of consent is set at 16 years old for good reason. Undermining this basic premise reduces the boundaries of children, which makes it easier for child sex offenders to take advantage of them. Unfortunately, there will be children in every school who are being sexually abused. These messages risk normalising the abuse they are experiencing and the narrative of the sexual predator abusing them.

Clearly this is not the intention of RSE providers. I presume what they are trying to get at is a critique of the patriarchal construct of virginity and the ways in which women’s hymens continue to be policed — literally as well as metaphorically depending on where you are in the world — as evidence of their “purity”. “Virginity benefits no one” show the dangers of reducing these complex, adult conversations to four-word Instagram posts. Children are highly likely to take these messages very literally (“I need to have sex as soon as possible”, “If an adult makes me have sex, it’s OK”) because, well, they are children.

Basic facts and nuanced conversations reduced to simplistic hashtags is evident in how such RSE providers discuss sex, gender and gender identity. The result is a confusing mess. Females are erased from their own bodies through persistent references to “people with vulvas” and “people with periods”. In one cute meme, two penises chat to each other. Funky penis one says, “Hey, mate, looking good” and happy penis two replies, “Thanks, gal, you too”. The take-away from this is, according to the tagline, “your genitals do not define your gender”. They do, however, define your sex, and children need to know this.

RSE providers justify this sexually explicit language, discussion of adult sexual preferences and blurring of boundaries as necessary to convey a “Sex Positive” message. An RSE provider described sex positivity to me as about “choice, explicit consent, communication, freedom [and] body autonomy”.

Sounds good, right? Except in a world in which children and young people (and let’s face it, especially girls) are sexually harassed in the street walking to school, under pressure to conform to impossible beauty standards and forced to “prove” they are not “frigid” or a “slut”. The idea that they are free agents wandering around the pick-n-mix of sexual practices which they might or might not fancy trying out later in life is ludicrous. As one feminist academic who works on violence against women and the media put it to me, “through the ‘Sex Positive’ lens, everything is about ‘consent’, saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and other similarly simplistic ideas which make everything about the individual”.

The “Sex Positive” message also relies on mischaracterising what an alternative sex education might look like. Not convinced by “Sex Positivity”? Its supporters will tell you that you are “Sex Negative”, advocating for abstinence, creepy ceremonies in which daughters pledge their virginity to their fathers, and metaphorical conversations about the birds and the bees which are almost as confusing as the talking penises.

This is not true. Between stigmatising sex and promoting BDSM to teenagers, there is a balance to be struck. Getting RSE right is of vital importance for children and young people. Children need to be taught about their bodies and how they work. The stigma and shame which is still associated with girls on their periods needs to be broken down. The mechanics of reproduction need to be clearly explained so that a teenage girl knows that the risk of pregnancy depends on the sex, not the gender identity, of her partner. As children and teenagers are increasingly exposed to violent, degrading pornography, the ways in which this promotes misogynistic and racist stereotypes about women alongside unrealistic — and often painful and dangerous — ideas about what sex is, needs to be discussed in an age-appropriate way.

My advice to parents is that it’s always worth digging a little deeper into RSE sessions. Culture Reframed is an excellent resource for parents, Transgender Trend and Sex Matters have guidance for schools, and Safe Schools Alliance have some examples of concerns about some RSE organisations operating in the UK.

I suspect many will philosophise on the need to expand children’s learning on these topics, but for me one thing is certain: I will never agree that butt plugs and BDSM are a necessary topic for my child’s learning journey to healthy relationships.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover