#GetQurious: 5 experts cover sex education in the UK

5 experts cover sex education in the UK

Let’s begin the conversation. Let’s rid the taboo.

By Samantha Pérez

 

Sex education that goes beyond sex, what a novel thought. Of course that may sound obvious, but for some reason the approach to learning about our intimate self continues to be so… clinical. Historically, the measure of a good sex education program has been a number game: decreases in the rates of sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancies, and pregnancy-related drop-outs.These reductions do deserve worthy notice, but, increasingly, researchers, educators, and advocates are emphasizing that sex ed should focus on more than just physical health. Sex education, they say, should also be about relationships. 


Commencing our Sex Ed series right at home in the UK, where if we are honest, culturally, one of the biggest topics we tend to avoid in polite society is SEX. More than 52 per cent of people in Britain avoid discussing their sex life, a recent study has found. This embarrassed silence is not sustainable for the next generation, so we hope in this article to explore how a substantial RSE (Relationships & Sex Education) curriculum can provide a foundation in relationship-building, which is why we have reached out to 6 experts who are all about talking about sex, baby. By centering the notion of care for others in Sex Ed, this can enhance wellbeing and pave the way for healthy intimacy in the future. 


Introducing our incredible experts:


Nathaniel Cole | @nathanielacole

Nathaniel Cole is the co-founder of Swim Dem Crew, a swimming collective that works with brands to amplify stories of underrepresented swimmers. He is also a workshop facilitator, public speaker and writer working across masculinity, mental health and relationships & sex education for young people.

 

Nathaniel Cole

he/him


1. Why do you think sex education in the UK is considered such an after thought?


I think the state of education overall is inseparable from both the British class system and more importantly, culture. It's an afterthought because robust, radical and informative sex education goes against the prudish British values that are seen across our society.


2. What do you propose as a better means to implement sex education within schools in the UK?


Schools should continue to engage with organisations that seek to remove the barriers that pupils of marginalised identities and sexualities face within mainstream education where they are either not catered to or ignored by teachers. 


There also needs to be an overhaul in how "supplementary" subjects such as RSE are seen by faculty and the industry overall. They are always sandwiched into terms, around "core" subjects like English, Maths and Science which diminishes its importance, affecting teacher and pupil buy-in. Topics such as RSE should instead be built in across all subjects, so it reflects how relationships and sex is intertwined with many people's lives. 


3. What do you wish you had learned in sex education?


I wish I would have learned about how to connect with what I'm feeling, whether that was romantic or sexual feelings. I wish I was given the tools to navigate care, confusion, puberty, love, and relationships - instead of just putting a condom on a banana!


Stella Anna Sonnenbaum | @stella_with_love

London-based sex educator and sexologist, Stella Anna Sonnenbaum MPH CSB CSSE, runs coaching practice Stella with Love. She is an experienced Somatic and Executive Coach with almost 25 years of experience in the Sectors of Health, Movement, Alternative Body Therapy, Tantra and Sex Therapy. Stella enables people nationally and internationally to overcome difficulties within relationships – sexual and platonic.

 

Stella Anna Sonnenbaum


1. Why do you think sex education in the UK is considered such an after thought? 


Sex education in the UK does not compare with Holland or Norway, and lo and behold, teenage pregnancy rates are much lower in these countries. Generally, the UK does not seem to be very strong on embodiment, and many seem to be embarrassed about normal bodily function in general. There is also very little casual touch in British society, so no wonder teachers feel embarrassed to teach about sex. For many students, sex education just meant being shown a video with dubious contents. 


2. What do you propose as a better means to implement sex education within schools in the UK? 


There are many positive aspects in how young children are taught about their bodies at school, e.g. which part of their bodies are private, and must not be touched by others. I would suggest to get trained sex educators to teach teenagers about sex, in a fun way, and make sure to include love and relationships, because all too often, sex education simply consists of spreading fear - sex is dangerous, because you may catch STIs or it might cause unwanted pregnancies. It’s very important to do practical exercises to empower girls to say no to unwanted touch or sexual advances, to make sure they are not bullied into sex by their boyfriends. Both teenage girls and boys need to be taught that there is nothing wrong with them when they take their time, how to manage expectations when on dates, and that a No is fine at any stage of the process.


3. What do you wish you had learned in sex education? 


I guess I wish I had grown up in a completely different society, where the stages of life like first menstruation and coming of age are sacred, and have rituals around them. Sex is not limited to the mechanics, or the biology behind it. It’s full of energy and mystery, and the origin of all of us! It deserves a much more honoured place in society in my opinion, which in turn leads to valuing ourselves, and helps us make good decisions.


Cassie Rattray | @radicallove.co.uk

Cassie is a student nurse qualified in RSE with ACET Esteem, as well as founder of Radical Love, a sex education and feminism platform She is also the co-host of the award winning podcast 'From Tops to Bottoms' where they share experiences with sexuality, feminism, BDSM, queer sex, and sex education. Two best friends discussing their journeys towards becoming their sexually liberated, authentic selves.

 

Cassie Rattray

she/they


1. Why do you think sex education in the UK is considered such an after thought? 

 

I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that when people think of sex education they immediately think of sex and pregnancy – two things they don’t want their children learning about. They don’t see the bigger picture: what comprehensive sex education actually offers young people. We prioritise other topics so young people can focus on getting good grades and getting into further education because that’s what gets us jobs and money, right? There is a certain ignorance about what RSE (Relationships and Sex Education) can offer young people. It’s at the bottom of our priorities list and always has been. If people understood and respected what RSE can offer children, then they would fight for it to be a core part of their education. Yes, an A* in Biology may help land you a fabulous job with lots of money and security, but that means nothing when you understand your career more than you understand your own body. It has been allowed to go on for this long because our role in society is to go to school, get a job and make money so we can pay our bills and keep the economy going. I don’t believe that’s enough preparation for life. Learning about who we are, how to keep ourselves safe, how different people work and how to tackle the relationships we have with ourselves and others should be a no- brainer in somebody’s education. Comprehensive RSE can change your life and it should have never been an afterthought. 

 

2. What do you propose as a better means to implement sex education within schools in the UK? 

 

Where to start?! If it was up to me we’d rip up the current content that is taught and start again- unfortunately we aren’t there yet, so I’ll just share a few things I’d love to change.

 

The advice I’d give to the government (the people who are deciding how these lessons are conducted and the content of them) would be to take sex education and the impact it has on young people seriously. They need to stop ignoring LGBTQ+ people. We are here and always have been here; just because people may not agree with who we are, doesn’t mean we don’t deserve education! Prejudice often comes from a place of ignorance and the solution to that is education. There would be a lot less hate crimes, homophobia and transphobia if young people were taught the facts from an early age.

 

I’d also change who teaches RSE. Teachers of all kinds of subjects are expected to teach RSE when that is not what they’ve been trained to do. It is unfair to ask someone who has a degree in English to teach Relationships and Sex Education. They are two separate topics entirely and not only is it unfair to the poor teacher who’s been given this ludicrous task, but it’s unfair to the young people they will teach. Hire someone with specific RSE training, who can give young people thorough RSE lessons or offer sufficient training to teachers who have been asked to fill this role. Getting rid of the bizarre way that we split the class into two binary genders would. Also be a great place to start. To start with, there are more than two genders. Secondly, why shouldn’t someone with a penis learn about periods? Why shouldn’t someone with a vulva learn about premature ejaculation? The more we know about ourselves and the people around us the easier it is to foster empathy and respect in our relationships. 

 

Along with this I’d recommend stopping the fear mongering tactic. Scaring young people about STI’s, babies and just sex in general has never worked. If you show a young person a picture of the worst case of Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) you’ve ever seen in order to scare them out of having sex (the abstinence method!), then it puts them at risk in the future. What if they do contract HSV, but it doesn’t look like the extreme picture their teacher showed them so they decide to not get it checked out? Young people should be taught about STI’s in a shame-free way. Less of the “STI’s are scary and disgusting” and more “Listen, this is what can happen and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Here’s how to prevent it and here’s what to do if you think you have it”. RSE should be about equipping young people with the skills, knowledge and attitudes to make their own informed decisions in life. Whether that be for what menstrual products they use, when to start having sex, or how to set physical boundaries with someone. 


3. What do you wish you had learned in sex education? 

 

I wish I had learnt that my body is fine, just the way it is. More specifically, I wish I had learnt that vulvas come in all different shapes and sizes. It would have saved me years of body anxiety, insecurity and self-hatred. I think I would have enjoyed my body and sex a lot sooner if I had been told that! I had only ever seen what a vulva looked like in porn- and mine certainly didn’t look like that. In fact, I didn’t even know it was called a vulva back then... to my knowledge it was my vagina! Part of comprehensive RSE is to talk about body image, representation in the media, self-esteem... and yes, to talk about porn. Lots of young people watch porn out of curiosity and to see how they have sex. They see these beautiful people having the perfect sex and think “that’s what I’m supposed to look like, that’s how sex should look for me” and neither of these things are true; sex is never perfect, and no two bodies look the same! I wish it had been explained to me that porn is to be used for entertainment not as a how-to guide. Porn is not adequate sex education. It doesn’t teach us about consent, boundaries, STI’s or about the reality of sex! And it certainly didn’t teach me to love my vulva. 


Sarah Alpert

Sarah Alpert, BA(HONS),RN,DIP. works as a Psychosexual & Relationship therapist. She has been working as a specialist nurse practitioner in sexual health for 20 years now. Since working as a specialist nurse, Sarah decided she could no longer see psychological health as being separate from physiological health. She has dedicated herself to helping individuals and couples who are looking for better ways to deal with sexual dysfunctions and problems in their romantic partnership. 

 

Sarah Alpert


1. Why do you think sex education in the UK is considered such an after thought?


I believe that there is a culture of shame and embarrassment in the UK when it comes to discussing all matters pertaining to sex. We would rather pretend that it wasn't happening, particularly amongst our school age children. This is despite of the high numbers of teenage pregnancies and high rates of sexually transmitted infections amongst our young people. Our schools seem to hope that families will be taking ultimate responsibility for teaching sex education and vice versa. Sadly, this means that the majority of the information learnt is coming from online sources, and much of this is at best unreliable, and at worst frankly misinformation.


Speaking to my own teenage daughter, I see that what is learnt in schools during sex education is a bare minimum, fact based biology lesson. This often creates a joyless, dry environment where teenagers are not even allowed to let out a laugh without being punished and sent out of the classroom.


2. What do you propose as a better means to implement sex education within schools in the UK?


I believe that sex education would be best implemented by people who actually work in sexual health and have no fear or shame of talking about anything to do with sex. I think that creating a fun and lively environment which is full of discussion and curiosity would actually enable our young people to ask the questions they really want to ask and to challenge some of the misconceptions that already exist.These sessions should be fun and joyful and at times, also even funny!


To be fair to our teachers, sex education is a vast topic and not one which they probably even want to teach. This awkwardness and reluctance would be immediately evident to a young person and is not conducive to a successful learning environment.

 

3. What do you wish you had learned in sex education?


Everything! I wish I had been taught that sex has many flavours, it can be loving, fun and joyful. It is a choice that we make for ourselves based on many important criteria. Sex can be an expression of who we are and as long as there is desire and consent between all parties, anything is okay. I wish we had been taught that sex is NOT all about penetration! I wish I had been taught how sex can sometimes be used to oppress and control people and used to manipulate and that this is not okay. I would have liked an open forum where I could have asked the questions that we all secretly wanted to know but either did not have anyone to ask or were not brave enough.


Miranda Christophers | @mirandasextherapist

Miranda Christophers is a Sex and Relationship Therapist and co founder of The Therapy Yard, who promotes a sex positive attitude with a philosophy that sex is the most natural source of pleasure which should be enjoyed healthily by all, no matter gender, age or relationship status. She is a frequent sex and relationships contributor for The Times, Telegraph, HuffPost, magazines including Cosmopolitan and Women’s Health and appearing on Radio 4 Women’s Hour. Miranda is also co-founder of jooi – a sexual pleasure and wellness site which presents a wide range of products for sexual pleasure.

 

Miranda Christophers

she/her


1. Why do you think sex education in the UK is considered such an after thought?


I feel that sex education has improved over the years and am always pleased to hear of it now covering topics such as relationships, social media, porn and grooming however there is still too much missed off it and an inconsistency in what is taught depending on where in the UK they are or what school they go to. There is a big discrepancy in terms of what is taught in primary and senior school and as this can vary so much from school to school it means that there can be significant gaps in knowledge when being taught the secondary programme. The RSE curriculum for schools has guidance to teach about the LGBTQIA+ community 'when appropriate' - It is often asked why everyone is not being educated on this. It is absolutely relevant to the society in which people live, whether they are part of that community or not. I work with so many people that are educated on the 'don't's' of sex and not the 'do's', so much is missed in terms of the pleasure of sex and sexual wellbeing and this in turn is more likely to create anxiety, confusion and lead to sexual, self-esteem or relationship difficulties. There is an incredible pressure on people to 'perform' and sexual dysfunctions and common difficulties are not addressed. It is very common for me to be working with teenagers and older who have lacked an adequate sex and relationship education resulting in distress and difficulties. I think there is a difficulty in the UK with creating a programme that is acceptable to all in society. For example where some reforms are made there is protest by a number of people that do not want children taught about sex in the way that is proposed. There is a conflict around sex and acceptability/ what is ok and what is not. There are differing beliefs within the different cultures, religions, communities and generations of people that make up British society. While views around sex, sexuality and gender evolve, they do not for all (and certainly not at the same rate) thus I believe there is likely to always be a debate and personal preference around what, when and how children should be taught. 


2. What do you propose as a better means to implement sex education within schools in the UK? 


I feel that sex educators should be involved with all schools in the delivery of sex ed. programmes to ensure that a consistent and appropriate approach is taken to cover the topics that will help educate and improve the experiences in life for people around sex and relationships. I feel that consultation with healthcare providers and therapists who work with sex and relationships to understand what the gaps are in sex and relationship education is absolutely vital. I find it bizarre that COSRT - the professional body for sex and relationship therapists in the UK - is not part of the consultations on creating sex and relationship education policy for schools in the UK. This is illogical to me when it is the thousands of sex and relationship therapists in the UK that work with both adults and children on this topic day in day out so are likely to be some of the most informed.

 

3. What do you wish you had learned in sex education?


At school, I wish I had learnt that sex was not just about a man orgasming - there was no discussion around pleasure, female arousal (nor the changes in the female genitalia during arousal), female orgasm or the normalisation of sexual feelings or pleasure. I wish I was taught about consent, same-sex, sexual diversity, fertility(in) and encouraged to question what sex meant to me etc to ensure sexual wellbeing. I also wish I was taught that it is perfectly normal for females to enjoy self-pleasure and sex and they are not 'nymphomaniacs' or 'sluts' for doing so.


Reed Amber | @reedamberx

Reed Amber is a sex educator and Co-founder of Come Curious , where she and her co-host Florence Bark provide ethical and educational sex, porn, & mental health advice for everyone. Reed is a sex and nudity anti-shamer; her specialities and passions lie in sex work activism, non-monogamy, as well as exploring discussion surrounding kinks and fetishes. She is also co-host of  F**ks Given podcast where they talk about sex, relationships and body positivity with no filter, no censor and with absolutely no F**ks Given.

 

Reed Amber

she/her


1. Why do you think sex education in the UK is considered such an after thought?


I would have to say going way, way back. I mean, not as far back as the Victorians, because they actually seemed pretty DTF. They were kinky behind closed doors it seems, as research shows, but they had this element of looking prim and proper and perfect on the outside. By the looks of things, a large portion of this repressed thinking came from the churches and Christianity, as the UK was mainly a Christian country. And just by going on what we know from the church is that sex is for a married couple, specifically male and female. Sex was something that you did with somebody you were married with, so doing anything, I mean, even adultery e.g. “thou shall not commit adultery” is suggesting that even if you were consensually non-monogamous you would still go straight to hell. So, the idea of sex and nudity were for sinners, especially when it came to anything that was not heteronormative. 


Which is I believe we've created this prudish atmosphere and thought process around sex. Luckily though, evidence shows that we Brits are becoming more open about talking about sex and we're having more sex, which is great news! There is still a lot of shame and stigma around nudity and sex in the UK, especially comparing ourselves to other countries in Scandinavia like the Netherlands whom are teaching age appropriate sex education to as young as four, which I believe we should be doing.


Alot of Scandinavia like Denmark, changing rooms weren't really a thing, so when you went to go swimming everyone just changed and showered in the same room. I have experienced this myself, because my mum's side of the family is Danish and I remember being surprised visiting Denmark and going to the swimming pools where everyone was showering naked. I think this has played a part in why I feel so comfortable about my naked body today.


2. What do you propose as a better means to implement sex education within schools in the UK?


Better sex education in the UK would cover things like pleasure and be less about the male ejaculation. It would be approached with less fear and shame around getting pregnant, contracting STIs or having problems when it comes to sex. The discourse would include talking about sex for everyone, which involves sexuality and gender (all genders included). This is hard to fathom happening because I remember my sex education at school and it was one lesson a year. It was just one big lesson and there was so much pressure on it. I believe that it's really unfair making the teachers that literally teach us and grow up with us within a year or longer, making them teach us sex education. It’s awkward and it’s horrible for them. It’s just as awkward and uncomfortable for us and what the government should do is get a completely separate body of trained professionals who understand specifically what years the students are in and assign an age appropriate sex education. They are to come into each school and teach them separately away from the teachers, unless the teachers are comfortable, but it stands that I feel like no one should be made to do that. I also think it should be mandatory for every child to learn about basic sex education.


I still think it's dangerous and unfair that some kids are allowed to still be taken out of sex education. Of course, it's still remains a parent's choice, but I feel like we need to have a sit down chat with the parents to actually make it clear why sex education is so important and how it can prevent miscommunications and potential traumas in the future. So, in the Netherlands, they teach age appropriate sex education as young as four and we don't do that here because when we think of teaching children sex education, we freak out. We think the absolute worst, but of course it's not sex education that would be taught, it's more body education. So we're teaching kids things like consent, whether or not you feel comfortable being hugged, about bodies, about changes, about what to expect, about genders, about boundaries and space. In doing so, this creates the building blocks for having a healthy, happier, sex life in the future; being less uncomfortable about stating your boundaries and being able to handle situations like catching an STI, which is so normal for everyone yet we feel so shameful about it. We have a long way to come with sex ed.


3. What do you wish you had learned in sex education?


Oh, my goodness don't get me started. There is so much I wish that was properly covered in sex ed like pleasure, not making everything so biological and only about procreation or lack of procreation. I wish I had learned back then about different sexualities and different genders, for sure. My sexuality was very confusing growing up and now I've finally figured out that I am pansexual, which is where I am attracted to all genders. To give a better idea, this is similar to bisexuality, where there is an attraction to two or more genders, but not necessarily all. If I had known that bisexuality existed or particularly more about diverse attractions and the distinction of being romantically attracted to somebody, that would've saved a lot of confusion for me growing up. STI coverage is also a big one, I wish they just tackled it in a completely different way rather than making out that STI’s are awful and dangerous. Now, of course there is a percentage that can cause issues, but for the most part, statistically speaking, it's not that easy to get an STI, which reminds me to say condoms can be sexy and fun, people! More importantly, I hope we could talk more about pleasure, so we could close the orgasm gap. 


It would have been helpful to know how normal it is for things to be awkward and silly during sex, to not expect sex to be the way that you imagined it or the way that you've seen it portrayed in porn. Oooh porn. I believe they should actually teach porn in schools, because kids are gonna find it anyway and if they're not receiving the right sex education, they're going to find it and learn through other means such as porn. Porn is the wild west of sex that is dangerous, toxic, and unethical, which is why I wish we could teach everyone about the importance of porn, because there is nothing wrong with watching porn. For many it’s how we find our sexuality and discover what turns us on with kinks and fetishes. This is an opportunity to teach how to access good, quality, ethical porn, and not be so tainted in the lies and the manipulation that porn has over us. They should teach porn like they do in film studies, where they talk about the lighting, the crew, the actors, script writing and the measures for consent. No one goes to a cinema and watches some crazy fantasy action film and sits there believing it's real. But why do we do that with porn? 


We can change the face of sex education together. We just need more people talking about sex in open spaces and getting people to question, research, and get involved for us to make an impactful change; a bigger wave, where we can actually transform sex education in UK schools through the government and through laws.


So yeah, let’s do it. 

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2 comments

Cassie you’re incredible!!!!

Rachel Ramage

Really love this article! Love what Cassie has to say on sex education specifically around having specific teachers, as I think my sex Ed teacher was an R.E teacher! And also knowing that our bodies are normal as that would have helped with my self-esteem growing up.
I feel with the added use of social media for young people these days, it’s important to have that informed education to support the mental health of the next generation.

Ashlea Forgacs

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