Brook provides clinical sexual health services in England, Relationships and Sex Education in England and Wales, training for teachers, workshops, e-learning and information for university students across the UK. You can find Brook on Twitter @BrookCharity.
Each generation of young people suffers the indignity of being mischaracterised and discussed as a homogenous group with the same challenges and needs. In the 2000s, despite the downward trajectory of teenage pregnancy rates, young people having too much sex and teenage mums on welfare were a tabloid staple. In the 2010s, we were told that teenagers barely speak to each other unmediated by a device, let alone touch or have sex with each other. Some journalists who had previously tut-tutted at teenagers drinking, smoking and having sex, pivoted to ruing the ‘new puritan’ generation. Others have focused on young people’s consumption of pornography – often blaming this for the high levels of sexual harassment, sexual bullying and sexual assault reported in UK schools.
Nobody in daily contact with young people in the classroom, as Brook is, would recognise these oversimplifications. The reality is more complex and less headline-grabbing. Despite rapid developments in the ways we learn and communicate with each other most young people continue to share the same aspirations as ever for good friendships and happy relationships. They still demonstrate a growing curiosity about sex, sexuality and sexual health as they transition from childhood into adolescence. However, they are also diverse. They articulate different views and values about sex learned from their families, peers, faith groups and online communities. Some are sexually active, safe and confident. Others are risk-takers or are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Others still have no interest in romantic or sexual relationships at that age.
The great value of the new HEPI research into university students in relation to relationships and sex, is that it demonstrates clearly this great heterogeneity of views, experiences, expectations and knowledge levels, as well as some common themes. Talking with young people, not about them, generates vital insights that should help ensure that policy and practice is focused on what they really want and need. Questions addressing a wide range of topics and issues covering the spectrum of issues related to relationships and sex find widely different responses. A notable finding of the research is that despite high knowledge levels about sexual health information, the majority of students did not feel that what they had learned at school had prepared them for sex and relationships in higher education. Given what we know about young people’s varied experiences of learning about relationships and sex education (RSE) in their schools this is not surprising.
While sex education has been part of the school curriculum to a degree for generations, young people’s experience of it has varied widely. From an annual day of workshops, to being sat in front of a video a couple of times a term, to a stumbling talk from an untrained and embarrassed teacher, children have often missed out on the vital education they need. Sometimes dissemination of facts is prioritised over the kind of critical thinking, discussion of attitudes and development of vocabulary and communication skills that underpins effective sex education. However, our own focus groups with year 10 children in 2019 found a lack of even basic sexual health knowledge and reports of their sex education being sporadic and different even between classes within the same school.
Meanwhile reports of sexual harassment, sexual bullying and sexual assault in schools drove the Women and Equalities Select Committee’s call for mandatory relationships and sex education (RSE) as far back as 2016. The Everyone’s Invited initiative has provided evidence, not only of widespread sexual abuse within schools, but a routine failure of schools to deal with incidents. Good RSE must be part of whole school cultures that promote gender equality, nurture good bystander behaviour and, vitally, deal with incidents and disclosures promptly and consistently.
In 2017, new legislation made Relationships Education (in primary schools) and Relationships and Sex Education (in secondary schools) mandatory in all schools in England. In September 2021, all schools are expected to begin delivering the full curriculum. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get RSE right for young people, but the legislation is not a panacea.
Despite the input of many expert groups from the sexual health and young people’s sectors, like Brook, the final guidance falls short in several ways:
- it is overly focused on facts and knowledge at the expense of skills;
- in its scope it is relatively unambitious; and
- its focus is squarely on preventing harm (a vital and valid aim), but falls short of fully addressing human sexuality as something natural and potentially joyful.
Although the RSE must be compliant with the Equality Act, various caveats within the statutory guidance will result in some schools hiding behind the faith of the school community to avoid delivering RSE that is truly inclusive of and relevant to LGBT+ and disabled people. Avoiding risk is emphasised and achieving a pleasureable sex life more or less absent. The law relating to sex will be taught, but less so the ways in which to navigate consent and how factors around age, power and gender impact relationships and people’s ability to ask for, provide or withhold consent.
In this context it is likely that students will continue to arrive in higher education uncertain of what can facilitate or compromise a healthy and pleasurable sexual relationship with understanding of consent limited to legal aspects, without the nuance needed to help people make good judgments and practice good bystander behaviour. Many of those surveyed agreed that students entering university should be assessed on their understanding of consent. Given the inconsistency of their experiences of RSE in schools a more useful approach would assume wide disparities in knowledge and confidence. Rather than assess new students we would advocate for:
- including information, education, training and support around consent in orientation programmes (as many universities are already seeking our help to do);
- providing clear pathways to seek help; and
- reinforcing the learning through ongoing opportunities that continue throughout their university careers.
Universities should be ambitious for their students, not only aiming for safety, but building positive cultures around sex and relationships and nurturing sexually healthy and happy adults.