We live in an age where everything is (easily) accessible on the internet. With a couple clicks we can read the news, communicate with friends and family all over the world, share our opinions, and watch porn. With children getting phones at early ages (often between the ages of eight and ten), they are also being exposed to everything that is part of the online world. Nowadays, it isn’t all that rare for porn to be the first ‘official’ encounter with sex a child or preteen has. At the same time, we are moving away from the norm of husband, wife and children and into a time that is more open to diversity in gender expression, sexuality, and relationship dynamics. So, shouldn’t the sexual education curriculum reflect these changes? What actually is the current state of the so-called sex ed in the western world?
The first season of Sex Education, a comedy-drama created by Netflix, aired on January 11th, 2019. Currently awaiting production of a fourth season, the show (with age rating 16) follows a group of teenagers exploring sexuality and the act of sex itself, including all of the struggles that may come with it. It has received praise and acclaim for many things — the treatment of intimate content (read: sex scenes), breaking stereotypes, and diversity. One thing to note: the titular sex education is mainly given by a teenage boy. And as it seems, a lot of teenagers at this fictional school need help with sexual matters. A good business for Otis (the sex ed “teacher”), and a relatively accurate representation of teenagers in this day and age.
Historically, sexual education was mainly based on abstinence. You had to wait until marriage, and the wedding night was when everything would happen. There are just a couple problems with this. One: if you’ve never been told anything about it, how do you know what to do? What happens? (This is explored in the first season of Bridgerton, where the two oldest daughters of the family don’t know what happens on the wedding night or how “one comes to be with child”.) Two: teenagers are hormonal. Wet dreams happen. They are naturally curious. (The musical Spring Awakening is an example of this, being set in late 19th-century Germany and touching upon subjects like masturbation, virginity, pregnancy, and being taken advantage of sexually.) In some schools, notably in the more conservative and Christian areas of the United States, this is still basically the extent of sexual education.
Lack of good sexual education at a formative age can lead to people gaining the knowledge from the internet instead of from trustworthy sources. The risk with this is that they’ll consider porn as education. Given that porn is usually staged and edited, this will give a distorted view of what sex is supposed to be like. It may also give a disregard to consent and feelings, which are necessary for healthy and respectful sexual behaviour. An example that is often used to show this lack of education is men’s inability to find the clitoris (during sex or on a diagram). While it is considered to be a joke in general, it is an actual problem in many cases.
To make sure today’s youth is receiving the necessary information about procreation and sexual health, the World Health Organization (WHO) Europe has a framework with standards for sexuality education. They discern between formal and informal education. Formal is what pupils learn at school, from leaflets, educational websites, and medical providers. Informal is what they learn about themselves through simply having the space and support to express and experiment. Both are absolutely necessary. Of course, formal education is much easier to regulate than informal, since the needs and wishes will vary from person to person. The WHO calls for sexual education that starts soon after birth and continues into adolescence, with developmentally-appropriate material and information at all stages. For a toddler, saying a baby grows in the tummy of the parent is enough. A teenager needs to understand this on a deeper level, with more information about genitals, the action of sex, and conception. The WHO also prefers a multidisciplinary approach, having it be taught by several teachers and even specialists where possible.
Sexual education can be divided into three groups: primarily focused on abstinence, comprehensive with abstinence as an option but also with focus on safe sex (including contraceptives), and holistic sexuality education. This last type includes the aforementioned options, but sees sexuality as a form of personal growth and development. It is currently the basis of most of the sex ed in Western Europe, while the US is still largely focused on the first two types — there, sex ed is seen as prevention.
The WHO has configured five stages of development, with corresponding behaviours and changes in regards to sexual and emotional development that happen at those ages. Babies and toddlers, for example, are already exploring based on touch. Toddlers also start to learn social norms and gender roles. This continues into childhood, and by the age of seven to nine children generally experience shame about topics like sex or nudity, but they can also experience the first feelings of love. Then comes (pre-)puberty, at which point procreation becomes an important topic based on the fact that they are sexually mature and can technically have children. Based on these stages of development the WHO developed a matrix, outlining guidelines for age-appropriate sexuality education.
This matrix includes reproduction and sexuality, but also emotions. They also mention teaching about different forms of families (like adoption) and gender identity. In general, it all seems based on a good understanding of the mechanisms involved with sexual health, emotions regarding sex and relationships in general, and respect. Diversity and consent are considered vital as well.
Still, it is often up to the school or the teacher what they actually decide to teach about. Some may find it very important to showcase a lot of diversity, while for others the focus lies on the ‘norm’: heterosexual sex, with the goal being a baby. Or, alternatively, maybe the focus is still abstinence, or safe sex but only for heterosexuals and disregarding diversity. A good example of this is the “don’t say gay” bill that was recently passed in Florida, banning discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom. Easily said: they want to ban the word “gay” in classrooms, especially under a certain (unspecified) age. The bill also requires schools and staff to inform parents if their child is looking for or using mental health services. This takes away that safe space necessary for informal education, since not everyone is comfortable or safe expressing their feelings about sexual or gender identity at home.
As media progresses and includes more and more diversity — like Heartstopper on Netflix or Our Flag Means Death, with large queer ensembles and casts — youth will have more fictional models to relate to, who may offer help in figuring out and coming to terms with gender identity and sexuality. However, this falls into that category of informal education and cannot exist just on its own. These people still need formal sexual education, and this education is supposed to validate them and their identities. While procreation is obviously important to know about, teenagers experiment with sexuality and thus with sex, and this should be as safe as possible, so it should be at least partially included in the curriculum, if it is not already. In all cases, consent and sex are of utmost importance. As medical students we learn about informed consent, and maybe this can transfer over to relationships and sex as well.
There is little doubt that diversity will have a larger emphasis on education, as society itself becomes more diverse regarding gender and sexuality. As always, there will be backlash like the “don’t say gay” bill, but one of the main ideas behind sexual education is that relationships and sex should be safe, and this can only be achieved through inclusive curricula.