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Louise Kirk: Forty years of explicit sex education has given us the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Western Europe


Sex education has again become hot news with a long-awaited report from the Education Select Committee published on 17 February. The Committee has succumbed. It has fallen to relentless pressure from the sex education lobby and is recommending that the subject be made compulsory at primary as well as at secondary school. The only glimpse of light is that it does mention parents and stand by their right to withdraw their children.

The excuse given for this new review is that existing guidance is 14 years old and “the world has changed radically in that time, with the rise of social media, easy access to pornography and cyberbullying”. Nowhere is it mentioned that in 2011 the present government carried out an extensive consultation of PSHE lasting some 18 months, and a lesser one this last summer. If the status quo was maintained (and this was only confirmed second time round on 14 January this year) it was because the sex educationalists then lost their case.

And for good reason. After all, what sensible person really believes “that children in primary schools should be taught the proper names for genitalia as part of the national curriculum. Ofsted said young children’s inability to name body parts represented a weakness in safeguarding.

What it does do is traumatise children. I have met many a parent who is dumbfounded by what their children have been subjected to and feel cross and helpless at the result. A friend of mine could no longer let her grandchildren bath together because of one child’s prurient interest in his cousin’s anatomy. A Catholic primary school teacher complained to me that children masturbate in her maths lesson.

There is nothing new in what the sex education lobby is pressing for. Their cure-all is already in place in large numbers of schools, and has been there since the likes of Channel 4’s Living and Growing primary school package were introduced ten years ago. What the sex educationalists want is to force the hands of those schools and parents who have resisted them.

One has to give the sex education lobby full marks. Despite a weak basis in logic they never give up. And their method? It bears analysis given the importance of the subject.

First they find an issue round which everyone will unite. Nobody wants schoolchildren to produce babies, or to be bullied, or to risk abuse. So they use the media to soften us up, this time drawing attention to the Bristol report on sexual coercion which Kathy Gyngell analysed last week. A letter in The Times preceded the Education Committee’s decision, signed authoritatively by heads of establishment charities and public bodies. It leapt from shock figures on girls’ sexual coercion to the usual sex education remedy.

There is robust, scientific evidence that when good quality SRE is taught by trained educators in schools, young people are more likely to have their first sexual experience at an older age, to use contraception and to have fewer sexual partners,” they say. Which is the equivalent of saying that going to the dentist gives you good teeth. It all depends what the dentist does.

There is no proof that teaching a child aged 5 to name its penis and the child next door’s vagina does anything to stop abuse or help a teenager take her Pill. Nor is there a study, scientific or otherwise, of how this early education delays sex or encourages fewer partners. You would have to have a representative cohort of little children, and a prospective study over a number of years, to be able to judge such a thing, and not surprisingly schools and parents are unlikely to take part. Even at secondary school, it can be difficult to find takers (as lamented in the introduction to the National Survey of Secondary School Students and Sexual Health 2013). Results can thus be easily skewed.

The letter ends by saying that we should trust their analysis because they are the experts “in prevention, commissioning and clinical practice”. No, they are not. Parents are the experts both in educating their children in such sensitive matters and knowing how to look after and protect them, given half a chance. But it is true that we have a publicly financed lobbying group who are paid to produce educational materials and paid again to provide the contraceptives and abortions to which our children are subject. UK sex educationalists are part of a hugely powerful international movement which is well entrenched both at the United Nations and in the European Union. If you look at the WHO’s Standards for Sex Education in Europe 2010 or the UN’s Free & Equal campaign you can all but read off what is proposed should become statutory.

With vested interests and without scientific evidence one has to look at their proposals using commonsense. The UK has had school sex education of an increasingly aggressive kind for the past forty years. Despite that, our teenage pregnancy rate remains the highest in western Europe, while STDs, sexual coercion and also depression have soared. If sex education was the answer, it would have answered by now.

To put it bluntly, if we are going to spend money sending teachers away on special training so that they can “help 14-year-olds understand when it is abusive, harmful or linked to exploitation to pose in their bras for profile pictures” we need our heads looking into. That behaviour is always wrong, for the sake of the boys too.

What we should ask instead is why girls want to expose themselves online in this way, because yes, this is apparently where much of the coercion starts. The American Professor Donna Freitas researched the phenomenon of female undress with her university students but I suspect her answers would hold for schoolgirls, too. What girls look for in their risky behaviour is to feel good about themselves, and to give themselves a sense of power behind which to hide their vulnerability. At a younger age, their aim may be as much to hold their own with their own sex, but as they grow older they are looking for male affection in the wrong place. The boys get hooked into the hook-up culture to prove their male ego and hold their own with their peers. To yield to love appears soft and gives the girls what they want, and so they play with sex and take advantage of what the girls offer them, getting sucked into a way of life that they also find deeply unsatisfying. Freitas stresses that it is not just the girls but both sexes who become unhappy. Both sexes long for a love which their behaviour precludes.

In Venezuela, a study of why young girls become pregnant by the Provive charity found much the same thing. Both the young mothers and the street lads who might have been the fathers had the same longings for love and happiness, self-esteem and heroism, that belong to every person. The transmission of good values between the generations has been interrupted and vulnerable young people lose their way. What is needed is not to teach more about the mechanics of the body and so drag in the many children who minds are happily engaged in other things, but to give all young people the good values that have been obscured.

Government is right that children need education in sex and relationships, but that education has to be directed at the true good of individuals and of society. What belongs to parents should be left to the parents, with proper support and encouragement, and what belongs to schools should never make anybody blush. An election is coming. Let’s use the time we have to prime our MPs and make sex education an election issue.

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Louise Kirk
Louise Kirk
Louise is UK Co-ordinator for the Alive to the World values education programme, mother of four and author of Sexuality Explained: a Guide for Parents and Children.

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