Saturday, 1 March 2008

Why this country needs good sex education from an early age

In the midst of all the palaver surrounding Harry Windsor's 'covert' service in Iraq and his subsequent return, a rather more important story has been sidelined and ignored.
A survey in the Times Educational Supplement has found that two-thirds of Primary School teachers want their students to recieve compulsory Sex Education, and 35% of Secondary School teachers have said that ten and eleven year olds should get lessons on Sex and Relationships. The survey comes as the Government reviews its policy on Sex Education, and Schools Minister Jim Knight has said that such education is currently "not up to scratch," and that this is "not acceptable."

Such an observation is long overdue, because British children's knowledge of sex, contraception, and diseases is, frankly, appaling.

Part of this is due to the government's support for faith schools, which present the subject in a very skewed matter. The most recent example is the news, reported by the Independent, that Catholic schools have been urged to take a more fundamentalist approach in their classrooms, stopping safe sex lessons and removing support for charities that are pro-choice.

The other cause is the fact that the debate on Sex Education has for so long been dominated by social conservatives who want all children to be taught abstinence until marriage and for homosexuality, Sexually Transmitted Diseases and Infections, abortions, and safe sex to be remain off the curriculum.

This viewpoint is typified by the report in the Daily Mail on the subject, which began with the following line: "Ministers were yesterday accused of "brainwashing" schoolchildren by encouraging them to reject Christian values and have sex outside marriage." As always, the debate is put into an extremely partisan context meant to play on the fears of parents and snatch the arguments away from any progressive or reasonable response. What followed was nothing less than a dissection of the proposals by a selection of reactionary social conservatives. Here is a typical quote, from Norman Wells of Family and Youth Concern:
It's verging on brainwashing, the [sex education] forum is committed to promoting the view that there are no rights and wrongs when it comes to sexual relationships. The authors of this toolkit are clearly aiming to steer children away from a belief in moral absolutes and encouraging them to think everything is relative. The only truly safe and healthy choice is to follow a clear moral code that keeps sexual intimacy within the context of a faithful and lifelong marriage.
This organisation, and similar fringe groups, appear whenever a sensible debate on sexual health and education appears possible, their only goal being to derail such a much-needed dialogue. But their views need to be responded to and rebutted.
The social conservative's first response to the high teen pregnancy rates and STDs is always to blame it on children having too much knowledge of sex and then suggest abstinence as the solution. This is an absurd and dangerous fallacy that has proven over and again to be wrong.
The United States of America is the prime exemplar of a country where abstinence programs take precedence over genuine education. Here, religious abstinence movements such as the 'Silver Ring Thing' are given federal funding to tell children the following:
  • Sex outside marriage is wrong (a matter of opinion)
  • STDs are the result of sex outside wedlock (a deliberate obstruction of facts)
  • Condoms NEVER work (an outright lie)
The result? America is the only country in the developed world to have a higher teen pregnancy rate than the UK, and STDs and STIs are rife among a youth ignorant of contraception. One cause of the rise in diseases, which might be comical if it weren't so tragic, is a trend of teenagers sticking to their abstinence vow by doing other things, including (unprotected) anal sex.

The Global Gag Rule is such reactionary social conservatism writ large, and its consequences are horrendous. George Bush, with support from the Vatican, has enacted legislation to prevent US aid to the third world going to any organisation that even mentions abortion. Add to this the Pope's reiteration of the three fallacies listed above to a largely Christian African populace, and it is easy to see why the spread of AIDs has been so rapid and out of control in the region.

Meanwhile, let us look at the policies that Family and Youth Concern, calls "brainwashing" and insists is not "safe and healthy." The absolute best example of an informative, in-depth, and practical approach to sex education, covering everything from homosexuality and masturbation to contraception and abortion and even sexual pleasure, is the Netherlands.

There, children are taught about sex from the age of seven. Rather than being plunged into the topic in high school and blinded with clinical and biological lectures, they are introduced to it gradually. All of the issues surrounding sex, from natural urges and peer pressure to practical lessons in putting on condoms, are discussed in a rational and adult way. There is no censorship or moral bias and, most importantly, no patronisation. Unlike the ill-informed youth of Britain, they know that even one act of intercourse can lead to pregnancy and that unprotected sex is dangerous. The result? The lowest rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease in the world.

Thus, in practice, the results are obvious. A thourough and informed knowledge of sex from an early age is the best preparation we can give our children for the adult world. Abstinence programs leads, at least, to ignorance and, at the worst, is dangerous to their well-being.

Another important point is that about being patronising. Social conservatives worry that children are impressionable, and they are right. But children also hate being told what to do, especially without explanation. In a dangerous irony, such rigid moral absolutism as they propose puts children more at risk of being led astray. If we want kids to resist peer pressure and make their own decisions, we need to keep them as informed as possible, let them know that we are here to support them whatever decisions they make, and teach them facts rather than arhaic prejudices. Of course, kids will still have sex, but they will do that whatever moral objections the adults of the world may have.

The question is whether or not we will let our reservations keep them in an ignorance that is not only pitiable but potentially life-threatening.