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Is sex education sufficient?

The taboo we forgot to fix.

By Jamie Morse

The debate about Sex Education in schools ‘ended’ years ago. As a society, we concluded that the need to combat the growing problems of teenage pregnancy and the spread of STI’s superseded the fringe fears of parents who believed such education would be intrusive and indecent.

At school it became compulsory to attend sex education classes, during which we sat through powerpoints and talks that made one thing clear above all – the adults had agreed we needed to know about sex, but hadn’t any clear idea of what to teach us. Those aforementioned fringe parents would be delighted if they knew nothing intrusive or indecent was being discussed – because indeed, nothing was being discussed.

In one class, three plastic penises were presented to us. We were told to take it in turns practicing putting condoms on to these newly appeared members. We were then told to remove them. One kid at our table did so, rolling the condom back up vertically. A teacher darted over.

“No, you can’t take it off that way because…” she trailed off – too nervous, unable to dare utter the word ‘semen’ in front of the class. She said nothing and the boy continued. One can only imagine how many hypothetical future spillages that teacher’s silence caused.

I relayed this story to a gay friend the other day, and he had his own criticisms about what he was taught, observing “sex education classes were just lessons in how we were supposed to do heterosexual sex”. I found myself unable to disagree – the closest thing to queer representation in my classes is when one of the boys picked up one of the plastic penises and began to slap his friend about the face with it. Having asked a number of queer friends of their experiences, a typical pattern became clear – it wasn’t that we were being taught gay sex was bad, but rather any mention of non-hetero sexualities existing was erased from the conversation.

This sanitising of sexual education into a hetero-normative safe space can be incredibly harmful. To use myself as an example, I am a transgender woman – I was never told a single thing about transgender people during my school education. This meant I spent years not understanding myself, feeling like a freak of nature. I couldn’t conclude that I was transgender until I knew what being transgender was. I didn’t know until I went to university, and actually spoke to transgender people first-hand. Other people’s experiences became a barometer for my own, and I finally understood myself – seven years too late. I had already gone through puberty – the wrong puberty. Hormone replacement therapy gets immeasurably easier if puberty has been delayed. To transition I will have to go through a second (and vastly more complicated) puberty. My experience would have been made so much easier if I had just been given a proper sex education.

This is why sex education reform (which the government is now beginning to discuss again) is so important. Talking about sex and sexuality with children may be an uncomfortable thing for adults to do, but it is part of their duty as teachers. Better, more comprehensive sex education for all gives all children a better chance at understanding themselves.

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