Sexual Health Monday November 21, 2011

Sex education may be controversial, but it is also necessary

When it comes to controversial issues, few are as contentious as sex education in schools. Everyone seems to have an opinion on this particular debate, from all political strands and from all walks of life. A recent opinion piece in the Daily Mail advocated removing sex education from the classroom entirely arguing that it is a subject best left for parents. According to the writer of the piece, Sonia Poulton, teachers are not “the right people” to teach children about this topic. Shereece Marcantonio, writing for the Huffington Post, appears to agree with this second point, campaigning for a change in the way sex education is taught to young people. She argues that sex education should be peer-to-peer as young people respond better when they receive sex and relationship information from other young people.

This issue is also a hotly debated political topic, with politicians divided on the best course of action. Conservative MP Nadine Dorries hit the headlines earlier this year with calls for an increase in sex education. At first glance, that seems like a good thing. However, her proposals were heavily criticised for being too focused on abstinence, and for being targeted specifically at girls. Labour MP Chris Bryant said it was "the daftest piece of legislation" he had seen.

The problems with this kind of proposal is this: information that is partial, limited and loaded towards a particular moral perspective will never address the ever-increasing rates of teen pregnancy and STIs, and it could leave an entire generation ignorant of what it means to have safe, respectful sex. We believe that the only solution is to provide clear, informed and detailed education on all aspects of sex and relationships to young people. Who provides this information is really not the issue, so long as the information is received and understood.

Clearly what we currently have is not working. It is just not enough to show the basic physical elements of sex (the what goes where) alongside the standard scaremongering, which tends to involve listing the most common STIs and overstating the failure rates of condoms. STIs are clearly one of two of the serious consequences that can occur from sex (the other being pregnancy) and it is essential that young people are fully informed about them.

It is not enough to tell children and young people simply what STIs are. They need further details on all the different types, including the difference between bacterial and viral STIs, the fact that many STIs are asymptomatic and the serious long-term health complications that can arise if treatment is not sought. They should be informed of the importance of taking an STI test if they’ve had unprotected sex, and where they can go to get one. Many young people will not want to visit their family GP because they are embarrassed or are worried their parents will find out, but there are other options. Many sexual health clinics will actually guarantee anonymity, but few young people even know where their nearest clinic is. Surely comprehensive sex education should include this information as standard.

Here at LabsDirect, we support efforts to increase the awareness and knowledge of young people relating to sexual health and their relationships. The sexual healthy charity for young people, Brook, is currently running a campaign called Sex Positive, which is “challenging society’s negative attitudes about sex”. We fully support this campaign and hope it leads to a renewed focus on positive sex education for all young people.

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