Sex matters…but teenagers grumble about every aspect of sex education

This teenage mother was telling me she had two pregnancies before the age of 15, and I then ventured to ask if there had been any sex education at her school.

“Oh yay! It was a hoot!” she chortled. “We were all cracking up with laughter while the teacher struggled to pull a condom onto a banana! The lads were making wanking gestures, and you should have seen the teacher’s face – she was beetroot with embarrasment!”

It was at that moment that I decided that teaching sex-education to adolescents, or pre-adolescents, must be one of the least-envied of professional tasks.

There may be individuals who can deliver such a lesson skillfully, but, it would seem, not very many. An international survey of sex education in schools – involving ten countries, including Ireland – reported that young people grouched and grumbled about almost every single aspect of sex education lessons. And many of their complaints were mutually contradictory.

They said sex education was out of touch and complained it was “gendered” – that is, it underlined the difference between male and female roles. Yet they also reported that, in the classroom situation, boys often behaved disruptively while girls were slagged off if they seemed to be well acquainted with the subject matter; this indicates that young males and females are indeed “gendered” and react differently to this particular topic.

They said sex education was “overly biological” and all those biological facts “de-eroticised” the content. But, look, if a sex education lesson were to be “eroticised”, a teacher today might well be accused of “pornification”, and might even end up on the Sex Offenders’ Register. Exchanging erotic content with young people can be categorised as “child sexual abuse”. Can’t the kids see that there are dangers here for teachers?

The young people who took part in this study – they were between the ages of 12 and 18 – did concede that they didn’t like their own class teachers conduct the sex education session: it “blurred” the boundaries. So perhaps they did get the point that erotic content can be an area of some sensitivity.

The teenagers wanted more sex education about homosexuality, although if they wanted more info on this, they might read a few biographies about English public school life in the 1930s and 40s. Terence Rattigan, that incomparable playwright, was involved in an active gay relationship with his form teacher at Harrow when he was 16. Terry didn’t seem to need any formal sex education in this endeavour, and the fact that it was illegal didn’t cause any ripples – his biographer reflects that most of the teenage boys at this posh public school had homosexual experience anyway.

Overall, the young people in the current study – carried out at the University of Bristol and published in September by the British Medical Journal – judged that sex education as it is now imparted was just too “negative”. They also said that adults weren’t sufficiently cool about accepting the fact that adolescents might already be sexually active.

Perhaps, as some educationalists believe, sex education should be started much younger: at four or five years of age. After all, as soon as kids can get on-line, they’ll often be able to access sexually explicit material anyway.

But at whatever age this life-lesson will be delivered, my continuing sympathy is with the teacher landed with the task. They will never meet the demanding standards of their charges, since sex education is a develishly difficult subject to impart in any kind of a balanced way.

This is partly because a classroom lesson is normally a rational procedure – two and two make four: the French Revolution occurred in 1789 – but sexual desire rarely conforms to the norms of rational thought. Indeed, sexual desire may extinguish, temporarily, rational thought, as a wise old Yiddish proverb puts it: “When stands up the cock, then falls down the brain.” Any progressive teacher who decides to comply with the students’ demands to introduce more eroticism into sex lessons may find that among the adolescent boys in her classroom, arousal could well be an immediate factor, in which case you can forget about the brain’s input.

The kids may complain about sex lessons being “overly biological”, but at least with biology you can concentrate on provable facts. Once you go beyond facts, you are straying into territory heavily weighted with subjective values: a foot-fetishist (Krafft-Ebing wrote a whole volume about those whose only sexual satisfaction derives from oddball fetishisms) might impart a very different sex eduation lesson from an earth-mother, for whom the satisfaction of fertility is an intrinsic to the act: as Cosmopolitan’s agony aunt Irma Kurtz once wrote – “the sex is the seed, but the harvest is the baby”.

I agree with one point the teenage complainants make: sex education shouldn’t be all negative. It shouldn’t over-focus on the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy. It should indeed talk about joy and pleasure and the happiness that couples can have from erotic love and great relationships. Young folk want something to aspire to an ideal anyway. Although you can’t ignore the darker side – sexual relationships can be destructive, exploitative, abusive, cruel, spiteful and manipulative as well – and too much obsession with sex has destroyed individuals and relationships. Abstinence, also, can make the heart grow fonder. Restraints and taboos were there for a reason.

But maybe great literature is the way to learn about the deeper meaning of sexual relationships, both in its pleasures and in its consequences.

At a basic level the teacher can only reach for the facts. And even then, she may not manage to get the message across. I asked the teenage mother why, if the teacher had gone to such embarrassing trouble to demonstrate the condom on the banana, she had nonetheless become pregnant at 13? “Dunno,” she said. “It just looked so daft it didn’t seem natural.” Poor teacher, indeed! @MaryKenny4.

Irish Independent magazine

01 October 2015