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How can parents, teachers and the media give good sex and relationships education?

September 13th, 2008

Dr Petra

On Thursday night, as part of their sex education season, Channel 4 hosted a debate on the current situation of sex education within the UK. A panel comprising academics, educators, representatives of sex education organisations and youth parliament and an anti-sex education spokesperson discussed the current situation for sex and relationships education (SRE) in the UK. They were joined by an audience of sex educators, healthcare professionals, teachers, youth advisors and broadcasting staff.

I was part of the panel and the evening proved a lively event, with a number of different views expressed – including:
- sex education should be made compulsory vs. that it should only be taught by parents
- that SRE was taught patchily within schools vs. it has failed within schools
- sex education reduces STIs and unplanned pregnancies vs. sex education causes STIs and unplanned pregnancies

Other issues including how to make sex education more accessible to young men, how to include men as educators, how including discussions about desire can help in our education of girls, and how to make training and support available to sex education teachers.

Here are the points I raised in my talk.

Imagine if our parents or grandparents were sitting here, listening to a debate about sex and relationships education. They would be worried about sex because there was little or no sex education available to them and few places to get help. Nowadays we are living in a highly sexualised culture, but we still lack independent resources to help us negotiate this. Our grandparents had the same worries we do – ‘am I normal?’ So what can we do to ensure our current teenagers don’t feel as worried about sex as our grandparents did.

We already know what works in delivering sex and relationships education, but it’s always useful to see this information listed (if you want any of the evidence behind these points please drop me an email)

Successful SRE depends on…

- Sex ed messages that move beyond contraception and STIs and include messages of confidence, communication and respect, plus life skills on how to negotiate relationships
- Peer education (if teenagers or adult peers are appropriately trained and supported).
- Teachers and healthcare providers acting as champions so we can see examples of good practice.
- Supporting and training healthcare and education staff who deliver SRE messages, while acknowledging not everyone finds the job easy or enjoyable
- Encouraging those who have an interest in delivering SRE (or a flair for this topic) to teach (with appropriate checks and supervision in place)
- Teaching and supporting parents to deliver sex ed messages, while reassuring parents what will happen in school-based SRE. Many parents have not had sex education themselves but are afraid of what schools might be saying. They need to be made aware they are involved in the process of teaching children along with schools, rather than feeling they are in competition with schools to deliver SRE messages.
- Blended learning that’s individually tailored to young people’s level of physical and emotional development and personal circumstances (meaning you don’t give a ‘one size fits all’ message to young people).
- Ensuring messages challenge rather than reinforce stereotypes – so we don’t avoid teaching boys because we assume sex is something ‘natural’ to them, and we don’t make girls the ones who always say ‘no’ while only telling them about how to avoid getting pregnant or an STI. SRE needs to tackle issues of masculinity and how this impacts on boys sexual behaviour, and also include debates around porn where many boys and girls get information about sex.
- Messages of sexuality need to be included within SRE rather than an add-on. Homophobia is still rife within many schools and sexuality education requires careful treatment by teachers who are supported in this process.
- Making use of multimedia resources – that are up to date and signposted can help promote and reinforce key messages
- Basing practice around critical thinking and evidence.
- Avoiding mixed messages (e.g. use a condom vs. condoms leak viruses, or enjoy sex vs. don’t have sex until marriage), or single messages (e.g. just handing out condoms or only promoting abstinence)
- Increasing sex positive content – so we don’t base messages on fear or blame (that includes avoiding scary pictures of infections, telling young people if they have sex they’ll automatically get pregnant and ruin their lives or other fear-based messages). We previously did this as a means to discourage sexual activity, but evidence indicates this just makes young people feel disempowered and worried – but it doesn’t stop them having sex. It means they tend to have sex they feel less in control of that they are frightened of.

So if we know what works, why aren’t we putting these ideas into action? Well, here are some of the reasons that our current SRE provision is going so badly…

Silo mentality and competition

Many groups have ideas for good practice but they don’t work together. That might be divisions between professions or even within them. For example healthcare staff and school teachers may have good ideas for SRE but they don’t have the opportunity to tell each other about their work. It can be based on people not being aware of networking opportunities, or promoting opposing views around key SRE issues.

Lack of signposting and networking

Young people, parents and professionals are often unaware of different services, resources, or changes in evidence and policy because information is not clearly disseminated. This includes not knowing where reproductive and sexual health services are and when they are open, or practitioners being unaware of the evidence about what messages work around promoting good sexual health. There are growing opportunities for establishing sexual health and sex education networks, but these need to be joined up.

Inequalities in SRE delivery
Some areas are well provided with services and speakers; others have relatively few resources and services. We tend to assume everywhere is like London – whether we’re working in education, healthcare or media. Rural areas are particularly neglected with services that are often inaccessible to young people. Staff working in such locations in both education and healthcare particularly need a lot of help and support to continue the work they’re doing to reach young people.

Replication and reinventing the wheel

Because of a lack of collaborative working we have either very mixed messages, or we have a lot of reinventing the wheel. For exampls
- multiple websites for teens on sex of varying standard and accessibility
- endless research (particularly very poor surveys) conducted when evidence already exists because practitioners are either unaware said evidence exists, or unable to access and/or understand it
- confusion between kosher sex research and PR activity – so we’re all anxious over those misleading sex statistics and accurate research often doesn’t reach the public while more dodgy sex surveys do
- professionals not being aware of their colleagues’ skills base

Media messages

Unfortunately excellent sex coverage is the exception not the rule. Within all areas of the media sex is viewed as a ‘lite’ topic and there’s a lack of awareness of evidence and experienced professionals who could inform media coverage. Often the claim to make things ‘entertaining’ or ‘visual’ can be an excuse to produce information that’s outdated, incorrect and fronted by people who are not qualified. While health and education staff do appear willing to listen to criticism and try and improve (and in some cases have been made to sort out the way they tackle sex-related issues), in general the mainstream media has proved highly resistant to this.

So how can we move forward?
The good news is we have most of the answers here. We know what the evidence is for what works and we are acutely aware of what the barriers are.

We can make a difference by identifying, sharing and critiquing scientific evidence so our key messages are interesting and entertaining, accurate and actionable. All staff need time for training and reflection on SRE issues – and that includes people who work in the media. Professionals need to move out of our silos and start talking to each other – and we need to understand parents who have had little sex education themselves are worried about what we might be telling their kids. So we need to offer support, training and time to talk to parents so we can work together to give age-appropriate messages to young people.

We have to sort out media sex coverage and that’s not just for programmes with a semi-educational format. The public gets a lot of its sex information via the media and if they’re getting mixed or incorrect messages from TV then hosting some more accurate programmes won’t offset this. We need to make it in the interests of journalists to want to make better sex programmes, and we also need to change the way genuine sex experts are included in how programmes are made. That means getting us involved as paid-for consultants when commissioners are dreaming up programme ideas for production companies to bid for, and advising producers at the highest level as they put shows together.

Not the current approach where often inexperienced TV researchers are required to call around as many experts they can find to get as many ideas as possible for free and where genuine experts are unable to alter programme ideas no matter how inaccurate or dangerous they may be. We need to stop the situation where, if a qualified person says they can’t endorse a particular message, we simply pick someone who’s not qualified but will say what we want in order to promote their products and services. And we need to stop telling qualified people who want to help that they’re ‘too worthy’ or their ideas aren’t entertaining because we’re simply too lazy to want to push the envelope on sex broadcasting.

We need to reward good practice and highlight teachers, charity workers and healthcare providers who give good SRE, and we
have to make this an election issue. If politicians think they won’t get elected if they don’t put SRE as a compulsory part of the curriculum they may well be more motivated to do something about it.

The good news is plenty of people feel strongly about this issue and we all want the same thing. We want to make young people more empowered about sex and relationships issues, we want to reassure parents that we’re not encouraging their children to experiment with sex at a young age, and we want to ensure whether it’s in the media, school or a healthcare setting we’re teaching young people the life skills they need to negotiate enjoyable sexual relationships without risking STIs or unplanned pregnancies.

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