Friday, 3 June 2011

Clueless to some: reasonable to others

I grew up in Cornwall by the sea. I am there now, overlooking the beach and talking to a few old friends who know what I do. As you would expect given the last few weeks comments ranging from 'saw you in the paper; heard you on the radio; what's that MP woman on about?/she's got a point you know; why should/n't Life be on the group?

And as I listened and talked to liberal people, it becomes more and more clear that even though the majority of people in the UK are pro-choice, want to make sure children are not 'sexualised' early and want good sex and relationships education at home and school, Nadine Dorries call for 'abstinence education for young women' has come across as reasonable to some, even though it is clear to some experts in sex and relationships education that she is clueless.

And the difficulty we have is that whilst there is no evidence that abstinence education (for girls and or boys) works, all of us would agree that we want young people - women and men - to be able to say no to sex unless they are ready to enjoy and take responsibility for it. So Dorries is linking an outcome we would all agree with (being able to say no to sex), with an input that the evidence doesn't support (abstinence education). And so for the average joe on the street, her argument can sound reasonable. And that is especially true when it is combined with fear generated from confident stories of seven year olds being taught to put condoms on a banana (who would want that IF it happened) and that sex and relationships education doesn't include saying no (where it doesn't include saying no it isn't good SRE).

So whether we like or not the majority in support of SRE need to have soundbites - a simple narrative that reassures parents, carers and others worried about sexualisation, who reads the papers and believes that people are having sex earlier and earlier and teenage pregnancy rates are rocketing (neither is true). As I understand it from the parents I have spoken to today they need to be reassured that SRE is a good thing, that it helps prepare children to move from puberty through to adolescence confidently, that the evidence shows that good quality SRE actually delays sex and equips young people to negotiate and use contraception when they choose to have sex. And that it reassures them that sex and relationships education is a sensible part of the solution to TP, STIs and sexualisation, not part of the problem.

So the task we have on our hands is a major task of education about what sex and relationships education is, and a real imperative not to be clumsy with language about these issues.

A decade ago, I visited the USA to learn more about their work to teach young people about sex (or not) and it was clear that it wasn't working then - luckily Obama finally listened to the evidence and withdrew funding. To summarise some of the things I learnt;

don't mix up abstinence with abstinence education - abstinence - not having sex is fine, good, proper and healthy. Abstinence education is not fine, good, proper or healthy because its value base is wrong and there is no evidence to support it.

recognise there is no such thing as an 'abstinence based approach to sex and relationships education' - abstinence education is different in values and approach than sex and relationships education.

good quality sex and relationships education should be called sex and relationships education, full stop. Comprehensive sex and relationships education makes it sound like there is a different sort - non comprehensive. There isn't, sex and relationships education is either good quality or it isn't. If it isn't comprehensive then it isn't good quality. When it is good quality it includes relationships, real life dilemmas, saying yes, saying no, saying maybe.

we must not allow the public to misunderstand what sex and relationships is about, what it includes, how it is delivered and to believe that it only focuses on sex.

we must ensure everyone knows that parents are/should be the first sex educator, that children want them to be; and that schools and youth services work in partnership with parents to ensure children and young people get a rounded education, as you would expect in all other walks of life - maths, food, diet, safety etc. The myth that some perpetuate that parents are undermined by education about sex and relationships is pernicious

The full report is available from from National Children's Bureau - Just Say No! to sex and relationships education; Blake and Frances (2001)

Finally, it is probably time we stopped talking about changing the order of the words from sex and relationships education, to relationships and sex education, and just do it. If we do that it seems there will be more time to actually do the work - after all, we must not mistake the process (talking about SRE/RSE) for the task (delivering SRE/RSE).

The Bailey Review on sexualisation is published on Monday - let's hope that recognises that RSE is part of the solution to help children grow up confident about relationships and sex, and that it recognises the excellent work that programmes like the FPA's Speakeasy programme helping parents get confident talking about sex and relationships do.

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