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Let’s talk about sex (education): The changing terrain of sex and relationships education

10 Mar, 2015

Let's talk about sex education

Despite a trend towards increased openness to a diversity of lifestyles, sex education remains a topic that attracts diverse, and often polarised, opinions on how when and where young people should be taught about sex. Wellcome Trust Governor Professor Dame Anne Johnson, a sexual health and infectious disease researcher, and Dr Clare Tanton, an epidemiologist at University College London, discuss the latest research findings on how young people learn about sex and how this is associated with their sexual behaviour…

How we best deliver sex education to young people – and what we teach them – often provokes fierce debate amongst health and education specialists, politicians, parents, and community leaders. But we hear much less of the voices of young people. What are their views, needs and reflections?

This week we published new findings from the British National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal), in which we asked a random sample of almost 4000 young people aged 16 to 24 to look back on their experience of sex education and to report in self-administered interviews how they learned about sex, and what they thought about that.

The Natsal surveys are among the largest and most scientific studies of sexual behaviour in the world and are a collaboration between UCL, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and NatCen Social Research. The current survey (Natsal-3, carried out 2010-2012) is the third in a series conducted approximately every 10 years, and was funded by the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, with additional funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and the Department of Health.

AS0000153FC07 Primary school, children in sex education classFor both men and women, school is now the most commonly reported main source of information about sexual matters, increasing from 28% in 1990 to 40% in 2010. School is generally replacing less reliable sources too: fewer men now say friends were their main source and fewer women report their first sexual partner as their main source. In addition, those who reported school as their main source of information had their first experience of sexual intercourse later than those who reported a different main source of information, and generally had fewer poor sexual health outcomes later in life. So the increasing prominence of school is encouraging as it has the potential to reduce inequalities in access to reliable information.

Parents featured much less frequently than school as a source of information, particularly for men, and were the main source for only 7% of men and 14% of women. But around half of young people still reported that they got most of their information from a less ‘authoritative’ source like friends, their first sexual partner, media sources or pornography. And, less positively, most young people still told us that they felt they ought to have known more when they first felt ready for sexual experience.

The things they most commonly wanted to know more about (sexual feelings, emotions and relationships, STIs and contraception) indicate a gap between their needs and what is actually covered by current requirements for sex and relationships education (SRE).

The terrain that young people have to navigate has changed considerably over the past 20 years. With increased availability of the internet comes access to a wealth of high-quality information, but also access to a lot of less-reliable information and sexually explicit content. This is an area where even the most technologically savvy parents would lag behind their children.

The current government guidance on SRE dates from 2000, so cannot encompass these more recent societal changes, and therefore potentially leaves young people unprepared. A broader framing of sex education is required to cover not just the biology of sex, but also healthy relationships, sexual consent, exploitation and abuse, the impact of pornography, and gender issues.

A recent Education Select Committee inquiry into personal, social, health and economic education (PHSE) and SRE recognised the importance of both in equipping young people with the broader education and skills they need, recommending that both become statutory at school.

N0032772 Sex education

The report also stresses the importance of schools and parents working together and our findings echo this – young people want their information needs to be met by school and parents. It was striking that far more men wanted information from their fathers than received it. We know that there is little in the way of formal help for parents to support them in talking to their children about sex and many may find this a difficult subject to broach.

What we heard from young people’s responses to Natsal was also reflected in the Wellcome Trust Sounds of Sexology project, which was linked to Wellcome Collection’s exhibition, The Institute of Sexology. This innovative project saw groups of young people from around the country, collaborating with researchers and songwriters to compose music and lyrics drawing on their own experiences and inspired by sex research.

We had a wonderful night out at the Roundhouse with an incredible array of talented performers moving us to tears of joy and sadness with songs that ranged through themes of sexuality, sexual violence and a history of sexology. In that context, the anthem ‘Hail Marie’ took on a new meaning, celebrating the life of Marie Stopes the early 20th Century pioneer of contraception to whom all women owe a debt of gratitude for access to safe contraception today.

The Wellcome Trust has long been a pioneer funder in this field, supporting both the first and third Natsal surveys. It continues to fund innovative projects, including the current national Sexology Season, which features a series of events in Manchester, Brighton and Glasgow, as well as in London at The Institute of Sexology.

Alongside the Natsal evidence, we hope these types of projects contribute to debate and policy discussions, which will ultimately improve the sexual health and wellbeing of young people in the future.

You can access the full research findings in BMJ Open and the main Natsal findings from 2013 are explored in this playful infographic, Sex by Numbers (a book of the same name is due to be published in April). The Institute of Sexology runs at Wellcome Collection until September 2015, with learning resources available for helping young people toward greater engagement with the content of the exhibition.

Image credits: Let’s talk about sex is a derivative of Profusion of nectar – by  Max Westby on Flickr – CC-BY-NC- SA, by Kate Arkless Gray/Wellcome Trust – CC-BY-NC-SA;  Primary sex education – by Anthea Sieveking , Wellcome Images, Teenage sex education – by Anne-Katrin Purkiss, Wellcome Images.


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