The Daily Telegraph - Saturday
We need to talk about sex education
Consent, sexting, online porn... when it comes to relationships and intimacy young people are crying out for support and reliable information. Victoria Lambert finds out how parents can guide them
When I look back to my own sex education lessons (well, lesson) I’m sure it was cutting edge for 1979. But I’m not sure what we learnt. I had heard tell of classes where teens were shown how to put a condom on to a banana. But that didn’t happen in my girls’ school biology lesson. We didn’t even see a condom. Let alone anything but the most technical picture of what non-fruit item was supposed to go into one.
Mostly, in that 40-minute session, we were supposed to be able to ask any question we wanted and it would be answered. The trouble is, if that is your one and only bit of sex ed, how do you even hazard a guess at what questions might be useful to pose? Luckily, like many a middle-class child, one day I found a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, the seminal 1960s guide to sex and so on, had been left on my bedside table without comment. I’m not sure that didn’t set up more questions than answers but it was a start.
Only it wasn’t. The delicate stuff surrounding emotions, the conversations around consent, the practical bits about keeping healthy – none of this was in my copy. Moreover, I only learnt sex in the context of women. I hadn’t a clue about men. I think I skipped those chapters.
Forty years on, and I had expected that this would all have changed. The thing about not really being taught any of this yourself is that it leaves you rather inadequate in talking to the children. All I wanted, when I had my own daughter, was to teach her more and better and mostly sooner than I had learnt. That meant books like Mummy Laid
An Egg and lots of naming of parts using the proper words. But at the same time, I was and often still am a tad squeamish about all this. You can’t take generations like mine who were practiually brainwashed into being embarrassed whenever the sex word came up and expect them to do a volte-face overnight. Be reasonable.
In the end, I relied on the Friends school of sex education. Trust me, if you watch all 10 seasons
of the sitcom, you will have covered quite the range of topics, from threesomes to surrogacy to porn to one-night stands. Not to mention toxic boyfriends (sorry, Ross).
I’m not alone in my thinking: the relationships expert Juliette Karaman from Feel Fully You says: “Most of the sex education we get in school is fairly inadequate.”
She points out: “For most parents, it feels awkward to talk to their kids about sex education, yet if we educate them properly, there would be less dissatisfaction in sex itself, possibly fewer break-ups. If we educate children properly, there will be less chance of sexual assault and inappropriate touching, and they will have their own voice and know how to say no.”
She suggests we all try to confound our prejudices. That means teaching them that unwanted attention, even dressed up as compliments, is not OK: “Girls are still on the receiving end of comments and have been taught not to make a fuss. Boys are often told that it is OK to laugh or make remarks about someone else’s body.”
So what can we do? “Talking to your kids may be awkward at first,” says Karaman, “but it can really give you both peace of mind – and keep them safe. Normalise what is going on in their bodies, their psyches and what healthy boundaries look like.”
She suggests that parents are always open to discussion. Try a time where they are undistracted. “Start the conversation with: ‘I know this might be awkward but I want to talk to you about something important…’ You could then say: ‘You have had sex education at school, yet the news is full of stories of people not being safe and getting hurt by not being educated about sex, being ashamed to bring it up with their parents and I do not want you to feel like this.’”
It’s important to bring up the fact that 16 is the legal age of consent. “It’s about your capacity to give consent and being informed enough to do so.
“Tell your child: ‘Do not ever do anything that you do not want to do. You do not have to compare yourself to your peers; it’s OK to say no.’”
Karaman has four children, two boys, two girls (now all in their 20s). She started conversations around personal boundaries at six and, at 12, began more in-depth chats about puberty, emotions, birth control and sexually transmitted diseases.
She worried about how her daughters’ body image was affected by what they saw around them. “Don’t compare yourself to models,” she told them, “or Instagram influencers.” She warned all her children that they might be shown porn but that it was unreal – both how people looked and what they did.
“Sexting was part of the conversation too. The pressure to take (half) naked pictures is intense, and both girls and boys in their early teens were getting harassed to do so and to ‘fit in’. I explained, once the picture is sent, we have no control about who the recipient then shows it to. We also discussed the effect of alcohol and how we may make decisions.”
One tip she passed on was to slow down. “Things can happen so fast. One thing to do is to take 30 seconds and check in what is going on for you. Notice three things in the room, three sensations in your body. So often we disassociate when things are happening too fast and this is a good way to bring ourselves back to our body.”
Karaman adds: “My biggest advice to teenagers and young adults is start trusting yourself. Is what you want to be doing? Will you feel good about it tomorrow?
“The more we, as parents, make it normal to talk about boundaries, consent, our emotions, our bodies, the more natural it will be for our children
‘Talking to your kids can be awkward at first, but it can give you both peace of mind’