Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Consequences Of No SRE Lessons

One of the unofficial roles I end up fulfilling as a biology lecturer is as a general go-to gal for discussion about sexual health. We don't have formal sex and relationship education (SRE) at the college, as all the students are post-16. We do, however, have two nurse-counsellors and an advisor from Brook who visits several times a week. Free condoms are available from the tutors, and periodically free chlamydia tests are offered.

My fellow teachers on Twitter, many of whom do have some SRE responsibility, are getting justifiably angry about a section on the Daily-Mail-in-liquid-form rant-fest BBC Sunday Morning Live (the link will only have a video associated with it up to 25 October though, so be quick), where the question was asked: "Is school sex education bad for our kids?".

One of the talking heads was Lynette Burrows, a woman who, dare I say, occasionally seems to make Melanie Phillips look like a moderate. She has form for saying awful stuff, and has been warned for homophobic comments, for example. She is the sister of Victoria Gillick, who campaigned for parents to be required to consent before children under the age of 16 could be given contraceptives (thankfully defeated - see Gillick competence). And she thinks parents should be able to smack their children.

So she is in favour of physical assault (the link above has her boast that she threatened to beat a boy "black and blue"), but she thinks that SRE is "talking dirty" and showing "dirty pictures", that it smacks of paedophilia, and that it will cause mental scarring. Plenty of teachers have been deeply offended by the accusation of paedophilia - read the further comments from Alice Hoyle, a SRE teacher who appeared via webcam to defend the teaching of sex and relationships, and consider complaining to the BBC - I will be as soon as this is published.

My mother-in-law is a primary school teacher. Most of what she and her colleagues teach as part of SRE involves the children being able to name parts of their body, understand that no one has a right to touch them in places not normally covered by their clothes, and form healthy friendships with their classmates. When I was at school, the "periods talk" came in Year 5, aged 9-10. With many girls beginning to menstruate at that age or younger, one could argue that needs to happen earlier - a friend of mine once said she had her menarche at the age of eight, before the school lessons and before her own mother had talked to her about periods. I believe it is imperative that children are told what will happen to them before it does - why would anyone want their daughter to be terrified out of their wits at finding themselves bleeding, perhaps quite heavily, from an area they don't even know how to describe?

I only teach the over-16s. The GCSE specification, when I taught it, was all about the menstrual cycle, contraception and IVF. There is naff all on the A-level specification, but there is a BTEC physiology unit on reproduction, among other phenomena. And that means there's an opportunity to review external and internal anatomy for both sexes, discuss the full spectrum of contraception, and actually talk more about what healthy relationships mean as a near-adult - that bit isn't on the specification, but it becomes almost impossible to separate out sex and relationships, so why try to maintain a split?

This is the age at which the "dirty pictures" are whipped out - no SRE teacher would dream of showing something like that to a child, though I am sure they are in the encyclopaedia if a particularly studious primary school child was interested (I know I read a lot of human anatomy books when I was younger). And here, when doing what I hoped would be a recap on previous knowledge, is where I get to see first-hand the consequences of having little or no SRE when at school.

Many of my female students do not realise they have a urethra, a vagina and an anus.

Some of them are from conservative, often religious families, and may have been withdrawn from SRE lessons at school, or attended a school that did not teach SRE (many have only recently arrived in the UK). These students are grown women - by the time they do Unit 12 they are in their second year at the college and they have mostly turned 18. I say it again - there are grown women who do not know their own bodies. Suggestions from me that they get a small mirror and, when alone and relaxed have a jolly good look, are met with horrified gasps. If I didn't teach them this, who would? Do their own mothers know that they have three orifices?

(As an aside, I am aware that some of my students may have been subjected to FGM, and I am sensitive to this, but that is a whole other discussion for another blog post.)

So if we don't teach SRE to children, much as we teach them literacy, numeracy and other skills they need in order to be a functioning member of society, and if there are parents who cannot or will not educate their children, we may be doomed to have a society full of women who think they urinate out of their vaginas. And that's before we even get on to talking about the men.


  1. Ah Julia, every word you write makes me adore you more! I have three children from the ages of 7 to 20 and my girls know what I do as a biologist, woman and mother. My youngest knows women bleed once a month. How terrible for any child it happens to in primary school who doesn't know what's happening is normal!!! As for the Gillick clan, they are damaged and bonkers and very little will change that. Society knows better nowadays I hope! Heidimo xx

  2. Thank you very much! :)

    I have also complained to the BBC:

    On SML this morning, Lynette Burrows was allowed, unchallenged, to accuse sex and relationship educators of paedophilia. The programme was biased toward the conservative end of the spectrum, and the professionals were unable to have their say.

    The accusation of paedophilia is a very serious allegation, suggesting that members of the teaching profession are engaging in criminal activity such as child abuse.

    I, and many other teachers (I teach biology, which necessarily contains some aspects of SRE), have found this profoundly insulting and offensive - such an allegation, if levelled at a named teacher, would be career-ending.

    On this matter alone, the BBC must issue a full apology for failing to challenge Ms Burrows.

    The BBC also prides itself on being fair and balanced in its reporting. You gave very little airtime to Alice Hoyle, the sole SRE teacher asked for an opinion, and instead filled the show with ultra-conservative opinions.

    You have a public service remit, and you cannot remain impartial as a broadcaster if you allow non-professionals equal or more airtime than professionals. Ms Hoyle had a wealth of data and scientific studies, which she was not allowed to cite.

    Honestly, nothing more than a full apology for such an atrocious, biased, hate-filled and slanderous commentary will suffice.

    A better option would be the agreement to make an educated and unbiased documentary about what SRE actually entails, in addition to this apology.

  3. Great post. Apart from all the DIRTY BIRD TALKING AND COCK A DOODY LANGUAGE!!

    I'm kidding. Great post :)

  4. Just wanted to say, this is a superb and well-informed article. Sunday Morning live requires some serious reform, or scrapping completely.

  5. '...Daily-Mail-in-liquid-form rant-fest BBC Sunday Morning Live...' Best description I've heard so far of the show. The programme seems to regularly to pride itself on giving full reign to self-appointed, rent-a-gob spokespeople at the expense of genuine expertise and knowledge. Wasn't Lynette Burrows introduced as a family rights campaigner? Who says is she is? Is there some consensus around family rights that she can appeal or speak to that I've missed?

    I'm so glad people are complaining about this. Julia, You're comments are right on the money.

  6. At school I got sporadic PSE (personal and social education) from a religious studies teacher when through the gcse period of education, we were taught nothing about sex and relationships. We were taught that abstinence was the only choice. I was brought up in a religious household so I wasn't taught it at home. I am one of those women who was rather shocked to discover at 19 when i was studying nursing that females do not urinate through their vagina, they have a urethra.

    I watched SML this morning and was I found Lynnette Burrows sickening. I'm from Northern Ireland and we have enough problems with the religious filter in our devolved government and their agenda to be the moral gatekeeper for every one. People picket outside the Brook advisory clinic in belfast for giving people advice. We need a progressive view for our young people not self appointed know it alls who know nothing.

  7. Thank you for your supportive comments. The BBC have not yet responded to my complaint e-mail, and I doubt I will receive any response.

    SML is filmed by BBC Northern Ireland, and as you say there's quite a religious "issue" in that part of the world - I looked at the exam boards' attitudes to teaching evolution, and CCEA was awful in terms of how much creationism was allowed in, so I can well believe there's an overly conservative attitude towards sex and relationships.

  8. This is a great post! I was also taught that abstinence is the only option before marriage, and was not given a proper education on sexual health or the risks of unprotected sex as a result. I was simply taught that sex was bad before marriage, because God doesn't like it and would be angry with me if I did it.

    I have been trying to figure out for over a decade why religious conservatives are uncomfortable with sexual education. Sex is a part of life, or more accurately, the cause of life, and not having a decent education on the subject can lead to many serious problems, such as unplanned pregnancies, unplanned STD's (who ever plans for an STD?!?), and other such issues that scar some people for life. I'm not sure how the religious conservatives can justify a lack of decent education on the reproductive system, how it works, and how it can be infected, as the serious and often detrimental effects of a lack of proper education on the subject are hard to miss.

    I wish I had not been told that engaging in premarital sex makes you a bad person. I was raped at the age of 16, and because of my fear of having my mother and father think I was a bad person, I never told them or got help. As a result, I suffered from chlamydia for years before getting properly treated in college, after breaking down and going to the school nurse due to the severe pain it had caused me for years. The untreated disease has caused serious, irreparable damage to my reproductive system, and the pain of holding such a secret and living in shame has caused serious damage to my emotional health. I'm sure that isn't what a loving God would want for his children..

    Too many women and men end up with serious emotional and physical scars that can linger long into adulthood as a result of this tragic miseducation.

  9. Alaska has no formal laws governing comprehensive sex-education or abstinence-only education, but that leaves the door open to piecemeal, inconsistent education standards. I remember during "middle school" (grades 6-8) the sex-ed classes were great - both boys and girls were given instruction on condom use, contraceptives, and anatomy of both genders. I do remember having my parents sign a permission slip to take the 3-day class and other students who came from religious or crazy parents were allowed to opt-out.

    When I hit high school, it was shockingly different, and horrifying in its lack of facts and scope. It was generally assumed that you had already gone through all of this in middle school and there was no real need to rehash everything, so anatomy was out. The lady teaching my class was a dried-up hag of a gym teacher who may have been mildly attractive at one point in her life and would aggressively hit on some of the male students, but would then turn around and explain that the only way to be a truly happy student was to eschew sex completely until marriage, that you _could_ in fact get pregnant from giving a blow job, that condoms were completely and utterly useless, and the only reason to have sex at all was to procreate. When people complained to the "Good Ol' Boy" principal, he merely shrugged and told people to get over it, and why were we talking about icky sex to begin with.


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