How can people be reaching 16 without getting useful and relevant sex education? Abigael Watson thinks things need to change so that teens have an understanding of sex that goes beyond the biological explanation from school and the misleading portrayal from porn

Author’s note: My focus in this post is evidently on heterosexual relationships; these issues may also apply to other relationships, but I am writing about heterosexual relationships as I am drawing on my own experience.

Editor’s note: If you are an LGBT young adult and would like to write about your experiences of sex and sex education, get in touch!

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Sex. To call it a controversial topic would be an understatement. It is, however, a topic that is at the forefront of many a teenager’s mind.

At my partially selective all-girls comprehensive school, the sex education we receive is abysmal. I remember having two talks from a nurse in year 9 or 10: one was about STDs and the other was on contraception. I also recall having a lesson in science in year 7 all about how sex works to make a baby. That was it. This is a particular problem as now most of my peers are 16 or 17 and many people are sexually active or close to it. They have come this far and yet sex education has only touched them lightly and in passing.

This all means that teenagers are rather uninformed when it comes to sex. Fair enough, we learnt about how to protect ourselves from all the dangers. On the other hand, we did not learn about attitudes towards sex, how to know you’re ready and how to treat other people, as well as the consequences. This seems like a massive hole in our learning.

Discouraging sex is more often than not a futile exercise. Many teenagers will have sex regardless. Therefore, it seems obvious that people of this age be taught about the emotional side and warned about how damaging and destructive it is to slut shame. I implore educational authorities to consider this, considering how beneficial it would be to a hypersexualised generation that needs this guidance and advice.

It is also worth remembering that teenagers might turn to porn to ‘teach’ those things that their school has ignored. This is ultimately damaging to themselves and the people they come into contact with. Although some girls will watch porn too, boys outnumber them.

I hear of boys my age who have hardly any contact with girls and watch porn on a regular basis. They will grow up with this often misogynistic and distorted view of sex and the human body. They will then continue through adult life, this view still embossed in their consciousness. Consequently, they may intensely judge the naked figure of a woman, they may push for more aggression and force, resulting in discomfort or worse. On top of this, it may encourage objectification of women, and the idea that the man should be continually pushing things to go further. The consequences are evidently damaging, especially when not balanced out by some sex education of an acceptable standard.

I’m not saying I’m necessarily against porn, but it is imperative that schools consider this in the way they instruct on sex education.

This leads me onto a significant issue – attitudes towards people who have sex, and the gender disparities in this.

There have been a number of instances at my school that demonstrate this. Girls have been nastily talked about and shamed for casual sexual encounters, even those within a relationship. They will be cruelly labelled a slut by both boys and girls alike. They will suffer the burden of a so-called bad reputation that leaves them sullied in the eyes of boys, and worthless, stupid and easy in the eyes of girls.

Boys will be congratulated, praised and patted on the back. They may be spoken about in a semi-nasty way by girls on occasion, but not nearly to the same extent as girls will be. They will add this medal they have earned to their collection and they will be proud.

This negative attitude towards girls and sex will result in fewer girls seeking advice and help. It will mean discussions are less open. It will also continue to reinforce the idea that girls are only respectable, sensible and ‘good’ if they refrain from such activities. The damage that this causes is irrefutable. (The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti is good for further reading on this topic.)

On the other hand, strangely enough, girls (and boys) also have to endure the constant pressure from peers that they become sexually active. Here I see another impossible ideal: the ideal to be a sexualised, sexually active teen, and also to remain innocent, virtuous and a ‘good’ girl. It seems we cannot win.

The need for greater and more diverse and useful education on such topics in schools is of paramount importance. It’s just wrong and dangerous that this double standard remains and that sex education does little to fight this.

The photo is by Amber McNamaara and is used under a creative commons licence. It shows a tab of birth control pills, with the days of the week written at the top. Two of the seven rows have been used. The third row has seven white pills, the fourth row has three white pills and four brown pills. They are lying on some silky beige fabric.

Edited at 15:55 on 23 August 2014 to correct a typo mentioned in the comments!