An auto-ethnographic understanding of a singular experience in UK sex education and its future in mainstream education
Sex education within the social institution of education can simultaneously reflect and reinforce society’s values concerning gender, sexuality, mental health, consent, and technology. Evidence suggests that sex education is failing to equip students on such topics, therefore fuelling the cycle of problematic societal understanding. Using secondary data from academic fields such as psychology, paediatrics, gender studies, and anthropology, alongside primary qualitative data via an auto-ethnographic approach, I have highlighted issues both in sex education itself and beyond in society. These issues include the reinforcement of hegemonic gender and sexuality understanding, encouraged unhealthy relationships and fearmongering of technology, and a continuous misunderstanding of physical boundaries causing disputes in the current feminist awareness of consent and sexual harassment. By analysing these issues, this study proposes potential solutions to be implemented into the UK sex education 2020 reform. This is in the hope of improving both sex education itself, and wider society’s sexual behaviour and understanding. This study concludes that the improvements needed include addressing school culture and curriculum beyond direct sex education classes. It is also encouraged that specialist sex education teachers are used, and that the relationship between technology and sex education needs to be continually readdressed and positively acknowledged. The study recommends that in the future of this research topic, more longitudinal and ethnographic studies need to be conducted to reinforce the support for such solutions as those displayed in this study.
Author: Erin Grace Maxwell, May 2019
BA (Hons) Sociology and Anthropology with Gender Studies
I would like to acknowledge how helpful and supportive Denise and Alexander have been throughout this project, no matter how many questions I sent their way. My confidence in achieving this dissertation would not have been possible without my family; Mum, Dad and Rosie, as they have continually believed in me and whatever I do. I would like to thank Hannah for dragging me out of bed every day and being my moral support system. Thank you to Chloe for using her own dissertation experience to guide me from day 1 and being my personal cheerleader.
Table of Contents
In 2020, The UK government’s Department of Education is reforming the current sex education (from now on referred to as SexEd) curriculum. The new guidelines provide students with relationships education both in primary and secondary school, alongside health education for all ages. These topics will cover areas such as anxiety, menstruation and sexting, all of which touch on mental health, female biology, and technology. The UK Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, highlighted that it has been almost twenty years since the latest update to SexEd in 2000 (Study International, 2019). Since then, society and culture has seen an increase in mental health issues in children increase by 600% (Pitchforth et al, 2018), and a ‘’continuous steep increase’’ in technology’s presence into children’s everyday lives between 2002 and 2014 (Pasha-Robinson, 2017).
The purpose of the reform is to readdress how children understand and are prepared for aspects of sex and relationships. Therefore, by understanding the purpose and potential SexEd has, the current and future SexEd guidelines can be either praised or criticised. An effective way of understanding the micro and macro implications of SexEd, is by using a social science approach. As Rogow & Haberland stated ‘’Presumably, a social studies curriculum would also aim to influence a wider range of outcome measures than those included in typical sexuality education programme evaluations.’’ (2008, 5)
My own SexEd followed the current guidelines still in place prior to the 2020 reform. An effective way to understand the direct affect and experiences of the current UK SexEd curriculum, is via Auto-ethnography. This study will combine my first-hand experience of UK SexEd, current academic discussions surrounding it, and relevant ongoing events to indicate issues and potential solutions in order to display the full potential of SexEd in UK society.
Basic SexEd aims to educate students on reproduction and health, but I will focus on gender and sexuality, sources of information, age, technology, mental health and consent, as I believe these are areas of interest in the improvement of SexEd. Therefore, I will be studying relevant literature from academic fields such as psychology, paediatrics, gender studies, and sociology.
The main aims and objectives of this study will investigate the following:
- To understand historical and current understandings of the purpose, issues and proposed solutions in SexEd.
- Assessing retrospectively elements of my own SexEd experience to apply to the wider context of the UK SexEd system.
- To highlight issues and apply potential solutions for future UK SexEd
- To understand the potential benefits to society SexEd could have.
2 Literature Review
Gender and sexuality identity
Many academics have discussed the importance of identity in society, such as Usborne & Taylor (2010), who understood its importance for well-being and self-esteem. Usborne and Taylor discussed how self-concept (i.e. identity) is part of a collective identity which comes from the individual’s knowledge, importance and emotional attachment to a membership.
This aspect of knowledge that Usborne and Taylor mentioned links to the wider understanding of how gender, an aspect of identity, is learned. Harrison (2000) stated that we choose to become men or women, our sexual behaviour, and sexuality, by learning how to. According to Harrison, this is socially constructed by social learning, and that this formal socialization can be found in the area of school SexEd. Other areas of this socialization can be brought into students’ perspectives within SexEd from their homes, community and peers. Harrison also discusses how if we live in a patriarchal society, our view of gender and sexuality are created in the perspective of the masculine, and this translates into our SexEd in how the male is seen as actively dominant and the female is submissively receptive.
This is also supported by classic anthropological works such as Margaret Mead’s ‘‘Coming of Age in Samoa’’ (1928). Mead’s ethnographic work supports the fact that gender and sexuality is learnt according to the society and therefore gender roles vary throughout the world depending on the society.
This concept that society is a variable within the learning of gender and sexuality identity links to education as a whole, as education does not exist in vacuum (Bass, 2008) and the social context that education occurs in, is society itself.
Research by Szirom (1998) found that gender roles affect the actual value of certain SexEd topics, and therefore reflects societies value of these topics relating to gender and sexuality identity. For example, feelings and emotions were much more valued by females to be featured in SexEd than males found it to be, in a study of 43 fifteen to sixteen-year-old pupils, which supports Harrisons previous point that females are perceived both in society and education as more sensitive and emotional than males. Szirom’s findings indicate that society and education reinforce gender roles, and this therefore creates different values between the genders in matters concerning SexEd.
This links to Davidson’s (1990) work on Male/Men’s issues that can be approached through improved SexEd. Davidson understood how gender roles encourage men to be sexual and sexualise women, but foundational aspects such as gender and sexuality identity that can help issues such as toxic masculinity, are not encouraged. Davidson understands the wider implications of SexEd into societal gendered issues such as male violence, sexual abuse, porn etc. Davidson points out how many societal sex issues have put the burden on women, with a ‘damage limitation’ approach to protecting women and children. Davidson states that the issue is not the very fact of being a man, but the model of masculinity in which we make men fit themselves.
Davidson shares the use of language used by Usborne and Taylor, and Harrison, in which terms like ‘knowledge’, ‘learned’, and ‘’process of learning’’ (Davidson, 1990, pg. 9) indicate how gender identity is learnt in the relationship between education socialization and society’s collective identities of gender.
A theme that occurs both in Szirom and Davidson’s work is how SexEd simultaneously takes a male perspective whilst neglecting the needs of men in society. In a patriarchal society, men are the dominant gender, therefore have the privilege to balance and tackle gender issues more so than the current burden on women or total neglect. Socialization through education currently reinforces this cycle of problematic gender roles, yet both Szirom and Davidson believe that SexEd is the avenue in which this model of masculinity (and femininity) can be corrected and reintroduced into society.
Szirom and Davidson also point out how SexEd is still mainly biological, and science based, approximately half of SexEd programmes found by Szirom at the time of writing (Australia in 1990’s). Oakley explained the term ‘Sex’ to be that which refers to the differences between male and female that are biological. Additionally, Oakley explains that ‘sexuality’ is the ‘’the whole area of personality related to sexual behaviour.’’(pg.99). Oakley suggests the focus on sex as a reproductive method, with a dominant male and submissive female, consequentially reinforces heteronormative sexuality values in society. Sexuality also refers to the very enjoyment of sex itself, which Oakley believes the submissive behaviour society enforces on females/women and general sex taboo, allows heteronormativity to be unchallenged and unable to ‘’direct the course of their own sexuality’’(pg.100)
However, Alldred & David (2007) state that children do not just learn about sexuality and sex biologically, but the heteronormative values and aspirations that shape their identities. This includes shaping desirable ideals of masculinity and femininity, which influences both gender identity and sexuality. Alldred & David believe that this highlights the importance of critiquing the normative by offering alternative forms of gender and sexuality in the curriculum, beyond the binary of biology determinism.
In opposition of gender and sexuality identity in SexEd, Alldred & David point out that family influence is a major part of children’s upbringing and development of gender and sexuality identity. They explain how family puts more control on girls’ sexual experience, with data evidence from Schofield’s ‘The Sexual Behaviour of Young People.’ (1968) This displays Oakley’s point that the reinforced gender roles, particularly the lack of women/female sexuality, influences the inadequate SexEd concerning sexuality, which is now indicated to be supported by family life beyond the classroom.
Another dynamic of opposition to gender and sexuality identity within SexEd, is religion. Rasmussen (2010) discussed the relationship between religion and SexEd in terms of secularism; the exclusion or rejection of religion. Rasmussen explains that in the context of the US and Australia, a ‘progressive’ universal SexEd would not honour how different groups of people see different models of SexEd as hegemonic and neglecting religious perspectives. Even when trying to consider different religious, secular and queer perspectives, they are incredibly diverse within their own groups. It is also noted that if gender and sexuality diversity is the progressive SexEd desired, religious diversity needs to be included too.
The combination of parents/family and religious opposition to sexuality and gender identity inclusion in SexEd discussed by Schofield and Rasmussen is identified by White (1994) as sharing a common ground of protecting children’s innocence. Halstead (1994) used examples in news at the time (UK early 1990’s) to show real life conflicts between parents, politicians and religious debate. One example showed a conflict between nurses and teachers encouraging non-patronising and open conversations about sexuality, again, conflicting with the desire to protect children’s innocence.
This issue concerning the relationship between religion and SexEd, in particular sexuality and gender, is understood by Bottery (1998) with two conflicting approaches; to either present SexEd in a ‘value-free manner’ (pg. 153) or in a way that represents all manner of morals surrounding the topic. Bottery explains this conflict as having on one hand, the value free method providing zero bias, but on the other hand such a sensitive and personal subject as SexEd cannot be discussed without language of morals and values.
Source of information, age, and technology
A crucial aspect of SexEd discussed academically is how and by whom the information is delivered. Dobson (2016) highlighted this in their work on peer led SexEd, in which they quoted the NHS Health Development Agency stating that ‘the way sexual issues are discussed…is as important as what is said’ (2001). Dobson explored the social theory of peer teaching and its support in many fields such as psychology, sociology and health. It acknowledges a common occurrence of patronising, awkwardness and lack of openness in many classrooms (Pound et al, 2016).
Kehily (2002) illustrates ethnographic evidence that supports Dobson’s teacher/student dynamic issues. Kehily’s work and interviews indicate real life examples, such as an interview with a teacher, in which they explained the gap between teachers and students as a ‘big gulf’ (194).
This complication with teachers and their position in SexEd was also understood by Dobson in three main ways; conservative, liberal, and feminist. Dobson suggests that out of the three approaches, the feminist is potentially the most progressive in displaying alternatives beyond the social norms, but if the students don’t appreciate this and its positive affect on their sexual behaviour and attitudes, the delivery of the information may not be able to neutralise outside influences in students’ lives.
These outside influences are widely talked about negatively as misinforming children beyond the SexEd that can be controlled, but Tjaden (1988) discussed both sides of pornography as a valid source or problematic influence within students’ SexEd. Tjaden discussed how many feminist stances such as those discussed by feminist theorists like Dworkin (1981) are anti-pornography for its particular influence as a key element of teenage boys’ SexEd understanding (McCarthy, 1982). Yet, Tjaden also points out how the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography called for the decriminalisation of pornography in 1970 for its resources in which SexEd is lacking (Commission, 1970, pp 54-57). Tjaden’s work and examples are from over 25 years ago, since then social media is now a major issue and influence within SexEd.
In more recent academic discussions, Manduley et al (2018) discussed how social media communication creates psychological and social benefits, particularly for minorities that have been neglected in inclusive SexEd, such as the QTPOC (Queer and Trans People of Colour) and LGBTQ communities. These neglectful gaps in SexEd have been addressed by these communities with different forms of communication in the past as explained by Stryker (2008). They explain how the US transgender pioneer Louise Lawrence would seek out fellow transgender folk with local advertisements and seeking those who have been arrested for public cross-dressing in the 1950’s. Eventually, Lawrence was able to connect with sex researchers, exchanging educational information to the community and share primary experiences with the researchers. Manduley et al suggest that social media is the next manifested method that these communities can use to address the repercussions of government.
They also recognise that social media comes with new ethical
issues but overall believe that social media’s benefit to those typically not
included in traditional SexEd is valuable.
Another method of compensating for failing SexEd beyond the classroom for the minority communities, is discussed by Bittner (2012); the young adult novel. Bittner suggests that not only are young adult novels a valued source of SexEd information for queer teens, but also for their non-queer peers to understand the experiences and perspectives beyond their own heteronormative/ cis-gendered. Young adult literature also aids the understanding of the more emotional and semantic aspects of sex and relationship education that the current curriculums are lacking. Young queer protagonists give substantial queer sexual dynamics that may be difficult to replicate in a classroom setting.
Oosterhoff et al (2017) support Bittner’s positivity surrounding
the potential good influence of modern technology in relation to SexEd,
however, is aware of the new challenges that have been caused by modern
technology itself, for example ‘revenge porn’. They also highlight the issue
that very little can be understood about the long-term generational effect of
online SexEd resources as it hasn’t been in action long enough for effective
Oosterhoff et al and Bittner’s stances on online SexEd are supported by Waldman and Amazon-Brown’s (2017) study in Sub-Saharan Africa, in which many adolescents could access SexEd through their phones, where otherwise they would be exposed to little or no SexEd at all. Oosterhoff et al believe that this example indicates positives in online SexEd, such as the anonymity, personalisation, and portability of its nature.
Another study concerning sex-based media material and the sexual behaviour of adolescents was a study on exposure to material such as television, music, films and magazines by Brown et al (2006). This longitudinal Paediatric study observed over a thousand students with a baseline interview at the ages of 12-14 years old, then two years later, a computer assisted self-interview. Brown et al looked at how the students SMD (sexual media diet) affected their sexual attitude. Specifically, Brown et al evaluated how SMD influenced white teens differently to black teens. White teens were negatively influenced by sexual media, becoming more likely to engage in sexual intercourse earlier, whereas their black peers were still more actively influenced by family and friend standards.
Despite the difference in the media concerned (social vs printed & visual), Brown et al supported some of the concerns Oosterhoff et al had about sexualised media as a source of SexEd. The study also addresses how Oosterhoff et al were concerned that social media had not been in society long enough for significant longitudinal studies, but the data by Brown et al can still apply and contribute to this discussion. However, the study’s data seems to consider the ages of 12-14 years old as the ‘baseline’ age, as if the students had not been exposed to sexual media or education before so.
The appropriate age of SexEd delivery is a widely discussed topic in which both the mental and physical development of children shapes the curriculum and timing of SexEd. Harrison (2000) presents age as a factor in SexEd by displaying how the health and nature of puberty of teenagers are changing, therefore suggesting SexEd needs to react. For example, Harrison points out that the age of puberty has gotten one month earlier for the average teen in each decade of twentieth century Britain. Consequentially, roughly one in every ten female students start their period before their last year of primary school. Harrison also points out that teens sexual behaviour doesn’t necessarily match with the legally suggested ages in the UK, so SexEd programmes are most realistic to organise curriculums with this acknowledged instead of fighting it. An important aspect of law, and sex that Harrison highlights is that non-consensual sex with a minor and paedophilia are issues within society that concern those under the legal ages, so teaching SexEd earlier than the current traditional system would most likely protect more children if they are aware of these issues that affect them as minors.
As mentioned in the gender and sexuality section, the parental influence on SexEd and its appropriate ages are often caused by the concept of childhood innocence (McGinn et al 2016). This has been discussed in many academic sectors as a fear of ‘childhood adultification’, in which there is a concern of changing children’s behaviour in a manner deemed sexualised and not appropriate (Fields 2005, Poulin-Dubois et al 2002). McGinn et al found from focus group interviews with parents, that childhood innocence was frequently equated with a lack of sexuality, and that the desire to protect this innocence consequentially led to a lack of communication with their children about SexEd matters.
McGinn et al support Harrison’s point acknowledging that society’s concepts of childhood innocence are not coherent to the ages of children and their experiences with aspects of SexEd in real life. Shtarkshall et al (2007) suggest that there needs to be a distinct separation understood between SexEd and sexual socialisation, such as the media sources that Brown et al discussed.
Communication and desire: Mental health, consent:
Satcher explained how ‘’sexual health is inextricably bound to both physical and mental health.’’ (2001). As found throughout academic SexEd discussions, the emphasis on biology is weakening and being replaced with more subjective based topics such as sexual fulfilment, anxiety and ethics (Korcok, 1982). The contribution and benefit to society’s mental health that SexEd could have alongside the rise of women’s rights, is explained by Watson & Maurice (1978). Their study looked at SexEd for target groups beyond children in mainstream education, such as SexEd for psychiatric patients. Watson & Maurice suggested that not only does this case study show the importance of mental health support within SexEd, but for those who otherwise function normally without psychopathological issues in society.
This is supported by Freud who stated that ‘’many people are abnormal in their sexual life who in every other respect approximate the average.’’’ (1905), suggesting that people may think their mental health and sexual behaviour is normal or healthy, but via thorough mental health support in SexEd, issues may be identified. Watson and Maurice understand Freud’s point by explaining how sexual mental health issues are perceived as typically being caused by childhood trauma/events, but simpler and less direct societal miscommunication about sex and relationships can also cause mental health issues.
A major link to mental health widely academically discussed within SexEd is consent and sexual desire. Powell’s ‘Sex, Power and Consent: Youth culture and the unwritten rules’ (2010) displays evidence from student interviews that indicate that the sexual health information received would only mention consent by chance. Powell believes that it should be structurally featured within SexEd, particularly how in recent years it has been clarified legally. Therefore, education needs to catch up, so that people are aware of boundaries before incidents occur, instead of learning about consent through experiences that can be avoided.
Powell understands consent to be crucial in the ideal SexEd curriculum, as SexEd reinforces the dominant/submissive gender roles for men and women, in which male sexual arousal is understood via wet dreams and erections. Powell points out that typically, the only female specific topic is menstruation, which is as presented as an issue; if girls do not have the opportunity to understand that their sexual arousal/desire is valid, they will not be able to understand what they do not desire, and therefore not understand personal consent.
Fine & McClelland (2006) support Powell’s correlation between sexual desire and the understanding of consent. They believe the ‘missing discourse of desire’ has direct consequences for girls’ capability to navigate sexual consent.
Although SexEd is a feature of systematic socialisation through the social institution of Education, it is still interpreted through individual personal experience, for example, depending on classroom dynamic, the teacher, family, and cultural influence. Therefore, I have decided an effective primary data method to contribute to existing findings surrounding SexEd, is via auto-ethnography.
Auto-ethnography is the anthropological qualitative research method, in which first-hand cultural experiences are retro-actively analysed using self-reflection (Ellis et al 2011). This means I will be understanding my own individual SexEd experience in relation to academic observations and understandings of SexEd in the UK. I believe my experience can contribute towards, and support current academic discussions, as I was a student between 2002-2016, therefore my mainstream education experience was between the last reform of SexEd (2000) and the upcoming reform (2020).
Auto-ethnography is a less well-known anthropological field work method, which I believe is due to some of its criticisms, all of which I need to be aware of in order to contribute valid data to the wider discussions surrounding SexEd. For example, Ellis (2003) discussed with other auto-ethnographic writers about appearing ‘self-absorbed’. Anthropology and social sciences in general are by nature a focus on understanding cultural and social perspectives that are not our own and understanding those who society deem as ‘the other’ (Sarukkai, 1997). However, Ellis points out that it could be seen as self-absorbed ‘to pretend that you are somehow outside of what you study and not impacted by the same forces as others. Its self-absorbed to mistakenly think that your actions and relationships need no reflexive thought.’’(pg.50) I support Ellis’ point, and in consideration of this criticism, I will ensure to apply my own experience where necessary, whilst simultaneously using secondary data to look beyond my SexEd experience, for example LGBTQ perspectives.
The nature of auto-ethnography is in hind-sight, which Jerome (1993) believes is a positive in comparison to the traditional ethnography. They believe that by experiencing something organically, and then reflecting later, it is more accurate than participant observation, in which one is only experiencing a cultural experience to be become part of social science data. This applies to my own auto-ethnography, as it is crucial, I understand the experience from a student perspective rather than a strictly social scientist mindset, as the intention is to propose the best SexEd for students.
As auto-ethnography is an overlap of auto-biography and ethnography, it has a delicate balance between being creative and scientific (Anderson, 2006). I will have to ensure every vignette or anecdote I use is valid and relevant.
I was originally planning to conduct a small sample of semi-structured interviews with peer students, to explore a range of experiences within UK mainstream SexEd, however I became aware of potential ethical issues due to the sensitive nature of SexEd topics, such as mental health, consent, sexual identity, etc.With support from my supervisor, I was able to conclude that an auto-ethnographic approach would benefit my contribution to the social science discussions surrounding SexEd.
4 Discussion and Findings
Gender and sexuality identity
I hope to understand how my school experience both inside and outside actual SexEd lessons affected my understanding and development of my gender and sexuality identity. Alongside my understanding of the current literature surrounding gender and sexuality identity within SexEd, my auto-ethnographic approach should contribute and support the ongoing discussions. I will also be contributing relevant cultural examples concerning gender and sexuality within SexEd and analyse the cultural commentary they suggest on the topic.
It was the induction day at my new secondary school, we were gathered into the hall in clusters of familiar faces from each primary school. Every girl scanned the rest of the hall wondering which strangers would soon become their new best friends over the next seven years. But one person in particular had everyone’s attention, they stood alone in the hall with the same look of trepidation as the rest, but the attention wasn’t positive. I heard one girl whisper to her friend, ‘’Oh my god, some boy has turned up to the wrong school, he’s supposed to be at the boy’s school.’’ I admit that was my first reaction too, I was also bewildered by how someone can turn up to the wrong school, particularly when it’s an all-girls school.
It was a girl, who became a classmate of mine over the years. But over the seven years at the school, she was continuously cast as an outsider for having short hair and being what would be described as a ‘tomboy’. In year 7, girls would spread rumours about the girl having different crushes on students. In year 9 she told everyone she had a boyfriend, who no-one happened to know, which was bizarre in a city like Plymouth, described by locals as ‘the biggest village in the country’. She later confessed to me she made him up just to stop everyone making gay jokes about her.
This anecdote illustrates how both mine and many of my peer’s primary school SexEd failed to allow us to understand different expressions of femininity and masculinity, consequentially ostracising a classmate throughout her secondary school experience.
This emphasises the importance of UK SexEd curriculums to highlight gender and sexuality beyond the reproductive and sexual framework it is presented, as it is also key in identity development. This supports Alldred and David’s (2007) proposal for alternative gender expression beyond the binaries to be explored and heteronormativity to be critiqued within SexEd.
Gender and sexuality education beyond Sex education
The few occasions I can recall presentations of gender and sexuality expression beyond the norm, were in my English literature lessons. Key literary pieces in our GCSE’s and A levels, such as To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and poetry by Carol Ann Duffy, presented a tomboy female lead, and a complex lesbian love story. The discussions that took place concerning these pieces would simultaneously celebrate their diversity whilst showing how these alternative stories were emotionally relatable for all readers. By using an English literature perspective, this also tackled the typically sexualised understanding of queer relationships, by focusing on the semantics and complexities of atypical gender and sexuality. Bittner’s (2012) work on young adult novels as sources of SexEd information, particularly for LGBTQ students, illustrates this aspect of SexEd found within other subject curriculums.
My relevant experience in English Literature lessons indicates that improved gender and sexuality SexEd is possible, as the content and discussions surrounding gender and sexuality exist within subjects that don’t intend to provide SexEd.
Gender and sexuality issues in school culture
This vignette also suggests that problematic school culture hinders student’s sexuality and gender identity experience and understanding. The potential solution and benefit of embedding gender and sexuality awareness throughout school life was displayed in a 2017 BBC Documentary called ‘’No More Boys and Girls- Can Our Kids Go Gender Free’’.
One example displayed in the documentary was a teacher’s habit of addressing the students with gendered nicknames, such as ‘darling’ for the girls, and ‘fella’ for the boys. Dr Javid Abdelmoneim, the presenter of the programme, and established researcher in gender conditioning in schools, explains how the gendered language teachers and society use reinforce cis-gender binaries in everyday life (Attenborough, 2014). When Dr Abdelmoneim highlights this issue to the teacher, the teacher makes a very valid point, ‘’I’m really aware that I do this…it’s sort of engrained it’s just something I do so I find it really hard not to do it’’. I believe this point illustrates that although educational use of gender language is a small yet effective way to transition out of reinforced gender binaries, the blame and responsibility should not be focussed on individual teachers, when they too, are a product of a gendered patriarchal society.
This supports Bass’s (2008) understanding that education does not exist in a vacuum in which the context of our education is society itself. This suggests that gender and sexuality understanding in SexEd is key to break the cycle of the next generation’s gender and sexuality values, which would influence the following generation’s SexEd.
Another aspect of my gender and sexuality identity SexEd experience, is the censorship and sexualisation of femininity and female sexuality in the school culture. Despite the celebration of female education throughout my school’s history, the sexualised school uniform rules from the age of eleven suggested that the handful of males within the school (male teachers) would not be able to do their jobs or feel uncomfortable if a student’s skirt was too short. In hindsight, this continuous reminder of how our young bodies could be perceived as being presented as sexual or inappropriate is a product of the wider gendered patriarchal society we live in. The Boy’s school equivalent of my school had uniform rules, but usually in order to look smart, not to avoid sexualisation. From my personal experience, I can see how many girls in the UK school system would justify and link the sexualisation of their bodies and clothing, which causes problematic victim blaming beyond school. For example, when unfortunate sexual harassment/abuse or rape occurs, many people question what the victim, majority are women, were wearing.
This represents the issue within gender and sexuality education and school culture, it is not only reinforcing outdated gender and sexuality roles, but the patriarchal society too. Rape culture, a product of the patriarchal society, is being excused by the sexualisation of school girls’ bodies and how they are presented and policed.
Gender roles and the patriarchal system being fuelled in SexEd can also be found in how menstruation is presented to students. As Powell (2010) suggested, one of the few female specific topics discussed in SexEd, is menstruation, and is presented as an issue to be dealt with. The still relatively shamed nature in which periods are discussed, in SexEd, reinforces the submissive nature that is encouraged in the female gender role in our patriarchal system.
Another aspect of school culture that can improve gender and sexuality identity education, is school design. In 2017, Breadalbane Academy in Scotland caused controversy concerning the toilet designs. The school had fully enclosed separate unisex toilets with communal washbasin areas. The assistant headteacher of the school, Mr Devine, claimed it would decrease bullying and the general anxiety many students experience when using the facilities (Sleight, 2017).
Despite my school being an all-girls secondary school, the sixth form began encouraging male students from other schools to join. As I became friends with my male peers, I discovered they would have to use the sparse disabled toilets throughout the school, as there were no designated male toilets.
Many discussions surrounding unisex toilets concern safety and accommodation for the transgender community. TERF’s (trans exclusive radical feminists) are vocal against unisex toilets due to the potential rise in sexual assaults (WomansPlace UK). However, this myth is frequently rejected with substantial evidence, for example, in the US, this type of voyeurism has never been reported in states that would legally enable and protect trans people to use their chosen gender associated toilet facility (Lopez, 2018).
I believe the design of school toilet facilities can contribute to the everyday understanding of gender and sexuality identity. It is a simple yet effective method of illustrating how sex and gender are two separate things. As mentioned by Breadalbane Academy Headteacher Mr Devine, it also can aid the prevention of bullying and anxiety in the student experience.
This unnecessary categorisation of gender within school toilet facilities is similar to my SexEd experience in primary school, in which half way through our SexEd lesson, the boys and girls were separated into different classrooms. In the girl’s classroom, we were taught about menstruation, and to this day I don’t know what the boys were learning about otherwise. Plan International UK believes that in order to fight the taboo surrounding periods, both boys and girls need more education on the topic. The charity conducted a survey of 1000 UK females between the ages of 14-21, which showed that almost of half of those surveyed felt embarrassed by their period (Plan International UK, 2017). This indicates that the division of the genders in my primary school SexEd classes reinforced the taboo nature surrounding periods, and does not aid, but hinders steps towards better gender and sexuality understanding.
Gender and Sexuality education within religious communities
A relevant issue to this point concerning society’s influence on SexEd and vice versa occurred in a Birmingham school this year, in which the school’s inclusion of LGBT’S rights to tackle homophobia in schools, was met with protests from parents keeping their children out of lessons approximately 600 students in total. Parkfield community school faced backlash from the mainly Muslim local community, as they believe they are actively promoting gay and transgender lifestyles on their children. The curriculum content that was concerned was a feature of the school’s ‘No Outsiders’ programme, which celebrated diversity across race, religion, gender etc. In fact, the proudly gay assistant headteacher of the school was nominated for a global teacher award worth one million dollars for designing the programme. Ofsted publicly supported the school and the programme stating that its ‘outstanding’ rating reflected its promotion of ‘’tolerance, acceptance and mutual respect’’.
This issue at Parkfield community school displays the conflict Rasmussen (2010) and Halstead (1994) discussed in their work concerning education, religion and communities. Rasmussen’s work particularly focused on Muslim communities, much like this community surrounding Parkfield community school. I believe the issue lies in the approach to what the programme understands as ‘outsiders’, the parents generation’s education, and religious cultural context. I believe it is crucial that the acceptance of all outsiders is needed in a diverse society, but it is important to not group all of ‘the others’ together, and understand how each minority, whether through race, gender, religion, sexuality etc, perceive and experience the world differently.
The controversy surrounding Parkfield Community school circulated the news, and was even discussed on BBC Question Time. The topic discussion was presented via the question ‘’Is it morally right for 5-year-old children to learn about LGBT issues in school?’’. This feature in the programme itself cause media coverage, as many organisations were outraged that the issue was even debateable. For example, an iNews article branded the question ‘shameful’ for perceiving someone’s right to exist (the LGBTQ community) as a moral issue (Anderson, 2019). This indicates that although this controversy surrounding Parkfield community school started as a Muslim community concern, the wider media participation complicated the issue further.
Gender and Sexuality identity findings
By combining the retrospective analysis of my own SexEd and school experience with current examples of these issues and support from academic findings, I have been able to understand how I believe there are issues with gender and sexuality education and potential solutions.
I have highlighted personal anecdotes that prove failings in SexEd both in primary and secondary school. My experiences came from a mixed primary school and all-girls secondary school, both of which contribute valid evidence, particularly for issues concerning gender and sexuality, as the there was evidence of reinforcement of cis-gender and heteronormativity in both cases. It is significant that my experience in an all-girls school still fuelled patriarchal gender roles, such as the female sexualisation via school uniforms rules, as the absence of male peer gaze/presence could suggest more empowering female gender and sexuality understanding, which isn’t the case.
By understanding gender and sexuality education through school culture, in school curriculum and religious community context, Bass’s (1997) belief that education does not exist in a vacuum is strongly supported throughout the examples illustrated. This confirms both that UK education and society as a whole, fails to provide and support gender and sexuality understanding. Therefore, in order to tackle gender and sexuality understanding in education, the societal context in which that education exists also needs to improve, and vice versa.
I believe that the collected evidence suggests that as the wider school culture, societal context, and school curriculum beyond SexEd, are also problematic in establishing support and gender and sexuality identity for students, these aspects can be where direct improvement can start. For example, by introducing wider context to LGBTQ issues in subjects such as history, religious studies, and English literature, UK education will provide a wider and more semantic understanding of gender and sexuality beyond basic SexEd and biology. Particularly in a religious studies perspective, students would be able to understand and respect both the LGBTQ community and religious freedom.
Source of Information, Age and Technology
In order to understand the issues and potential solutions surrounding sources of information, age and technology in and out of SexEd, I will analyse current findings, relevant recent affairs, and my own experience. The aim is, to use relevant experience and findings to support or bring light other areas surrounding source of information, age and technology. I believe sources of information, age and technology are interconnected in SexEd, which will be displayed throughout this section.
It was late into Year 9 at my secondary school one lunchtime, where a group of my tutor class discussed the stories of our first period experience, as now most of us had experienced it. One girl in the group, a typically quiet student, began sharing her story. She mentioned how she was quite young, before she had left primary school at least. She was at home when she realised her period had started, but because her school and mum had not yet explained to her about periods, she genuinely was worried she was internally bleeding and dying. She ran to her mum crying, and luckily her mum was able to explain the situation to her. We were all laughing at the time, it was a fairly amusing story, but you could still see how that initial panic felt very real to her at the time.
Looking back at my classmates first experience of her period, I believe many girls would jump to the same conclusion as she did at her age with that lack of knowledge. This anecdote proves that UK female students are experiencing aspects of puberty prior to their education on such matters, making it redundant and dangerous for their puberty experience and wellbeing. This supports Harrison’s (2000) evidence that girls are starting their periods at earlier ages than the previous generations. Therefore, both my own experience learning about fellow students’ experiences and Harrison’s point, suggest that SexEd curriculum needs to readdress the ages at which aspects of SexEd are present to UK students.
Childhood innocence and communication
McGinn et al (2016) discussed how the link between society and specifically parent’s perception of childhood innocence, directly affects their relationship and communication concerning SexEd.
In my own personal experience, I can see how this may have affected my parent’s responsibility of SexEd outside of school. I never had a direct ‘sex talk’ with my parents, but throughout my childhood and teenage years, I remember having conversations about films and television we would watch concerning SexEd matters such as relationships, abuse, marriage, childbirth etc. This indirect manner of discussing SexEd topics was at least better than nothing, but I do remember feeling hesitant to ask questions if I needed to. In hindsight, I also understood some aspects of SexEd with my sister, who is four and a half years older, but this would then be open to misinformation. This supports McGinn et al with a real-life example of how the concept of childhood innocence hinders children’s SexEd communication with their family.
This can be seen in the UK governments recent announcement concerning age and access to porn. From July 15th (2019) onwards, all online users will need to prove they are 18 or over to access adult content. The UK minister for digital, Margot James, stated that the law was needed to ‘’protect children from inappropriate content’’ (Griffin, 2019). This both concerns source of information, age and technology, as Tjaden (1988) understood porn to be a positive source of SexEd. Therefore, I believe this is a mistake from the government overall, as teenagers with access to the internet may then find more extreme, negatively influential porn instead. The law could also be adjusted, as I believe the allocated age of 18 and over doesn’t even compliment other UK laws concerning age and sex. The legal age for consensual sex is 16, suggesting there is two years in which teenagers can be sexually active but not able to access porn. I understand protecting younger children from explicit porn, particularly if they are exposed to it prior to SexEd, but choosing the legal age to be 18 seems illogical. This is also supported by Harrison (2000), who suggested that SexEd needs to address the reality that teenagers are not necessarily becoming sexually active in conjunction with the suggested legal ages.
Technology and social media as a source of sex education
My school experience spanned from 2002 to 2016 in which the public use of technology and social media really integrated into daily life. I remember in my first year of secondary school, touch screen phones were a novelty, by the time we were in year 13, iPads were being used like textbooks. In less than two decades, the use and ability of technology and social media has drastically changed. Therefore, it is crucial that UK SexEd is aware of its implications in children’s SexEd experience as it continues to develop.
In year 11, our school had a guest assembly in which a man working alongside the police warned us about the dangers of social media. In front of the whole school, he projected images some students from our school had posted on Facebook. People were either embarrassed when their picture would appear on the school hall projector, or nervously anticipating if they would appear next. These were just silly photos, and the main goal of the assembly was to raise awareness of social media content in terms of future employability, but it made me think more about what I post online.
The experience of this school assembly I witnessed in year 11 shows an example of how schools approach education concerning social media and technology. In hindsight, I think this was a drastic approach in its method of shaming and embarrassing students in front of the school to fearmonger students into being more hesitant of how they use social media. This assembly did not relate directly to SexEd topics, but the approach still affects students outlook and understanding of the use of social media and technology. There are of course, dangers to social media and technology use, as Oosterhoff et al (2017) explained, such as ‘revenge porn’ and it is key that students are aware of these dangers, but the blanket fear and shame of the assembly’s approach fails to understand social media and technology as a positive educational tool. In later years, teachers used websites such as YouTube for educational purposes, and in my private use of social media, I recall watching SexEd videos from YouTube channels such as Hannah Witton. I have found in my experience with YouTube as a source of SexEd information, that if people are putting in the effort to make these videos in the first place, they usually have the intention to be more honest, passionate, unbiased and make up for lacking areas in their own school SexEd. These advantages found in this example of technology as source of SexEd support Manduley et al (2018) and Waldman & Amazon-Brown (2017), all of which found positives in how technology provides anonymity, portability, and personalisation for those such as the LGBTQ community. This indicates that the potential for technology and social media as a source of SexEd is currently underestimated and misunderstood in how, particularly in my experience, it is feared and steered clear from.
Sex education sources beyond the teacher
Another element concerning the sources of information within SexEd, is who is providing the education. Typically, this is understood in the forms of either school teachers or parents, but as Dobson (2016) explored methods such as peer-lead SexEd, have currently underrated value.
I was fortunate enough to have relatively open and passionate teachers when it came to my SexEd, the awkwardness came more so from the topic than the teacher in which the subject was being discussed. However, as Kehily (2002) understood, the general procedure and system of school SexEd suffers from the student/teacher dynamic.
In year 11, we had a guest-led SexEd lesson provided by our local University’s society ‘Sexpression’. This was run by university students who had become qualified to teach aspects of SexEd that may not be necessarily covered in basic teacher-led SexEd. I believe this was beneficial, as it was refreshing to not only be taught by new people who were very pro-active and passionate about SexEd, and were closer to our age range, I felt as though it was less patronising and relatable. It was less awkward having someone new come in, as it wasn’t an authoritative teacher us students would see daily, and we had more confidence in their SexEd knowledge as they were specialists.
The Sex Education Forum and PSHE Association launched their survey results in 2018 which showed that nearly 30% of teachers deliver relationships and SexEd classes with no training (Emmerson, 2018). This indicates the pressure on unqualified teachers to be capable to deliver adequate SexEd, is failing students SexEd experience.
Source of information, age and technology findings
By understanding how sources of information, age and technology affected my SexEd experience, alongside academic support and relative current issues, I have highlighted issues and potential solutions within UK SexEd.
The direct link between society’s concept of childhood innocence and its negative affect on SexEd communication, can be seen in my classmates first period experience. This suggests that the protection of societal concepts such as childhood innocence is causing unnecessarily traumatic experiences of puberty and sexual activity. Therefore, I believe there needs to be work and awareness into disconnecting healthy SexEd communication with ‘’childhood adultification’’ (Fields 2005, Poulin-Dubois et al 2002).
In terms of technology and social media as a tool for SexEd, I believe the evidence suggests UK SexEd is not in touch with the reality that technology is now so inbred in our society and children’s lives. The UK curriculum would be more effective in setting examples of healthy and positive relationships with social media if it embraces it. This could be done by integrating social media as an education tool within lessons, even beyond SexEd. If so, it would be key that the UK curriculum continually readdresses how social media continually changes, both in its advantages and disadvantages, in order to adequately prepare and equip students to use it to its best positive ability.
The issues displayed within the typical teacher/student dynamic found in SexEd suggests that there may benefits for UK SexEd in specialist sex educators. In the same manner that secondary schools have subject specific teachers for Maths, Religious Studies, ICT, etc, the amount of specialist content and the necessary relationship needed between the educator and students suggests that SexEd specific teachers are needed to fulfil the subject’s potential.
Communication and Desire: Mental health and consent
In this section, I will illustrate the relationship and importance of mental health in SexEd. Again, I will do so by retrospectively analysing my own experience, compare to academic findings, and discuss relevant current events surrounding mental health and SexEd.
In year 11, after ending an unhealthy friendship that lasted over two years, I struggled to socialise with people throughout my daily life in school. I had no one to enjoy break and lunchtimes with, as all the friendships groups around me were exclusive and formed over five years. As the pressure of GCSE’s began to rise, this lack of socialising meant I had very little relief from exam anxiety day to day. I soon started taking days off of school, claiming I was ill to my parents, and telling my classmates that I was having panic attacks. I was lying. I would explain my frustration to my parents, and they would comfort me by telling me it wouldn’t be for long, as exams will finish, and I can make new friends in the next school year. I knew it would end (the exams), but I couldn’t find the hope I needed that the emotions I was feeling would end. As a typically optimistic and sociable person, this was the least like me I had been.
When reflecting on my mental health in Year 11, I now recognise that I was in fact going through a period of depression and anxiety. It is only now, through discussions with other people, and society’s recent mental health awareness, that I have recognised this. At the time when I most needed it, I did not have the resources to address this. In my school, we had one small office with two members of staff that we could go to if we wanted to discuss work or mental health. It was only open Thursday lunchtimes. In terms of mental health within SexEd, I don’t recall it ever coming up. It can’t be determined, but maybe if I had more curriculum-based discussions concerning mental health, I could’ve identified my issues more effectively. SexEd could be the most effective vehicle to educate students on personal mental health, as Satcher (2001) stated ‘’sexual health is inextricably bound to both physical and mental health.’’
Mental health in sex education
In recent years, the mental health of UK university students has been an increasing concern. The Guardians 2017 Student Experience survey showed that almost 90% of first year students struggle with the social and academic elements of university. These aspects include the experiences of living independently (22%), isolation (44%), or financial difficulties (36%) (Wakeford, 2017). This suggests that whatever mental health education UK students are typically being provided with, is not preparing them for adulthood or university life.
A major part of UK SexEd, as I saw in my experience, was the aim of preventing pregnancy and STI’s (sexually transmitted diseases). However, my SexEd experience never explained the necessary steps of what to do ifsomeone gets pregnant or STI’s, for example, smear tests, abortion, etc. A major part of both pregnancy and STI’s are the effects on mental health. For example, depression, anxiety, OCD, and PTSD can occur during pregnancy (NICE, 2014). This suggests that SexEd should highlight the link between mental health and already existing topics within current SexEd.
Consent in Sex education
Consent was not mentioned in my SexEd lessons; however, I recall discussions concerning consent in my English Literature lessons. When studying To Kill a Mockingbird (GCSE) and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (A Level), themes that would arise in which the definition and opinions on consent could be discussed. Much like my point made previously concerning my experience with gender and sexuality within English Literature lessons, this indicates that the content needed in order to discuss such topics with students already exists within education beyond SexEd.
The importance of consent in SexEd is illustrated in recent events in the current wave of feminism. The #MeToo movement, founded in 2006, has gained popularity recently due to its awareness within mainstream media. It started with a focus on sexual violence, particularly for WoC (women of colour) victims. As its gained momentum, #MeToo has now highlighted the issue of sexual harassment and abuse both in and out of the workplace. The movement has not only created more open discussions for victims, but made those not affected, be aware of how common it is, and how situations that have been normalised in society, actually cause harm to many unspoken victims, in a patriarchal society that encourages and excuses it. The raised awareness surrounding how underrated sexual harassment/abuse is in society suggests a lack of societal knowledge concerning consent, both from the perpetrators, victims and bystanders.
The sexualisation of consent
Another element of consent that may explain its lack of presence and failure in UK SexEd, is its sexualisation. Much like the rise in mental health issues within universities, sexual harassment and rape cases in UK universities have risen in recent years. According to NUS figures, approximately a third of all female students and 13% of male students surveyed had experienced unconsented touching. Additionally, only 43% of female victims proceed in reporting incidents (St George, 2017). These statistics indicate that many UK university students do not understand consent, and this lack of awareness is preventing cases being reported, meaning it could create a cycle of rape culture.
In response, many universities have included voluntary or mandatory consent classes. However, these classes have faced backlash. At York University, students walked out of the classes, claiming the workshops were fearmongering that universities are not safe places, and that they were not necessary. As my evidence displays, this is not true, sexual harassment and rape is underrated in society. In fact, York University’s Student Union Women’s Officer reassured that the classes were aiming to provide awareness and reassurance to students that the university could be a safer place. Again, this indicates a failing in earlier education that is consequentially affecting the UK student experience at university
The government has recently proposed that consent classes will be introduced in UK primary schools, which has faced harsher criticisms. This may be due to the objection against the age at which students are being exposed to the topic of consent. I believe this is due to the limited understanding of consent that is seen as a relatively sexual subject. However, consent goes beyond sexual activity, consent covers all physical boundaries. For example, Girls Scouts of the USA, with the support of their developmental psychologist Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald, released a statement this year reminding parents that children are not obliged to show affection to people, even family. ‘The notion of consent may seem very grown-up and like something that doesn’t pertain to children… but the lessons girls learn when they’re young about setting physical boundaries…can influence how she feels about herself and her body as she gets older.’’ (A. B. Archibald, 2019).
This reasoning for teaching children about consent early on may understand consent beyond its sexualisation, but it is still significant to understand the concerns of children as sexual assault victims. For example, BBC’s Panorama found approximately 30,000 cases across four years of children sexually abusing other children, with over 2500 of the cases occurring on school grounds (Petter, 2018). As minors, children are also vulnerable to other crimes, such as paedophilia or non-consensual sex with a minor, as Harrison (2000) highlighted. Therefore, it would be in the UK SexEd curriculum’s best interest to educate students about consent and physical boundaries to address this issue, as society’s misunderstanding of consent as a sexual adulthood issue is leaving children vulnerable to sexual abuse.
Sexual desire in sex education
The sexualisation of consent is also linked to the taboo of sexual desire in SexEd. In my own experience, within an all-girls school, there wasn’t any acknowledgement of sexual desire or fulfilment. From around year 9 onwards, I could see how our teachers were aware some of us were starting to become sexually active, but it was always avoided, as if it was easier to explain sex as a future issue for us. My SexEd experience never understanding how to enjoy sex, as Powell (2010) and Fine & McClelland (2006) explained, the ‘’missing discourse of sexual desire’’ consequentially prevents children, particularly girls, the main victims of sexual abuse in our patriarchal society, understanding consent. I believe that again, this lack of sexual desire content in SexEd is due to the fear of ‘childhood adultification’ mentioned by Fields and Poulin-Dubois et al (2005, 2002). It may be linked to the wider patriarchal implication that women have less sexual desire than men, something that researchers have assumed for centuries. However, more recent evidence suggests that the difference between the two sexes sexuality is not as dissimilar as society, and SexEd currently understands (Nuwer,2016).
Communication & Desire: Mental Health & Consent Findings
By analysing my own experience, alongside current events and academic findings, I have illustrated issues within UK school SexEd concerning mental health and consent.
My evidence suggests that the link between mental health and consent in SexEd needs to be highlighted to students. Much like the gender and sexuality content mentioned previously, my experience of subjects beyond SexEd proves that these conversations can be achieved with students without inappropriate ‘childhood adultification’. Therefore, the content could either be increased in other subjects such as Religious Studies, English etc, or more direct content within SexEd itself.
By acknowledging that students are minors and therefore vulnerable to crimes such as paedophilia, SexEd can provide students with valuable information that could protect them as minors, and potentially improve teacher/student dynamics discussed by Pound et al (2016).
This links to the significance of sexual desire being acknowledged in SexEd, if the curriculum and educators accept that students are becoming sexually active and have sexual desires, the relationship can be improved further, and tackle the taboo of sexual pleasure. SexEd needs to include content that encourages students to understand that sex can be good when consensual and safe.
When applying my experiences in SexEd to current findings and relevant current affairs, it was key to be aware of the advantages and disadvantages that were occurring due to my chosen method of primary qualitative data.
Post data collection, I believe auto-ethnography is a valid and effective anthropological method. Some of the benefits I discovered included the creativity that was needed to display vignettes. As social sciences aim to scientifically approach culture, which a key element of which is art in all its forms, I believe the creativity needed to effectively present auto-ethnographic data reinforces this link that defines social sciences.
An issue that occurred throughout my data collection was the validity and memory issue highlighted previously in my methodology. It was key that I did not misinterpret my own memories to align with the secondary data I had found.
A surprising element of my primary data was the number of relevant vignettes that were from beyond my SexEd lessons. Many of my relevant anecdotes were from general school experiences, but still contributed commentary on SexEd. This is how I understood the importance of school culture and wider society’s effects on SexEd.
This application of my experiences to secondary data enabled the anthropological practice of bias awareness. The link between my experiences as a SexEd student and social scientist enabled links to be made, that may not be possible via primary qualitative methods such as interviews or questionnaires. For example, the relevant school experiences I applied to my discussion beyond SexEd may not be illustrated through traditional interview questions that would focus on SexEd directly. This reinforces the anthropological practice of Holism, in which I have understood the wider implications and signs of SexEd beyond the classes themselves.
Overall, I believe that by being aware of the advantages and disadvantages of auto-ethnography before the beginning of my primary data process, I was able to still contribute valid qualitative primary data to the academic discussion surrounding UK SexEd.
This research project has explored the issues and potential solutions within UK SexEd by applying academic findings with my relevant school experience under the current UK government guidelines. In this section, I will recap my findings conclusively in relation to my initial objectives and aims, discuss recommendations for the future reform, and understand the importance of my findings.
In my initial secondary research, displayed in my literature review, it can be seen that many academic discussions around SexEd concern three main topics; gender and sexuality, technology, and mental health. This section addressed my objective to understand historical and current understandings of the purpose, issues and proposed solutions in SexEd.
It was found that gender and sexuality education is key in terms of childhood development of identity and wellbeing. The UK’s gendered patriarchal society has an influence on education, creating a cycle of reinforcement to continue the gendered patriarchal society. This is reinforced through religious influence and the biologically deterministic function of SexEd as an understanding of reproduction, which encourages both the binary genders and heteronormativity. Overall, it is understood that alternative forms of gender and sexuality beyond the hegemonic need to be presented in SexEd, for children to both understand their own and other people’s gender and sexuality identity.
The academic discussions on the sources of SexEd, focus on the issue of the awkward and patronising teacher/student dynamic, in which technology or peer led teaching are suggested. There are both advantages and disadvantages surrounding technology and social media as sources of SexEd, but while mainstream education is failing, students are looking towards the internet for information. Age is concern within SexEd as society’s concept of childhood innocence hinders successful SexEd, the fear of ‘childhood adultification’ believes that it is wrong to expose certain sexual matters to children, despite students becoming involved with sex and puberty earlier than it is legally and biologically assumed.
Mental health is understood academically as a necessary aspect of SexEd, to balance out the physical emphasis that is found in SexEd. Better mental health elements within SexEd is also believed to improve students understanding of sexual desire. Therefore, by understanding that the personal positive aspects of sex, people can begin to understand what is not acceptable, which is key to understanding consent.
My discussion analysis achieved my objectives in assessing retrospectively elements of my own SexEd experience to apply to the wider context of the UK SexEd system, highlighting issues and applying potential solutions, and understanding the potential benefits to society SexEd could have.
By combining my primary data analysis, relevant current affairs, and the previous secondary data, I found that UK SexEd should benefit from an increase in sexuality and gender diversity representation, which can be achieved both in SexEd curriculum itself and subjects beyond, such as English Literature, History, Religious studies etc. I have also proved the importance of wider society’s influence on gender and sexuality understanding within SexEd, with proof of its failure in personal examples, which also indicate how school culture reinforces and is influenced by hegemonic sexuality and gender ideals.
My discussion analysis on sources of information, age and technology showed that UK SexEd needs to continually readdress technology and social media and it regularly adapts in everyday life, as an education tool both in and out of SexEd. By presenting and understanding the positive aspects of technology educationally, students can personalise their SexEd experience which directly benefits all aspects of diversity such as the LGBTQ community. This, alongside specialist SexEd teachers, can improve the current typical struggle of the teacher/student dynamic found in SexEd.
From the primary and secondary data I have collected and analysed I have concluded that the link between mental health and SexEd needs to be value and highlighted to students. Within this content, sexual desire and consent needs to be understood and embraced, to support students in understanding sex and the surrounding topics as not taboo, therefore encouraging healthier sexual and mental health.
My findings have contributed valid insights and solutions toward improving UK SexEd, however, beyond my own research project, there are areas I recommend the research topic should look into in the future.
If I were to repeat on this study, with more experience, I would be interested in potentially supporting my autoethnographic primary data with interviews with people I would have shared my SexEd and general school experience with. This would ensure my memory and perception of these experiences was accurate, and may provide other points that I may have forgotten or not thought valid before.
For example, in all three areas of SexEd I have explored, they would benefit from longitudinal studies, potentially ethnographic, in which the solutions I have suggested are implemented into SexEd, to investigate and hopefully support my conclusions. Additionally, I recommend more SexEd-based research within society outside of education itself to understand how society’s experience of SexEd has affected people’s identity, sexual activity, mental health etc in hindsight, much like how I have evaluated my own.
My primary data has both supported and created new points in contribution to existing knowledge on SexEd. By analysing my own personal experience through a social science perspective, and in combination to the specific secondary research I have understood, I have provided personal primary data from my experience, which cannot be precisely replicated from anyone else’s personal experience of SexEd. Therefore, I hope my understanding of the issues and potential solutions for UK SexEd, will provide the best support for students.
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