What I Didn’t Learn at School

Sexual health programmes need reform says Tom Meadow Credits: Ben Zvan

Sexual health programmes need reform says Tom Meadow Credits: Ben Zvan

It’s time we sat down and had a talk, you and I. I think what I want to say is best summed up in a personal anecdote from Sixth Form. The private school I went to had a system of biweekly tutorials about issues relating to health, politics and practical life skills. When I found one morning that today’s topic was about “being gay” I was positively intrigued. We, however, ended up being shown a crummy video made in Australia in the 90’s with the main message being that “some guys like guys and some girls like girls.” I was shocked. How on earth can this superficial treatment of sexuality constitute an education? We were 17-18 years old. Everyone already knew gay people existed. They knew me. They knew other gay people who had left school and had come out later on. Gay people exist in popular culture (even if that presentation isn’t exactly ideal). Were the teachers so naïve to think that this is how unaware people of our generation were about these issues? I wasn’t sure. I don’t think that I am alone in this experience of sex and relationship education with regard to LGBT+ issues.

Government guidance states, “it is up to schools to make sure that the needs of all pupils are met in their programmes. Young people, whatever their developing sexuality, need to feel that sex and relationship education is relevant to them and sensitive to their needs.” I’m all for limiting centralised planning of curricula, but there needs to be some basics that everyone receives. An examination of human sexuality and gender is relevant to every single person. This has to be conveyed before the end of secondary school. Whether or not people choose to continue education past that point, they must be equipped to go out into the world and function as reasonably well informed members of a democracy. A system overlooking such fundamental aspects of human nature and society is surely failing to meet this goal?

Naturally parents have some say; however, the minority who choose to opt their children out of this information should not dictate to everyone else what they are allowed to hear. Let’s be clear here, I’m not suggesting we show 10-year-old kids clips off ManHub to demonstrate how men can be attracted to men. What am I suggesting then? I suggest that by the time people leave school they are made aware of the following issues:

  1. Humans have a set of anatomical, hormonal and genetic traits called sex that can be roughly grouped into the categories of male and female. It must be understood that there is a grey area between these two where combinations of traits from both sides can occur.
  1. Humans have a separate mental category called gender identity. Whether this is biologically based or socially constructed is debatable. It is very difficult to define, amounting to a subjective feeling about who you are and how that relates to others. Typically people identify as male or female, but there many people who don’t feel they fit into this binary. Linked with these genders are particular pronouns and it is important to try and use the pronouns that people are comfortable with.
  1. Humans can be attracted to one another in a variety of ways. People can have sexual attraction to others ranging from none to plenty. People can have romantic attraction separate from these physical attractions ranging from very little if any to lots. If people are attracted to physical characteristics then those can range quite significantly, encompassing familiar sexualities like heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual, along with many others. These attractions are not defined by behaviour – a bisexual male in a long term relationship with a heterosexual female, for example, can still be attracted to other males.

I know this barely scratches the surface but it’s the kind of thing I would like to see being taught. I want to see more than just “IF YOU DON’T WEAR A CONDOM YOU WILL GET HORRIBLE DISEASES!” STIs can be transmitted by more than just penetration and sex education as it is now does a massive disservice to people who don’t have much if any penetration as part of their sexual behaviour. People need to understand the variety of ways that various STIs can be transmitted, where you can get tested, what to do if you test positive for something etc.

 This is a call to arms. To remind you of what I’m almost certain you already know. To crystallise the problem that both public and private education still possesses. It is not a solution, but a summary of what sorely needs to be solved. Bigotry towards LGBT+ still exists. Many groups within the LGBT+ umbrella are sorely underrepresented. There is still bigotry within our own community to groups such as bisexual and transgender people who don’t fit into nice easy binary categories. Every day reminds us that we still live in a sexual, heteronormative, cisnormative society. And we live in a very tolerant bubble but also in a much less tolerant world.

Maybe I am naïve but I do not believe that people naturally hate one another. I believe that often people hate what they fear and that people often fear what they do not understand (to paraphrase a certain wise green Jedi). I fundamentally believe that education can be a powerful means to help prevent hatred of this kind, and the misunderstandings and prejudices that we see all around us in our daily lives. But we as a society have to admit that in its current state, this tool is not fit for this particular purpose. Then we have to go about redesigning it.

Tom Meadows

Tom Meadows studies Linguistics at Downing College

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