Gay Times April 08 - Issue 355
Chris Bryant MP: The Facts of Life
We can't let another generation grow up without decent sex and relationship advice says Chris Bryant MP
Sex education at my school was pretty rudimentary. I was 12. It was taken by our Biology teacher, who was also the Scripture teacher (not RE, not theology, but ‘Scripture’). We were pretty certain he’d never had sex in his life. He showed us a whole load of diagrams (and a diaphragm) and then asked if there were any questions. Some bright spark asked; “So how long do they bounce up and down on top of each other, sir?” The teacher blushed a shade of crimson I’ve not seen since and said; “I don't know. How am I meant to know?” And that was my sex education.
Sadly, the same is true for many youngsters today. Two separate reports into sex education in schools in England and Wales last year showed that although some schools do an excellent job, in far too many cases all they provide is a single Biology lesson. In many cases girls get to their first period without understanding what’s happening to their bodies – and sex education starts so late that children have already started having sex.
No wonder youngsters complain that they end up finding out more about sex from their friends, TV and teenage magazines than from their parents or from qualified health professionals or teachers.
No wonder we have the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe – five times higher than Holland, three times higher than Germany and twice the level in France. In my own constituency of the Rhondda in South Wales, 101 teenage girls gave birth last year, the equivalent of 20 per secondary school.
There are many reasons for that. The areas with the highest rates of teenage pregnancy are the poorest areas of Britain. Many girls who’ve had problems at school or at home seem to see teenage motherhood as an alternative to school or what they think of as a ‘dead-end job’. And youngsters in the UK drink more than their European counterparts. But the main reason is the simple fact that neither parents nor schools start talking about sex or relationships until it’s too late, so British youngsters start having sex very early – and it’s mostly unprotected sex.
No wonder, too, that we’ve had such an explosion of sexually-transmitted infections among young people in the last ten years.
And no wonder homophobic bullying is still alive and well in so many playgrounds. That's why I’ve argued that we should make sex and relationship education statutory in every school, and that we should start it early. Children don't just need to know the facts of life – although it would be good if they did actually know them. They also need to have personal self-confidence in dealing with sex and personal relationships so they can negotiate with a partner about whether to have sex and what kind of protection to use. They need to know that it's fine to say no, it's fine to wait until you're older, and you're not being a wimp if you use a condom or a condom and the pill. They need to understand the effects alcohol can have – not just on sexual performance, but on one's inhibitions and preparedness to take risks. They need to understand that they have choices, and that the choices they make can have consequences. They need to know the risks they take when they have unprotected sex.
Of course, sex and relationships education should also tackle issues like coming to understand your own sexuality and tolerance and respect for other people's sexuality. All these things should be part of a series of sex and relationship classes in every UK school. It should start early, before youngsters reach puberty and certainly before the age at which they get horribly embarrassed about talking about these things with their parents or teachers. In Holland they start at five and six. I think we should send every parent a booklet on their child's eleventh birthday with ideas on how to talk to their children about sex, personal relationships, contraception, sexuality, tolerance for others, drugs, alcohol and smoking.
Britain's natural sense of embarrassment about all things sexual is betraying our young people. We have to act. We can't let another generation grow up without decent sex and relationship education.
More from Gay Times April 08 - Issue 355
Chris Bryant is Labour MP for Rhondda. He has produced a special website: www.teenagemums.org.uk