A Digital Revolution In Sex Education?

Jessica Pratt asks how technology might improve the dismal state of sex education both locally and nationally.

I like sex – learning about it that is. Alfred Kinsey and his spectrum for measuring the range of human sexuality. Masters and Johnson and their trailblazing research into recording sexual responses. We know so much about sex thanks to these pioneers, but sadly the basic facts aren’t being disseminated to those who need them the most: young people.

The UK has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Western Europe. According to a recent government report, 15-24 year olds are the most likely age group to report a new STI, with young males being of particular concern. In response, Education Minister Nicky Morgan wants to make PSHE (Personal and Social Health Education) and SRE (Sex Education and Relationships) mandatory aspects of the National Curriculum for all schools. But when the issue came up at cabinet, David Cameron dismissed the proposal. This means only about a third of schools, those publicly funded, are required to deliver sex education. The rest, academies and free schools, are allowed to opt out.

I interviewed six young people in the Portsmouth area about what they had learned about sex at school. Tom, 19, went to Church of England primary and secondary schools, both of which gave him just the ‘bare bones’ of information. ‘Looking back on it,’ he said. ‘I can see a lot of missing stuff.’ One of the missing elements was the question of consent.

Rebecca, 21, attended secular schools in Gibraltar, yet her teachers were all religious. She now identifies as bisexual and found her education lacking in that respect. ‘There was no information for LGBT people, which was an issue for me and a lot of my friends.’ On the other hand, Zachary, 19, found his sex education at school ‘informative, but largely unnecessary’ while Hannah, 20, said ‘I didn’t have any views either way.’

The negative views of my interviewees may be down to the fact that sex education in this country has long relied upon outdated models and strategies. The government released SRE curriculum guidelines back in 2000, and they haven’t been updated since. A lot has happened in the last sixteen years, including sexting and revenge porn. Thousands of youngsters now encounter these issues but aren’t effectively taught how to deal with them. A recent Time magazine article argues that the current sex education system is failing to keep up with an increasingly digital society.

A more recent guide for parents and guardians was put out by the SEF (Sex Education Forum) in 2013 and hints that the internet could be a valuable resource for sexually educating children. The problem is, it doesn’t go much beyond a vague reference to ‘watching a video’.

The current trend of internet usage amongst UK teenagers suggests that incorporating online resources into the National Curriculum would be wise. A 2015 Ofcom report found that over the past decade (since 2005) the amount of time 12-15 year olds spent online more than doubled from 8 hours on average to 18.9 in 2015. A similar pattern was seen in 8-11 year olds, the average time spent online increasing from 4.4 hours to 11.1 over that ten year period.

So wouldn’t it be smarter to teach children proper sex education early on, using a resource we they would likely use? In 2011 David Cameron argued that children shouldn’t be ‘kept in cotton wool’ and should be taught age-appropriate sex education. His intention was to apply ‘the brakes on an unthinking drift towards ever-greater commercialisation and sexualisation’.

But Cameron’s later efforts to protect children from online pornography with ‘opt-in’ legislation risks blocking sex education material that could help children and young people to understand the facts of life. The solution would be more efficient ‘porn filters’ that could properly discriminate between titillating images and videos and educational content.

So how do we start the digital revolution in sex education? Whilst websites such as NHS Health and YouGov offer advice on pressing matters such as sexuality, consent and pregnancy, they are not properly advertised. How about promoting them more widely through social media i.e. Facebook or Twitter? Ads should be aimed specifically at teens and young people and should entertain and inform rather than demonise and patronise.

We need to unlock the potential of online videos. The YouTube channels Laci Green and Sexplanations have racked up 144 million views between them. They cover subjects ranging from abortion to contraception to female sexuality. They explain concepts and theories in a frank, truthful and open manner. But two channels isn’t enough. Finally, we need a good quality app that youngsters can use privately and securely on their phones and tablets.

Like a bug in code, the current sex education system needs patching and updating to showcase the varied nature of sex and sexuality in the 21st Century.

Image by Mariano P. from Por ahora Madrid, España (Buenos Aires 04) under a Creative Commons License [CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons