Too much too young?
There has been outrage this week over a new sex education website aimed at young teenagers. Funded by an NHS West Midlands research fund, Respect Yourself has been developed by Warwickshire County Council in collaboration with NHS Warwickshire and Coventry University. The site hosts information about a whole range of topics relating to puberty, sex, bodies, relationships, STIs and contraception, presented in a ‘down-to-earth’ and sometimes humorous way. So why the outrage?
The objections from those who have criticised the site fall into two broad categories: moral objections and objections to the (mis)use of public funds. The moral objections generally suggest that the content the site offers is too much too young, or just too much full stop. The suggestion is that presenting many of the topics to teenagers as young as 13 – especially in the tone adopted by the site – is inappropriate to the point of being ‘grossly irresponsible’. Others argue that the £24,000 of taxpayers’ money should not have been spent on such a site. Either because, they argue, the social and health benefits do not justify the cost, or because they also oppose it on moral grounds, necessarily making it a bad use of funds.
Moral objections and irresponsibility
Norman Wells, director of the Family Education Trust is quoted as taking issue with the ‘development of a resource that condones sexual experimentation by young people and uses crude and sometimes even foul language’. He argues that ‘it merely encourages an unhealthy obsession with physical acts and will do nothing to help young people build healthy relationships or prepare them for a stable and fulfilling marriage in the future’ and he has a particular aversion to the sex dictionary (‘Sextionary’) which ‘[contains] an A-Z of all manner of sexual practices and perversions’. The word ‘unhealthy’ appears again amongst his other points of objection.
But is it really so unhealthy, so utterly irresponsible? Teenagers, even those as young as 13, will be experiencing changes to their bodies and having thoughts and urges that are new to them, and confusing. In fact, recent research in the US has shown that some boys are now starting puberty as young as nine. Having a resource that can explain these changes and urges in ways that teenagers can understand will go a long way to clearing up myths and alleviating anxiety. Pictures of naked bodies, far from being inappropriate, allow teenagers to see what they will look like and reassure them that they are normal.
Sex is an integral part of healthy relationships, whether these relationships go on to become marriages or not. Whilst people hold different views on sexual ethics, it is unlikely that keeping teenagers in ignorance and maintaining taboos will lead to healthier attitudes towards sex. Reading about other teenagers’ concerns about sex (no matter how weird) and learning that some people enjoy less conventional sexual experiences are unlikely to ‘encourage an unhealthy obsession with physical acts’. The website mentions that sex is also emotional, by the way.
Public funds and social policy
Whether the website will in fact have social and health benefits of course remains to be seen, but the thinking behind its inception was that it could. It was based on the Dutch model of sex education, which provides young teenagers not only with biological facts, but also information about the pleasure that should accompany sex. As the project manager of Respect Yourself points out, the rate of teenage pregnancy is over five times lower in the Netherlands than it is in England and contraception is much more widely used there. It might be that it is not just the provision of information per se that can make the difference: adopting attitudes to sex that help teenagers to talk to adults and to each other openly and honestly may help them decide on and arrange contraception without embarrassment, rather than ignoring it.
The language used by the website may not be the norm for British sex education, but the overall message of the website is of respect (for yourself and others), choice, safety and fun. With reports that many children – some as young as 11 or 12 – are desensitised to sexual images after accessing hard core pornographic images, it is important that curiosity is channelled into learning about sex from resources such as Respect Yourself. There may be questions about the website condoning sexual experimentation before the legal age of consent but the reality is that teenagers will be experimenting. Better that they do so knowing what to expect – physically; emotionally – and where they can access contraception.
The evidence from the Netherlands suggests that more open and realistic attitudes towards sex prevent more problems than they create. Teenagers will not obsessively be ticking off every item in the Sextionary (like they’ve been given an Usborne Spotter’s Guide), and hopefully they will learn how to avoid the unwanted items like STIs and pregnancy and abuse. If a 13 year old doesn’t already know what a vajazzle is, he will just Google it anyway.