We don’t need no sex education

That was the catchy title of a Sunday morning debate at the Battle of Ideas, held in London last weekend.

Four panellists and their chair – plus an audience alert as a double-espresso – hunkered down in the Royal College of Art‘s cafe to discuss whether sex education can possibly fulfill political expectations, parental hopes, and pupil needs. Does it even have a place in the curriculum?

Those were the questions. The answers that emerged over the course of 90 minutes were as varied, complex and personal as the subject itself, and that was one of the sessions’s most inspiring messages.

Battle of Ideas

For Simon Blake, director of Brook, the sexual health charity for young people, there was too much emphasis on biology. Dr Hera Cook, a lecturer in modern history at the University of Birmingham, felt we were still too uptight about sex. She also insisted that abstinence teaching had failed, throwing down the gauntlet for David Paton, a professor at Nottingham University’s Business School.

He argued against current teaching on economic grounds. The emphasis on safe sex has not significantly reduced the teen pregnancy rate, he said – why not try another approach, and talk about partner reduction or delaying sex? It’s the role of parents, he believes, to start these conversations. Sex education we need, sex educators we don’t.

In true BoI style, plenty of smart thoughts came from the audience, too. An Iranian student confessed that he was 12 before he had any idea of what sex involved biologically. This was shameful, he declared, but on the other hand, he hoped that there was room for discussing the emotional effects of sex.

Overall, there was a strong feeling that in trying to teach relationships, they became at best just another subject. As one woman put it, sex ed denied ‘the passion and privacy’ of those fumbling early enchantments. (A sly smile suggested that her mind was right back there, enjoying the charged clumsiness of a roaming hand in some boy’s bedroom, Pink Floyd pounding from a record player.)

Again and again, speakers and listeners alike made the point that some things simply can’t be taught. As Dr Jan Macvarish from the University of Kent at Canterbury said, intimate relationships cannot be reduced to a set of learnable ‘skills.’ We infantilize sex, she declared, thereby denying the fact that it does have serious consequences. To use that caddish line: it’s complicated.

Too often, this challenging yet oftentimes rewarding complication gets lost in the other battle surrounding the subject – the battle not of ideas, but of agendas.

The debate was part of a two-day festival organised by The Institute of Ideas. Check out the website for more details and ways not to miss out next time.

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