School sex education dismissed as out of touch, negative and gendered

Study finds lessons are not relevant to lives of teenagers in Ireland and other countries


File photo: Barry Batchelor/PA Wire

School sex education can be negative and gendered, with young women often risking harassment if they participate, according to a new study.

The research by University of Bristol academics, published in the British Medical Journal, assessed the experiences of students in Ireland and nine other countries.

It found that schools generally failed to recognise the "distinctive and challenging nature" of lessons on sex and relationship, and approached them in the same way as other subjects.

The study, led Dr Pandora Pound, said young men feared humiliation if they weren’t sexually experienced and often behaved disruptively to mask their anxieties.

Female students, meanwhile, felt harassed and judged by their male classmates.

Young people criticised the overly scientific approach to sex, which ignored pleasure and desire, and instead presented it as a problem to be managed.

Stereotyping was also common, with women depicted as passive, men as predatory, and little or no discussion of gay, bisexual or transgender sex.

Researchers additionally found that schools seemed not to accept that some students were sexually active.

This led to sex education being out of touch with the reality of many young people’s lives, they said.

There was an emphasis on abstinence, moralising and a failure to acknowledge the full range of sexual activities students engaged in.

Lack of information

Young people also felt schools failed to deliver helpful and practical information on health services, what to do if they got pregnant, the pros and cons of different methods of contraception, or the emotions that might accompany sexual relationships.

Many students disliked having their teachers deliver lessons, because they were poorly trained or embarrassed, but also due to the potential for this arrangement to breach boundaries.

The study points out school sex education is crucial for protecting young people from ill health, unwanted pregnancies, sexual abuse and exploitation.

And the evidence suggests that young people themselves want such lessons to be taught in schools, but in a way that encourages sexuality to be enjoyed in a way that is safe, consensual and healthy.

The research team examined 48 qualitative studies on the views of young people from the UK, Ireland, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Iran, Brazil and Sweden between 1990 and 2015.

Most of the participants were aged between 12 and 18.