Sex Education in the UK Must Be Transformed

by Natalie Fiennes

7 October 2019

When it comes to most schooling, critical thinking is not prioritised. When it comes to sex education, it’s entirely absent. Sex ed in the UK tends to be laced with fear, shame and prevention – any analysis of the extremely thorny web of cultural, social and political scripts that inform our own sexuality and the views that exist around us about sex are by and large ignored. To be fair, it’s not just in schools. Both inside and outside the school gates, we live in a society that privileges the individual above all else. Rarely are we encouraged to think about the self as bound up with the forces of the world around us.

I set out to write a sex education book that was radical, inclusive and feminist and would put these histories and politics at the heart of learning about sex. Researching for Behind Closed Doors, I spoke to hundreds of young people about the sex ed they’d had at school (usually non-existent), where they actually learn about sex (usually porn, friends and partners) and the kinds of pressures young people feel under today. I discovered that most people thought their sex ed at school was rubbish. But that most people also wanted what I had set out to do: the kind of sex ed that incorporated politics, history and a much deeper analysis of the kinds of issues facing them today.  

Take virginity for example. We know from a 2018 report that more than one in eight young people in the UK have not had sex before the age of twenty six. This makes us a generation of the oldest virgins on record and the UK is not alone. Every single country around the world where similar studies have been conducted show exactly the same trend. In Japan the numbers are at their most stark, with almost half of all people entering into their thirties not having had any sexual experience, at all. The Japanese media are calling this “sekkusu shinai shokogun” (celibacy syndrome), and have identified it as a national crisis, with some fearing that combined with an already stagnating population, Japan “might eventually perish into extinction”.

“GENERATION VIRGIN: Millennials shun sex”; “No sex please, we’re millennials”; “No sex, please, we’re only 26: millennials cling to virginity” and “Millennials are too nervous to have sex”, were just some of the headlines to splash across the UK media, which was positively quivering with glee at the opportunity to slam young people, talk about our sex lives and rail against technology and porn all in the same juicy story. 

Everything is wrong about these headlines. There’s no consideration of consent, for starters. The cornerstone of a politics of consent has to include the right to say no to having sex, to waiting for marriage, or never having sex at all. A 21-year old Muslim woman called Saff I interviewed articulated this brilliantly: 

“Honesty. Choice. It all comes down to that. I would describe myself as sex positive. But I’m not less sex positive because I’m a virgin. Or because I want to wait until marriage. People should be allowed to have sex when and with who they want. Stop calling girls sluts and guys studs. I’ve heard that in the sixties, a time that was supposed to be liberated, if you didn’t have lots of sex people would look down on you and think you’re a prude. That’s not sex positive – that is coercive. It’s about your ability to choose without being negatively affected by whether you have or haven’t.”

Mainstream analysis is clearly, then, not led or informed by young people. Mainstream analysis also does not have the depth of critical engagement to understand the politics of sex. On the left we have that analysis – and we should be bold enough to own it. 

The very concept of virginity is hugely political. On first appearances, the question ‘are you a virgin?’ might seem clear – but it’s not so simple. In the mainstream it is typically assumed that ‘losing it’ basically means penis and vagina penetrative sex. But sex means many things for different people, from solo sex, to phone sex, to oral sex to simply being sexually intimate with someone. 

“Virginity” is a concept created by humans who are bound and informed by rigid hierarchies. The word “virgin” comes directly from the old French word virgine, meaning ‘maiden’, or a sexually inexperienced women. At its core is the fundamental assumption is that female sexuality is somehow tainted, impure and must be controlled – but the concept of sexual purity also divides and creates a hierarchy between women: some are fallen, others angelic. Notions of sexual purity feed into whorephobia, racism and victim blaming. 

Virginity means something different for men. Masculinity is bound up with ideals of sexual performance, dominance and entitlement to sex and the pressure to have sex young can be immense. Fringe ‘involuntary celibate’ (or Incel) communities online have gathered a lot of attention – men who have had no sexual experiences and blame women for it. But they’re cries of injustice at being denied what they feel is owned, and their resulting violent misogyny, are really just gross exaggerations of the patriarchal values our society is built on. 

For the first time in 18 years, the government has issued new legislation to change the sex ed curriculum. Next year, all young people in this country will be taught about LGBTQ+ relationships, consent, porn and other topics that until now have been entirely ignored or left as optional. This is great progress, but there’s a huge question mark hanging over what it will look like in practice given, in particular, the immense pressure that most teachers in the UK face after nearly a decade of budget cuts. Sex education needs to be radical because without that depth of analysis, it’s simply not an education. Without an understanding of the systems that govern and inform all of our lives – from the patriarchy, institutional racism to capitalism – there’s no way to really understand quite how political sex really is. 

Natalie Fiennes is a filmmaker, activist and author of Behind Closed Doors: Sex Education Transformed, published with Pluto Press September 2019. 

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