Let’s talk about sex

Originally published in Prospect Magazine – 18th November 2009 — Issue 165

Parents and schools are both useless at teaching the facts of life. We must learn from Uganda

It’s hard to know what goes on in other people’s relationships. But there is one point on which all of us can be certain: our parents had sex. Most of us, though, don’t want to imagine their amorous exploits, and most parents don’t care to spend much time thinking about the finer details of their children’s sex lives either. All of which makes the ongoing controversy about sex education in schools somewhat strange.

Children currently cover the technicalities of reproduction in science classes. But from 2011, 15 year olds will be given sex education, whether their parents like it or not, as part of a compulsory class teaching the basics of adult life. Personal, social, health and economic education (or PSHE—ugh!) covers the joys and pitfalls of relationships and sex, alongside internet safety, first aid, and the downsides of addiction and gangs. It will be part of the national curriculum from the age of five.

The problem is that parents will be able to pull their kids out until they are 15. That seems odd: if such education is important, why make it optional for most of a child’s schooling? Even more bafflingly, 30 per cent of adults tell pollsters that they think parents should be able to deny their kids access to sex eduction altogether. “Parents are the first educators of their children,” declared the Catholic Education Service of England and Wales. And yet the truth is that the “ick factor” of thinking about your children having sex makes parents peculiarly ill-suited as sex educators.

We see this in family studies where parents and children are both involved. If you ask parents whether they have talked to their children about sex, quite a high proportions will say yes. If you ask those same children, most will say they’ve never had such a conversation with their parents. Parents think that “Did you learn in biology class how babies are made? Yes? That’s alright then,” constitutes talking about sex. Kids don’t think that counts.

Ultimately, the debate about sex education in Britain gets stuck in an argument between parents and the state over who can perform this role better. In reality, both are imperfect choices—and parents should be thrilled that schools are taking up slightly more of the slack; it lets them off the hook a bit. But even beefed-up classroom education is not enough: young people need to be able to ask questions without ridicule from their peers, and also check information they get from their friends, currently the most common source of “sex education.”

A much better system is often found in the developing world. Take Uganda. Here the ssenga, or maternal aunt, is designated to tell girls at or around puberty everything they need to know about sex, men and adult life. (For boys, grandfathers play the role.) Of course in most western countries smaller families mean few girls actually have a maternal aunt. But parents could easily designate a trusted adult who shares their world view, likes the child and can be more dispassionate with their advice to play this role. I’m proud to be honorary ssenga for my godchildren, and would do it for any other child whom I like and who seems to trust me.

If all else fails we can do as Uganda has done; as the Aids epidemic ate into the supply of real aunties, groups of professional ssengas sprung up. They are trained in sex education and HIV prevention and provide advice to boys as well as girls. For a small fee, your children could direct their questions to a well-informed adult, while sparing your blushes and theirs. However, since one in eight boys (and half as many girls) in Britain have sex aged 14 or younger, you’d be well advised to find a ssenga before your child turns 15.