When it was announced last year by the Department of Education that relationships education would be compulsory in primary schools, alongside relationships and sex education (RSHE) in secondary schools, there was outrage from some parents and campaign groups such as Let Our Kids Be Kids who saw this move as a “breach of parents’ rights”.
But for anyone who’s experienced it, it is understood that RSHE in the UK is not taught at a consistent standard— with some schools covering everything you could ever need to know about sex and relationships, while others simply ask questions such as “You guys haven’t started having sex, right? Okay, great!”
Common attitudes to teaching RSHE such as the latter, paired with the hesitation to allow children to engage with LGBTQ+-friendly content in many schools provides cause for concern that RSHE (especially inclusive RSHE) was more than likely not touched upon by schools or parents over the recent move to home-schooling during the lockdowns.
I left secondary school in 2017 and have spent the four years since then filling in the many gaps of knowledge on sexual health and relationships that vague RSHE lessons left out. And, after the ever-increasing popularity of inclusive shows such as Netflix’s Sex Education and sex-positive, LGBTQ+-friendly creators and authors such as Hannah Witton show that I am not alone in this.
But, why does it seem as though it’s controversial to ensure young people are keeping safe and are educated in protecting themselves from potentially unsafe activities or unhealthy relationships? The short answer is stigma.
Stigma will always exist in some form when talking about sex, contraception and sexuality due to centuries of conservative figures ensuring these topics remain taboo. This stigma in openly discussing sexuality, LGBTQ+ relationships, and sex-positivity has predominantly come from the enactment, and the lasting legacy, of Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act—a law that was in place between 1988 and 2003 that “prohibit[ed] the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities”.
This law has undeniably created a culture of homophobia; with children and adolescents bullying peers they assumed were LGBTQ+, or who presented themselves in a way that incorporated queer stereotypes. Section 28 also ensured that there was a lack of LGBTQ+-friendly content published in RSHE teaching materials that are still being used today.
Ellie Cochrane from Sexpression:UK agrees. “Section 28 has left a lasting stigma that likely prohibits many teachers from being open about their sexuality and gender identity,” she says. “It’s undeniably damaging for the teachers, but also could mean that young people don’t have LGBTQ+ role models at school.” Sexpression:UK is a charity that em-
powers young people by “providing a comprehensive education with all of the medical and legal facts,” Ellie says. Their mission is to make this education as inclusive as possible by openly discussing social issues with young people and also creating their own LGBTQ+-friendly resources and posters for schools to use.
In Sexpression:UK’s recent ‘supplement your sex education’ survey, they found that out of 35 university students surveyed, zero received teaching about gender identity when they were in school—with 60% expressing how they would have liked or perhaps benefitted from LGBTQ+-friendly content in their RSHE sessions.
These figures are concerning, yet reinforced by stories shared with me by members of the LGBTQ+ community from various areas of the UK, with one LGBTQ+ former student from Hampshire sharing how he had “zero LGBT+ inclusivity during [their] sex education classes. Not even a mention of it, or words associated with it,” which is incredibly disheartening and upsetting to learn.
Post-lockdown, there is a lot of lost time that we will need to ensure is made up for in schools—especially in year groups where young people are typically at ‘the age’ of beginning to explore their sexuality. Coming to terms with your sexuality is already an extremely difficult thing to do, even with the freedom of being able to see and speak to your peers or trusted teachers every day in school in normal times.
By introducing new guidance and resources designed to create safe environments, we can hope to be one step closer towards truly inclusive education and the breaking down of stigma around discussing LGBTQ+ sex and relationships—a change that will hopefully save people in the future from experiencing the isolation of not being included in everyday conversations about a natural part of life.
Besides, there is no time to be so complacent as to simply ‘lie back and think of England’ when experiencing any kind of sexual activity. Whether that’s teaching that physical forms of contraception, such as condoms, do more than prevent pregnancy or that sex is more than penetration, sex education demands to cater for everyone.
Words by Caitlin Parr
Originally published in our May 2021 magazine.
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