British sex ed not up to par

I see that a recent survey by the Family Planning Association has established that there is widespread ignorance in Britain about contraception and “the facts of life”. This is interesting. As I’ve disclosed before, I attended an English secondary school after spending a couple of years at an Australian secondary school. When I arrived at my English secondary school, I found that I was behind everyone else by a long way…except in one very specific subject.

That subject was sex education. At my Australian secondary school, we had to learn sex ed in Science, in Home Economics and in some subject called “Personal Development” (or some silly name). We had to put condoms on bananas and study explicit diagrams. We had read a terrible text dating from the early 1970s, which featured a naked man who was so abundantly hairy (on his head, face and body) that no genitalia could be discerned. He looked like a gorilla. (I wonder if the school had chosen it purposely? It certainly put me off the idea of the naked male body for a while.) I knew all about the mechanics of the facts of life: but the closest I had come to men (well, those who were not related to me) was to sit next to a few examples of the species on the bus to school. I think you could safely describe me as a “late bloomer”.

Anyway, when I started at my English school, most of the subjects we studied were a mystery to me. I was very much behind everyone else. I had not read Shakespeare before, nor did I know what Avagadro’s number and the mole concept meant, nor did I have any idea about matrices. In combination with my indecipherable accent, I believe that this led the school to believe I was mentally retarded in some way for a few weeks or even months.

Then we had a test about sex education. I didn’t even have to study! Suffice to say, I topped the class. In fact, from recollection, I think I got 100%. Afterwards, I was astonished by the ignorance of many of my class members. Some girls confessed to me afterwards that their parents had never spoken to them about the facts of life, and that they had learned everything they knew from Girlfriend and Just 17. The questions in these magazines had to be seen to be believed. “Can I get pregnant from oral sex?” read one question. They displayed a fundamental ignorance about contraception and matters sexual in general.

Despite this, sexual activity amongst my class members was widespread (of course, any evidence of this is apocryphal only). One classmate (she must have been about 14 or 15 years old) boasted of her nights of passion with a German ski instructor while on holiday. In hindsight, this story takes on an unpleasant cast: if it was true, I wonder if the ski instructor had a thing for little girls? Ugh. Another girl was notorious for having contracted a number of venereal diseases (I don’t know whether this was true; I sincerely hope not for her sake). It has to be said that some members of my Biology class knew more about contraception than the teacher did, and one particular classmate ended up practically taking the class on the subject, relating her experience with each particular method of contraception, including the morning-after pill (she didn’t recommend it).

At the time, I found the Australian way of ramming sex education down your throat at every available moment annoying (as far as I was concerned at that age, the whole thing just sounded gross). But it is certainly better than the English approach, where many of my schoolmates had little idea, despite the fact that a number of them appeared to be highly sexualised at a young age. Or, like my friend with the morning-after pill, they had ended up learning about sex and contraception through bitter experience. So the results of the Family Planning Association study are no surprise to me whatsoever. They confirm my own experience as a school girl in England. Although I have a few gripes about the inadequacies of the Victorian school curriculum when I was a teenager (but that’s another post), I cannot fault my Australian high school at all in regard to sex education. I am glad that we have a more pragmatic approach to this matter in Australia.


Despite better sex education in Australia, young people still leave themselves at risk of sexually transmitted disease – see this report. I wonder if this comes from the psychological attitude that disasters happen to “other people” – why else would people still undertake risky activity such as smoking, driving fast, taking illicit drugs etc etc, when we’re told over and over again that we can harm ourselves and others by these things?

Just goes to show that no matter how much you educate people, they’ll still put themselves at risk. However, at least if they have been educated, they are making an informed choice to put themselves at risk. Although it’s not ideal, it’s better than an uninformed or ignorant choice, which is no choice at all!



Filed under Australia, England, sex, sex education

4 responses to “British sex ed not up to par

  1. Anonymous

    Hi Legal Eagle,

    Your comments questioning why girls would engage in this risky behaviour, and about at least being able to make an informed decision, are interesting ones. You might be interested in how behavioural economics principles can help shed some light on these issues. See the new economics foundation’s paper on principles of behavioural economics for a good summary, especially principle 6 – people are bad at computation:

  2. Legal Eagle

    Thank you, Anonymous, that article was interesting. It pinpointed many of the issues I have always had with neoclassical economic explanations of policy. Fascinating. And it confirmed that people don’t always see risk in the distant future as a problem…

  3. Anonymous

    Exactly! And think also about the implications for policy that says the solution is more education to enable people to make an “informed” decision – if people aren’t very good at calculating future risks or how serious they are, and naturally tend to overvalue immediate benefits instead, will education about future risks be very helpful? Will they be able to make an informed decision in any case? It may mean education is still important but must be targeted at explaining just how big the risk is, or complimented by other actions eg free STD prevention materials such as condoms. All very interesting…

  4. Pingback: Damn them with faint praise « The Legal Soapbox

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