The Independent View: Let’s talk about it

Techno teenagers photo by Leinard John MatthewsDavid Laws has this week committed to compulsory sex and relationships education echoing the views of young people. Last week IPPR’s polling of 18 year olds showed that more than eight out of ten young people agree that sex and relationship advice should be taught in schools. But schools need to be more effective in commissioning and providing high-quality content, delivered by experts.

Our concerns are not new but the rapid expansion of technological possibilities has changed the nature of the debate. Young people are revealing ever more information about themselves, and traditional ‘offline’ occurrences such as bullying, relationship break-ups and social pressures are magnified and recorded online. Relationships can be more intensive, with more opportunities for contact and less visibility or moderation by adults, and relationships and friendships often create permanent digital content. Sexting is part of many teenagers’ everyday lives. Access to adult or extreme material is now fundamentally different and much easier. And quality information, clear social norms and opportunities for redress are less present online.

With the aim of understanding these trends from the perspective of young people, wecommissioned polling of 500 18-year olds to gauge their attitudes to sex and relationships, and their opinion of the education and support they had received. We were surprised by the results. Young people were worried about the pressure that comes with pornography being so easily accessible.

With eight out of ten saying it is too easy for young people to accidently see pornography online, the polling data paints a worrying picture about the way online pornography is shaping the attitudes and behaviour of young people. It is particularly striking that seven out of ten say that “pornography leads to unrealistic attitudes to sex” and that “pornography can have a damaging impact on young people’s views of sex or relationships”.

Young women feel more pressured to look and act in certain ways with almost eight out of ten young women saying “pornography has led to pressure on girls or young women to look a certain way,” while almost as many say “pornography has led to pressure on girls and young women to act a certain way.”

These changes have left a widening gap between those who have a responsibility to educate and guide young people and the behaviours and norms created by rapidly evolving technology. Parents and teachers didn’t grow up with the technologies that have become part of young people’s lives, and many teachers lack the guidance and structural support to teach these issues.

Our survey results show that there is a significant gap between what is being taught and what young people want. Young people want to talk not only about sex, but about relationships, the impact of pornography, bullying, LGBT issues, digital content, access to pornography and expectations of sex. Seven out of ten 18 year olds want sex and relationship education taught by a trained expert and four out of teb want it taught by an external visitor who doesn’t usually teach at the school. There are some excellent resources already out there to draw on. It is clear that young people want to talk about sex and relationships and want more support. The challenge is to provide that in a way that is supportive, builds resilience and allows young people to flourish.

Photo by Leonard John Matthews

* Dalia Ben-Galim is Associate Director at the think tank IPPR

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.



    I wish this article had included Davis Laws recent comments about lowering the age of sex education from 11 to 7 year olds.

    Some people maybe uncomfortable with the idea, however, there are reasons why I believe this is important and why I believe it warrants serious discussion.

    *warning the following comment may cause alarm or distress and should be read with caution*
    It is not my intention to cause distress to anyone, but I feel the need to be very open and honest about my own personal experience of being sexually abused

    Pedophiles prey on the fact of a childs ignorance making them vulnerable.

    When I was eight years old, I had no knowledge of sex or sexual development. I was sexually abused by my brother in Law.
    My then brother in law preyed on my ignorance and fears.

    I will never forget the first time he abused me and how he went about manipulating me. After a family party at my Sisters house and when everyone else had gone to bed.
    My brother in law started a conversation about things that happens to us a child at school and embarrassing situations. I had no idea what he was talking about or where this was leading. To this day I still remember vividly and haunted by what was said next. He said to me surely I must remember when I was at little School, all the boys are taken out of the classroom individually as they had to have their penises checked to make sure they are developing normally. I said NO that never happened to me and I did not know what he was talking about, I was very embarrassed as well. He kept asking me if I was sure as this happened to all the young boy’s and it must have happened to me as well. He kept saying that most people do not talk about it because they are embarrassed but it was noting to be ashamed of as we all had to go through it. Still I persisted that I did not know what he was talking about and I was feeling more and more embarrassed and uncomfortable. Eventually he said that if I was telling the truth and I had not been checked then I must have been off school sick on the day when they did the checks at school on all the boys and they must have forgotten about me. He went on to say that this was a problem and it was vital that we were all checked as young boys because if not our penises can become deformed as we develop.
    I was so scared, confused and embarrassed; I did not know what to think at the time. This evening of fun had turned into a complete nightmare. He kept trying to reassure me that there was nothing to be scared of and that I would be alright and I should let him check for me that everything was developing normally down there and not to feel embarrassed or ashamed as we all have to go through this but the school had obviously missed me out. He kept pushing and pushing me, not violently or aggressively just persistently that I should not be embarrassed and it would be better for me to let him check. He said to prove there was nothing to be embarrassed about he would show me his penis and how a normal penis looks and that there is nothing to be so scared of, so he undid he fly’s and took out his own penis holding it in his own hands, he persisted in trying to get me to do the same but still I was reluctant and kept saying NO. He then said he would show me on his penis what it was the school had to check for when we were young boys to make sure that we were developing normally and to prevent the penis becoming deformed. He pulled back his foreskin and showed me the underside of his penis and said that when we were young boy’s the checks that the school did was to make sure that a piece of skin that is sometimes attached to the underside of the foreskin and shaft of the penis is not attached because if it is, then it was this small piece of skin that would make the penis become deformed as we develop later on.
    I was so frightened, embarrassed and confused I did not know what to think. I had no reason to disbelieve what he was saying to me, after all he was a much loved member of the family who everyone adored but I did not want my penis to become deformed. He could see I was still struggling and so he said that it was ok if I did not want him to do it but I would have to tell my Mum and get her to take me to the doctors and to get them to do it for me which he said would be much more embarrassing having to say that to my Mother and he was only trying to spare me the embarrassment and it would not take long or hurt. Eventually I gave in and thought I should trust him and I undid my trousers. He continued to play with his own penis whilst holding mine trying to reassure me that it was ok and not to be frightened, he told me to hold his penis and pull back the foreskin so I could see what he was going to do to me and how it would not hurt and was nothing to be afraid of. Eventually he pulled back my own foreskin and then inspected me and told me that there was nothing for me to worry about and my penis was normal. That was as far as he went on that first occasion. I was still frightened and very unsure about what had just happened but I was so relieved to hear that I was “normal” He kept trying to reassure me afterwards that I should not feel scared or ashamed about it but it was for the best that I do not tell anyone about it as people do not like to talk about it and they do get embarrassed but he assured me that we have all had to do it .I believed him, I did not have a reason not to. He went to bed and I did my best to try and not think about it ever again.

    That was the start of the abuse that then carried on for a number of years.

    It is through my own traumatic experience that I feel very strongly about having adequate sex education for children at a young age. My abuser used my lack of knowledge and ignorance as a weapon against me. Hr preyed on those vulnerabilities.
    I think better education for young children is essential. It will not deter all sexual predators and some will always find a way to manipulate and groom young children.
    However, we should be removing as many tools as possible that sexual predators use and if that means starting sexual education at a younger age for children, then this needs serious thought and discussions.

    Sorry again if my posting my own childhood sexual abuse has caused anyone alarm or discomfort. It was not my intention. I feel very strongly about trying to protect young people from a life of trauma and mental health disabilities like my own. If that means that I have to speak out from time to time about my own life, then I feel I must do it.

  • Eddie Sammon 29th Aug '14 - 1:52am

    I’d like to highlight Matt’s comment to show the importance of sex education at a young age. I must admit, when I first heard about sex education at 7 I thought it was a bit unnecessary, but I didn’t think how it would help protect children from being abused by adults and just thought it was just about protecting them from porn.

    It also highlights the problems of Free Schools – can we really trust the free market to get the nuances of this right every time? Perhaps free market plus state regulation, but not the free market alone.

    When it comes to the article I thought the subject was important, but its analysis was a bit left leaning for my liking. I was going to explain what I thought was wrong with it, but didn’t feel I had the time to get into a big debate about it.


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