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Harry Benson: The fundamental flaws of sex education

Harry_bensonHarry Benson runs Bristol Community Family Trust, a local charity that is pioneering short relationship courses that teach couples how to stay together, and was deputy chair of the family policy group that produced Fractured Families and Breakthrough Britain.

Yesterday morning the Today programme greeted me with the welcome news that David Cameron wants to address the growing sexualisation of children and society. But when the news item concluded that Mr Cameron’s proposed solution is yet more sex education, my heart sank. The official solution has always seemed the same. Sex education isn’t working yet because we’re not doing enough of it. So let’s have more sex education for ever younger children.

When I delved a little deeper into the story, it turned out that the BBC headline misrepresented Mr. Cameron. What he was actually saying was that more sex education should mean a different kind of sex education. But is he on the right track?

The epidemic of sexually transmitted infections, high rates of teenage pregnancy and vast numbers of abortions are all direct consequences of our liberal and tolerant approach to sex as recreation rather than simply procreation.

According to the Health Protection Agency, the relentless rise in incidences of STIs is especially pronounced amongst teenage girls. Some 42,000 teen pregnancies take place every year in England and Wales, roughly half of which are aborted. This is the highest level in Western Europe.

Studies into the effectiveness of sex education are far from encouraging. The 12% fall in under-18 pregnancy rates since 1998 may well be due to population changes rather than government strategy. Recent British Medical Journal studies of both sex education programmes and better access to the morning-after pill found that neither had any effect on pregnancies or abortions. A Family Education Trust report found that many areas with programmes set up by the Teenage Pregnancy Unit have actually seen rises in teen pregnancies.

There are two fundamental flaws in the way sex education is currently presented. The first flaw is that sex can be "safe". Yet any GP will confirm that condoms reduce but do not prevent the risk of STIs. Nor do they provide a 100% guarantee against pregnancy. In other words, there is no such thing as "safe sex". Trust me as a parent who has had three additional children by this means!

Second and most importantly, the whole psychology of sex education is flawed. Because we have given in to the assumption that sex is inevitable, we are then teaching children how to say yes. But if we want to reduce incidences of sex and its consequences, we should be more interested in teaching children and young adults how to say no and why that is most often a sensible idea. The two approaches are not exclusive. It’s the emphasis that is wrong.

The consequences of a sexualized society are not just in STIs, unintended pregnancies and abortions. In the Social Justice Policy Group reports Fractured Families and Breakthrough Britain, we mentioned some of the destabilizing knock-on effects of sex and cohabitation on relationships that are not explicitly committed. The latest research is showing up important gender differences in attitudes to commitment. Men in particular who slide into a cohabiting relationship tend to be less committed even if they subsequently marry. The acceptance of casual sex and cohabitation are thus a direct contributor to the relentless increase in family breakdown.

Having whinged and whined for years about the lack of serious family policy amongst any of the main parties, I am personally delighted that Mr. Cameron has put family policy at the top of the political agenda. It’s far from clear that any sex education programme, whether yes-based or no-based, can have much impact outside the context of a wider family policy. Despite the BBC’s misrepresentation, I welcome the change in emphasis.


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