Relationships and Sex Education: A Journey
Relationships and Sex Education, RSE, (formerly SRE) will - at long last - become compulsory across all schools in England from September 2019. The previous guidance on RSE dates back to 2000, the year I began secondary school. It is quite alarming to think that the young people of today have not had updated RSE guidance since the days my friends and I were walking around the corridors in Year 7, singing Craig David’s ‘7 Days’. Let’s just spend a little time thinking about what has changed, since I started Secondary School back in September 2000.
Staying with the music theme, in 2000 UK music chart positions were solely made up of how many physical copies of a song were sold. This meant physically going to a shop and paying £3.99 for a single, it may have an additional ‘B side’ version if you were lucky, the bonus being the lyrics were always printed in the front cover! How many young people today do you think even own a CD player? Let alone walk into town to spend nearly £4 on one song? In fact, only 0.03% of music that makes it into the UK music chart has been physically purchased from a shop. Everything else is online. Our young people today purchase music as and when they want to through devices or tablets. Registering with playlist apps to gain unlimited songs on demand and having all the music they could wish for at their fingertips. How amazing is that? What a wonderful thing for young people and I cannot imagine they will be flooding back to music stores any time soon. So how is it possible that one small element of the world we live has so dramatically changed over the last 18 years, however the immensely important issue of sex education has not been updated? Young people are resilient, flow with change and are ready to discuss important issues around sex that affect them, however the guidance from the government has been ‘keeping –it-real’ like Ali G, staying firmly in the year 2000.
"Life, death, relationships, love, loss, sex, music, crime, community help, happiness, sadness and of course memes are all shared on social media. Young people are experiencing sex and relationships in a way that most adults never have and never will experience."
I cannot talk about how things have changed without including the beautiful monster that is social media. Again, strolling around the corridors when I was at school, a Nokia 3310 was the highlight of sophistication and Snake was boss. Texting and MSN was as far as communication with friends went, and only being able to save 5 texts on your phone at a time was the most difficult decision to make! Facebook and Twitter were born to the public in 2006, Instagram in 2010 and Snapchat in 2011. Facebook is a dinosaur for most young people now, Instagram and Snapchat are the most popular, however, there are about a gazillion other social media platforms available. Life, death, relationships, love, loss, sex, music, crime, community help, happiness, sadness and of course memes are all shared on social media. Young people are experiencing sex and relationships in a way that most adults never have and never will experience. Many relationships for young people will have some element involving social media. They may have met online, post pictures on each other accounts, communicate solely through snaps or maybe they are #inlove for the entire world to see. They develop a network of online ‘support’ from friends liking pictures and building streaks. These relationships are real, they are important and they matter. But they might not last, the same as a million other young loves before them. However, the difference is, their whole world now becomes #heartbroken. Relationships are difficult for everyone and the pressure to share your life online is a real one. Ask any young person how many likes makes a ‘good’ post – most will say at least 100. This means that when that relationship breaks down and the social media announcement comes, how will the young person feel if they don’t get the required amount of likes for that post? Mental health and social media are so closely linked it needs to be taken very seriously by every person involved in that young person’s life. However, that is a long discussion for another time.
Not only are young people dealing with the relationships they choose to have online, they are also having to shield themselves from uninvited and dangerous attention. Grooming, exploitation, pornography, sexting and extreme abuse are just a few of the daily issues that young people will have to circumnavigate. Of course all of these issues were also present in the year 2000 (you would have to had got your nudes printed in the photo shop instead of sending them to everyone you know), however, they have magnified colossally since the launch of social media and gaming websites. The potential negative effects that such issues could have on a young person are extremely worrying and the fact that they are all so easily accessed is distressing. We cannot stop the internet or stop young people from using it, however we can educate them and support them to make good choices and raise awareness of where to go if something does go wrong. Young people deserve the right to have relationships and sex education that applies to them and is relevant to the challenges they are facing. We need to be equipping our young people with tools to help them navigate healthy relationships in the real world and online.
Good quality relationships and sex education is essential for building a future of well-functioning adults. We need to teach our young people how to be respectful in a relationship including within sex! If we can do this effectively, we might just be able to reduce the number of non-consensual sexual acts in young people. 1/5 young people will be abused by their boyfriend or girlfriend before they are 18. Consent, in my opinion, is one of the most vital elements of RSE because if we can raise awareness of what it means to give or not give consent this should provide young people with the confidence and ability to say no if they choose. Equally we would be providing young people with the knowledge to recognise when someone is not consenting and therefore not pressuring people to commit sexual acts they are not ready for. Consent needs to be talked about openly and often with all young people from all communities. They need to understand what consent actually means in all situations including how to negotiate healthy sexual activities. RSE is much more than just sex ed, it’s about building understanding around relationships, respect, equality, safety and all the issues that young people face each and every day. I simply cannot remember anything other than a condom and a fake penis when I was at school, and all I can work towards is making sure young people have a better quality of RSE. This will include discussions around LGBTQ sex and sexuality. What use is it for a 15 year old lesbian to be solely taught about putting a condom on a penis? I 100% value education around contraception, pregnancy and STIs but surely we need to make the best RSE inclusive of all young people.
September 2019 will be the start of a new era for RSE, one that is very needed and crucial for all young people in the UK. It will be a huge change for schools all over the country as my experience shows me some schools have made RSE outstanding and some are still wedging into a 20 minute assembly, once a term. Consistency is key and all young people deserve the opportunity to be happy, healthy and safe. It seems so unfair that some are missing out on asking questions about sex and relationships, the answers of which may change their life forever.
Frankie is the Co-ordinator for Yellow Door's STAR Project. For more information about STAR, and the work they do with young people across Southampton and western Hampshire click here
 Barter et al (2009) Partner exploitation and violence in teenage intimate relationships. NSPCC and Bristol University
NB: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation