School sex education negative and out of touch, says study

Teachers who protect students from ridicule increase engagement in subject, researchers find

School sex education can be negative, out of touch and gendered, and young people in Ireland and other countries disliked their own teachers delivering it, according to a new study.

Results also found schools ignore the fact that sex is a potent and potentially embarrassing topic and attempt to teach classes in the same way as any other subject.

The study, written by Pandora Pound, Rebecca Langford and Rona Campbell, of the School of Social and Community Medicine, University of Bristol, and published in the British Medical Journal, examined reports on young people's views of school sex and relationship education from 10 countries.

Most of the participants were aged between 12 and 18 and were from Ireland, the UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Iran, Brazil and Sweden.

The researchers found, despite the wide geographical reach, young people’s views were remarkably consistent.

They reported feeling vulnerable in sex and relationships classes.

Young men were anxious to conceal sexual ignorance and some were disruptive in class, explaining their behaviour as a way of masking anxiety.

Verbally harassed

And young women, in mixed gender classes, risked being verbally harassed and having their sexual reputations attacked if they participated.

Teachers who maintained control of the class and protected students from ridicule increased engagement in the subject, researchers found. And humour and fun was found to reduce discomfort.

The report said schools appeared to have difficulty accepting that some young people were sexually active, which led to classes that were out of touch with many young people’s lives.

Young people said they disliked their own teachers delivering the classes because it blurred boundaries, and was embarrassing. They also said some teachers had poor training and classes shaped student sexuality as a problem to be managed.

And they criticised the classes for being overly biological, which de-eroticised and disembodied sex, researchers found.

Students said homosexuality was barely discussed, but they wanted discussion on same-sex relationships to help normalise them, address homophobia and support young lesbian, gay or bisexual people.


They also said the classes were gendered; men were depicted as predatory, and women as passive, lacking in desire, and as gatekeepers. They also failed to discuss pleasure. There was an emphasis on abstinence and moralising and a failure to acknowledge the full range of sexual activities they engaged in.

Sex education was delivered too late, some students felt.