Thursday, February 21, 2008

Education's for life, not just sex

CAVETE - contains offensive material

There's a furore about teaching sex-education to young people.

No - let me rephrase that.

There has been another peak of anxiety about sex education within the context of the running crisis in Great Britain concerning our rate of teenage pregnancy being the highest in Europe for, at the Government's own admission, the last decade.

In 2004, some government members' brainy pals in Exeter University decided they had the solution: give youngsters lessons in oral sex. Teachers were trained in telling youths about "stopping points" before full sex. The brainboxes in charge had obviously not heard of Newton's principle of momentum. Had they come to Cantabrigia, home of Isaac's alma mater, they might have investigated the experience of riding a bicycle down a hill and trying to brake at various points - basically, the further you go, the harder it is to stop. (The biggest challenge, of course, is finding a hill in Cantabrigia.)

The idea appears to have been shelved, but the concept of throwing more and more sex education at younger and younger children survives. Sex education, however, involves more than learning how to put a condom on a cucumber, no matter how worthy the government's solicitude for the sexual health of garden vegetables might be. If they emerged from the turrets in their think-tanks, they might see that the act of sex is only one of the multifarious aspects of the gender-relationship spectrum. It should also be said that whoever decided that his member was the size of a cucumber must have been the object of an inferiority complex of epic proportions.

When I was coming to the end of my journey through primary school, I was starting to notice that some girls were pretty, true, but then Kenny Dalglish left Celtic and all other concerns were obliterated from my mind. A lesson in protecting vegetable matter from sexually transmitted diseases would have gone over my head. We were taught the mechanics of sex in my second year in secondary. We thought, oh, that's interesting, then went back to what really mattered: rock versus pop. (I still go into spasms of indecision if I have to decide between Thin Lizzy and Billy Joel on Youtube.)

Towards the end of my secondary education, my RE teacher, a nun, wanted to bring a health visitor in to give us a talk on contraception, but the acting headmaster barred her from doing so. So Sister Seditiosa smuggled the health-visitor in, and we got the contraception talk at the appropriate time in our lives, our mid teens. In the weeks after the talk, Sister led us in so many group discussions about sex and the role of respect therein that we would groan, "oh no, not sex again!"

So I was somewhat taken aback to find that Chris Bryant, Labour member for the Rhondda, had produced a guide on teenage pregnancy, in both website and .pdf/pamphlet form called "Teenage Mums", which included the proposal to send parents a pack to help them talk to their child about sex once it reached nine.

(I can't help wondering why contumely is heaped on the Pope for commenting on contraception on the grounds that he is ruling on that in which he is not experienced, yet nobody thinks it out of place for a gay man to pontificate on teenagers getting pregnant.)

Why are we sexualising our children? One compelling answer is that turning children from human beings in their own right into tokens in the business game makes them suitable vehicles to generate revenue in the marketplace. Unfortunately, the American Psychiatric Association and The Australia Institute indicate that the business often ends up being the children themselves. This point is driven home by the title of the Australian document: Corporate Paedophilia.

When we can finally cast a vote on the matter, perhaps we should reflect on whether it is enough for sex-education to reflect what ticks service-commissioners' boxes, or if we want schools to help us empower our children to enjoy loving relationships with more subtle skills in their emotional toolboxes than how to put a johnnie on a jalopeno. Essentially, do we care enough to want to bequeath them the ability to find a loving relationship after the manner of the gentle erotica of Song of Songs? Because if kids don't get their sexuality and relationship education from responsible adults, they'll find it scrabbling in the subcultural hip-hop hell of gangstas, bitches and whores.

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