Sex education needs to become broader and more ‘human’ in its approach, says Jo Hemmings
Given that the dictionary definition of the word abstinence is ‘self-enforced restraint from indulging in bodily activities that are widely experienced as giving pleasure’, when used in a sex education context it seems like presenting the proverbial red rag to a bull. Telling young people, who are learning to become independent and have a sense of individual self-worth, to abstain from sexual activity is very likely to have the reverse effect. Indeed, a recent American study of abstinence only sexual health education teaching found either no delay in first sex or an actual increase in sexual activity.
Despite my profound belief that teaching abstinence is an ineffective and counter-productive approach, simply teaching the mechanics of sex or the importance of contraception and avoiding STIs is clearly not the answer either. PSHE, which covers personal, social, health and economic education, needs to become much broader and more ‘human’ in its approach.
Young teenagers, especially, need to be helped to find a way of understanding the importance and value of intimacy. How much better sex feels when in a meaningful, trusting and caring relationship. How lust – even as adults – can easily be confused with love, especially when fuelled by alcohol. How sex should be fully consensual and undertaken under coercion or because everyone else seems to be doing it. How much it hurts when your partner is unfaithful in a relationship. And why we feel so betrayed.
These issues of intimacy, which some teachers may find difficult to discuss openly in a classroom situation, are the only way that young people will begin to value their own bodies, in a sexual sense, and get the necessary sexual self-esteem that will carry them through to adult life. If a boy is pressurising a girl into having sex, before she feels ready, then it is critical that she feels a strong self-respect and the confidence to say ‘no’ without feeling ostracised or different.
It is also likely that some young people will already have become sexually active and it’s important that they recognise that this is not a one-way route to promiscuity, but something that they can take control of change behaviourally at any time.
Of course all this has to be put into a context of thorough sexual health education as well as respect for any family or religious beliefs that may influence sexual activity. But to preach abstinence is to set our young people on a course that effectively robs them of individual choice, personal responsibility and hinders emerging self-respect – all contributing to the ‘forbidden fruit’ situation that encourages young people to do the very thing that they are instructed not to.
Jo Hemmings is a behavioural psychologist and author of six books on dating and relationships. Her latest book, Sizzling Sex, is published by Quadrille on 9 May