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Opinion – why sex ed serves as an avenue for social change

Governments and schools now consider sex-ed lessons to be a vital opportunity for furthering greater inclusivity and increasing self-confidence in younger generations.

When breaking down sexual education to some of its basic elements: establishing consent, respecting differences, setting boundaries, and regularly checking in with your personal health, it’s clear that these are useful skills in all areas of adult life, not just physical intimacy.

It wasn’t until the end of 2020, however, that school curriculums in the UK received a much-needed update to include these topics – the first change made to sexual education lessons in over two decades.

This begs the question: why have the intimate details of a perfectly natural fact of life been omitted by education systems for so long?

For a long time sex has been viewed as too personal and, at times, even taboo.

What is the Gen-Z perspective?

I think I speak for both Gen-Z and Millennials when I say that much of what we learn about ‘doing the deed’ comes from watching TV and film, unassuming conversations with friends, and numerous Google searches out of genuine curiosity.

It’s also safe to assume that these sources of information aren’t always so reliable and can leave us feeling confused.

Arguably, gathering knowledge in this way occurs because many of the questions we have about sex can’t be fully answered by biological diagrams or textbook definitions.

Understanding how to handle real-life experiences (both pleasant and unpleasant), discovering sexual preferences (or lack thereof), and having a good time in the process, are facets of sexual education that require in-depth, informed discussions.

Evidently, school systems weren’t prepared to have these discussions until last year.

Perhaps this is why Instagram is abundant with sex-positive content generators determined to remove the stigma around a range of important topics such as LGBT experiences, consent, addressing sexual trauma, health conditions, body positivity, and more.

A look at the follow count of these profiles proves that the kind of discussions taking place in online spaces have long been sought after.

They’re especially liberating for those living through experiences left out of traditional sex-ed lessons which – for the most part – largely focus on the science of heterosexual relationships.

What has encouraged the new curriculum?

Social attitudes in Western populations are changing, becoming more open towards individual sexuality, gender, and sexual orientation.

A study conducted by Bristol University looked at sex education in 10 countries and discovered that lessons were ‘out of touch’ with the lives of young people, unable to meet their needs.

Clearly, education systems have realised they must catch up. Besides, if students can’t learn about these things in the classroom, it doesn’t mean they won’t find other ways of doing so.

Starting from primary school, fundamental concepts of relationship building such as kindness, respect, honesty, and permission seeking will be taught and explained. Rather than outrightly introducing concepts of consent as they relate to intimacy, negotiating skills and understanding personal boundaries will be taught through educational exercises.

Another important lesson on relationships involves developing awareness of varied family structures through age-appropriate stories.

The reality is that not all children grow up within a conventional nuclear family – nor will they all grow up to have one.  This kind of representation will enable students to become more secure in where they come from and who they are moving into adulthood.

You might think this is crazy, but as interaction with digital media occurs at increasingly younger ages, the chance that kids will have their early perceptions of relationships shaped by online content is higher.

How are lessons becoming more inclusive?

One of the most significant additions is that secondary school students will receive lessons on different sexual orientations, which aim to remove the stigma and shame that previously affected marginalised LGBT groups.

Rather than being left in the dark during crucial, character building years, providing this education formally gives students the opportunity to better contextualise their own feelings, without being confined to traditional stereotypes of gender and sexuality.

We already know that Gen-Z is shaking the foundations of what is perceived as the norm, establishing us as the most progressive and socially accepting modern generations thus far.

Despite this, over half of students identifying as LGBT in the UK reported being bullied in 2017. The new curriculum for teenagers is working towards the development of new generations who are more caring, open, and understanding of one another’s differences.

Distinguishing between healthy and unhealthy social behaviours in friendships, relationships, and amongst colleagues will be central to the curriculum for young adults in secondary school. Students will learn how to manage toxic behaviours and how to foster relationships that are positive for their mental and social wellbeing.

How will this help create social change?

These lessons will prepare new generations for life situations, arming them with tools to establish strong self-respect and self-worth – something that many people struggle with even into adulthood.

Acceptance from peers, combined with their own self-acceptance, will equip individuals with the confidence to tackle other social challenges later in life. Young people who are taught to master skills of standing up to abusive relationships, inequality and other systems of oppression creates a promising avenue for a generation that advocates for social change.

Though some parents have rejected this kind of education on the grounds of cultural and religious beliefs, governments and teachers are determined to proceed with a curriculum that is representative of the diverse society of people living in the UK.

Undoubtedly, the opportunity to access informative content and engage in open discussions online has led to a broader and more comprehensive narrative in sexual education. Schools provide a safe environment where discussions can take place, mediated by teachers specially trained for the job.

Considering the first step to creating social change starts with education, it only makes sense that sex-ed is optimised for this cause too.


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