I’m of the generation where sex education was most notable for its absence. My mother merely told me ‘not to be taken advantage of’ and I seem to remember being very close to the point of no return when I realised what she meant. I had given up biology at age 13 and it wasn’t until my final year in secondary school (how ‘too little, too late’ is that!) that I had my one and only sex education lesson. A science teacher who was married and had recently left to have a baby (all presumably judged essential qualifications to talk about sex in those days) was brought back into school especially for this.
As a young woman, the impact of what was then called ‘women’s liberation’ and of books like ‘Our Bodies Ourselves’ (I still have my original copy) was enormous and life-changing. So I guess it wasn’t really such a huge step when I moved from teaching to health promotion and was invited by my enlightened (and brave) then boss Margaret Jones to take on, together with Hilary Dixon, the re-writing for the British market of a groundbreaking book written by an Australian collective of feminists. The book was called ‘Taught not Caught: Strategies for Sex Education’.
That was in 1984, around the time that Victoria Gillick was challenging in law the right of under-16s to contraceptive advice without parental knowledge or consent. My passion for young people’s entitlement to the best possible education, information, advice and support around relationships and sexuality was well and truly born.
Many, many years (and a whole range of different jobs) later, in 2006-07 I was seconded for 12 months to cover Anna Martinez’ position as Sex Education Forum Coordinator. By then, the key political drive was for Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) to become statutory, and for sex and relationships education (SRE) to sit firmly within PSHE. SEF’s ‘Beyond biology’ campaign was a logical step towards this. For a long time, young people had been telling anyone who would listen that the biology of reproduction was not enough – they wanted to learn about relationships as well as sex, and they needed SRE at the right time and as part of a whole programme of PSHE.
The most memorable event for me in that busy and challenging year at SEF was when the UK Youth Parliament finally published their survey of over 21,000 young people’s views on SRE. They launched their report ‘SRE: Are you Getting it?’ with its eight recommendations in June 2007 at the House of Lords, with full cross-party support. For me, that represented SEF at its best – underpinning with strong and consistent support, while young people held the floor and gave their all to driving forward desperately needed reforms.
I retired recently, but most weeks I see or hear something in the media about sex and young people. The need to support young people to stay sexually healthy and safe will probably always be there, albeit in different guises as time and technology move on. Will SEF stay the course? Let’s hope so!
Sex Education Forum Coordinator, 2006-07