The New UK Sex Education Programs Put Ours to Shame

Did you think that sex and reproductive education was pretty backwards in the United States already? Well, we just fell even further behind best practices, because the U.K. has revised its sex ed guidelines in consultation with several sexual health-related groups to make them even more relevant and helpful to young people today. New material in the Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) curriculum discusses sexting, pornography, body image, and sexual orientation diversity. Although the guidelines could have been updated even sooner — it's been 14 years since their previous revision — the U.K.'s new and improved SRE curriculum (provided free of charge to schools and teachers) really puts ours to shame.

Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister, is spot-on in his approval of the SRE revisions:

It is vital that we safeguard the health and wellbeing of our young people to help them get on in life. That’s why we need all schools teaching sex and relationships education that is absolutely up to date, particularly when teenagers’ lives are so dominated by advances in technology.

Parents, teachers, and policymakers can pay all the lip service they want to sex ed in theory, but in practice, a sex ed curriculum just can't maximize young people's opportunity for health and well-being if it skirts difficult and controversial topics. The SRE revisions are not completely value-free or morally neutral: for instance, they are based on the assumption that responsible, adult sexual activity is natural and healthy. However, after all, no curriculum (in literature, science, history, or any other domain) is or could be totally value-free anyways. Instead, educators and stakeholders have to make tough choices about which widely agreed-upon values to reflect in curricula. As Clegg points out, technology makes this situation even more difficult than before, because students' online sexually-related activities can have even broader and more negative consequences than were previously possible.

The SRE revisions beneficially reflect that sex is likely to happen amongst young people, that some of them will not identify as heterosexual or cisgendered, that some will be tempted to engage in illegal and imprudent digital sexual activities (like sexting), and that porn is ubiquitous but inaccurate in ways that young people might otherwise not realize. Of course, parents (and students themselves) are free to disagree with this set of basic assumptions. But they are nonetheless a socially valuable and morally defensible starting place for schools to offer young people.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S., fewer than half of states (only 19!) even require that sex ed materials meet standards of medical, factual, or technical accuracy. And, however inaccurate or incomplete that information might be, parents in 35 states can opt out of allowing their children to receive sex ed instruction at all. We can hope that parents are filling in all these gaps with complete and accurate sex ed at home, but I have my doubts.

Back in my day — the late nineties — public schools in my hometown suburb of Atlanta, Georgia called sex ed "human growth and development." That class was so vague that you could actually escape high school without a firm grasp of even the mere mechanics of full-blown sexual intercourse. To be fair, the Bible Belt may be worse than other parts of the U.S. in this regard. But I wouldn't expect America's culture wars to die down enough for a robust sex ed curriculum that mentions the pleasures of sex (let alone the mere existence of pornography) to make it into most classrooms anytime soon.