The Government’s decision this week regarding statutory Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE) and Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) is more than just a failure to teach young adults on how to put a condom on. It’s reckless and il conceived, young people more than ever need guidance and understanding regarding sex and relationships but instead of being taught in schools they’re learning about adult life through film, TV, pornography and their peers who in all likelihood will have had no better education than their own.
STI prevalence amongst the UK population continues to increase and in 2014 we saw almost 120 more diagnoses of HIV than the year before, with more than 50% of newly diagnosed people being men who have sex with men.
It’s sad to think almost 13 years after I left school that little has changed, in fact teachers guidance is even older – although we’ve been told it will be updated.
My own SRE experience focused on making babies and the heteronormative concept of a family unit as a (presumably) married straight man and woman with a couple of children. Apart from a brief biology lesson which unpicked the acronyms of “AIDS” and “HIV” there was nothing about the virus in any detail or delivered in a way that would meaningfully engage teenagers.
My only real memory of HIV in high school is thanks to a friend who asked in a GCSE biology lesson “Miss, why are gay-lords more likely to get AIDS”. She blushed, we laughed… There was a brief response which I presume spoke about risks which I don’t remember and the lesson was moved on in another direction.
But even if I had been taught ‘the abc’ of safer sex and HIV I’m not deluded enough to believe it would have been enough to have maintained my negative status. There’s more to it than that, and it’s not the “S” but rather the “R” in SRE whose importance is all too often overlooked.
Yesterday I was in Greenwich when a woman and two children walked into the restaurant I was eating in together. “Table for four?” asked the waiter, with a bemused expression “no, three!?” she replied.
We’re still conditioned to believe what a normal family should look like, what a healthy relationship is defined by, even when a entirely happy and functioning alternative is staring us in the face. Despite how “normal” it is to see single parent families, same sex couples raising children and different variations of what constitutes a family, society at large still infers there’s something unusual about these relationships.
As I grew up and began to realise I liked guys I struggled to work out how to express myself. How to develop a healthy relationship with someone else. Unlike the majority of my straight friends I’d had no practice during my school years, I hadn’t even kissed a guy until I was 18 but little more than three months later I had lost my virginity to one. And from that point the desire to want an ideal relationship escalated, naively jumping into bed with man after man in order to feel accepted and normal, believing that if I gave them what they wanted, I’d get what I did – a boyfriend.
By the time I realised that these actions would never get me anywhere I’d long since graduated and was already in my early twenties. But apart from a few month or so long relationships here and there I’d still failed to find that special someone I was conditioned to need and want. So my behaviour actually changed very little.
Both my self esteem and self worth were low and I had little to no confidence in negotiating what I wanted out of relationships, whether casual one night stands or Gaydar hook-ups or the potentially progressive ones where I’d managed a few dates for a couple of weeks or months. I wasn’t habitually having condomless sex but I was easily coerced on occasions through peer pressure and a fear of being unwanted.
I don’t believe I’m alone, and I’m sure thousands of other young people will have similar experiences. Whether they struggle to negotiate the sex they want, find it difficult to ask someone to wear a condom, feel they’re unable to leave a physically or emotionally abusive partner, an education in our schools could have given some of us the support and confidence to make different decisions.
Ironically it was my HIV status that finally gave me the tools and the confidence that allowed me to meet my current partner of six years. But some compulsory education in my schooling would have been my much preferred option to get to this point given the chance.
Young people should be learning in schools, not learning from their mistakes.