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The Fight for Inclusive Sex Education in the UK

This Pride Month Brook’s Resource Development Coordinator, Rebecca Cant, looks back at the history of sex education to see what the hard-won battles of the past can teach us in today’s ongoing fight to end stigma.

The 1930s – 1950s: Let’s Not Talk About Sex, Baby

Britain changed much between the 1930s and 1950s, with World War II challenging gender roles and class lines. However, sex continued to be source of shame, and pleasure was something only to be whispered about. Sex between men remained illegal, and sex between women had only escaped criminalisation in the 1920s for fear a new law would promote and thereby encourage lesbianism.

Throughout these two decades, sex outside marriage was a taboo, and ‘unwed mothers’ were pressured into giving their babies up for adoption.

State schools, which were mostly single sex until the 1970s, offered little in the way of formal sex education. Reproduction was commonly taught through the lens of botany, leaving students to only guess about their own ‘seeds’ and ‘eggs’. 

The 1960s: Seeds of Change

In the 1960s, powerful forces were beginning to change society. The influence of the counterculture and the development of the contraceptive pill planted the seeds for what is now called the Sexual Revolution. In 1964, Helen Brook opened the first Brook Advisory Centre in London, providing confidential and non-judgmental advice on contraception and sexual health. Brook’s approach challenged the prevailing attitudes of the time, emphasizing the importance of empowering young people to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health.

The changing social climate of the 1960s led to a growing recognition of the need for sex education in schools. Early black and white school education films showed the basics of reproduction (sperm meets egg), but pleasure and queerness were still noticeably omitted.

The 1970s – Sex Education Controversy

The 1970s saw the first major controversy around school sex education, most of which centred around an educational film called Growing Up (1971).

Made by British sexologist Dr Martin Cole, this educational film for teenagers was explicit even by today’s standards. It contained scenes of masturbation, pictures of how genitals transform with age, and a heterosexual couple having intercourse. It was said to be “the most explicit and frank film ever made for use in schools,” and attracted widespread condemnation.  The film wasn’t radical in every way, however: no mention was made of queer sex, and the whole film was rooted in a sexist gender binary that described the function of women as “giving birth”, while claiming that men were “better at giving birth to ideas.”

Margaret Thatcher, then Secretary of State for Education, said she was “perturbed” by the film and suggested school authorities allow it to be shown only with “extreme caution.”

The 1980s  – Section 28: A Step Backward

While many sex education advocates associate the 1980s with Section 28, not many people know that this legislation was partly the result of a knee-jerk reaction to a book called Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin – a picture book about a little girl with two dads by Susanne Bösche.

In 1986, newspapers reported that a copy of the book was provided in the library of a school. In fact, the book had not been made available to children, but one copy had been purchased and made available to teachers. The book was not to be shown to primary children, and only shown to older children in “exceptional circumstances.” Nonetheless, misleading reporting led to parents taking to the streets of Haringey, where they clashed with LGBT+ activists.

In the wake of this controversy and amidst the fear of the AIDS epidemic, the UK government under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher introduced Section 28 — a legislation that prohibited local authorities from ‘promoting homosexuality’.

This regressive and homophobic law silenced discussions about homosexuality and created an atmosphere of fear and stigma for LGBT+ young people.

The 1990s: A Decade of Contradictions

The 90s saw the emergence of third-wave feminism and the coining of the term ‘sex-positive.’ Channel 4 showed the first pre-watershed kiss between two women in 1994 and the BBC showed the first gay storyline in a children’s TV show (Biker Grove) the same year.

However,  Section 28 was still in place and so LGBT+ young people continued to be stigmatised in schools. Sex education was expanded somewhat, although the focus was very much on heterosexual marriage and ‘family values.’ The 1993 Education Act required that sex education be provided in a way that would ‘encourage young people to have regard to moral considerations and the value of family life.’

The Noughties to Present day: The Fight for Mandatory RSE

Section 28 was finally repealed by the Labour government in 2003. Young people, however, were still unimpressed with what schools offered them in terms of sex education. A University of Brighton study found that secondary school students did not feel they were getting enough sex education.

Inevitably, they turned to a better source of information: The Internet.

According to a 2008 survey, more than a third of teens said they relied on the Internet, magazines, friends or pornography to get advice on sex. The same survey found that 3 in 10 teens said they needed better sex education in schools.

Brook, along with other progressive organisations, lobbied the government to make comprehensive RSE mandatory. Eventually, this push for inclusive RSE gained momentum, and in 2019, the UK government announced mandatory changes to the curriculum, making RSE compulsory in all schools from 2020. The new guidance emphasised the importance of teaching about different sexual orientations, gender identities, and the importance of pleasure and consent. At a primary school in Birmingham, parents and protestors surrounded the school gates, claiming the new guidance was age inappropriate and accusing the school of paedophilia.

What’s Next?

While progress has been made, there is still work to be done.

Today’s anti-RSE headlines about ‘gender ideology’ in schools are unmistakeable echoes of the homophobic discourses of past decades.

Ongoing efforts are necessary to further dismantle prejudice, challenge homophobia, and ensure that sex education empowers young people with the knowledge, skills and values they need to look after their own sexual health and wellbeing.

The need to defend inclusive RSE is more pressing than ever, particularly for those who identify as transgender. As the government carries out the coming RSE review, we must remember that  kneejerk reactions and regressive legislation, such as Section 28, impede progress and perpetuate harm. It is essential to challenge stereotypes, debunk myths, and educate the wider population to foster understanding, empathy, and acceptance. Inclusive RSE provides an opportunity to cultivate an inclusive society that embraces diversity and supports the well-being of all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

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