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We need better Relationships and Sex Education in schools

Jenna Adams is a writer whose debut novel, Can I Stray, highlights the importance of comprehensive Relationships and Sex Education in schools. In this blog, she shares her experiences of growing up with the consequences of poor RSE, and why she believes all young people deserve better.

Content warning: SA, r*pe, abuse

I don’t know what your RSE looked like, but I can summarise what mine was like: VHSes about periods and pregnancy, a few lessons about a hundred different types of hormonal contraceptives, and then polishing it off with putting condoms on plastic penises when we were eighteen – two years after the age of consent. Not ideal.

So it’s no wonder that, growing up, I was surrounded by unhealthy teen relationship behaviours. Boys taking the hand of the drunkest girl at the party and disappearing for hours; girls demanding to read their boyfriend’s text messages.

These things were seen as normal, because no one had taught us otherwise.

And only when I discovered RSE educators on YouTube did I realise how much was being missed.

On YouTube, I learned that the insecurities I had about my body weren’t actually ‘normal’ and weren’t actually helpful. I found out that consent wasn’t simply the absence of a “no,” but a verbal, enthusiastic, overage, sober, continuous “yes” – which can be withdrawn at any time. I learned about healthy relationships, sex and disability, LGBT+ sex, body image, gender identity, respecting boundaries, what lube is, and about a thousand other things that are essential teachings for anyone who intends to engage in relationships and sex.

The effects of poor RSE in schools are real, and they are damaging.

If we had been taught about LGBT+ relationships, maybe I wouldn’t have had to accompany my friend to an STI clinic after he had unprotected sex with another man. If we had been taught about healthy relationships, maybe my friend wouldn’t have been trapped in an abusive relationship from the age of thirteen right up until he was nineteen years old. If we had been taught that consent was a sober, overage, continuous, verbal, enthusiastic “yes” rather than simply the absence of a “no,” I might not have had to reassure my friend that she didn’t cheat on her boyfriend – she was raped.

Growing up surrounded by the consequences of poor RSE was hard, and made me angry that more wasn’t being taught in schools. And that was part of the reason I picked up a pen and started to write. I ended up writing a book in which one of the central themes is consent, and the character’s experiences of RSE shapes the rest of the story.

In my debut novel Can I Stray, the protagonist Brooke gets some pretty decent RSE when it comes to consent – far more comprehensive than I ever received in school. But this lesson comes too late: Brooke had already had sex by the time she learns what the age of consent is, and the fact that what happened to her was actually statutory rape.

That’s why timely RSE is so crucial. We can start the consent lesson in pre-school, teaching kids to ask before they hug someone, or take their photograph. We can teach kids what consent looks like.

Starting this lesson early and continuing it throughout school could transform our rape culture into a consent culture.

We need better RSE in schools because kids need this information. Most students will one day grow up and have sex. All of them will certainly have to decide if they want to have sex. How many are really going to need the Pythagoras theorem in their adult lives? Much fewer than are going to need RSE. I’m not saying Pythag ain’t important, but I am saying RSE is much, much moreso.

I left school about ten years ago, and it does seem that in that time RSE has come on leaps and bounds thanks to charities like Brook developing free lesson tools and the Everyone’s Invited campaign working with schools to tackle rape culture. 2020 even saw RSE become statutory in secondary schools, with relationships education statutory in primary schools. But there’s still a long way to go. Every single teacher in every single school should be trained and equipped to deliver comprehensive no-nonsense RSE. Every student should be given all the facts they need to make informed choices. And there should be no lessons coming too late.

Jenna Adams lives in London and writes from her third-floor flat which is covered in plants. She is a regular contributor at The Book Network and Can I Stray is her first novel. Jenna is passionate about exploring mental health, consent, and co-dependency in her writing. You can find out more about her work on Twitter (@JennaAdamsBooks), Instagram (@jennadamsbooks), TikTok (@jennadamsbooks)or her website, www.jennaadamswriter.com

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