Shifting the Shame: speaking out about schools that are silent on sex

Whilst giving a sex education session at a local secondary school, I was struck by a sense of nostalgia at the resemblance of the school to my own. It had a strict focus on discipline and not one student would speak or move out of turn. The thirteen-year-old students were still, for the most part, children. They participated maturely in debates and respected each other’s opinions. The corridors were covered with brightly coloured displays of ‘Our Trip to Paris’, stunning student artwork and anti-bullying posters. It was a school my former head teacher would have been proud to lead.

However there was one fundamental difference, and it wasn’t the fact that this was a co-ed school. At the end of the morning, one of the head members of faculty explained to the students why our session was as important as the lessons they’d missed that morning, “because we do not want you leaving school ignorant on anything. Because we are all members of the human race and we all need to know how to look after our sexual health.”

Within the salmon-pink walls of my school, sex simply did not exist. It was a Catholic school and contrary to what you might expect, we weren’t even taught abstinence. No matter what you say, alluding to sex in a Biology textbook or in the purposefully distressing R.E videos on abortion or warning us about “keeping ourselves safe” during the summer holidays, does not count as meaningful sex and relationships education.

I do not intend to launch a tirade against Catholic schools. I am truly grateful for my privileged school experiences. My only frustration is that in a school where the empowerment of women and creating a healthy school environment was championed, we were deprived of the tools that could have contributed so greatly to our empowerment and well-being. Just because our parents chose to send us to a school with a particular religious ethos when we were but eleven years old, it does not mean we should be denied the same education as our secular-schooled counterparts.

We had the most dedicated and determined teachers this world could offer.  They pushed our minds further than we knew they could go. We learnt about chemical reactions and built our own experiments, but funnily enough, no one expected us to go away and make a nuclear bomb. We learnt about war, dictatorships, slavery, and yet no one feared that we would become the next global tyrants. In our R.E lessons, we learnt about every religion under the sun, all in the name of cultural sensitivity and tolerance, but no one worried we might run off to join a monastery in Tibet.

In every other aspect of education, knowledge is considered power. Teaching about a subject does not necessarily endorse it. You don’t need an A-Level in critical thinking to figure out that logic. I know, because I don’t. However, the matter of sex education comes up and there is a sense of fear, as if our impressionable brains would not possibly be able to focus on exams if we also knew about sex. As if we’d go rampaging out of the school gates looking for our next liaison, then start popping them out at prize giving, or ditching our bottle-green blazers and opting for a more rainbow-coloured affair.

Our school seemed to presume that if they filled our brains to the absolute brim with academic knowledge and dressed us in oversized polyester uniforms, we would fail to notice our hips gradually widening and our breasts slowly blossoming. They may have empowered our minds but they ignored our bodies. And emotions. And desires. So as they cheered us on out of those gates for the last time, rubbed their hands and thought ‘We did it, again!”, they failed to notice that they’d actually left us powerless. Outside of those bubble-wrapped walls we were powerless to the sexism, to the complications of relationships, to the confusion of sexuality, to the increasing prevalence of STIs, to the abuse, to the victim blaming that we were all so likely to encounter in one way or another.

The fact of the matter is every school needs to start taking sex and relationships education seriously. SRE is not just about sex. It’s about owning your body, protecting it, creating healthy relationships and respecting diversity. This knowledge is vital to every pupil, because, religious or not, let’s not forget they are still a member of the human race.

As “young women” we were well informed on our rights and on our duty to honour our hard-fought right to vote. Well, if we’re talking about honouring rights here, I would like to see every school honour their pupils’ rights to feel welcomed and valued in their school community whatever their sexuality, to feel unashamed of their personal choices, and to feel powerful and in control of their own body. Most importantly, every school should be honouring their pupils’ right to finish their education without being left ignorant on matters that will affect the rest of their lives.

If you’re still not convinced- what would Jesus do? I suspect he would be campaigning to stop the spread of HIV, but that’s just an opinion.

Written by Marianne Forsey