‘comprehensive sex education’. image: Caroladominici. CC BY-SA 4.0 international.

Young people are fed up with the often prudish, vague, and incomplete information about sex and relationships that they are getting from their teachers—and parents. So they are turning to often explicit TV series, and even online pornography, to get answers. Not a good move.

During my school talks on human rights, more than half the pupils describe their lessons about sex as ‘poor’, ‘inadequate’, and ‘out of touch’. 

Little wonder that millions of young people are entering adulthood emotionally and sexually ill-prepared. Too many subsequently endure disordered relationships, ranging from unfulfilling to outright abusive.

The result? Much unhappiness—and sometimes mental and physical ill-health. We need to change that.

One problem is that a lot of Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) classes still concentrate on the biological facts of reproduction and on using a condom to prevent HIV. Relatively little teaching is actually about sex—or feelings and relationships.

Also, RSE frequently starts too late, after many young people have become sexually active and adopted bad habits such as unsafe sex. These are harder to reverse once established.

While RSE should not encourage early sex (it is best if young people wait), it should prepare them for a later satisfying, safe sexual and emotional life.

What, then, needs to change in order to make RSE more effective?

Young people’s health and welfare must take priority over squeamishness and embarrassment about sex. Political, religious, and cultural sensitivities cannot be allowed to thwart mandatory age-appropriate RSE in every school, from the first year of primary education onwards.

It is time that RSE is revised radically. Based on listening to young people’s own ideas during my talks in schools, here are some suggestions.

Mandatory High Quality Lessons in Every School

RSE is now mandatory but for some schools its provision smacks of a tick-box exercise, with the lessons offered being infrequent, inadequate, and not meeting pupils’ needs. This is not good enough. Sex and relationships are a very important part of most adults’ lives. That’s why high-standard education about them should happen in every school, with no opt-outs for religious schools and independent schools outside the state sector. The aim should be to prepare young people for adult life by ensuring they are sexually and emotionally literate.

RSE lessons should be at least monthly throughout a child’s school life—not once a term or once a year. And the lessons should be LGBT+ inclusive.

Education From the First Year of Primary School

RSE needs to be age-appropriate. It should start from the first year of primary school by talking about love and relationships, including non-traditional families (such as single-parent, extended, and same-sex families).

It should also discuss the correct names for body parts and the physical changes that occur at puberty. To tackle abuse, grooming, and inappropriate touching, children should be taught the difference between caring and exploitative behaviours.

One reason for starting young is that many children now begin puberty between the ages of eight and twelve. Long beforehand, they need to know about the physical and hormonal changes they will undergo, like body hair growth and erections in boys and menstruation in girls. Keeping them ignorant threatens their happiness and welfare.

Sex Is Good for You

RSE lessons should acknowledge the risks and dangers of sex, but from the age of 16 they should also recognise its pleasures—and that sex is good for us. It is natural, wholesome, fun, and (with safe sex) healthy. Quality sex can have a beneficial effect on our mental and physical well-being.

Young people also have a right to know that sex is not essential for health and happiness. Some people are asexual. They get by without sex and that’s fine. However, pupils should know that most people find that regular, fulfilling sex lifts their spirits and enhances their lives and relationships.

Overcoming Sex Shame to Tackle Abuse

Sexual guilt, most of it religious-inspired, causes immense human misery— it leads not only to frustrated, unhappy sex lives but actual psychological and physical ill-health. It also helps sustain child sex abuse.

Adults who sexually exploit youngsters often get away with it because the victims feel embarrassed or guilty about sex and are therefore reluctant to report it.

RSE needs to encourage young people to have more open, positive attitudes towards sexual matters and to teach them how to accurately name their body parts, in order to effectively report abuse. Pupils who are knowledgeable about their bodies and feel at ease talking about sex are more likely to disclose abuse and report their abusers.

How to Have Sexual Fulfilment

Good sex isn’t obvious; it has to be learned. In the absence of sufficient practical information from parents and teachers on how to achieve shared sexual pleasure, many young people are turning to pornography, with its unrealistic and often degrading images.

To ensure happier, more fulfilled relationships in adulthood, RSE for pupils aged 16-plus should include advice on how to achieve mutually fulfilling, high-quality sex, including the emotional and erotic value of foreplay; the multitude of erogenous zones and how to excite them; and the various methods to achieve pleasure for oneself and one’s partner. This is particularly important for boys who often know little about female sexual anatomy and how to give a female partner fulfilment.

Ethical Framework: Mutual Consent, Respect & Fulfilment

It is important that RSE acknowledges diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, and relationship types, while also giving teenagers guidance on their rights and responsibilities—including teaching about consent and abuse issues.

A positive ethical framework for sex can be summed up in three very simple principles: mutual consent, reciprocal respect, and shared fulfilment.

The great advantage of these three principles is that they apply universally, regardless of whether people are married or single, monogamous or promiscuous, heterosexual, bisexual, gay, lesbian, trans, or intersex.

Promoting Safer Alternatives: Oral Sex & Mutual Masturbation

If schools are serious about cutting the incidence of teen pregnancies, abortions, and HIV and other sexual infections, they should highlight to pupils aged 16 and older the various safer, healthier alternatives to vaginal and anal intercourse.

Oral sex and mutual masturbation, for example, carry no risk of conception and a much lower risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The most effective way to persuade teenagers to switch to these alternatives is by making them sound and look appealing, glamorous, and sexy. Teachers need to explain that they are not a sacrifice or second best; that they can also be sexually fulfilling. It’s time to talk up and emphasise their advantages over intercourse: no worries about unwanted pregnancies, reduced HIV risk, and no need to use the pill or condoms.

While mutual masturbation is very safe, young people should be made aware that oral sex is safer than intercourse but not entirely risk-free.

Lessons ought also to include the advice that if young people become sexually active it is recommended that they get vaccinated against HPV and hepatitis. These vaccinations should be offered at every school.

Sexual Rights Are Human Rights

RSE should be based on, and espouse, the principle that it is a fundamental human right to love an adult person of any sex or gender identity, to engage in any mutually consensual, harmless sexual act with them, and to share a happy, healthy sex life.

These are the sexual human rights of every person. Everyone also has the human right not to have sex if they do not wish to do so.

Hetero, Homo, and Bi Are Equally Valid

When based on the three principles of mutual consent, respect, and fulfilment between adults, all relationships with persons of any sex are equally morally valid.

While schools should not promote any particular sexual orientation, they should encourage understanding and acceptance of heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, and pansexual orientations—and transgender and intersex identities. This is vital to ensure self-acceptance by pupils with such orientations or identities, and to help combat prejudice, discrimination, bullying, and hate crime.

The Right to Sexual Self-Determination

The principle ‘It’s my body and my right to control it’ should be promoted in every school to ensure that young people assert their right to determine what they, and others, do with their bodies—including the right to abstain from sex, say ‘no’ to unwanted sex, and to report sexual abusers.

This ethos of sexual self-determination and the ‘right to choose’ is crucial to thwart people who attempt to pressure youngsters into sex, abusive relationships, and risky sex.

Live & Let Live

Human sexuality embraces a glorious diversity of emotions and desires. We are all unique, with our own individual tastes. People are emotionally and sexually fulfilled in a huge variety of different ways.

Providing that sexual behaviour is consensual and between adults, where no one is harmed and the enjoyment is reciprocal, schools should adopt a non-judgemental ‘live and let live’ attitude when teaching RSE.

Advice on Internet Safety

Widespread access to the internet and social media has exposed many young people to pornography and sexting and the risks of grooming, abuse, and online harassment. These issues, and how to stay safe online, need to be a cornerstone of RSE lessons, so that teens can be aware of the dangers and protect themselves.


Porn is ubiquitous and easy to access. Most young people have watched it. There needs to be frank discussions about the issue: young people need to be told that it is unrealistic to expect from a partner the sexual acrobatics and hours-long sex of porn stars. Also, the often abusive and humiliating and violent nature of pornography needs to be challenged; it should be explained that this is not the right way to treat a partner and will not lead to a happy, healthy relationship. And it should be made clear that sexual violence is against the law and carries severe penalties.

Respect for Sexual Diversity

Our desires and temperaments are not the same. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach when it comes to sex, love, and relationships. If these fall within the ethical framework of adult mutual consent, respect, and fulfilment, it is not the business of RSE to promote sexual conformity or to neglect the reality of sexual diversity.

Give Pupils All the Facts

Sex education from the age of 16 ought to tell the whole truth about every kind of sex and relationship—including sexual practices that some people may find distasteful, like rimming and bondage.

The purpose of such frankness is not to encourage these practices but to help pupils deal with them if they encounter them in later life. This includes advising them of their right to refuse to participate in sexual practices that they dislike or object to.

Restricted Parental Opt-out

We don’t let parents take their kids out of science or history classes, so why should a parental opt-out be permitted for RSE? Removing pupils from such lessons jeopardises their emotional, sexual, and physical health.

Parents who want to withdraw their children should be required to come to each lesson and physically remove their child, and then bring them back in good time for the next lesson. This way the parental opt-out option is retained but the actual opt-out rate is likely to be reduced.


Most young people say they want earlier, more detailed, and franker RSE lessons. We should listen to their concerns and ensure that schools give them the information they need to protect themselves and their partners. Over to you, Education Secretary.

  1. I agree with Peter Tatchell that children need to be taught in an age-appropriate way about scientific facts, safety on and offline, consent, control over one’s own body, sexual orientation, and tolerance of difference.

    Education about some aspects of sex, such as the dangers of pornography, for teenagers over the age of consent in particular, could well be served by external speakers – medical professionals for preference – better than teachers, since the former could answer children’s difficult questions without the need for the children to see those same adults on a day-to-day basis in other capacities.

    However, the idea that such topics as “rimming and bondage”, or masturbation, could be introduced by one’s form tutor – as RSE often is in schools – could cause teachers embarrassment (is that really just “squeamishness”?). Of course, this could be an argument for getting specially trained sex ed teachers – in an ideal world, where schools were also able to provide other things, like basic English and maths education.

    And whether all forms of sexual pleasure and sexuality ought to be expounded at school level, as Tatchell suggests, is far from clear. Or whether schools ought to take on the responsibility for “advice on how to achieve mutually fulfilling, high-quality sex, including the emotional and erotic value of foreplay…”. This sounds utopian – or dystopian. I see a minefield of litigation ahead, with teachers becoming obvious targets of accusations of sexual predation for teaching about things in the “wrong” way.

    Moreover, sexual identities that may be popular from one age to another are nebulous and controversial – as well as, often, political. Contrary to the view of Stonewall and similar campaigning organisations, it is surely not appropriate for teachers to take a political position on identities.

    Quite apart from conceptual difficulties. Is “pansexuality” really any more coherent than panpsychism? And how will such ideas be taught – as hypotheses, or doctrines? Are you going to teach them that it is, as a matter of fact, possible for a girl to change into a boy? That Islam and Catholicism believe that being gay is a sin? Where do you draw the line – and who is going to have the power to draw it?

    Clearly sex education needs to be reformed. One thing sadly absent from this article is any mention of the role of parents, especially with younger children. Children also need to be introduced to relevant and trustworthy resources, such as books and reputable internet sites.

  2. Thanks Mr Majeika. These were just some ideas. Surveys show that most parents don’t feel able to discuss these issues and want schools to teach them.

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