A World Tour of Sex Education

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It’s kind of terrible, and not just in the United States.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Rudy Juanito/Flickr)

Think back to your sex education classes in junior high or high school. It was probably a fairly uncomfortable experience, was it not? Well, you’re not alone: A new review of studies from 10 countries around the world finds that we’re all pretty much squirming our way through sex ed, albeit in different ways, depending on gender, sexual orientation, and geography.

“The synthesis indicates that schools take insufficient account of the ‘specialness’ of sex as a topic, negatively affecting the way [sex and relationship education] is delivered and rendering many young people vulnerable and reluctant to engage,” University of Bristol researchers Pandora Pound, Rebecca Langford, Rona Campbell write in BMJ Open. “The synthesis also suggests that schools struggle to accept that some young people are sexually active, leading to SRE content that is out of touch with many young people’s lives.”

Pound, Langford, and Campbell reviewed 55 qualitative studies conducted with children and young adults from 10 countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Brazil, and Iran. Most, though not all, of the studies concerned school-based sex education, and most used focus groups to explore the topic. To synthesize the data, the researchers extracted young people’s statements as well as the original authors’ interpretations of those statements. Then, the team sat down and tried to identify any overarching themes in the research.

We’re all pretty much squirming our way through sex ed.

They found that schools generally haven’t done enough to deal with the special nature of sex education, resulting in a repressed atmosphere where everyone was embarrassed and few felt able to talk openly about sex. Young men, for example, were sometimes disruptive or didn’t speak up at all for fear of “revealing themselves as sexually inexperienced,” the team writes. Young women feared harassment or attacks on their “sexual reputations”—slut shaming, in other words—if they spoke up.

There was also a feeling that sex education was out of touch with students’ own experiences and concerns—in particular, the fact that kids were already having sex—or seemed unaware of the full range of sexual activity they might engage in. There was little discussion of anything other than “heterosexual intercourse.” Some students wished they started sex ed earlier.

Most striking, however, was the universality of those experiences: Over the course of 25 years of research, whether in the U.S., Iran, or Japan, and regardless of whether they were in an abstinence-only program, “students’ views are remarkably consistent,” the researchers write.

So what to do about all this? One option is peer educators, who might help curtail the discomfort teenagers feel when talking about sex with their older teachers. Another is to hire teachers whose only job is to teach sex education, so that students wouldn’t have to talk about sex with, say, the wrestling coach.