COMMENT: Sex education leaves lesbians in the dark

Rachel Charman July 8, 2008
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More voices are being added to the call for more and better Sex and Relationship Education.

The Family Planning Association and Brook, two of the UK’s leading sexual health charities, recently called for SRE to be taught at a younger age.

~the chief executive of Brook, Simon Blake, told The Guardian:

“If we get high quality sex and relationships education in every primary and secondary school across the UK, all the evidence shows teenage pregnancy rates will continue to fall and will improve young people’s sexual health.”

The Sex Education Forum, following a survey last month, added that SRE lessons in schools should be made statutory.

Following a review commissioned in February, the Department for Children, Schools and Families has issued new draft guidance on the well being of pupils for schools.

The DCSF notes on its website that “delivery [of SRE] is still patchy” and “many young people feel they are not getting the SRE” they need.

It is certainly about time that SRE and the general attitude towards sex changed.

The current focus of Sex and Relationship Education not only puts people of all orientations at risk, but also marginalises lesbians, who have often been left out when it comes to safe sex.

The Stonewall Lesbian Health Survey, published earlier this year, reveals that more than half of lesbian and bisexual women have never had sexual health check ups, with 75% of those stating that they did not think they were at risk of infection.

4% had been told by healthcare staff that, as lesbians, they did not need sexual health testing.

So where does SRE leave lesbians and other women who have sex with women?

I spoke to a group of bi and lesbian women, aged 18-40, to see how clued up their school SRE left them.

Sandra, 29, told a story that many lesbians might find familiar.

At secondary school, information was scarce and sexual orientation was clearly not up for discussion.

“When I was 13, we had one seminar on sex,” said Sandra.

“Gay sex wasn’t covered, just a woman – I think she was a nurse – going on about how funny the word vagina was.”

The problems begin to emerge straight away. Sandra was unaware of exactly who was teaching her. Or not teaching her, in fact.

“Whoever took the session failed to cover any activity other than sex through penetration with a penis, or discuss emotions, sexuality or STIs.

“We had a biology lesson about STIs when I was 15,” Sandra continued,

“Straight sex only. The most promiscuous girl in the class couldn’t come because her parents had forgotten to sign the consent form.”

Another barrier becomes clear. Sandra’s classmate, despite her sexual activity, was cut off from potentially helpful SRE by her parents.

Fear of reactions from parents governs what can be discussed in school SRE as much today as when Sandra was a pupil.

Current Department for Children, Schools and Families guidelines state that schools’ SRE policies must be “developed in consultation with the parents.”

This effectively gives parents the power to prevent their children from attending SRE classes, or veto any discussion on certain issues, including homosexuality.

Sandra recalls: “It was just assumed that I was going to grow up straight and therefore did not need to be made aware. That was not only insulting, hurtful and demeaning; it was also dangerous and tantamount to abuse in my opinion.”

Other women’s experience over the past two decades further reveals the blanket of silence over homosexuality in schools:

“I was told lesbians were very bad people when I was 11, because I was at a Church of England school.” (Jaimie, 24)

“[Sexuality] wasn’t really covered by school or the youth service. That was seen as very political.” (Rosie, 35)

“I have no memory of anything to do with emotion or sexual orientation being raised. It was all clinical really.” (Eleanor, 21)

“I remember reading a science book we were given at school when I was 12. It said that gay people are people who choose not to sleep with the opposite sex, and that this was OK. But sexuality wasn’t discussed at school, and actually, I take issue with that schoolbook’s emphasis on sexuality as a choice.” (Louise, 22)

Sandra left her grammar school and went on to university, badly-equipped as far as sex was concerned:

“Up until I was 20 years old I had not even considered the possibility of transmitting disease as a lesbian.”

She isn’t alone on that score. Other women I interviewed were aware that they may be at risk of infection, but most were still not totally clear on which STIs could affect them.

HIV/AIDS, Thrush, Bacterial Vaginosis, Genital warts, Trichomonas Vaginalis, Herpes, Chlamydia, Gonnorrhea, Syphilis, Hepatitis B, and HPV can be transmitted during the majority of sexual activities between women, such as digital penetration, oral sex, and sharing sex toys.

Whilst studying Sandra found more resources for SRE.

“University leaflets were a real eye-opener.”

Now vaguely aware that she could be at risk, Sandra visited the university health centre, but was met with poor understanding from the medical staff:

“I was asked by the nurse if I was sexually active and could I be at risk of any STIs.

“I said I was active but I wasn’t sure if I qualified, either as active in the medical sense or at risk. When she asked why, I said that I was gay and she shrugged, laughed nervously and walked out of the room.”

Other interviewees revealed similar problems with doctors and nurses. There seems to be a prevailing ignorance of transmission of STIs through sexual activity other than penile penetration.

Sandra’s slap-dash SRE story opens up a huge can of worms. Homosexuality was pointedly ignored during SRE.

Emotion was secondary to the bare facts, and the bare facts were indeed bare.

Sandra received no information about how STIs may be transmitted through masturbation, sharing sex toys, or oral sex.

In fact, some women feel that the focus of SRE on penile penetration was downright rampant patriarchal control.

Ali, 23, went so far as to say SRE made her feel her duty to please a male partner was given priority over her own sexual health.

“Honestly, I felt as though the penis was painted as this mystical object which it was my responsibility to somehow satisfy,” she said.

Safe non-penile sex appears to be the casualty here. When discussing safe sex between women, most I spoke to were aware of the need to use condoms on shared sex toys.

Some were vaguely aware of dental dams, although few knew where to get them or how to improvise one.

“Where do you get those?” Harriet, 19, wondered aloud.

“The NHS needs to whack that in their safe sex campaign, don’t they? After all, it would apply to heterosexual couples as well.”

Therein lies a major part of the rub.

Lesbian sex does not involve any activities exclusive to lesbians.

Heterosexual, transgender and gay male couples also have oral sex, anal sex, digital penetration and use toys.

Ignoring other sexual activity not only marginalises lesbians, who feel that as they don’t have penile penetration, SRE is irrelevant to them; it also leads people of all gender identities and sexual preferences to believe that activities other than penile penetration are safe, and perhaps, that they “don’t count” as sex.

“We need to move away from the idea that lesbians and gay men need different information,” said Rosie.

“Sexual activity is wide ranging and it doesn’t matter what sexuality you are. We need to put back the humanity of sex education … and we need to stop putting everyone in boxes based upon what we assume they like to do in bed.”

To provide specifically gay SRE would do little to help. A strategy like that assumes that those students have decided whether they are gay or not, and as we all know, sexuality is not always something you can be clear about.

Providing gay SRE would also assume that students are able to attend without fear of bullying.

Harriet remarked that it was difficult to even ask questions about sexuality for fear of outing herself.

“It was ridiculous,” she said.

“Getting a room of about thirty teenaged girls to put a condom on a bit of plastic. Do you think anyone in that situation is going to put their hand in the air and pipe up with a question … to their teacher of all people?”

With this kind of atmosphere, specific sex education for gay students is unlikely to flourish.

The experiences of SRE from the women I spoke to were all at least four years ago. So what’s the situation now?

Well, frankly, it’s grim. Some secondary school students are experiencing even worse standards of SRE now than my interviewees were a decade ago.

The UK Youth Parliament’s recent survey on SRE, Are You Getting It?, revealed that almost half of UK teenagers felt their SRE was poor at best, and more than half of girls aged 16-17 had not been taught to use condoms at all.

If schools are failing to teach even the most basic of contraceptive methods for straightforward penile penetration, the likelihood of any other information being passed on is doubtful.

At the moment, the DCFS guidance on sex and relationship education states that young people in schools must receive SRE relevant to them whatever their sexuality, and that teachers should provide support and information on sexual orientation.

The department advises that SRE in secondary schools should teach about relationships, love, and parenthood, as well as safe sex and contraception.

UK Youth Parliament’s survey shows, however, that even the most basic information is simply not being delivered.

Nowhere in government guidelines is the problem of focusing on penile penetration as “proper” (and therefore risky) sex highlighted.

Essentially, government guidelines and targets are not being met; the current system is failing to achieve its own goals, and bypassing completely many equally important areas of sexual activity.

So where do we go from here? From last week’s announcements by sexual health charities and government bodies, it would appear that an effort is being made to start SRE earlier and ensure that all children, regardless of what school they attend, receive SRE.

Many of the women interviewed suggested that SRE should begin much earlier.

Jaimie suggested that six year olds should learn about love between heterosexual and homosexual couples, and the basic differences between males and females.

Any later than this, she said, was too late:

“By the time you get to 12 year olds, you are going to have a class who will giggle their way through a whole session, rather than engage in the standard way one would during any other class.”

Jaimie might have a point. European countries that begin SRE earlier appear to have more success. In the Netherlands, the majority of primary schools discuss sexuality and contraception, and, perhaps as a result, the Dutch teenage pregnancy and STI rates are one of the lowest in the world.

It is not hard to imagine that starting SRE earlier, and with a more open approach, will create a learning environment where students can ask questions, feel at ease, and learn more than how to avoid pregnancy, regardless of their sex or gender identity.

Starting earlier, however, is not all there is to it.

All of the interviewees suggested that sexual orientation, emotion and respect needed more emphasis within sex education.

Government directives already recommend this, but this information is not getting through to around half of the UK’s young people.

As mentioned before, the DCSF is working on improving the situation, as shown by its February review and the new guidance.

The DCSF’s statement on the review, however, still focuses mainly on SRE as a tool to reduce rates of teenage pregnancy. Little is said regarding STIs, orientation or emotional issues.

Outside of school, some women had positive experiences of SRE, and advocated using the youth service to tackle the current problems.

Rosie found the youth service helpful in some ways.

“Back then it was very much about HIV and using condoms,” she said, “although I met one worker who was emotionally focused and spoke a lot about the intellectual and emotional side of sex including sexuality.”

The general feeling, then, was that we need more SRE, available from more sources, and beginning at an earlier stage.

We need an approach that covers all sexual activities, because after all, what lesbians do in bed is not particularly different to what straight people do (despite the air of mystery some of us enjoy), but ignoring those activities marginalises lesbians, whilst putting everyone at risk. Basically, we need it to be bigger, better and much more consistent.

Make sure you know just how safe the sex you’re having (or about to have) is. Find out if what you’ve been up to has put you at risk of STIs at

Go to your doctor or GUM clinic for regular tests. If you are told you don’t need a test because you haven’t been sleeping with men, don’t be rebuffed; explain that you would like to take the test anyway. Medical staff can’t refuse you treatment.

You can find out more about UK Parliament’s Are You Getting It? campaign for more and better SRE, and sign their petition, at

For more information on SRE guidelines for schools visit the Department for Children, Schools and Families website.

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