There was a time when young people learned about sex through trial and error when the time came to explore themselves and others, or anecdotes from peers. Most people went through their younger lives understanding little about sex or relationships. Often, attitudes towards sex were firmly based in the concepts of families or relationships, and sex was seen as a way to have children. May young people inherited their knowledge and attitudes from parents and the society around them.
Until the 1940s, sex education wasn’t really sex education at all. It was primarily about social interaction with undertones and innuendos of the temptations of living in the world at that time, or information about personal hygiene and modesty.
Through the 1950s and 1960s sex education in schools continued to be veiled in the practical examination and biology of animal reproductive systems, with occasional reference to the biology of human reproductive systems. This depended on the school the young person attended and there was no nationwide sex education programme in place.
In the 1970s sex education started to change, possibly as a result of the ‘swinging sixties’ when society started to be a little more liberal in attitudes to sex and relationships. The focus was still on the practical aspects of sex, through a fuller explanation of the human reproductive system in biology books, and information on the methods of contraception available at the time.
Information on the connection between sex and relationships started to find its way into sex education in the 1980s. There was more emphasis on communication and gender roles in relationships and how this impacted on sex. Even so, sex education was not widespread, and faced opposition from groups claiming that the young were being given information that would lead to promiscuity and would corrupt morals.
A pivotal point in changing attitudes to sex education was when HIV/AIDS spread rapidly and devastatingly through many countries in the world during the mid-1980s. This prompted governments to initiate campaigns focussing on sexual intercourse and the deadly implications of unprotected sex. The main message was that a person could be infected for many years and not know they were carrying the HIV virus, and could continue to have unprotected sex, unknowingly spreading the infection.
During the early 1990s, sex education was still very hit-and-miss. Some education programmes promoted abstinence, while others encompassed challenging attitudes to traditional sexual stereotypes.
In 1996, the UK government introduced the ‘Education Act 1996’ which established a legal framework for ‘Sex and Relationships Education’ (SRE) in England. Similar legislation was introduced for Wales and Northern Ireland. Although no legislation was introduced in Scotland, the ‘Scottish Executive’ encouraged schools to introduce sex education within a programme of personal, social, health, religious, and moral education.
In England, it became mandatory for primary and secondary schools to provide education on anatomy, puberty, biological aspects of sexual reproduction, and hormone use to control fertility. Secondary schools are also required to provide education about sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS.
Another piece of legislation is the ‘Learning Skills Act 2000’, which states that pupils must learn about the nature of marriage and its importance for family life, that yound people are protected from materials which are inappropriate with regards to age, religious and cultural background. It goes on to legislate that schools must adhere to SRE guidance, and that parents have the right to withdraw their children from all or part of the SRE curriculum.
Even though sex education has been legislated for, the focus (particularly in England) is on the practical aspects of sex such as biological functioning and protection against unwanted pregnancy and disease.
In a survey conducted by the ‘Youth Parliament’ in the UK, 61% of boys and 70% of girls reported that they has not received any information about relationships, or the role sex has in relationships, through the SRE programme, and 40% thought the SRE curriculum was either poor or very poor.
In the USA, sex education is further complicated by state laws and the influence of pressure groups within those states that have a significant influence on education.