Most people look back fondly at their sex education classes, remembering the stammering, red faced teachers, the very silly jokes and the endless, irrepressible giggles. The real tragedy about this week’s proposals to teach five-year-olds about sex is that children that small may not see the funny side of it. Generations of policy makers, teachers and journalists have spent years agonising over the question, while generations of schoolchildren have spent the happy hours of the PSHE classes passing notes, thinking up absurd innuendoes and flirting outrageously, eyes shining with laughter.
But perhaps the privilege of having whole lessons given over to such cheerful pastimes was only ever to be a flash in the pan. In 1930, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of the need to liberate sex from negative warnings and restraints. The Spectator supported him; at the time, sex did need a bit of liberating.
Looking backward, every thinking person who stands in any responsible relation to children must be appalled at the thought of the dangers which used wrong-headedly to be accepted: boys and girls, becoming aware of the most powerful instincts and impulses of human nature, were left in a cruel position of loneliness. It was as though they were shut up alone in a room to fight all the ghosts and bogys with which their nurses had frightened them. They had no sense of support. Perhaps they communicated their thoughts to companions of their own age who were as dangerously ignorant as themselves — but they knew from many indirect or tacit admonitions that their elders wished to regard the whole subject of sex as Unmentionable. It was the greatest of our social taboos. If the preceptors of that time had maliciously tried to invent, a system for compelling morbid introspection, with all its debasing results, they could hardly have, contrived more cleverly than to think out the prudery of mid-Victorianism.
A couple of years later, the Duchess of Atholl, who was an MP, came up with some advice on sex education.
There are many more opportunities now than heretofore for children to acquire a certain amount of knowledge, either from books or from irresponsible companions, in a manner which may prejudice future approach to a difficult subject. Those who are on the watch to help should therefore be careful to get their word in first…The subject must be approached gradually, probably best through teaching on plant and animal life. The normal child's love of Nature and of animals will provide many opportunities for preparing the way…
In the second place it must be kept clearly in mind that mere knowledge is not enough. The subject to be tackled is bound up with great emotional instincts, involving often great moral issues, the making or the marring of lives. Mere knowledge may well be insufficient to enable a clear path to be struck through these tangles. It is essential therefore that ideals be imparted regarding relations between the sexes; regarding marriage, parenthood and the relationship of parent and child.
In the moral panic that followed the sexual revolution, these lessons were perhaps left by the wayside. Teenagers had discovered cool and teachers faced by phalanxes of silly hair cuts and piercings must have dreaded sounding naïve and old-fashioned. They went for the technical approach (condoms on cucumbers and so on), and the Spectator blamed the Family Planning Association, which had become the main lobby group for sex education and contraception. A Miss J Nash wrote in with a damning analysis of some of the FPA’s recent literature.
As a young person, I find there is much about the FPA's attitude to sex education that really concerns me. It seems they are trying to produce a totally contraceptive-minded generation, a whole generation of youngsters who will be trained to associate sex not with love and family life, but with contraception, the clinical mechanics of constantly ‘being careful’. People don’t just want to hear about the mechanics of sex, they want to know about the mental and emotional side of things as well; and unless we are able to get all this in proportion, what kind of marriages are we going to be able to make? A marriage that is based only on careful physical efficiency is not likely to be a very happy one, surely?
Patrick Cosgrave immediately took up the baton.
The Family Planning Association is a body the effects of whose propaganda and activities generally are almost unmitigatedly evil, whatever their intentions… The main effect of the Association's activities and literature is, in my informed opinion, to equate love with sex — an inaccurate equation — and then sex with pleasure — another inaccurate equation — and then pleasure with pleasure without responsibility — a third and final inaccurate equation.
What the FPA are devoted to is not simply a divorce between a human activity and a human feeling — between sex and love — but the elevation of a technique — the capacity to prevent conception mechanically — into an end in itself.
Earlier, John Linklater had been equally indignant about plans to set up a telephone sex information service for children.
A senior medical officer is to be available, on call, to answer schoolchildren’s sex worries. Which of us could have foreseen that we would find ourselves at a point at which it is no longer fantastic to set up a complete organisation to highlight and pander to the sexual preoccupations of the schoolchild?
The Government no longer even pays lip service to the Christian code of morality and we must not be surprised to find ourselves swirling past such well-known landmarks as the age of consent. Apart from the legal aspect, however, there is something singularly distasteful about the zest with which schoolchildren are given sexual instruction. The schoolmistress who stripped herself naked to demonstrate a point may have been exceptional, but the unhealthy tendency predominates. All societies have, at all times, found it to be of value to establish systems of taboo as a means of teaching self-restraint and other higher values.
Sir George Godber [the government’s Chief Medical Officer] states that “it is probable that ignorance among the young is still an important factor in the spread of these infections in the younger age groups.” I disagree entirely. Never have the young known more about sex. Nor have they ever been more promiscuous. It is not greater freedom and sex information that the young need today so much as greater self-restraint and orientation.
To think that we can anchor the morals of our younger generation on the basis of a telephone sex chat, is pure codswallop.
Roger Scruton blamed the sex ed lobby for helping to bring in a depressing cultural malaise.
Shame has been banished from the culture. This we witness in Reality TV which ought to be called Fantasy TV since that is its function. All fig leaves, whether of language, thought or behaviour, have now been removed, and the feral children are right there before our eyes, playing their dirty games on the screen. It is not a pretty sight, but nor is it meant to be.
This shamelessness is encouraged by sex education in our schools, which tries both to discount the differences between us and the other animals, and to remove every hint of the forbidden, the dangerous or the sacred. Shame, according to the standard literature now endorsed by the DES, is a lingering disability. Sexual initiation means learning to overcome such ‘negative’ emotions, to put aside our hesitations, and to enjoy ‘good sex’. Questions as to ‘who’, ‘whom’ or ‘which gender’ are matters of personal choice — sex education is not there to make the choice, merely to facilitate it. In this way we encourage children to a premature and depersonalised interest in their own sexuality, and at the same time we become hysterical at the thought of all those paedophiles out there, who are really the paedophiles in here. I see in this the clear proof that shame is not a luxury, still less an inhibition to be discarded, but an integral part of the human condition. It is the emotion without which true sexual desire cannot develop, and if there is such a thing as genuine sex education, it consists in teaching children not to discard shame but to acquire it.
Sexual liberation is here to stay; but we should try to temper it, to rescue the natural order that it threatens, and to safeguard the two great projects which, since 1963, have been in such serious decline: the project of love and the project of raising children.
Sarah Sands was less worried about the state of the nation, and more about the poor teenage boys who had to contend with the mass of sexual data coming at them from all directions, making them feel inadequate. When it comes to sex, she wrote, teachers should back off.
Pubescent middle-class boys have always inhabited a world of sexual make-believe, but now the stakes are crucifyingly high; first, because of the wealth of information and, second, because the rise in coeducation means that boasts can be corroborated. So the main purpose of school holidays is to return with uncheckable anecdotes.
Information brings expectation. The lads' magazines are a little defensive about their portrayal of women, yet women have happily colluded in the porn-fest. No one has given much thought to the effect on the poor readers — not young advertising executives on yuppie incomes, as the editors like to pretend, but anxious, acne-covered boys with torches under the sheets…How does our hypothetical 13-year-old boy greet this tide of female sexual liberation happening energetically elsewhere? With panic.
There is something puzzling about the motives of sex-education evangelists. Perhaps they are so dedicated to their subject that they cannot bear to see the young making a hash of it. Without a formal text, sex education reverts to playground folklore. Children contribute parts of the jigsaw and eventually it starts to fit. Any child with older siblings will embrace a sexual vocabulary without any awareness of meaning. ‘Is this house a lesbian?’ my five- year-old daughter quaintly asks. ‘A condom makes you pregnant,’ a friend's son explains suavely. Maybe Department of Health officials want to grab these children and cry, ‘No, that's not right!’ So the question is: is sex education for the benefit of adults or children? At worst, it is paedophilia for prigs. At best, it is useless and inflammatory. My limited research leads me to conclude that sex education is none of our business. Teachers, leave those kids alone.
The purveyors of sexual education may have added to the angst of some teenagers, but we should remember that they’ve also massively contributed to the gaiety of the nation. Sex ed teachers have always dreaded being behind the curve, and they always have been. Perhaps they think that by collaring the five-year-olds, for once they won’t get laughed out of the classroom.