It’s a pleasure: Improving sex and relationships education

Woman with outstretched arms and eyes closed in a field at sunset

By Marc Fuster

Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Sex Education is one of the most popular shows today. The British show follows the doings of Otis, the adolescent son of a popular sex therapist who uses his privileged knowledge about sex and relationships to give his insecure peers the advice they are missing—and get some money out of it.

For young and old alike, sex and relationships matter a great deal, even if we are not always very good at discussing them openly. Not only is the show good at addressing issues that constitute taboos for many but, as Sarah Todd brightly captures in this piece, Sex Education does a great job reminding us that sex can be fun as well as “weird—confusing, disappointing, embarrassing, or emotionally fraught”, and even more importantly, that it is “an interpersonal, rather than individual, experience.”

Both audience and critique celebrate the frank and positive way with which the show exposes sexuality matters. The show’s success, nevertheless, brings also a worrisome message: if our sexual, mental and reproductive health must rely on the advice of an unqualified teenager with a rather dubious ethical conduct, something is wrong with the way we learn about sex and relationships.

The latest OECD brief, Love & Let Live: Sexuality and Education, highlights the role that education can play in improving people’s health and well-being by approaching sexuality comprehensively, this is, in a critical, positive and inclusive manner.

Sexuality is more than just sex. Sexuality refers to our understanding of and relationship to different but closely related elements, including sex and the body; gender and identity; emotional attachment and love; sexual intimacy, pleasure and reproduction. However, most sexuality education programmes have tended to prioritise public health, providing information about biology, sexually transmitted diseases and appropriate contraceptive use.

Towards a comprehensive approach

This is important foundational knowledge. Yet it is only part of the story. People experience confusing feelings and expectations in sex and relationships, often related to contradictory ideas around love and romanticism, passion, loyalty and trust, all of which affect the way we act in our intimate relationships.

One example: despite advice to use condoms, young people can feel embarrassed and fear being stigmatised for having them or struggle to negotiate contraceptive use with their sexual partners out of a desire to please. The social contexts where sexuality unfolds are critical to our decisions and resulting health outcomes. A broader view of what needs to be learnt is thus key.

Adopting a critical lens

Social contexts are too often conditioned by views under which males are expected to be masculine and females to exhibit femininity. These terms are filled with multiple meanings, many of which are socially constructed and learnt. More importantly, they become harmful when built on ideas sustaining male domination over women, and intolerant notions restricting what constitutes appropriate emotional and sexual attraction. The outrageous levels of violence against women worldwide are a clear example of this. The diverse forms of violence based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and sex characteristics in schools are clear examples too. 

A more comprehensive view of sexuality education can provide children with opportunities to explore values, attitudes and social and cultural norms and rights affecting sexual and social relationships. Children may assess ideas of gender, desire love and romanticism commonly associated to biological traits related to sex, the representation of beauty in the media, or notions such as merit and equality in the contexts of family and the workplace.

A positive and inclusive perspective

Last but not least, an approach towards sexuality that recognises the positive side of sex and relations can build learners’ self-esteem and self-efficacy, enhance sexual communication about consent, desire, and preferences, and encourage egalitarian and healthier attitudes and behaviour overall. Adolescents may more easily resist pressures to engage in sexual activity that they do not feel comfortable with when the expectation is for relationships to be pleasant for all parties.

Discussing pleasure over sex widens sexual imaginaries, recognising that all individuals are entitled to safety and satisfaction, including women, LGBTQ+ and people with disabilities

In this sense, discussing pleasure over sex—which may be understood restrictively under dominant but narrow perspectives such as those reflected in mainstream porn—widens sexual imaginaries, recognising that all individuals are entitled to safety and satisfaction, including women, LGBTQ+ and people with disabilities. The Sex Lives and Respectful Relationships program in Australia, which addresses the sexuality education needs of people with intellectual disability using a peer learning methodology, is an example of this.

Netflix’s Sex Education has broadened up the horizons of those among us who watched it, laughed and learnt. But now the ball is in our court. Are we willing to design and scale up comprehensive sexuality education programmes that everybody can benefit from? Surely, Otis could use a break and benefit from some good advice himself.

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Photo: Shutterstock/mavo