Sex education: a new moral panic?

Graphic lessons on oral sex. Instructions about how to choke your partner safely. Discussions of the 72 possible genders. This, according to the Tory MP Miriam Cates, is what passes for RSE (relationships and sex education) in British schools today. 

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Cates made these “eye-popping claims” in the Commons last week, said Paul Waugh in The i Paper. The former biology teacher and committed Christian has helped to compile a report on what she describes as “age-inappropriate, extreme, sexualising and inaccurate” material in RSE lessons, which has now been published by the campaign group she co-founded, the New Social Covenant Unit. 

Cates described the issue as a nationwide “safeguarding scandal”. Tory MPs cried “hear, hear”, and the PM promised a review.

Whipping up moral panic

“It would be truly shocking if children were encouraged in school to choke each other for sexual gratification,” said Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian. But, according to Cates’s own report, there’s no evidence it ever happened. A qualified sex education teacher did publish a blog on the subject, but this was aimed at adults. Cates’s speech was full of such hyperbole, designed to whip up a “moral panic” at a time when children desperately need frank sex education. 

“Many of us will shudder” at the thought of our children being exposed to topics such as sex with multiple partners, sexting and revenge porn, said Sam Leith in The Spectator. But schools cannot shy away from them. If they aren’t addressed by teachers, children will simply look for answers in “the grotesque swamp of online pornography”. 

  Codeword: 22 March 2023

Lack of regulation

What’s worrying, though, is that we don’t really know what’s being taught in many RSE classes, said The Times. The market for “modern” sex education is being “fed by hundreds of companies and one-man-band operations that are barely regulated”. 

Some head teachers don’t appear to know what the lessons involve. And incredibly, some parents have been prevented from inspecting teaching materials, on copyright grounds. The chief inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, has expressed concern about this situation. It is “clearly unacceptable” that parents and teachers are kept in the dark about what is being “put into their children’s heads”.

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