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When it comes to legislation and education surrounding sex and gender, the Scottish government is no stranger to backlash from angry conservative outlets. Whether it’s towards last week’s proposed amendments to the Gender Recognition Act or an educational resource involving a “stomach-churningly horrible connection” made between anal sex and banana dipped in a tub of Nutella, it seems that anything beyond polite procreative intercourse is liable to condemnation.
Among the latest targets of moral outrage? A health and wellbeing census released in December.
The disputed survey asks Scottish schoolchildren of all ages about aspects of their mental and physical well-being, from their body image through to their relationship with smoking or drinking. It is intended to help inform the country’s curriculum; questions alter according to what is deemed age-appropriate and the results are entirely anonymous. It is an important step towards reflecting the real experiences of teenagers and ensuring that education does not come too little, too late.
Though only one multiple choice question is centred around the levels of sexual experience of children aged 14 and over, the census was nicknamed the ‘sex survey’, accompanied by passionate tuts of disapproval and fierce backlash by parents, teachers and politicians.
The bulk of the outrage fell upon the option for participants to disclose whether they had engaged in anal or oral sex. Whilst Nicola Sturgeon has refused to withdraw the survey, a third of Scottish local authorities have rejected participation on the basis of the ‘inappropriate questions’ and the Scottish National Party (SNP) has been accused of being intrusive and perverse.
Among all the UK outlets that have covered the controversy, including the BBC and The Guardian, there is a notable lack of consideration towards the argument in favour of the questions asked.
Evidence shows that young people do benefit from more open education around sex. In 2017 the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found that 16 to 24 year olds accounted for most new diagnoses of sexually transmitted diseases that year, despite making up only 12 per cent of the population. Having weighed up the different methods of education, the study concluded that adopting a sex-positive ‘life skills’ approach that teaches pleasure, ‘refusal skills’ and sexual negotiation is far more effective in improving teen sexual health than preaching abstinence.
Dr Kaitlynn Mendes, who has conducted extensive research into England’s relationship and sex education (RSE) curriculum, is not surprised at the reaction. “There’s a lot of parents who don’t want to acknowledge that their children are sexually active,” she says, “But there’s no point talking about these things long after young people have started doing it. I understand parents’ fears about not wanting to give them ideas, but we also know that young people are accessing porn from 11 and onwards.
“As soon as they get social media devices, they’re exposed to these kinds of things. It may be uncomfortable for parents and for some young people as well but I don’t see these questions as inherently problematic.”
Thought noting she cannot comment directly on the census itself, observing the reaction, Lisa Hallgarten, head of policy and public affairs at youth sexual health charity, Brook says that, “all of this comes down to a misunderstanding that talking about something makes it happen. If you’re talking to year nines about contraception you’re not saying ‘I’m talking to you about this because I’m expecting you all to be having sex’ but you’ve got that information up your sleeve for when you do need it.”
Sex is not always pretty or palatable. For a lot of parents, coming to terms with the idea that their child could eventually engage in it may be even less so. But any step towards better equipping young people for safe and healthy sex, in all its varieties, is not worth compromising for the sake of preventing the temporary discomfort of their elders.
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