Louise Kirk has been UK Co-ordinator for the Alive to the World values education program since 2007, working closely with its creator Christine Vollmer. The programme gives children aspiration to marriage and productive citizenship. She wrote Sexuality Explained: a guide for parents and children to complement it, encouraging parents to teach their own children through the use of stories and the latest science. The book is being translated into Spanish, Polish, Romanian, and French and is designed to be promoted by schools and parishes. Louise speaks widely in the UK and abroad on topics related to the family and the reform of sex education. She sits on Shrewsbury Diocese’s Commission for Marriage & Family Life and is a member of various ecumenical groups promoting strong family values.
In this essay, Louise explains why an urgent reform of sex education is long overdue:
Sex education: an holistic approach
In April this year the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) held a high-level conference in London to review sex education. The reason for bringing stakeholders together “from across the education and health sectors, including charities, government and frontline professionals, as well as young people” is that there is a crisis. Young people are emerging in England from years of sex education without understanding the basics of their own fertility. They are postponing childbearing unrealistically, and the infertility industry can no longer cope with the demand for its services.
This conference makes a statement. It in effect admits that the Comprehensive Sex Education which has been pushed at children not only in England but internationally is not actually comprehensive at all. In fact, it is failing to explain the basics of sexuality, which revolve around fertility and the potential to give life to the next generation.
What is especially interesting about this conference is its authorship. It was the RCOG which paved the way for sex education in the UK and it is they who now find it wanting.
The reason is not hard to find. Sex education was introduced in the UK with a specific target in mind: to reduce unplanned pregnancy among teenagers. The method was to get the children thinking contraception, which would also be used against sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Sum it up and its purpose was to get young people through their teenage and young adult years unscathed by sexual mishaps. Sex education was never designed to prepare them for the whole cycle of their sexual lives, from birth until death.
A further element which was also there from the beginning complicated the stated target, because children were also to be encouraged to “enjoy their sexuality” without feeling guilty. Over the years, understanding sexual relationships has expanded into teaching consent, eliminating homophobic bullying, “discerning” good and bad pornography, understanding gender issues and teaching safety on the internet. The topics are familiar in many countries, because they are the same ones that are promoted internationally through such documents as the IPPF Framework for Comprehensive Sexuality Education and the World Health Organisation’s Standards for Sex Education in Europe.
The “enjoyment” of sexuality of course takes young people on a collision course with the first target of reducing unplanned pregnancy. This is because the whole policy hinges on the use of contraception and there is no such thing as a fail-safe method, especially when used by youngsters. Even the RCOG admitted as much in their 1991 report. It pleaded the need for “special resources both to develop existing and to innovate new methods of preventing conception”, a plea regularly made by family planning providers. Despite this, the government duly complied with the RCOG’s main recommendations and injected increased money into contraceptive provision and sex education programs. The UK’s record for teenage pregnancy did not improve. It remained the highest in Europe. A new review was carried out in 1999, this time with a Foreword from the Prime Minister Tony Blair. Yet more, and more explicit, sex education was provided, and teenage pregnancy, though dipping in recent years because of changed sexual behaviors, has remained a concern ever since.
Recently it has been some of these other behaviors, such as sexting, use of pornography and gender-related bullying, which have led to a whirl of words demanding compulsory Comprehensive Sex Education from primary school upwards. Perhaps this ever new agitation for a decades old solution is to distract from sex education’s core failure.
The RCOG’s April conference is early indication of a crisis which promises to be larger and more intractable than teenage pregnancy. I am talking about the problem of adult loneliness. There are not one but two stages in life’s cycle when human beings are especially vulnerable and demand the attention of others: when they are born and grow into children but also when they are old (or ill or handicapped). The normal sexual pattern for human beings sanctioned by society since time out of mind caters for both stages. Human beings commonly marry, have children, and in turn are confident of being cared for as they grow old. Thus the family remains to a large measure self-sufficient, to the benefit of society which can then afford to provide a safety-net for the less fortunate, through charity or the state.
There is now irrefutable evidence from many countries that children born into married families are those who thrive most easily. Less is made of the fact that married people live longer, healthier, and also more prosperous lives than those who are unattached. The difference becomes stark in old age. It is not just that the elderly need help with the shopping, or being propped up in bed. They want the warmth and interest of having family round them, of feeling useful, and of having the daily company until death of the spouse who loved them in the strength of their youth. A married couple are also more likely to have built up a strong network of relationships across the generations.
The trouble is that the younger generation are now delaying pregnancy in such a way that some will never have a baby and the family cycle is breaking down. It is not just that the young are waiting to conceive. The contraceptives they use in the interim damage fertility, and so do the abortions and sexually transmitted diseases which a contraceptive lifestyle encourages. The younger a person embarks upon sexual activity, the more partners he or she is likely to have and the greater the possibilities of future damage.
This is not just to fertility but also to long-term bonding. Since the 1990s, brainscan technology has been able to show that sex does not just appear to bind people together, but it does so in a physical way through sexual imaging and the release of hormones. Sex is intended for permanence, but if it is embarked on casually its sticking power begins to fail. Existing relationships may fall apart, stripping men in particular of the children they have fathered, while desired long-term relationships and marriages may never materialize at all. This happens also with the regular use of pornography. In his seminars “Laugh your way to a better marriage” Pastor Mark Gungor describes how some people are unable to make love to their wives without an open pornographic magazine.
One can’t expect children to think like this. But adults can and should. So strong is the evidence that marriage is good for individuals and good for society that every school should be helping to guide children towards it in addition to a career. Those who need help most are those at the bottom of society who are currently least likely to marry or to have the future resources to look after themselves when they are old.
Can the situation be turned round? Yes, and the RCOG themselves have indicated how. Teach children fertility, and the mysterious intricacy of our human sexuality comes alive in all its aspects, physical, emotional, rational and spiritual, and it commands respect. A child looking at a diagram of a baby in the womb doesn’t think: “Those are the inconvenient products of conception.” It thinks: “That was me!” and it realizes that sex is serious and is created for love and is no plaything. It further realizes that the female cycle has been designed to achieve or avoid conception without the intrusion of doctors and drugs.
In sex education how you teach is part of what you teach. To teach for the long-term you need long-term guides: the children’s own parents and guardians. These can communicate sensitive information individually, with love and in the right measure for each child. Speaking in private upholds children’s modesty, which is a natural component of chaste living. Sex educationalists already acknowledge the parents’ role and their influence for good over children’s behavior. What parents sometimes lack is confidence, and this can be given to them in parent workshops and in written materials. My own book Sexuality Explained: a Guide for Parents and Children is designed as a tool to give parents the latest science of sexuality while supporting their teaching role to the degree they wish.
Older children look to their peers and mentors for confirmation of what they learn at home. At secondary school level, a full program of sex education should include the biology of fertility, the sexual chemistry of the brain and the capacity to bond, and the economics of marriage and family life. It should also appraise contraception, show how it works, its true failure rates when used by unattached young people, and the risks it poses to health and future fertility. Young women have a right to know this and young men to respect their sexual partners. Both should be educated for the complementary roles that women and men play in the home, in the workplace, and in wider society.
Sexual education has languished in thought patterns devised in the last century and out of kilter with current concerns for respecting nature and the environment. Change is always resisted by vested interests and in the case of sex education and the contraceptive industry there are many. It will take determination to adopt a new holistic approach but where the health and prosperity of individuals and of society are both at stake we can afford to do nothing less.
10 June 2016
 The RCOG produced two well publicised reports on Unplanned Pregnancy, in 1972 and in 1991. Both recommended easy access to contraception and sex education and both were acted on by the UK Government. The 1991 report’s first recommendation says: “A flexible curriculum for sex education in schools is necessary. This would be developed and monitored on a national level and would be similar to those which exist in many other countries in Europe and in some parts of the US and Australia. Such curricula should stress the importance of responsible and caring relationships.” This makes clear the international character of the initiative.
 Brain studies also reveal that the physical ability to make mature decisions only develops at age 22-25.
 The UK Government’s official guidance on sex education calls parents key to their children’s effective sex education but suggests that they need help (see Sex and Relationship Education Guidance Ref DfEE 0116/2000). A study by the Guttmacher Institute of February 2015 found that even less confident parents could be effectively trained to support their children. https://www.guttmacher.org/about/journals/psrh/2015/02/parent-based-adolescent-sexual-health-interventions-and-effect
 Sexuality Explained: a Guide for Parents and Children (Gracewing), 2013. For details see: www.alivetotheworld.co.uk. The book is being translated into Spanish, Polish and Romanian with other editions proposed.
 See also the work by Christine Vollmer on educating the young in the values and virtues which make for healthy living and counter the influences of an oversexualised society.