We have given our children too much sex education

Young people are more sexualised than ever before, and no one has worked out how to deal with the problem. This week, researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and University College London discovered that the number of 16-24-year-olds moving away from traditional sexual intercourse had doubled, partially thanks to the easy access of internet porn.

Immediately the sex ‘experts’ were out in full force. “We must have more graphic sex education on the curriculum!” was their knee-jerk reaction. None of this surprises me; whenever there is a issue surrounding sexualised young people, educators always promote information as the salvation.

Many think that the more teenagers know about the birds and the bees – and the handcuffs, and the rest – the better they will be at making decisions. This is flawed thinking, though, because through overly-focussing over sex, teachers actually raise expectations for children to be sexual. Imagine being a twelve-year-old in a classroom where you are told about S&M. That plants an expectation that it is something you will do.

It makes more sense to draw kids’ attention away from sex and onto other topics to counter national habits. For too long, this country has long been atrocious at dealing with sex education; we often overestimate the prurience of young people. The overarching assumption has become that most teenagers are gagging for it, as if school was an episode of Mad Men.

There’s also our wider culture that suggest to society’s most impressionable: “you should be having sex!” The Channel 4 Show The Joy of Teen Sex, released in 2011, is one strong example of this. It was ostensibly designed to allay teenagers’ sexual concerns, but – in fact – merely encouraged them to think around the clock about their genitals.

The “information is power” approach has overloaded kids, and this has had hugely negative consequences, with STI rates rising all the time. In 2014, 85,513 young people in England aged 15-19 had an STI.

People often mock religious schools because they skirt around sex education. But it’s ironic that they may have lower levels of STIs and STDs through promoting practices that limit sexual partners. Sex is even taught – shock, horror! – in the context of love and commitment.

I’m hardly the Virgin Mary, but I can see that there is something to be said for less is more in sex education. Sure, children need to know the basics. But when we feed them all the time on the subject, we suggest they should be “at it” all the time. Then we wonder why they are so precocious. We need to think laterally about sexual education. Making everything more graphic is not the way forward.


Our interactions are not confined to linguistics

The Weinstein backlash has reached parliament, and it is deeply unpleasant to watch. Numerous allegations have been made at Tory MPs, on the basis that their behaviour was inappropriate (though what that means, technically, one is not quite sure). An accusation I have found strange, particularly as a tactile person myself, is that of being “handsy”. This was charged at Damian Green for touching a journalist’s knee and Adam Sandler last week, too, who put his hand on Claire Foy’s knee on BBC’s Graham Norton Show.

Being “handsy”, like many of the accusations on the dossier, is ambiguous as a description. It might mean a serious groping offence (wrong), or someone touching another person affectionately, or even meaninglessly. Most instances of being handsy – which can be synonymous with “tactile” – strike me as harmless, but it’s become difficult to tell what the boundaries are between inappropriate and appropriate contact these days.

Everything has been merged into one, and my guess is that as the result of the last few weeks men will become increasingly fearful of physical interaction, lest it causes confusion. We seem to be moving towards a world in which physical contact through the sexes must be cleared through verbal permission, to ensure consent at all times (#theplotof1984). But this goes against human nature, and our instinct to blend nonlinguistic and linguistic communication. We are animals, in the end, reading off body language cues and facial expressions to interact with others.

Of course, it’s not great when people read body cues incorrectly. Most women, and men (yes), have experienced someone getting the wrong idea. In men’s defence, what I think is interesting is that psychological data suggests they can be less emotionally intelligent than women. The greatest indication of this is the profile of psychological disorders across the population. Men are much more likely to have autism – referred to as “the extreme male brain” – which is typified by difficulties in empathising. Women suffer much more from mood disorders, which highlight more intense activity in the emotional area of the brain. It may be controversial to suggest, but not impossible to imagine that differences in empathy levels – even on a tiny scale – might sometimes explain why men get the situation wrong when reading romantic interest, and make a move.

Of course, some people are just vain or stupid, too. But for their faults, it would be a great shame to start policing physical interaction. Indeed, if we limit it, we enter very difficult territory indeed. At worst, that might mean every time someone wanted to hug someone they’d have to get permission. In romantic situations, it would be a huge turn-off. I know, because a date once asked me if I wanted to “snog him”. He might as well given me smallpox for all the enthusiasm on my face. (And no, we aren’t going out any more).

None of this is to say being tactile is always appropriate, but we need to make distinctions. Non-linguistic communication is embedded in us, just as much as the need to use words. Maybe even more so.