SexEd Up: Around the World!

Hi everyone,

Before I begin, a little context. I am writing this post using my travel set-up and waiting for the clock to tick round to 3:15am, when I am due to give my new son his second night feed. As a result, the following post might be a little syntactically idiosyncratic. Also, since I’m not at home and haven’t had the time to do my usual deep-dive into the research, I feel I should point out that, while I have stated my sources as usual, none of the articles that form the basis of this week's post have been peer-reviewed. That might not matter but I thought I should mention it. Also, also, there are no pictures this week - it would involve installing bitmoji on a separate device and dealing with that this early in the morning is too much! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a nappy to change and a bottle to warm. Enjoy!

My travel writing set-up!

It has been the hottest day of the year, here in London and my wife, our new baby and I are relaxing over at grandma and grandpa’s house. Which is what inspired this week’s post. You see, my mother-in-law, apart from being a wonderful person, is a fully trained, PhD-toting sex therapist, so I got to thinking about the last time I wrote about Sex Ed and how that post went down really well. I figured it was about time for a revisit and this time, I would add a little international flavour.

My goodness, Sex Ed here is not the same as Sex Ed everywhere else!

A Recap

I last wrote about Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) in England back in 2019 - the before times!  It’s a good post, it’s been read by more than 400 people; I’m happy with that number. It gives some practical advice on how to handle the actual delivery of the RSE session in Year 6 (Grade 5) and I’m very happy with it.

But I was thinking today, we’ve had a global pandemic since that post was published. There are possibly many, many children who missed out on the opportunity to have this important part of their Personal, Social, Health Education, or had to attend it via a patchy zoom session. That’s terrible!  Luckily, in 2021, the Department for Education made RSE compulsory in Primary and Secondary schools in England, so there is a good chance that these children have had the chance to catch up.

To be clear, in Primary school (Elementary), the focus is on “healthy, respectful relationships, focusing on family and friendships”[1]; the ‘sex’ aspect doesn’t enter into things until they get to Key Stage 3 (6th Grade); however the curriculum for the younger children does cover LGBTQ+ aspects of ‘family’[2] (although there is no mention of trans or gender/sexual identity at this stage).

The curriculum also emphasises the importance of respecting other people’s decisions; teaches children to recognise what constitutes a healthy family relationship, and, albeit a little vaguely, touches upon online boundaries. All of this is compulsory; there is no opt-out for parents. If the school chooses to touch on age-appropriate aspects of sex education, they are allowed to do so but parents must be given the opportunity to remove their child from these sessions. In my experience, anything beyond the physical changes to the body around puberty (which forms part of the compulsory science curriculum) is not covered at this age.

The Secondary (Grade school) curriculum covers much more of the S in RSE, including gender identity, consent, age of consent and pornography. These are spaced out through the school year, it isn’t just one afternoon of awkward conversations and giggles! It’s also compulsory. All of it. From 11-years-old upwards, schools have to teach it.

So what? 

Well, I didn’t think it was all that strange until I did a bit of globe-trotting and I stumbled across a newspaper article from New Jersey, USA[3]. It seems that The Garden State is seeking to update their sex-ed standard to include "gender role stereotypes" and that 7-year-olds should be taught that people are allowed to express how they feel. 11-year-olds should be taught about different sexual orientations and identities and only when they are older (from 13-years and up) should they be taught about respecting people's decisions to live the life they choose.

This 'progressive' curriculum (and I may have gotten things wrong, you can read the article for yourself, it's number 3 below) has been called an "assault on parental rights" by some. Not all though, there is a lot of support for the idea of this curriculum, just not the delivery of it.

One supportive parent argued that the approach went too far and was too graphic, stating that teaching acceptance was "one thing" but teaching about body parts was "overwhelming". And this was someone who supported the move!

The article goes on to mention a lesson plan, again, for seven-year-olds, called Understanding Our Bodies, which identifies physical, biological differences between male and female bodies. To be fair, the English curriculum for this age group goes into reproduction but not labelling body parts. The teaching guidance specifically says:

"[children] should not be expected to understand how reproduction occurs"

So, I kind of understand where this person is coming from but I also don't. I'm now a father so I can enter the fray and say things like: "I would be happy for my child to learn the names of body parts when he's seven"... but remember, his grandma is a sex therapist, so he'd probably already know them. 

Anyway, a dislike of curriculum content is one thing. What I read next was just crazy. 

According to State lawmakers, the new curriculum is not just ill-advised, it is child abuse! Allow me to offer some context (I know I needed it). 

Senator Holly Schepisi said that she was concerned the new approach to Sex Ed at so young an age would lead to children being "convinced they're something they're not." She was talking about girls who don't like dolls and dresses, or boys who like ballet, she was concerned that these children would be brainwashed into becoming trans-converted... or something. It's difficult to keep track, if I'm honest.

See, I was a boy who didn't like football. Or sports in general. I did like acting and singing and dancing an dressing up. I hated getting dirty but loved oversized tops that looked like dresses on me. And I have never ever been gender-confused. So I don't understand such a visceral response to children learning that some people have two mummies.

Perhaps I'm getting the wrong end of the stick? After all, I'm not American so maybe something's been lost in translation.

Let's broaden the scope: to Australia!

Australia is also having a spot of RSE bother at the moment (it must be the season for it). Their gripe, however, is not over what is on the curriculum, but what is missing from it.

Associate Education Minister, Jan Tinetti, announced new resources that would address pornography, gender diversity and digital safety[4]. Pretty good, right?


It does not include consent education and the Australian people are not happy about it. A sexual violence survivor was quoted as saying that Australia has some of the highest sexual violence reported in OECD, so why is consent not a higher priority?

What's very confusing is that, in February this year, Australian ministers unanimously agreed that consent education should be a compulsory part of the curriculum. So what happened? 

Apparently (and again, I might be wrong), the current curriculum, 'Mates and Dates' is due to expire soon and Tinetti doesn't believe that the new consent curriculum is quite ready yet. And she's not alone. Melanie Beres, an associate professor at the University of Otago, believes that sexual violence is not the result of poor consent education. She claims that a sexually violent crime is the result of someone "choosing not to listen".

It is with this in mind that Tinetti has postponed the compulsory aspect of the curriculum, arguing that releasing a mandatory programme before it is ready could end up doing more harm than good. However, with funding for the current curriculum provision slated to end soon, coupled with the students themselves calling for greater teaching around consent, the pressure to release the new lessons is building.

Back here in the UK, I recently attended three webinars hosted by the Department for Education. All three touched on various aspects of RSE with particular focus on Domestic Abuse, Pornography and the impact of abuse online, and Child Sexual Exploitation. All fairly heavy sessions but really worth attending (I’m working on my digest post for all three, which should be out sometime in May). 

What was striking, especially in the light of my reading tonight, was the acknowledgement that the old reliance on ‘Strange Danger’ (which is what the naysayers in New Jersey were calling for) is dangerously outdated[5]. Many domestic and sexual abusers are now known to be familiar to the victim, hence the Department for Education’s push for safe, respectful relationships as early as Key Stage 1 (5-year olds).

There was also a lot of talk around consent and teaching young teenagers that it was actually not okay to ask for inappropriate images. One school was praised for their approach which saw them discussing substance abuse first. When the children were on board with the dangers and downsides of drugs, pornography was introduced as another potential addiction. From there, the issue of consent was raised and (and this is the part I particularly liked), instead of teaching the girls - because it is largely girls who are asked - how to say no to sending inappropriate (and illegal, these children are under 18) photos of themselves, the focus was on not asking in the first place!

I am very much in favour of not making the victims accountable for the actions of the abusers, so well done there. Perhaps this is the fist step towards ending the ‘what was she wearing’ mentality that so often plagues sexual abuse victims at the moment (or telling women to maybe stay in doors if they don’t want to be raped, remember that one? Sickening.).

As a result of these webinars, I am delighted to be able to introduce you to the PSHE Association[5] (unless you already knew about them). They have a very thorough Programme of Study, which is free to download and covers every key stage of English education. That’s children aged 5 to 18! They are even endorsed by the DfE and free. I had a quick look through their consent packs for 5-7- and 7-11-year-olds and they’re pretty good.

But what about the rest of the world?

I had a look at sex ed in South East Asia and what I found requires its own post.  In some countries, it is more likely that a girl will give birth before reproduction is even covered in school; marital rape is normalised, sexual health is stigmatised, sex itself is vulgar and pregnancy pretty much renders a young woman void in society. And that’s not me, that’s from a UNESCO report![7].

However, I have done nowhere near enough research to go into that this time. A few non-peer-reviewed articles and a featured UNESCO blog are not enough for me to confidently say I have explored the topic. So it will have to wait.

Thanks so much for reading this far - it may well be a little more rambling than normal. I am still getting used to the baby's feeding schedule! I've received some lovely messages via my YouTube channel recently (shout-out to Charlene Wilby and נירית האן מדריכת תקשוב!). I'm always happy to say hi or discuss things that have come up in the blog, podcast or videos. I'll be especially keen to hear from anyone in New Jersey or Australia to hear their thoughts on the current state of Sex Ed. Have I understood the news stories correctly or am I totally barking up the wrong tree? Always happy to be corrected and to learn!

In the meantime, enjoy the break, enjoy the weather and remember: you can do this. You're awesome!

Carl Headley-Morris

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"References" for this post: