Straight Talking: Promoting Healthy, Safe Relationships

Can more be done to improve the standard of sex education in our schools? The Scottish Women’s Aid campaign I GET IT may be offer an answer

Feature by Claire Askew | 07 Feb 2013
  • Let's talk about sex

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be involved in the Scottish Women’s Aid campaign I GET IT.  The campaign was launched in response to a number of studies. One, a 2009 report by the National Union of Students called Hidden Marks, revealed that one in seven female students experience a serious physical or sexual assault while at university. I GET IT was aimed at getting people like us (or, at least, those of us aged 16 to 25) talking about what makes a healthy relationship. I ran workshops in which participants were encouraged to frankly discuss friendship, dating, love and sex. My workshop participants completed an exercise listing the top ten qualities they’d value in an ideal romantic partner. Respect, trust and personal safety always came out on top. Yet, when I’d asked them to list the qualities they looked for in real life romantic partners, they’d listed things like physical attraction, shared interests, and even salary much higher. Comparing their lists, the groups saw how common it is to sacrifice our relationship ideals – and sometimes our safety – for fear of being passed over by potential partners.

Why does this happen? Primarily, it’s to do with the way we learn about relationships as young people.  The frank discussions that took place in my workshops are far from the norm, as the groups observed. Even progressive sex education programmes focus primarily on two things: a purely biological guide to sex as baby-making, and a warning about the dangers of having sex without contraception or barrier-type protection. However, according to the Health Protection Agency, STI rates are steadily rising here in the UK and rates of infection have increased among under 15s and those aged 15 to 24. Furthermore, the average sex education class usually fails to address issues like the importance of consent, or what constitutes an abusive relationship. Sex education classes are often also heterosexist. In 2010 the Office of National Statistics conducted a nationwide evaluation report into sexual identity. They found that 16.8% of 16-24 year olds identified as gay or lesbian. Yet the vast majority of sex education classes still focus primarily on heterosexual, penetrative sex. Young people who identify as transgender are often totally excluded from the sex ed discussion, too, and sex education provision for people with disabilities is severely lacking.

Of course, it’s not the sole responsibility of schools and colleges to educate young people about relationships. But, as my workshop groups overwhelmingly agreed, parents, guardians and other family members are often reluctant to talk about these issues. Starting the conversation with peers is even worse: all the groups acknowledged that peer pressure greatly affects the way they view sex and relationships. Participants said they’d been made to feel ashamed about their appearance, about being single, or about having friends of the same sex as their romantic partner.

Happily, though, things are getting better. More campaigns like I GET IT are appearing in schools and colleges, plugging the gaps left by our sex education. However, we can all do something to help develop happier and healthier sexual and romantic lives. By simply talking openly and candidly about what we expect and deserve from our relationships, we’re taking the first step to making all relationships healthier.