It was the fag end of school sports day. Weary from endless relay races, we huddled together, a group of mud-spattered 11-year-old girls, talking of everything and nothing. Suddenly, one amongst our number began to share her freshly minted knowledge of sex. How men and women connect like pieces of Meccano to make babies. And what went where. I can’t remember her primary source, though memory suggests an obliging older sister.
Thrilled and embarrassed, as we all were, it was left to wrong-footed parents – mothers – to pick up the slack when (or if) we blurted out what we knew.
That was 40 years ago. But it highlights an enduring problem with teaching our children about sex. Unlike, say, quantum physics, there’s always the chance an enquiring mind can glean some pub talk before those with the knowledge (and love) have a chance to have their say.
Yet formalising sex education in the school system has always been a rather strangled affair – the very idea that teachers have a pulse the source for much sniggering. And in today’s dangerously progressive circles, scope for massive mis-marketing.
Look no further than Winchester College. The school spectacularly tanked on this point after it was revealed last week that the leader of a virtual sex education class told Year Nine and Ten pupils that the age of consent “is not there to prosecute [or] punish young people for having consensual sex”.
Instead, Dr Eleanor Draeger (a self-described sexual health and HIV doctor) informed the 13- and 14-year-olds in her charge that in a “happy, healthy relationship” where “you both want to have sex and you both have sex, you are unlikely to be prosecuted from that because it’s not in the public interest.”
Little wonder her comments sparked fury amongst parents. And not just because you don’t spend around £41,700 a year on school fees just for your kids to be served this kind of incendiary, legally incorrect clap trap. (Don’t they do Latin any more?)
But the case reflects how the sensible, precautionary approach of valuable sex education is lost in a libertarian, wildly irresponsible, love-is-all-you-need agenda. And it’s why, in my view, this is a job for parents. Both a personal and social milestone, talking sex with our children cannot be framed and ruled by the needs of the timetable.
But what do we tell our kids? And when?
Fundamentally it should be the child who sets the pace. After all, physically and emotionally, children develop at different ages. Some – including those worshippers at the court of pouting internet ‘influencers’ – may have already curated more knowledge than we would have wished for.
Only this week, new research by digitial security company AVG revealed that 67 per cent of parents felt the internet had accelerated conversations with children about sex. And that 72 per cent of children admitted to having bad online experiences during lockdown as they were exposed to offensive, rude and adult content.
It’s why, according to Sue Atkins, UK parenting coach and expert, when approaching conversations with children, it’s important to firstly start by understanding what they know already.
“Give your children the facts,” says Atkins, “and correct any misinformation they may have encountered there and then. If a child is exposed to adult content online, and this raises questions, it’s truly helpful for parents to be prepared and relaxed when they have these important conversations with their children, and to feel confident answering their questions honestly and openly.”
And so we start with biology, but framed by an understanding that this is a way adults use loving physical action to communicate how they feel.
Idealistic in an age of casual sex? Perhaps. But cynicism is for the adult mind. We need to establish best practice in our children. And along the way – and only when they are ready – explain the use of contraception, the unintended consequences of having a baby. It’s also vital to explain the law. That it is illegal under 16 for them to have sex. However ridiculous it seems to square consensual teenage fumbling with robbing a house. Do they really want a criminal record?
Perhaps most of all we need to talk sex as part of the rhythm of regular and relevant conversations. That’s not to say that every time David Attenborough appears on the telly, we use the copulation techniques of the Amazonian fighter ant as catalyst for a bit of armchair education.
But it needs to be in a relaxed, comfortable environment. When it’s clear your child is happy to chat. Consequently that will mean they’ll come to you when they want to learn more. And when they do, perhaps deploy what we, in journalism, used to call the bucket question – thrown out to draw in any potentially missed information. Namely, “is there anything else you’d like to know?”
As parents we don’t want to raise children to regard sex as low-hanging fruit to be grabbed when no one is looking. We need our children to feel safe and empowered by knowledge. It’s what we do as parents. Dr Draeger, are you ready for your lesson?