Feeling confident, understood, and prepared for the future – where is RSE going wrong?

We are grateful to the member of the SafeLives’ Young Changemakers Panel shared their experience of Relationships and Sex Education classes with us.

I’m 19 years old, so when I was in school Relationships & Sex Education, or RSE, wasn’t a legal requirement like it is now, but I did have some RSE lessons, and my younger siblings have also studied RSE.

I consider RSE extremely important – it gives young people a safe environment to explore often taboo topics, such as intimate relationships, sex, pressures in society, and the changes your body goes through in your teens. Young people today are overwhelmed with so many different sources of information – family, school, friends, and social media, there can be a lot of different expectations and relationships to cope with.

RSE is the only time young people are formally educated on topics that they will be facing and experiencing for the rest of their lives. And yet, for myself, my friends, and siblings, RSE lessons were seen as the ‘easy’ lesson of the week – the lesson where there wasn’t much writing or homework, and where you would be most likely to get to watch a film instead of working. It’s only now that I’m older, with more life experience, and having worked with Safelives, that I realise just how important the RSE I did have was – it touched on the feelings, pressures, and questions I would later have as a young adult.

I really believe that something as important and wide-reaching as RSE must be taken seriously. Teaching should be consistent, and content should be relevant, accurate, and inclusive.

When studying RSE, teaching and lessons were often inconsistent when compared to my friends. There would be some teachers at my school who were comfortable exploring topics such as FGM, coercive control, and sexual health. These teachers operated an “Ask Anything” policy, whereas others would avoid what they considered “tricky topics” or inappropriate discussion themes. These kind of inconsistencies in the teaching of RSE often lead to my peers feeling embarrassed about asking questions. Some searched for answers elsewhere (with the risk that they may be misleading or false), and some left school still feeling confused about what an unhealthy relationship looks like.

After working with SafeLives on this research, I spoke to my sister about her experience of RSE – I wanted to know whether it was similar or different. We both felt the content in our RSE lessons had been very surface level. For example, we had many lessons on physical abuse and the dangers of sex and drugs, but we weren’t taught about things like gaslighting in relationships, or how sex isn’t just this terrifying act that leads to STIs – it can actually be part of a healthy relationship. I wish we had talked about the pressures young people might face to do drugs and how to deal with that. These examples are just some of the topics young people are having to confront outside class – secondary school is when they might be thinking about first relationships, gaining more independence and socialising with friends outside of school more often.

My sister had to Google ‘gaslighting’ herself when her friend told her she might be experiencing it - that should have been something she learnt about in school and could ask about in a safe environment.

My sister and I both felt that the content in RSE lessons was not in-depth enough to prepare young people for the kinds of experiences they might have and that RSE would often only look at one aspect of a topic – ignoring how different young people may view that subject, depending on identity, background and life experiences.

In my family, my sister and I know that my 14-year-old brother faced different pressures or expectations than we did in secondary school, simply because of his gender. For example, he would say he understands what consent means, but he was never taught that consent goes two ways and applies to boys as well. His RSE lessons never covered that if he feels uncomfortable in a situation, he has a right to say “No” as well and that doesn’t make him any less “cool” or “manly”.

Similar to this, RSE taught consent as being when someone says “Yes” and agrees to doing something, but this explanation is quite reductionist. It doesn’t cover how it is not consent if someone initially says “No,” but then says “Yes” after being heavily convinced or persuaded into it. There are so many instances in which myself or my friends have felt pressured into a situation we didn’t really want to be in – feeling guilty about upsetting anyone or regretting it, because eventually we gave consent and didn’t keep saying “No”.

And that’s not to say that the other person in the situation was bad or wouldn’t have stopped if asked – it’s because we both weren’t taught how to recognise coercion and active consent – someone might reluctantly agree because they feel guilty or that they’re disappointing someone, rather than because they really want to.

I fully believe that the research Safelives is doing is vital to help us understand what it is about the current RSE curriculum that is preventing young people from feeling confident, understood, and prepared for the future. It is only once we understand where the current issues and gaps are, that we can begin to put measures in place to ensure we have an RSE curriculum that is relevant and inclusive, and taught consistently to young people across the UK.

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