Relationship and sex education: why’s it so important?

relationship and sex education

Today JKP is celebrating Relationship and Sex Education Day; a time for all teachers, educators and parents to promote the teaching of happy relationships, positive sexual health and awareness around boundaries and consent to all children and young people.  
Thalia and Peter Wallis, authors of ‘What Does Consent Really Mean’ and ‘Talking Consent’ discuss why there is such a need for Relationship Sex Education today:

Is porn a good place to learn about sex?

Is it still rape if there’s no force?

Is it easy to tell when someone’s had “too much” too drink?

Is it OK to change your mind?

These are just some of the topics explored in the resource book ‘Talking Consent’ (available in October this year), which elaborates on themes posed in the graphic novel ‘What Does Consent Really Mean?’. Young people are naturally curious about sex and relationships. ‘Talking Consent’ is aimed at assisting schools and professionals to have more open, healthy and necessary conversations with them.

We know that adults don’t find it easy to talk to children about relationships, sex, consent and porn, and some actively avoid these topics because they are concerned about exposing children to this world too early. In reality 94% of young people have seen explicit material online by the age of 14[1], and as many as 1 in 10 visitors to porn sites is under the age of 10[2].

This frightening reality means that children are growing up thinking that what they see in porn is normal, real and desirable. Even more concerning is the fact that many young people have nowhere to turn to when they have questions; no knowledgeable adult voices to challenge their assumptions and balance their frame of reference.

If we accept that children are growing up exposed to this world, then we need to take action to make sure that they are also exposed to healthy and educational conversations, to balance the impact this world can have on their view of sex and relationships. One of the big protective factors for later issues associated with porn exposure is adults talking to children about porn, sex and consent. The bottom line is: exposure to explicit adult material, when combined with good relationships and sex education (RSE), is far less damaging than exposure to explicit material alone.

Whether parents and carers feel equipped and able to have these conversations with their children or not, it is incredibly important that someone does. ‘Talking Consent’ has been written to respond to PHSE (including RSE) finally becoming part of the school curriculum. Ofsted is increasingly focussing on the behaviour, attitudes and wellbeing of students, and acknowledging the benefits of equipping young people with the skills to make wise and informed choices, and manage intimate relationships.

Why is this important?

  1. Young People Need It

The UK has seen a rise in peer-on-peer abuse (including sexual bullying, exploitation, coercive control, sexist ‘banter’, and domestic violence between peers of a similar age) in both primary and secondary schools. In 2018, Childline reported a 29% increase in young people asking for support for peer-on-peer sexual abuse, and many callers were unclear about the meaning of consent, and how this applied to their experiences[3].

In 2019 the Department of Education (DfE) advocated that  ‘key aspects of the law relating to sex which should be taught include the age of consent, what consent is and is not, the definitions and recognition of rape, sexual assault and harassment.[4] Although this is a step in the right direction, we believe our discussions with young people need to go a lot further than this – we need to be teaching them how to read body language, how to listen to and interpret their own physical sensations and use this information to make choices. We need to teach them that positive sexual experiences are based on trust, communication, respect, exploration and enjoyment for everyone involved. We need to teach them that they are in control of their bodies, empower them to make decisions that are right for them, and let them know that they have a right to change their mind.

This is particularly important for adolescents: at the point that they develop an interest in sex and relationships, their brain is still developing the capacity to make decisions, control impulses, be aware of consequences and experience empathy. All of these skills are important aspects of consent. If young people start experimenting with sexual behaviour without the knowledge, understanding and skills to keep themselves and others safe, they may be at particular risk of either perpetrating or becoming a victim of abuse.

  • Young People Are Asking for It!

Young people want to learn about consent, sex and relationships. When asked about their experience of sex and relationships education, older teenagers typically say that it was ‘too little, too late and too biological’[5].

Both of the authors of ‘Talking Consent’ have extensive experience working in schools, and with young people who have suffered and caused sexual harm. Many of the topics covered in the resource are included because they are the topics young people ask the most about, and know the least about. We know that the best way to manage increases in sexual violence is through prevention – and our intention in writing this resource is to provide workshops and activities that open up conversations between young people, and with young people and appropriate adults.

Despite asking for education around consent, many young people inform us they wouldn’t feel able to speak to adults about these topics because they’re “so out of touch” and “wouldn’t get it”. The influence of social media and the increasing percentage of the relational world being online has likely exaggerated this generation gap, and ‘Talking Consent’ aims to provide resources, tips and techniques to bridge it.

We understand that many adults fear that discussing these topics encourages young people to go out and have sex, although there is no evidence that this is the case.[6] We believe that providing young people with the knowledge and skills to challenge norms and navigate relationships often encourages young people to wait until experimenting feels right for them, and then to experiment more safely and respectfully when they do. We want conversations about consent between young people to become as ordinary as putting on a seat belt.

‘Talking Consent’ is packed full of creative ideas that adults can use to generate conversations with young people about healthy relationships, consent and sex. It aims to empower adults, giving them the confidence to overcome their anxiety and embarrassment and broach the difficult topics that young people want, and need, to talk about. It aims to avoid a situation where the only sources of information about sex that young people access are the internet, pornography and their peers.

By equipping children and young people with the values, knowledge and skills that they need to navigate consent, we build more resilient, communicative and trustingcommunities – all of which are protective factors against sexual violence. The benefits of ‘Talking Consent’ can reach far beyond the school gates.


[1] Sellgren, K. (2016) ‘Pornography “desensitising young people”.’ BBC News. Accessed on 4/2/2020 at www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-36527681
[2] Fight the New Drug (2018) ‘One in 10 visitors to hardcore porn sites is under 10 years old, study shows.’ Accessed on 4/2/2020 at https://fightthenewdrug.org/data-says-one-in-10-visitors-to-porn-sites-are-under-10-years-old
[3] Weale, S. (2018) ‘Rise in young people seeking help over peer-on-peer abuse.’ The Guardian. Accessed on 31/1/2020 at www.theguardian.com/society/2018/sep/18/childline-rise-young-people-seeking-help-peer-on-peer-abuse-uk
[4] Department for Education (2019) Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education: Statutory guidance for governing bodies, proprietors, head teachers, principals, senior leadership teams, teachers. Accessed on 27/1/2020 at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/805781/Relationships_Education__Relationships_and_Sex_Education__RSE__and_Health_Education.pdf
[5] Brook/PSHE Association/Sex Education Forum (2014) Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) for the 21st Century: Supplementaryadvice to the Sex and Relationship Education Guidance DfEE (0116/2000), p.13. Accessed on 27/1/2020 at www.pshe-association.org.uk/curriculum-and-resources/resources/sex-and-relationship-education-sre-21st-century
[6] The PSHE Association points out that the age that young people first have sex in Britain has changed very little over the past decade; Brook/PSHE Association/Sex Education Forum (2014) Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) for the 21st Century: Supplementary advice to the Sex and Relationship Education Guidance DfEE (0116/2000). Accessed on 27/1/2020 at www.pshe-association.org.uk/ curriculum-and-resources/resources/sex-and-relationship-education-sre-21st-century

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