Why Britain needs to ramp up its sex education

Belgian sexologist Goedele Liekens thinks it's high time parents and teachers stopped shying away from sex — and she's on a mission to take off "the blinkers" in a new Channel 4 documentary...

Can a former Miss Belgium and onetime presenter of my country’s version of Weakest Link have anything to tell you Brits about how to educate your children in matters of sex? Well, before I was best known as a TV personality, I trained as a psychologist, specialising in sexuality and relationships. I’ve written self-help books on sex and am currently a UN Goodwill Ambassador for sexual health. 

It’s therefore hardly surprising that I’m passionate about the power of good sex education in schools. In Belgium, it’s fair to say that we are significantly more liberal in our approach than you are in the UK. It’s time you took off the blinkers. 

When it comes to the statistics, Britain is clearly the weakest link. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and teenage pregnancies are among the highest in western Europe. Perhaps even more worryingly, according to one survey, 83 per cent of teenagers have seen pornography by the time they are 13 years old.

In bedrooms across the country, children are learning about bad sex younger than ever thanks to online porn. From the moment they get their first smartphone or are left alone with Mum’s iPad, they have an endless supply of graphic, unrealistic and often violent sex at their fingertips. This all means one thing. It’s time to change the way you talk about sex in British classrooms. Gone are the days when scientific drawings and botched attempts to put condoms on bananas sufficed.

When I was growing up, teachers could afford to be less frank. Their pupils’ notion of healthy relationships wasn’t being warped by the internet. But times have changed. If teachers shy away from discussing sex in explicit detail, we lose all chance of counteracting porn’s disastrous effect on our young people. 

To test my theory, I spent two weeks in a Lancashire secondary school teaching 15- to 16-year-old boys and girls a sex education course modelled on classes taken in Holland. Our approach differs on two levels. First, we’re very open. Even when we feel uncomfortable discussing sex, we push ourselves to do it. Secondly, sex education covers the joys of sex as well as its potential dangers.

The plan in Britain is for sex and relationship lessons to be compulsory in state primary schools. It’s a good first step, but you need to go further. I’d like to see a GCSE introduced, and the Government thinking about the content of what you teach young people.

Sex education shouldn’t be just about averting risk. Of course students need classes on STIs and unwanted pregnancy, but they also need to learn about sexual pleasure.

Admittedly, some of my teaching methods were regarded as unconventional by my British colleagues. I arrived with a bag of props, invited students to get to know their bodies better and asked them to write a story featuring an ideal sexual scenario — rewriting a porn scene to focus on consent and giving female characters a voice. Initially the girls in the class struggled to express themselves. They didn’t like the way the boys spoke about sex, but online porn had made them think they had no option but to accept it.

Of course, it’s not all down to schools. Parents should broach the subject of sex as soon as their children can talk. I have two teenage daughters and when they were younger we’d watch Bob the Builder and I’d say, “How do you think Bob feels about Wendy? What would they do if they were in love?” You don’t have to comb over the details, just demonstrate that you’re happy to be open.

Sex education is not an optional extra to be awkwardly bumbled through by teachers and students. When taught properly, it can change lives.