My first experience of sex education was scary – and over very quickly. I left the lesson worried that if I went anywhere near a penis I would end up either pregnant, with a sexually transmitted infection (STI), or dead.
When I divulge this to Goedele Liekens – the Belgian sexologist who presents Channel 4’s new show Sex in Class – her response is, unsurprisingly, one of horror.
“It’s terrible and understandable,” she says. “Your teachers would have had the same goal as me: they don’t want young people to rush into things they’re not ready for. But teaching abstinence doesn’t work because young people love risk. If you tell them not to do something because it’s dangerous, it just makes them curious.”
This straight talk is typical of Liekens, whose mission to improve sex education in the UK has already won her legions of fans. She is currently filming in the Hollins Technology college, in Accrington, Lancashire, where her frank style – which includes bringing vulva puppets into class and giving female students mirrors to examine their vaginas – has won praise from students and teachers.
“Britain is opening up,” she says. “If you see the tweets I get after the show, there are thousands of people saying that they need this in schools but don’t know how to get it. They need help to develop a better approach to sex education.”
But talking candidly about sex can be tough for people in Britain, says Liekens. “There are still too many who think if you shut up about sex it won’t happen,” she says. “We think by doing sex education you’re stimulating kids to start having sex at a younger age, but that’s nonsense. The more sex education you have from an earlier age, the later people start having sex.”
But her lessons are not only about tackling tricky topics, such as STIs and unwanted pregnancy. Liekens believes that we need to approach the subject in a holistic way, talking about the emotional dangers of unprotected sex as well as the physical.
“The emotional dangers and feeling forced into things, not always physically, but emotionally through peer pressure, is a big part of it, especially for young adults – it’s the part we’ve forgotten for far too long.”
For this reason, Liekens says, sex education needs to involve discussing pleasure and knowing your body. “It’s not for a joke that I sent the girls home with a mirror – you have to get to know your own body and feel confident touching it and exploring what you don’t like. This means you can say stop when you don’t enjoy something.”
Liekens suggests that this confidence is especially important in a world where most young people’s – especially boys’ – views about sex come from pornography.
“Porn gives lots of young people misconceptions about how to be a good lover,” she says. “We have to tell young adults that porn is made up. When children watch violent films we tell them when the blood is fake and the violence isn’t real but no one does that for porn. Adults know it’s not real but children don’t.”
Liekens says it’s “now or never” in terms of providing effective sex education – young people are picking up misinformation from the internet, so the adults around them have a duty to address it. Some of their misconceptions, however, can at least raise smiles. Liekens remembers one group who thought that there was a little ball inside you that looked like a cherry, and that the first time you had sex it popped and blood came out.
“They thought that’s where the expression ‘popping your cherry’ came from,” she says, “all of them”.
A lack of effective teaching materials can also be a problem, but Liekens says organisations such as Rutgers in Holland and Brook in the UK can help. The Dutch approach involves using props such as board games and vagina cushions, as well as sequences from feature films. This adds an essential element of fun, Liekens says. “Teachers have to make it a bit humorous, without causing too much giggling. Lighten it up. That’s why I bring a cushion and throw a ball around.”
But approaching sex education in a light-hearted way isn’t always easy. “Once a 16-year-old asked me if I gave blow jobs to my husband,” she recalls. “You have to be prepared for these questions. I asked him right back, what would you think of women who do it? Or of those who don’t? That puts the topic itself back at the centre of the discussion and flips the question back to them.
“Students will test and tease the teacher, especially with personal questions. The best answer is always to make that question a topic of discussion. So if you’re asked about how many sexual partners you’ve had, ask the group how many they think is OK. Is the answer the same for girls and boys?”
Does she have any other advice? “Make sure your voice doesn’t crack when you say the words penis or clitoris. Teenagers will feel your embarrassment. If you find it embarrassing, just say so. Tell them it’s awkward for you to talk about it too.”