‘Teenagers still don’t get the sex education they need – and I’m not surprised at all’

By Staff 6 Min Read

Dr Miriam Stoppard on research showing how little teenagers aged 16 to 18 know about having children, and don’t even know fully how their reproductive system works

Why am I not surprised by this research that shows nearly half of teens worry about having children and many have little knowledge of how their reproductive system works?

Two excellent studies carried out in England by UCL researchers attempt explanations.

Survey results from 931 students aged 16 to 18, collected between May 2021 and July 2022 found most teens (64%) still wanted to have children in the future – with nearly half (49%) wishing to have two children.

However, nearly half had worries about future parenthood – fears about having healthy children and of the lives their children might lead.

Teenager concerns of fear, self-doubt, health and wellbeing, financial burdens, failure of personal aspirations and non-inclusive LGBTQ+ education all played a part in their anxieties.

For example, some students were put off by climate change, while others who identified with the LGBTQ+ community felt teaching lacked inclusivity. Meanwhile, students who didn’t want children (36%) cited reasons including negative associations with pregnancy and childbirth, parenthood apprehension, raising a child in a world with an uncertain future and finding children a nuisance.

One female participant reflected on worldwide worries: “The state of the world is in a shambles.

“Governments are corrupt. The environment is deteriorating… it would be cruel to put a child through any of our problems, especially since they are not getting better.”

Study senior author, Professor Joyce Harper of UCL explained: “Shortcomings in fertility education in schools also meant students were left feeling both ill-informed and negative towards their own fertility and ability to have children.”

Sex education has remained unchanged for almost 20 years, until in September 2020, a new Relationships Education (RE) curriculum became compulsory for all primary schools (five to 11 year-olds) in England. For 11 to 18 year olds it
also included sex education and reproductive health.

What a state of affairs when more than half (65%) of the students rated their sex education as inadequate and half (49%) said they didn’t know when a woman was most fertile.

What students want is teaching that’s inclusive, relevant, honest, transparent, non-judgmental and boosting sex positivity.

That isn’t such a big ask.

One female participant responded: “If miscarriage and infertility were better taught, then that could reduce the guilt and embarrassment people who struggle with it would feel.”

A male teenager added: “Make the education a bit more ‘real world’ in the sense that [at the moment] it can be difficult to apply current knowledge to what is needed in life.”

Let’s hope that Professor Harper’s educational resources, including a teacher’s guide, will be available for free very soon.

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