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Primary school sex education: Let me tell you about the birds and the bees

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Belfast Telegraph writers have their say on primary school sex education proposals that have caused controversy

Belfast Telegraph writers have their say on primary school sex education proposals that have caused controversy

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Belfast Telegraph writers have their say on primary school sex education proposals that have caused controversy

MPs controversially urged this week that pupils should receive compulsory sex education in primary school. Here two Belfast Telegraph writers recall how they were introduced to the birds and the bees while four local celebrities reveal how they'd have 'that' conversation with their own children.

Suzanne Breen

My sex education was straight from the pages of teenage girls' magazines. First it was Jackie, the bible for adolescent females in the 70s and 80s.

The Cathy and Claire problem page offered advice on the romantic side of relationships. On the physical front, the agony aunts never ventured beyond tackling love-bites and kissing.

It was the Dear Doctor column which dealt with intimate issues "below the waist", as they were so indelicately described.

Periods, contraception and occasionally intercourse featured here.

But, ultimately, when it came to sex, Jackie was fairly tepid. So I moved on to Cosmopolitan - a much more informative and explicit read.

Cosmo was aimed at over-18s, but I looked older than my age and, anyway, in those days no newsagent would have dreamt of asking for ID.

I received no sexual education at school, or at home, but I'd have to say that didn't harm me one bit. Information was available elsewhere and I was of a determined enough mindset to get it. Had the internet been around then, I'd have been constantly Googling.

I avoided teenage pregnancy and sexual diseases, but not a broken heart. Though I don't think any teacher, parent, or literature can protect you from that.

At primary school, I recall myself and other P7 girls being shuffled into the assembly hall for a slide show on menstruation and our reproductive organs. We were all too embarrassed to take it in. Sex education isn't a one-off talk anyway. It's an ongoing conversation. And a strictly biological approach with diagrams doesn't work.

The "facts of life" was the horrible phrase used in my youth. It stood in stark contrast to the messy reality of sex.

At secondary school, apart from one bohemian teacher alluding to the Greek gods' promiscuity, sex wasn't mentioned. At home, the unspoken belief was that "good girls didn't".

Asking questions would have given the game away. I'd have been brought to see the priest and put under house arrest from 6pm.

Yet I wasn't caught in the culture of sexual shame. I never thought sex was dirty. I was never embarrassed about my body, or anything intimate. I leafed through The Joy of Sex in bookshops as a teenager and, more importantly, The Hite Report.

It asked 3,500 women about their experience of sex and published the results. It was a truly revolutionary work. It put the clitoris on the map. Today, it sits in my bookcase and I'll give it to my daughters to read when they grow up.

It's far superior to anything they'd learn in the classroom - even were sex education compulsory here. Given the strongly conservative ethos of our schools, I'd have no confidence that they'd get any real education at all.

How could a Catholic school encourage children to explore their own bodies when masturbation remains a grave sin? I dread to imagine their message on homosexuality and I just can't see them letting pupils practise putting condoms on cucumbers.

The only thing I do agree on with the Church is that sex education must be age-appropriate. It shouldn't be on the curriculum until P7. Before then, children aren't intellectually, or emotionally, equipped to handle the topic.

My six-year-old believes in the tooth fairy andand the Easter bunny.. I've no desire for her to leave that world until she herself is ready. She no more needs to learn about sex than she does about managing the household budget.

She does understand, though, that there's a rainbow of relationships out there. We've been to a gay wedding, so she knows it's okay for boys to love boys and girls to love girls.

When they're older, there's nothing my daughters won't be able to ask me, or I won't tell them, about sex. Knowledge is power and I want them to have as much power as possible over their own bodies.

In spite of hammering home all the "don't do's" to keep them safe, I wish them to learn, first and foremost, that sex is wonderful. Their father, like most men over 40, is old-school and believes these things shouldn't be discussed.

But I remain determined. I'll keep on talking and just hope he doesn't have a heart attack.

Alex Kane

I discovered sex in the autumn of 1968, just past my 13th birthday. It arrived in the form of a booklet left in my sock drawer by my father, along with a note telling me to read it and talk to him "if you need to".

Well, of course I didn't need to. The booklet was nonsense. The names they had given to the bits and bobs of the man and woman - in Latin, for some reason - were obviously wrong: everyone knew that it was willy, marbles, boobs and a yo-yo.

And since the elder brother (he was the ripe old age of 14 and, therefore, the fount of all knowledge on matters to do with sex) of my best friend had given us graphic detail of what girls "look like down there", it was pretty obvious that the booklet's author had never seen a naked lady, either.

So, no, I wasn't planning to talk to my dad about any of this anytime soon.

And that was it. Looking back, I suppose it was pretty liberal of my dad to even let me have the booklet, which actually went into clinical and slightly scary detail about how men and women did the business.

He was a reserved man, a Clerk of the Kirk in the Presbyterian Church and a leading Orangeman. So it is worth noting that he had, in fact, considered the possibility that, even at the age of 13, my own bits and bobs would be dropping, stirring and developing an uncontrollable (and pretty dirty) mind of their own.

About eight years later - I was 21 and at Queen's University - I arrived back for a weekend at home with my then-girlfriend. Just after dinner, he whispered, "You did read that booklet I left in your sock drawer, didn't you?"

Other than that booklet, playground gossip and the dirty magazines stolen from brothers, or bought from enterprising sixth formers, there was nothing particularly educational when it came to learning about sex.

I have a vague memory of some black-and-white film we saw for O-level biology, but most of us just giggled as we reassured each other that we all knew about it - because we'd all done it.

More importantly, we'd all done it when the moon was full, because it was a well-known fact that girls couldn't get pregnant when the moon was full. It's probably worth mentioning at this point that I went to a boys' only school.

Innocence and imagination is no bad thing when it comes to learning about sex.

The very fact that there is a lobby in favour of warning (what a horrible word to use in the circumstances) primary school children about the danger of sexually transmitted diseases tells us something about the society in which those children are growing and learning.

Yes, education is important, but education about sex can't just be about the mechanics and possible dangers. When you read some of the stuff it's almost as if the children are being prepared and encouraged: the expectation being that the majority of them will be sexually active from 13 onwards.

That was never the case when I was growing up. And maybe that's because there wasn't the level of pressure on teenagers to be sexually active.

But everywhere you look nowadays, you can see the sexualising of children by the fashion and entertainment industry in particular and by the media generally.

It's also because sex, graphic and unromantic, is an omnipresent fact of life in mainstream television and cinema (even those with 12 and 15 certificates), the social media and the internet generally.

I'm not a prude. I'm not a fuddy-duddy. But I do have young daughters and nephews and it does worry me that the magic, mystery and sheer wonder of love, sex and one-to-one relationships is no longer something they stumble upon when they are ready for it: because it's almost as if we are pushing our children into it nowadays.

Pushing them to be clinical and cynical about it. Pushing them to know the facts as early as possible and get it all out of the way.

Pushing them to be adults when they're not even old enough to leave school.

How celebrities would arrange 'the talk'

Pete Snodden (34) is a Cool FM DJ and lives in Bangor with his wife, Julia, and their daughters Ivanna (3) and Elayna (three months). He says:

I learned about sex education in biology in first or second year of grammar school, so when my dad sat me down to have the talk about birds and bees I was able to stop him because I knew how it worked.

I think we should be prolonging our kids' innocence for as long as possible, but not to the extent that children are naive, or are being left behind by their classmates."

Brenda Shankey (43) is a male grooming expert and lives in Belfast with her husband, Jason, and their children Lauren (13) and Will (11). She says:

Both of my kids started to learn about sex education in P7. They both had a talk on how their bodies were about to change and why. I think that is young enough for kids to learn what's going to happen to them.

The sex education I received was horrendous. I was taught by nuns in Derry and was given a 30-minute lesson late on in secondary school. We were absolutely clueless about things back then.

On the flip side, I think kids these days can sometimes know far too much. The trick is to bridge the gap."

Author Claire Allan (39) lives in Londonderry with her husband, Neil, and their two children Joseph (11) and Cara (6). She says:

There was very little sex education when I was young - and nothing at all in primary school.

I think most girls had started their monthly cycle before we were all sat down and told what it was all about.

Even then, it was all very basic, with a very flustered male science teacher who clearly didn't want to be asked any questions.

Both of my kids are at primary school and, in theory, I would be happy if sex education classes started there, but I think it needs to be done in consultation with the parents.

You don't know what goes on behind closed doors and what parents tell their children at home, so it's important for both sides to work together."

Downtown Radio breakfast show host Kirsty McMurray (41) lives in Bangor with her children Conor (16) and Katie (14) and her fiance Andy Brisbane. She says:

My two kids had sex education when they were coming to the end of primary school. They were sent home with letters about it and even then I thought they were a bit young.

I think kids need body awareness when they're younger instead of sex education. A five-year-old should know if an adult is touching them inappropriately or not. The stories of child abuse from years ago show that kind of education is necessary.

I don't remember sex education. In fact, I can remember people talking about sex and me not having a clue what they were talking about. It wasn't until biology in secondary school that I learned what it was all about."

Belfast Telegraph