• Health

Sex Ed Is Negative, Sexist and Out of Touch: Study

3 minute read

All of the deep embarrassment you felt during sex-education class is still reddening the faces of kids all over the world. A new study has found that in at least 10 different countries, kids hate the way they’re being taught about sex in school.

In the study published in the journal BMJ Open, researchers pored over 55 qualitative studies that examined the views of young people — mostly ages 12 to 18 — who’d received sex-and-relationship education at school in the U.S., UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Iran, Brazil and Sweden between 1990 and 2015.

Even across all of those different countries and a 25-year time span, kids’ views were remarkably consistent: sex ed sucks.

The problems, researchers found, were numerous. “Everything we got in our class had a really clinical feel,” said one student. ‘They don’t mention anything about same-sex relationships,” said another. A group of students recalled their PE teacher Miss Plum, who was so uncomfortable giving her own presentation that she cried during it.

Still, the researchers were able to identify the two biggest issues with sex education. The first: schools don’t acknowledge that sex is a special subject that, unlike a standard English or math class, requires a bit more finesse to teach effectively. “They don’t take into account that sex is a potentially embarrassing and anxiety provoking topic,” writes study author Pandora Pound, a research fellow in public-health research methodology at the University of Bristol in the U.K., in an email to TIME. “The result can be awkward, painful and unsatisfactory for all involved.”

The second major problem was that schools seemed to deny that their students were sexually active, which made the information out of touch with reality, irrelevant and overly skewed toward heterosexual intercourse, the researchers say. There was little practical information: telling students about community-health services, for example, what to do if they got pregnant or the pros and cons of different kinds of birth control. Teachers also presented the information as overly scientific, with hardly a nod to pleasure and desire; female pleasure, specifically, was rarely mentioned.

But one of the worst parts of sex ed for students was that it was too often delivered by their teachers. “They describe it as ‘cringey’ and embarrassing to have their teachers speaking about sex and relationships,” Pound says.

The best way to improve sex education, Pound says, is to relieve embarrassed schoolteachers of their duties by having someone else do the topic justice. “[It] needs to be delivered by experts who are sex positive, who enjoy their work and who are in a position to maintain clear boundaries with students,” Pound says. “We need to get the delivery right — otherwise young people will disengage.”

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Write to Mandy Oaklander at mandy.oaklander@time.com