Now more than ever, a greater number of teens in the United Kingdom are learning about sex from school.
But many students, particularly males, feel they are not getting the information they need as the education is mostly geared toward females, according to new research published in BMJ Open.
“Our results suggest we need a broader framing of sex education in schools that addresses the needs of both young men and women, with a move away from the traditional female-focused ‘periods, pills, and pregnancy’ approach,” said study author Wendy Macdowall, M.Sc., lecturer at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
Researchers from the University College London (UCL), the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and NatCen Social Research compared data from nearly 4,000 young people, aged 16 to 24, to see how sources of information about sex have changed over time.
They got their data from the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3), the largest scientific study of sexual health and lifestyles in Britain. The researchers also wanted to identify where young people get most of their information and also study sexual behavior and outcomes, such as at what age they first had sex.
The findings showed that for both males and females, school is now the most commonly reported main source of information about sexual matters, having risen from 28 precent in 1990 to 40 precent in 2012.
Parents were the main source of information for just 7 percent of men and 14 percent of women, and health professionals for only 1 precent of males and 3 percent of females. Around half of participants reported getting most of their information from less authoritative “other” sources such as their first sexual partner, friends, siblings, media sources and pornography.
“When asked for their preferred source of additional information, young people most commonly reported school, followed by parents, and health professionals,” said Macdowall.
Participants who learned about sex mainly from school experienced sexual intercourse at a later age than those who got most of their information from “other” sources. They were also less likely to report unsafe sex, or to have been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
Seventy percent of participants said they felt they “ought to have known more” when they first felt ready for some sexual experience.
Significantly, the findings indicate a gap between the types of information young people wanted, and what they received. Participants specifically said they wanted more information about “sexual feelings, emotions, and relationships,” as well as STIs, and for women, contraception.
“Although our findings show there has been progress in sex and relationships education over the past two decades, we still have a long way to go to meet the needs of young adults,” said study author Dr. Clare Tanton, senior research associate at UCL.
“The terrain young people have to navigate as they are growing up has changed considerably over the past 20 years and it will inevitably continue to do so. This means that whilst we need a more structured approach towards sex and relationships education, we must also be able to adapt to these changing needs.
“The fact that many young people told us they wanted to get more information from a parent shows that parents also have an important role to play. There needs to be a combined approach which also supports parents to help them take an active role in teaching their children about sex and wider relationship issues.”