School is the main source of information about sex and relationships for more young people than ever before, academics have found. However, a majority of young people feel they are not getting all the information they need.
The findings have come from the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles and the research has been conducted by University College London (UCL), the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and NatCen Social Research.
The academics compared the data from nearly 4,000 young men and women aged 16 to 24, which was taken between 2010 and 2012, with that from previous surveys in 1990-91 and 1999-2001.
The analysis shows that for both men and women, school is now the most commonly reported main source of information about sexual matters, having risen from 28 per cent in 1990 to 40 per cent in 2012.
Parents, on the other hand, were the main source for just seven per cent of the young men and 14.5 per cent of the young women. Meanwhile, health professionals were the main source for one per cent and three per cent respectively. Other sources included:
First sexual partners: 12 per cent of men and five per cent of women.
Friends: 24 per cent of men and women.
Siblings: Two per cent of men and women.
Media sources: Seven per cent of men and eight per cent of women.
Pornography: Three per cent of men and 0.2 per cent of women.
Researchers found that both men and women who learned about sexual matters mainly from school first experienced sexual intercourse at a later age and were less likely to report unsafe sex or getting sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
The findings also show a gap between the information young people wanted and what they received in school – with young men in particular missing out.
Young people specifically said they wanted more information about “sexual feelings, emotions and relationships”, as well as STIs, and for women, contraception.
When asked for their preferred source of additional information, young people most commonly said school (46 per cent of men and 49 per cent of women), followed by parents (37 and 46 per cent), and health professionals (22 and 27 per cent).
One of the study’s authors, Wendy Macdowall, a lecturer at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “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.
“Our research from Natsal is timely with the current debate on sex and relationships education (SRE) in schools, but it’s also important to remember that introducing statutory SRE in schools won’t solve everything. The factors influencing poor sexual health are multiple and complex and so too must be the solutions to them.”
Fellow author, Dr Clare Tanton, senior research associate at UCL, added: “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 while we need a more structured approach towards SRE, 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.”
Commenting on the findings, Jane Lees, chair of the Sex Education Forum, said: “This study powerfully illustrates the difference it can make when young people have reliable sources of information about sex and relationships. Good quality SRE needs to be universal in schools and meet the needs of boys as well as girls.
“We urge all political parties to make a manifesto commitment to statutory SRE. Parents need support too so that they can play their role in talking to their children. Boys in particular are missing out on conversations about growing up at home.
“If legislation is changed and SRE becomes compulsory in all primary and secondary schools there will be fresh scope for partnership between school and home so every child is guaranteed age-appropriate and reliable information about relationships, their bodies and sex.” Photo: iStock