Gen Z has the highest percentage of non-straight people (ONS), almost double that of Millennials and triple of Boomers, proving the increasing importance of diverse and inclusive sex education.
With a fifth (21%) of Gen Z confessing to being serial casual daters, discourse around matters like safe sex and consent has never been more important.
However, an alarming amount of young Brits are admitting that the sex education they received at school just was not enough.
- Two in five young people don’t feel represented in sex education
- Lack of suitable sex education correlates with more sexual risk-taking
- Gay men most at risk of chlamydia
- Third of girls aren’t comfortable with consent
- Why isn’t sex education inclusive enough?
- ‘What we wish we were taught at school’
- What young people can do, according to a sex expert
A recent Student Beans survey of 1,600 UK Gen Z’s found:
- 39% of Gen Z did not feel represented in the sex education they received at school (28% did, 33% were indifferent).
- Young people also do not feel represented in porn (49%), tv shows and movies (42%), and in dating advice in the media (34%).
- 27% of girls do not feel comfortable setting and communicating boundaries with their partner (compared to 23% of men)
Another Student Beans survey of 500 UK Gen Z’s found:
- 87% believe schools sex ed needs to be more inclusive
- 89% did not see LGBTQIA+ themes woven throughout all teachings
- 39% were never taught about responding to pressures to have sex, how to access PrEP, and contraception in non-heterosexual relationships.
Because of our findings, we think a more regulated approach to inclusive sex education in schools is necessary to ensure all young people have equal access to important resources.
Two in five young people don’t feel represented in sex education
Whilst the government-imposed curriculum for religious and sex education (RSE) does include nods to LGBTQIA+, consent, and other important themes, it does not seem that many schools are following through with this requirement. And this lack of education could prove dangerous for certain minority groups.
We found almost nine in ten (87%) Gen Z’s think sex education in schools needs to be made more inclusive, with two-fifths (39%) of respondents admitting to never learning about any of the below topics (percentage show those who did learn):
- Responding to pressures to have sex (47%)
- Expressing intimacy without sex (13%)
- PrEP (14%)
- Contraception in non-heterosexual relationships (20%)
- Asexuality (8%)
Lack of suitable sex education correlates with more sexual risk-taking
Government social research previously found there are clear benefits of correct and inclusive sex education amongst young people.
According to the 2021 research, young people who do not receive any sex education in schools are more likely to take more sexual risks, including intercourse before the legal age of consent, unprotected sex and contraction of a sexually transmitted infection (STI), proving this lack of regulated awareness puts some children at a disadvantage to their more educated peers.
Shockingly, the report also found 1 in 10 Free School Meals-eligible young people did not learn about STI’s, consent, LGBT relationships or relationships at school, almost double the rate of their non FSM-eligible peers (nearly 1 in 20).
Gay men most at risk for chlamydia
Further in the report, it stated those of minority sexual orientations were significantly more likely to say the sex ed they received was ‘not at all useful’, a pattern replicated in the students we spoke to.
‘My school never really mentioned anything about LGBT in sex ed – they just mentioned the risks such as AIDS and HIV and mainly portrayed it in a bad light’ said one student.
This lack of knowledge seemingly follows some LGBTQIA+ youths into their adult life, with a 2021 government report revealing the gay or bisexual men who sleep with men (GBMSM) have the highest percentage of Chlamydia diagnoses compared to all other demographics:
|Percentage of demographic that were diagnosed with chlamydia in 2019
|Heterosexual men who have sex with women (MSW)
|Gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (GBMSM)
|Heterosexual and bisexual women who have sex with men (WSM)
|Lesbians and other women who have sex with women (WSW)
The report also noted there were ‘increases in STI diagnoses in GBMSM between 2020 and 2021: diagnoses of gonorrhoea increased by 9.0%, chlamydia by 5.5%, and infectious syphilis by 2.6%.
Third of girls aren’t comfortable with consent
Our study also found 27% of women do not feel comfortable setting and communicating boundaries with their partners, with the theme of consent topping the list of topics young people would like to have learnt more about at school.
When we probed on matters like open relationships, 8% of women said they would consider it if their partner wanted one, despite not being actively interested in the idea.
This lack of education around consent could prove dangerous in the long run for women who are not confident setting boundaries and for those around them who do not acknowledge them.
Why isn’t sex education inclusive enough?
In late 2020, legislation announced all schools must abide by a certain set of teachings at primary and secondary schools. However, some say these requirements are too vague and do not encourage schools to take an inclusive approach to education.
Throughout all the secondary teacher training modules provided by the government, LGBTQIA+ inclusion is mentioned with a single slide, suggesting ‘LGBT-relevant knowledge and examples are included throughout programmes of study (not one-off teaching)’. But is this enough of a benchmark to ensure young people receive the correct guidance?
In the government guidance around teaching intimate and sexual relationships, including sexual health, it is encouraged that young people are taught:
- That couples can choose to delay sex or enjoy forms of intimacy without sex
- That not everyone experiences sexual feelings
- How to identify sexual pressure in sexual decision-making
- That people are free to choose who they develop intimate one-to-one relationships with, including reference to same-sex / opposite-sex / non-binary relationships and couples who share / have different cultural influences and beliefs.
- About PrEP medication that can reduce the risk of getting HIV.
Despite this inclusive guidance, very few young people would agree that this is the sex education they received.
What we wish we were taught at school…
We spoke to a series of university students to find out exactly what they think should have been taught in school.
Safe lesbian sex
Lottie Henderson, an undergrad student, said: ‘Queer relationships were never spoken about in Sex Ed – it was all about heterosexual relationships and how to be safe ‘man on woman’.
‘One of the main things that in my opinion needs to be taught is how to be safe with the same gender. The first time I had any sort of sexual relationship with a female, I knew NOTHING. I wasn’t aware that you had to use certain lubricants on certain types of sex toys, otherwise you could damage yourself or the other person, that the material of the sex toy could break down over time and cause some serious damage. I also wasn’t aware that all STD’s are still transferable woman to woman despite the lack of penis penetration, that these toys can carry the disease too.
Abigail Nash, a University of Surrey student, agrees saying: ‘I think the fact that lesbian and gay topics weren’t given as much focus makes it harder for someone like me to understand their sexuality. Even going back to primary school the focus has always been on ‘men’ and ‘women’ and the relationships between the two. This doesn’t drive forward the point that being gay is ok – it makes you feel different and it makes other children think that of you too.
‘For older kids especially, more inclusivity in learning about how to have safe sex – I didn’t know a female condom existed until after I’d left school and I can’t say I even know now 100% how to use one. I think that LGBT matters in general should be discussed more openly in schools because the more openly we can talk about these topics, the more comfortable young people will feel about figuring out and coming to terms with their sexuality and children will learn to be more understanding adults.’
Sex as a disabled person
Post-graduate student Bee, who has disabilities including Fibromyalgia, Joint Hypermobility Syndrome, and Inflammatory Arthritis, said: ‘I don’t have any memory of being told about sex as a disabled person, or as a (gender)queer person, or as a fat person. Marginalised people simply are not given enough space in sex education – and because of this we so often lack the tools, and the language, to even begin to communicate our wants and needs.
‘From my perspective, I feel like schools should teach more about the experiences of marginalised people: from BIPOC , to disabled people, to LGBTQ+ individuals, to fat folks etc. We should talk about all the different forms of sex and relationships. From monogamy, to polyamory, to asexuality & aromantic, to safety and consent, and everything else outside of this and in between. We should be taught that sex and relationships are not one size fits all – and that this is beautiful. There are so many different ways to feel joy and pleasure, and we have a duty – as a society – to make sure that people feel represented and seen.’
All the LGBTQIA+ labels
One Sheffield University student who now identifies as bisexual, and currently gender-questioning, said: ‘Back when we were taught sex education in school, we had very little to no mention of LGBTQ+. I think we all knew vaguely what LGBTQ+ meant, but we always seemed to leave it at that. Traditional sex ed seems, from what I remember, to be quite hetero-normative, with space to go and research yourself if you knew what you wanted or needed to research. An open discussion about LGBTQ+ issues and details and what all the labels mean and even about whether you need labels or not would have been very useful’.
Nic, who is asexual, shares their experiences on TikTok for those who may be questioning their sexual identity. She says: ‘If someone had explained the spectrum of asexuality to me when I was learning about sex, it would have saved me a lot of self-torment. It took me a really long time to understand and accept that I am asexual, mainly due to the lack of information and education out there explaining what asexuality is. I thought I was broken, that something was wrong with me, because I didn’t feel ‘normal’.
‘During lockdown, a month or so after getting married, I came across the asexual spectrum and the different sub labels within asexuality, I found creators online who explained it in detail, the information was so educational and informative and gave me terms that I resonated with and could then explore more. It was the first time I’d learned about what it really means to be asexual. As someone already in the LGBTQ+ community, I felt quite embarrassed in myself that I was so uneducated.’
PrEP and positive portrayals of gay relationships
Jordan, a bisexual student at Manchester Met University, said: ‘My school never really mentioned anything about LGBT in sex ed – they just mentioned the risks such as AIDS and HIV and mainly portrayed it in a bad light. They didn’t provide the correct knowledge about PrEP and where to access it.
‘At the time I felt lost, and had to go to the internet for answers which, let’s be honest, sometimes doesn’t give the most accurate information. But when I tried to ask my school about it, they said how do you know if you are gay yet, you’re too young.
Support for young people
Milly Evans, accredited sex educator, TikTok creator and author of ‘HONEST: Everything They Don’t Tell You About Sex, Relationships and Bodies’, agrees that schools could do better:
‘There are many incredible educators who are providing really inclusive, comprehensive relationships and sex education but unfortunately that’s not true across the board. Where inclusivity is encouraged in the English curriculum, it’s too vague and doesn’t provide schools with examples of how to be inclusive which means even the most well-meaning educators might struggle to know how to make sex education work for every young person.
‘Social media is a really important tool for people to talk about things which might not normally be talked about in mainstream media or education. Many young people tell me that my TikTok videos are the first time they’ve seen someone talk about sex and relationships for autistic people because it’s just not something that’s covered in a lot of resources. Sometimes it’s still a case of having to adapt advice to work for your specific needs, and other times it’s worth asking educators, charities or influencers if they can make their advice more inclusive and create the resources you (and probably lots of other people) need.
‘It’s important that we get our sex education from lots of people, places and experiences and TikTok is just one of the tools young people can use to get their information. But it’s crucial to seek out reliable educators on social media because there is so much misinformation and bad advice out there, particularly when it comes to sexual health and healthy relationships.
How can we make sex education more inclusive?
If you want to make your school’s sex ed more inclusive, try starting small. Speak to a teacher about who’s best to talk to, send an email to senior leadership and be clear about what you want to change and why it’s important. Bear in mind that schools often struggle for time, funding and resources so it might not be possible for big changes to happen immediately, but there are smaller changes which can be enacted quickly.
Ask for sex education websites to be unblocked
These kinds of websites often get caught up in school network porn filters, making useful resources inaccessible. You can also ask for inclusive sex education books like ‘Can We Talk About Consent?’, ‘Here and Queer’ and my book ‘HONEST: Everything They Don’t Tell You About Sex, Relationships and Bodies’ to be added to your school library.
Involve students with lesson planning
No one knows what teenagers want to know better than teenagers themselves. Ask students what issues are important to them. By creating a safe environment and encouraging feedback and discussion, students can help to shape a curriculum which is relevant and useful to them.
Mirroring the school’s demographic to provide support on their specific issues
There need to be a couple of approaches to inclusivity in the classroom. The first is the bigger picture: looking at the world we live in and the people who live in it and making sure we’re being representative of all of these different experiences people have. The second is looking at the demographic of the school and the specific issues that community faces.
Advocate for change
If you want to make change on a bigger level, bring it to the attention of your MP and encourage friends to do the same. It’s often easier to make change as part of a bigger organisation. Find out if there are any charities championing the change you’d like to see – and if not, contact them and ask if they’d be interested in supporting you with your own campaign.