Sexual Health Education – are we doing it the right way?

Yes it’s the dreaded lesson which every child fears at school. The moment where they see their own teacher awkwardly put a condom on a carrot (or worse an actual dildo.) This is by far the one lasting memory most children will take away from sexual health education in schools.

It’s sexual health week this week and the focus is on contraception. To coincide with this, a number of prominent sexual health experts (what an interesting accolade….) are calling for sex and relationship education (including LGBTI) to be compulsory in schools. Now, that’s all very well and good but lots of schools already do this and poor sexual health persists. Studies have shown that millions invested in sex education increases knowledge but do not necessarily change behaviour.

It is an issue that continuously shocks and intrigues me as a professional in the behaviour change field. My friends for starters (they who shall not be named but FYI are fully grown adults who should know better) prove an interesting case study. They’ve certainly had their sexual education, yet there have been pregnancy scares and unwanted STIs which have prevailed (and they were no accidents). We’ve all been there for one another, listened to each other’s horror stories and seen how badly not using contraception can affect one another. Yet worryingly this seems to have had little impact on changing their behaviour in the long term.

Now this regaling has another purpose other than to out my friends as having poor sexual health. It makes me continuously ponder what can be done to get my group of friends (and many more like them, which by the way there are) actually change their behaviour.

Education has done little, scare tactics have failed and personal experience is little deterrent. A recent survey conducted with 2,000 women by the Family Planning Association makes for some shocking insight on the worrying myths that persist in the sexual health arena, the most shocking of which for behaviour change practitioners is the statistic which shows over 50% of 16-24 year old women feel there is still stigma around emergency contraception.

Now don’t think I’ve forgotten about the boys. Don’t get me started on the boys. Yes yooooooooouuuu boys. We’ve heard it all, to name a few; “It feels better without it” and a particular gem “My penis is too big for it” – Dream. On.

Recent sexual health research we conducted on behalf of a local authority showed persistently lower levels of contraception knowledge amongst men compared to women.

Our research also showed that whilst three quarters of those surveyed knew where to go to get advice and testing, only 7% of 19-24 year olds surveyed had sought any advice on sexual health. This suggests a social norm of not accessing these services pervades despite the availability of them. Similarly, on another sexual health project we found that a strong social norm persisted amongst the Settler Values Modes group where ‘they’d rather not know’ so avoided sexual health services and advice. To overcome this we created a network of community communicators named peer champions – young people who are able to work within their social networks to influence their use of sexual health services to create a new social norm.

Making sex and relationship education compulsory in schools can only be beneficial but it’s not enough. Public health needs to look beyond mere education and awareness and roll out social marketing which seeks to create meaningful and sustainable behaviour change. To do this we believe you should as a minimum;

  • understand their motivations for sexual health risk-taking
  • challenge social norms
  • engage the target groups you are trying to influence
  • use peer led interventions

If I had my way I’d be hauling my aforementioned group of friends into my office and getting them involved….might pitch it to them at the pub later!

Rosanna Post is a Senior Project Officer at The Campaign Company. You can read more about our behaviour change work here and our work into values here


Charlie Mansell is Research and Development officer at The Campaign Company. You can read more about our behaviour change work here and our work into values here. – See more at: