When Loving Encounters: a book for teenagers about sex by Rosemary Stones arrived a few weeks ago, it demanded our attention. Here was a new book about sex with a clear and uncompromising voice.
We asked two Hertfordshire librarians, Helen Boothroyd and Anthony Tilke, to talk to colleagues and local schools for their reactions and to see how the book stands up against the current DES circular (Sex Education at School) and the recent controversial legislation, in particular, Section 28.
‘The aims of a programme of sex education should be to present facts in an objective and balanced manner so as to enable pupils to comprehend the range of sexual attitudes and behaviour in present-day society; to know what is and is not legal; to consider their own attitudes and to make informed, reasoned and responsible decisions about the attitudes they will adopt both while they are at school and in adulthood.’
This is the pivot of Sex Education at School, a DES circular, which gives schools guidelines for policy and implementation of sex education courses. These are pertinent guidelines for school and other library services offering information to teenagers on sex, although librarians also need to be aware of other relevant legislation.
The past decade has seen the publication of several titles written specifically for teenagers on sex education, some of which have experienced controversy and criticism for the extent of coverage, advice and difference in style from the more biological approach of previous books.
Make it Happy, Make it Safe is now generally regarded as taking a straightforward attitude which is not patronising towards its readers, explodes various myths connected with sexual acts and offers practical advice. Now, in a revised edition, it also offers the latest information on sexually transmitted diseases and birth control.
Talking Sex has also been the cause of controversy on how freely advice may he given. Nevertheless, it advocates individuals taking responsibility for relationships and campaigns for the right of young people to have information on such topics. It certainly has ‘street credibility’ as it includes a section answering issues raised in a questionnaire amongst teenagers.
Sex and You may be more descriptive than advice-giving but is again aimed at young people. It is an illustrated guide and sets sex in a societal context; it also incorporates a section on sex and the disabled.
In introducing Learning about Sex, the author makes clear his values about human sexuality. While sexual feeling has potential for a good deal of pleasure, this is accompanied by a degree of responsibility – ‘… in making decisions about sex, all of us must consider the sexual values of those people who are important to us, the values we have learned from religion and education, and the values of our community and the larger society around us.’
Loving Encounters: a book for teenagers about sex by Rosemary Stones is the latest title claiming to tell teenagers all they ever wanted to know … Through its nine sections the book frankly discusses, amongst other things, body and emotional changes, responsibility and sexual practices (intercourse, masturbation, oral sex, for example), AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, contraception, sex and the law, and an extensive list of organisations which can provide help and advice. As in Rosemary Stones’ previous book, Too Close Encounters, the approach is direct and very readable; the presentation is clear, providing the facts and discussing options in an accessible way. The language is not over-complicated, explaining biological terms and using `street language’, as appropriate, to ensure understanding – faeces/shit/turds; urinating/peeing. The uncompromising use of language will no doubt cause more anxiety to some adults than to the intended audience. But how does Loving Encounters stand up against the recommendations of the DES circular?
‘Teaching about the physical aspects of sexual behaviour should be set within a clear moral framework in which pupils are encouraged to consider the importance of self-restraint, dignity and respect for themselves and others… Schools should foster a recognition that both sexes should behave responsibly in sexual matters.’
Although some sections of the book may appear rather clinical, as sexual activities are clearly explained in order to inform and to dispel myths, teenagers are actively encouraged to think about sexual development as a part of their personal development, to approach sexual relationships in a responsible, caring way and the presentation is such that it does not assume certain information is the prerogative of only one sex. There are warnings against exploitation and pressure with two useful checklists included, adapted from the author’s earlier work Too Close Encounters: and what to do about them.
‘Schools have a responsibility to ensure that pupils understand those aspects of the law which relate to sexual activity.’
This aspect is covered in detail including contraception, abortion, marriage, rape, homosexuality and paedophilia; teenage rights are explored and practical advice given as appropriate.
‘Schools cannot, in general, avoid tackling controversial sexual matters, such as contraception and abortion, by reason of their sensitivity.’
In keeping with this recommendation, balanced and factual information is presented, although a minor criticism is that possible side effects from long-term use of the Pill have not been highlighted. The other major controversial area, as a result of the Local Government Act 1988 which came into force on 24th May, is the promotion of homosexuality. Section 28 states that homosexuality shall not he intentionally promoted by a local authority nor that teaching should present homosexuality as a pretended family relationship. However, it also states that nothing in the legislation should he taken to prohibit actions which treat or prevent the spread of disease.
The DES circular mirrors these statements and two strengths of Loving Encounters are the treatment of homosexuality and information on AIDS. Homosexuality is not presented as ‘the norm’ nor promoted but is discussed as a fact of life. The acquisition of HIV is simply explained and procedures for safer sex are described through a high, medium, low or no risk rating being given to the sexual behaviour described. A commonsense code for living is advocated such as not sharing razors or toothbrushes. In these respects it admirably meets the DES guidelines. From ministerial statements made during parliamentary debates, it is clear that provision of a balanced library stock will not in itself be unlawful, although it is possible that Section 28 may he used by those who advocate censorship. All librarians should read the Library Association briefing paper, which provides helpful information to resist this type of pressure.
One area highlighted in the DES circular but not covered in detail in Loving Encounters is ‘the value of family life’. However, there is a danger of being prescriptive and this area may be dealt with more effectively through discussion, an approach which is certainly promoted in the text. Indeed, although suitable as an individual read (shelved in teenage collections in the public library!), it is equally suitable for use by teachers – one judged it to be the best of the genre he had seen. Schools will need to decide on the age at which to make this title available – one felt that the 4th year (14/15) would be the appropriate age whilst another considered the end of the 1st year (12) would be acceptable. In fact, the parent of a 1st year pupil hoped it would he read and discussed by the whole family.
The underlying principle for school librarians, in the selection of sex education materials, is that they need to reflect and support both individual school and LEA policies. The introduction of a National Curriculum may bring new strictures, but what is surely required is a range of appropriate, relevant and appealing material to suit the varying and individual needs of teenagers – keeping the subject out from behind the bike sheds.
Health Education from 5 to 16
Curriculum Matters 6. HMSO 1986.0 11 270592 8, £2.00
Prohibition on Promoting Homosexuality by Teaching or by Publishing Material
Library Association 1988, free
Sex Education at School
Circular No. 11/87, DES 1987, free
Make it Happy, Make it Safe
Jane Cousins-Mills. Penguin revised 1988, 0 14 01.0713 4, £3.95 Pbk
Sex and You: an illustrated guide to the facts of life for young people
A Gunn. Macdonald 1956. O 356 10926 7, out of stock but probably avaiIable in libraries
Learning about Sex: the contemporary guide for young adults
G F Kelly. Baryons 1986, O 8120 2432 X. £4.95
Talking Sex: a book about growing up
Miriam Stoppard, Piccolo 1982.0 330 26752 3, £1.75 pbk
Too Close Encounters: and what to do about them
Rosemary Stones. Piccadilly 1987,0 940826 69 2. £5.95: Magnet. 0 410 03102 5, £1.95 pbk
Loving Encounters: a book for teenagers about sex
Rosemary Stones, Piccadilly 1988, 1 85340 005 X £5.95p
Helen Boothroyd is Secondary Resources Co-ordinator for Herttordshire School Library Service. Based in Welwyn Garden City, she manages the resource centre which provides a wide range of materials for secondary school use. ‘
Anthony Tilke is Divisional Schools Librarian (Secondary) for East Hertfordshire and has produced an annotated stock revision list, for the county; on sex education materials aimed at children and young people.