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The joy of sex education


The Magazine's sex education film festival

Jude Rogers
Remember sex education films? Remember feeling a little on the embarrassed side? Jude Rogers takes a nostalgic look back at a state-enforced rite of passage, while at the bottom of this page you can find Whatsoever a Man Soweth, the first of our sex education films drawn from a DVD collection from the British Film Institute.

When did you first find out about the birds and bees?

Did your parents sit you down and explain the mechanics of how you were made? Or did a friend giggle like mad while they whispered to you about the things they had learned from their big sister or brother?

The Magazine's sex ed film festival
Five excerpts from films from the BFI's DVD The Joy of Sex Education - one a day for a week. The films so far:

Or were you one of the innocent souls who learned about mummies, daddies and babies on a screen in your classroom?

Learning about sex is a momentous part of any child's life, and sex education is a tricky business indeed - especially for the teacher burdened with the task of telling schoolchildren what exactly goes where. But in decades past, some help was at hand from the overhead projector, the video recorder and the sex education film.

Sir or Miss would inevitably be hovering by the play button with a crinkle in their brow, not knowing whether their pupils would laugh, blush or keel over at what happened next, but their mission to unleash the lessons of a lifetime began here.

Sinful desires

And the roots of the modern sex education film go back a long way.

Early examples were deeply moral movies made in the shadows of war, where young military men were warned about the dangers of loose women, and how venereal disease would spoil them in the eyes of their family and country.

In other films, teenage girls were told that their sexual desires were sinful, and that they would be blamed for their unwanted pregnancies. Rarely were men or women given any practical advice about contraception, or told how they could manage these feelings themselves.

Shot from The People at No 19 (Picture courtesy BFI)
She's unhappy because she had sex out of wedlock

But after the 1960s, things started to change. The contraceptive pill, sexual liberation, and the first waves of feminism started to change social attitudes towards the genders, and sex education films became less heavy-handed.

Many were gentler affairs, where sex was characterised as an enjoyable activity in a natural world - one in which animals and plants also mated happily. But nature was king, and sex could only be blissful when reproduction was its intention, with personal pleasure being a fortunate bonus.

Shot from the Mystery of Marriage (Picture courtesy BFI)
They're happy because they waited till they were married

As ever, there was a fear that sex education films would encourage sexual interest - and initiation - among younger people. But even in the 1970s and 1980s, most of them did the opposite. These films were often shown to children in their last years at junior school, when they often had some ideas about sex already.

I was 10 when I saw my first film, and had already snuck a look in the back of my mother's Home Doctor book and was shocked and intrigued by the pictures I found there.

Other children had been told by friends, while the more cavalier characters in class might have encountered pornography in magazines or in films. As sex education films often glossed over penetration into a sanitised narrative, smirks would accompany these films just as much as grimaces.

The laughter didn't stop when dainty cartoons of the human anatomy showed what happened inside us, rather than between us. But occasionally, some films would show very progressive material. A few memorable films showed the experience of childbirth, prompting gasps and stunned silences and, in some cases, fainting.

Rarely did films show sexual acts. Dr Martin Cole's 1971 film Growing Up, is one of the few that broke with convention, showing masturbation and intercourse acted out by real people. By attempting to dispel the shame and guilt that clouded sexual behaviour, he received some positive feedback from teachers and pupils.

Novelty value

But the film also triggered national controversy. It was banned by Birmingham City Council and criticised heavily by the Sun newspaper.

Whatever their content, educational videos still had novelty value for children in the 1970s and 1980s. For starters, visual material was rare in schools, and it is easy to forget that televisions at home had only three channels until 1982.

Shot from 'Ave you got a male assistant Miss? (Picture courtesy BFI)
In the 1970s the protagonists became a lot hairier

Sexual images and debate were also less common. There were tighter controls on TV and magazines, and the availability of sexual resources on the internet, both in terms of health and pornography, was still many years away. But these films also had novelty value for teachers.

While obviously saving them the embarrassment of explaining the mechanics of sex to minors, they also brought to their classrooms an engaging new tool. After a class watched a sex education film, and thought about the interesting images and ideas they had encountered, they could then pose questions to their teacher about what they had seen, and healthy debate could be encouraged.

In many cases, this actually happened.

Many would argue that sex education films are needed more than ever today, especially while teenage pregnancies continue to rise, and sex continues to be so prominent in popular culture.

And for those of us looking back to the sex education films of our childhoods, remembering messages both vivid and vague, it is obvious that any education is better than none - even if it might cause the odd guffaw or grimace.


This 1917 film warns soldiers against consorting with prostitutes (Modern score by Dave Formula)

This stark and unpleasant tale is a bit more Shakespeare than sex education.

Made in 1917 to prevent Canadian soldiers travelling to World War I catching syphilis and other sexually-transmitted diseases, it tells the story of Dick, a plucky soldier in London.

We see Dick accosted by a prostitute in the street. As they talk another Canadian intervenes and warns Dick away from the woman, giving him the card of a doctor he can visit.

The doctor takes our hero on a tour of hospital wards where he sees the lesions and other unpleasant symptoms that syphilis can cause. Dick realises the ladies of the night are not for him.

But back in Canada, it is revealed that Dick's brother Tom has not been so lucky. The film shows a flashback of Tom being robbed by a prostitute and it becomes apparent that Tom's wife has caught syphilis from him.

Tom is cured of the disease, but when his wife gives birth, the baby is blind.

"The film - as the biblical title suggests - is essentially a straight sermon, a form that its target audience would have found familiar both from church at home and during their military service," says Bryony Dixon, curator of silent films at the BFI.

Here is a selection of your comments.

I never had The Talk from my parents, and the school sex-ed we got was taught by a PE teacher and seemed to work to the assumption that we'd all know everything already by then. Can't say it hurt or helped, and I'm not convinced that sex-ed is ever going to make responsible people; people who have exactly the same sex education come away with completely different ideas about sex, after all.
Steve Cheney, Northampton, UK

I'm a relatively young science teacher currently teaching reproduction to my year sevens. The general feeling among the class is that what they were taught in primary school was useless due to the embarrassment of the "older" teacher. It pays to be open, honest and to actually talk to the pupils rather than relying on a thirty year old video. My lack of embarrassment and honesty has prevented the pupils from being uncomfortable and we have actually had some excellent discussions.
Samaire, Conwy

Although I strongly disapprove of the heavily moralistic tone of such films as the above example, what many people seem to forget is that by choosing not to take a moral position, the education system is taking one: the standards of the time, they being acceptance, libertarianism and non-judgement. Health education is already laden with ethics: don't smoke, eat healthily, don't drink heavily, etc. There needs to be consistence, as the noticeable lack of a moral aspect to sex education implies that this is somehow exempt. I'm not suggesting we tell students what is right, just that we ask them to consider their own points of view and those of others and come to a conclusion.
Ben W, London

We were among the first year that got 'sex ed' at school, designed for youngsters. It was called Living and Growing, and we were all trooped off to the TV which was situated behind the curtains on the stage at the school. It started with a dog weeing on a lamp-post. Hysteria all round. I don't remember much more.
Jenny, Edinburgh

As part of the sex education programme at my junior school you had to colour in an A4 drawing of a penis (make up your own jokes...). I walked all the way home from school carrying it, I was so proud.
Samantha Pegg, Nottingham

I was fortunate enough to be brought up by very liberal parents who told me the facts of life in a way that I could understand when I was about eight years old. I remember the first sex education lesson when I was eleven, it was a very old grainy film about "the birds and the bees" and the teacher fast forwarded through the "graphic" bits. I remember thinking at the time that if my parents had not told me about these things that I would be none the wiser for the film. The next lesson I had was three years later in secondary school. Even back then it was too little too late. One girl in our class had already left to have a baby.
Giselle, Bristol, UK

In 1970 - I was aged 10 - my widowed mother was faced with telling me something my father might have been expected to do. She started with a simple booklet called "Where do babies come from" which she left me to read. Later she asked if I had any questions - I hadn't read the book yet - I was still too busy building a crystal radio set. Later when I did read it - it seemed pretty straightforward, explained some things I had been feeling and I didn't have any questions (looking back - it was a pretty good book - acknowledging feelings as well as mechanics, STDs and contraception).

When we were 13 - school got around to the matter with a dreadful black and white 16mm film shown in a science class - concentrating entirely on mechanics. I would estimate (though who really knows with school bravado in the way) that it was complete news to about a third of the class, straightened out some misconceptions for a third and was pretty poor for the rest of us whose parents had already taken matters into their hands.
Graeme Smith, Newport, RI - ex-Glasgow

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