The widespread support for school-based sex education among parents and others in the UK (Health Education Authority 1995) and elsewhere masks considerable disagreement about the nature, aims, content and methods of sex education. It is not just that some people have religious beliefs about sex and others do not (though, as we point out in Chapter 6, religion is a major influence on many people's thinking about sex). Nor is it simply that people occupy different positions on a continuum which has restrictive sexual ideologies at one extreme and permissive sexual ideologies at the other (see McKay 1997). When it comes to opinions about sex, people all too often inhabit different worlds, speak different languages, hold incompatible and widely divergent views. The situation is further complicated by differences compounded by gender, social class, culture and other factors, and by the existence of numerous pressure groups, each with a different agenda, and often each talking at cross-purposes with the others, vying for influence in sex education policy.
In view of this, it is not surprising that sex education has become one of the most contentious areas of the curriculum, with disagreements surfacing at the most fundamental level. For some people, sex education is primarily about safer sex, and the effectiveness of a sex education programme may be judged in terms of the extent to which it leads to increased condom use (Harvey 1993). For others, it is about empowering young people by increasing their freedom to make competent choices about their own sexual behaviour (Archard 2000:45), or helping young people to understand 'the importance of marriage for family life, stable and loving relationships, respect, love and care' (DfEE 2000a:5), or helping people to satisfy their sexual needs (Harris 1971:9), or increasing understanding and acceptance of 'differences in sexual norms and practices' (Sex Education Forum 1992), or enjoining 'chastity and virginity before marriage and fidelity within marriage' (Mabud 1998:124, 131), or developing a greater sense of style, satisfaction or fun in sexual relations