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Girls talking; what girls think boys should learn in sex and relationships classes in school and who should teach them. A comparison with the opinions of boys.

Gillian L. S. Hilton

Middlesex University Trent Park Bramley Rd. Oakwood London N14 4YZ
020 8411 5995
G.Hilton@mdx.ac.uk

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Glamorgan, 14-17 September 2005

Abstract

This paper records research undertaken with boys and girls to discover their ideas on what boys should be taught in schools’ sex and relationships education (SRE) and who should teach them. The research was undertaken to compare and contrast the attitudes and ideas of the two sexes on what boys should be learning in SRE. The research with boys was undertaken in eight boys’ only and mixed secondary schools ranging from public boarding schools to inner city comprehensives in areas where the majority of children come from ethnic minorities. In depth interviews were carried out with PSHE co-ordinators to ascertain their and the school’s attitudes towards sex and relationships education and how boys’ responded. Questionnaires were given to boys in the lower sixth form. This age group was used in order to avoid the necessity of asking for parental permission and to ensure that the school’s sex education syllabus was already completed. Questions were asked about what was taught, by whom and also how the boys would prefer to learn and who should teach them. The last question asked how boys thought their sex education could be improved. Then three focus groups were carried out with a total of twenty four boys to explore these ideas further. Answers were very clear. The boys wanted more information, smaller classes, to be taught by adults who were relaxed and knowledgeable, able to keep the class under control and who would not gossip about the boys’ ideas in the classroom. Empathy not age or sex was considered the most important attribute of a teacher and the use of outsiders rather than familiar teachers was an area on which opinions differed. Boys wanted to know more about girls and their attitudes and how to talk about relationships to each other. To supplement these findings at present the researcher is visiting a selection of mixed and single sex girls’ schools to ask girls of sixteen by questionnaire and focus group interviews what they think boys should learn in SRE classes and who should teach them. The intention is to compare the findings from the two sexes looking for similarities and differences in the ideas presented. This is ongoing research that is yet to be completed. This paper presents the findings so far. There are similarities between the ideas of the two sexes on what should be learned, in particular the problems faced by girls and what it is like to be female. The main difference is that boys want to discuss pornography from which they gain a great deal or their sexual knowledge. Girls however, in the main were very unhappy with this idea.

Introduction

This article compares the views of young men and young women on what young men need to be taught in school sex and relationship education (SRE) classes. For many years there have been calls to improve SRE for both sexes, but in particular for boys (Ofsted, 2002, SEU, 1999; Hilton, 2001; Salisbury and Jackson, 1996; Forrest, 1998). The high rate of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) over the last few years have led to numerous research exercises into what young people need in SRE classes and even the government guidelines on SRE (DfEE Circular 0116/2000 section 1.18) give the needs of boys special consideration. Communication between parent and child between teacher and student and between male and female appear fraught with difficulty. Negotiation of sexual encounters is difficult and highly complex and often deeply affected by perceptions of what it is to be male or female. Rosenthal and Peart (1996) suggest that young men often fail to understand the messages given to them by female partners particularly in relation to sexual behaviour, whilst girls are afraid that if they do not sleep with their boyfriends then the relationship will end (Asthana, 2004). Added to this are the gendered stereotypes of what is expected of males and females as regards sexual knowledge and behaviour Hilton (2003) raises the feelings of young men discussing their SRE needs in a focus group, where one student expressed his sex’s concerns over needing to be seen to be expert from the earliest sexual encounter

It’s like driving, as a boy you’re expected to be able to do it

(16 year old School D Hilton, 2005)

Moore and Rosenthal (1993) raise the point that it is easier for women to say no to sex than men, as avoidance of sexual encounters is more acceptable for females than for males. Contrary to this is the argument presented by Hillier et al. (1998) who point to the lack of autonomy experienced by young women in sexual encounters over issues such as safe sex, and they point to many researchers who considered that belief in equality between the sexes in sexual matters is naïve (Bloor, 1993; Lees, 1993; Tolman, 1994 in Hillier et al., 1998). The loss of a reputation and the concept of being ‘easy’ is still far more problematic for females than for males and good SRE needs to address issues such as stereotyping and attitudes to the other sex, as much as it does the safe sex message (Epstein and Johnson,1998; Hillier et al., 1998). However, other researchers have criticised school SRE as depicting women as victims (Fine, 1988).

Young men and SRE

Research has shown that boys have clear views on what they need from sex education. It is also true that many researchers have found that boys use SRE classes as a place to stress their heterosexuality as any hint of softness may result in homophobic abuse (Epstein and Johnson, 1998). Over the last decade there has been a rising concern over the perceived under performance of boys in the education system and their rejection of safe sex messages. Strong too have been the call for single sex lessons and male teachers for boys (Measor et al. 1996; Forrest 1998, Wood 1998) whilst research by Wright and Charles (2000) and Blake (1997) advocates mixed group working as it prevents the exaggerated heterosexual stance taken by many boys in single sex groups. Others, such as Epstein and Johnson (1998) have questioned whether male staff would merely exacerbate the male female divide.

It has been found that peer education appears to be the most effective in delaying first intercourse as it concentrates on giving young people the skills to negotiate sexual relationships and this is done in mixed groups. Peer educators seem to have a great understanding of the needs of the young people they are working with and have more credibility with the students (particularly the girls) they teach as they are perceived to be under similar pressures (Blenkinsop et al., 2004). However, boys in focus groups conducted by this author rejected peer education as ‘frightening and a great responsibility’ though admitting never to have experienced it themselves.

The needs of boys and girls in SRE do differ in some respects. Measor et al (1996:282) discovering that boys found SRE ‘wholly inappropriate to their needs’ whilst girls have found the same input valuable and had responded positively. These authors believe these differing responses were related to the gender identity and expressed values which differ according to sex. Yet often studies on sexually related topics seem to ignore the differences between the sexes Gelder (2002) criticises several American studies and Ofsted in this regard. Others criticise SRE as having biases towards one or other gender. An Australian study points to male focused advice on condom use which may not address the needs of females as regards pregnancy and rationale decision making which may not be part of the equation in teenage sexual encounters (Hillier et al., 2002). However, other studies stress that females needs are more often catered for in school SRE and the Sex and Relationships Education Guidelines for England and Wales explains the need to consider the different responses to SRE provision by the two sexes (DfEE, 1999).

Research has shown (Thomson and Holland, 1998) that young men perceive themselves to be the instigators of sex compared to young women who may feel pressured into sex by their male partners (Thomson and Holland, 1998; Measor et al., 2000; Wellings et al., 2001). Males however, feel the effects of peer pressure to conform to the perceived masculine stereotype of sexual activity at a young age (McNulty and Richardson, 2002).There are complaints that SRE only gives information on biology and what fits where, ‘the plumbing’ as it is know (Forrest, 2000), not how to manage a sexual encounter (Measor et al., 2000; Hilton, 2003). Male sex education workers interviewed for the authors’ parallel research agreed and advocated that teachers tackle difficult subjects such as homosexuality and pornography, areas which both repel and fascinate boys (Hilton, 2001). Girls are loud in the condemnation of the latter seeing it as an exploitation of women, so boys have little opportunity to discuss this question openly. However, it is from pornography both in print and on the Internet that boys gain much of their ideas about women and women’s sexuality (Whyman, 1999; Hilton, 2001) so it is essential to address it as an issue.

So what are then needs of boys as regards SRE? Ofsted (2005) advises that Personal Social and Health Education (PSHE) should ‘engage with pupils to determine how they can best respond to their individual needs and concerns…’ Measor et al 1996, and Holland et al. (1993) raise the issues of how to do sex and the need to know about the female body, whilst others bring up the areas such as sexual stereotyping and questions to do with communication between the sexes with regard to sexual encounters and preferences (Rosenthal and Peart, 1996). Recent alarm about the rise in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) amongst young people have led to calls for more input on SRE for both sexes (Ofsted, 2005) whilst the role of parents in SRE is still hotly debated.(BMRB International, 2003).

It is important therefore to ask young people themselves what kind of SRE they need.

Methodology

Research was undertaken with boys to discover what they want to learn in SRE classes and the results published in Sex Education (Hilton, 2003 and 2005/6 awaiting publication). The question then arose, were their ideas of what was required echoed by girls? By following the ideas of boys alone would we miss out essential areas that girls considered the boys needed to know? It was important therefore to ask the opinions of girls on what they considered boys should be taught in SRE so to obtain a more rounded view. Hines (1995) discussed the attitudes of girls to sexual intercourse and their reluctance to ask boys to use condoms and their inability to express their needs when talking to boys about sexual relationships. It is necessary to know therefore, if the ideas of boys and girls with regard to boys’ needs in SRE are similar, or if there are marked differences.

Initially research with boys aged 16-17 was carried out in eight schools in the south east of England using questionnaires (313) and three focus groups of eight students each (Hilton, 2003, 2005/6). Schools were taken from a wide spectrum to include single sex and mixed schools, a faith school, inner city comprehensives, selective schools and boarding schools. This was to enable the respondents to be as broadly representative of boys of that age as possible. The sample included respondents from a wide variety of socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. Results showed that boys wanted to know more about girls’ feelings, how their bodies function, how to behave with them and to understand ‘girl things’ such as periods. Also stressed were, how to give pleasure to their partners, how to communicate with girls and with other boys, whilst more input on STIs and pornography were requested and also parenting education. The boys wanted small group teaching and the opportunity to consult one to one. They did not agree about the teachers they wanted, firstly requesting young men, then settling for empathy as being more important than age or sex. The final decision over mixed or single sex teaching was for both approaches to be used.

In this ongoing research girls’ only and mixed schools were approached within the same geographical area and using a similar wide sample of types of school to request their co-operation in giving girls of 16-17 questionnaires and running focus groups. Some schools’ PSHE co-ordinators offered help but requests were refused by some schools due to the ‘sensitive nature of the material’. At present 2 schools have been surveyed with 58 respondents to the questionnaire and 2 focus groups of 8 students each having being run. The members of the focus groups were all volunteers finally selected to form a group representative of the students in the school. The interviewer was of the same sex as the respondents, which aided communication and produced a relaxed atmosphere. Watts and Ebbutt (1987) claim that focus groups are more likely to produce critical comments than when individuals are interviewed. Mitchell and Branigan (2000) believe that focus groups encourage the exploration of complex motivations and behaviours whilst Kitzinger (1994) asserts that this is because the nature of the groups makes the members concentrate on one another, not the researcher. The girls in these groups responded freely and were happy to agree to differ on some points The questionnaire and focus group questions followed a similar pattern in that they asked what the girls thought should be taught to boys in SRE classes, who should teach them and how sex education could be improved for boys. The focus groups were allowed to discuss the questions and make suggestions. The responses were taped and later transcribed.

Results

The questionnaire mostly required quantitative responses with a few qualitative questions, where respondents were asked to give opinions and suggestions. Most questionnaire results are displayed by way of a simple percentage. The qualitative questions and the focus group responses were analysed by content and theme analysis and are presented here in summary and by quotations from the girls. An ongoing comparison of the boys’ and girls’ responses was conducted. The analysis given below combines the questionnaire and focus group responses. At present one selective girls’ only school and one comprehensive mixed school have been used.

Teaching together or apart

The girls were asked if the two sexes should be taught together or apart for al, or some of the time. The questionnaire responses from the single sex school showed overwhelming preference for single sex teaching, understandable as these girls had not experienced mixed sex teaching, whilst those for the mixed school were more balanced

Preference for single sex teaching overall was 79% and for mixed teaching 21%.

Questionnaire qualitative responses and focus group information gave reasons for these responses.

(Quotes are from the girls single sex school = ss, mixed school = ms)

Preference for single sex teaching was because the groups and questionnaire respondents thought that both sexes would be embarrassed to ask questions, particularly the girls who would need ‘more information’ than boys.

16 year old ss. Girls want to have mature explanations in privacy. and in depth like menstruation …. boys need to know about periods but not in such depth as girls.

17 year old ss Girls may need to be taught things that boys do not need to know.

17 year old ss It may get too personal and people will not want to ask questions.

16 year old ms Both will have more confidence if taught separately and won’t feel #9; intimidated.

The tendency of boys to behave badly in lessons was also raised by girls from the mixed school and the feeling that poor behaviour would arise from both sexes was also expressed.

16 year old ss Boys would take things less seriously.

17 year old ms In mixed classes boys would muck around more.

Two 17 year olds ss Both will mess about more in mixed classes.

However, when asked if it would be a good idea to have some separate lessons and some together the responses were more positive79% of all respondents thinking that this was a good option.

17 year old ms "Both sexes will benefit by being taught together, learn more about each other but some separate classes should be held for specific subjects boys and girls want to discuss."

17 year old ss "Boys and girls must learn about each other."

17 year old ss "We must learn what each other goes through so need time together."

17 year old ss "Boys and girls need a full understanding of each other and sex which they will do together."

One mixed school student 16 year old stressed the needs of both sexes and a ss student stressed the need for understanding

"It must be together so we learn about each other, girls about boys and vice versa. However, in lower years boys may be a little immature, girls may be embarrassed about certain aspects so separate sessions could be beneficial for girls. But they should be taught the same information".

16 year old ss "To learn in an environment where not you are not shy but also to mix sometimes to help understanding of each other."

These results contrasted with the opinions of the boys who were divided on the subject of mixed or single sex lessons. Boys in the single sex schools tended to agree with the girls that single sex lessons would prevent embarrassment, but boys from mixed schools thought including girls would make boys less competitive and less likely to ‘take the mick’. There was however some agreement that some time alone and some time with girls was a useful compromise.

Talking to boys about sex and relationships.

Asked about their ability to talk to boys about sex and relationships the answers were mixed from both schools. 62.%% said they could do this, 25% not and 12.50 % did not know or felt they did not have any real experience. A small group of the respondents in both schools qualified the answer by writing yes to the question of talking to boys about sex but no to discussing relationships which they obviously saw as the more difficult area. This response was echoed in the question asking if boys could easily to talk to boys about these issues. Several respondents here again qualified their yes response, which overall was 54%, to say that it was for sex only. There was a clear feeling from questionnaires and focus group responses that the girls considered that boys find it difficult to talk to each other about relationships. Asked who boys find it easier to talk to, boys, girls or both in equal measure the results were

Boys 41% Girls 38% Equally 21%

However, the boys’ focus groups were firmly of the opinion that they could not talk to their male peers seriously about sex or relationships. The fear of being accused of being ‘gay’ was always present and the boys freely admitted that they only made jokes and poked fun at each other. Subjects such as male health and masturbation were very difficult to address. They were very aware of this inability to communicate and admitted that if they wanted to talk about relationships they tended to discuss things with mothers or sisters who would take them seriously. However, worryingly some admitted to being unable to express their feelings and to turning to physical aggression when upset.

Lessons

Most respondents (79%) considered that boys should be taught about sex and relationships in science and in Personal Social and Health Education lessons rather than in one or the other, though this response possibly came from the girls’ own experiences of SRE.

Regarding the content of the curriculum Table 1 shows the questionnaire responses.

Table 1

Curriculum content

% saying should be taught

Male body part

100%

Female body parts

100%

Parts of the female body giving sexual pleasure

58%

Parts of the male body giving sexual pleasure

46%

HIV/AIDs

100%

STIs

100%

Age of consent for girls

83%

Age of consent for homosexuals

81%

How to obtain contraceptive advice

88%

Where to obtain contraceptives

92%

How to put on a condom

100%

Celibacy

79%

How to give sexual pleasure to a partner

58%

How people feel about their sexual relationships

67%

Different attitudes to and beliefs about sexual relationships

67%

Fears about sexual relationships

79%

How to explain your needs to a partner

63%

How you can learn the needs of the opposite sex

50%

Stereotyping

86%

Periods

92%

Pregnancy and birth

83%

Menopause

71%

Male health

92%

Being a father

83%

Media’s influence on sex and relationships

58%

Sexuality in all its forms

83%

Pornography

38%

Respondents to the questionnaires were asked what else could be added to the list and focus groups to discuss possible additions and missing items they considered important. The girls had clear views on what boys needed to know about, though many did not think pornography or media influences should be included and many added ‘for older boys’ to items on the list which were to do with understanding sexuality, giving sexual pleasure, explaining needs and understanding the needs of partners.

Many girls suggested that boys need to be aware of the extra pressure felt by girls caused by the morning after pill and pregnancy. Pressure from peers to have early sexual relationships was discussed and the need for more input on contraception and the need to use it.

17 year old ms You’re not cool if you want to or have sex without a johnny.

There was concern that boys needed to be taught about the legal obligations of fatherhood and the financial costs of having a baby

17 year old ss They need more on practicing being a father and legal obligations also their child support responsibilities if they get a girl pregnant.

Understanding more about girls and their needs was raised.

16 year old ss Boys must understand about periods and how they effect women.

17 year old ms Not putting pressure on girls to have sex.

17 year old ms Learn that women are more sensitive sexually.

Several respondents suggested the importance of not ‘sleeping around’ and a stronger emphasis on having safe sex was important, whilst many mentioned the need to put them emphasis firmly on relationships and that

17year old ms Sex isn’t everything

One questionnaire response suggested the issue of rape and how boys can be accused by girls if they change their minds was an important area to consider.

The boys in many ways agreed with these suggestions, the only main difference being the desire to discuss pornography which many admitted using for ‘information’ about girls. The seriously wanted to understand more fully what girls were like, their feelings and their experience of being a female particularly as regards periods. They, unlike the girls, mentioned falling in love and the need for this to be discussed. In many ways they were more romantic and less practical than the girls in their approaches to sex and relationships. They too mentioned peer pressure, STIs and in particular the need for more information about contraception and on how to have sex. The boys felt under pressure in a different way from that experienced by girls. They were expected to know what to do, yet no-one explained the actual mechanics of the sex act and how to give pleasure to women, a point raised by several boys. One other area of difference was in the discussion of homosexuality. Girls seemed to accept easily that boys should know about the age of consent for homosexuals as well as females. Boys however, were acutely embarrassed when this area was raised for discussion in the focus groups. There seemed to be a genuine fear of being accused of being gay and as a result humiliated by peers.

Who should teach the boys?

The preference from all female respondents here, was for outsiders to take on the task (54%), rather than choosing males or females for SRE lessons. Some students did suggest that both sexes would be a good idea, teaching in a team, so as to allow both points of view to be expressed.

The boys differed here in that their responses were more mixed (Hilton, 2003; Hilton, 2005/6). The desire was for an empathetic teacher they could trust rather then one who was young or male, though, as with the girls, some thought an outsider would be good. There was considerable distrust of teachers amongst the boys, several of whom believed that teachers talked about them in the staff room so they were reluctant to confide their worries or concerns to known teachers. However, some boys strongly argued the case for familiar teachers of SRE as this would help them relax and lose their embarrassment. The main request from the boys was for a teacher who was not embarrassed by the subject matter. This was not raised by the girls, possibly demonstrating the different experiences of the two sexes in their SRE lessons.

How to improve SRE for boys.

This question caused animated discussion in the focus groups and many students gave suggestions on the questionnaires. Much of this was about content and covered similar areas to those already noted in the curriculum addition question. However, some students concentrated more on how the lessons were to be taught.

17 year old ss Don’t tell them they are to have a sex talk – make it one to one with men, a chat first to build their confidence then move on to general discussions about sex.

16 year old ms Make boys feel comfortable before starting, have a general session at first before you do the details.

17 year old ms Give them time to do one to one when they need to. It will help them cope with difficult areas and prevent embarrassment.

17 year old ms Use discussion it’s easier to talk to each other rather than to listen to an adult.

Several students suggested ways of working that could help.

17 year old ms "Use small group work - it will help to prevent embarrassment and stop more confident older boys shouting them (girls and less confident) boys down."

17 year old ss "Give them a chance to talk individually as they might be embarrassed to ask questions in front of their peers."

There was a great deal of consensus on the importance of helping boys to understand the needs of girls and the pressure they have to resist, the risks of contracting STIs, the worries of pregnancy and the effects of PMS and periods on girls’ behaviour. The wanted boys to clearly understand

17 year old ss "That not all people of our age are having sex and it’s no big deal."

There was also a strong opinion coming from the focus groups that boys needed to be helped to understand more about the responsibilities and consequences that sexual relationships and then fatherhood bring and that relationships are serious and not about ‘having a laugh’.

One respondent also suggested that sex education should start much earlier and continue for both sexes throughout their education. She was particularly disparaging about her own experiences.

17 year old ss We just had talks really they didn’t really cover what we wanted to know.

Taking the whole thing more seriously was also stressed. Many girls in the focus group from the mixed school were concerned that boys refused to take the subject seriously and messed about in lessons. After much discussion the general thought was that boys needed input from both male and female teachers, but people they did not know from other lessons, to save embarrassment.

The boys wanted more sex education from an earlier age, teachers who were interested and could prevent disorder in their classes. They, like the girls, agreed that more emphasis on emotions and relationships was essential and that they need to have more input on STIs and advice on contraception. There was consensus too on the need for group work and discussion and they also requested the one to one approach mentioned by the focus groups. Many boys wanted someone in school to whom they could go to ask questions, who would be there when needed. One group who had a counsellor in school explained that as she was part time they often wanted to speak to her when she was not present and by the time she was on site the need had subsided or they had given up the idea.

This is ongoing research and more girls are to be questioned. However, it is clear from the work so far that girls and boys hold some similar views on what should be taught in sex education. These tend to be a need to understand girls; their problems and their makeup. Girls however, think boys need to understand better the pressures on girls to have sex at an early age and the consequences of this as regards pregnancy and its financial implications. In their requests the girls were on the whole more practical than the boys who talked more about love, giving pleasure and performing the sex act with confidence. There was agreement that better and more SRE should be occurring in schools with much more emphasis on relationships rather than biology. The girls seemed also to understand the need for boys to resist peer pressure, though the focus group boys seemed to feel that they had by 17 outgrown the effects of this. Girls also were more interested in the future, possible fatherhood, legal responsibilities and financial worries whereas the boys concentrated less on these areas. One boy even stating that to teach about parenting could be dangerous as boys might consider they knew everything and be tempted to become parents too young.

Certainly if SRE is to be more successful then we need to listen to the ideas of the young people who are receiving it. As these results demonstrate they have clear views, well expressed and the divide between male and females in the desire for useful and helpful SRE are very similar. Interestingly the girls did seem to see that the boys considered them to be objects to conquer and wanted them to have more understanding of females, but at the same time only one student mentioned rape and how boys could be caught in the female ‘change of mind’ trap. It appears that boys do have problems with reading the emotions of others and possibly the inclusion of work to develop emotional intelligence in young males through good SRE teaching would be valuable. There was some resistance on the part of the females questioned to raise the subject of male and female desire and pleasure so supporting the myth of the uncontrollable male sexual urge (Lees, 1993). The greatest gulfs were between the need to discuss pornography and homosexuality two areas that boys find fascinating but very difficult. Girls however tend to reject one and accept the other more freely. Overall the impression beginning to be formed from this research is one of practical girls who are concerned with the effects of sexual relationships on the lives of those involved and of romantic boys who are more concerned, despite the outer macho image, with giving pleasure and falling in love.

Listening to the ideas of each other and learning to express one’s own needs and opinions should be at the forefront of all SRE lessons. It is essential therefore that we train all who working this area to listen the opinions of young people and help them to communicate more effectively with us and with each other.

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This document was added to the Education-Line database on 03 October 2005