Sex education given an ancient twist

Students with Chinese artefact A wide range of artefacts from ancient China, Rome, Greece and Africa is used to help overcome embarrassment

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Objects including a chastity belt, Roman phallic amulets and an entwined ivory couple from China are being used to teach sex education to teenagers.

The University of Exeter's art and history faculties have combined to use the historic artefacts to prompt discussions about "difficult topics".

The objects are kept in the vaults of the Science Museum in London and are not normally on public display.

Now they are going on show in Exeter as part of the new teaching programme.

The scheme, Sex and History, is aimed at school pupils aged 14 to 19.

Start Quote

They immediately kick-started conversations with young people in a way that is usually very difficult to achieve in a classroom context”

End Quote Rebecca Langlands University of Exeter
'A safe environment'

It was developed with the help of a group of sixth form students from Exeter College, who used illustrations of the objects as a basis for exploring ideas around sex and sexual relationships.

The academics behind it believe that it offers "a safe environment" for young people to discuss how sexual practices and conventions have changed through history, and give them opportunities to examine their own views and concerns about sex.

The team was led by Exeter's professor of history Kate Fisher, and Rebecca Langlands, a classicist.

Prof Fisher said the "intriguing artefacts from ancient cultures act as a productive and challenging stimulus, but they also provide a safe distance to discuss sensitive subjects without embarrassment."

"They were talking about history, about places and times far away," she said.

"It was no longer sex education or about putting them in the spotlight, but it was about broader cultures."

Chastity belt Objects like this chastity belt enable pupils to talk about sex and relationships without embarrassment

Dr Langlands believes the objects were a perfect catalyst for discussion.

"They immediately kick-started conversations with young people in a way that is usually very difficult to achieve in a classroom context," she said.

"Traditionally sex education can be uncomfortable for teachers and pupils alike, and the availability of internet pornography poses new challenges.

"Young people are often well aware of the biological facts of reproduction, sexually transmitted diseases and contraception, but lack the opportunity for discussion of important wider social issues such as body image, love, consent, and intimacy."

'Wall of silence'

Laura Kerslake, a lecturer in Ethics at Exeter College, where the scheme was piloted, said the objects helped students who might otherwise have been self-conscious.

"This approach takes the embarrassment out of it and reduces the possibility of students putting up barriers to learning," she said.

"It's also a great way to help teachers who may be faced with a wall of silence when teaching sex education.

"What was nice was seeing them looking at the different language they use to talk about sex and body parts, some of the students don't have that vocabulary so it's a way of getting them to talk about it and understand the terminology."

The artefacts are from the vaults of the Science Museum, and were collected from around the world by Sir Henry Wellcome at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries.

They will go on show at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery in Exeter on Saturday.

The Intimate Worlds exhibition contains objects relating to human sexuality, including Chinese erotic glass painting, Greek vases and African fertility dolls.

It is the first dedicated public display of Wellcome's sexually related material.

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