Educating for Sexual Virtue

A Moral Vision for Relationships and Sex Education

by Olwyn E. Mark (Author)
Monographs XII, 242 Pages
Series: Religion, Education and Values, Volume 12


Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) is an issue surrounded by controversy and debate, with important implications for the interconnected roles of the state, the school and the home and for the way we understand ourselves, our sexual identity and our personal relationships.
This book charts the development of the moral and spiritual narrative in RSE policy in England. In particular, it expounds and critiques the popular moral narrative of «informed choice»: an approach which advocates providing young people with the maximum amount of information around their sexual choices and defends a view of sexual morality which holds that anything goes, as long as it is in private, between consenting adults and harms no-one else.
Alongside a comprehensive critique of this narrative, the book offers a unique contribution to the ongoing development of the moral and spiritual framework of RSE by presenting a Christian vision of a sexually and relationally educated young person. In particular, this enriched vision explores the cultivation of the virtues of Christian love and chastity.
The findings presented here are highly significant for anyone concerned with developing and delivering RSE within a robust moral framework.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface
  • Part I: The Moral Framework of Sex and Relationships Education (SRE)
  • Chapter 1: Relationships and Sex Education Policy: A ‘Politics of Moral Engagement’?
  • Chapter 2: Why Teach Morality and Sex? Pursuing a Liberal Ideal
  • Chapter 3: Educating for Health: Promoting Welfare and Wellbeing
  • Chapter 4: Educating for Morality: Informing Autonomous Choice
  • Part II: The Moral Narrative of Sex
  • Chapter 5: The Sexual Child and the Ethic of Sex
  • Chapter 6: A Naturalist ‘Principle of Pleasure’
  • Chapter 7: Love, Law and Consent
  • Part III: The Value of Virtue in Relationships and Sex Education (RSE)
  • Chapter 8: Cultivating Virtue in Moral Education: An Enriched Vision for RSE
  • Chapter 9: Common Virtue in Moral Education: A Theological Defence
  • Chapter 10: Educating for Sexual Virtue: Christian Love and Chastity
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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Research and writing is more often than not a solitary task, yet one that is constantly enriched by the cheerleaders and companions along the way. As this book is the culmination of ten years of study and research, there have been many such individuals and groups.

This book is largely the reworking and updating of my PhD thesis which was completed at London School of Theology (LST). Particular thanks must therefore go to the faculty and community at LST for the opportunity to grow and learn amongst you, both academically and spiritually. Special thanks to my fellow researchers in the Guthrie Centre for the intellectual sharpening, the spiritual companionship and the tonic of laughter – all of which were readily available and much needed. In this regard, extra special thanks must go to my PhD companion, Dr Chloe Lynch. I extend my thanks to my PhD examiners, Professor Tony Lane and Professor John Sullivan, for their critical and constructive feedback and encouragement. Finally, to my PhD supervisor, Professor Anna Robbins: thank you for helping me to sharpen my own voice, and for continuing to use yours with such strength, sensitivity and wit.

My appreciation must also go to the lecturers on the MA in Bioethics and Medical Law course at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, with particular and sincere thanks to Dr Trevor Stammers for the careful and courageous attention that he has given to many of the issues discussed in this book. I also wish to thank Professor Trevor Cooling at Canterbury Christ Church University for his own contribution to Christian education and for his personal and professional support and encouragement.

I offer warmest thanks to my extended family and friends who have blessed me in numerous ways over the past years – you know who you are! In particular, to my church families at Hill Street Presbyterian Church, Lurgan and Northwood Hills Evangelical Church. To my colleagues and friends at Love for Life: I am honoured to have worked alongside so many exceptional individuals with such a heart and passion for the welfare of ← vii | viii → children and young people. In particular, I wish to acknowledge the courageous and compassionate leadership of Dickie and Janice Barr and Judith Cairns.

My thanks must also go to Willie Barton for proofreading this manuscript, and doing so with such patience, care and diligence. Also, to Silje Lilly for designing the cover of the book and inhabiting the image so beautifully in her own life.

My final and most heartfelt thanks must go to my own immediate family: my mother, Alison, along with Jonathan, Lucy, Joshua, Zack, Catherine, Andrew, Punita, Cian, David, Ruth, Cillian, Finley and Peter. Remembering, too, with deepest love, my late father, Douglas, whose love and encouragement was unstinting, and who is now caught up with the ‘great cloud of witnesses’. To God be the glory.

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries …


← viii | ix →


In the weeks leading up to the completion of this manuscript, a public campaign was launched against a neon sign inside a clothes shop in London – the sign read ‘Send me nudes x’. The petition against the sign, which received over 9,300 signatures, asked the clothes shop, which tailors for teenage girls and young women, to remove the sign on account of the culture of exploitation and coercion that it legitimized. As a result of the campaign, the sign was removed.

In a moral climate that is still particularly sensitive to the sexualization and exploitation of children and young people, many celebrated the success of such a short and sharp campaign; however, the challenge and questions that it raised for our public moral conscience linger on – questions, for example, concerned with how and why such a message was ever deemed to be a morally legitimate one for a popular and mainstream retail outlet to display.

How many people had fitted, worked under and passed by this sign, and perhaps others like it, unmoved by the implications of the message for the teenage shoppers? If their consciences had been pricked, would they have hesitated in questioning its appropriateness for fear of appearing prudish or judgemental about behaviours, like sexting, which increasingly shape young people’s sexual lives – even when such behaviours are illegal for under-18s?

After all, it is largely accepted that what adults and increasingly young people do in their private sexual lives – within the moral bounds of mutual consent and respect, of course – is nobody else’s business. However, this moral judgement, while appearing to be a morally ‘neutral’ one, cannot be so. It is inevitably conditioned by cultural norms and values around sex and relationships that at least determine the moral bounds of consent and respect.

In spite of concerns expressed over the need to protect children and young people from undue sexual pressure and targeted sexual exploitation, ← ix | x → culture has progressively affirmed the sexual subjectivity of young people and their right to make their own ‘informed’ decisions and pursue their own sexual script. The result has been the creation of a climate of moral ambiguity and confusion, not least for young people. For in order to make an ‘informed choice’ around relationships and sex, a young person needs to have at least the moral resources to draw on in order to do so. In a culture increasingly defined by expressive individualism, young people themselves are drawing attention to the fact that they are lacking the moral and spiritual resources necessary to make their choices.

This appears to be part of a wider and deeper crisis in moral education. Research among emerging adults in the US, for example, indicates that young people are morally adrift: no longer believing that objective moral truth exists, ‘they think that people believing something to be morally true is what makes it morally true’ (Smith et al. 2011: 61, italics in original) Such thinking leads to ‘moral scepticism, subjectivism, relativism, and, ultimately, nihilism’ (2011: 62).

This book, therefore, calls for an urgent re-engagement with the moral vision shaping our approach to moral education and our understanding of sex and relationships – a moral vision exemplified in government policy on Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) in England. The arguments that this book presents are particularly timely in view of the recent announcement that Relationships Education and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) will become a statutory requirement of the curriculum for all schools in England from 2019. Indeed, considered policy discussion will have no choice but to engage with the moral vision of Relationships Education and RSE, for there can be no neutral account of relationships.

In Part I, we will give particular attention to tracing the shifting moral narrative in SRE policy discourse, in particular changes in the moral and spiritual content. In arriving at the current ‘informed choice’ approach, we will explore key concepts and arguments associated with this liberal metanarrative as outworked in the current moral framework of public health, health education and moral education. This is a metanarrative that legitimizes the autonomy and self-determined nature of young people’s sexual choices within the bounds of a socially constructed understanding of ‘harm’ and ‘wellbeing’. ← x | xi →

In light of the implicit moral judgements being made within current discourse around young people’s sexual behaviour, we will in Part II give particular attention to the moral narrative currently scripting our understanding of sex and relationships. We will engage with philosophical questions and answers concerned with the meaning of sex and love and examine the naturalist presuppositions on which such judgements are founded. We will also engage with the adequacy of current legal parameters on sexual behaviour, largely defined by a socially constructed understanding of consent.

Two-thirds of this book are given over to scrutinizing and critiquing current moral norms and values surrounding SRE in order to make a compelling case for why a politics of moral engagement is a necessary prerequisite for future RSE policy and practice, as well as why the current moral vision is incoherent and inadequate. The discussion in Part III will present virtue ethics as an enriching moral narrative for moral education. A Christian vision of a sexually and relationally educated young person, a vision informed by the virtues of Christian love and chastity, takes account of the embodied nature of the learner in community and presents an account of sexual virtue that leads to human flourishing. It provides children and young people with a richer and more coherent moral language and vision within which to understand their sexual nature and choices.

The discussion in Educating for Sexual Virtue is only the first step in opening up a wider discussion on the moral and spiritual content of Relationships and Sex Education policy, practice and programmes. It is right from the outset, therefore, to acknowledge a couple of limitations. First, in engaging with disparate fields throughout the course of this book – including philosophy of education, ethics, theology, political theory and social and health policy – the purpose of doing so is to build a comprehensive and compelling public moral argument against the current liberal metanarrative. The danger of doing so, however, is that not enough critical attention or depth of reflection is given to the relevant ideas presented within each field. Nevertheless, while my discussion is primarily directed through a theological lens, drawing on disparate fields to underpin the core tenets of the argument opens up the opportunity for the ideas presented to be critiqued and developed in different directions and for different audiences. ← xi | xii → This is a particularly compelling prospect in view of the ‘live’ nature of the policy issues being discussed.

Secondly, the discussion is grounded in the theoretical and therefore gives only limited attention to the practical implications in terms of the outworking of the moral vision for, among others, teachers, pupils, education policy-makers, politicians, religious bodies and teacher-educators. This is the inevitable result of the need first to build a compelling case for the recasting of the moral vision for RSE, doing so with a particular focus on character and virtue. As such, the relevant concepts and arguments that substantiate this vision are the main focus of this discussion. The practical implications must flow from the vision.

← xii | 1 →


The Moral Framework of Sex and Relationships Education (SRE)

← 1 | 2 →


XII, 242
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (January)
Relationships and Sex Education Virtue Ethics Sexual Morality
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2018. XII, 242 pp.

Biographical notes

Olwyn E. Mark (Author)

Olwyn E. Mark is Head of Research and Strategic Partnerships at Love for Life, a Christian charity specializing in the development and delivery of Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) programmes. She is also a Research Fellow and Visiting Lecturer at the London School of Theology, where she completed her PhD. She has an MA in Bioethics from St Mary’s University, Twickenham and an MA in European Politics from Brunel University. She has been involved in the development of numerous faith-based RSE projects, both nationally and internationally.


Title: Educating for Sexual Virtue
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