The current backlash against Nadine Dorries' insane proposals to teach abstinence-only sex education to girls aged 13-16 got me thinking about my own sex education. Various commentators have made the point that, whilst abstinence teaching alone is an entirely unhelpful strategy, sex education that puts some emphasis on the right to say no, or at least the right to wait, is still important. Sin-laden scaremongering is no use whatsoever to adolescents, but nor is a resigned, 'well, you're gonna do it anyway', bar-lowering attitude. What would've been nice to hear, as a totally sexually inactive 15 year-old, was 'Not everyone's doing it, nor will they for several years. You're not a total failure if boys barely look at you, most of them are vile, inexperienced, spotty little gits who you wouldn't want touching you with a barge pole. There's more to life than busting your hymen and chalking up bed partners.' However, I suppose I might not have listened. I remember my mum telling me there would be better boys at uni (there were) and it was worth waiting til I met them (it was), but at the time that was scant consolation, and even now the contrary teenager in me would rather die than tell her she was right. Still, had the notion that it was OK to still be a virgin at 16, 17, 18 or older come from a more official source, maybe I would've given it more credence. In the event, I was nearly 19 and in university when I lost my virginity. I went to uni feeling like a late bloomer, a child, ugly and unwanted for still being a virgin. When I found someone I was strongly attracted to, I realised that there actually had been no one I'd wanted to have sex with until that point. I had just always thought I should be doing it.
So, along with the message that losing your virginity at the age of 18 and 11 months is perfectly normal, what else would I have liked to hear from my sex education at school? Well....
- That oral sex exists, goes both ways, and can be great fun, but if your partner asks for it by pushing your head down, you should punch him in the crotch and walk away. That's not 'asking', that's assault.
- That homosexuality exists. And bisexuality. This was soooo absent from our sex education, and in an all-girls school, 'lesbian' was the most frequently bandied around insult. Until we hit 6th form and ironically kissing girls became fashionable. Sigh....
- That sexual coercion doesn't just mean violence - it includes emotional blackmail. Just because you think a guy is 'nice' and 'sensitive', constant whining, crying and sulking if you won't have sex with him still makes him a disrespectful jackass.
- In a similar vein - and this is one that needs teaching to the boys just as much - the absence of a 'no' is not the same as an enthusiastic 'yes'. Being 'worn down' into 'agreeing' to sex is still coercion.
- That it's normal and healthy for girls to want sex, feel horny, and masturbate. That we're not just passive objects of male sexual desire, but have our own desires too.
- That buying condoms, or obtaining the morning-after pill, won't cause a massive siren to go off and alert your parents, teachers and grandmother. I remember when we were 17 my sexually active friend was too ashamed to purchase either, and had to get friends to do it for her.
- Sex can be a tight fit, especially the first time, and lube is your friend.
- What 'the wet patch' actually means. The first time I had sex without a condom (because I was on the pill), I was amazed at the amount of mess. Hollywood will NOT tell you about this, girls. So your school should.
- Sex can be quite comical. Penises can fall out, vaginas can make funny noises, that position that looked so erotic in the book can just give you cramp, orgasms can be unforthcoming or too forthcoming, you might start needing the loo in the middle of sex...the potential for slapstick is endless. Teaching people not to take it too seriously, and be prepared to laugh with your partner (rather than just die of embarrassment) would be nice. Again, I think the movie industry has a lot to answer for in terms of depicting sex as entirely free of pratfalls.
- Up to 10% of the population are asexual. If you're one of them, don't feel bad - just enjoy all the extra free time and energy that not worrying about sex will give you.
- Don't fake - demonstrate.
I suppose the fact I've learnt all these things myself shows that the school of life can fill in the gaps that real school leaves, but that's really not the point. In a culture where so many warped perceptions of sex and sexuality are fed to us daily, educating children as thoroughly and as early as we can about what constitutes healthy sexuality, is more crucial then ever. My school didn't do a terrible job, but the sex education we received was pretty limited, mostly biological, and totally heteronormative. If I was a teenage girl today, I'd certainly want more than the finger-wagging chastity drive that Nadine Dorries proposes, but I'd also want more than just 'here's how to put on a condom'. The right to say no, the right to shout 'YES!' and the right to mutually pleasurable, desired, fun and safe sex would be good principles to start with.