There’s now a lot of information out there about sex, contraception and puberty, but are adolescents given enough opportunities to discuss and get to grips with the world of sex and relationships? A lot of accounts of sex education involve the teacher feeling more embarrassed and awkward than the kids – I can imagine its intimidating standing in front of today’s next generation talking about sex so I’m not blaming them but society’s attitude in itself has a lot to answer for. We’re supposed to be sexually liberated but today’s struggle between media representations fed to us and ‘real life’ is full of contradictions, bad lessons and doesn’t even begin to allow for growth of the individual. We need to provide a different backdrop for sex and start getting young people to feel confident and valued when it comes to their sexuality.
In my experience, at age eleven the girls got taken off to one room and the boys to another. I have no idea what happened to them but we passed around a crying plastic baby and got a leaflet about periods. Three things stick in my mind from the next lot of sex ed. we had, aged 15, 1) watching a video of a girl sucking a lollipop whilst the narrative told us all about blow jobs, 2) Being shown horrific photos of the worst case scenario genital warts and such like, which put most people off their lunch never mind sex and 3) Being in hysterics whilst trying to figure out how to put condoms onto various shaped plastic penises. Now, I’m not criticising the whole thing, because all in all I learnt bits and pieces of important info, like don’t be silly wrap your willy and how to insert a tampon (if only I’d known about mooncups back then! Now that’s a whole other conversation), but it didn’t even begin to cover what I would hope it to have done in hindsight. So, what should they have told us?
Well, firstly I’d like to know what it is about sex that makes it such a perceived awkward subject anyway. Does it even need its own lesson or should it just be openly discussed across the subjects during puberty? It threads into art, English, science, religion etc, sex is as much a normal part of life, culture and society as anything else. If we are going to have sexualised images of objectified women and subjective men in a position of power, shoved down our throats from the minute we start walking around town or watching TV then surely there needs to be some sort of consistent counter point of view offered. If children are going to stumble upon pornographic images when searching for perfectly innocent pictures to use in an art project then surely this needs to be explained to them. If women are made to feel uncomfortable for breastfeeding their baby in public yet turn to page 3 of the Sun and there’s a huge pair of tits, then kids/adolescents need help to be able to talk about living in a society with such mixed up messed up ideas about the female body.
And if 1 in 20 children in July 2013 were sexually abused and four out of five children (82.7%) who experienced contact sexual abuse from a peer did not tell anyone else about it (NSPCC) then surely we need to build a safe forum for being able to discuss this openly so that children and teenagers don’t have to suffer in silence, causing problems in later life. What I’m talking about here involves a huge change in the way we do things, and that change can’t happen overnight but a good place to start is in education. We all know how damaging current media representations of masculinity and femininity are and I, like many others want to see an end to this. It seems sex education so often underestimates kids and teenagers, who have the ability to engage intellectually with such topics and form opinionated arguments –but they need to be trusted to do this and be given a platform for it. This will give critical skills which will potentially prove to be much more useful and memorable in later life than Sin, Coz and Tan (I have no idea what these words even mean now, just four years later).
The number one thing I would have liked to have a lesson or 5 on, is consent. So often, people and I would argue girls in particular, due to how women’s bodies are represented in the media, are made to feel like it is impolite to say no or rude to reject a proposal. The general view given is that a women’s body doesn’t really belong to her anyway and that just being a man gives you an inherent right to sex. I wish young adults were encouraged to think long and hard before engaging in something to please someone else without considering if it was something they really want to do or not. And I’m not just talking about sex, in a society where girls are taught to be insecure, to do as they’re told and boys are taught that real men don’t cry, real men are tough, and in a society where bi-sexual, gay, lesbian or transgendered people are taught there’s something weird about them, figuring out the world of relationships for the first time can be really difficult.
In 2009, 25% of teenage girls surveyed in the UK had experienced physical violence by their boyfriends and 1 in 6 girls disclosed being pressurised into sexual intercourse (NSPCC). I don’t remember learning about this in sex education or being told what to do if you end up in such a situation. I wish there was some form of consistent education in all schools to give girls the confidence to say no, or yes if they want, and to know when to walk away if necessary. And to give boys the confidence to talk before acting and to go against the grain of the stereotypical ‘lad’. I wish all sex education would highlight that lesbian, bi-sexual, gay, transgendered or straight, of any background, religion or culture, knowing yourself and doing what is good and nourishing for your own being is THE most important thing when it comes to sex and relationships. Whether that’s being celibate, waiting for marriage, masturbating, having sex with multiple partners or with one, so long as the individual is happy with their choices. If that choice does involve sex or relationships, we should be teaching the importance of only engaging in that which is mutually beneficial.
Not many adults would choose to go through being a teenager again and in a culture where sex is pervasive, and sex (or rather sexualised women) sells, there needs to be more support and more opportunity for teenagers to make sense of this and to be given the tools to navigate their way through a world where the reality is that girls and women have to be very aware of potential rape and unwanted sexual contact. When a girl goes on a night out, she will more than likely be groped by an uninvited man. Feminism should be on the agenda in every school so that when a girl walks home in her uniform and is whistled at, she feels she actually has the right to tell him where to go. I hope it’s not too long before feminism and proper sex ed. is put on the National Curriculum because I’d like to think when I have kids, my daughter won’t have to be scared and my son won’t have to be feared and both will understand the meaning of self-awareness and mutual respect when it comes to sex.