Let’s Talk About Sex


The government recently updated the content of its sex education curriculum which was published, almost 20 years ago, in 2000. I thought about my own teenage search for sensible information about sex and relationships. I previously mentioned I grew up in a religious community where attitudes to sex made Catholicism look liberal and relaxed. The main messages seemed to be ‘Don’t do it’ and a long list of things to avoid in case they made men think about sex. This included wearing jeans and not tying up your hair, not to mention wearing make-up or skirts that showed any leg. I couldn’t help but think it wasn’t my problem if anything and everything made men think about sex.

About eight weeks before we got married, the Doctor and I filled in a form to decide on the content of our wedding ceremony. One of the questions was ‘Do you wish to kiss after exchanging vows?’ with a tick box for Yes or No. I suggested we tick Yes in case people thought I’d had some sort of repressed religious upbringing.
Growing up, I knew plenty about periods. A friend of my mum’s told me about periods at every possible opportunity. She was horrified at the memory of getting hers and having absolutely no idea what was happening. They told us about periods at school too. We watched a video which reassured us we could still do the hurdles at that time of the month and we received a booklet sponsored by Always along with some free samples.
I got a copy of Forever by Judy Blume out of the library. (We went to the library every Saturday morning and I maxed out my library card.) I borrowed Forever because I liked the rest of Judy Blume’s books. I wasn’t aware that it had been hugely controversial when it was published. Katherine and Erica, the two main female characters discuss their curiosity about sex. Katherine meets Michael. He is kind and straightforward. From what I remember, it all seemed quite healthy to me. Devoid of the mind games, maddening mixed signals, poor communication and spectacular insensitivity that I remember being part and parcel of teenage relationships. Katherine goes for a smear test; she is told she has a lovely cervix. Michael tells Katherine that his penis is named ‘Ralph’. (There was a guy at university called Ralph. My friend Sarah had read the book too. We giggled about Ralphs.)
Sex education at school was sporadic. One day we unexpectedly watched a video of English teenage girls talking about their sexual experiences. I had a German exchange student with me that week. We all thought our form tutor was creepy and it was utterly beyond us why he had been given the job of talking to teenage girls about sex. I swear the whole of 10H shuddered in unison when he used the word ‘insert’.
Later that year we were all ushered into the library for a talk called ‘Icebergs and Babies’. I don’t remember that much but it seemed quite sensible. We had a quiz about STIs. (I believe they are now classed under the category of communicable diseases.) We were told that sex wasn’t like it was in films, that women did not wake up the next morning with immaculate hair and make up, like they did in James Bond films. I’m not sure it ever occurred to me to base any of my expectations of life on James Bond films. (I do however remember reading a Marian Keyes book where the female protagonist gets up early to apply a full face of make-up so that the man she has just slept with will not see her without make-up. I probably shouldn’t have been reading Marian Keyes when I was 14)
My friend’s mum took us to see 40 Days and 40 Nights starring Josh Harnett. For tenuous plot reasons I can’t remember, he embarks on a forty day period of celibacy. He meets a new girl and by tickling her lovely flat tummy with a flower, an orchid, if I call correctly, quivers her strings, giving her a knee-trembler of an orgasm. Both characters were clothed, there was whispering and caressing of limbs, but mostly it seemed to be about the orchid. My friend’s mum told us that sex was not that like that. (Clearly. It had been established some years previously, courtesy of the car scene in Titanic, that sex involved neither clothes nor orchids.)
We read magazines in search of information. J17 and Bliss mostly. We ascertained that the following were not effective forms of contraception:
  1. Your boyfriend keeping his boxers on.
  2. Using a crisp packet instead of a condom.
  3. Withdrawal or coitus interruptus.
  • The magazines presented double page spreads featuring an extensive range of contraceptives. The main thing that we knew about sex was that it could get you pregnant. So terrified we were of getting pregnant, that we occasionally convinced ourselves we could be pregnant when we hadn’t even had sex yet. It was very clear that getting pregnant would ruin your life. In her unforgettable modern classic, Sk8er Boi, Avril Lavigne sang ‘She sits in front of tv, feeding the baby, she’s all alone’.
    We got to see the ‘contraceptive suitcase’ at school, a blue box of delights. We unwrapped greasy condoms, giggling and embarrassed. We weren’t shown how to put them on bananas. I think four girls in our year were already pregnant by that stage, or would be shortly. I felt a clawing sense of panic at the thought of getting pregnant. My mother kindly offered to look after any unplanned babies while I finished my studies, which I thought was very good of her.
    Disappointment was expressed in locker rooms and common rooms, of unpleasant, messy sounding experiences; of feeling short changed. I was puzzled why my peers didn’t seem to have more of a sense of ownership of their own bodies or know more about them, deferring to their clumsy, overexcited teenage boyfriends. From my handbag, I produced more copies of women’s magazines for the girls to read. Every single issue of Glamour and Cosmopolitan featured an article, the nub of which was essentially ‘Yes, but where are all the orgasms?’ Perhaps the cover page featured something about ‘The BIG O’. These articles all essentially had the same messages: men and women’s bodies work differently, both men and women are often unaware of this, women mistakenly think men know about female bodies so by default, sex is phallocentric and female pleasure takes a back seat.
    This wasn’t entirely new to me. I’d read Bridget Jones’ Diary in which Bridget’s mother indignantly exclaims ‘Your father thinks the clitoris is something from Nigel Coles’ lepidoptera collection’. (A lepidoptera is a collection of butterflies and moths.) I probably shouldn’t have been reading Helen Fielding when I was 13.
    I flipped through my friend’s copy of Philip Larkin’s High Windows. ‘When I see a couple of kids/And guess he’s f***ing her and she’s/Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm’. Was that the point, that he was having fun and she was the one taking responsibility? (I should ask my friend, the English teacher.) It rings some bells. Boyfriends who didn’t like condoms, fielding panicky phone calls about last night, eye-wateringly expensive morning-after pills, popping packets of pills that might make you as sick as a dog, not to mention fat and weepy for no reason.
    Women’s magazines also told us that we must prepare to be the defenders of our bodies against perverse male desires. We should expect to go in fighting, to assert that our bodies were not a carnival of orifices for men to enjoy as they pleased. We would have to make it clear that it was ok to have pubic hair and that we did not want to do demeaning things shown in pornography. We might need to point out that pornography was a tool for male pleasure, not a realistic portrayal of sex upon which to base your expectations. Perhaps like Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals, it was wildly optimistic to get anything done as quickly as on screen.
    A friend told me he used to watch Sex And The City as a teenager in the hope of catching a glimpse of some breasts, which seems rather quaint now. On the topic of Mr Big, conversations revealed boys worried about their own bodies. This wasn’t news to me. I had after all read Adrian Mole when I was ten. (Should I have been reading Adrian Mole at ten?) These concerns however seemed to give rise to some peculiar ideas about ‘satisfying a woman’. I drew the following graph, on a napkin at a party, too embarrassed to actually explain anything.

    The audience consisted largely of scientists, mathematicians and engineers. They may not have known much about women but they did understand graphs. I may also have recommended reading a copy of Glamour or Cosmo. I drew a diagram on a whiteboard at a house party, labelling the ovaries, fallopian tubes and cervix. Steve turned to Matt and said ‘The cervix? Is that the bit you feel when you get to the end?’. I remember feeling very uncomfortable at this rather graphic mental image. I wasn’t at all keen on the idea of Steve being anywhere near my cervix.

    The landscape has shifted enormously since I was a teenager. Apparently they’re all watching hardcore pornography on their smartphones and sexting explicit images to each other, which can horribly backfire. I see articles about ‘slut’ shaming and revenge porn. I’m puzzled by the bizarre paradox of wanting something from someone, then shaming them for letting you have it, despite being very pleased it happened and gaining perceived status from it. What sort of messages are young men receiving?

    I worked with teenagers for years yet got away without ever delivering any sex education. What would I say to a group of teenagers?

    1. If anyone is willing to let you put yourself inside them, count yourself lucky and treat them accordingly.
    2. Porn is fiction. You will learn far more from the owner of a woman’s body.
    3. If you’re not enjoying yourself, stop. Make sure you are happy with everything you do and when you do it.
    4. Consent is very important. If you’re not sure, this video about tea will keep you right: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQbei5JGiT8