We read magazines in search of information. J17 and Bliss mostly. We ascertained that the following were not effective forms of contraception:
- Your boyfriend keeping his boxers on.
- Using a crisp packet instead of a condom.
- 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?
- If anyone is willing to let you put yourself inside them, count yourself lucky and treat them accordingly.
- Porn is fiction. You will learn far more from the owner of a woman’s body.
- If you’re not enjoying yourself, stop. Make sure you are happy with everything you do and when you do it.
- Consent is very important. If you’re not sure, this video about tea will keep you right: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQbei5JGiT8