The sex education I wish I’d had
Marianne talks about her lack of sex ed at school, and creates a wish list of things for the sex ed class she wishes she had.
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"I wish I’d grown up in an environment where my peers and I felt comfortable discussing sex and asking questions, because then maybe none of the above would ever have been scary or mysterious."
So I have had almost zero formal sex education.
When I was ten, our teacher held the girls back at break time and solemnly informed us that we were due to start bleeding out of our vaginas any day now. If this happened while we were in school, we were to tell NO ONE but immediately locate the nearest female teacher, who would provide us with something to soak up the shame of our womb. She did not actually say that last bit, but even at ten-years-old, I felt it was strongly implied. This was my first introduction to periods.
When I was fourteen, our science teacher skipped over the chapter on the reproductive system. She told us it was very unlikely to come up in our exams next year, and even if it does, you’ll have lots of questions to choose from so you can just skip it. I stared at the diagram of the penis in the book for a while. There was no diagram of the vagina, only the ovaries and uterus.
The same year, a lady from Tampax came to speak to us about periods and gave us heavily branded booklets about growing into our new bodies. At this point, I was wearing a C cup and I’d been using tampons for over two years, so it felt a bit belated. Nobody had any questions at the end of the talk.
When I was seventeen, we had forty minutes of “Health Ed” class every two weeks. There was no syllabus, but our teacher was smart and engaged. He led a lot of interesting discussions – about drinking, drugs, smoking, bullying, about stress and good study habits, depression, body image, more drugs, more bullying – but something was notably missing from the laundry list of things seventeen-year-old girls typically worry about.
And that was it. I could definitely blame this on growing up in Ireland, a country so deeply steeped in Catholicism that it’s difficult to find a school where saying prayers in morning assembly is not the norm. But a friend of mine also went to an all-girls convent school, and she did have a sex ed class. Which apparently involved trying to put a condom on a banana with one hand.
I’ve started thinking about the sex education I wish I’d had. I even went as far as drafting a syllabus, because I’m obsessive like that, but I will not inflict it on the Internet because I’m not an educator and also it’s five pages long. But I will show you my wish list. Because maybe it’s just my inner Hermione Granger talking, but I do wish there’d been a class.
I wish there was a class that laid out the hard facts. All the different bits and what they do and where they can go. I wish there’d been a class that busted all the myths and laid bare all the slang, so I didn’t have to rely on furtively searching Urban Dictionary on a dial-up connection on the family PC.
I wish I’d been taught that there is nothing morally wrong with having sex. I wish I’d been taught that virginity is not something that can be “taken” or “lost” and that you still retain all your intrinsic worth as a human after you’ve had sex for the first time.
I wish there’d been a full diagram of a vagina ANYWHERE in my young teenage life. I wish someone had told me what my “clit” was so I didn’t have to use Google just to find out where the thing was hiding.
I wish I’d been taught that masturbation is completely and totally normal, to the point that it’s almost banal, and also maybe been given some pointers.
I wish the boys had not been sent out of the room when we had our talk about the menstrual cycle because one too many men have asked me, you know, what’s, like, the deal with periods? I wish women didn’t feel the need to refer to perfectly natural processes in our bodies “Auntie Flo” or “my time of the month” or whatever other coy euphemism we use to shield the menfolk from the terrible knowledge of the blood moon cult.
I’m grateful we don’t have to sit in a hut outside the village anymore, but I also wish frankly mentioning my ovulation cramps was not considered a bit risqué in polite society.
I wish there was an incredibly detailed class on the entire reproductive system and it was mandatory learning for every single person on the planet, because then maybe there wouldn’t be so many middle-aged middle-class men making bizarre statements about the things my womb can and can’t do.
I wish someone had explained the difference between gender, sex and sexuality and why those distinctions are important. I didn’t know anything about that until I got around to reading Judith Butler as part of my degree, and the idea that gender is fluid should not have been a mind-blowing revelation for my twenty-year-old self.
I wish someone had given me the full breakdown on contraception – the different types available, how they work, how to use them, where to get them. I wish the first time I handled a condom was not also the first time I helped a guy put one on.
I wish there was an awareness of gay people and bisexual people and queer people and trans people and that the fact that they have different experiences of sex, which are also perfectly natural and normal and valid because then rampant homophobia would probably be less of a thing among fifteen-year-olds.
I wish that we’d been taught about STIs, but without the typical level of hysteria and shame that accompanies any discussion surrounding teenagers and STIs. I wish someone had explained that there is risk involved in having sex, just like there is risk involved in playing sports or driving a car. That does not mean we should never ever do these things, it just means we need to be smart and follow the rules so we can manage those risks effectively.
I wish some had sat us all down very seriously and explained that sex is not a zero-sum game between men and women, nor is it a competition, nor is it a commodity, something that women bestow on men in exchange for dinner and flowers (and therefore women who don’t bestow in a timely manner are in breach of contract.)
I wish that, in the same lesson, we’d been taught that a man and a woman with an identical sexual history will be treated very differently by society, and that’s not fair or OK and we should be aware of this in the way we talk about sex.
I wish I’d heard ANYTHING about the concept of consent before I started actively seeking out feminist writing. I wish we’d talked about how pressuring or manipulating someone into having sex with you is coercion. I wish that we’d been told that if someone is too drunk or high to speak in coherent sentences, walk in a straight line, stay awake or take care of themselves, they are not able to consent and having sex with them anyway makes you a rapist.
I wish there was an emphasis on the fact that sex should always be something that happens between people who are enthusiastic and comfortable and happy to be there, and that nobody should settle for anything less than that. I wish all of these things were just common knowledge and good sense, instead of constantly being dismissed as a radical feminist agenda.
Most of all, I wish I’d grown up in an environment where my peers and I felt comfortable discussing sex and asking questions, because then maybe none of the above would ever have been scary or mysterious. I wish we had classroom discussions about sex and exams on sex and reflective essays on sex and it was all as normal and interesting and important as algebra or poetry. Now I’m a clued-in 20-something woman who talks more openly about sex than most people are comfortable with. But it took me a long time and a lot of hassle to get here.
That’s my retrospective wish list. What’s on yours? Did you have good sex education growing up, or were there large yawning gaps? Do you think sex education is as important as I clearly do, or were you happy just figuring out as you go along. Come at me, people. I want to know what blatant misconceptions you held onto for far longer than you care to admit.
Remember: The age of sexual consent in Ireland is 17. If you're over 16, you can consent to medical treatment including any treatment or tests needed.