I’m 22 years old, and I don’t know how to put on a condom.
I could probably work it out – I mean, I have a degree and everything – but that’s not really the point. The point is that I went through twelve years or whatever of compulsory education and was never, ever taught this, and that I read Alice’s description of ‘biology with a banana’ and wished I’d at least had that lesson. The point is that before they started being thrown at us like sweets during Freshers’ week, I only ever even saw a condom once when I was twelve and a boy who lived down my road and liked to touch me inappropriately in the playground showed me one (in a packet) that he carried around for bragging rights, and once when I was fifteen and a girl in my year made one into a balloon that got tossed around the common room.
My path through compulsory education was not a normal one, but is anyone’s these days? Sure, I went to quite a few different schools, but I’m inclined to think that somebody should take that possibility into account and strive to ensure that sex is brought up more than once per Key Stage. Why? Because if you provide young people with a sex education that is full of holes, they will have to fill those gaps – young people are curious, after all – with what they can learn from elsewhere. For me, that was pornographic stories, a (far less interesting) book my mother gave me, masturbation, and – eventually – a boyfriend who was kind enough not to take advantage of my naivety. For many girls, it’s what their sexual partners tell them, which may or may not be an honest report of what they themselves believe, let alone representative of the actual truth.
It has been a while since I was in school, and maybe things have changed now, but even if standard, state-funded, non-denominational education has bucked up its ideas with regards to sex ed, there are still children who go to religious schools like Alice did, or same-sex private schools like me. It’s a conversation that still needs to be happening, so here’s my contribution: a quick and dirty summary of all the sex education I can ever remember having.
I’m 7 years old, or thereabouts. The word ‘fuck’ is written in big letters on the wall we can see through the fence at the bottom of our schoolyard. I have an argument with my friends about whether or not ‘fart’ has a ‘u’ in it. My mother tells me that sex is a special cuddle. When my friends tell me I want to have sex with my boyfriend, I say, ‘Why not?’ and they laugh at me.
I’m 12 years old, in my penultimate year at a private prep school. The Head of Pastoral Care invites all the girls in my year up to her office to discuss periods, only when she makes the announcement in assembly she pretends it’s to talk about the girls’ bathroom, presumably to save the boys from having to hear about (or even be aware of) the horror that the female of the species must bear. We’re given a magazine and a Twix each to content us while Mrs C spouts euphemisms and I – having already started my period – wonder what the boys are getting up to.
I’m 13 years old, and sat in the only biology of sex lesson I’ll ever have. My favourite science teacher tells us things no one else will, like the right way to wipe your bum, and how to tell your friend they’ve started to smell a bit like a grown-up (i.e. bad). There is appreciative laughter when she draws a scientific diagram of a penis, side-on, and tell us she prefers the front view, and of a vagina, which she reassures us are in real life ‘really not that big’. The single diagram of the act of sex that can be found in our textbook is totally not how any of us imagined it.
I’m 15 years old, and studying for my GCSEs at an all-girls school. PHSE (or whatever it’s called these days) brings us that video filmed from inside a woman’s body showing lots of graphic yet strictly scientific imagery from ejaculation to birth (though nothing from before, because who cares about that, right?), and the one where the guy from some boy band pretends he has AIDS and we’re all told not to be slags. A girl in my class asks what a clitoris is, and no one will tell her. Another girl refuses to believe that two men can have sex; since I know better thanks to a special lesson we had when I was thirteen, when a woman came into the school and told us about drugs, including poppers, I defend the truth that nobody else will. We do have a lesson on contraception, but it’s kind of like at the doctor’s when they’re short for time; they give us some pamphlets, and we spend the lesson going, ‘Ew, what the hell is a coil?’
I’m 17 years old, and I’m at a local, mixed gender, state-funded college, though a lot of the students come from a Catholic school down the road. One of these students is so frighteningly unaware that a group of us take it upon ourselves to sit her down at a picnic table outside one sunny day and educate her (ew, not like that) as to – among other things – the meanings of the terms ‘clitoris’ and ‘masturbation’. To the latter, she asks why anybody would do that. We tell her it’s nice, but are likely unsuccessful at converting her. Afterwards, I feel like a Grown Up, and have a brief discussion with one of my fellow noble educators in which I pretend I know what an erection looks like. Unfortunately, my first real experience of an erection comes soon after, when a male friend who promised ‘no ulterior motives’ stays at my family home and humps me while I lie in terrified silence.
I’m 22 years old, and I’ve actually had sex now. I’m on the pill, because I like having consistent periods and (thanks to the above) the idea of rubber birth control disgusts me. But if I do ever decide to use a condom, I’ll have to ask for help, because nobody ever thought it was important to make sure I would know what to do.