The Vagenda

All the Sex Education I Ever Had, Summarised

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.
- JW

15 thoughts on “All the Sex Education I Ever Had, Summarised

  1. Ah, male friends with ‘no ulterior motive’… :(

    I had a mixed education, never got the banana/cucumber demo either.

    I found teamwork helped when it came to using a condom the first time, two heads are better than one!

    Lights on is also helpful ;)

  2. I went to a comprehensive school and wasn’t taught how to put a condom on either. I only learnt when me and my boyfriend went to a walk-in clinic, and a nurse gave us a demonstration. Also, I swear in sex ed in school we were never taught what happens when women get aroused (although maybe I just wasn’t paying attention), or what orgasms were, so we had to pick up information like this from friends who knew more, or rumours. I think you’re right, most girls’ knowledge comes from what their partner tells them, which might not always be true. I mean, I was pretty clueless about everything before I met my boyfriend, and most of my knowledge comes from him.

  3. This post has just made me feel about a million times better about myself and my dearth of knowledge in this area. I wondered if I’d missed something vital, but I think that these schools just manage to skirt the subject with spectacular finesse. I too went to a single-sex private school and I think I probably had even less of an education than you. My memories amount to a single PSHE class at the age of 15, when a middle-aged, overtly Christian woman stood at the front and lectured us about not having sex until we were in a stable relationship i.e. married. Those who had already done the deed sniggered at the back; those of us who hadn’t felt even more worried about the whole thing than we had done beforehand. When I finally did have sex, the man didn’t have a condom with him. Neither did I (I hadn’t planned the occasion) and was secretly rather grateful that I wouldn’t have to display my ignorance . . . so we just did it without. Utterly stupid, but I was so embarassed that the risk of pregnancy and STDs seemed preferable to admitting my naivete.

    My sister (8 years younger than me) has just returned from a gap year in the Dominican Republic in which she announced that her boyfriend, a local guy in his early 20s, didn’t know how to put on a condom, and she had to do it for him. I laughed along and then realised that in all honesty, I was equally clueless, albeit both older and in posession of a GCSE in biology and an advanced education from a developed country. Eight years ago, a friend of mine went to Uganda on her gap year to teach sex education. I felt like saying to her: before you go, can’t you educate me first?

  4. I remember when I was about 15, our whole year went to the GUM clinic to learn all about contraception. Then we had to form a line and take our turn to put a condom on a little white pole. I made a conscious decision to stand right at the back and hoped it would be time to leave before my turn, I really didn’t want to do it in front of a class of people who were already having sex and boys who would mock me if I did it wrong. Luckily I didn’t get a turn and the boys had fun trying to stretch condoms over their heads. Don’t even get me started on the birthing video in Biology. Three words: misleading as fuck. If only it was that easy for my mam and sisters.

    Fast forward to today, I’m 24 years old and have never used a condom. I never needed to but that’s a whole other story involving a psychological expedition. I’m practically the poster girl for social awkwardness. But it’s kind of a relief to know that I’m not alone in the naivete corner.

  5. I think it must be all too easy for adults (for whom the ‘facts of life’ have been common knowledge for many years, and taken for granted!) to underestimate how confusing talk of sex is to children for whom it is a totally new concept. I’m pretty sure that at the age of 12, even after science classes with their clever diagrams of male and female genitalia, and discussions of reproduction, I was convinced that sperm travelled from the man to the woman just by them lying in bed together. (The euphemism ‘I slept with him/her’ is very misleading in that respect!).

    I wonder if a further problem is also that when sex education in schools ‘fails’, parents are more awkward about picking up the shortfall with a girl than they are with a boy. I distinctly remember an instance when I was about 15 when my older brother was going on holiday and Mum openly asked him if he had condoms; a little while later she turned to me and explained that men took sex a bit more casually than girls, and that losing my virginity might be traumatic. (!!) A later attempt (when the prospect of losing said virginity was actually a realistic one) to ask for her advice resulted in: “oh, you’ll figure out what to do”, and very red cheeks.

    I really hope that in a generation or so, British people will be a lot less awkward when talking about sex, as I think that it’s a wide-scale change in attitude that’s needed as much as reform in educational priorities.

  6. my school literally told us “just keep your pants on”. condoms, the pill etc were mentioned, but the “keep your pants on” mantra was largely it.

  7. What a great description of sex ed. But then again: Please, please buy condoms and practise. On your boyfriend. On a banana. On whatever. It’s simple. And you have no excuse: You are definitely old enough to figure it out yourself.

  8. I think this is a really good article and being the eldest of seven siblings, I can appreciate your call for better sex education all round. I personally make a point to be as honest and open about sex with my siblings because I want them to feel informed about the choices they make.
    However we are not living in the dark ages, what about reading or asking close friends? My mum gave me a book which pretty much told me everything I needed to know, but prior to that I used to voraciously read just 17 (which was pretty pioneering in encouraging female masturbation!) and other magazines, plus a family health book. And I talk to my friends, not everyone is as clued up as you think. But like Kitty I agree, you are now an adult and in a sexual relationship, you can practice! I’m sure the boyf wont mind.

  9. thank goodness for medical birth control!
    My first 5 condom experiences:
    -See used ones in the street
    -A lady comes in to our class and puts one on a banana
    -Male friends put them on their heads and have competitions as to who can inflate them the fastest without the condom popping or breaking on their hair.
    -Same male friends love the word spermicide
    -Inflated one flies around the rock club while a band’s on stage.

    Ahem… then sex starts a few years later. By this point i’ve been on the pill for years, so phew!

  10. “the idea of rubber birth control disgusts me”….

    This is a very wishy washy statement to make as to why you have never used this form of birth control. As a sex educator I spend so much time explaining to young people the importance of condoms (because it is a BARRIER method of contraception), and your sweeping statement about it there is so wrong.

    Sex with condoms is not disgusting. It can be really great and fulfilling! Your overtly negative attitude towards them really frustrates me as its importance as a contraceptive should not be underestimated. It is one of the most accessible contraceptives to young people, and further more can help prevent the spread of STIs.

    The statement in question in its context makes it come across as if you are playing the victim. I whole heartedly agree that you should recieve good education about how to use a condom. However, now that you are an adult woman, what is stopping you from finding out for yourself? You have the power to do so….so why don’t you? There are many places to find information out in a confidential environment. Start with google!

    The pill prevent pregnancy, but it does not prevent STIs. Every time you have sex without a condom you have to be absolutely sure your partner has no STIs. I am not anti-sex. I love sex. But I do not want an STI, and if you want to look after your health, its a good idea to find out how to use condoms. OBVIOUSLY this should be a priority to teach young people.

  11. I started my periods at 8, so all the bullshit in school came too late. Luckily my mum gave me “the” talk at 6, all about periods and sex and whatever in a pretty age appropriate fashion, anticipating that I (like all the other women in my family) would be like that. As I got older, the conversations were a little more indepth, I knew if I had any questions on the matter, I could ask her, and knowing that from an early age meant it wasn’t super weird at like age 15 having to talk to her about picking me up some tampax or whatever. This is what school sex education should be like, as not everyone has a kick-ass mum like me.

    I remember having one lesson in school, biology, where the teacher made a real point of telling all everyone in our class to memorise where a girls clitoris was. Might have been pretty weird at the time, but I’m sure most people in the class found some value in that lesson. The only other one I remember having, we had to put a tampon in a glass of water to see how much liquid it’d soak up. Snore.

  12. Maybe this is just me being a worry-wart, but there are only a handful of guys I would allow to have sex with me without using a condom (if I were on the pill). To me, the point of using a condom is not just to prevent pregnancy, but also to prevent those terrible things called STDs.

  13. Agreed!! The pill does not cover you for STDs, I’ve heard so many girls say ‘oh I’m just sleeping with my boyfriend’ unless he has been tested then you are also sleeping with all of his previous bed buddies too…do the math!
    Read the instructions, watch a tutorial on youtube, the information is out there. I know it’s scary and embarrassing, but it’s better to be safe.

    Great article btw!!