It seems that sex education has moved on a lot since I was at school. I remember being ushered into the school hall for a mysterious talk by the scary Games teacher, who showed us some dodgy diagrams on the overhead projector and left us feeling more confused than ever. It was also far too late, I couldn’t relate any of that to what I’d already seen in films and read in books, and heard about in the school playground. (He did what with a crisp packet??).
But I’m not sure we’re getting it right, even now. I read an article earlier about a youth worker who put 400 condoms in her kitchen drawer for her teenage sons to use. I was mainly shocked that she had a kitchen drawer tidy enough to fit 400 condoms in, mine are all full of mysterious keys and takeaway leaflets. But she talked of how she’d met a 17 year old girl in an STI clinic whose parents had never talked about sex to her.
How can this happen? How can it not have come up, ever? Why are people so scared of it? It’s a huge part of life and of relationships, yet it seems to be the hardest thing for people to talk about. Maybe because we’re not that good at talking about it to each other. Or maybe people worry that if they talk to their children about sex they’ll give them ideas and they’ll go straight out and do it with the first person they meet. (Although I’d have thought that going out and having sex was the last thing you want to do after sitting down and talking to your mum about it.)
If you leave it too late you can be pretty sure that by the time you talk to them about it they’ll already have been exposed to unrealistic and downright damaging ideas about sex. And they’ll definitely have experienced some kind of sexual feeling.
School can only do so much, it needs to be supported by parents who need to take more responsibility. We need to talk to our kids from quite a young age, and make it normal and not just make sex a taboo subject that you suddenly spring on them when they’re 11. No wonder people are so uptight about it if this is your introduction to sex. One minute you’re happily playing with your lego, the next your mum sits you down and tries to sum up the whole complicated, confusing, fantastic muddle of sex in a five minute conversation that doesn’t actually use proper words. Instead there’s talk of birds and bees, or, if you’re lucky, you might get the proper words and you’ll be absolutely horrified because that thing between your legs has always been your wingywang, or your front bottom, or your foofoo or whatever stupid name you’ve been calling it, and you walk away from this whole sorry episode still not entirely sure what a vagina is, but you’re pretty certain it’s not the new car model from vauxhall.
It needs to be part of the dialogue before that, not a sit-down sex talk that will make everyone feel awkward, but an ongoing lesson about relationships and respect. Not just the biology of what goes where, that’s (‘scuse the pun) coming at it from the wrong angle, we need to talk about the emotions involved.
We need to stop talking to kids about sex from a ‘making babies’ angle, that’s not realistic; it needs to be talked about in the context of relationships and respect. We need to talk about what constitutes an unhealthy relationship and stop making sex sound like a serious, scary thing in the misguided belief that if we make it sound too nice they’ll all rush off and shag the first person they see. The same goes for giving out condoms. Giving a teenager a condom will not make them want to go straight out and have sex, chances are they probably already do want to go straight out and have sex anyway, deal with it. We need to reinforce the idea of safe sex, for everyone.
In the article I read it was talking about heterosexual relationships and most of the comments (always the best bit) were from parents of boys saying they always made sure their sons carried condoms. But what about girls? They should leave it up to the boy? That’s like going out in the rain and not wanting to get wet but assuming someone else will have an umbrella for you to use. And what about LGBT relationships? These seem to be tagged onto ‘traditional’ sex education like an after thought.
Then there’s the matter of consent, which is great, except lots of teenagers, hell, lots of adults, get into sexual situations that don’t require a yes or no, things just happen. One thing leads to another and before you even realise what’s happening, you’re having sex. What then? And what if you change your mind? Or aren’t actually capable of saying no, or you said yes last time but then want to say no this time.
There’s also the issue of technology. Our children are exposed to so much more, at a much younger age than we were, but that’s not all. Technology speeds interaction up, it enables them to get into something serious much quicker than they’d planned, it can escalate quickly. So many of my daughter’s friends’ parents have shut themselves off to social media, claiming to not be interested. Yet they need to be interested, to see how it works and how easy it is for young people to get into situations they’re not old enough, or experienced enough to handle. We’re putting sophisticated technology into our kids’ hands without giving them lessons in how to use it.
So don’t wait, or put it off because if you don’t talk to them, because if you don’t somebody else will, somebody nowhere near as qualified as you, their actual parents whose job it is to demonstrate a healthy, loving relationship every day of their lives, so who better? Because society is rubbish at this, society tells girls that the first time is always painful, that it’s not normal for them to want sex, and that it doesn’t matter anyway as they’re too fat and hairy or clever to have sex anyway and even if they do they don’t need to say anything because their clothes will say it all for them.
So, to sort of quote the wise words of Salt ‘n’ Pepa, let’s talk about sex. Because crisp packets are only good for one thing. (so many crisp-related jokes, so little time…)