I burst frizzy-haired into my teenage years in late ’90s Britain, in a household where sex was somewhat taboo. My wonderful parents were, and are, liberal and open about many subjects, but sex wasn’t one of them.
At my all-girls state school, things were only marginally different. Once a month, an hour of the day was devoted to PSE (personal and social education), and sometimes these sessions covered sex.
PSE was run by my class tutor (let’s call her Ms. A), a PE teacher with a formidable temper and a viciously effective backhand.
Thus it was from the often red-faced Ms. A and the ‘experts’ she sometimes brought in (namely, the school nurse and a shy woman from a period hygiene charity), my classmates and I got our first introduction to the world of sex.
From the silly to the sad, here’s everything I learnt — and everything it didn’t teach me.
Always put your hat on
When I was very young (I’m not sure how young exactly, but let’s say 6 or 7), I walked into my parents’ room to find my mother naked, holding a small round object made of rubber. Naturally, I asked what it was. She grew flustered and said it was to stop her from having a baby.
Then, she put it on her head.
I still don’t know why she did this. Perhaps it was to make me laugh or to dispel her embarrassment.
Unfortunately, though, the effect of this gesture was I assumed she was showing me how the object worked — if you put a little hat on your head, you couldn’t get pregnant.
One of the better ideas at my school was to let girls write their questions on a slip of paper and post them anonymously into a box. The school nurse would pick these questions out at random, and answer them. I’d spent years privately trying to work out how wearing a little hat could possibly stop you getting pregnant, and now was my chance. I took a deep breath and dropped my question into the box.
A week later, ‘does wearing a rubber hat stop you getting pregnant?’ was pulled from the box, and read aloud. To her credit, the school nurse correctly identified that what was being described was, in fact, a contraceptive cap. ‘Yes,’ she replied, impressively straight-faced, ‘wearing a contraceptive cap could stop you getting pregnant.’ ‘But,’ she warned, ‘it won’t prevent STDs.’
I was more confused than ever about this mysterious headgear.
Girls don’t touch themselves
It is still astounding to me that despite the fact that it’s the safest form of sex, Ms. A never once mentioned female masturbation in sex-ed class. In fact, nobody did. Boys, we were told, had “urges”, and this was normal; by their omission from the conversation, girls, I presumed, did not.
I finally found out other girls masturbated too when I was 15. It was my birthday party, and my ever-generous parents had driven fourteen girls in a mini-van to a farm in the countryside. We swam in the little lake, made a campfire, toasted marshmallows — and admitted we had touched ourselves.
It was one of the happiest moments of my teenage years. I wasn’t bad or dirty or possessed: I was reassuringly ordinary, boring even. If only I’d found out sooner.
Getting pregnant is very easy and very bad (until it’s very difficult and very good)
According to Ms. A, you not only could get pregnant in a multitude of ways, you probably would.
During one particularly memorable class, the school nurse was wheeled in to recount the ways she’d known girls “get into trouble”. This included a boy ejaculating on a girl’s stomach, whereby the offending fluid somehow snuck its way inside her vagina and forged onwards to her womb. (Sperm, I was quick to learn, were crafty like that.)
These precautionary tales could’ve been true, but the problem was they were presented as likely rather unusual scenarios. As a consequence, I spent my late teens and early twenties completely petrified about getting pregnant. At 16 I bought and took two pregnancy tests after a boy fingered me at a party, and later, I would rush to the bathroom after sex to wash anywhere sperm might have contaminated.
I never once got pregnant.
The irony of this strikes me acutely now that I’m 34. I spent my early adulthood bombarded with cautions about how easy it was to get pregnant, how it was the worst thing that could possibly happen to me. Now, people won’t stop asking me when I’m going to have a baby and telling me how difficult it’ll be if I leave it too late.
Turns out, a woman can only get pregnant during six days of her cycle, and even then it’s only very likely on the handful of days she’s actually ovulating.
So aside from the fact that contraception isn’t currently designed to be worn as a hat, masturbation is healthy and normal, and it isn’t, after all, that easy to get pregnant, what have I learnt from my sexual miseducation?
The answer is painfully simple. We need to start being really open and honest about sex, even (and perhaps especially) with the younger generation; even (and perhaps especially) when the conversations are difficult.
Knowledge is power, and pleasure, and protection — let’s start being generous with it.