The Birds and the Bees: Let’s talk about sex education.
Trigger warning: Graphic discussion of sex and sexuality.
The Heinemann Encyclopedia gave me my first insight into the mystery of ‘sex.’ I was a precocious eight year old, and read everything I could possibly get my hands on. My parents had got me an illustrated encyclopedia for my birthday, with hundreds of pages of glossy images and print. I’d browse through it at random, I’d become an expert on eclectic topics like lemurs, Brazil and volcanoes. One late afternoon, whilst drinking a cup of lukewarm Milo on the carpet, sun streaming in through the windows, I opened the encyclopedia onto a page entitled Reproduction. I was fascinated by the full page illustrations of a naked man and woman, with the little caption reading ‘The mature male and female.’ There were diagrams of the gonads– a foreign sounding word. Testes, sperm, ovum, vagina, uterus– they sounded like another language.
The more I read, the more I unravelled the mystery of why adults liked to get naked and roll around in bed. I’d always found it baffling. I’d heard the word ‘sex’ before, but I could never make the connection.
I’d visited a cousin in the Netherlands that summer, he was a couple of years older, and he talked about ‘sex’ all the time. He’d mentioned that it resulted in babies, a chain of events I never quite understood. That is, until the Heinemann encyclopedia gave me some clarity on this mysterious phenomenon.
By the time my parents gave me ‘The Talk’ I’d already figured out the basic mechanics. I’d read all the Cosmos I’d found in the recycling, already read books with sex scenes, and stumbled across salacious ads on late night TV. I felt too awkward to tell them that I already knew what they were painstakingly trying to explain with their ill conceived bird and bee euphemisms, so I just played along, nodding at the correct intervals, and looking suitably shocked.
Over the years of my adolescence and school sex education, my knowledge of the specifics of sex grew, and at university I discovered feminism and feminist theory, which has shaped my attitudes to sex.
I recently had a conversation with a group of friends about their sex education. One of them had been subjected to abstinence only education, which emphasized how having sex will ‘ruin your life’ and made bizarre correlations between sex and drug use.
I had sex, which subsequently led to my heroin abuse.
For another, although he didn’t have a specific sex ed. class in high school, a religion teacher decided to give an impromptu lesson on sex to a class of Year 9 boys.
So boys, don’t use a condom, because women love the feeling of hot semen inside them.
That’s right. A teacher being irresponsible enough to discourage contraception and making a mind boggling blanket statement about women’s sexual preferences. Specifying the temperature of the semen was a nice touch.
Although school sex education isn’t the definitive source of information on sex, especially with the internet, and your attitude to sex is also shaped by peer interactions and family views, it’s still extremely problematic that these kinds of messages are being transmitted.
In Mississippi, a state with one of the highest birth rates in the US, abstinence and abstinence plus education prevails. I recently read a report which included an anecdote of a classroom in Oxford, where students were asked to unwrap a Peppermint Pattie and pass it around. As the chocolate passed between hands, it became dirty and melted. This was then compared to the ‘soiled’ women who have sex- the more sexual partners, the ‘dirtier’ the woman is. It’s a warped message fetishizing ‘purity’ and perpetuating the idea that a woman’s value depreciates the more sex she has. It’s a dangerous and insidious message to be teaching in schools.
On a personal level, the sex education I received at a public school in Melbourne had no such agendas. It simply explained the nature of sex, made us comfortable with talking about penises, vaginas and pubic hair, and explained contraception and the risk of pregnancy and STIs. It cleared up a lot of schoolyard myths about sex, and provided a safe forum for discussion. There was also the chance to ask questions anonymously, which was fantastic because it created a judgement-free environment and encouraged people who were too nervous/embarrassed to talk about sex (like myself at the time) to participate.
However, it was by no means perfect. There was a conspicuous lack of emphasis on female sexuality, and the taboo of female masturbation still prevailed. Absolutely no discussion of female lubrication or the necessity of foreplay. There was also a lack of exploration of the emotional aspect of sex, and the importance of consent.
However, I realized the value of this sex education program when I compared it to the schools I attended in Dubai, which had absolutely no sex education whatsoever. This isn’t the fault of the educational institutions themselves, it’s a consequence of a cultural difference in attitudes to sex. There was no way a school could legally run a sex education program.
Sex was still something that was discussed frequently within my peer groups in Dubai, with an entire spectrum of differing opinions about the nature of sex and consent. However, due to a prevailing culture of silence about sex, these conversations were intensely private, closed off and hushed up, with the information and mythologies surrounding sex and contraception often becoming very distorted.
For those that were sexually active, there was often uncertainty about contraception and extreme fear of pregnancy. Don’t get me wrong, fear of pregnancy is prevalent in Melbourne too, but the easier access to contraception and the lack of shame surrounding it definitely makes it easier.
I remember talking to a sexually active female friend who used the morning after pill as her primary form of birth control. Her boyfriend had a stash of them he’d swiped from his mother’s medicine cabinet and he said it was safe to use. This was not a good idea at all, it’s designed for emergency use only, but her boyfriend refused to use a condom, and there was no means for her to access the birth control pill. She had horror stories, once when her period was late and she believed she was pregnant, she refused to eat and drank litres of black coffee, because she’d heard through a friend of a friend that the acidity will kill the foetus.
Another aspect on sex was offered to me by a male friend I met up with in the months leading up to leaving for university. We discussed our lives over cups of frozen yoghurt. He had been sexually active for a few months, and talked about his ‘sexual awakening.’
I’ve been looking up scientific diagrams about how to please women, and I have to say, I’ve become an expert. I know where everything is, and I know that I’m memorable. I don’t even need a condom because I’ve gotten really good at the withdrawal method, I know exactly I’m about to have an orgasm.
NO, THAT IS NOT OKAY AT ALL. NOT SAFE IN THE SLIGHTEST. IT TAKES ONE SPERM, ONE TINY WRIGGLING STRAY SPERM TO CAUSE PREGNANCY. PLEASE LOOK THAT UP IN ADDITION TO YOUR SCIENTIFIC DIAGRAMS.
I’m glad I had sex with my long term girlfriend first, because no matter who she sleeps with, I was the first. I’m so happy my sex life has worked out like this, so many guys I know are so desperate, they go to university and get with some drunk girl at a party and that’s their first time. Don’t get me wrong, sleeping with drunk girls is great, but losing your virginity is special. I’m glad I’m not a girl though, otherwise I’d have to be so much more selective, I mean, you’ve got so much more to lose. If everyone knows you sleep around, people will take advantage of that.
This encounter irked me for weeks. It was old school patriarchial norms- the ‘first time’ being definitive, women having ‘more to lose’, he was behaving as though he’d used his penis to brand his initials into his ex-girlfriends vagina. I’m not suggesting sex education was going to fix any of his attitudes, but I do think that the emphasis on purity and the virgin whore dichotomy is a result of a culture of sexual suppression and an inability to talk about the fact that sexually active women aren’t ‘used goods’.
Sex can be confusing and terrifying when you’re still in the initial stages of understand the physical and emotional aspect of it. Trying to reconcile these mixed messages about what is ‘normal’ and how to be safe is difficult when a discussion of sex is taboo.
Formal sex education isn’t the only means to start a discussion. It’s one solution, and it’s important for it to offer information free from a pro-abstinence agenda, encompassing issues of consent, rape culture and ‘virginity’. It should help people make informed choices about sex- because that’s what sex is- it’s a choice, and one that you should make equipped with the knowledge of how to protect yourself from unwanted pregnancy, STIs and ensure that the sex is consensual.