School’s out

“You have ten minutes to label the male sex organs,” I remember my Biology teacher telling our class of giddy 13 and 14-year-old girls.

I also recall that we were tested the previous lesson on our knowledge of female sex organs and that I scored eight out of ten for my lady bits diagram and nine out of ten on the meat-and-two-veg version. I am not sure whether that showed an early interest in penises and testicles or that I found the words on the male diagram easier to remember.

Those biology lessons and a talk by a lady from a well-known tampon company, who explained periods (plus a bit on how her product was better at absorbing blood than rival brands), was the total sum of any sex education I had in school in the late 1980s. I learnt some stuff from my more experienced peers – the two girls in my class who lost their virginity at around 13 and held court at lunchtimes with their tales of bonking and groping misadventure. I am sure they would not have been so frank in a mixed school.

The rest of my knowledge came through sneaking a peek at my mum’s copy of ‘The Joy of Sex’ – which made me cringe a little, especially the bearded 1970s man and the very intimate images; my little brother’s porn mag stash which he hid in his bottom drawer and on- the-job training. Seeing ‘love-making’ scenes in pre-watershed TV programmes and films was no help – as a romantic dreamer in my early teens it made me think the whole thing involved rolling around in silk sheets kissing and cooing over each other. I would gaze at the posters in my bedroom and imagine myself doing that with the keyboard player from A-ha or John Taylor from Duran Duran.

But as a parent myself, I do worry that things haven’t changed enough. A recent Ofsted study has found that over a third of English schools fail to teach age-appropriate sex and relationships lessons. The problem is apparently a lack of teachers properly trained in this field. As a mother of an eight-year-old girl, I can testify that children of this age are a lot more savvy and sexually aware than 30 years ago. They don’t know about sex, but they know it exists – I had no clue at eight and never even asked those kinds of questions as I lived in blissful ignorance with my Sindy dolls, climbing trees and riding my bike. My daughter on the other hand regularly says “Oo la la”, wiggles her hips and declares she is pretending to be sexy.

Funny, maybe, but also worrying. Children cannot be wrapped in cotton wool and shielded from the real world unless you are bringing them up in a religious commune. Yes, we want to protect them from harm and exploitation, but the world has changed in 30 years so protecting them now also means informing them.

Another factor is that according to research, an increasing number of girls start their periods at primary school i.e. before the age of 11 – another overwhelming reason why sex education has to improve. And I am not levelling all this at girls – boys need to learn how to be responsible, respectful and safe too, as well as protecting themselves from exploitation.

Oh and I forgot to mention the life drawing session we had for our A-level Art group – when we had to sketch a woman in her 50s. After much blushing on our part (while the woman was serene and confident) the only thing we learnt was that pubes turn grey. And it’s easier to sketch the human naked form in charcoal and pastels than with a pencil…