Shake it all about

At through the lattice, Deerfeet writes as follows:

It sort of feels a privileged position as home educating parents, to be able to prepare and educate our children on the changes they will face as they grow older at a time when they each seem ready for it, rather than the blanket approach they would get in school of everyone being given the same information at the same time.

This prompted me to think about state-sponsored sex education, among other things. The Embarrassing Questions Box (see Open the Box) demonstrates that it is a privileged position to be a foreign teacher in a strange land, where the students only have a week to come up with more testing follow-up questions. It’s interesting to see how the students vary: some clearly bulge with questions that have been festering for years, while others appear to have given the subject of sexual relationships very little thought. There is no state-sponsored sex education in China, because students don’t reach the age of consent until their early twenties. Presumably, then, those that do not receive a foreign education must pick up what they can via trial and error, pornography and parenting (both good and bad). Notice that I didn’t list ‘popular culture’ there, because it isn’t done to discuss such things in the public sphere (this is why most Chinese have no idea that their country has one of the worst HIV rates in the world, primarily because of the practice of buying and selling blood for transfusions). However, the one good thing about self-directed learning is that, the questionable quality of the source material notwithstanding, young people can at least start it at a time of their own choosing.

The thing that strikes me now is how the questions that turn up in the Box each year focus on relationships rather than sex. The students are curious about things such as what sort of gifts to buy and when (‘Is acceptable to buy flowers at Christmas?’); how to address the parents of one’s partner (‘Can I use first name, like Andy?’); age gaps and other relationship taboos (‘Can I date my professor? What if s/he is much older than me?’); public displays of affection (‘May I kiss boyfriend in front of street?’); whether it is appropriate to kiss and tell (‘If I allow boy to do sex on me, is it OK for him to tell his friends I let him? Because maybe they laugh’), and so on. Not once have I been asked a question about the vas deferens or how to tell if you have crabs, because the students simply aren’t worried about those things. They are worried about the minefield that is a romantic relationship, and understand instinctively (and correctly) that sex is merely a constituent part of such a relationship. My own experience of sex education in the mid-’nineties was from the Hokey Cokey school of educating young people about sex: a poorly-realised diagram of the Fallopian tubes, some dire warnings about acronyms, and a film involving Sarah Kennedy holding a pear and some cartoon people having sex (but absolutely no fun) on a sofa. There was no suggestion that sex should be put into any kind of context, or that sex would be merely one part of a wider and far more complex interaction. There was also emphatically no room for interpretation or nuance of how we might feel as individuals: the assumption was that, in our capacity as teenagers, we were all hunting the horny-backed toad (or if we weren’t, we soon would  be). Some allowance was made for the possibility that the girls might be reluctant[1] and I recall a lesson where the boys were taken off to watch a baffling video about circumcision, while we were asked to suggest forms of words that could be used to say ‘no, but thanks for asking’ in a sensitive way. It was never explained why ‘no, but thanks for asking’ wasn’t perfectly good, or why nobody seemed to be questioning the premise that the boys, naturally, would pressure us for sex, and we, naturally, would resist this; there was certainly no counterpart lesson on how to say, ‘Yes, please’. Equally naturally, the ancient idea that the ‘problem’ of boys finding girls desirable in a way that the girls might not care for[2] should be tackled by changing the behaviour of the girls, was also not challenged, or even remarked upon. Formulations that met with our form tutor’s approval (an Art teacher who had been gently marinating in his own despair for several decades) included ‘I don’t feel well this evening’, ‘I might throw up’[3] and ‘I think I might be getting my period’.[4]

To my mind, these and all the other ‘I have a headache’ answers are cop-outs, just as persuading a strange man who hits on you inappropriately to back off by telling him that you have a boyfriend is a cop-out. You may well have a boyfriend, but that’s not the reason he should back off: he should back off because that’s what you’ve asked him to do. ‘I have a boyfriend’ implies that a. whether you want him to back off or not doesn’t matter: the drunken stranger should back away from you because you are the property of another man; and b. were it not for the existence of your real and actual boyfriend, being told you had lovely tits by a drunken stranger would be a delightful experience, which would no doubt lead to casual sex in a benighted gents toilet and/or adjacent alleyway. It’s far more honest to simply demand that he respects your wishes, and state the truth, which is that you’re not interested. Why not extend the same honesty to a teenage boyfriend or girlfriend asking for sex that you aren’t ready for (and, indeed, to all conversations, about sex or otherwise)? If s/he has the courage to ask for sex, s/he also has the courage to take ‘no, but thanks for asking’ on the chin.[5]

The primary concern throughout my own (mercifully brief) sex education seemed to be safe sex, rather than fulfilling, loving or age-appropriate sex. It was heavily implied that at some point we would move on from ‘no, but thanks for asking’ (or indeed ‘I can’t. I’m having my spleen removed at lunchtime, and the stitches might burst’. If you’re going to invent excuses, you might as well enjoy yourself) to ‘oh alright then’, but we were given absolutely no help in determining when this transition would or should take place; how we could be sure that we were really ready for the emotional and physical highs and lows of something we had never experienced; or whether feeling ready to have sex with someone was the same thing as it being a good idea. Worse than all of that, we were not given any reassurance that this point would come at a different stage for each of us, and that this was just fine. There was certainly no room for the idea that the boys might feel reluctant, scared or unprepared, for example, or that sex with the wrong person or at the wrong time, however ‘safe’, could still be incredibly damaging emotionally.

Eleven girls in my year group were pregnant by the end of our GCSEs (eleven! And it wasn’t a large school!) and therefore I think we can agree that the objects of putting us off sex altogether or propelling us into condoms[6] were not attained. This model of sex education is a failure. I suggest that it is a failure precisely because it makes no allowance for individual difference, and because sex is removed from the context of a loving relationship as neatly as a juicy, slippery mussel is plucked out of its shell. A better model might be not to educate students about sex specifically at all, but to focus on relationships instead. If the subject of sex arises naturally in the lessons (as, for example, the subject of racism could be expected to arise naturally and inevitably in a lesson on To Kill A Mockingbird), then of course that’s fine and it ought to be addressed, in its proper context. I think this model is better for both teachers and parents, too: adults may not be comfortable with the idea of a fifteen-year-old having sex, safely or not, but we can all agree that it’s reasonable for him or her to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, and for the relationship (however primitive) to be respected. I am sure parents whose children have no boyfriends or girlfriends during their teenage years worry just as much as those that have one, or two, or six, or twenty. We can all also agree, I hope, that such early relationships are an important rite of passage. Therefore, it makes sense to educate young people about relationships (which their parents and teachers probably want them to have), rather than sex alone (which their parents and teachers probably don’t want them to have), and then, once they have reached the age of consent, to leave them alone to get on with it in whatever way they think best. This would also, I think, encourage young people to keep sex in perspective, and to take responsibility for their own decisions. If they think sex isn’t appropriate in the context of their relationship, good for them. If they do, and they’re old enough to consent, good for them too.

I think a relationship-centred approach would also make it much easier to negotiate the ‘no, but thanks for asking’ example, because the teenagers in question would have had an opportunity to discuss how such a conversation might fit into the trajectory of the relationship as a whole. I also think that feeling secure in the knowledge that people feel ready for sex at different stages, and that this is normal, is a very freeing piece of information: ‘no, but thanks for asking’ is, after all, not the same as ‘I hate you.[7] Please change your name and move to another county so that we never have to see each other again.’ ‘No, but thanks for asking’ is not personal to the person hearing it, but to the person saying it. It might also be argued that how a boyfriend or girlfriend responds to such a piece of news says a lot about them, all of it interesting and useful in determining whether they continue to be one’s boyfriend or girlfriend. Another issue is how to divide sex education between parents and teachers, and again it seems to me that a relationship-centred approach from state-sponsored education would help here. Surely a teenager who had had a lesson about relationship skills (how to apologise after an argument, say) would find it much easier to ask his parents intelligent questions prompted by that lesson than he would after, say, a lesson in which he learned eighteen slang words for syphilis and put a condom onto a boiling tube?

The goal of state-sponsored sex education should not be to scare teenagers into safe sexual behaviour, but to encourage them to develop thoughtful relationships with other people (whether they involve sex or not). This seems to me to lay a foundation for trusting other people and exploring the issues sensitively (with friends and parents as well as one’s partner or potential partner). Alain de Botton says that ‘None of us approaches sex as we are meant to … [w]e are universally deviant’, because we feel unable to make ourselves vulnerable. He goes on to say that sex ‘refuses to sit neatly on top of love, as it should’, and I agree. Whether it refuses or not, I think those of us lucky enough to have the shaping of young people as one of our tasks could do worse than to continually place sex back in its proper place. We think nothing of putting young people in their proper places over and over.[8] As per my earlier thoughts on writing, sex should be no different (see Did he bang her back doors in?).


[1] At least, I think this is what was being implied. It may have been that we were being encouraged to put up some kind of show of reluctance, before giving in to our essentially slutty nature. Or something. Sometimes it’s hard to know which particular set of ludicrous stereotypes are being applied.

[2] Is that it? I’m not even sure I understand the problem, or why it’s necessarily a bad thing.

[3] Not an accurate read-across of ‘no, but thanks for asking’. I would gloss this as ‘you disgust me.’

[4] Nobody pointed out that this was likely to be interpreted as ‘No, but ask me again in five days.’

[5] Having said that, experience teaches me that very often the *only* variation on ‘no, but thanks for asking’ that actually works is ‘I have a boyfriend, and he’s twice your size’. What the fuck, men? Do better.

[6] Condoms! Squeaky slimy flaccid horrible condoms! I knew a girl at school who ‘double-bagged’ her partners, like supermarket packing people do with fabric conditioner if they want to put it in the same bag as (say) a hand of bananas.

[7] One of the marriage guidance books Garden Naturalist and I read while in counselling suggested that the following phrases should not be used during sex: ‘What are you doing?’; ‘Why are you doing that?’; ‘I don’t like that’; ‘I’ve never liked that’; and ‘I hate you’.

[8] I found myself telling my students to ‘sit down’ this year, and then immediately telling them to ‘sit up’ (Chinese students slouch so). They were, understandably, confused.

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