I’m a 14 year old girl in an RE classroom in the roughest high school in the area. Apparently we have the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe; but I’ve heard that about most areas. I’m with the top set group as usual, so it’s assumed that we’ll be the ones going to college and university in the future, not contributing to the teenage pregnancy statistics (not that you can’t do both). Two of the girls in the room will have had babies before we leave in a little over a year’s time.
It’s not our usual timid middle aged RE teacher — I imagine she foresaw the dick jokes and managed to push the class on to the Muslim RE teacher who we all kind of held some respect for. And, as far as sex education goes, it was good.
We’re all 14 and 15, so this is not our first foray into the topic of sex education. Long gone are the days of talking to us about periods, dropped voices and body hair. One girl in the room had a baby last year and takes any opportunity she can to show us the contraceptive implant she now has in her arm – “Come here and feel this!”
Our science class covered zygotes and conception and how animal species find it much easier to conceive than humans earlier in the year; followed immediately by “BUT USE PROTECTION!” I’ve already picked out three lads who I most expect to make a joke implying how much sex they’re having on a regular basis to see how the class will react (I got 2/3 correct, by the way). The teacher looks as nervous as you would expect, but we feel like veterans – this group has been discussing this topic once a year for three years already.
Bring it on.
Hormonal methods – this is most relevant for the girls; but our teacher reminds us that the boys may one day have wives like his, and they should pay as much attention to this kind of stuff as he does. The NHS leaflet is dished out – same one I’ve come across as an adult while researching for “Contraception and Me” – some things never change. This thing works in this way, has these side effects and this suspiciously accurate percentage rate of effectiveness.
“Sir, why isn’t there a pill for men?” – 10 years on and we’re still asking the same question.
We’re (falsely) told that the morning after pill can trigger an abortion. It was typically heteronormative and cissexist. The progesterone only pill is mentioned in the same breath as the combined with very little detail about the difference. It would be another three years of period pain that made me pass out and heavy bleeding leaving me anaemic before I found out it can stop your periods entirely. I said it was good sex ed, I never said it was perfect.
It comes time for the inevitable – the box on the desk that contains a blue plastic dildo and several condoms. I always wondered where these condoms came from. Is there a teaching equipment order form somewhere with the option for re-ordering the condoms for the sex ed demonstration? And is someone auditing that?
It’s representation of erect penis in an unrealistic colour in one hand, and a foil packet in the other. “Make sure you check for what?” he asks the class, to see if anyone paid attention last year. A few hands go up, and he points to someone near the front, forgetting what is in his hand as he does. There’s silence and blank faces as his eyes go to the blue plastic and back to the class, before he slams it down on the desk and points with a finger, to a rush of laughter. Take that as a warning if you’re a sex educator who talks with their hands.
Any tension in the room has disappeared; we rattle off expiry date, kitemark, CE certification; we’re reminded not to use our teeth to open the pack, watch out for nails and squeeze the air from the top. The rolling down is demonstrated and nobody feels particularly inclined to also have a go, so that can be removed and put away.
The effectiveness of condoms now: well, the leaflet says a certain percentage, but that’s when used in accordance with the instructions – which means removal and disposal immediately following ejaculation. “Let me tell you, ladies, he will be in no hurry to do that!” The class clown boys nod in their fake ‘knowing’ way, a few of the girls smile down at their feet. You wouldn’t have got that from the timid middle aged woman.
The amount of respect in the room is the highest it has ever been, probably ever will be — going from teacher to students and students to teacher. We’ve been treated like tiny children in every sex ed lesson up until this point, and then one teacher who wasn’t expecting to be leading this session finally just tells us it like it is.
Use condoms for vaginal, anal and oral sex to prevent disease. Read the instructions and follow them to the letter. Talk to your partner, don’t do anything you’re not comfortable with, don’t pressure anyone to do anything they’re not comfortable with. Don’t worry that you’re the only one not having sex, you are not. All things we’d been told before but it just seemed like the class were listening that bit more this time.
When he gave out pieces of paper for us to anonymously write down any questions we had, I found that I didn’t have any. Not out of embarrassment, but because I actually felt like I’d learned something. I felt for the first time as if someone had actually given a sh*t about our future health, rather than just fulfilling some curriculum requirement. A few general questions were asked, both of the lads from earlier had their “questions” with their implications promptly ignored and the lesson ended.
Of course, not all of this sunk in. It was ignored. As I said, one girl in the room had already had a baby and a second had one less than 12 months later. Rumours went around of no fewer than six girls in my year having had abortions, but I don’t put much stock in rumours.
Despite these things, I’ve always felt that my experience of sex education was a good one. Cissexist, heteronormative, lacking in a couple of areas, and factually inaccurate in others; but never with anything that allowed me to join the conversation of ridiculous things that you were told. The teacher didn’t assume that nobody in the room had any sexual experience, as I expect a lot of teachers like to pretend to themselves even in the face of evidence. We were teenagers, yes, but we were on the cusp of adulthood (16 is the age of consent in the UK) and we needed this information.
As it should be, nothing was presented as anything to be ashamed of.
With the exception of accidentally pointing at a student with a blue plastic dildo.