By Megan McPherson
**Disclaimer: this only focuses on heterosexual sex. The author believes there is much more to be done for LGBT+ sex education.**
Picture the scene. A classroom of 20 students, a teacher and a practical demonstration. So far, so normal. Now picture 20 plastic, erect dicks on each student’s desk, a condom and a lot of giggling. As we practise putting the condoms on the penis, our teacher makes jokes and reminds us that it won’t be quite like this in real life. As he points out, quite often this will happen drunk and the penis won’t be positioned quite so conveniently on a desk in front of you. For the rest of the lesson he asks for volunteers to try to put it on while wearing ‘drunk goggles’, and then – for the ultimate real-life situation – he asks someone to lie down with the dick on their, ahem, area while a girl with drunk goggles tries to put the condom on.
When I have told this story in front of friends who did not go much further than a biology lesson with their sex education, they look aghast. ‘That would not have happened in my school’, they say shaking their heads. While it might seem shocking to some, I have never forgotten that lesson and its core messages: always use contraception; it’s really difficult to put a condom on if you don’t know what you’re doing; and it’s even harder to put a condom on when you’re blind drunk – so maybe you’re not quite up to having sex that night.
I received sex education lessons at school from the age of 9 until around the age of 16 – alongside lessons about drugs, alcohol, personal safety, puberty and bullying. As we got older the nature of the lessons changed to answer the real burning questions: when I was 9, it was what is sex? And what is a period and a wet dream, while we’re at it? By the age of 14, it was lessons coming up with as many slang words as we could possibly think of for sexual acts and genitalia so that our peers and teacher could explain what they meant to the rest of the class, in a safe space. I will be forever grateful that I found out what a rainbow kiss, raspberry ripple and bush-tucker trial were in the safety of a classroom, rather than having to ask a friend at lunch or – heaven forbid – a potential suitor.
Sex education, in my experience, was often fun, interesting and horrifying – which is quite frankly good preparation for actually having sex. Having the local youth sexual health clinic come in and make you guess the STI from a picture of a shrivelled penis is enough to make you wear a condom and get an STI check, let me tell you. But beyond the great anecdotes these classes gave me, they did instil some key life lessons which my peers at university who did not receive a similar education had to find out on their own.
I’m certainly not saying that sex education prevents us from making mistakes – we are all only human – but it does make you more prepared for a world which is both so much fun and so complex. None of my group of female friends was in any doubt about the importance of using contraception – whether it be a condom and the pill (or both, the affectionately named ‘double dutch’) – nor were we in any doubt about where and when we could get access to it (Calendonia Youth, sadly shut down, which we used to call Cally Y). Similarly, male friends used to head down to Cally Y and get their C Card (condom card) and stuff a purple paper bag with an exotic array of condoms which they would then all bring to parties in barefaced hope. When something didn’t quite go to plan we knew that it was ok to access emergency contraception and we knew where to get it.
My teacher was exceptionally good at making it clear to both boys and girls that if you didn’t want to do something you shouldn’t ever feel pressured into doing it – and that went for blowjobs as well as cocaine. However, I would have loved to have seen my sex education have a stronger emphasis on consent. I say this not because I believe the boys in my class needed to be told not to rape, but because I believe all teenagers need to have to confidence to say when they are uncomfortable and to respect their sexual partners. While of course we must teach people to respect consent, we must also empower people to know when to say ‘fuck off’ to someone who is not respecting it.
So, funnily enough, I agree, in a way, with the naysayers about consent workshops. Grown men and women at university shouldn’t have to be told not to rape. Where we part ways, is that I think they should have been taught this long before they get to university. The critics also seem to forget that as much as a consent workshop is about reminding people that no means no, it is also about empowering people – men and women – to feel that they can say no and to know when a situation is getting dangerous.
Despite my pretty extensive sex education, the lack of an explicit emphasis on consent has left me without the confidence to vocalise my discomfort, realise that no one is entitled to have sex with me unless I say so, and to know that if an arsehole does not respect consent then that is not your fault. Period. The education on consent I received at university – though informally and through my own making – was genuinely revolutionary for me. I don’t see how empowering young people to do this before their first sexual experience can be anything but a great thing.
F Come’s call for sex education which focuses on both the physical and emotional elements of sex is something we could and should apply in the UK, too. I was lucky to have received the sex education I did. I hope future generations reach adulthood equipped to deal with not just contraception but also the key issue of respect and consent which is at the heart of great sex.
(Photo source, Photo campaign #ascuoladiconsenso - #sexedcanstopabuse)