Encased from the age of eight in a girls’ school, my formative years of sexual education were somewhat warped. Quite apart from lunchtime debates on whether it was technically possible to get pregnant from giving a boy head (answer: yes, but only if you swallow), our PSHE lessons were enough to get anyone wishing for a late blooming lesbian identity.
In one particularly memorable session, we had a full day of ‘Sexual Awareness’ activities. We began with my fifty-year-old, 16-stone form teacher giving us a ‘realistic’ vision of our forthcoming deflowerings (“Girls. He will keep his socks on. And you will queef.”), progressed on to a terrifying ‘abstinence’ talk from the local bible study group, and ended on a high note, passing round full-colour, laminated, A3 pictures of genital warts.
Sex ed seemed to have its priorities wrong. In an all-girls school, you might imagine that the corridors and classrooms were places of delicate, tinkling laughter, the scent of roses and chocolate, innocent and fragile. Not true: the sexual reproduction part of science lessons ensured that we had labelled line drawings of the womb, ‘birth canal’ and ovaries (never the clitoris), but mostly we really needed a sex and puberty education lesson stressing the importance of a daily wash with hot water and soap and the timely application of antiperspirant. Without the influence of boys to tell us that we did, we stank. Copious amounts of Impulse ‘Goddess’ body spray, as many girls were of the ‘don’t prevent it, cover it’ school, did little to help the problem.
Being a girls’ school, at fourteen, we were divided into two camps. Those who had yet to abandon the sensible, middle-class pleasures of horse-riding, piano grades and cross-stitch, and those who enjoyed fellating strangers in public toilets. Although some topics were covered with humour and sensitivity, any type of sex other than the rigidly heterosexual was ignored, biological practicalities such as cystitis and hymens were overlooked, and no-one gave any hint as to how to get semen stains out of silk, which remains an everyday problem for me even now.
As a member of the pony club-cross stitch brigade, a leaflet on the later stages of gonorrhoea did nothing to answer the questions I really burned to ask, vis à vis: what does a penis actually look like? Will my breasts ever get to the stage where a bra is practically necessary? Where exactly is this ‘cherry’ located?
To answer these questions, I turned to the diagrams of adolescent development in my Key Stage Three biology textbook, which, of course, provided hours of diversion. There’s something inherently hilarious about all genitalia. We all know this; even the lecture notes of finalists have the occasional scribbled dick in the margins. Penises look, undeniably, like they are hanging out the side of a shark’s mouth. Similarly, vaginas resemble the mouthpiece of a mollusc. However well-groomed, outside of a passionate clinch, your nether regions will never throw off their overtones of the absurd.
Perhaps it’s the fact that the perpetuation of the human race in all its glory and majesty, comes down something which, although it may seem passionate and wonderful at the time, is really one person flopping around on another as they both pull strange faces. Don’t get me wrong, I love sex; it’s just like cuddling, only damper.
Seeing the funny, human side of sex is vital, because, particularly when you’re a teenager, sex can seem like the be all and end all. Sex ed needs to start with the basics – the first time I saw a penis in the flesh, I nearly jumped out of my skin with fright, despite having a near-exhaustive knowledge of contraception. Rather than stressing the more medicalised and terrifying aspects of ‘intercourse’, teenagers need a proper grounding in the practicalities.
Whether you lost your virginity behind the school bins, or are holding out for your wedding night, sex is an inevitability for practically everyone, and one which should be anticipated with excitement, not an all-consuming fear of STDs, or, as in my case, the assumption that putting a condom on a banana will be anything like the real deal.