When I was about ten and on holiday with my family, my mother took me aside for the Dreaded Talk. She announced that she was going to tell me “how babies are made”. I was mildly surprised; I’d always assumed you prayed for one and along it came (Christian upbringing klaxon). I guess I just wasn’t very curious about how they came out either, because although I knew from experience, as my mother spent most of my childhood being pregnant with any one of my six siblings, that they grew in your tummy, I don’t remember wondering how they got out. I’m not sure what I assumed – presumably that they arrived on this side of the womb by a process of osmosis, albeit one which left my mother looking increasingly exhausted with each new dark-haired male baby that appeared in our house.
I was brought up in a strange community not unlike a less strict, more modern version of the Amish until I was 13, in which about 40 families and their ever-increasing offspring attended a school and church with clockwork regularity. One day when I was about seven, a boy at school showed me his willy. He told me that we were doing something called “sixy” that grown ups did, and that sometimes they licked each others tongues. I was like, “oh alright then”, and went back to playing pirates.
Fast forward three years to my mum, probably burning with embarrassment, telling me about periods (I was utterly horrified , natch), and how it would mean I could have babies. I was appalled. “But I don’t want to have babies!”
“You will one day” sighed my long suffering mother, presumably pining for the long lost days of her vagina. (I still don’t).
Anyway, she went on to tell me a bit about sixy, and what mummies and daddies do on the night after they get married. Somehow I came away with the horrified impression that you just did it once, and once only, like an unpleasant midnight ritual never to be spoken of or admitted to again, despite her claims, presumably because of my traumatised expression, that it was “actually really nice”. From then on, I assumed, you would pray for a baby when you wanted one, and subsequently find yourself with child. In the only biblical example I could think of, basically this happened. No wonder I was never overly impressed by the Immaculate Conception.
Despite the mechanics of baby-making passing me by like a ship in the night, I was newly fascinated by anatomy, and started regularly hunting for the ‘other hole’ that my mum had said would appear eventually. I assumed that everyone else would be interested in all these new discoveries too, so I set about telling my brothers that they had testes and was told off by my parents for being rude. One day my mother was buying lady products and I demanded loudly in Boots “Have you got your period?” Far from being impressed by my knowledge of her menstrual cycle, she hissed
“Shh! People don’t talk about that!”
A couple of years later, an older friend from school let something slip about hearing her parents having sex. “What, they still do it?” I shrieked, my ‘once-in-a-lifetime pagan ritual’ views quickly subsiding.
“Oh yeah. Your parents did it every time they got one of you. So, at least seven times. They probably do it all the time. But no-one talks about it.”
Oh good god. Armed with this new information, I decided to keep my discoveries to myself. Sex was obviously terrifying and to be avoided at all costs. Naturally I then discovered the joys of wanking and decided with relief that I’d probably not need to do any sixy ever because I didn’t want to get married or have babies and GOD this was fun.
Sex education at school followed, when we got our textbooks at the beginning of year 8 we all naturally scrambled through to the well-thumbed pages where “Human Reproduction” had pictures of what looked like cross sections of complicated ham sandwiches with legs. I never associated that intense burning sensation I felt when I thought masturbated furiously eighteen times a night with these lessons. Our science teacher muttered us pink-cheeked through the mechanics of “the penis entering the vagina” and repeatedly urged us to use condoms. I’m pretty sure I was sick in my mouth.
Fast forward again to my first sexual encounter at fifteen, when I was far too terrified to you know, do anything, but a boy stayed over and I let him kiss me and touch me a bit. He was nowhere near as good at it as me, so I resolved not to do that again. Obviously my parents saw him leave out of the upstairs window the following morning, so they called me in for another Talk. I assured them, quite truthfully, that I was horrified by the idea of sex and never wanted to have it. Somehow this conversation ended once again in “but it’s really nice!”, and my mother worrying herself into a frenzied panic that I might be gay or asexual, or an asexual gay.
Eventually I got around to kissing lots of boys because everyone was doing it and I felt like I might be missing out (I wasn’t) and fooling around with them at parties. I would never go very far, because inside I was still really quite terrified. No-one had ever talked to me about the emotional or situational side of sex – purely the mechanics, and only that pretty briefly. This lack of knowledge probably alighted intense curiosity in others, but I was quite happy to stick with sex for one and remain in abject fear of anything entering me.
One night when I was 17 an older boy took me back to his house after a party, with the promise that I could sleep in his spare room. He took me into his room, promptly lay on top of me and I, too scared to stop him, lay there silently staring at the ceiling while he unceremoniously deflowered me. It took me until years afterwards to even realise it was rape because I didn’t know that wasn’t how sex went. That it was consensual and fun and not just at the whim of a frustrated selfish teenage boy.
Most of what I learned about real sex came later, in my twenties, with lots of practice. As a teenager I knew about the basic mechanics, and I knew about how not to get an STI. But no-one told me about the important stuff – the emotions, the situations, what good, consensual sex is, how to say no, how to say yes. When the situation might arise (so to speak) that wasn’t on my wedding night.
So I went back to masturbating with almost alarming regularity and engaging in occasional fumbles with boys (and on occasions, girls) at houseparties, and eventually I met guys who were pretty keen to ascertain if I actually wanted to have sex with them too. With time, maturity and experience came understanding, as it inevitably does. And with these came really, really good sex. I sometimes wish I could go back to me at seven, or ten, 15, 17 and explain some of what I know now, that only a part of sex is anatomical and it is in fact “actually really nice”, but that I don’t have to do it until I really want to. And how it’s hot, dirty, glorious, fun, damp, awkward, funny, beautiful and surprisingly easy to do, but quite tricky to get really good at.
Sex ed shouldn’t just happen in biology with a banana and an embarrassed Mrs Collins telling you not to get the Clap while you all try not to think about Mr Collins from the Geography department humping her. We should be striving to help teenagers make genuinely educated, mature, responsible decisions about how to have sex, not just safely but consensually and enjoyably. And that it is sticky and emotional and involves flaps, and you can choose to do it if you want, or not if you don’t. We’re so terrified that teenagers will go and have lots of it that we tell them as little as possible about it. Sex deserves more than the embarrassed, scant education teenagers get. It deserves real, honest discussion, and broad education, and we need to talk about consent and flaps and jizz and rape and orgasms and respect and fun, and how its a big deal and also really, really isn’t.