So, my mother is a sex education teacher. This is so well-known and celebrated amongst my community that my best friend Rachael has introduced me to gentlemen at dinner parties with the line, “This is Gemma. Her Mum used to put condoms on plastic willies at our school.”
Mum taught most of the boys at my high school about sexual health: specifically, about gonorrhoea and syphilis using some rather well illustrated slides, which is almost definitely why I’ve never slept with any of them.
And all of this made adolescence a particularly fun time for me. As an example, one evening, on returning from a sexual health conference, she declared to my family, who were innocently assembled in the living room eating chips, that she now knew what a dental dam was (‘It’s a bit like a crisp packet for oral sex’). My father proceeded to spit reconstituted potato over the couch, while my brother contemplated Jedi mind-erasing techniques.
But all of this was nothing in comparison to Johnny Condom.
Johnny Condom was a Spitting Image era puppet/finger-of-a-rubber-gardening-glove, who taught kids about safe sex through the medium of a super catchy tune. Just to get you in the mood, my favourite stanza would have to be: “I’m only made of rubber, so don’t be so surprised, when I say that I could save your life, please try me on for size.” Yeah, really. In fact, old school friend of mine became so obsessed with the Johnny Condom song that my mother sent her a copy on video for her birthday. She then proceeded to show it to the guests at a flat party of mine. I think it’s safe to say that no one had sex that night, least of all me who ended up leaning out of my flatmate’s window at 3am, clutching a bottle of Bulgarian wine and shouting, “Screw you, Johnny Condom!” at the top of my voice to the street below.
Residents of Marchmont, I’m sorry.
But the point is that we did HAVE comprehensive sex education at school, even if that did involve putting prophylactics on terrifying grey plastic penises in a sweaty geography classroom, opposite a boy I really fancied (I can still remember this particular check shirted heartthrob and the peculiar colour of purple his face turned during the demonstration.) The point of these exercises was to demystify sex, to make it seem slightly more normal, to place it in the context of the everyday and even the humorous. ‘Hey kids, guess what – you’re probably going to have sex one day! Make sure it’s safe! Oh and genitals aren’t usually grey... Promise.’ In what was a rural, uber-conservative region of northern Scotland, this stuff was important. Because, in the countryside everyone knows your business, the GP knows your Mum, the chemist knows your uncle and the district nurse probably is your cousin. On top of this, the local ‘Crisis Pregnancy Centre’ used to come to our R.E. class to give speeches about how terrible abortion was. So we needed to get this advice from someone. Someone better informed than the self-appointed foetus protector and resident R.E. teacher Mr Denisovich.
My mother was sent threatening and abusive letters from various members of religious communities for teaching sexual health. We found out that yes, in this the second millennium of human life, you can still be called a ‘witch’ for trying to prevent kids from contracting chlamydia.
Meanwhile, our education was by no means perfect. But on my epic quest to discover other people who were shown the Johnny Condom video at school, I’ve come up against some terribly blank faces. Many people I’ve met only encountered any kind of sex education while sitting in the back of a science class. Feelings and choices were not discussed; intimidating grey penises were left in drawers.
And even though the rates of teenage pregnancy are falling (which is to be commended), Britain still has the highest rate of teen pregnancies in Western Europe. We also have one of the lowest median ages for loss of virginity in Europe and our rates of STI transmission remains high. Doesn’t it make sense for us to speak about sex a little more and at an earlier age?
Scotland is trying to do this. The curriculum north of the border states that young people should be able to say, upon leaving school:
“I know how to access services, information and support if my
sexual health and wellbeing is at risk. I am aware of my rights
in relation to sexual health including my right to confidentiality,
and my responsibilities, including those under the law.”
And because of the way the curriculum works, all secondary teachers are, in theory, responsible for teaching this to their pupils. This is alongside a whole raft of outcomes which explore positive relationships and body image.
What I find astounding when I listen to Michael Gove’s current edicts about testing and standards is how little room there is for dialogue in his model of education. This is particularly pertinent to health education where talk is essential. And, let’s face it, being able to put on a condom (both male and female varieties) with one hand in the back of a tractor is probably more of a life skill than trigonometry will ever be. It certainly could prevent a more life-changing outcome.
It should go without saying that we should teach young people that pretty much whatever they want to do with their bodies is fine, so long as the other person wants it and it’s safe. And we should teach both young men and women the importance of consent, about what ‘no’ means, about the emotional impacts of sexuality, and about rape and sexual assault. I feel that this is somehow more important, more vital than memorising the Plantagenet line of succession or writing down dates of famous sea battles. So why is the coalition government pushing through demands to reel off regal history from memory, at the same time as refusing to commit to making sex education in all schools compulsory?
Mr Gove, I think we need to bring back Johnny Condom. For both he and his ‘good friend Femidom’ are surely the superheroes of the education world.
I’ll even teach you the song.