When I was 10, we were sent home from school with a brown envelope containing a pink permission form. “I, the parent/guardian of [insert child’s name here], give permission for my child to attend sex education classes”. That was the start of it. Boys and girls were split into different classrooms. We watched some terrible videos from the early 1980s about the human body, the mechanics of birth, and one where there were lots of people in a swimming pool, for some reason. Boys and girls stood resolutely on different sides of the playground at lunchtime, staring each other down. Eventually, the embarrassed stalemate was broken over the hilarious news that Liam had fainted during the birth video, we ended up playing Cops and Robbers and forgetting all about sex education.
When I was 13, we had a sex education lesson from a male biology teacher. This in itself shouldn’t be a problem, but when faced with 28 giggling teenage girls, he was mortified and could barely get the words out. I don’t remember anything we learnt in the lesson, and that was our only lesson. My mum bought me a book instead.
When I was 16, the coolest thing you could have at my school wasn’t Topshop jeans or a fake Louis Vuitton bag. It was an older boyfriend. Girls paraded news of their newly acquired other halves around like mythical beings - these older men, mysterious and exciting to fifteen year olds, were often spoken of, but rarely sighted. “He’s working”. “He’s at uni”. “He’s doing his A-Levels this year”.
How grown up, we thought, how interesting and exciting. Older men, like colour-matched foundation and pension schemes, were a mystery to us at sixteen. The boys we knew were childish, more interested in Football Manager and drinking bad cider under skate ramps in the rain. We wanted something more, or at least we thought we did. And so we plied our cool friends with questions about these boyfriends constantly. What did they look like? What did they do? And after a couple of weeks, inevitably:
“Are you having sex?”
When you’re a teenager, sex is a baffling, exciting, scary concept. It is glimpses of “perfect” sex in films, fractured by confusing Year 8 biology lessons led by embarrassed teachers in navy cardigans.
This confusion is only increased by the three girls in your class who everyone knows have “done it”.
After someone’s birthday party, or at the fair behind the waltzers, or in so-and- so’s house when his parents were away in Lancaster for the weekend. These girls, whether their stories were true or not, were treated as fountains of knowledge, and would happily take questions on topics ranging from the best way to avoid getting caught by your parents to how to buy condoms in Boots without the cashier “thinking you’re a slag”. But the question every girl wanted to know the answer to, but was waiting for someone else to ask, was always the same:
“Did it hurt?”
We were terrified. Years of poor sex education, coupled with teen magazines filled with problem pages and agonisingly embarrassing photo stories on exactly this subject, had left a generation of girls convinced that sex was going to be painful, awkward, and something to be dealt with rather than enjoyed. It was a rite of passage to be endured, to tick off a list, to passively receive. The boys we knew at sixteen were busy forming incorrect assumptions of their own, consuming lads’ mags at a rate of knots, creating an entirely unrealistic view of women that would stick with them for a long time. We were all talking about sex all the time, but none of us was learning anything.
We were invincible, as sixteen year olds always are, full of bluster and bravado and what we thought were the right answers, but we were terrified of being found out.
None of us wanted to ask the one question we all really needed the answer to:
“Does everyone else know what they’re doing?”
This fear of looking stupid, of seeming inexperienced, of coming across as a prude, doesn’t stop when you’re sixteen. Plenty of women have grown up unwilling, or unable, to ask questions about the topics that really matter when it comes to sex, body image, and life as a woman. The standards of sex education are still poor, depictions of women in the media are still astonishingly stereotypical, and the toxic environment girls and young women are growing up in isn’t changing quickly enough.
It is still uncool to ask questions. But it shouldn’t be.