Now that I’ve got your attention: sex.
This particular spleen-venting is adapted from two previous essays, and is intended to encapsulate many of my (largely tragically uninformed) opinions on sex. So prepare to loosen your collars, people – this is gonna be hawt.
(Quick disclaimer: all statistics quoted below were plucked from the air to represent my memory of what I think I heard, and are not intended to accurately convey reality.)
There have been a few documentaries on TV in recent years about abstinence groups, mostly in America, who promote the exciting and alluring world of not having sex, and/or support the teaching of abstinence-only sex education in schools. One of these, titled American Virgin, was about the organisation Silver Ring Thing, whose members wear a ring on their finger to remind them of their pledge to abstain from sex until marriage, and plan to hand this ring over to their partner on their wedding night (while also offering, less metaphorically, themselves).
They didn’t come across as nearly so much of a sinister or cultish hive-mind as my cynical side had rather hoped. Although they all obviously tended to agree on the main theme, there were a lot of contrasting opinions between them. They’re a Christian-based organisation, but for many of the members religion had little or nothing to do with it. Some people were just interested in their own health, and chose to err on the side of caution. Others had some strange ideas about wanting to be emotionally committed to somebody before sleeping with them. None of this can possibly be objected to – whatever reasons you might have for not wanting to have much sex (and I surely have my own), the harshest criticism anyone can really lay on you for it is that you’re foolishly missing out on some fun.
The criticisms get harsher when people start scaremongering and spreading misinformation about the damnable horrors of contraceptives. Actually, they get pretty merciless rather sooner than that, such as when religious organisations try to shut other people up entirely on the subject of safe sex, and enforce a system of “education” which deliberately serves to do as little educating as possible.
One of the regulars on this documentary, and somebody the organisation seemed keen to sell as one of their predominant spokespeople, was a 16-year-old girl, who we first saw on the set of a promotional video she was making.
“Hi, my name is Nikki,” she introduced herself, and something about her made a part of my brain complete the sentence with, “and welcome to Wet ‘N’ Wild Teens on Spring Break!” Disappointingly, she started talking about how great it is not shagging anyone instead, and how sad it was that the government apparently allows some schools to teach kids about possible methods to avoid the possible negative consequences should they decide to, you know, “do it”.
She asked us at one point, “Safe sex? What is that? And safer than what?” Clearly this was meant to be rhetorical, but isn’t it just begging a sensible answer? Couldn’t you think of quite a lengthy and reasonable response off the top of your head? Safe sex involves making some preparation before the event itself, so that if you decide, as many millions of people regularly do, that abstinence is actually quite boring, you can have sex, quite possibly within a loving and committed relationship, while dramatically reducing the dangers of any negative side effects occurring.
And the dangers will be dramatically reduced, if you know what constitutes “safe”, and how to use condoms effectively, and so on – if, say, someone’s been allowed to teach you about these things without having to worry about breaking the law. Safer than what? Well, a hell of a lot safer than being one of the many uncertain teenage girls who decides to try having sex, but thinks that they can’t get pregnant on their first time, or that a shaken-up can of coke can wash away sperm. You know, the kind of misconceptions that arise when you deliberately don’t teach people anything.
Another highlight of this gathering was the moment while Nikki was talking about her own decision to save herself till marriage, when two guys in the audience nudged each other, nodded towards her, shared a look, and grinned. Now, maybe I misinterpreted this gesture – maybe it was taken out of context by the makers of the documentary with precisely this misinterpretation in mind – but it highlights the flaws in the idea that everyone signing up to this chastity lark is a pure and special snowflake and will remain thus until happily ever after.
In the history of fucking, I’m willing to bet that more vows of chastity have been broken than condoms. Obviously the most effective way to avoid unwanted pregnancy and infection is not to have any sexual contact at all, but nobody’s arguing that we shouldn’t tell people that. The apparent controversy is over whether teachers should clam up before getting any further with the purported sex education than “Don’t have sex”, or whether the availability and effectiveness of some of the alternatives might also be worth mentioning. There are safe alternatives out there, and it’s not unthinkable that even that epitome of irresponsible recklessness, “the adolescent”, might be able to go about things in an intelligent and informed way – finding out about their partner’s sexual history, getting themselves tested – if, that is, anyone’s legally allowed to inform them.
There were definitely some abstinence advocates capable of intelligent thought, but many really didn’t have any good reasons for what they believed. Don’t get me wrong, nobody owes me a damn word of an explanation for what they want to do with their own lives and bodies. Personally, I don’t consider adultery to apply retroactively, but if you want to view any pre-marital sex as cheating on your future spouse, as some of these people did, then you go ahead and remain faithful to someone you haven’t met yet. My hackles only rise (and you know I hate when you people do that to my hackles) when you start telling other people that what they’re doing is wrong. So, to all you people trying to suppress the distribution of information in schools, here’s why what you’re doing is wrong.
– Don’t compare a detailed sex education, which includes instruction in the use of contraception, to a lesson in how to safely shoot up on heroin. Personally, I think the latter could also be a damn good idea, but leaving that aside for now, a potentially beautiful expression of love can’t be so easily equated to the potentially lethal consumption of illegal narcotics.
– Don’t claim that America is facing an AIDS epidemic comparable to the kind of thing that terrorists might hope to achieve by launching a particularly virulent disease into the general public. If the most devastating biological warfare our enemies can wage on us is something we need to insert body parts into each other to spread, and which can be made 98% less contagious by the application of a small, cheap, and easily-acquired piece of plastic, then I think there are more pressing concerns in protecting the integrity of western civilisation. C’mon, smallpox might be tricky to get hold of, but even the ‘flu can be passed on by just sneezing in someone’s general direction.
– Don’t give me Biblical lectures on purity and expect this to have an impact on the running of state-sponsored education. He’s your god, they’re your rules, you live by ‘em. And honestly, who on the planet has spent a single pure day in their lives, going by what that book says? Though I wouldn’t put it past some fundies to genuinely make sure that they always bathe themselves and make the appropriate burnt offerings after every time they touch the skin of a pig, or sit in a chair previously occupied by a woman who “have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood”. Yes, apparently that’s the actual Biblical term for menstruation.
– Don’t tell me, “Anything you cover up, you cover up for a reason.” Yes, the reason is unhealthy and outdated sexual repression.
The abstinence-only crowd fail to acknowledge the vital, simple, and universal truth that kids don’t bloody listen. No, really. Have you met any teenagers lately? They’re always causing absolute mayhem, the way they insist on acting and thinking independently, making their own decisions without slavishly adhering to every joyless command their buzzkill elders hand down. It’s a nightmare. But also, surprisingly often, they’re not idiots. Anyone who actually understands what can result from careless sex, and how to prevent it, isn’t going to keep doing it – or if they are, chances are they’re not going to be the kind of person who’d go a bundle for total abstinence either.
They’re also quite capable of doing their own research, and if they don’t have somebody more informed around, to help them sift the useful information from the fiction, then they’re potentially screwed, and not in a good way. Condoms are hardly a national secret, and teenagers are going to find out about them, however much you try and hide away this terrible secret. But their proper usage and true rates of effectiveness are the kind of info that might pass a casual user by.
A lot of this is illustrated in the other programme that got me ranting on this theme. More recently, Davina McCall, ubiquitous television personality and host of that great moral bastion of purity and virtue, the game show Big Brother, embarked on a campaign for more and better sex education in Britain’s schools. Apparently it was a fairly brief campaign, not lasting noticeably longer than the hour-long documentary on Channel 4 last year detailing her adventures. She’s said she hopes to do for sex education what Jamie Oliver, popular TV chef and mockney restaurateur type, has done for school dinners.
Now, Jamie Oliver still has a lingering reputation, from his early, Naked Chef days, as an annoying, slack-tongued halfwit – you may recall that series of film posters which were photoshopped to refer to him as a cunt in a variety of amusing ways. However, he has actually managed to change a few things over the course of his own crusade, and I’m not sure Davina is quite going to have his credibility or gravitas. (I might hesitate to use words like “credibility” and “gravitas” to describe Jamie Oliver, if I had any credibility of my own to worry about, but fortunately I am not so hampered.) And, indeed, nobody seems to have paid her any attention since then, despite the importance of her cause.
A class of 16-year-olds and their headmaster were participating in the programme. They came from some secondary school which currently doesn’t have a great deal of sex education, beyond the standard hour on reproduction in biology lessons, but the head would like to introduce a much more detailed, consistent syllabus. The show started out by giving a written, multiple-choice exam to the kids, their parents, the school’s teachers, and Davina, in which some qualified sexpert declared that everyone really ought to score at least 80%, if they’re not woefully uninformed about all things carnal.
I’m not sure there was a single person in the room who scored that high, and the kids averaged somewhere in the 30s. I knew most of the example questions we were given, but I was flummoxed by whatever it was they wanted to know about the Fallopian tubes, and if questioned further on the details of all the mechanical jiggery-pokery (pardon the technical jargon) my ignorance would no doubt be swiftly proven. To the shock and amazement of nobody, it seems that sex is a subject on which many people in this country, children in particular, are deeply ignorant.
Davina then went with this class to the Netherlands to sit in on some lessons there, and talk to some of the local teachers, parents, and students about their thoughts on sex education, in a country with teen pregnancy and STD rates less than 25% of our own. They sat in on a class of (I think) 12-year-olds, and were almost universally shocked and appalled by the graphic nature of the videos they were being shown. It was a fairly simplistic animation, but it depicted two little cartoon people having penetrative sex, and the British teenagers were generally agreed that kids this young should not be exposed to this kind of thing.
But, to broach the obvious but often unspoken question, why the fuck not? At their age, most kids are charging rapidly toward learning plenty about sex anyway, if not from practical experience, then certainly from far less academic study than they’d get in a classroom, be it in playground rumours, stories from older siblings, or the good ol’ interwebs. Every time a kid takes a bath, the discovery of one set of genitalia right there in front of them is going to be hard to avoid; after a decade of this, does anyone really think they’re not going to start asking a few innocently curious questions about it, and listening to whatever answers they’re given by anyone who doesn’t just tell them they’ll understand when they’re older?
What the Dutch seem to have figured out is that if you establish a subject in kids’ minds as something which can be talked about, learned about, and discussed maturely and reasonably, before it becomes relevant to their lives, then you save yourself a whole lot of hassle trying to straighten them out once the damage has already been done. This might be even truer for the social side of sex than for the purely biological discussion.
We also saw a class of six-year-olds, discussing with their teacher things like different types of love, the very basics of how people make new people, and even introducing concepts like homosexuality. There was a fair bit of giggling going on, because it’s a classroom full of six-year-olds, but they were learning things, things that they’ll remember and understand later on in life, and they were managing it without visibly being disgusted, or offended, or having their purity and innocence twisted and destroyed.
The parents who wrote to complain to this headmaster about his plans (a very small minority, encouragingly, but still quite capable of kicking up a major fuss) blathered predominantly on the theme of “destroying our children’s innocence”, but I think I’ve hit upon the fundamental misunderstanding here. People are confusing the concepts of innocence and ignorance.
What’s happening to these Dutch kids is called education, which is about making people more knowledgeable, and less ignorant. But while they’re learning about sex, their innocence remains unaffected; they sit around the classroom, idly chewing crayons and being told that boys have penises and girls have vaginas, then scamper off as soon as the bell rings to run around, climb trees, trade Pokémon cards, or whatever the hell six-year-olds do for fun these days. They’re no less innocent for the lesson they’ve just had, because their world is still just as much about having childish fun as it was yesterday. 13-year-olds in Britain, on the other hand, are throwing their innocence aside at alarming rates and with little care, in no small part because their ignorance about sex tends to remain more or less intact throughout their education.
I am firmly convinced that devoting much more time to an intelligent, mature, regular timetable of sex education is absolutely the right thing to do, and would accomplish much in nurturing a better-informed, healthier, and generally less screwed-up society. The problem, of course, as is often the case, is that you can’t get there from here. If the system were to be suddenly overhauled, and hordes of parents had to start having awkward and embarrassing conversations about what their precious darlings had learnt in school today, the ensuing outcry might just bring the country to a standstill.
I’m less convinced that we’re quite ready for such a dangerously liberal policy being applied universally, all at once; some of us are still struggling with the idea of women wearing long trousers and children being kept out of chimneys and coal mines. But surely we can do better than this. We’re being pwned by the Dutch, for fuck’s sake.
(I’ve got no beef with the Dutch really. That’s just the way the rhetoric seemed to be going.)
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