Thursday, 5 May 2011

This Fashion / For Passion / Turns Us Into Nervous Wrecks

Over on his blog, Ewarwoowar has used the controversy over barbaric Tory Scum MP Nadine Dorries' attempt to abolish all sex education in favour of abstinence indoctrination to wax lyrical over his own sex education. The strategy seemed to be mix equal parts mystification and humiliation to produce mortified and ignorant children. and its result - a stampede towards the internet.

The web might be enlightening in physical terms but isn't - I'm told - a paradise of liberal and caring attitudes towards burgeoning consciousnesses in this most delicate of areas.

My own sex education was even more minimal - though possible less embarrassing - than Ewar's. My parents are doctors, but their Catholicism trumped that, so there was certainly no mention of sexuality or body parts at home, and never will be. Although my brother did receive a Catholic pamphlet on marital relations once his engagement was announced. It was posted with no covering note, but I suspect my mother.

School was no better. I attended 3 secondary schools: a Christian Brothers boys' school (left after achieving a magnificent 4% in a maths exam), a Catholic mixed comprehensive at which I thrived and was very happy, and a Benedictine monastery boarding school (closed down shortly after I left because it was awful). I can't remember anything about biology lessons in the first place but don't suppose anything was mentioned - all that school taught was fear.

The comprehensive ran biology classes but I think I left before the sex education. Either that or I wasn't listening. One teacher's report went 'Vole's exam results do not reflect the standard of his work this year' - not because I'd done badly, but because I'd done very well, despite never doing any homework and reading novels throughout the lessons. My interests then were football stickers and books. Much like now, come to think of it. Virtually all my friends there were girls but sexual attraction didn't come into it. At least for me - presumably they were prisoners of my pheromones rather than my magnetic personality.

By the time the hormones did start to kick in, I was imprisoned in a dormitory at the boarding school. Sex was a subject of shameful gossip or abuse. Nobody actually knew any girls except for sisters other than the day pupils, and the more outspoken boys simply lied prodigiously on the subject. Actual facts were very hard to come by. Being a boys' boarding school, there was an undercurrent of homosexual activity but it was largely a function of power and bullying - the actual homosexual boys didn't engage, not that it helped them: they were still targets of the most vicious types.

None of this, naturally, was mentioned in class. Biology was taught by a monk, qualified in chemistry. The nearest we got to reproduction was naming the parts of flowers. Somewhere along the way I picked up a vague idea of human reproduction, but it was sketchy and largely inaccurate. The rest was largely impressionistic: if one of my many sisters managed to sneak a copy of their teen magazines into the house, I'd read it with increasing fear and mystification, but that was about it, other than the occasional Channel 4 foreign film and fragments of porn encountered on verges during country walks (did the internet kill this too?). The unspoken rules at home and school were the 3 Don'ts: Don't Think About It, Don't Talk About It, and Don't Do It (whatever that meant).

So I left school in a state of nervous ignorance, physical, cultural, emotional. If I'd given a moment's thought to it, I'd have been able to say that I was heterosexual, but that's about it. The only girls I actually knew were my sisters. Given that we existed in a state of permanent warfare, that wasn't exactly a useful guide to relating to the objects of my desire. And so there I was launched into an unsuspecting world… without a clue.

So what's my answer to the great Sex Education Conundrum? Simple: copy the Scandinavians and Dutch. Parents and teachers need to grow up. It's them who replicate the culture of shame, giggling and embarrassment for the children. Give the kids age-appropriate knowledge and always, always, stress the emotional component. Any 5 year old should be able to say 'penis' with the same dispassionate tones with which s/he'd refer to an elbow or hip. Once you start marking off body parts as un-nameable, you're generating shame and negative curiosity. Conversely, a matter-of-fact attitude can only be healthy, and can lead on to the far more complex cultural and social aspects of sexuality.

Your testimony in the comments section…

PS. Post title quotes from Victoria Wood's song 'Let's Do It', which beautifully captures the bourgeois British approach with an interesting twist on traditional stereotypes of male/female attitudes:

And if that's not enough of an eye-opener into British sexuality, try this clip or this one from No Sex Please, We're British ("No, I work in a bank").

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