the sex education I wish I’d had

The banana of sexSo I have had almost zero formal sex education.

When I was ten, our teacher held the girls back at break time and solemnly informed us that we were due to start bleeding out of our vaginas any day now. If this happened while we were in school, we were to tell NO ONE but immediately locate the nearest female teacher, who would provide us with something to soak up THE SHAME OF OUR WOMB. She did not actually say that last bit, but even at ten years-old, I felt it was strongly implied. This was my first introduction to periods.

When I was fourteen, our science teacher skipped over the chapter on the reproductive system. She told us it was very unlikely to come up in our exams next year, and even if it does, you’ll have lots of questions to choose from so you can just skip it. I stared at the diagram of the penis in the book for a while. There was no diagram of the vagina, only the ovaries and uterus.

The same year, a lady from Tampax came to speak to us about periods and gave us heavily branded booklets about growing into our new bodies. At this point, I was wearing a C cup and I’d been using tampons for over two years, so it felt a bit belated. Nobody had any questions at the end of the talk.

When I was seventeen, we had forty minutes of “Health Ed” class every two weeks. There was no syllabus, but our teacher was smart and engaged. He led a lot of interesting discussions – about drinking, drugs, smoking, bullying, about stress and good study habits, depression, body image, more drugs, more bullying – but something was notably missing from the laundry list of things seventeen year-old girls typically worry about.

And that was it. I could definitely blame this on growing up in Ireland, a country so deeply steeped in Catholicism that it’s difficult to find a school where saying prayers in morning assembly is not the norm. But a friend of mine also went to an all-girls convent school, and she did have a sex ed class. Which apparently involved trying to put a condom on a banana with one hand.

I’ve started thinking about the sex education I wish I’d had. I even went as far as drafting a syllabus, because I’m obsessive like that, but I will not inflict it on the Internet because I’m not an educator and also it’s five pages long. But I will show you my wish list. Because maybe it’s just my inner Hermione Granger talking, but I do wish there’d been a class.

I wish there was a class that laid out the hard facts. All the different bits and what they do and where they can go. I wish there’d been a class that busted all the myths and laid bare all the slang, so I didn’t have to rely on furtively searching Urban Dictionary on a dial-up connection on the family PC.

I wish I’d been taught that even though the definition of sexual intercourse is a penis going into a vagina, there are lots of different ways to have sex and most people will develop their own personal definition as they get older.

I wish I’d been taught that there is nothing morally wrong with having sex. I wish I’d been taught that virginity is not something that can be “taken” or “lost” and that you still retain all your intrinsic worth as a human after you’ve had sex for the first time.

I wish there’d been a full diagram of a vagina ANYWHERE in my young teenage life. I wish someone had told me what my “clit” was so I didn’t have to use Google just to find out where the fucking thing was hiding.

I wish I’d been taught that masturbation is completely and totally normal, to the point that it’s almost banal, and also maybe been given some pointers.

I wish the boys had not been sent out of the room when we had our talk about the menstrual cycle, because one too many men have asked me, you know, what’s, like, the deal with periods? I wish women didn’t feel the need to refer to perfectly natural processes in our bodies as “Auntie Flo” or “my time of the month” or whatever other coy euphemism we use to shield the menfolk from the TERRIBLE KNOWLEDGE OF THE BLOOD MOON CULT. I’m grateful we don’t have to sit in a hut outside the village anymore, but I also wish frankly mentioning my ovulation cramps was not considered a bit risqué in polite society.

I wish there was an incredibly detailed class on entire reproductive system and it was mandatory learning for every single person on the planet, because then maybe there wouldn’t be so many middle-aged middle-class men making bizarre statements about the things my womb can and can’t do.

I wish someone had explained the difference between gender, sex and sexuality and why those distinctions are important. I didn’t know anything about that until I got around to reading Judith Butler as part of my degree, and the idea that gender is fluid should not have been a mind-blowing revelation for my twenty year-old self.

I wish someone had given me the full break down on contraception – the different types available, how they work, how to use them, where to get them. I wish the first time I handled a condom was not also the first time I helped a guy put one on.

I wish there was an awareness of gay people and bisexual people and queer people and trans people and that the fact that they have different experiences of sex, which are also perfectly natural and normal and valid, because then rampant homophobia would probably be less of a thing among fifteen year-olds.

I wish that we’d been taught about STIs, but without the typical level of hysteria and shame that accompanies any discussion surrounding teenagers and STIs. I wish someone had explained that there is risk involved in having sex, just like there is risk involved in playing sports or driving a car. That does not mean we should never ever do these things, it just means we need to be smart and follow the rules so we can manage those risks effectively.

I wish some had sat us all down very seriously and explained that sex is not a zero-sum game between men and women, nor is it a competition, nor is it a commodity, something that women bestow on men in exchange for dinner and flowers (and therefore women who don’t bestow in a timely manner are in breach of contract, the cock-teasing sluts.)

I wish that, in the same lesson, we’d been taught that a man and a woman with equivalent sexual histories will be treated very differently by society, and that’s not fair or OK and we should be aware of this in the way we talk about sex.

I wish I’d heard ANYTHING about the concept of consent before I started actively seeking out feminist writing. I wish we’d talked about how pressuring or manipulating someone into having sex with you is coercion. I wish that we’d been told that if someone is too drunk or high to speak in coherent sentences, walk in a straight line, stay awake or take care of themselves, they are not able to consent and having sex with them anyway makes you a rapist. I wish there was an emphasis on the fact that sex should always be something that happens between people who are enthusiastic and comfortable and happy to be there, and that nobody should settle for anything less than that. I wish all of these things were considered common sense, instead of constantly being dismissed as a radical feminist agenda.

Most of all, I wish I’d grown up in an environment where my peers and I felt comfortable discussing sex and asking questions, because then maybe none of the above would ever have been scary or mysterious. I wish we had classroom discussions about sex and exams on sex and reflective essays on sex and it was all as normal and interesting and important as algebra or poetry. Now I’m a clued-in 20-something woman who talks more openly about sex than most people are comfortable with. But it took me a long time and a lot of hassle to get here.

That’s my retrospective wish list. What’s on yours? Did you have good sex education growing up, or were there large yawning gaps? Do you think sex education is as important as I clearly do, or were you happy just figuring out as you go along. Come at me, people. I want to know what blatant misconceptions you held onto for far longer than you care to admit. 

This post was republished on Role/Reboot.

48 thoughts on “the sex education I wish I’d had

  1. OMG. This happened in the western country too?? The school only tell us that we’d better not drink or eat cold food in the period, but hardly anything more. At that time, many of us already had our fist period and have no idea of that.


  2. My sex-ed was continual since 5th grade through 9th (basically 5 years ago) where basically every year we had some form of sex-ed. 7th grade was the best where we discussed all forms of contraception, what worked, what didn’t, what it looked like… etc.

    What I wished, wished, we had (besides the diagram of a vagina) was about the feelings of sex. What is it supposed to feel like? How are our bodies supposed to react? What makes them react – and react differently – say to a racy novel or a touch?

    I also wish we had been taught about tampons. I was never taught how to use one and so because of this (among other reasons), this makes annual visits to the GYN extremely painful because the muscles haven’t been “stretched.”

    I love this post though!


  3. I wish we’d been told what a vulva was. Apart from that it was a rude word and we probably don’t want to know.
    I shouldn’t have to reach 21 years old without knowing what my own genitals are called!


  4. Just listened to your bit on Woman’s Hour with my 11 year old daughter, and it springboarded a very interesting discussion and has hopefully opened the door to future chats, so thank you! We especially liked the bits about consent and risk assessment, and she and I will return to them in due course. My daughter goes to a Catholic midde school and she told me that apparently contraception won’t be covered on the sex ed curriculum, but that’s OK, ‘cos when they get to the high school at age 13, all the kids that transferred from the Catholic feeder school get taken out of lessons to cover that bit!


  5. Odd. I’m probably 10-15 years older than you, and sex ed was pretty comprehensive at school. In primary school this big van/bus thing turned up, and we’d go inside and watch videos about sex, there was a person to talk to us about it, etc.

    That said, it had nothing I didn’t already know. My parents had educated us. Where babies came from was never a secret, and if we ever had any questions they would be answered openly and honestly.

    Then in high school, in ‘health’, the teachers went through the sex stuff again. Reproduction, of course, was not skipped over in science. Heck, it’s not just a human thing.

    I do realise that even here in Australia, people miss out. I knew a woman who was 27 and didn’t know what her period was. Another asked me where the clit was. (And it wasn’t some sort of come on, she wouldn’t let me show her, which would have been far easier than describing it).


  6. I have to say I completely agree with you all.
    I didn’t have my first sex ed class until i was fifteen , before that my mother would purchase some ‘thingies’ once a month and that was all I knew.
    My introduction to sex was teenage boys of about thirteen boasting about how they ‘fucked this girl last until she screamed’. If us teenage girls didn’t immediately pull down our panties at the sound of this porno plot and demand to be taken then and there we were considered frigid freaks. First time sex was so taboo I came to the conclusion that a hymen was something to be deadly ashamed of and must be got rid of at all costs because it was considered so unattractive. When we finally got our sex ed lessons the girls know nothing apart from horror stories passed down from their grandmothers and the guys thought that the likes of ‘Deep Throat’ and were How to Tutorials. The curriculum added to my confusion and fear by showing me pictures of diseased genitalia. That’s right , the first time I saw a penis it was heavily infected with Syphilis.
    I scared me so much I didn’t go near a man for years ( I thought I was about to die of desperation by the time i got round to it).
    I began to feel urges at the age of twelve and i seriously thought it was just me. Guys were horny,sure, it was something we talked about constantly but no-one said it was OK for girls to want to masturbate too.
    What I had been ‘taught’ scaredme so much that even when I did embark on an adult relationship I spent the first few months petrified, taking constant trips to the doctor to get tested until he finally told me I was probably not going to catch an STD. ‘ But condoms are only 99.9% effective’ I cried.
    A lot of people I know are against sex education in schools because they believe it will lead to more under age sex and more teenage pregnancies. Maybe if girls were taught that their bodies are not there simply to service to needs of their horny counterparts and also that masturbation is natural and actually quite nice they would understand that pleasure is for them too and they dont have to jump into bed and get knocked up at the first opportunity.
    Basically I want to say thanks for saying what most of us have been thinking but couldn’t quite say 🙂


  7. I’m 30 and went to an all girls school – ours was also pretty dry and unengaging, mostly.
    I’d have liked any mention of masturbation – that it’s normal for girls to want to, that you don’t have to feel horribly guilty, how and how not to.
    I don’t think homosexuality (or anything else LGBT) was mentioned at all. I remember boring spreadsheets of STIs and their symptoms and a video about why it’s ok to keep your virginity. Talk about consent and agency was notably absent.
    I remember an older teacher who said, ‘Sometimes a man and a woman will fall asleep in a lovely cuddle’ – this was in a larger discussion of condoms and why you should take them off after sex, I presume. I had NO idea what she meant at the time!

    Today I’d want emphasis on consent and how to deal with porn. And how both parties’ pleasure is equally important. We girls were taught about sex like it was a storm you had to prepare to endure and come out uninfected at the end! Or maybe that’s just how it seemed to my anxious, late developer self.


  8. I feel like I am from other planet! I grew up in a totally Catholic country, and we had very extensive biology syllabus, including human reproductive system (at 11yrs old), all was clear and at least girls weren’t getting pregnant at 13 cause they knew what not to do. Had some sex education classes once couple years later but it wasn’t big deal by then as long as I remember… Oh, and we all watched “Once Upon a Time… Life” 🙂


  9. I wish I knew that breasts come in all shapes and sizes, I was probably in my early to mid twenties, before I realised they were other women with breasts like mine as well as all sorts of variations based on a variety of factors.

    I wish I had been told that being comfortable with your body does not need to result in exhibition ism, and you can be very proud about what you’ve got without anyone needing to see you in a teeny tiny skirt.


  10. I’m 32. Sex Education in school was boring. It was diagrammatic and failed to engage the class past a certain embarrassment that your normally geography or science teacher was inexplicably trying there hand at a lesson in caution and abstinence.

    But perhaps one of the most memorable and evidently incorrect messages I got was from my mum. She told me that sex was only something that happened between two people that really loved eachother very much. Nowadays this seems as unreal as Father Christmas. And I feel sad that I came from an environment where this ‘lie’ was an attempt at ‘safe’ sex. It can be all the more incredible with someone that you truly love. But we are all far more complicated individuals than that. And we should celebrate our ability to be carnal creatures as well as loving and giving ones.

    I plan to be as honest and frank as possible with my children. Your list is brilliant and should be rolled out through all schools as mandatory.

    Thank you for taking the time and making the effort to do it.


  11. I went to an all girls school, non religious and in the mid to late 90’s. I cannot remember a single sex ed class, only a vague recollection of a “this is what a period” is talk by the Tampax rep when I was in primary school and bugger all else. as for sexuality, it didn’t exist in Kent, apparently. Oh I wish we had had THAT conversation…I got to 19 and had a meltdown when I realised I was attracted to women AND men. Pah! I’ve made up for it since, but my education was just that, mine. I had to hunt out information on the sly and felt ashamed for doing so. Not cool, grown ups!


    • Thank for for sharing! A lot of the feedback this has gotten has just confirmed my conviction that sex ed needs to acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ people and their sexual experiences. Also, wow, those Tampax reps really do the rounds!


  12. Reblogged this on Crafty Medic and commented:
    I thought this was absolutely brilliant!!! One day I will write a post about my work with Sexpression Manchester and this post shows why and how what we do is so important!!!


  13. Hello! I really love your list! Its brilliant. I am Co-President for a society at university called Sexpression which goes into schools and teaches sexual education to children. I remember growing up with almost zero sex education other than once when all the girls got taken into a class and told we were going to grow hair and bleed. This is unacceptable in my view and Sexpression is trying to do something about it. However, your list has given me some ideas on extra classes to teach.

    This is brilliant. Thank you so much!



  14. I am lucky in that my mum and dad were always very honest. I’d love to see your syllabus. When do you think you should start talking to children about sex?
    Thank you


    • As someone who has no kids and no plans to have one in the near future, I’m not entirely sure that I’m qualified to answer that question and I’d love to hear from parents who have had to navigate the issue firsthand.

      THAT SAID.

      In the wake of David Cameron’s proposed online pornography ban, there’s been a lot of talk about protecting the innocence of children. It’s a phrase that gets thrown around a lot, but I’m not entirely sure what it means and I’m pretty sure the people who are using haven’t actually sat down and thought about it. What do we mean by innocence? Do children become less innocent when they find out about sex? What are we protecting them from exactly? Their own sexual impulses or those of predators and pedophiles? These two things are conflated a lot, and it’s doesn’t make any sense, because protecting children from predators is COMPLETELY different from protecting children from important information about their own bodies.

      Basically, I think that children are never too young to find out where babies come from; it’s a question that’s generally asked at a young age and I think it should be answered honestly, though probably in simplified form. Then I think as soon as children start hitting puberty, there should be comprehensive and mandatory sex ed to help them learn about what they’re going through and understand their own desires.

      Also, on a practical note, we live in a culture that is saturated with sexualised imagery; sex is used to sell everything from pasta sauce to cars, it’s one of the main themes in most popular TV and film, it’s plastered all over our magazines and newspapers. Unless you plan to lock your children in a windowless soundproof room until they turn 18, they ARE going to start learning about sex from a very young age. The question is do you want them to learn about it from Page 3 or do you want them to learn about it from a qualified adult in a safe judgment-free environment? If we gives kids the tools and vocabulary to analyse the narratives they see and hear every day, we can provide a counter-narrative to problematic portrayals of sex and sexual desire. and I think a lot of the negative societal effects of – for example – porn would be greatly reduced.


  15. I REALLY wish people would include their age group here or the approximate year of their sex-education.

    Without this information (to go with this excellent article and wonderful comments) very little light is shed on today’s sex-education, curriculum or change in attitude over the years. The writer is in her 20s, I’m in my mid-50s. This should represent a big difference/improvement but does it?

    It would be good to follow from this excellent initiative and see where the improvement lies, relevant (importantly) to today’s youth.


    • From all the conversations I’ve had around this post, it seems like one of the big issues is that nothing much has really changed in the past 30 years! Overall, our attitudes to sex are more progressive but for some reason that has yet to be translated into a classroom setting. I agree, it’d be great to see some actual numbers on this!


      • Thanks for your reply. A true reflection of the modern needs for sex-ed requires a colleration between what was taught when and it’s consequences to date.

        What I really want to say is sex-ed should be expanded to include highlighting the dangers and negatives of those less well balanced who are more exposed (or more prevalent?) nowadays. I can’t stress this enough. Lack of awareness and naivety has proven to be very dangerous. I’m absolutely sure I’m not the only person my age who’s amassed a collections of being ‘flashed’ at, approached dangerously, unwittingly been in precarious positions. Some people I know have been in VERY dangerous positions with awful consequences all throughout puberty/teenage years, even into 30s. None of these examples I know of have ever been reported. (Have always wanted someone to do the stats on what. Has anyone ever done an anonymous survey on whats REALLY happened to men and women? I guess one will never get to the truth).

        Teaching awareness and a moral sex-guide to right and wrong, respect for personal space, invasion of privacy, influence of drink & drugs etc., and it’s negative consequences should be right at the TOP of the list of sex-education. A two-tier system for ‘advanced sex-ed’ for 16 year olds is needed. Either way it’s irresponsible to ignore this. With the removal of standard old fashioned Church of England teachings throughout state schools (not necessarily a bad thing, it served a purpose in its time), it is incumbent on society to fill in the gaps and reflect the modern appetite before it gets out of control. This week’s problem in Sunday Times magazine provides interesting reading. We are much more aware of sex-addicts, porn-addicts etc.; I’m no expert but this surely has some fundamental connection to sex-education?

        I guess that covers your last para to ‘chloe’ below and I thank you for the opportunity to express.


  16. even just a few of the points on your list would have been a great help to me growing up, in Ireland. i got lucky i went to one of those progressive catholic schools,in the late 80’s, and they did give us some sex education, an hour long talk and slide show of genitals affected by STI’s and that was it, off out into the world fully informed. Hope the media attention this is receiving,helps to bring about some change.


  17. […] Blocking Porn –  A Survivor’s Perspective – (Content note: Discussion of child sex abuse) A really powerful piece on how Cameron’s professed concerns about childhood “innocence” do not adequately address any of the underlying cultural narratives that are actually deeply harmful to children. I really should have included a point about media literacy in my sex ed post. […]


  18. Seriously, this is a badass list. I’m going to have to second Beth, though, in that I feel way lucky after reading this. I was home-schooled for a large portion of my formative years, and we (my sibs & I) had to write papers (research, reflective, AND argumentative) on all but one of the things you present. There was also a standing clause of our constitution that allowed *any* question to be asked of either parent, without embarrassment. If the answer was age inappropriate, or the question was obnoxious, we got an explanation as to why.

    However, this system may have backfired just a smidge. See, I’d been taught that sexuality was fluid since I knew what both those words meant. Cue me being utterly convinced that everyone was omnisexual, with ebbs and flows of preferences (today John likes Jane, next year he’s into James). I was only disabused of this notion (at 15!) when I complained about people saying “being gay isn’t a choice” in front of my parents. It was an…intense…conversation. 😐 (But I’m better for it, I like to think.)


  19. I feel incredibly, ridiculously lucky after reading your list. Most of your list was covered by my high school sex-ed teacher- she was kind of wonderful, and known for being a bit ‘openly in-your-face’ and eccentric. But she cared, and was rather progressive, and definitely went out of her way to try to make the 30-some 15 year olds in her classroom feel comfortable asking questions. I remember playing with condoms in her classroom (a boy put one on his head to see if it would fit (by which I DO mean his cranium), actually), and talking about both male and female masturbation, the female orgasm, and consent. I’ve known many people who had comparatively terrible sex-ed classes, or none at all, but at the time I did not know enough to thank her for her efforts. I wish I had, and that this kind of education were not the exception.


  20. In middle school I remember asking my health teacher about gays (I was writing a paper on gay marriage), and she told me that she was not allowed to bring up homosexuality in class unless it was asked about specifically. On a separate note, you should look into the Unitarian Universalist OWL (Our Whole Lives) curriculum. That was by far the most inclusive sex ed I experienced.


  21. All of this. I was fairly lucky so I was in a Protestant/secular school and it was a mixed class, so not too bad, but I wished I could have had an ask-anything other than the notes box. Also something about pornography and how to deal with it would definitely have been on my list. It was so taboo that I really wanted to find some, but was terrified of stumbling on something really awful/illegal/exploitative/virusy. I know porn has an overwhelming exploitative stigma and definitely it’s a part of it, but it’d be good to know how to deal with 1) our tastes that may develop and 2) how to consume responsibly, if at all possible. Also it’d be cool if women liking it was less of a taboo.


  22. Hey! You grew up in Catholic(not necessarily practising) Ireland……….I had the same questions and wishes. The trick is to remove the word ‘guilt’ from your vocabulary. Trust me……..


  23. I’m not sure I could add anything to the list, but I remember my school did try very hard with us. When I was 12 they had an anon question box into which we could post questions. I remember very clearly being very confused about the whole ALWAYS WEAR CONDOMS OR YOU WILL GET SICK AND DIE thing so I asked “if you have to use a condom but want to make a baby will you get an STI and get sick??” I don’t think the teacher’s answer explained anything since I was confused about this for a long time after.


    • Such failure to talk about STIs in a rational and matter-of-fact way! And also a failure emphasise the other things you can do to make sure you stay healthy downstairs, like get checked out regularly and, you know, TALK to your partner about their sexual history. I also remember feeling like getting an STI was just the natural conclusion of having sex and that, if it did happen, it would literally be the end of the world – like if the STI didn’t kill me, the shame probably would!


  24. Brilliant post. I had the good fortune of not going to a Catholic school but my sex education was pretty much non-existent too. It’s not surprising though if you consider the even more repressed, shame-focussed education the generation before us received.In sixth class a lady came in to give the boys and girls a talk. She said, “I bet you’re all thinking we’re going to talk about something today.. come on, you’re all thinking it..” and then she made us spell out ” S – E- X” This confused me because she didn’t actually talk about S-E-X, except to say that it could be gorgeous with the right person, which in hindsight was nice but at the time confused me, as I was more curious about the practicalities than anyhting else at that stage. We had two books lying in the house, ‘Boy Talk’ and ‘Girl Talk.’ I read both and was quite bewildered at the diagrams of the male genitalia. Masturbation was mentioned in the boy book and not the girl book. That worried me. My mum told me about 1 in 3 girl-children masturbated which was reassuring. Apart from her, I never spoke to anyone about that. It came up once at school. My girlfriends said it was disgusting and I said nothing. (Also – new blog looks DEADLY!)


  25. Your list is almost identical to my list, only I grew up in the United States in a town and culture steeped in conservative Christianity.


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