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I must have been around 12 or 13, I suppose, when I got out of bed and crept into my parents’ bedroom. “Mum, I think I’ve wet the bed,” I whispered. She got out of bed, grabbed some new sheets and ripped the old one off the bed. She looked at me slightly quizzically and said, “Er, you haven’t wet the bed. Hasn’t your father talked to you about this?” I was totally mystified. She sat me down and explained that I’d just had a wet dream. I was, of course, mortified.
My father hadn’t discussed the birds and the bees with me, and nor had my mother. I’ve never asked them, but I have always wondered if my sisters found out about menstruation the hard way. And I say this as someone who had the most loving, and caring parents any son could wish for. They were just, well, of their generation.
It was little better at school. We had to wait until we were 14 to get any form of sex education, and to be honest it was a joke. Mr Maidment, head of Geography and Mrs Mathias, head of Needlework broached the subject in General Studies. Mrs Mathias would rather have been anywhere else than teaching sex education to a group of 100 giggly teenagers, while Mr Maidment rejoiced in telling us how he would “hump” Mrs M every Saturday night without fail. It was titivation rather than education at Saffron Walden County High in 1976. And God forbid the thought that anyone should mention homosexuality, which of course had only been legal for a decade at that point.
Forty years on, not a lot has changed in some families. Mothers and fathers up and down the land recoil from the embarrassment of discussing condoms and cunnilingus. Schools may be rather more enlightened than in the 1970s, but the standard of sex education is incredibly variable. Even in 2016 some parents even withdraw their kids from it, and they’re invariably the sheltered kids who most need it because they won’t be told it in the home environment.
Sex education guidelines haven’t been updated by the Department of Education since 2000, before the days of smartphones, sexting and online pornography. Both Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan have wanted to revise them but Downing Street have vetoed it for reasons best known to themselves.
It’s time that there was a complete review of sex education in this country. Children encounter sexual issues at an ever younger age. I was fourteen or fifteen before I even knew what the working ‘wanking’ met. My eight year old goddaughter learnt what a clitoris was in her sex education lessons a couple of years ago. Most eleven year olds have viewed pornography. It’s all a long way from ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’.
There are still teachers out there who are reluctant to talk about homosexuality for fear of contravening Section 28. They don’t even know the Blair government got rid of it.
And what of the parents, often ones with devout religious views, who refuse to allow their children to take part in what are now known as Sex & Relationships Education (SRE)? Should the state overrule their wishes in the interests of the children?
What age should SRE lessons start? I used to take the view that children’s innocence should be protected for as long as possible and these lessons shouldn’t start until children are at secondary school. Who am I, or was I, trying to kid. Many primary schools start teaching the subject in reception classes, and a good thing too. Obviously at that age it is more about relationships rather than the nuts and bolts of biological functions.
In the long term, we have to realise this subject can only be taught by professionals, rather than geography and maths teachers whose hearts aren’t in it and who aren’t experts in the subject. I’d like to see an army of SRE teachers recruited and trained, who would travel from school to school within their borough or county. Yes, there would be a cost to that, but if it helps children cope with the emotions and trials of puberty and adulthood, wouldn’t it be money well spent?
This article first appeared in Attitude Magazine