Today the Education Committee held its second reading of Caroline Lucas’ Bill to make PSHE including SRE statutory in all state funded schools and, within that, education on ending violence against women and girls. The bill states that sex education should also include an emphasis on ‘diversity and difference,’ and Caroline Lucas has said that she hopes the bill will promote gender equality and challenge gender stereotypes. I can’t tell you how much we could have done with some of that in my school ten years ago.
I was 15 when I met my first girlfriend. She was in the year above me at school. She had olive skin and a waterfall of freckles that fell down her nose and dispersed outwards across her cheeks. For a while, I thought I wanted to be her. I remember watching her leaning against the same doorframe in the corridor outside the music room every lunch break, dressed like someone in a Marilyn Manson video (bear in mind this was in 2004 and therefore incredibly on trend) with this aloof demeanour that made people – myself included – gravitate towards her only to be repelled by a silent, unimpressed glance. ‘What a fucking badass,’ I would say to myself. It took about a year for me to figure out that, actually, I didn’t want to be her at all. I wanted to be with her.
This was an incredibly confusing time for me. Until that point, I had only gone out with boys. Was I gay? Was I straight? What was my deal? The first time I came across the word ‘bisexual’ was in a NME interview with Brian Molko, the lead singer of Placebo. When I brought it up with my parents, they described him as being ‘greedy’ and ‘indecisive.’ I wasn’t convinced, but nobody in school could provide me with a better answer either. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I realised that there was a whole world of people out there who wanted to sleep with both women and men, and I was one of them, and that was ok. As a teenager, I didn’t know that it was even an option. I just assumed you had to ‘pick a side and stay on it,’ as I was told so, so many times.
The education system in the Catholic comprehensive school I attended did not include a great deal of sex and relationships education (SRE). Sure, there were the obligatory segregated seminars describing how babies are made and tampons will kill you, but it was left to us to fill in the rest, which includes oh I don’t know pretty much EVERYTHING.
At the moment, SRE is not part of an entitlement to statutory personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education, and same-sex sexual education within that is certainly not required. The closest we ever got to discussing gay relationships within a classroom was when some hilarious individual would submit something like ‘what is a lesbian?’ into an anonymous question box just to hear the teacher read it out loud, because an adult saying the word ‘lesbian’ was the absolute pinnacle of comedy, duh.
And, in a horribly depressing way, it kind of was. On account of the fact that British attitudes towards sex education have not progressed since Baywatch became a cultural phenomenon, teachers can be just as awkward as teenagers when it comes to having a genuinely informative discussion about healthy relationships. As much as I would like to think we could all be adults about this, there’s something to be said for a middle-aged teacher spluttering over the pronunciation of “labia”. I’m not saying we should all have had a master class on tribbing in year 9, but an open dialogue about the whole spectrum of sexuality and gender beyond ‘penis + vagina = chlamydia and death’ would have been useful.
Most sex education currently provided in schools, if any, focuses on the function of sex (and only ever sex between a man and a woman), rather than the emotional aspect of it. There is always the argument that if you start normalising sex and alternatives to heterosexuality, young people will get confused and start experimenting earlier. But the fact is, kids will always be inclined to experiment regardless of whether it’s with a boy, girl, hoover, shower head…you get the drift. Wouldn’t it be safer all round if we had a more open dialogue about sex in order to help them navigate the shit storm of emotions and hormones that will lead either to dangerous internet exploration or the frequent dry humping of anything soft?
Luckily, the girl I was crushing on also happened to reciprocate so I got to dry hump her instead. Apparently my social peril disguised by constant laughter was totally endearing, and we shared a few months of purple Airwaves-flavoured makeout sessions round the backs of off-licenses and all those other romantic locations teenagers tend to frequent. The relationship itself didn’t last very long and the stigma around it wasn’t great – I remember kissing her on the sofa at a party, and every person in the room turning around to watch. But this isn’t a story about lost love as much as it is the detrimental stigma attached to LGBTI individuals that the education system does absolutely nothing to alleviate.
‘My idea of what a gay person was at that time in my life was pretty negative,’ my friend Joe told me, ‘Gay was an insult. No one talked about gay people like they were in any way welcome in the mainstream. I realised I was attracted to people of the same sex via TV shows like Eurotrash, so then went searching for more online. Because I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone, I would just talk to strangers online. I remember talking to guys who were way too old to be talking to me. I never met any of those people in real life, thankfully, but had I have done that, it could have shaped me very differently. I feel like if there was more of an open dialogue at schools about sexuality, I wouldn’t have needed the conversation of strangers to come to terms with what I was going through.’
Even if I had known bisexuality was a legitimate thing when I was a teenager, there still would have been a butt load of confusion, that’s only natural. But it took me years to get to a point where I could stop driving myself insane with constant self-analysis because I simply didn’t have access to the information I needed. Luckily, I met a girl who liked me back and helped me learn to define my sexuality on my own terms at a fairly young age, but for many others who don’t identify as heteronormative, the transition is not as comfortable and their situation far less fortunate. This shouldn’t be the case. Access to safe sex and relationships education is a right, not something you acquire by accident. And that’s why today’s bill is such a big deal, and so important – because not everyone gets as lucky as I did.
Originally published on The Debrief here.