In the school where I work, I teach a lot of very factual sex education to teenage boys. In an ideal world, I’d have time to get to know each class and we’d be able to talk honestly about our hopes and fears and feelings. But there isn’t an exam in sex education, so the subject gets squeezed to the edges of the curriculum and, in some schools, squeezed out altogether. In the brief time I have with each class, I talk a bit about the importance of relationships and love but the teenagers sitting there are far more interested in hard information about sex because, without that information, they’re vulnerable. Like Shakespeare’s Romeo and his friends, they joke and tease each other about sex because they’re anxious about sex. The more they know, therefore, the more confident and relaxed they feel and the less inclined they are to take their anxieties out on other people.
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Reducing unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections are important governmental aims but the more important reason for providing good, factual sex education is to reduce anxieties about sex which cause unhappiness. Without information, young people mock the ignorance of others to hide their own ignorance; they project their own anxieties about sexual experience and performance onto others and attack it.
Sitting there, waiting for me to begin, the boys don’t laugh and don’t snigger. For me to suggest that they don’t already know everything there is to know about sex would be a mistake, so I begin by saying that I’m quite sure they know most of this stuff already but that there may be the odd bit of information that’s new and that it’ll therefore be worth paying attention. Reassured, they listen, not because I’m a famous disciplinarian or a particular authority on sex but because they’re desperate to pick up anything they don’t already know. I’m frank which surprises them but is also, evidently, a relief. Sometimes they ask questions but more often are too embarrassed to ask and it’s my job to anticipate the questions they would ask if only it wasn’t so embarrassing. Sometimes I get them to write down questions in private. “Does the foreskin have to be pulled back before sex?” they ask. “Do girls pee out of their vaginas? Does sex hurt? What if the penis is too small? In anal sex, what happens to the shit? How do you know if someone wants to have sex? What’s the point of ribbed condoms?”
We talk about the difference between pornographic bodies and real bodies, pornographic sex and real sex. Most of them have watched porn in secret and I find myself wondering…. Of course, one of their purposes in watching will be for arousal – that never changes – but I suspect that they also watch porn for information. Internet pornography begins where sex education for young people ends. When there are questions about sex that adults daren’t or won’t answer, young people search the internet. The trouble is that the answers they get back from pornography may be grossly distorted. It stands to reason, therefore, that with better, earlier and more explicit sex education, with questions answered rather than fudged and with opportunities for educators to describe sex in the context of love, young people might need to watch porn rather less urgently.