So yeah, this is happening!
Welcome brave wanderers, to my new series entitled TMI Of The Month! It is at the severe risk of oversharing that I begin this foray into Too Much Information, hopefully with some regularity – which I’m sure is a common aspiration for many bodily functions. (Yes, I got a poop reference in there with immediate effect.)
So my first Overshare is What I wish I was taught about Sexual Health (Part One). This was inspired by a video by Youtuber Hannah Witton, who is glorious in many ways. She talks of sexual freedom and general genitals with sheer abandon, and I would definitely recommend her series “The Hormone Diaries”, in which she searches high and low for the perfect contraception method for herself, with limited hormone-interference. It’s all in the aim of getting more in touch with her own body, and letting the female reproductive system do “it’s thing” without the pressure of pregnancy. She also tends to wear the richest of autumnal colours, which is nothing but a bonus in my books.
My experience of Sex Ed at school went something a little like this. Primary School: There was an odd air in the room that day. Perhaps it was the winds of adulthood sweeping through the desks and glitterpots, or indeed it may have been the lingering sweat of teachers, facing the grim reality of talking to 8 year olds about sexual health. What I recall was that there was a lot of chair-rearranging, and the boys were ordered to LEAVE THE ROOM WITH A MALE ADULT while the girls sat in a neat little teaparty circle, to learn about how womanhood was going to RAVAGE THEIR INSIDES in the imminent future. The boys obviously didn’t need to know about periods as they would never have to even utter the word at any point in their lives, similarly we would never have to worry about their gender-specific issues. (Though I never did find out about what the Boy Talk entailed. Thoughts, boys?)
Secondary School was slightly different, I was given a form to be signed by my parents to consent to my learning about sex, and it came with more expectation and excitement than anything else. Okay so this was it! I was going to learn all about…all of the things! It was confirmed! I was allowed to access this information and know about the ways of the world. As a very savvy 11 year old who already knew about periods and stuff (that is so primary school), I was genuinely under the impression that we would be learning how to have sex, all the ins-and-outs of how it gets going in the first place, and what it essentially required to make a baby. I’m not sure what I expected exactly…a pop-up book? What I was confronted with, was a video from the 1970s depicting a rather terrifying birth in our general science class. When it finished, there was no particular Q & A session that I had hoped for, just a reaffirmation that a man and a woman (probably in their twenties and probably married) didn’t want to just show their love, they wanted to make love. Then the baby came out, and then they never made love again. End scene.
Now other than being 99% confident that I didn’t want to be participating in anything of the sort at any point in my adult life, I felt disappointed and confused in the whole system. It already sounded awful, but surely there must be some side effects? Some concerns that people might have? I’ve heard about STDs, I saw that extremely unhealthy-looking penis in my biology textbook. The scars will never heal. So other than being given a little period-kit and watching Kevin and Perry Go Large in my Year Eight science class (I don’t think the teacher cared too much), my entire sexual education at school felt very limited. So with hindsight, what do I wish they had covered? Well!
- There are many, many options for your period. There are pads and tampons yes, but also menstrual cups, cloth pads and lesser-publicised varieties such as sea sponge tampons, period-pants, all sorts! You do not have to live your life in fear that you are “too small” for tampons and that inserting them will cause you immense pain, and you do not have to set a timer for 4 hours each time you change one as the TSS-dementors will arrive and suck the female soul out of you. Okay this is a tad overkill, but I think a handy-dandy pamphlet or how-to-use session would have been such a massive help. From the ages of about 13-17 I always felt as though evidence of periods was something to be covered up, like keeping a pad in your schoolbag or admitting to horrendous cramps or headaches. Based on comments from the girls in my year I also felt that there was a stigma attached to committing to one form of menstrual product or another – pads were “childish” in comparison to the more intimate and invasive tampons. I never felt as though it was an entirely personal choice, based on however you felt the most comfortable and protected.
- Contraception, same principles. To the credit of my schools I was informed that condoms were essential, and if I needed any I could go to my local sexual health clinic. God knows how I would go about using one – I am to this day, a tad jealous of all the bananapenis condom-fittings I have heard of from friends from other schools. Such fun! But otherwise, barely a mention to any other methods of contraception and protection. I had heard of “The Pill”, which sounded like a looming commitment I was not ready for, but there was little emphasis on all of the options available to me. This should have been covered regularly, I think, like a branch of Applied Science in itself.
- Masturbation, asexuality and non-heterosexuality. I have put these in the same category because for me they come under the “It’s all fine and dandy” umbrella that I had literally no education for in my school. The people in my year talked about masturbation, but always in a derogatory way as if it was your only option in life if you couldn’t find someone who wanted to sleep with you, which is nonsense. If people wanted to, it should have been encouraged! What better way to get in touch with your anatomy and physical needs. Asexuality was never covered in the classroom or out, it was something I researched myself as I suspected myself of it for a while. (I say suspected as if there is a criminal or clandestine element to it, which believe me I am not trying to convey!). Non-heterosexuality was generally discussed as the “alternative” lifestyle; it wouldn’t concern us so there was no need to go in depth, obviously. I recall my oldest and dearest friend telling me she was a lesbian when we were fairly young – I can’t remember my exact reaction, but it was along the lines of “Are you sure? Okay!”, and I felt awful that I didn’t know more about it, and that I didn’t know what I wanted myself. In essence, what I wish I was taught was that it is all absolutely fine, nothing is set in stone and we are all free to explore our own sexuality.
- Consent. Hannah covered this well, and for me this would have been such an empowering class, and made sex feel like less of a necessity to satisfy cultural expectations. The reminder to be in charge of yourself, to communicate about your wants and desires, is so very important. Communication could be a class in itself. If you want the thing, or if you don’t want the thing, or even if you’re not sure if you want the thing, please talk about it!
- Pee after sex! This may be very specific to myself and to the few other women I’ve spoken to about it, but this piece of advice is golden. There is a very unique and awful feeling of dread associated with the onset of a Urinary Tract Infection. Also, viciously downing cranberry juice will not be half as effective as drinking lots of water. (Final note on this topic, please see your doctor if this happens! Don’t wait for two weeks and try to deal with it yourself! Been there.)
- How to check your boobs. Only in the past few years have I reminded myself to learn how to check myself properly, to address any changes or concerns I might have, and to do it often. I am nearly 27! This was clearly a shortcoming in my own research, but having it covered at school would have been a good start.
- Cervical Screening . Granted this is definitively for women aged 25 and over, due to its rarity in ages below (something I am increasingly concerned about), I think covering the overarching health of the female reproductive system should include information about what to expect when the time comes. I have had my first, and what helped was a clip I watched, I think it was possibly on This Morning, of a doctor from Embarrassing Bodies having a smear test live on camera. It looked absolutely fine. I went for mine last year, it was a tad awkward and slightly uncomfortable, but over in minutes, and definitely worth it for the confirmation of everything working as normal in the cervical region. If it turned out there was an abnormality, I would not have regretted going for my screening when asked, so please do not put it off.
- Unrealistic standards in pornography. I’m pretty sure all of us had encountered some form of pornography by the age of 13/14, and my experience was already cynical – mainly pertaining to the amount of bodily hair these people had, which was largely nothing from the neck down. I considered this unrealistic but that was where the lack of realism ended for me – everything else I considered accurate! Perhaps I lived a sheltered life but in heterosexual coupling everything was centred around the man finishing first, or solely. That was the ultimate goal. He was also to be generally silent, and the woman loud, to show her appreciation, obviously. The setting was always spotless, and the lighting was always perfect. (Btw any adult film directors, if you can hook me up with some decent lighting sources for my dark and dingy flat, that would be great, I would like some proper light for reading.)
On that note of enlightenment I shall abandon this already too-long post, and will inevitably return with Part 2 shortly, as there are way too many things to cover. Granted this is all from a female perspective, I am interested to know of your thoughts. I will refrain from apologising for oversharing, as this was my goal.
Well done for reading this! What would you add? I’m very intrigued to know.