Sex education, in my school, back in the early 1980s was perfunctory to say the least. It wasn’t even called sex education. In my first year of high school, we got one class on “Human Reproduction” in science that covered the basic mechanics of penetration, fertilisation and gestation.
In my second year, in what was called “Social Education”, one class covered sex in the context of relationships. It was however, very much in the “when a man and a woman love each other very, very much and want to make a baby” vein.
There was nothing really about the emotional aspects of sex. There was nothing about “alternative” sexual relationships. A question from one of my classmates about whether or not it was “natural” for men to masturbate gave rise to much adolescent giggling and a slightly flustered and non-committal response from the teacher. And yes, you will notice it was specifically a question about male masturbation, the fact that females might also indulge didn’t even enter our minds.
Essentially, we got the absolute minimum information they thought they could get away with telling us. It was the educational equivalent of “I think you’d better ask your father about that one…”
The growing AIDS epidemic from the mid-80s onwards did put a bit more emphasis on safety. Largely however, apart from increasing the awareness of sexually transmitted diseases, the main message was be faithful/monogamous and don’t have casual sex.
Growing up on a farm, I was familiar with the concept of animals mating. The reproductive side of sex was, at least, something I was theoretically aware of. My mother was always open to talk about such things if I wanted to ask, but it was very much up to me to raise the topic if it was to be discussed. She never attempted to force knowledge on me.
As a parent, I have tried to be open about such matters. Without ever pushing information at my son, I told him what he wanted to know when he asked it. As he got older and started having “girlfriends” the level of detail behind what was discussed increased. As sex education was introduced at school (now in the later years of primary school rather than the early secondary school years in my day), I was able to discuss the subject in increasing depth.
For me, I think sex education is a collaboration. As parents we have a duty to inform our children, to keep them safe, and allow them to make the “right” decisions for them. Schools of course, should play their part by filling in the gaps to make sure all children have a common basic knowledge/information about sex, sexuality and sexual health.
The one thing that can’t really be taught, either in the classroom, or at your parent’s knee, is the emotional aspect. Yes, you can discuss it in general terms, but emotion is a highly individual experience. It’s one of those things you can only learn through living.
What would have improved my own sex education? I’m not sure. Much as I have bemoaned its inadequacy above, ironically it was sufficient for my needs. I was brought up to have respect for other people and, when the time came, this applied to sex as much as it did any other human interaction. I was brought up to consider other people’s needs. Again, this follows when having sex. In a very real way, sex was just one more aspect of life and living that the values I had been taught applied to. Looking back now, I suspect, for me at least, that was the most important lesson of all.