Writing by Elsa Simmons. Illustration by Berenika Murray.
Leaving my Catholic secondary school offered a certain clarity to my experience of sex education. I recognised it to be severely lacking in certain areas, devoid of the classic condom-on-banana tutorial and shrouded in the cloak of ‘Church teaching’.
My memory of sex 'education' at school comes back to the yearly 'Ten Ten’ theatre productions. A prime opportunity to miss an afternoon of lessons, the plays would consist of a couple of hours of adults shaming teenagers, promoting abstinence and undermining the effectiveness of contraception - all rounded off with a prayer and moment of silent reflection. The figure of shame - always a girl - would consider undertaking a life-changing event, such as sending a nude to her boyfriend or even having sex before marriage. Fortunately, she would see sense and avoid such sin at the last minute, ultimately saving the trajectory of her life. Less fortunately, the girls in the audience who had already done such evil deeds would leave the play crying. Other memorable moments include the 'born again' virgin who preached that having sex young had ruined her life, warning a crowd of teenagers that sex would ‘change a woman's brain chemistry’. Another actor preceded to advise that if we never got married, we should 'just never have sex’. When the actor suggested that sex caused a change in a woman’s ‘brain chemistry’, she was not only suggesting a typically over-emotional female response; she was enforcing the sense of permanent change, and of irrevocable damage, which has instilled fear into young women for centuries.
This yearly ritual supplemented the basic curriculum, where sex education was conducted purely through Biology and Religious Education classes. In biology classes, the science teacher stealthily avoided explaining much more than 'the sperm meets the egg'. Also, classes when our RE teacher would methodically address each form of contraception, stressing not only that the Church disapproved of each but that they ‘weren't fully effective’, and you should expect an STD or unwanted pregnancy if you used one. And of course, we were made to memorise all the Church's teachings on abortion. Revisiting the topic with my schoolmates I have found variation in our experiences, one of my friends recounts a traumatic lesson in which her RE teacher played the video ultrasound of a foetus being aborted, "screaming" and struggling to escape the device. He turned off the video and reminded the class that abstinence was the only form of contraception.
Instances like this highlight not only the distress and shame that Catholic sex education encouraged but also its arbitrary nature, which made students victim to individual teachers’ strains of conservatism. There were no PSHE lessons which dealt with sex within relationships, Queer sex, and God forbid pleasure. This thus produced a curiosity that led most to build their knowledge from porn, online forums or other suspect sources. Amidst a growing issue of normalised violent sex, in which studies report more than a third of under-40 women experiencing "unwanted slapping, choking, gagging or spitting" it is more important than ever that all students receive education on what healthy and respectful sex should be, without their first grains of knowledge coming from the graphic world of porn.1
It has repeatedly been shown that abstinence-only education does not work, failing to practically prepare teenagers for the realities of sex, and the avoidance of unwanted pregnancies or STDs. Studies in the US have shown that states with abstinence-only curriculums maintain the same levels of sex outside marriage; the key difference no doubt being the extra sprinkling of shame.2 This shame is due in large part to the perpetuation of the myth of virginity, a societal construct used to control women within religion and relationships. Dating back to the Christianisation of the Roman Empire and the development of the cult of Mary, virginity has been closely associated with a woman’s morality, the ‘intact’ female body a symbol of virtue. The virginity myth has in recent times taken the form of pseudoscience, with so-called 'virginity tests’ and hymen repair surgery only being banned in the UK this year.3 Therefore when the plays at my school focused only on a girl’s ‘first time’, this was not for ease of narrative but because female virginity is a tool of control, and female sexual behaviour an excuse to shame. It is hard to escape the fact that these teachings influenced a broader atmosphere at the school, where sex was treated with a certain caution, scandalised even in sixth form, and girls were disproportionately shamed for rumoured sexual experiences. This cultivation of Catholic guilt for deeds not yet done has inspired consequences such as friends who have been 'scared into abstinence' through a culture of misinformation.
The bishop's prerogative in structuring our education is something that is outdated and unhealthy in a largely secular society. It seems obvious that the sex and relationships curriculum in Britain - though lacking even in its secular form much of the information needed to address the diversity of sexual experience - should be standardised, acknowledging the failures of religious abstinence-based education. It is time that these discussions shift from ‘Do not’ to ‘If and when you do’, informing and educating on the complex reality of sex in all its forms.
2 https://www.publichealth.columbia.edu/public-health-now/news/abstinence-only-education- failure