Tuesday May 3 1977 may not be a date many have cause to recall or even remember; but that was the day when the BBC’s TV service for schools and colleges broadcast the facts of life to a classroom of nine-year-olds at my school. Episode one of ‘Merry Go Round: The Facts of Life’ was the first of three which outlined the basics of reproduction both between humans and in the animal kingdom, the most simple and straightforward explanation to that eternal kids’ question: ‘Where do babies come from?’
In a sense, that’s the only question that need be answered at that age, even though I don’t recall ever posing it; it wasn’t really of interest to me, even when my mum gave birth to my brother when I was going-on five. I don’t think it ever crossed my mind as to how my mum became pregnant; it was just something that happened to mums. I suppose belonging to one of the first generations to receive the rudiments of sex education from television spared my dad any embarrassing chats about the birds and the bees that had once been obligatory between father and son, but ‘sex’ was just a word to me and my playground chums that provoked sniggers. Via ‘Carry On’ films, Benny Hill, page 3 and the odd pair of bare breasts exposed on an episode of ‘The Sweeney’ we’d managed to catch sight of on those rare occasions when we’d stay-up past our usual bedtimes, sex was something to laugh about.
If a near-the-knuckle joke about sex was sneaked into a family comedy show, parental opinion would be that such indiscretion was ‘dirty’ or ‘filthy’ – associating sex with something nasty that a cold shower was required to wash away. There was even a magazine in the 1970s called ‘Funny Half-Hour’, consisting solely of cartoons in a saucy seaside postcard style; tits, bums, fannies and willies were objects of humour or disgust, as rubber johnnies would become as soon as we heard about them; every nickname for a sexual organ or act was a funny word. Porn mags (or ‘mucky books’) on the top shelf of a newsagent’s or the photos in the window of a seedy city centre sex shop were there seemingly to be pointed and laughed at; we knew reference to them in adult company would probably lead to a smack on the backside, so they were only referred to in whispers.
It’s evident now that by equating sex either with humour or dirt, our parents were doing their best to prolong our childhoods, well aware there’d be plenty of time for us to experience the realities of sex. Even when we were let in on the secrets of reproduction, the nature of sex as it had been presented to us through the media remained that of something ‘naughty’ and ‘cheeky’, reserved for adults and not for us. The school sex education syllabus, with the help of the BBC, wasn’t an attempt to indoctrinate an approved design for life, but a necessary and sensible aspect of the educational process as much as learning to read or count. We’d always been warned to steer clear of strangers, but it was only short films shown at school that gave us a clearer indication of what the intentions of these strangers would be should we fall for their spiel. So, we were made aware that some men saw children in a sexual light. Another lesson learnt – end of.
Marriage was suggested as the proper place for sex, but that didn’t mean sex outside of it was branded evil; there were a few kids at school whose parents were rumoured not to be married or the odd one or two who had different surnames to their siblings; but that was all regarded as their business and nothing to do with sex education. The notion that the facts of life should also include stern advice about ‘relationships’ was something that was closer to the more moralistic Catholic incarnation of sex education, not the more flexible C-of-E school version. Across the Irish Sea, sex was also a sin as well as a joke. We were at least spared that.
Some men were ‘poofs’, some women were ‘lezzers’, and some men liked to dress up as women – Danny La Rue being the most famous. But what had that got to do with where babies came from? It was the school’s job to spare parents from awkward lectures and it was the parents’ job to expand the knowledge of every variation on the basic heterosexual theme should they feel the need. The older one grew, however, the more advanced playground chat on the subject became, and by the time puberty approached, we were certainly clearer on what was what than our parents had been at our age.
I would say the sex education I received was sufficient; I was told as much as I needed to be told; the rest I picked up as I grew up. It wasn’t the business of school or state, let alone church, to provide lessons on anything else, really; again, that’s what happened in Ireland. Each aspect of the sexual experience was revealed in dribs and drabs over a period of four or five years at perfectly timed intervals, not in one overwhelming burden of too-much-information at too young an age. The thought of a sex education lesson consisting of a transsexual and his shaven-headed civil partner showing the class how to apply a KY Jelly-covered condom to a banana would have reduced the whole process to a Monty Python sketch, yet one can’t help but feel many within the education system today would regard that as ideal – and, crucially, an approach that should be undertaken without the remotest trace of a smile.
The intervention of those for whom every element of living should adhere to certain rigid guidelines is something that would once have been the preserve of the archetypal Mary Whitehouse types, whereas those whose more adventurous sexual preferences had left them out in the cold mocked the narrow constraints of a no-sex-before-marriage, wholly heterosexual interpretation; now the situation is reversed. The one-time outsiders have ascended to the establishment and are now imposing their own equally inflexible concept of sex education on schoolchildren just as their despised predecessors had, going one brave step further by including lessons on how to behave in a relationship, something that is merely the flip side of the theory that the place for sex is a marriage. The irony is that the previous approach left teens to their own devices, enabling room for mistakes that would be made in order to learn from; the new proposed syllabus lays down a set of rules and regulations that are almost Orwellian in their attempts to breed a society of sexually approved citizens, as laughably limited as those guidebooks that used to be given to young couples as wedding presents.
If the aim of this sex education overhaul, spearheaded by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan (and backed by ‘Rape Culture’ lobbyists), is to prevent the sexual exploitation of adolescents, discrimination against the only gay in the village and the ludicrously high rate of teenage pregnancies, so be it; that’s an admirable aim. But perhaps the excess of soft-porn that has infiltrated so many influential aspects of the media should be looked at? Perhaps the easy availability to children of tunnel-vision hardcore porn that can be sourced via the click of a mouse should be looked at? Perhaps the growing belief that all men are closet rapists or paedophiles should be looked at? Perhaps the enforced worship of WAGS and women who show the path to fame and fortune depends upon the size of one’s breasts and narrowness of one’s waist should be looked at? Perhaps the dereliction of duties by parents should be looked at? Perhaps eleven is too young to be burdened with all this?
And perhaps the importance of love should be mentioned somewhere amidst this rush to sell sex to eleven-year-olds as a sanitised, Utopian videogame sponsored by Durex (in association with Coca-Cola) where, as long as you stick to the rules laid down in official government policy, instant physical gratification will be as easily accessible as the latest release by your favourite band on iTunes.