This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
My sex education consisted of a 280-pound nun denouncing abortion.
She handed out tiny gold casts of feet to illustrate the size a baby would be if you terminated a pregnancy at ten weeks. Prior to that, my biology teacher stuck on some video about sperm before segueing gracelessly into a chat about periods. I asked this question then and I ask it now: Is there any woman in the world who has actually cocked her leg up on the bathtub to insert a tampon?
Sex education—or Personal, Social, and Health Education (PSHE) as it's now known in the UK—has come a long way since. But not nearly far enough.
Last weekend, Labor's formidable MP for Walthamstow, Stella Creasy, chaired the conference " Our Bodies Our Future," as part of her push to make PSHE a statutory part of the national curriculum that begins in elementary school. It was an ambitious event, and edifying to hear young women able to discuss everything from street harassment to forced marriages at an age where I'm 100 percent sure I was carving my crush's initials into my knee with a geometry compass.
Every issue discussed on the day, for me, could be brought back to one focal point: learning about consent. Teaching children the very basics of respecting each other's bodies and boundaries, long before they find themselves in any intimate situation, seems like a no-brainer.
So why is it still not happening?
Last weekend wasn't Creasy's first public push to make PSHE compulsory. In 2013, she used the global One Billion Rising campaign to open parliament up for debate, because the fact is, sex education in the UK is stagnant. That up to a quarter of students in some parts of the UK receive no formal sex education whatsoever is staggering. This is before you consider that one in three gay men diagnosed with HIV in 2012 were in their teens or early 20s, yet more than three-quarters of gay and bisexual young people receive no information or teaching at school about same-sex relationships or safe gay sex, according to the 2014 report, Youth Chances.
Our lack of adequate sex education in this country has, over time, led to a culture of firefighting—we bombard young people with contraceptive information, which is an obvious imperative, but we're not focusing enough on teaching young people the power of "no"—how important that word is, and how, when it comes to sex, we must get used to saying and hearing it. It's all pretty bleak when you consider that Britain has maintained some of the worst teen pregnancy and STI rates in Europe.
Creasy's passionate involvement with this issue is promising. She says she'll take the conversation as high as it can go, and, hearing her speak, I believe her. But there are communities loudly opposing the pledge for compulsory PSHE—some because of obvious religious and cultural grievances, but also parents who don't feel it's a teacher's place to talk to their kids about what is, admittedly, the most sensitive subject in the world.
Though making PSHE statutory wouldn't ensure every child in Britain couldn't just be removed from the lessons entirely, it would stop parents dictating what is taught. One mother at the conference described how a video about the onset of puberty was allowed to be vetted before it was shown to children. A portion gently explaining male touching was left in, but all references to female touching were completely removed. If there was ever a better example of us enforcing our own anxieties onto our children, it's not being allowed to have a matter-of-fact chat with girls about what their clitoris is for. If we want young women to know that sex is for their pleasure, too, removing references to female masturbation is a problem.
A need for frank, emotionally-lead sex education in schools shouldn't be viewed as control being snatched away from parents. Rather, it's admitting that the pressures of growing up are different for every generation and it's likely that, as a parent, you won't ever get a true picture of "how their day went" when they come home from school.
In 2012 a YouGov poll showed that almost a third of 16- to 18-year-old girls had already been subjected to some form of unwanted sexual touching or bullying at school, with the NSPCC adding that a third of 13 to 17-year-old girls in relationships had experienced physical or sexual violence. These are dangerous numbers.
Differentiating young men from the rare breed of Big Bad Rapist is paramount. The vast majority of sexual assault isn't predatory strangers snatching women into alleyways—it's people in our everyday lives. In the everyday lives of teenagers in their first, fraught relationships.
One of my first relationships disintegrated after a drunken night out. I was woken up mid-snore to my skirt being hitched up and, when I continued to pretend I was asleep, my wrist was clutched and I was forced onto my back to be clumsily dry-humped. Were it not for passing out in some pretty industrial control-top stockings, I'm certain the situation would have played out differently.
Every generation will inevitably come up against new and imaginative ways to be fucked up about sex. But we can at least try and give them a base understanding of what a healthy relationship should be.
The next day, it was like nothing untoward had happened. I questioned myself again and again over whether I'd overreacted, whether it was OK for a man—who I had believed respected me—to leave hand prints on my body from where he'd tried force my legs open. The experience was one of many shitty incidents that punctuated my youth that I, like so many of my female friends in similar circumstances, brushed off at the time as just "something that happens." This kind of sexual assault—that often happens within otherwise decent relationships—is thought by many to be a murky area. It's the kind of thing I know some of my male friends would pull the ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ face at, and say, "It's not that bad."
Only, it is that bad. With hindsight, I know these experiences were profoundly wrong. But with no foundations built before and throughout the shit-storm of puberty, it's unrealistic to expect both boys and girls to be able navigate the nuances of sexual situations once they're young adults. Without formative, measured intervention, there may come a time in someone's life when there's too many forces at play to get the message through—whether that's alcohol and drug use, low self-esteem, or confusion over your sexuality.
The push-back on implementing compulsory PSHE also begs the question, where else should we learn about this stuff, if not school? The place where you'll spend five days a week fumbling through textbooks about algebra and World War II, but won't learn a fucking thing about how to handle life-engulfing mood swings, how to make proper sense of your body as it transitions into one ready for sex, and, ultimately, how to enjoy sex—particularly as a woman.
The poverty around understanding consent today lies in what we learn, or don't learn, from those around us. It doesn't lie in the invention of Snapchat nudes. Every generation will inevitably come up against new and imaginative ways to be fucked up about sex. But we can at least try and give them a base understanding of what a healthy relationship should be. Without that we're sending young adults into a world that can be, at best, horribly confusing, and, at worst, detrimental to their personal safety.
Follow Joanna on Twitter.