Joyce McMillan: Let’s talk about sex … differently

Better understanding of our bodies could stem Scotland's high rate of teenage pregnancy. Picture: PA
Better understanding of our bodies could stem Scotland's high rate of teenage pregnancy. Picture: PA
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ABOUT half a century ago, when I first heard the whole story about the facts of life, I remember having a good cry; not because I was shocked by the physical details, but because I suddenly realised, with the force of a revelation, that my feelings were not the airy, abstract forces they had seemed to be while I was a child, but also things of the earth, tied to the daily surge of blood and hormones.

For some reason, this thought confused me; I felt the world was more complex than I had realised, its distinctions between the things of the mind and the things of the body less clear-cut.

At least I was living through this moment, though, in a context – at home, with my mother – where I had time and space to think about it all; and I thought again about that experience, as I read this week’s report from the Scottish Parliament’s health and sport committee about Scotland’s high rate of teenage pregnancy, and the need for better and earlier sex education, if we are to reduce it.

In a sense, of course, teenage pregnancy is not really the most worrying indicator of sexual dysfunction in our society; babies are lovely in themselves, and at least some teenage mums find that they give their lives a whole new sense of purpose.

We do, though, continue to suffer from high levels of domestic violence, and from a growing online pornography culture which actively encourages young men to adopt dehumanising and brutal attitudes to women; for weeks now, our newspapers have been full of the story of the Glasgow club that, unbelievably, thought it would be “just a bit of fun” to install a one-way mirror in its ladies’ toilet, so that groups of men who had booked the room on the other side of the glass could leer unseen at women putting on their make-up and adjusting their clothes, as if they had no right to privacy or dignity at all.

Facebook and other social networking sites have only recently started to take down pages that actively incite violence against women, pages with names like “Raping Your Friend Just For A Laugh”; and then there is the increasing focus of sexual imagery and porn sites away from mature female bodies, towards the now widespread assumption that a high proportion of men, given half a chance, will prefer women who look like under-age girls, or will take the opportunity to view some 
child porn.

All of which suggests that some change in the way we educate people about sex is indeed urgently required; there is nothing more tragic than the idea that this joyless trade in ever more sensational, exploitative and dehumanising sexual imagery has anything to do with real arousal, real pleasure, real sexual happiness. And in their observations on teenage pregnancy, the Scottish Parliament committee is certainly right to argue that girls who lack self-esteem, and a strong sense of their own value, are more likely to end up unwillingly pregnant than their more confident classmates.

It’s when it comes to the proposed remedies, though, that the immensity of the problem – compared to any solutions we can offer – becomes apparent; in fact, it’s difficult not to agree with some critics that sex education in British schools has so far proved so ineffective that simply doing more of it – directing it at children as young as seven, and handing out condoms to 13-year-olds, as the committee suggests – is unlikely to make much difference.

For in the first place, we are dealing with a society where, almost 50 years on from our supposed sexual revolution, a high proportion of parents still feel that they cannot really inform or talk to their own children about sex; and where, to judge by the survey on school sex education attached to the report, many schoolteachers suffer from the same problem.

Secondly, we are dealing with a society where there has been massive improvement, over the last generation, in the position of gay people, and – for example – in the ability to speak out about child sexual abuse; but where the brief and empowering sexual revolution that swept through the heterosexual world in the Sixties and Seventies has been overtaken by a tide of commercial exploitation which, despite its superficial frankness, is in fact about disconnecting 
people from their own sexual feelings, and replacing real sexual encounters with dependence on a commercial product which, to maintain its impact, has to move into ever more dangerous and ugly territory.

And finally, we are dealing with a society which, when it recognises a problem, often asks the education system to sort it out; while at the same time remaining so confused that it can agree neither on what line it wants the schools to take, nor on whether schools should be spending valuable classroom time on this sort of “pastoral” subject at all.

What this report says to me, in other words, is that the sexual unhappiness of some of our most vulnerable young people is simply the tip of a huge iceberg of sexual confusion and dysfunction, which breaks the surface of our society only occasionally, but which is intimately bound up with a culture where all things are commodified, where people are easily objectified, and where empathy and respect are often in short supply.

Under the circumstances, the surprising thing is not that some of our young people end up in serious trouble, but that so many of them – thanks to caring parents, brilliant teachers, and their own strength of character – manage to navigate so well through the shoals and swamps of the sexual world we have made for them.

And if we want any part of that young generation to change their ways, our first task should be to look in the mirror, and to ask ourselves what we have done, of late, to fight the sexual demons of sleaze, exploitation, bullying, and pornographic tat; and then to talk to our sons and daughters about sex, not as a dirty joke or a major embarrassment, but as an aspect of love, a source of joy, and a gift to be treasured, nurtured, made to last a lifetime.