On my first day at secondary school, I learned two things.
The first was that I should never, ever, under any circumstances slam a door in my RE teacher’s face.
The second was that Miss Grey, the biology teacher, was suspected to be a lesbian, and perhaps even lived with the geography teacher, Miss Banks.
Of course, we approached this information with the maturity of a group of girls who suspected that lesbians might not even actually exist. We gossiped fruitlessly about it for months, until I plucked up the courage to ask my cousin about it. She had recently left the sixth-form of the same school, and was now living what I considered to be a life of extreme glamour as an undergraduate at Durham University.
‘Yes,’ she said coldly over the phone, ‘Miss Grey is a lesbian. Get over it.’
Chastened, I stammered, ‘Oh I don’t mind, obviously. I just wondered if you knew.’
‘Everyone knows,’ she replied. ‘It’s hardly a secret.’ And then she sighed, as I assume she refereed an internal battle between her grown-up, be-gowned self and her inner schoolgirl.
‘Look,’ she said, ‘the tradition is that you wait until sex ed in the second year. She offers you the chance to write down any questions anonymously on a piece of paper. Everyone has to use that opportunity to ask if she’s a lesbian. She never responds, but it’s worth it just to see the look on her face.’
Well, that’s a mighty long time to wait when you’re twelve and wildly over-excited by meeting a real, live lesbian. I bided my time by developing a stance of world-weary disinterest over the whole lesbian thing, while carefully ensuring that everyone in my year knew about the correct way to abuse her Q&A. ‘Apparently,’ I would drawl, ‘some girls use it as a chance to ask if she’s a lesbian. How immature!’
When the special topic finally arrived, we learned that Miss Grey had thought better of the anonymous Q&A format. It turned out, also, that she had as little respect for our burgeoning sexualities as we did for hers. She made us sit through weeks of cell division and diagrammatic reconstructions of reproduction in flowers, before starting the really juicy bit thus:
‘Right, ladies, open your folders and take down the following notes. Heading: ‘Three reasons not to have sex before marriage. One; Risk of sexually transmitted diseases. Two; risk of pregnancy. Three; poor reputation gained by the woman in question.’
Then she handed us out a pair of diagrams in which the genitals of both sexes appeared only to be visible from side view, internally.
That was twenty years ago, but we’re still confused over how to talk about sex now. The problem is that we’re squeamish, and we don’t want to do anything to disrupt our nebulous idea of childhood. But that means that we often wait until our teenagers are insanely curious about sex, and then portray it as something seedy, dangerous and physically harmful.
Now, of course we must help teenagers to understand the risks, and support them to delay intercourse until they can effectively judge the safety and privacy of the situation, and the trustworthiness of the person with whom they’re having sex. But somewhere along the line, it would be nice if we also found a way of transmitting the idea that their sexuality will hopefully bring them great joy and pleasure throughout the course of their adult lives.
And, interestingly, the way we talk about sex to teenagers is reflected in the way we talk to other adults about our sexual selves. Although we may share every gory detail in our teens, and may continue to confess in this way when under the influence of alcohol, our official, sober line tends to be ‘Ew.’
‘TMI!’ we cry when confronted with any level of detail about our friends’ adventuring. Worse, we become actively censorious over anything kinky or risqué. We hate the idea of other people having more fun than us.
Well, from now on, I propose a change of tack. I want the best for my friends. I want them to have happy, well-loved, fit and well, with fulfilling careers and restful homes. I want them to have all the excitement they can stomach and all the repose they need. And that also means that I want them to have having fantastic sex. I don’t say ‘astonishingly frequent’ or ‘jaw-droopingly athletic’ (because I have no desire to set unattainable goals against which I will judge them); I just hope that they get what they desire.
From now on, let’s stop feigning horror at the existence of our friends’ erotic selves, and instead offer them some affirmation for it. Let’s refuse to pretend we’re disgusted by the idea of them having sex, and let’s not pretend to be appalled at their explorations. Let’s be honest about our own situations, and offer help and advice when it’s needed. In short, let’s treat our friends’ sexualities with the same honour we treat the rest of their lives.
I, for one, hope that all my friends are getting something extremely wonderful between the sheets. And if they want to talk to me about it, I’m all ears.