“Sex!” the science teacher leered. We were watching a film about bacteria and hygiene and he stopped it twice, rewound the film on the clicking reels and slowed it down so that we could linger over a woman soaping her body in the shower.
“There it is, boys!” he chuckled.
I didn’t like him because he was a casual martinet who enjoyed coaching sport for the opportunity it gave him to be a bully. The film was just one of a series of inadequate gestures at sex education that punctuated my school life. I went to a mediocre public school (that means private, for my -European readers) on a scholarship. It was a Methodist school in Taunton, Somerset: both small-minded and provincial. There was chapel in the morning, but the curriculum and the teachers were not particularly religious. They were similar to what I have seen in all kinds of schools in my professional life: mostly useless.
I want to talk about this experience because I have come to the conclusion that the openness of Summerhill is the best option for sex education. And reflecting on my own experiences only reinforces that feeling.
The sex education was more than normally inadequate at Queens College, Taunton, because girls only started in the school the year after I started there. This meant that I was in a class of boys until I reached sixteen and teachers, like Mr S. the science teacher who showed that film, treated us like inmates in a prison. The chummy use of the term “Boys” or “Lads” could not hide the fact that we were herded around like animals and from our pen we had to put up with the pornographer general. Lame.
Sex education at the time was in the news. The GLC in London had published some enlightened sex education literature suggesting that homosexual relationships were OK. The Conservative government on the other hand was delightedly calling AIDS the “gay plague” and putting out a series of Apocalyptic advertisements on the television with the graphic use of tombstones and sombre music. The religious moralists were shaking their wrinkly necks and bleating on about the price to be paid for Free Love.
“You cannot have sex education without teaching relationships and the family,” the politicians said.
“What a load of bullshit,” I thought.
My teachers- and every other teacher I have ever met in my life- were a venal lot. We all knew which of them were fucking around. The Maths teacher was having an affair with the French teacher. The kids saw them smooching in parked cars in carparks that were not quite remote enough. One of the women teachers seduced the Sixth Form students. Who was going to take seriously the moral postures of that lot? Of course there were prudes and uptight matrons as well but you wouldn’t want sex education from someone with a powdery face and old lady perfume, would you? They wouldn’t tell you anything useful or relevant anyway.
I was smothered by the moral fog. It took me a long time to realise that it was simply not true that sex in a loving relationship was better sex. Who was measuring the quality of the orgasm? How the hell would they know? Wasn’t there a whole genre of half smutty films about heroes such as James Bond who went around having sex with any pretty girl they met? It was fantasy, sure, but so was the Conservative idea about marriage. “Sex is more than mere copulation. It is best in a long-term loving relationship,” they would say. But that was obviously not true and the moralists themselves didn’t believe it. It was not unknown for Conservative politicians to be found wearing women’s underwear, for example, and I don’t think they borrowed the wife’s knickers.
It was a benign lie told to children, like the lie about there being a just God overseeing them to make sure they didn’t steal. I don’t want to disparage sex in long-term loving relationships but it seems to me self-evident that this is not necessarily the “best”, whatever that might mean.
We learnt a lot about fruit flies and clawed toads. We learnt to identify the parts of the human body on a diagram. We absorbed the usual patriarchal crap in history lessons, read around the interesting parts of many good books in English lessons and sucked up a kind of sexual pessimism from the environment: somewhere more glamorous people were living colourful, passionate lives, but we were living in perpetual greyness and were headed for a grey future. Underlying it all were some smug moralities that I still find offensive: teenage pregnancy was for losers; sleeping around was OK for boys but not for girls; girls who dressed up were “asking for it.”
Talk About Differences
If there is one thing that appeals to me about Neill above all else it is his testy rejection of moralists. Moralists come in all shapes and sizes. There are even secular moralists who gleefully take on the role of telling other people how to behave without swallowing any of the religious stuff. That is even more tawdry. At least the Christian heaven is open to everyone; bourgeois atheist morals are just a way of separating the deserving from the undeserving in a limp parody of religious selection: teenage pregnancy is bad for society and other such nonsense.
No, for me the only sensible way to engage in sex education is to separate it completely from morals. Talk to young people about the differences between sexes. Let them know about different sexual orientations, just so they can be a bit more tolerant and not quite so gob-smackingly ignorant when they come across someone different to themselves. And then let them talk out the boundary between freedom and licence.
You don’t need to know much to have sex: most animals do it without ever having read a book or gone to a class. This means that a whole lot of sex education is really about something else altogether. And, if it is about social control and making people into “good” citizens then I think we need to be honest about that and talk it out… because children can make their own decisions about whether to take it seriously or not.
Give them some information and let them make their own decisions.
[All images from Wikimedia Commons]