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Feminspire | April 17, 2014

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Sex Ed Gone Wrong: How School Officials Labeled Me a Slut

Sex Ed Gone Wrong: How School Officials Labeled Me a Slut

| On 01, Jul 2013

At the tender age of fifteen, an event occurred which I still consider to be way up there in my most humiliating please-kill-me-now moments (and there are quite a few to choose from). My then-boyfriend Matt had earlier announced to a friend in an English class that we had had sex. This became a rumor which was overheard by teacher who apparently became concerned about my reputation. Cue the school nurse pulling me out of a science class, leaving everyone speculating that I must be pregnant, resulting in me sitting opposite the nurse and deputy head while they looked at me with utter disdain and asked me:

“So.. what exactly did you get up to with Matt?”

Expecting no more than a lecture, a few leaflets on sexually transmitted diseases and maybe a free condom if I was lucky, I made the very poor decision to just be honest. Unfortunately, I got quite a lot more than I bargained for. The school later called up my mum and told her the details of the conversation, which I thought had been in confidence. But even worse, they had also reported it to social services because they thought I was promiscuous and at risk.

At my school, apparently it was OK for teachers to listen to students’ gossip and label me as ‘promiscuous’ based on nothing more than rumor. Apparently it was OK to go behind my back to speak to my mum and social services, without even asking me how I felt about the whole issue. Apparently it was OK to make me feel ashamed and humiliated about having sex.

When the teacher first overheard Matt talking about us having sex – did they assume he was promiscuous? Of course not. Were social services informed just because he had decided to have sex? Not a chance. Had they even considered that he could be vulnerable? No way. The teacher speaking to him just told him to make sure he ‘put something on the end of it’. We had both done exactly the same thing and yet for me the consequences were much more severe. I either had to be vulnerable or promiscuous if I was having sex as a teen, whereas for Matt it was completely normal. The message was very clear – if you’re a girl having sex as a teenager, you’re a slut. If you’re a boy having sex – well, you’re just a boy.

The attitude of teachers and school management was a prime example of slut shaming and double standards. But it wasn’t only coming through in one-off cases such as mine; these attitudes were also filtering into sex education. In my school, girls and boys were separated for sex ed lessons which just highlighted the different lessons we were being taught. Don’t boys need to know about periods? Don’t girls need to know how to put on a condom? What is the logic of separating boys and girls to talk about the issue which will affect both genders in such a significant way as they get older?

The UK may not have abstinence-based sex education in the same way that the States does, but the message was clear enough – if you are female and dare to have sex, terrible things will happen. Our sex education lessons were essentially a list of why you should not have sex; obviously pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections were high up on the list, but it also included reputation and likely regret. Of course teenagers need to know the risks of having sex, but shouldn’t there be more to it than that?

Sex education for the boys though, according to my friends at least, can be summed up as ‘use a condom’. They were given barely any information on pregnancy (not a man’s responsibility, right?), on whether they were emotionally ready for sex, or if they were being taken advantage of. But they were also never given the message that they were promiscuous or a slut for having sex, and they were not scared away from the idea of sex in the same way that the girls were.

There were other issues with the sex education we received too. It was entirely focused on heterosexual penetrative sex, leaving the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender population of the school uninformed and alienated by a heteronormative approach. It did not address rape or sexual abuse, or the emotional aspects of sex. It failed to meet the diverse group of students it was trying to educate, by perpetuating rigid gender roles and inflexible ideas about what sex is.

In my school, sexist attitudes and double standards were deeply embedded in the (white, conservative and middle-class) culture of the school. Thinking back on it now, I’m worried for others who have been or will be made to feel humiliated about sex, scared away from it or made to feel ashamed of their bodies.

My sister is fifteen and attending the same school I went to. But I want her to know that whenever and however she chooses to have sex, it is not something to be scared or ashamed of. I want her to understand that the choices she makes about her body are not subject to the approval of anyone else. I want her to know that sexist attitudes are still prevalent in today’s society and sometimes they can rear their ugly head in places you don’t expect them. I want her to question the beliefs of adults around her, to see that just because someone is a teacher does not mean that they know best.

Even though sex ed has come a long way in recent years, how can any teenager really make informed and healthy choices for themselves about sex if the same prejudiced attitudes remain? Sex education should not just be a matter of schools providing teenagers with pregnancy and STI statistics along with a leaflet about contraception and a free condom. We need to instill young people with the confidence and knowledge to make informed choices about sex which are right for them. We need to dispel the myth that having sex when you’re a teenager makes you a slut. And most of all, we need teachers to take the lead in promoting a more positive and open-minded attitude towards sex in order to engage, rather than alienate, teenagers in conversations about sex.

Written by Emmy Fisher

  • T

    I think that this is something that varies from school to school really. I live in the UK and all of my lessons, besides the very first one I had in year 6, have been within a mixed group. My sex ed covered everything from Periods to putting on a condom. I’m pretty sure that that’s something that you can complain to your local authority about. They can only go to the local authorities if they find out you’re in proper danger, and having sex obviously isn’t danger.

    Of course, all sex ed needs to be better. I know we had a lesson that covered Gay and Bisexual relationships but I don’t think that it included anything on Tran* or any other kind of relationship. I don’t remember much about sexual violence, but I talked to the teacher who was in charge of it all and she said that she would make sure to put it on the syllabus for the next years group.

    • SamOfTheChalk

      I think the issue about GSD+ education is that heterosexual, gay and bisexual relationships are seen as more high-risk than lesbian or trans*. For the former, I think it’s due to the lack of penetration, which would limit the spread of STDs, whilst for the latter I think it’s just old, cis white males going “eww, that’s icky!”, or lack of information.

      As a trans* female in Australia, we got lessons at our school about all relationships, and they made a point to educate that the safe sex practises that were taught were applicable in any sexually active relationship, not just heterosexual or penetrative.

      Something the UK system seems to lack overall is rape lessons, but I’m not sure why. It’s so clearly an important issue, especially for women and trans* people (who are *statistically* at higher risk of rape and assault).

  • Ci

    I agree with T – I think it does vary from school to school. Like you, I experienced pretty useless sex ed. The only contraception we were taught about was condoms – there was possibly a mention of the pill, but I think that was it. There was never any discussion about being ready for sex, nothing about rape or sexual abuse, and certainly never anything about gay/lesbian/trans*. Also, our PSHE lessons (in which we had sex ed) were stopped in year 10, and replaced by full days about PSHE topics. Surely, stopping regular sex ed lessons for 15 and 16 year olds can’t be a good decision.
    I’m now sixteen and sex is increasingly relevant to me, but I’m finding myself turning to the internet to get the sex ed I never really got at school. It’s a shame.

  • Rose

    In my school we have a mixed sex-ed lesson every few years, the basic message being ‘kids can work it out for themselves!’, the most recent one for me had a basic underlying subtext of, “girls, you’ll get pregnant and have STD’s from sex and the contraceptive you take will not protect you from every thing, Boys, girls will give you STD’s, so wear condoms”, they did mention other types of sex other than vaginal but then ruined it by saying that vaginal sex was ‘proper sex’

  • Erin

    Sex ed has, I think, improved some whilst I’ve been in the education system, but it’s still severely lacking. In Year 5, boys and girls were separated and the girls sat through a weird video about periods. I don’t know what the boys did. It was cancelled in Year 6; in Year 7 we did a little bit about puberty; and then nothing until Year 10. We had one lesson in science, which looked at it from a purely scientific viewpoint, and two lessons in citizenship which started to mention the emotional side, but was mostly “OMG STIs”. There was never anything about sex outside heteronormative PIV intercourse, and – whilst we did cover most of the main forms of contraception (though not in-condoms…) – we were never taught how to put a condom on. It was the bare basics and that was it.