Time to talk about the birds and the bees?

Mar 01


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Helen Whitten

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Time to talk about the birds and the bees?

It’s probably the moment most of us dreaded as we headed towards our teenage years – that moment where a parent looks excruciatingly embarrassed and starts to tell us about the facts of life. I remember my parents giving me a leaflet all about it, with rather horrible pictures and diagrams that I can still recall. I don’t think they added to this information, most of which I couldn’t, aged 10, make head nor tale of, with any real conversation. I think they scuttled out of the room as fast as they could, leaving me to try to make sense of what it was all about. I believe this is an event experienced by both boys and girls of my generation.

One thing is for sure. The leaflet was all about the physical process of making love and where babies came from. But when I say ‘making love’ there was not, in that document, anything about love, nothing about how you move towards building the trust within a relationship to get to the point where one might make love or have babies. It was just pictures of body parts and how they fitted together.

The aspiration that this moment of copulation would come because the boy and girl, man and woman, had come to know one another and love one another was completely missing from this information. And it seems to me that this situation has become even worse in the age of social media.  Despite years of discussion of sex education, I gather there is still little emphasis on mutual respect, consideration, caring how the other party feels and experiences these extraordinary intimate moments, on the various dating and hook-up apps available online.

So how are today’s teenagers learning about how to treat one another?  The Everyone’s Invited website lists countless terrible experiences to which young girls in schools are being subjected. Ratings on their bodies, put downs, harassment, so the lessons can’t be working very well. At the same time, because of this and the MeToo lobby, young boys can equally be nervous of approaching or touching a girl. For sure it can be difficult for a teenage boy to know how to approach a girl, and potentially will do so clumsily.  But the difference today is that many boys now watch porn from an early age and get very warped ideas about what a relationship is all about. This seems to be translating into them expecting girlfriends to enjoy choking, sado-masochism or violence – a recent survey reported that a third of female undergraduates aged 18-24 in America had been choked the last time they had sex. Of that group, 65 per cent said they experienced it during their first-ever sexual encounter. I really doubt that these girls enjoy this practice. And what a muddled situation this seems to place everyone in.

A few years ago, there was an excellent programme about a Danish sex educationalist who taught sixth formers here and discovered that the girls were accepting all kinds of behaviours that they didn’t enjoy, and in fact found repulsive. But the boys seemed to have a sense of entitlement and expect that the girls would like this treatment (which I won’t repeat here as it repulsed me too), and would taunt them for being frigid or boring if they didn’t go along with what the boy wanted. The teacher then taught the girls to speak up for themselves, and the boys to listen and understand that when they learnt to listen and adapt their expectations the experience was better for all concerned.

These are age-old problems but there is no doubt that social media has exacerbated them.  Statistics I heard today reveal that only 1 in 50 people looking at porn are female, that 98% of sexual crimes are carried out by men, yet that 9 out of 10 romantic books are bought by women.  This does speak of difference, doesn’t it, both in culture but also potentially in hormonal drives, between the sexes. Boys may be confused, yes, but girls are being expected to do all kinds of things that I would have found frightening and horrible.

When I read about Andrew Tate and the culture within the police force, fire brigade, military services, the casual acceptance of vile lyrics in rap, hip-hop and drill music, I become nervous that misogynism is being normalised.  Nervous at how these men, insecure, perhaps, in their resentment of the way women now have a greater voice and may be succeeding in careers and in life, are influencing young boys to resort to the humiliation and debasement of women in order to make themselves feel ok. Doesn’t the number of young men following such online monsters put the conversation onto a different scale? Surely it is time to take a long hard look at what is happening, to stop and talk with young boys about how to feel good in themselves without this behaviour? 

It must be time for a serious and much needed investigation as to why these online gurus encourage boys and men to frighten women.  Men’s physical strength anyway results in girls and women still being fearful of walking down streets at night. Men who care about women take the trouble to walk on the other side of the road so as not to frighten them. Those who get a kick out of frightening women follow them closely, taunt them.  I simply don’t believe that most young boys are violent but these cultural and online interventions could certainly be going some way towards making them so. With the horrifying statistic that an average of 1.53 women are killed in the UK per week by a current or previous male partner, we must come to understand why. Otherwise, we can’t possibly put a stop to it.

My point here is that I believe parents, mentors and teachers need to be having far more in-depth conversations, however excruciating that may be, at a reasonably early age about what respect is, what love is, what consideration and care are, and how that translates not only into words but into behaviours.  Most men and boys are decent and respectful, so let’s ask questions and try to understand why some boys and men are drawn to gurus such as Andrew Tate.  Is it that they feel vulnerable if a girl is clever or successful? If so, how can we help them feel secure enough in themselves to enjoy the success of their girlfriend or wife so that they celebrate this rather than feel diminished by it, or feel the need to diminish others?

I may be wrong, but I don’t get the impression that those awkward early moments of learning about sexual intimacy have developed much beyond that dull and confusing leaflet I was given some 60 years ago. But I fear that things have turned darker, and I am concerned for the young women of the future unless this tide of porn and misogyny is turned back. One charity that is addressing this is Tender – https://tender.org.uk/. They use acting and improvisation exercises to help young children learn empathy and practice the language required to create safe boundaries.  Why not take a look at the website, donate, or encourage your child or grandchild’s school to give them a call? We need to take action on this unsavoury trend, don’t we?


One Response

  1. Hi Helen.
    Well done, you! Such an important subject and one that I feel has gone backwards in school situations. Once upon a time it was possible to approach such subjects differently in Health education – now, perhaps ironically renamed Personal, Social and Health Ed. I didn’t get to teach Health Education until after my children were grown and I can’t remember how (or whether) I talked to them when they were younger. For myself, I didn’t get to learn about ‘copulation’ til I read a biology text book aged 17. What a sheltered life!

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