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Why I wish I had better sex education growing up

For #SHW23 we’re Playing It Safe. In this blog, Brook Forum Member Rachel Jardine takes us through her experience of RSE at school and why she feels she missed out on vital information. 

At 22 years old, having just graduated university, sex education remains the standout subject through all my education stages that fascinated me most.

However, school was perhaps the place where I learned the least about sex, relationships, and puberty.  

In primary school when visiting my local library each week, I would gravitate towards the books about puberty, sex, and relationships. Knowing that I wasn’t permitted to check these books out of the library by my parents, I would take my time to sit on the library’s floor cushions and immerse myself in the information, searching for the answers to all my questions, retaining as much as I could.  

Around the same time, my friend’s mum had given her an illustrated book about puberty. She paraded around the playground, passing out information for us to absorb.

In this same way, most parts of my early sex education came from exchanging stories and facts with my friends and classmates.  

Most notable was the time that I learned the basics of contraception, when a classmate told me that her mum had “taken a tablet that means you don’t get pregnant”. When I came home that night and told my parents, they struggled to explain what this really meant. I came away from this interaction with some new information about sex: I discovered that some people feel uncomfortable talking about sex and that if had questions, I would have to find other ways to get the answers. 

I finally received my first formal sex education lessons during my second last year of primary school. Similar to my discussion with my parents, the way we found out that we’d be receiving sex education was surrounded with shame and secrecy. As we were leaving our classroom, our teacher told us to stand in a line and open our bags. He folded up a sheet of A4 paper and placed it into our bags, one by one, without any verbal discussion with us on what he was doing. Being the curious 10-year-olds that we were, it didn’t take long for my classmates and I to find out what the sheet of paper was about- we were getting sex education lessons the following week.  

In the end, the extent of this education was teaching us the very basic elements of puberty and sex, focusing heavily on the biological and gendered aspects of these topics. While this gave my classmates and I some solid groundwork on which we could build our understanding, it failed to give us a full insight of what to expect as our bodies went through puberty.  

Upon reflection, it was my frustration towards these initial discussions during our lessons that ignited my curiosity and eagerness in learning more about puberty and growing up.  

To compensate for any questions I still had surrounding puberty, I turned to YouTube. I would stay up on school nights, watching back-to-back videos of people talking about their first period stories.  

I envisioned that high school would give me further answers to burning questions I had surrounding sex, puberty and relationships. However, my formal secondary school sex education stayed at a similar level of simplicity. Unlike primary school, there was no designated time for sex education lessons in high school. There were only two places that our formal secondary sex education occurred; during lifeskills, a compulsory subject our school implemented for person, social and health education, or during our later year biology classes. 

During one of our first lifeskills classes, my teacher handed out a small box to all of the girls. Just like my experience in primary school, this teacher didn’t mention what it was, but left us to investigate. Inside was a premade period kit, including three period pads, two tampons and an information leaflet detailing period education and how to use the products in the kit. I actually have a lot of gratitude for this moment, as it was this kit that I turned to when I got my first period a couple of months later.  

As we got older, our lifeskills teacher shifted the focus from puberty to teach us the basics about condom use and where to find our local sexual health clinic. Like my primary school sex education, some of us were receiving this information too late, meaning the pupils in my year and I had found alternative ways and places to learn these lessons. 

It was after our first few years of high school that some of the people in my year started exploring their sexual selves and telling the people around them about what they were getting up to. I had also entered my first, and only, high school relationship at the end of my second year of high school. It was in this relationship that I found out about my own sexual realities, experiencing some of the things I’d learned about first-hand, and in other instances experimenting with things that I hadn’t been taught.  

Learning while exploring was an exciting but intense way to figure out the rest of the questions I had surrounding sex.

I was extremely lucky that, even from those beginning moments of my first sexual encounters, I was able to establish my sexual boundaries with my partner in a consensual and comfortable manner. However, I do wish that I had more in-depth sex education from my school before I started engaging in sexual activity. I feel that earlier educational intervention would have given me the knowledge to make better, more educated choices and would have granted me the awareness of what to do if something had gone wrong or my safety had been at risk. 

This desire for more comprehensive, teacher-taught sex education was partly fulfilled within my last few years of school, in my exam level biology class. Our lesson on the menstrual cycle, ovulation and fertility sticks out to me most, when my teacher made a passing comment around the number of days that a person who is menstruating can get pregnant during their cycle. With my continuing curiosity about sex, I raised my hand in front of the classroom and questioned what she was saying, “so…do you mean that you can only get pregnant a few days a month?” “Yes and no…”, she told me. Asking to speak to me after class, she told me “…please just don’t have sex”. Similar to what I had experienced when learning about contraception as a primary school pupil, I was shut down again for being curious and asking questions that the people I was asking, were not comfortable in answering. 

As I felt that I couldn’t go to my teachers for my queries, I turned to Google, Instagram and podcasts.

It was through this online exploration that I found Brook, the NHS website and a host of other reputable sources to find sexual health information. By the time I started university, I felt relatively equipped with the information I needed. In moments of confusion, I had trusted sources like Brook that I could turn to, and friends around me who would support me in whatever way I needed.  

I do feel that younger me missed out on opportunities of education, because I didn’t know where or how to access accurate, trusted information about sex education. I wish I could tell my younger self that she will find places and people to teach her the correct information surrounding sexual health topics. I’d let her know that her curiosity for learning about sex still hasn’t gone away, there will always be more to learn and now she has places, such as the Brook website, that she can go to find out the answers to every question she could possibly think of! 

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