Sophie Cullinane | Features Editor | Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Way We First Hear About Sex

Does How We Learn About Sex As A Child Impact On Our Sex Lives As An Adult?

The Debrief: Whether it's through our parents, an overzealous school mate or, um, Shaggy, the way we first hear about sex could have important implications for our relationships later on in life

I first found out what sex was after listening to Shaggy’s seminal 1995 masterpiece Boombastic. I was eight years old and enjoying some Marmite sandwiches (crusts on) when Mr Ro-ro-mantic was introduced on Top of the Pops.

Mishearing ‘Shaggy’ for the word ‘shagging’, I merrily bounded off into the kitchen where my mother was entertaining 13 members of my family (including several elderly grandparents) to fill everyone in on my new musical discovery. Standing on a chair so as to best command my family’s full attention, I took a deep breath and announced, ‘I love shagging!’ at the top of my voice. The look on my grandmother’ face told me that she did not feel the same way.

What followed was a rushed, terse conversation in the next room, while my mum and dad tried to sensitively explain why everyone had been so shocked about what I’d said. Who I’d thought of as ‘Shagging’ was, in fact, called ‘Shaggy’ and that other word meant something quite different. It meant sex. And sex was something that happens when a man and a woman are very much in love and want to have a baby. It involved a man putting his willy into a woman’s vagina. It might sound strange, but that was because sex is something that happens when you’re an adult and it wasn’t something I needed to worry about for now.

But I was worried. If sex was what happened when adults wanted to have babies, had my parents had sex in order to make me? And my vagina was tiny, the thought of something going INSIDE it sounded scary, dangerous and painful. In that moment, I vowed that sex wasn’t something I wanted to try for myself. Ever.

Well, I got over that fear in part, no doubt, because in the cannon of ways you can find out about sex, my experience was pretty tame (despite the fact it freaked me out that I find Shaggy difficult to listen to till this day). Is there any way to tell a child about sex that isn’t at least a little bit distressing?

‘Hearing about sex for the first time can be a traumatising experience for any child, especially if they’ve been exposed to the idea of sex before they’ve reached emotional maturity,’ psychologist Dr Ellen Betts explains to The Debrief.

‘Obviously some ways in which a child learns about sex are far more traumatising than others, but it’s hard to overstate the importance of learning about sex in a clear, non-threatening way that answers any questions the child might have. The alterative can have far-reaching implications on the way your brain makes connections about sex and intimacy, which can take years to unlearn. You first experiences around the sexuality are the foundations upon which all your future sexual experiences are built.’

I remember instinctively knowing that what he was doing was different to the world I inhabited – it had something to do with a realm much more ‘adult’ and scary.

Instinctively, you’d hope that the vast majority of parents are aware of the potential pitfalls of having The Chat, but the truth is a vast number of us were introduced to sex before our parents had the opportunity to sit us down and talk us through the basics – sometimes the world just got in.

‘I was flashed by a guy in a sports club when I was 10 or 11 years old,’ Amelia Howard, a 27-year-old writer from Bristol, explains to The Debrief. ‘I vividly remember the image of his erect penis coming out of his grey tracksuit bottoms and instinctively knowing that what he was doing was different to the world I inhabited – it had something to do with a realm much more “adult” and scary.

‘My mum saw what was happening and ran over to me looking terrified, screamed at the man and hurried me into a car, where she fought back tears the entire journey home. Months later, I asked why that man’s penis looked different to how my dad’s did in the bath and she tried to explain the basics about erections and sex.

‘The problem was, this already really scary and alien concept was made more scary to me by my mother’s clear discomfort with what had happened to me and explaining sex to me within this context. I had – still have – nightmares about being followed down streets by scary looking men in tracksuit bottoms and I do wonder if it’s affected my sexuality even now. I’m a bit scared of meeting new people and haven’t really tried Tinder I’m sure, in part, because I need to feel like I really trust you completely before I let you in. I felt alone in what I was feeling then and it’s a hard thing to shake.’

Compare Amelia’s experience to that of 25-year-old dentist’s assistant Liz Clark and it’s easy to see how important it is to have a frank, honest chat children about their bodies burgeoning sexuality.

‘I was a very early developer and got my period when I was 10 years old,’ she tells The Debrief. ‘My mum gave me a book about what was happening to my body which also gave me lots of age-appropriate information about sex. I remember watching Four Weddings and a Funeral and feeling like I needed to wee whenever a sex scene came on. Because I’d read the book, I knew these kinds of feelings were just a normal part of becoming a teenager and I wasn’t freaked out about it.

‘Knowing that there was a book I could refer to whenever I was in doubt from day one has probably added to my natural curiosity around sex – I’d masturbated before I started secondary school and, since then, whenever there was something I was curious about sexually I would just look it up and see. I had no shame about it from an early age, which I’m so pleased about because now I have a really healthy relationship with my body.

For years, I thought that a guy put his penis into your belly button and the baby travelled into your stomach – it seemed like a more feasible option than my vagina, to be honest

‘Saying that, I was only 10 years old and learning about sex young can go one of two ways. There was a boy in my class with two much older older brothers and I remember him telling me he’d seen one of them having sex with his girlfriend and they’d showed him porn.

‘I can’t be sure if it was directly related, but he was really over-sexed at school and would try and touch everyone’s genitalia in the playground. It was an interesting contrast to the way I responded to being told about sex because we were around the same age when we found out about it.’

But even those of us who found out about sex in a way that didn’t scare the shit out of us were still left with some serious gaps in our knowledge.

‘My mum and dad told me where babies come from in the broadest possible terms when I was about 11,’ explains Grace Bradley, a 26-year-old teacher from Hampshire. ‘For years, I thought that a guy put his penis into your belly button and the baby travelled into your stomach – it seemed like a more feasible option than my vagina, to be honest.

‘I also thought that fingering meant putting your finger in your butt hole, I literally had no concept that my vagina could be used in any other way other than to pee until I was 14, maybe even 15. I grew up in quite a small town and it just wasn’t really discussed.

‘The first I heard about it was when I left prep school for secondary school and I was completely gobsmacked when a guy put his hands down my trousers for the first time when we were snogging. I was horrified and was quite put off from having sex – I didn’t really start enjoying sex until a couple of years ago when I met my boyfriend. What little we did have, sex education literally blew my tiny little mind.’

So sex education – which is now compulsory in the UK, although the syllabus can be dictated by individual schools so the lessons offered to children vary from the sublime to the ridiculous – can play a part in providing information to young people, but it’s telling that the vast majority of the people we spoke to for this feature got their information elsewhere.

‘I had to ask my sisters and older girls for advice and information because the sex education I received at school was so abysmal,’ says 27-year-old copywriter Sarah Edwards. ‘I learnt about fallopian tubes, the biological affects hormones had on your body and my period cycle, but how to actually go about having a healthy sex life? I was clueless up until relatively recently. No one ever mentioned the difference between the clitoris and the G spot or anything about female masturbation.

‘Appallingly, we weren’t taught about consent or what options were available to us if we were sexually assaulted. When my best friend was raped in my first year of university while she was passed out at a party, neither of us really knew if she had grounds to confront her attacker or what support we’d get if we went to the police. I’m embarrassed to say it, but as a result of our ignorance around the subject of consent both of us kind of felt my friend was partially to blame and we just left it.

‘It makes me feel sick thinking about it, but it’s nothing compared to what she’s been through and she hasn’t really had a “normal” sexual relationship since. We should be taught about that stuff in the same breath as “this is where babies come from” just to avoid situations like that.’

If there’s a better argument for getting the right sexual education early, I’d like to hear it.

You might also be interested in: 

Yes Sex Education Is Important, But Shouldn’t We Be Giving Love Lessons Too? 

Why Sex Education Needs To Cover The Pleasures Associated With Sex, Not Just The Dangers

Students Are Turning To Porn For Sex Education And It’s Damaging Their Views On Sex 

Follow Sophie on Twitter @Sophiecullinane


Illustration: Eugenia Loli

Tags: Sex, Sex O\'Clock, Sex Ed