Head shoulders knees and toes… but what about the bit in the middle.
A few years ago, when I still worked for the local authority I turned up at a training provider to deliver a general sexual health session to some of their learners who were all around 16-18. I was sat down at the table introducing myself to the group when a girl burst in late. She took one look at me, with my tell-tale flip-chart, marker pens and plus the give-away lunch box full of condoms and unceremoniously announced ‘not more f*’in sex ed… we know all this already…’ She then proceeded to happily to tell the group that she had been sexually active for ages and was happy to admit she had participated in all types of sex including oral and anal sex with her boy-friend. Give her credit she was not remotely ashamed or uncomfortable with these facts and she sat down and joined in with the session.
I was deeply shocked by this young woman – not remotely because of her sexual practice or openness, but by what followed. One of the other girl’s in the group asked a question about contraceptive pills and how they worked – this led on to discussing periods and stuff and that was when the girl said this:
‘I change a tampon every time I go to the loo… or else how would I pee with one of them stuck in me?!’
This girl, who by her own admission had been sexual active for a number of years, had multiple partners, and yet had no idea that she had a hole for sex and a hole for urinating. In short she had no clue about her own genitals, how they worked or what they looked like.
Unfortunately in my experience, she is not the only one.
More recently, I was at a school doing the normal health day with year 10. The school had split the groups in to gendered groups – so at the time I had a room full of young women. Someone asked the question ‘what’s a clit’, before I could say a word another of the young ladies answered – ‘its where you pee from innit!’. In a room of 20-odd 15 year old girl’s none of them knew what a clitoris was or where it was other than some vague notion that it was ‘down-there‘ as if it was something to be ashamed of and not talked about.
Ok one final little anecdote before I get to my point: I was explaining how STIs are passed on to a group of year 11s by doing the usual transmission diagram on the white board. I had already asked the class, ‘what happens when a guy gets turned on?‘ they had shouted out ‘bone-on‘,’erection‘,’stiffy‘ with gusto and I drew an over large penis on the board with equal enthusiasm. I explained about pre-ejaculatory fluid or pre-cum and semen being fluids that carry infections, and then asked the group, ‘so what happens to girls when they get turned on?‘… Silence….
And then in a whisper at the back of the class one girl turned to her mate and said:
‘well we don’t get turned on do we…’
I think this is very sad. More importantly it raises the question how the hell can young women take control of their sexual encounters, make decisions about their own personal barriers or even explain to a partner about what feels nice or what they like if they have no idea of their own sexual anatomy or sexual responses?
This is great when we are discussing the menstrual cycle and reproduction – but about as useful as a chocolate spoon when it comes to young people actually having sex or taking control of their sexual experiences.
I have the great pleasure in speaking with a lot of young people on a day-to-day basis about SRE and they tell me that this is one of the main reasons that both boys and girls end up on the internet looking at porn – they want to know if their bits are normal -what their bits and those of the opposite sex look like and how they might fit together, and unfortunately they are not getting this from school. And at home it is a part of the body we ignore talking about.
I was very lucky as I had the opportunity to visit Holland to spend a week working with Rutgers WPF. It was during the trip that one of sexologists highlighted this point with the observation about the very British childhood song Head, shoulders, knees and toes – she simply said ‘but what about the bit in the middle….’
Ridiculously, we know that if a child can name their own body parts correctly from an early age it reduces their risk of being sexually abused, as they have the words and understanding to talk about any inappropriate touching. On this note I am so pleased that the NSPCA have launched their PANTS campaign to encourage parents to talk to their infants about genital. However, there are still many schools and parents that are uncomfortable and resistant, worrying that this knowledge is sexualising children.
The trouble is that by not saying anything we create a huge barrier. Children learn pretty quickly that we are not allowed to talk about down there, especially the girls. Small children know that boys have a willy as it is something they can see as they are getting changed or running around naked. Girl’s on the other hand are still defined as not having a penis rather than by their own genitals. The V-word is so rarely used, an unfortunately this lays some pretty worrying foundations for young women to build on as they mature.
What’s more, when we do make the effort to label a girl’s genitals we do it by picking the wrong part – it is a vulva not a vagina! The vagina is simply the canal that leads to the funky baby making kit inside – however it is the vulva that encapsulates all those mysterious fleshy folds (including the vagina) that can make sex pleasurable and define a woman.
So perhaps it is time we wrote a new verse…. What rhymes with vulva?!