'Let's be clear,' he said wagging his index finger. 'Sex was designed for a married man and a married woman for the sole purpose of procreation. If you don't want to get pregnant, then don't have sex. And if you think oral sex is okay – think again. I met a pupil who fell pregnant that way.'
This is one of my earliest memories of hearing an adult talk about sex. I must have been around 13 at the time and, given my ultra-Catholic upbringing, everything I knew about sex until this point stemmed from a few basic biology lessons, a couple of awkward exchanges with my parents and one traumatic family screening of the car scene from 'Titanic'.
'But Sir,' piped up one of the boys in the class. 'I don't get how she got pregnant.'
'Well, the young man she was with didn't wash his hands after he…and then he…you don't need me to tell you the rest. It's that easy. No-one believed her when she said she hadn't even had sex, but I did.'
I felt like I really did need him to tell me the rest, but I dared not raise my hand and ask for clarification. What remained of my high school sex education was about as informative and abstinence-centred as this scene of tuition, punctuated with cautionary tales and euphemistic expressions like 'why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?' By the time I arrived at university at the age of 17, I had adopted the same approach towards sex as I had towards differential calculus: I hoped the subject never came up and prayed that if it did I could bluff my way through it.
It was while I was relaying this little horror story to a friend last week, nearly a decade later, when I discovered that her RE teacher had told the exact same story to her class during their own faith-based sex miseducation. 'He talked about my virginity as though it was directly related to my worth,' she said. 'Like the more people I gave myself to, the more damaged I was. It took a long time to get over that shame.'
Hearing this got me curious. I started wondering if all my friends – particularly my female friends – had to unlearn the same lessons, but when I started asking round I found that each of us received a different standard of sex education in high school. While my sexuality was being compared to a milked cow in Govanhill, another friend was being shown how to roll a condom over phallic-shaped vegetables in Newton Mearns. Some learned about sexual health services and methods of contraception, while some of us learned that the best way to protect ourselves from STIs was to leave room for Jesus.
There is no clear, standardised curriculum for relationships, sexual health and parenthood education in Scotland. While the Scottish Government does provide loose guidelines on what schools should cover, it is largely down to the schools themselves to compose and deliver a curriculum that best fits its individual ethos and needs. But even those of my friends who received a comparatively comprehensive sex education at school agree that what they learned was dated and inconsistent. There was little-to-no discussion of consent, non-heteronormative relationships or navigating online sexual content like internet porn, despite the sexually explicit cultural backdrop against which most of us grew up.
With this weird patchwork system in place, it seems wholly unsurprising that nearly 52% of women and 44% of men say that they didn't feel 'ready' when they lost their virginity. These statistics, which come from a study recently published by the British Medical Journal, reflect the responses of nearly 3,000 young people in Britain. The study also found that most of its respondents had had sex by the time they were 18, while half had by the time they were turning 17, and nearly a third before turning 16.
This is nothing short of frightening. Not only are young people having their first sexual experiences at a time when a comprehensive sex education would benefit them most, but the education that they are receiving is ill-equipping them with the knowledge and skills to make informed, positive decisions about these formative experiences. The current accepted standard means that schools are delivering conflicting messages to young people or, in some cases, opting out altogether of offering a sex education programme that goes beyond reproduction and basic sexual health.
I'm not saying that a compulsory and standardised relationships and sexual education curriculum would completely rectify these problems, but it would hold schools accountable for the role they play in shaping how young people think about sex. It's almost farcical that in a society that champions information and celebrates sexual freedom, sex and relationships are given secondary importance to more traditionally recognised subjects. Not to sound facetious, but since leaving school, the role of differential calculus in my life has proved somewhat less relevant than the roles of sexuality, consent, contraception and harassment.
Contrary to the wisdom of my old RE teacher, a sex-positive educational approach isn't just giving the green light to a room of horny teenagers. It facilitates health, self and mutual respect, and reinforces valuable communication and decision-making skills. The tired fear-based and abstinence-centric models don't work, and the list of literature disproving their effectiveness is only getting longer. Young people are having sex; let's stop telling them that it's wrong and start teaching them what's right.