Monday 22 July 2019

Mary Kenny: 'The Oireachtas proposes revising sex education. But can the full truth about sexuality ever be taught?'

 

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

I am totally in favour of sex education. Generations - including mine - were sent out into the world unprepared for what it might put their way. Girls who grew up in institutions were particularly vulnerable: knowing nothing about sex, they were easily seduced with the promise of love, and were soon on the road either to a lonely and impoverished single motherhood, or a depressing cycle of abortions.

But, as the Oireachtas is suggesting updating and revising Relationship and Sexuality Education, I do wonder how much gritty truthfulness should be involved in sex ed. A well stocked reference library which contains comprehensive sexology shelves will offer tomes on incest, paedophilia, sodomy, prostitution, venereal disease, pornography, rape and varieties of fetishism, although, significantly, the most detailed of these (Krafft-Ebing) is usually only available in German, and very small Gothic type.

Straightforward reproduction is dealt with under "biology". Relationships are catalogued under "women", and also, historically, "marriage".

Sex education in schools once might mean the basics of reproduction: how rabbits got pregnant and produced baby rabbits. It's better than nothing and, at least for the teacher, it's simple and technical. It doesn't have to involve "value judgements". But it also omits two issues in focus nowadays - gay relationships, and consent.

Attitudes to sex ed change over time and that, presumably, is why the subject has to be updated. But sex education has itself always been subject to fashion, and as the former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger points out in his amusing history of sex manuals, sex educationalists are often quite authoritarian. Even when, like Alex Comfort, author of The Joy of Sex, they're telling people that anything couples enjoy together is just fine, there's still an undertone of suggesting that such fun is obligatory.

Although Dr Comfort did say nearly everyone, if hauled before a judge, could be described as having at least one sexual "oddity", which may appear in many varieties. Dr Eustace Chesser, a sex education guru of the 1940s, cites a case of a man who could only experience arousal by getting into a bath of cooked spaghetti. One of the pioneers of sex education, Havelock Ellis, found his pleasure in the 'golden shower' - which involves an act of urination. The full truth is that sexuality has a darker side. Will that too be taught?

Sex education - apart from the basic anatomy - is almost never value-free. Sexologists are nearly always trying to impart, not just knowledge, but their message. If religiously-based instruction advocated self-control, chastity before marriage and fidelity after it, the sexual liberationists were, from the 1920s onwards, trying to overturn that. They argued that women were too often left unfulfilled by the inhibitions imposed by traditional morality.

Sex education was often aimed at "untutored" men on how to "arouse" women and bring them to satisfaction. The sexologist and psychologist Helena Wright explained, in the 1930s, that a woman was like a musical instrument "awaiting the hand of the artist. Clumsiness and ignorance will produce nothing but discord". Janet Chance, a pioneering feminist who ran a sex education clinic for women in London's East End, reported that some working-class wives were relieved when their husbands went off to war, so they didn't have to "put up with" these sexually "untutored" menfolk any more.

The psychologist Bruno Bettelheim claimed that the fairytale of Sleeping Beauty was a metaphor that young women need to be aroused by love before they can be sexually responsive. Today, some commentators (including actress Keira Knightley) want it banned because they see it as representing intimacy without consent.

Marie Stopes, best-known of sex educators, had two agendas: one was a sincere belief that marriage could be enhanced by an enlightened approach to sexual relations, and that wives would be more responsive if they weren't constantly terrified of another pregnancy. The other was an almost unbelievable racism and promotion of eugenics. She thought only "fit" couples should "breed for the Empire" and that the mentally or physically feeble should be sterilised. She also wrote fan letters to Hitler.

William Reich, the leading sexologist of the 1960s, advanced a left-wing anarchism. Marriage was but a tool of capitalism and there should be no restraints on divorce or curbing adolescent sexuality. He was influential for the generation that followed, but young people today seem to be moving in a more conservative direction: the British Board of Film Classification is now changing its guidelines after consulting 10,000 teenagers and young adults who want stricter controls around sexual images, sexual violence, rape and pornographic language. Every generation has its own sex education standards.

Is it possible that all the gush, hearts and flowers and dreamy yearning around romantic love - see it flowing forth for Valentine's Day - has sometimes been to conceal the grittier facts around sexuality? Facts there must be, but plenty would still like a little of the romance.

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