Writing by Samantha Stokes // illustration by Nea Valdivia
I grew up in the 80s in suburban Melbourne, attending a local school with close to a thousand other students. At the time I was acutely aware of my changing body. As an ‘early developer’, I was left to navigate my pubescent shifts without guidance or education.
Our school’s sex education was minimal, ineffective, and forgettable. At about age 12, a guest speaker attended my school – at last, a puberty professional! The speaker sat the students in an intimate circle with the teachers looking on from its perimeter. Our guest spoke about menstruation while a tampon was passed around. I remember the male teachers in the room shifting uncomfortably in their chairs and a bunch of us giggling awkwardly, faces flushed.
Reflecting on this as a now 40-year-old woman, I feel let down by these experiences and my school’s sex education curriculum at large. The school made the lives of its students needlessly awkward as we, red-faced, fumbled for tampons in bags and lockers.
Our sex education was so minimal that the only advise we received about protection was to use protection to avoid pregnancy — there was no discussion of condom use in preventing the contraction of STDs. And unfortunately, my first introduction to oral sex in my mid-teens was through mainstream porn.
Our sex education was so poorly organised that many girls like myself ended up looking for answers in places that, with no guidance or context, did more harm than good for developing and impressionable minds.
Around the age of twenty one, I moved to Ireland to work as a childcare provider. Almost immediately, I noticed a shadow cast over their sex education system – the Church. While sex education in Australia was clearly subpar, conversations around sex in Ireland were not only uninformed, but skewed with a religious lens. Where my education briefly touched on masturbation, students in Ireland were being taught to be ashamed of self-love, and of sexual activity in general. Some schools in Ireland went as far as to condemn birth control and same-sex relationships.
This experience sparked reflection about the way our childhood experiences affect our adult lives. Children who are taught to understand and respect their bodies’ needs, grow into healthier adults with the ability to have open and informed discussions.This is integral for healthy adult sex lives, as well as understanding the health of our bodies as a whole. If we are taught by parents and teachers who were educated in a similar way about what is ‘good’ behaviour regarding our bodies and how we experience pleasure, and what is bad or wrong or sinful, we get caught in a cycle where children and adults feel they can’t talk openly about their needs.
We’re in constant growth and we thrive better within a community of support that allows healthy discussions around puberty, mental health, parenthood and menopause. We need teachers in our schools with the resources to provide frank, ongoing conversations on anatomy, masturbation, partner sex, consent and communication. Ending shame around sexuality means safer students and healthier adults.
Children today have easy access to an enormous variety of content online that was unavailable when I was a teenager. A natural curiosity about sex that comes with puberty and with circulating playground talk can be “satisfied” by an online search. Tablets and smartphones required for school can easily become a tool for children to access information when it comes to sex. There are benefits to this — perhaps the diversity of resources and a digital education without the bias of an educator can empower young people.
However, most children don’t have the maturity and judgement to navigate these spaces without proper guidance. Thus they need to be given enough of a preliminary understanding of sex to help them decipher what information is safe, what is accurate, and when to close a tab. With better education in schools and from home we can help them understand the reality behind the videos, images and comments they may come across online.
I came across Jenny Keane on Instagram when searching for Tantra Yoga and meditation videos. A holistic sex educator, Tantra Yoga teacher, consent practitioner and ‘crusader for self-love through self-exploration’, Jenny runs workshops and mentoring programs which support women in Ireland and internationally to take ownership of their sexuality. She describes her mission as ‘igniting a sexual revolution’. When I saw that she planned to host an Instagram Live video seminar with her followers, I made sure to set myself a reminder to join.
The global discussion I attended included followers from South Africa, Dubai, Vietnam and New Zealand. Keane spoke about her work with absolute joy, sharing her valuable knowledge and refreshing perspectives. Attendees had sent discussion topics ahead of time, including questions relating to dating, STI health and sexual stigma. Her responses to their questions were empowering and fun — she talked us through how to initiate conversations with new partners regarding STIs, shared useful resources for home-delivered STI testing in Ireland, and provided advice on navigating online dating platforms. The live ‘chat box’ was teeming with listener questions and people sharing their experiences.
Later, Jenny asked listeners who had participated in a recent online workshop to share their feedback or any pivotal lessons they had learnt. These responses would be posted in her Instagram story the following day.
A woman in her mid-forties commented that since separating from her husband, the only man she had ever had sex with, she had joined a number of online dating apps to explore the swinging scene and to have one-night stands. For the first time in her life, she wrote in the chat, she was having orgasms. It was the first time she had connected with her body, and she wrote of her joy at discovering parts of herself previously repressed. This anonymous chat allowed women to freely express sentiments and experiences that were previously unheard.
Watching this shared learning unfold, I was slowly beginning to feel more confident that positive, accessible sex education in Ireland was happening. Information I had lacked when I was young, and that was denied to many women of my generation, was now freely available online and was clearly making a difference.
I came away from the workshop excited that societally, we are finally having discussions about sex that I had never heard before, discussions that were painfully needed in my youth. When usually, for women, discussions about sex are fraught with danger of misinterpretation, here was a space where we could share how we felt and express our desires candidly and freely.
As a treat for my 40th birthday, I bought myself a ticket to Keane’s next online workshop. It was titled ‘Blow’ and we were advised to bring along some… props. I brought along a cucumber and a glass of champagne. Amongst all the humour and giddiness, I realised just how much we needed the comedy of the props to enable us to open up about sex, to break down years of internalised guilt. Keane’s Irish humour and accessible language made everyone feel welcome, helping participants to do away with shame. With her online platform, Keane is helping the progress of Ireland one cucumber at a time.
Through accessing powerful and informative sex education online, I have effectively replaced the inadequate and poorly presented sex education I encountered in secondary school, three decades earlier. Through this education, I have developed and sharpened tools that have helped me shatter shame around bodies and sexuality that I have carried for years. I am now able to initiate previously awkward conversations around periods, birth control and now, perimenopause when I feel it’s appropriate. The more we understand about our bodies the better we are able to recognise when we are sick or need help — education is empowering.
An open dialogue about sex education in schools, and particularly the role of technology in providing information about sex, is necessary so we can ensure the current generation can decipher authentic and helpful information from content curated just for clicks. After my experiences educating myself as an adult and realising the dearth of my lack of sexual education as a teenager, liberation from miseducation is what I want for all generations.