Teaching Young People About Fertility

A rant about why what we are and aren’t teaching young people about fertility and sex is harmful to them. This is a transcription of a talk I gave at the Progress Educational Trust Birds, The Bees and Fertility Treatment event.

Contraception Contraception Contraception

Just teaching about contraception teaches that sex is just about penis in vagina.

In schools most young people are taught that sex is inherently risky. The worst possible thing that can happen with sex, apart from STIs, is unplanned pregnancy. So, the main focus for sex ed, in addition to STIs, and not having sex till you’re older, is contraception.

Young people are taught that although they shouldn’t be doing it yet, they will have this kind of sex at some point. So they should know that if they don’t use contraception when they have sex they will get pregnant. This means they are taught about all about the different methods of contraception, their effectiveness, their advantages, their disadvantages and where they can get them. All good stuff. If you’re gonna have sex, use contraception.

However often it’s what we don’t teach which can have the most powerful learning outcomes. So after a lesson about contraception young people learn:

  1. That sex here means ‘penis in vagina sex’: young people are taught that this is the only thing that counts as ‘sex.’
  2. Sex, particularly this kind of sex, is what you are expected to do.
  3. If you do it without contraception you will get pregnant.

Which results in:

  1. Leaving out anyone who doesn’t want to have penis in vagina sex.
  2. Creating an expectation that everyone will do this as though everyone knows how and that it’s really enjoyable for everyone. This pressure to have this particular kind of sex contributes to the culture in which non-consensual sex happens.
  3. A belief that there is an extremely high risk of pregnancy from this kind of sex.

This would be okay if this one lesson was just one amongst forty other sex ed lessons in a year, but it isn’t. Often it’s the only one.

Non Penis in Vagina Sex and Magic Sperm

We teach myths about sperm which makes even low risk sex seem like high risk sex

You would think that given how ‘risky’ penis in vagina sex is we might want to flag up non penis in vagina sex. Yes sometimes this does happen, but often it’s when people teach about magic sperm. Magic sperm. Magic sperm is so magic that you can get pregnant from the tip of the penis being near the vagina because of pre-’cum’ (it’s not come and you can’t). From mutual masturbation, or from being ejaculated on, or even from anal sex (because (rank quote coming up) ‘the come has got to go somewhere so it drips out of the anus into the vagina’ – actual quote)

The most frequently asked question I get at Bish isn’t ‘how can I have multiple orgasms’ or ‘how can I get them to give me oral sex’ but ‘we did mutual masturbation/dry humping, am I (or is she) pregnant?’ There are thousands of young people every day having an unnecessary pregnancy panic because they’ve been taught a) pregnancy is the worst thing that can happen to them, b) sex always leads to pregnancy.

Why bad sex ed can sometimes be worse than none

So bad sex ed is perpetuates harmful norms about sex, creates unnecessary panic and anxiety among teens, but, ironically, it can lead to unplanned pregnancy too. The very thing that this kind of sex ed is meant to avoid. Young people have often come to me and said ‘I’ve had sex a load of times and I’ve never got pregnant (or got anyone pregnant) so I must be infertile, so I’m not going to bother with condoms or contraception.’

Because we haven’t taken the time to teach people about their bodies properly; that they are only fertile at particular times in their cycle; that only ejaculation inside the vagina in the days before and during ovulation causes pregnancy; that although it’s not easy to predict when that is going to be, it is possible; and that, because of all of this, penis in vagina sex doesn’t lead to pregnancy every time and that in fact it’s unlikely.

Why don’t we take the time to teach people?

There isn’t enough sex and relationships education in the timetable at schools. Even schools that deliver it well don’t do more than 6 weeks a year and even this is rare. Most commonly schools teach a couple of lessons a year or maybe a morning of lessons off the timetable, or, none. Think about how big a topic sex and relationships is. It’s about how we feel about ourselves, confidence, bodies, our identities, the expectations placed on us, gender, power, trust, love, lust, intimacy, closeness, friendships, romance, desire, communication, enjoyment, the many different kinds of sexual or sensual activities available to us, what we want and don’t want, what other people want and not want and how to negotiate that.

Even if we were just to focus on safer sex it’s more than unplanned pregnancy and even STIs, but it’s also emotional harm, treating people non-consensually, treating ourselves non-consensually, privacy, bullying, how to find and ask for what you want at a sexual health service. Try delivering all of that in a couple of lessons.

Sex education isn’t a viable career option

But it’s also not just about time. It’s about expertise. Sex education isn’t a career really. I’m lucky, I’ve been able to do this for nearly 17 years now, but there are scores and scores of talented, experienced and knowledgable sex educators who had to leave to find a permanent job. Or whose funding got cut.

Of those that remain, they are under trained, under supported and are often working alone. They don’t get long in schools, half an hour, forty five minutes? In that time they need to focus on the topic that they are getting funded to prevent – often this is teenage pregnancy. We face ad hominem attacks from the very vocal but very tiny minority who hate sex education and sex educators so we stay away from controversy. So what else are we going to teach? Contraception and normativity.

Facts vs the ‘right message’

So we don’t have the time to teach this subject properly and we lack the resources and capacity to be able to teach it well and quickly. However there’s something else going on I reckon. There’s still something extremely radical about teaching young people the actual facts rather than the right message. Why? Because maybe we don’t trust them? I was once told that a resource I was working on, about fertility, was not allowed to say ‘there is a time during your menstrual cycle when you can’t get pregnant.’

This kind of approach infantilizes people, strips them of their capacity to make decisions about their own bodies and is the exact opposite of what good sex and relationships education does.

So what can we do?

This government aren’t going to support sex and relationships education any time soon. However there’s nothing preventing schools from teaching more and better sex and relationships education. I’ve been deeply involved in a project trying to do just this which you can check out at dosreforschools.com. There you can see a curriculum of what I think makes for really good sex ed (I was the lead writer, along with Alice Hoyle and advised by Dr Meg-John Barker). You can pester your schools. You could ask them to arrange some after school lessons. Or set up a feminist group. Or a peer sex education project.

But what can we do in the meantime? We all have the potential to be sex and relationships educators. Get up on your knowledge at sites like Bish (I’ve got a really clear page on fertility here), Brook, Scarleteen, About Sexuality, Sex ETC. And talk to each other about it. Not just one big talk, but a series of conversations.

It’s not easy sitting kids down and talking at them, or sharing something on your facebook wall or WhatsApp group, or chatting to a partner or a friend about this. But if you break it down into little chunks and use convenient moments where it comes up it’s a lot easier and can become more matter of fact.

Also finding the right place to do it: the kitchen sink, tumblr, in the car, YouTube channels, chatting about Kanye. We can also model it through non sexual activities – deciding what to eat, where to go, how to greet each other. And instead of bullshitting that we know the answer we can just reach into our pockets and get it on our phones.

We can also become experts of our own bodies and experiences. We can discover and notice how our own bodies work. What arousal and desire mean for us. And even to become experts of our own menstrual cycles using apps like Clue (I love how it isn’t gender specific).

So as well as moaning about bad sex ed, let’s all fill in the gaps, and do it for ourselves.

Over at Bish there are some links I hope you find useful

Contraception – a brief guide with links to more detailed information

Fertility – explaining how complicated it is but also how you can learn more about your womb (if you have one)

Non PIV Sex – a post extolling how enjoyable non PIV sex can be

Write Your Sex Menu – there are lots of different sexual activities you may or may not be into. Work out which here.

Why Have Romantic Relationships – why do we want romantic relationships to do so much for us?

Lots of Different Kinds of Love – there are lots of different kinds of love, why is ‘Eros’ more important than the others?

Finding ‘The One’ – we all need more than one, but there are also more than one ‘The Ones’ if that makes sense.

Sex for Parents – how to talk to your teens about sex, relationships, values

Who To Talk To About Sex – a guide on how to talk to parents and others about sex

© Justin Hancock, 2023

Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people and adults in person and millions online at his website for young people BISH. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health. Find out more about Justin here and stay up to day by signing up for the newsletter.