Natasha Devon is a body image & mental health campaigner. We have actually recommended her nonfiction title, A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental: From Anxiety to Zero F**ks Given, in our previous guide here. Her successful debut novel, Toxic, explores teenage girlhood and she is now back with Babushka, the ‘prequel’. Natasha is here today to chat about why she decided to explore sex ed in Babushka:
‘Stop smiling now please, Natasha. I have to do this thing and I’m really nervous.’
I can’t even remember the poor teacher’s name who said this to me when I was in year nine at my all girls’ school. She was a substitute, I think, covering our usual biology teacher’s maternity leave. What I do remember is that she looked so startled and out of her depth I was genuinely worried she might pass out.
She instigated a brief discussion about periods. She told us that they didn’t hurt (because if they did, you’d see women walking around all the time saying ‘I’m in pain’. LOGIC). She then showed us a video of a heterosexual couple (who seemed really old at the time but were probably only about thirty) engaging in unenthusiastic foreplay, before it cut to a cartoon of a sperm fertilising an egg. After it finished, she told us the only way to one hundred percent guarantee this wouldn’t happen to us (i.e., getting pregnant) was to abstain.
And that was about it. The sum total of my sex education. Heteronormative, cringeworthy and only minimally helpful.
So, it’s little wonder that the first people in our year to start having sex believed what their boyfriends told them: That you couldn’t get pregnant the first time you did it (WRONG). That you could tell if someone had an STI just by looking at them (WRONG). That the more you had the sex, the more your vagina would stretch irreversibly (just so completely and utterly WRONG).
No wonder also that my first fledgling romance (a sweetly innocent, hand-holding type affair with another girl in the year above) resulted in us having empty coke cans thrown at us whilst homophobic slurs were shouted. It was the era of section 28, which induced a culture of fear around teachers even mentioning the existence of LGBTQ people in any context, let alone as part of sex ed.
My experiences aren’t unusual. Ask anyone who came of age around the millennium and they’ll likely have a similar story to tell. For the generations before us, it was even worse. Boomers and Gen X often had nothing at all.
I explore this in my novel Babushka, which is set in the year 2000. My protagonist, sixteen-year-old Cerys, falls in love fast with charismatic walking red flag Darsh. Her inadequate sex ed leaves her ill-prepared for what follows. She gets most of her relationship information from women’s magazines, whose pages emphasise the crucial importance of ‘pleasing your man’, often at great financial and personal expense.
So, when in 2020 it became compulsory that schools not only deliver statutory sex ed, but that relationships should be covered too, most people were pleased. I know I was.
Today, RSE (relationship and sex education) is often delivered by experienced external providers: Non-teacher sexperts, who not only feel no awkwardness discussing sensitive topics, but also disappear after the lesson has ended (meaning students feel more confident to ask them what they really want to know).
The fifteen and sixteen-year-olds I work with have started using words I didn’t even know at their age: Consent. Coercive control. Codependency. Gender fluidity. Pansexuality.
Perhaps inevitably, this progress has provoked a backlash. In March 2023, conservative MP Miriam Cates asked a question during PMQs in which she claimed ‘graphic lessons in oral sex’ and ‘how to choke your partner safely’ is ‘what passes for sex and relationship education in British schools.’ The Prime Minister assured her that a review would be carried out, and the Education Secretary subsequently wrote to every school reminding them that parents have a right to advanced sight of sex ed lesson plans and to remove their child if they think them inappropriate. What a gift for abusers, that is.
I’ve spoken to several educators about Cates’ intervention at PMQs. The consensus is that she probably looked at the websites of external providers, who often also offer content for adults, and assumed all the content is included in their lesson plans. Or maybe the topics she lists are a reflection of the questions asked by pupils during sex ed classes. After all, statistically, more than half will have seen online pornography by the age of twelve.
And that’s the crux of the matter, really. Attitudes to sex and gender are changing at a rapid rate and that can feel intimidating for any adults tasked with talking to young people about them. But it’s more important than ever in an era where it’s not just direly misinformed peers spreading misinformation, but the entire world wide web.