How to get your sex education by reading the papers

The headmaster was as embarrassed as I was; he preferred to talk about sex in terms of lupins
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The Independent Culture
I WASN'T entirely surprised to learn the other day that girls as young as 12 or 13 were now getting pregnant in Britain. You see, I was brought up on an old copy of Ripley's Believe it or Not!, in which Mr Ripley told us incredible but true facts from round the globe, and one of these incredible but true facts was that the youngest grandmother in the world was only 32 years old. This was because the daughter she'd had at 16 had also given birth at 16.

I was also 16 when I read this, and quite keen on athletics, so I knew that whatever seemingly impossible world record was created, it would sooner or later be broken by someone else. If there were now 16-year-old mothers, the world record would be pushed lower and lower in years to come. Admittedly, the current early-birth record-holder lived in Africa, where people seemed to do everything earlier - Mr Ripley also had bloodcurdling accounts of arduous tribal initiation ceremonies, and survival ordeals in the bush, which African lads had to undergo at the time when I was merely gearing up for A-levels - but it seemed to me even then that given enough orange juice and vitamins, Western youth would one day also be able to have babies at a stupidly early age.

What I wasn't quite so prepared for last week was the way in which every columnist I came across reacted to the news about early pregnancies by giving birth to a column on sex education, and doing it with such complete ease. One moment they were pottering around the office doing nothing, the next moment they had wandered out into the bush, and an hour later - bang! They were back holding a bonny, bouncing column on sex education, which they had given birth to all by themselves. It squeaked and it squalled, and all you had to do was slap it on the bottom and get it printed.

I envy that fertility. I just don't have enough opinions. All I can do is go back to some first-hand experience on which to try to base an opinion, and so it was at the weekend that, casting back through my present lifetime for relevant memories, I realised I couldn't remember ever having had any sex education. The simple explanation of my absence of opinions on sex education was that I had had none to base it on. I could dimly remember being led into the private room of my first headmaster for an end-of-term lecture on sex, but he was as embarrassed as I was and preferred to talk about sex in terms of lupins. There happened to be a vase of lupins in the room and he explained in some detail how lupins got fertilised, and then added hastily that it was much the same with human beings. He then ejected me, prior to the entry of the next young ignoramus.

This served me moderately well in the years to come as far as gardening was concerned, but as it was the last bit of direct sex education I ever got, it didn't bode well for my future as a parent. There was a book that circulated unofficially at my next school, when we were all in our mid- teens, called The Basis of a Happy Marriage, which told you everything mechanical and anatomical you needed to know about sex but, despite the title, nothing much that you need to know about the art of being happily married. (Indeed, the main fault I would find in the concept of sex education is that it tells you only about sex, and not about love, or companionship, or mortgages, or, indeed, basic wiring in old houses.)

And that was that. The only sex education I received before the age of 20 was from a lecture on lupins and a book of anatomy. Oh, and from dirty stories. For a while, in my teens, I played second trombone in a dance band in Wrexham, and I had never heard anything like the dirty stories which the guys told in the small band room in the interval. I memorised them all, confident in the knowledge that one day I would understand them, and now I do, so I suppose that was also part of my education.

One of them, in fact, was a story about sex education. I hadn't thought of it for 30 years, but here it is now. It was about a farmer who was being urged by his wife to tell their son the facts of life. He complained that he wouldn't know how, but his wife told him just to tell him about the birds and bees. So the unhappy farmer called his son to him (this is a wildly truncated version, you understand) and said he had something to tell him about the facts of life.

"Yes, Dad. What is it, Dad?"

"Well, son, you know what you and young Betty were up to behind the barn last Saturday?"

"Yes, Dad. What about it, Dad?"

"Well, son - the birds and the bees... they do it too, you know!"

And that concludes my very first and absolutely last column on sex education.