The Danger of a Bad Sex Education
Nellie English opens a frank and honest discussion around realising sexual boundaries – and when they’re crossed.
CW: This essay discusses non-consensual sexual incidents and encounters; violence; PTSD.
I watched episode two of season two of Netflix’s Sex Education the other day and came to a chilling realization. In this episode, one of the characters has a traumatic experience on the bus, and the episode revolves around her time in the police station and how she deals with her resultant PTSD.
My chilling realisation was that, if her experience was considered a reportable offence, then I should have spent the majority of my adolescence and early (mid, and late) twenties in police stations. Nearly all of my sexual experiences were exploitative, some particularly misogynistic. In my Sex Education-inspired revelation I wrote a list of all the traumatic experiences, big and small, that I could remember. One day I will probably share it with you. If you read my blog often you will be familiar with my filter-free and uncomfortably over-sharing writing style already. I also think it is important to share, for me and for anyone who might have been as exploitable as me growing up.
I only reported two of the incidents that made it on to my list – for the rest I blamed myself. At the time, that is. Now, at the ripe old age of 31, it is finally dawning on me that actually it was not okay behaviour from the perpetrators around me.
It was not okay that: strange men took advantage; that “friends” got cosy after too many drinks; that some of my teachers, when I was a child, did things (small, to put your imaginations out of misery) that were totally unacceptable.
The world was different then. Wasn’t it?
They were different times. Or were they? Now I feel confused… Do I blame myself? Was I too easy-going, too soft? Too much of a pushover who could never say no. Did I give off the wrong impression and unwittingly invite attention I came to regret when it was too late?
Do I blame my upbringing? Too emotionally repressed? No girl talks or real heart-to-hearts with mature women who could tell me how I should behave as a young girl, and when and how to say no.
Do I blame my mum? I am really trying not to, because I think I should take ownership of my actions, and take responsibility for the person I became. Although it is hard, I want to understand my behaviour; my inability to be one of those strong women I so admired.
Sharing a long list of (bad) experiences
I eventually told my boyfriend some of this. He was supportive, calm and sensitive – like always. He offered me a shoulder and an ear, and was reassuringly forward thinking. He wasn’t shocked, angry or disgusted.
This bothered me. I didn’t realise quite how much it bothered me until this evening. We were walking back from the beach with our baby girl (nearly two) babbling away in her pushchair. He said that if anything were to happen to her, if anyone ever hurt her, he doesn’t know what he would do. He thinks that maybe he would see red, and just go and blow their heads off with a shotgun. Charming? Alarming? Beer talk?
To an extent this may have been a slip of a tongue made overconfident by alcohol, and perhaps there is an element of truth. If someone hurts someone you really love, you probably do want to destroy them.
What bothered me was why was there no talk of shotguns when I showed him my list? Too long ago, he explained. Time heals all wounds. Time deflects anger.
I am sure this is true. But not even a little pistol? A knuckle-duster? Just a good ol’ headbutt?
This is ridiculous, I shouldn’t feel like my boyfriend loves me less because he doesn’t want to rip to pieces bad men who hurt me a decade ago. But I do.
Am I still waiting on a white knight?
This all led me to another question: why do I feel the need to be protected by strong men? My fantasy has always been (and I am sure I am not alone in this) to have someone to take care of me. To sweep bags up with strong arms, and to go ahead in the darkness. To bristle against unwanted glances from random men and sizzle their advances with lightning sabre glares.
To be enraged by stories of dates gone wrong. To promise me heads on platters.
Have I left myself weak and too “nice-nice” to everyone I meet, because I am waiting to hide behind the shield of a strong partner?
Does society encourage women to be (too) kind, (too) forgiving, (too) demure? When do the lessons of being “ladylike” or simply “polite” erode the ability to say no, or f*** off? We are taught to take care of ourselves, protect ourselves and our dignity, be strong. Yet we live in a world where vapid beauty is worshipped. Where being a tough, thick-skinned girl gets you tarred as being a “feminist dyke” or gives off icy vibes to boys you like.
Passing these ideas and ideals to a new generation
When I found out I was pregnant with a baby girl, I cried. Partly because I really did always dream of having a tiny troop of boys to go scrambling up mountains with. Also because I was terrified – that any single one of the things that happened to me could happen to my daughter.
I like to think that we are living in a rapidly changing society. We live in times of toxic masculinity and cultures where women are still second-class citizens. Yet, across many countries there is a shift in perception of what is and is not acceptable for how we treat our young girls and women.
I watched Zoolander last night. A gem of comic genius (featuring an unflattering cameo by the current President of the United States) yet several of the jokes would never make the cut in a 2020 script, and rightly so. The shot where Manu pinches a female employee’s bum as she walks past. The scene where the two male models Hans and Derek get a (I want to say “prudish” or “uptight” but this is exactly the problem) female journalist drunk and high on spiked tea and then instigate an orgy.
Hilarious. At the time. But I am so glad my daughter will not be growing up with that sense of humour.
A new phase of something good
Post-#MeToo movement, the global outrage over the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the increase in rape convictions –these are better times for us ladies. But forget about resting on those cushy laurels just yet. We still have some way to go in smashing that glass ceiling. Abolishing child marriages, ensuring equal representation of men and women in science, cinema, politics and churches.
We make up over half the population. We balance careers, children, manage households and take care of our elderly. Most of us are juggling so many mental balls at the same time we would blow the socks off the world’s best magician.
We don’t need a strong man by our side to face the world. We shouldn’t have to outsource our protection. We shouldn’t have to be scared walking home on our own. Women are badass and the world should watch out, because “the times they are a changin’.”