I went to see my lovely artist friend Sandra Turnbull last week. She had an open house at her North London studio and it was, as usual, an inspiration to see her and her work. One of my favourite pieces, tucked away in a corner of her workshop was this: My Story in 6 Words.
(Last week, I started a new series of guest posts for the lovely people at KIDSEN, the Scandinavian Children’s Shop in Kensal Rise. Hope you enjoy the first of my Notes from the Kidsen Sofa #1)
Sexing, willydrops, baby-shopping, front-botty-kissy-wissy-sausages, special huggles and ‘it’ are just some of the euphemisms my six-year-old has used to broach the subject of Mr Wibbly Hides His Helmet with me.
I’ve already been through the whole sex education thing once with my eldest daughter, and I can’t believe I have been so disorganised in my child bearing that I have to do the whole thing again, nine years after the first time. The thing is, I can’t remember what I said before, but I know I had to undo a lot of damage done by the cartoon sex education documentary my eldest was shown at school when she was nine. Regaled with horror tales involving petri dishes and super-sperm and told that she would suffer unfathomable pain every month of her life between the ages of 12-50, my daughter came home from school in tears, furious that she was a girl. As she says now, “We were taught about the practicalities of sex, not the pleasure, so it all seemed terrifying and rather violent”.
It seems that sex education is rarely handled well in school, and in the UK, we are still not culturally prepared to be anything other than mortified by our children’s natural developmental curiosity about sex and the questions, oh Cringe-Factor-Ten, THE QUESTIONS that begin at a very early age.
I was chatting about this with the Wise Swedes of NW6, Corina and Ylva from KIDSEN, who promptly pulled out a Swedish classic from behind the counter. It’s called Karlek Boken or ‘The Love Book’ by Pernilla Stalfelt, and they have both used it to openly educate their kids about sex from the age of about six or seven as is common in Sweden. The book is a tour de force illustrations-wise and it was a joy to behold a drawing of a proper, hairy lady muff although there is a worrying depiction of a squirrel and hedgehog around page 19. The best thing EVER was to discover that the Swedish word for ‘willy’ is ‘snopp’ which is now top of my list of affectionate names for the male dangly-sausage (from this alone, you can see why my kids have had issues with my teaching thus far).
What struck me, as I flicked through the pages of Karlek Boken with Ylva translating for me, was how much the book focussed on love rather than the British approach which is centered on the biology and mechanics of sex. There is laughter, love and humour on every page of The Love Book as opposed to, for example, the hideous scientific labeling I had to do of a diagram of a penis and vagina as part of my sex education back in the 18th Century. Oh, I meant, the 1970’s.
Picture the scene. Nine year old me at laminated desk with tongue gripped through teeth. Vas deferens. Arrow. Ruler. Sharpen pencil. Uterus. Arrow. Ruler. Rub out incorrect label. Sharpen pencil. And so it went on. HIDEOUS. And then, the diagram was marked by my clearly affronted teacher (who did not spend four years getting their B.Ed to end up correcting penis drawings) with a cursory red tick. As if they would ever be liberated enough to change it if you got your clitoris and labia labels mixed up! (Maybe this is why so many British men still don’t know where they are?)
It seems to me that the Swedish approach is as much about sensuality as sex. There is a certain cultural appreciation of raw, human experience. It is about the fire of the sauna and the cool water of the natural lake, the wilderness both within and without. The body is a joy, an extension of the soul rather than a shameful source of embarrassing holes that signify WE ALL DO IT! Yes, birds and bees, and especially Swedes.
Clearly, the Swedish are getting something right when it comes to sex education. The country enjoys one of the lowest rates of teenage pregnancy, with around 7 births per 1,000 women aged 15–19 in 2002 compared with the UK which has one of the highest incidences in Europe (26.4 teenage births per 1,000 women aged 15–19 in 2006). All over Europe, the statistics bear out the fact that it is silence and taboo that makes babies, not sperm and eggs. Although we have sex education in the UK, there is still little teaching about empowerment, the cyclical nature of the female body, the ebb and flow of desire, sex as a loving, sensual act whether it is for the creation of babies or an expression of intimacy between consulting adults, whatever their gender. And yes, there is no reason why teaching about sex should be the job of schools. It makes sense for there to be more of a cooperative approach between parents and teachers, and we really do need to get over ourselves. Some parents aren’t even aware that it is ‘sex education’ time at school and are blindsided and by their children’s natural questions when they come home the day of THE FILM. You cannot change a culture overnight and Britain, of course, is a melting pot of ideas and social taboos, but the statistics prove it; open dialogue works. Yes, it means you will have to say, ‘snopp’ without giggling. Yes, it means you will have to admit that actually, you do it too. If all else fails, just take your kids to a farm during mating season then stop by Kidsen on the way home and ask for a loan of the Karlek Boken.
Have you come across any good books to support teaching your children about sex? I’d love to hear your recommendations.