Thursday, 5 May 2011

My thoughts on Nadine's Dorries bonkers legislation, and a morality tale about a man and his penis...

Fair warning: this post is probably NSFW. Unless you have a very interesting job.

So this is a huge pile of bollocks.

I’ve mentioned in the past that sex education (or the lack thereof) in Britain is of huge personal concern to me, but before I go into why the coalition policies in this field are bullshit I should probably reiterate my personal experience with its failings. I offer my apologies to anyone who has already heard this story, and a warning to those of a delicate disposition that it will include a fairly detailed description of my penis.

Anyone still reading? Alright then…

When I was a young(er) man of twenty-one summers, I discovered that my foreskin didn’t retract properly, particularly when erect (a condition referred to in fancy Greek-talk as phimosis [NSFW!!!]). I was still a virgin at the time, and was informed by a surgeon with entirely too much money that there was a danger that my foreskin could tear if I engaged in sexual intercourse, which is generally something to avoid, or so I am told. It also meant that condoms wouldn’t fit me correctly, and that the head of my penis would be extremely vulnerable if it were to become exposed. The upshot of this is that I needed to have a circumcision.

The operation itself was quick, but in the aftermath I’m sure you could appreciate I was in a certain (but manageable) degree of pain for a period of weeks. I also had to have the operation performed privately, since I was still at and it would have been disruptive to myself and to others if the issue were not resolved swiftly. Consequently it was not cheap, and I have never been more grateful to my mother than when she agreed to pay the frankly exorbitant fee for an operation a good rabbi would have performed for free (I was slightly more concerned to discover my mum had also googled “self-circumcision” on her desktop, mind).

Now this is not a procedure I would have wished upon anyone without good religious or medical reason. There’s a reason Jewish and Muslim boys are circumcised at a young age, so that (1) they don’t have any memory of the procedure and (2) any scarring is less likely to be permanent, as mine was (and is). As with any surgery there are risks, and had it not been medically necessary I do not think I would have undergone the procedure in a thousand years.

But I did need it, and the truth is that it would have been best had I had it at a young age. It would have probably been asking a bit much of the poor (Catholic) priest who baptised me to have lopped off part of my dick whilst I was naked anyway, but certainly it should, ideally, have been dealt with at the onset of my adolescence. It wasn’t, and though I am relieved to report that my undercarriage now works fine (as far as I know), there is still some rather unsightly scarring that might have been avoided had I received the procedure when I should have.

The point of this unavoidably explicit story is this: why did I not discover there was something wrong with me until I was an adult, when it should have been reported years earlier? Why was it that I had to discover this sensitive detail from someone else (whom I shall not name, but to whom I shall be forever grateful for their delicate sympathy), instead of learning it for myself, which would have meant considerably less embarrassment.

The answer is simple: no one had ever told me- let alone showed me- what an erect penis was supposed to look like.

I’m sure it seems ridiculous that an adult male had no idea how his penis was supposed to work. Honestly, I find it a little preposterous myself with hindsight. I am not a stupid person. Well, I am, in many ways, but I’m not an ignorant person. I pride myself on knowing things, I hate not being knowledgeable about anything. The idea that I couldn’t have known what a dick was supposed to look like is, quite frankly, laughable.

Nonetheless, it is true: I simply didn’t realise there was anything wrong with me. As far as I knew, everyone’s penis was the same: the foreskin wasn’t meant to retract, but was meant to hug the head of the penis like bacon around a Christmas chipolata. You can imagine that I had some very strange ideas about what circumcision actually involved: let’s just say I pitied the Jewish boys at school and leave it at that.

Here’s the bit where I Blame Society For My Misfortune: the reason I thought my condition was the norm was because no one had told me otherwise. Not once in two decades had anyone ever thought fit to tell me that the foreskin is meant to retract behind the head of the penis. Why would they? But the thing that gets to me is that I never had the opportunity to discover that something was wrong with me. I was taught about sex primarily by my mother, who was always open, direct and honest, but I’m sure you can appreciate there were subjects I dare not broach with her. My father had died when I was thirteen, so I was perhaps lacking a male figure with whom I could converse on such matters, but even had he lived I can’t imagine bringing the subject up with him. My “official” education on the subject consisted primarily of old men at school showing clinical videos about the differences between men and women, without ever actually showing sexual intercourse in practice. My unofficial education… well, I grew up in the nineties. There were plenty of exciting sensual delights on Channel 5 in those carefree days, but it was forbidden to show a man with an erection on television, and in an age before broadband, actual pornography was not as accessible to curious teenage minds as it is now.

The closest I ever saw to an actual stiffy was a terrible sex-ed video in RE at the age of fifteen in which a thermal image of a semi-erect penis was slowly revealed to the accompaniment of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. I am seriously not making this up.* The first and only time I have seen an erection that wasn’t may own, and it was presented in fuzzy Technicolour on a tiny monitor with exclamations of the Rapture in the background. How the hell was I going to learn anything from that?

Anyway, to sum up the key points of my rambling, I earnestly believe that British sex education let me down. I feel that a culture in which middle-aged men in tweed suits nervously explain to curious teens that they shouldn’t ever have sex ever or they will get pregnant and die is the wrong approach. I feel that there is a culture of ignorance that permeates traditional sex education, where people are barely given enough information to propagate the species, let alone emerge from their first experience with their sanity and their self-respect intact. I believe there is a tendency to treat sexual activity as shameful, to present sexually active people as immoral even whilst society places pressure on them to be sexually active as soon as possible. I believe that ignorance helps nobody, that keeping information from young people and failing to deal with their concerns seriously fucks them up, emotionally and physically, and is a tantamount to a form of abuse that will stay with them the rest of their lives. I believe my own experience is the thin end of the wedge: I was lucky to have my problem eventually solved. There are many thousands of people who will face far greater sexual problems that will not be so fortunate. I believe that bad sex education does a greater disservice to the young than people realise.

The reason I have presented this rather personal confession is to highlight the reasons why I believe that good sex education is absolutely vital to ensure the physical and psychological wellbeing of future generations of adults. I also want to stress just how flawed this legislation is, and why I believe that Nadine Dorries is a dangerous cunt.

It is because of people like Dorries that the culture of embarrassed ignorance permeates British society at every level. It is because of legislation like this that I was kept from learning something I should have learned when I was fourteen.

Put crudely (and somewhat melodramatically): if people like Dorries had their way, I would have literally had my knob ripped off as soon as I had sex for the first time.

Some of the obvious criticisms of her policy- like the fact that it is sexist and won’t work- have already been pointed out, and needn’t be reiterated here. What I will say is that abstinence is not the answer. I’m not opposed to abstinence per se, nor am I opposed to empowering women to say no to sex (though God knows Nadine Dorries has precisely zero interest in empowering women, judging by her record). I have been largely abstinent myself now for some time (though whether by choice or circumstance, I could not say), and one of the things I find most grating about modern society is it’s constant expectation that sexual activity is the norm and sexual inactivity is somehow freakishly aberrant, a view perpetuated by trendy sitcoms set in New York. In fact, I believe Dorries could go further in her message and extend it to boys, who often face a similar pressure- albeit from their peers- to engage in premature sexual activity.

But the fact that Dorries is a neo-Victorian misogynist is tangential to my main point, which is that abstinence training is dangerous. Not only because it manifestly doesn’t work, since telling young people not to have sex is about as effective as telling the rain not to fall or getting Nick Clegg to promise not to raise tuition fees, but because it adds to the confused and contradictory message that young people already receive about sex. They want to have it, but they mustn’t do it. It’s cool to have sex, but it’s cool to say no. I wouldn’t even begin to describe the psychological harm such a policy must have. People are hard-wired to want to have sex all the time, a trait they share with every living creature to have ever walked the earth, apart from pandas and Tories. That doesn’t mean they have to do it all the time, but it certainly doesn’t mean they should be told that they are guilty of some moral failing if they choose to have sex, for whatever reason.

The most sinister aspect of abstinence based “education” is that it is often used as a cheap means for the conservatives (small “c”) in society to avoid proper sex education altogether, and option that must seem particularly attractive to the current government and their policy of cutting funding to anyone without a knighthood. And if I have learned anything from my own experience with sex education, it is that more education is needed, not less. Really, can anyone think of any aspect of human endeavour where more information about a topic is not immeasurably preferable to less?

The last thing I want is for other people to go through what I had to go through, not least because I imagine their experiences might be much more severe and much more permanent. Denying people education- wilfully leaving them ignorant- is quite possibly one of the worst things they will do. If sex education is replaced with abstinent programs, where will young people learn about sex? From their parents? They might not be willing or comfortably talking about sex with their children. From trendy Channel 4 documentaries? Sure, so long as one is happy that children learn more about how to staple mithril to their fannies than about sex, health or relationships? From pornography, which bears about as much resemblance to the reality of teenage sexual relations as Twilight does? No, the truth is that young people will probably be left on their own to figure what goes where, when they inevitably do have sex, with predictably disastrous consequences.

But more than that, I believe that my experience came about because of a culture of ignorance and embarrassment about sexual health. And I believe that part of the reason I emerged from it healthier is that I learned not to feel embarrassed about it. Rather than hiding the reason why I was off work, I told people the truth, and to a man my co-workers were all sympathetic I talked about my problem. I made jokes about it: my favourite was telling Daily Mail readers I was getting circumcised in order to convert to Islam (the looks of horror on their faces were priceless). The point is that I owned it; I drew strength from it. Far from being a subject of shame and embarrassment, it became a point of pride for me that I has undergone a painful and sensitive experience and emerged the better for it. I felt more confident in my own skin, better able to talk about myself, and my feelings, even about intimately. To this day I still talk about my circumcision more than I really should, even on Twitter and, it would seem, on blogposts that will be read by literally half-dozens of people! I probably shouldn’t. It’s not what one does in polite society. But I honestly think that being honest, open and transparent about this aspect of myself has been immensely beneficial. I want to live in a society where human sexuality is not a big deal, where people are encouraged to talk about their problems so that they can handle them with maturity and optimism, instead of feeling dirty and ashamed of their own bodies or feelings.

Doesn’t it seem healthier to encourage young people to talk more about sex, instead of telling them not to do it? Hell, they’re going to do it no matter what you say, so you might as well ensure the experience is positive, fulfilling and healthy, instead of stigmatising it, just like everything else fun that teenagers like to do.

*It might not have been the Hallelujah chorus, but it was certainly religious and Handel-esque. It was, at any rate, hideously inappropriate.


  1. ...Patrick, you need to start sending these to the liberal media. They deserve a wide audience. Although I have to admit, I always thought Tories were oversexed, fetishistic fuckers who just didn't want to share the fun...

  2. You are very kind, but I wouldn't have the slightest idea how to go about sending posts to the liberal media. I mainly write them for practise, and because of my bizarre fetish for discussing (my) circumcision

  3. Thank you for this. I am intersex - not a dramatic variant thereof, but enough that from a young age I was aware I didn't fit with what I was being told about female bodies, and enough that in later life I suffered from related medical complications which, had I been able to put them into context, might have been diagnosed earlier. I also had a friend at my school who was less able to 'pass' than I was. The school's approach was to treat both of us as if we should be ashamed of our differences and never discuss them; my friend was prevented from doing most of PE so that no undressing was necessary. We were both extensively bullied as a result, which contributed to my friend dropping out of school in her early teens.

    This really isn't just about having sex, it's about bodies - even completely average bodies - and people being taught that they should be subject to shame. It's antithetical to what education should be about. It leaves people horribly vulnerable and any government enabling it is beneath contempt.

  4. Thank you so much for your feedback, Jennie. It really hammers home that my example is at the low end of the scale. I've been fortunate enough to be a white, straight, middle-class male, and that my experience pales in comparison to yours.

    I couldn't begin to imagine what you went through, and you should be proud that you came through all that bullshit and showed yourself stronger than the stuck-up arseholes who want everyone to dress, act, and fuck the same way.