Archive for July 21st, 2008

I’m partial to books, newspapers and blogs, so I’m quite fond of the New York Times book blog, Paper Cuts. Despite the fact that I’ve never heard of half the people featured so far in Living With Music (although I loved the way A.M. Homes explained her choices), I’m ridiculously nosy about other people’s music taste. So there I am reading down through Camille Paglia’s 20 choices – which includes lots of classic 60s stuff (The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix), some feministy options (Pamela Stanley, Chaka Khan) when two of her choices hit me like a left jab, followed swiftly by a right hook in the gob: firstly Toni Braxton’s ‘Unbreak My Heart’, only to read on and discover she likes Groove Armada. Could this be a token down-with-the-kids choice (albeit kids about eight years ago), or a bona fide love of downtempo dance with a dash of electronica? She describes them as “an ultra-sophisticated Euro-tech descendant of Giorgio Moroder’s seminal disco collaboration with Donna Summer. Sunshine Anderson… brings introspective intensity to the moody, multi-layered soundscape.” Indeed.

Like her or loathe her, Paglia is a pivotal figure in feminism, particularly in relation to the arts. And yet for all her writing, most people remember Julie Burchill signing off their Battle of the Bitches fax exchange with with the words, “fuck off, you crazy dyke”.

Paglia once said in an interview that her parents played her Bach and Bizet when she was three years old and it had a lasting effect on her – “From the start, I saw music as something that transports you, takes you to another world, and turns off the mind to unleash the emotions.” Well ok, I can relate to that, but does it go some way to explaining the inclusion of Mozzarella-fest ‘Unbreak My Heart’? Hmm. As songs go, it’s corny as all hell, but then Toni Braxton’s gospel wail makes you believe in three minutes that some guy actually dropped a fridge on her heart and she wants it fixed pronto. If the song isn’t melodramatic enough, who can forget the bike crash video? It’s a classic ballad narrative – nudity, perfect make-up and er, a game of Twister. (See also Celine Dion’s ‘Think Twice’, where there’s lots of post-coital standing around wrapped only in a sheet). As for Groove Armada? I just can’t join the dots between a no-nonsense intellectual and a band I’ve seen far too many people dancing monged out to at Festivals.

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It Keeps Coming Up, Anyhow

If you went to school in Ireland in the ’80s and ’90s, your sex education was probably, well, let’s just be polite and call it negligible. In my north Dublin suburban convent, we got a few videos and lectures about the mechanics of the whole reproductive thing and then, in sixth year, a whole day devoted to some nice people from the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council telling us about various forms of contraception (oh, the irony!) while trying to pretend we shouldn’t ever use any of it. I felt a bit sorry for them, actually, as you could tell they were all kind of liberal and wished they could just give us some practical advice.

Salt 'n' Pepa, where were you when we needed you?

Salt 'n' Pepa, where were you when we needed you?

Anyway, all our useful information came from the problem pages of Just Seventeen, which would actually tell you about stuff like if you could get pregnant without having penetrative sex (the answer: yes) and would constantly reiterate the importance of using condoms. The fact that condom use wasn’t stressed in our schools at a time when AIDS was still pretty much an automatic death sentence still horrifies me (although it could have been worse – at my partner’s school, none other than Father Michael Cleary turned up and said, and I quote, “I’ve never had sex, but I imagine having sex with a condom would be like having a bath with a raincoat on”. Oh, yes).

I was pissed off about all that at the time, but what also, in retrospect, makes me really angry is the fact that girls were simply not told about their own bodies. It’s not like I wanted any of our teachers to hand out the hand-mirrors in class, or anything, but the level of ignorance in which I can only say we were knowingly kept is ridiculous. The only images most of us had seen of female genitalia were on the Tampax instruction leaflet, which strangely didn’t say “and this bit up there is the only part of the human body whose sole purpose is giving you pleasure. Enjoy! Oh, and it’s the only way 50-60% of you will ever have an orgasm. So it’s probably a good thing that you know (a) that it exists and (b) where exactly it is”. Trusty Just Seventeen would mention the clitoris, but was kind of vague about the details, which left my 15 year old self confusing it with the G-spot and thinking it was somewhere near my cervix. It took me several years and a very talented young man to discover the truth.

Which was why I was pleasantly surprised to see this interesting piece in the Guardian on Friday about the state of sex ed in the UK, which said that in a new sex-ed video aimed at pre-teens, they might actually be given some useful information about themselves:

What makes me smile is the inclusion of the clitoris in the body diagrams, along with the information that sometimes it, like the penis, can get hard and “feel nice”. Maybe this generation of girls won’t be still looking for theirs in their 20s, like I was.

Yay! But of course, that’s in the UK, not here, and the state of our sex education is even less progressive. I know that it’s moved on here since the early ’90s, but it’s still pretty crap, and still seems to be confined to little more than the bare biological facts of reproduction. There isn’t much, or indeed anything, about female orgasms (or, heaven forfend, masturbation). In fact, today’s Irish sex-ed don’t seem to the even feature STIs, as some teenagers seem utterly unaware of their existence, let alone the fact that while HIV positive people can now live for decades in excellent health, AIDS is still uncurable, all STIs are pretty revolting, and condoms are just as important as they were 20 years ago.

Of course, lack of this sort of biological knowledge wasn’t the only thing missing from our classes about sex. Back in the early ’90s, the possibility that some of the girls sitting in our school hall being told about the coil (!) actually fancied girls was not even considered. More teenagers than ever are coming out these days, which is a huge advance on our day, but homophobic bullying is still rife in 79% of schools, according to a DCU study. While the Department of Education launched a campaign against this a few years ago, in general they’re not really acknowledging the fact that not all pupils are straight, and that those who aren’t deserve respect, acknowledgement and support; in some cases supportive school staff are hampered by their school’s “Catholic ethos”. There are organisations like the absolutely brilliant BelongTo providing support and information for queer teens, but schools should be doing this too. I won’t hold my breath, though.

Some day, hopefully, Irish kids will get the responsible, useful sex education they deserve. In the meantime, I’ll hope they’re discovering sites like the fantastic Scarleteen and managing to learn a bit more than we did. And at least they don’t have to worry about Father Michael Cleary turning up and pretending he’d never had sex. So that’s a plus, anyway.

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