This article by Kristian Johns @guy_interruptd first appeared in FS Magazine here.
If you’re over 30 like me, you’ll vividly remember sex education classes at school. Cringeworthy, weren’t they? An hour spent wishing you were anywhere but in a fucking classroom with some dried up old hag of a teacher rolling condoms on to cucumbers (I mean, who the fuck has a willy the size of a cucumber anyway? And can I get their phone number?) and explaining the ins and outs of a vagina. I even vaguely remember some sort of video showing grossly unattractive men and women playing naked volleyball. That was it. Just naked sports. I don’t even think it had a point.
Sex education was the part of the week we all dreaded. It was embarrassing, uncomfortable and ultimately didn’t really teach me anything about the kind of sex I was already having with the school football captain. Frantic jerk-off sessions in the boy’s toilets after school, with my mum waiting in the car not knowing where the hell I was. These were the days before mobile phones had even been invented, let alone become as ubiquitous as they are twenty years later in the present day. I guess a lot’s changed since then.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know what the hell a sex-ed curriculum looks like nowadays, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t involve naked volleyball. But my feelings about my own cringeworthy sex-ed experiences were challenged recently when I read an opinion piece by a young man who blames the government and its anti-sex-ed policy for his HIV diagnosis.
If I’m honest, my initial reaction was: “Bollocks. Lack of sex education meant you didn’t know HIV existed?” It just didn’t ring true for me. From my perspective, HIV has been a part of our sexual culture for over thirty years now.
I get a ton of messages from guys asking about what’s risky and what’s not, but they still know it exists, and that unsafe sex puts you in its firing line. They’re simply enquiring about the nuances and logistics of what defines unsafe sex.
I soon changed my opinion though, when I read another report from BBC Newsbeat, who surveyed 1,000 young people and discovered that a third of 12 to 17-year-olds wrongly think they can’t catch HIV through unprotected sex. Wowsers. Have things really got that bad?
But let’s look at the other side of the coin here. I had sex education at school. It didn’t stop one of the girls in my class becoming pregnant at 15. And it didn’t stop me becoming positive. Why? Because if I’m honest, I didn’t care. I knew HIV existed. I knew how you caught it, and I just didn’t care. I thought I could get away with it; that it couldn’t happen to me. So I rolled the dice, played Russian Roulette with my sexual health and lost spectacularly.
When I stripped away all the anger and resentment about becoming HIV-positive at such a young age, I really only had myself to blame. Yes, he was older, and you could argue that he should have taken more responsibility in the face of my naiveté. But the simple fact of the matter is that I wanted to have sex with this big-bicepped, flat-stomached, hotter-than-uranium sex-god (with his own flat and car, by the way), and I didn’t want a discussion about condoms to potentially fuck it up.
His fault? Not really. He was thinking with his dick. But I didn’t have the balls or self-worth to have that conversation, and potentially walk away with a rejection and a bruised ego, but a body free of HIV.
Educating young people about which body part goes where when you’re doing the nasty isn’t going to curb HIV infections, or teen pregnancies, or even a mild case of chlamydia. Educating people about sexual self-esteem, and relationships, and having the right to say no is what sex education should also be about.
I feel for young LGBTQI people in school nowadays, where the word ‘gay’ is tossed about on a daily basis, and social media gives bullies and hatemongers access to thousands of victims on a far greater scale than the playground or classroom. We live in a society that even now, struggles to accept the idea of anyone ‘different’. How on earth can we expect our young queer brothers and sisters to have the confidence and self-esteem to negotiate the kind of sex they want, when the world has taught them that they’re ‘less than’ everyone else?
I’m not a teacher, and I’m not a teenager. But for me, sex education shouldn’t be about rolling condoms on to phallus-shaped vegetables – at least not entirely. Kids are going to have sex. It’s the way of the world. A balanced sexual education programme should absolutely include that facts about sex, but it needs to be about so much more than that. Teaching young people about equality, empowerment and acceptance of themselves and others is how you equip them to negotiate safe, enjoyable sex for both parties. And who knows? Maybe a sweaty round of naked volleyball might turn out to be the most fun you’ve ever had with your clothes off...
About the author: Kristian Johns is an author and former editor. When he’s not raising awareness of HIV issues, his sole mission in life is to convince his boyfriend to let him have a dog.
HIV and self-esteem
Self-esteem (or self-worth) is basically the opinion you have about yourself. It’s about how valuable you think you are, and whether you feel you have a purpose. It’s also about being confident, knowing your strengths and weaknesses and being able to be self-critical without feeling devalued.
Having high self-esteem doesn’t mean you are better than everyone else, it just means that you know that you are as worthy as everyone else, and that you like yourself. Living with HIV can affect you in many different ways, and it can have an effect on self-esteem. Other factors, such as feelings of rejection, can lower your self-esteem. Rejection doesn’t just mean being turned down for sex, however. If you have had to deal with rejection when you came out as gay, possibly by your family, or when you told people you have HIV, then these can build up and over time have a negative effect on how you see yourself.
People with low self-esteem tend to lack confidence in themselves and feel less worthy than people around them. They can feel overwhelmed by the pace of life and have trouble asserting themselves. This can lead to them withdrawing from the outside world and from people close to them.
Low self-esteem can cause people to lack the confidence to succeed, meaning they often underachieve. This in turn can cause people to have an even lower opinion of themselves, and even less confidence in their ability. This lack of self-confidence can be a major cause of anxiety and stress, and at its most severe can lead to longer-term health problems such as depression. On the other hand, low self-esteem can actually be a symptom of depression.
It’s not uncommon for men with low self-esteem to take more risks with their lives, and to put themselves into situations where they feel pressured into doing something they don’t really want to do. If you are using sex as a form of escapism, and to try to make you feel better about yourself, then quite often it can have the opposite effect. You could also find yourself in situations where you are not as safe as you would like to be when having sex, but don’t feel confident enough to say something or do something about it.
If you feel you are having problems with your self-esteem then it may really help if you talk to someone about it. You could speak to your doctor or a health adviser at your clinic about it and they’ll be able to tell you if there are any services available through the clinic that could be of use.
For more information, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/looking-after-yourself.
This article was taken from FS magazine issue 143. To read the DIGITAL VERSION click here.