Cast your mind back to being 11 years old. At this point, in all likelihood, you knew a bit about puberty, and you almost certainly knew that you were soon to expect special classes dedicated to it. A whole afternoon set aside to watching a DVD from the mid-90s about growing up, what could be more exciting! The corridors were buzzing with fraught and ill-conceived conversations about sex, periods, and what on earth a condom was. I can’t speak for everyone, but at my school boys and girls lined up outside separate classrooms, and in we marched to learn about our own puberty, and what our own bodies would soon be going through… separately.
At the time I’m sure I felt that it made perfect sense. What do boys need to know about periods for anyway? But looking back, I can’t help but feel that it was a bit narrow-minded to separate us. Until we started learning for ourselves, we had no idea what the other sex was going through. We barely had any idea what the other sex would experience or be responsible for during sex (which was obviously only ever between a man and a woman. Obviously.). At my big age of 20, I know a fair bit now about male adolescence and I probably know whatever those boys learned behind the closed doors of the opposite classroom, but it is no thanks to the education system that I do. We should all have learnt about everybody’s puberty, and I’m still incredulous to the fact that we didn’t.
First of all, how on earth were we expected to be sympathetic to each other if we were not even allowed to know what the opposite sex was going through during puberty? Cheap jokes about periods began pretty early: boys did not wait until they knew what it was like to talk openly about them in front of blushing 11 year old girls. To be honest, even people who have periods can’t really understand how to deal with them until they’ve experienced a few, but that does not, by any account, mean that we shouldn’t explain the basics of menstruation to everyone, uterus or not. Not everyone can understand what menstruation really means: the headaches, the skincare, the raging hormones, the scuttling away to the bathroom with a sanitary towel shoved up your jumper sleeve… not to mention the bleeding vulva. But if we had all been taught that menstruation is a physically exhausting and mentally straining time for vulva-owners, then we could’ve hoped for some semblance of compassion, or even respect. Hey, at the very least, if we’d all been taught about the physicality of a period, at least the jokes fired at young girls might have been accurate.
What’s more, by blocking off certain information, puberty education was given a mysteriously shameful glow by our teachers. Boys were not allowed to know what periods were, which must mean that they are not something to be openly discussed. Girls were not allowed to know what a wet dream was, which made that yet another thing that was not to be openly discussed, and without shame. I knew that boys were not supposed to know about periods, which made me believe that they were something to hide. As boys made jokes, girls were forced to feel embarrassed about something that is not only natural, but beautiful, and this embarrassment sinks in. In the Ladies bathroom, you hear full grown women tentatively peeling open a sanitary towel wrapper so other women don’t hear. Someone in a group of girlfriends is too afraid to ask if anyone has a tampon, so they wad up toilet roll in their knickers. We pass off taking paracetamol for cramps as a headache, when someone asks if I’m feeling alright. As a woman, I cannot speak for the shame that young men feel as a result of puberty secrecy, but I’m sure it includes dropping voices and changing genitalia. By hiding our puberty experiences from the opposite sex, we imply that it is not to be spoken of, and that external appearance of shame gets internalised pretty quickly.
Finally, not everyone in those two sex-separated classrooms was in the right room. Trans people exist, and without understanding the biology and puberty experiences of the opposite sex, they are only being further denied understanding of themselves, and access to life-saving information. If trans kids are allowed to understand what other people of their gender’s bodies are going through, they will be further enabled to identify with that gender. There is so much to be gained by educating every child on the experience of both biological sexes, because we ultimately can never know what their life will hold. By teaching kids about the puberty experiences of both sexes, we can sleep easy knowing that they have more vital information about their identity, whatever that may be.
I apologise for only referring to the shame and secrecy that females are made to feel through split-sex puberty education, and for focusing so heavily on periods, but by being deprived of any teaching on male puberty, I’ve been left unable to understand what the opposite sex goes through during adolescence. It seems to me that we can foster an atmosphere of openness, understanding, and sympathy, if only we allow kids to know what is going on in everyone’s bodies, not only their own.