From struggling to get the Pill and going through an abortion, to a 'John Thomas' and being stood up at a Roxy Music gig, women from five different generations told the International Planned Parenthood Federation about their experiences of sex and all that it entails.
I struggle to define my sexuality. I don’t consider myself straight but have not had relationships with women. The expectations that sex education gave me were pretty useless. I don’t talk to my parents much about sex, although we’re close.
Since puberty, street harassment is common. I have been on nights out when men have tried to dance with me and squeeze my bum so I am assertive to stand up for myself. However, my boyfriend watched porn and his desires were influenced by the content which I am angry about. He went to a strip club which I felt betrayed by.
When I lost my virginity I took the morning after pill from the university pharmacy but that was humiliating and degrading. The questions felt like an interrogation and there was no privacy.
I have had scares when I thought I’d taken the pill late or been ill. I took pregnancy tests, some free, once from Tesco. They were behind the counter – I asked: "Why you can buy medicines and sanitary wear independently but pregnancy tests are restricted like cigarettes?".
"There are few subjects on which bourgeois society displays greater hypocrisy; abortion is considered a revolting crime to which it is indecent even to refer," wrote Simone de Beauvoir in 'The Second Sex' in 1949.
In 1994 I came face to face with these hypocrisies, difficulties and repressive realities aged 20 when I found out I was unexpectedly pregnant in Ireland, where abortion was – and still is – illegal. It was several months before my university final exams. It was a huge shock, but I never doubted for a moment what to do. I never considered having a baby at that young age.
Psychologically, financially and emotionally I was completely ill-equipped to parent a child responsibly. I was pretty much still a child myself. I also believed that I had an absolute right to make this decision, to choose what happened in and to my own body.
It was a very real, cold lesson in social and legal hypocrisy to realise I had to travel abroad, at huge financial and emotional cost, to a country I had never been in before, to entrust myself to strangers to have an abortion and avoid being a mother against my will. The fact that I was doing something 'illegal' in Ireland never made me hesitate in my decision for a moment, but it did make me deeply resent that law and in many ways, the society that upheld that law. There is a growing momentum in Ireland now among both women and men demanding change, but at the moment it still saddens me that other Irish women, thousands of them, are punished by this continuing hypocrisy.
I have since had two wonderful children, who I am able to offer financial and emotional stability and a stable, loving home. I enjoy being a mother very much, and am incredibly grateful that I was able to take control of this important decision, and that legal changes in England offered me that control, denied by the Irish government.
I was born in the sixties and lost my virginity aged 14 with a roadie from a band. I was raped by a group of boys at a friend’s birthday party and also by a Saturday job colleague, both before the age of 16.
My mother took me to the doctor’s when I lost my virginity and I went on the pill. She was not judgemental and took a fairly pragmatic view of my sex life. I have had five long term partners, two of whom were sexist and used violence to get me to do their share of chores etc.
I would say the biggest determinants governing my sex life and my attitude to myself as a female has been society’s ongoing sexism – that as a female you are responsible for violence against you and that it is your job to understand and forgive the men that are sexist and violent towards you.
Pornography was present in our house from a very young age, my dad kept it under the bed, and I remember wondering as an eight year old at what age would I become a whore and a person that everyone seemed to regard with hatred. It was a horrible legacy to grow in to and one that I am determined not to replicate with my daughter.
It was early 1973
and I was sitting in the doctor’s surgery, about to make an awkward situation doubly so, by choosing to visit our family doctor with my request. Dr L was a lovely man; softly spoken, avuncular and caring. So when I met a nice young man and the question of sex raised its head, instead of going to one of the new sexual health clinics that had recently been established in London, I decided – naively – that the family doctor would be able and happy to prescribe the contraceptive pill.
I had just turned 20 and the world did seem to lie before me ‘so various, so beautiful, so new.’ I was newly emerged from boarding school, with memories of sitting, imprisoned in our ivory towers, watching on the television as flower power and free love developed and flourished in the world outside. I wanted to be part of all that. And the freedom to have sex without being married seemed to me to be essential. My naivety – or perhaps my arrogance – was to assume that everyone else would feel the same. I felt sure that this new-found freedom would have been seen as a good and proper thing. All the same, I was nervous about asking my doctor to prescribe ‘the pill’. I felt a middle-class reluctance to talk about sex.
So when I told him that I would like to go on the pill. I was somewhat taken aback by his response, which was, “Are you engaged to be married?” So much for free love for all. Thinking quickly I told him that, no, I wasn’t, but that my boyfriend and I had discussed it at length. This was a lie. We had spoken of it but it was hardly a ‘discussion’. I just knew that I liked him a lot and I wanted the freedom to have worry-free sex with him. Also, despite my timidity, I didn’t feel that my motives or, indeed, my marital status had anything to do with my request.
In the end I prevailed and came away triumphant. It was a slightly pyrrhic victory though. I was on the pill but the nice young man dumped me soon after. We were supposed to go to see Roxy Music at the Rainbow Theatre and he never turned up. For the life of me I can’t remember what he looked like. The Roxy Music concert however, remains one of the defining events of my life.
Many of my generation came to marriage with very vague ideas of contraception. Although my father was a GP we never discussed sex, or even menstruation, at home when I was growing up. We did however use the correct medical terms for genitals: penis, vagina, so on. It was a bit of a surprise for me when I was sent away to boarding school and none of the girls used those terms. Girls might refer to ‘John Thomas’ but I don’t think we even had a slang term for vagina.
There was no mention of periods or any sort of sex education or puberty at school. I remember the girls calling menstruation ‘the curse’, but that’s about the extent of our knowledge. Hardly surprising we didn’t have vocabulary for sex or reproduction as we weren’t offered science lessons. So there was no chance to study reproductive system in biology. It was a pretty Victorian sort of school. That wasn’t what young ladies were educated for. It just wasn’t something that girls studied at that sort of establishment.
As for my own contraception, I never used the pill but the sheath and diaphragm were fine. But I’m sure that many of the people my father saw as a GP in rural Ireland didn’t use any method at all apart from withdrawal. Families, even Protestant ones, were fairly large as a consequence.
I was determined things would be quite different with my own four children and we spoke quite openly and matter of factly about these things at home.
This article was ghost-written by Fiona and was published in The Telegraph11 March 2012.