How to get pregnant: what they don’t tell you in schools (part two)

// 20 January 2014

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This is the second part of Saranga’s piece reflecting on the sex education she received in school in the 1990s, in the light of her more recent experiences. You can find part one here.

Update from Holly (20/01/2014. 11.41am): Thanks to the reader who left a comment on our Facebook page to let us know that miscarriage can indeed present as “spotting, old blood, fresh blood, no blood, sudden bleeding and completely symptomless until the dating scan”. Sorry we didn’t check this. You can find more information at the Miscarriage Association website.

 Now let’s talk about fertility statistics.

According to this BBC article, commonly cited fertility statistics are taken from French data from the 1700s, when women lived vastly different lives as compared to today. Use of these old stats doesn’t take nutrition, healthcare, use of contraception or how often, when and how women had sex into account.

So, I’m now going to argue a point with a hypothetical example. Say that 80% of women from that 1700s data stopped having PIV sex around the age of 35. Maybe they were sick of having children. Maybe they didn’t like sex in general. Maybe, without medical care, they had diseases. Because they weren’t having sex, they weren’t having children.

When you look at the statistics, they indicate quite clearly that women have fewer babies. This is commonly taken to mean women are less fertile after the age of 35. However, in this commonly used example, we don’t know that the women’s fertility reduced, all we know is that they were having fewer babies. My hypothetical example gives a different reason for fewer babies born – the sample group is not less fertile, but less sexually active. I don’t know if this is actually what happened, but it is possible that the wrong conclusions have been drawn from the data.

To my mind, unless you explain the methodology of the stats, the statement that women are less fertile after the age of 35 is too much of a generalisation. The only way to truly check your own fertility, as someone who may be able to get pregnant, is to have PIV sex on the day you ovulate (or just before) for several months at a time. If you get pregnant within two or three months, congratulations, you and your partner are fertile. If you don’t get pregnant, you or your partner may be less fertile.

Then, even if you do get pregnant, you might miscarry, particularly in the first 12 weeks. I was never taught what a miscarriage would look like. So I spent eight weeks, from getting a positive pregnancy test to the 12 week scan, terrified I would miscarry. I don’t think I’ve ever been so worried. The thing was, I was getting cramps nearly every day from week four through to week 11. Painful cramps. This was accompanied by six days of spotting and a bit of brown discharge around week six. By spotting I mean a tiny bit of blood, once with bits in, only noticeable when I went to the toilet. I did not need a panty liner – there wasn’t enough blood. I didn’t know what a miscarriage looks like, so I was convinced that something was wrong.

Apparently, a miscarriage is like a period, not spotting, and you will need a sanitary towel for the blood. So, in hindsight, I didn’t need to worry. I wish I’d been taught this when I was younger.

Isn’t the stuff we learn in school meant to prepare us for adult life? So shouldn’t we be told about this?

Wouldn’t talking about all this be better? Wouldn’t it seem more honest to the students? Doesn’t a message of you can get pregnant anytime (so don’t have sex) seem more like hyperbole and exaggeration than actual facts? Why would a teenager trust an adult who seems to be scaremongering? Lots of teenagers have sex. They (hopefully) enjoy it. They want to keep doing it. So teach them about all the different ways to do it more safely and teach them honestly.

Part of this method would be to say that some teenagers who have unprotected PIV sex will be very fertile and get pregnant super quickly. Others won’t be as fertile and it will take them far longer. The key thing is that you can’t tell who is fertile and who isn’t, so it’s best to use contraception. Tell teen girls and boys this. Don’t just teach the girls. Is it not possible that this would reduce the rate of teenage pregnancy? Isn’t that a good thing?

Maybe sex education has changed since I was at school. It has been an awfully long time for me. Let me know if you’ve had had better experiences.

Saranga is a 33 year old bisexual feminist reading many many comics. She runs New readers…start here!, where she reviews comics for people who are new to them and also Pai, where she talks about comics in a more general sense. Her favourite hero is Supergirl. She is on twitter as @sarangacomics.

Image description:

Pencil drawing that appears to be from an old biology book, shared by HA! Designs – Artbyheather. This shows a late-term feotus in a womb with the outline of the mother’s pregnant body around it. The following elements are labelled (top to bottom): Placenta (middle), Umbilical cord (left), Distended uterus (left), Amniotic sac (left), Bladder (left), Cervix (middle), Rectum (right) and Vaginal outlet (left). This is free to use, to the best of my knowledge. (HC)

Comments From You

Michelle Ashton // Posted 20 January 2014 at 11:39 am

Hi Saranga, I’m sorry to hear about your experiences. I left school 9 years ago and my experiences were very different to yours. We were given the attitude of you don’t know how fertile you are, or at what time so it is best to be safe. We discussed infertility, abortion, miscarriage, menopause, gender and sexuality (including gender reassignment), sexual abuse, rape and after the lifting of section 28 homosexual sex was discussed in conjunction with heterosexual sex. All in a secure environment of non-judgement and was in no way preachy. We were not even told not to have sex. We were made aware of the law, but we were all aware that the decisions were ours. We were encouraged to give our opinions and challenge other members of the class as well as the teacher.

The main problem with sex education in schools is that it is not consistent. In general, PSHE is taught by the form tutor, who is not specially trained in this field. I had two wonderful, encouraging and most importantly honest teachers. I remember Mr. Taylor telling us about his wife’s experience of menopause and Mr Kennerley challenging the double standard of labelling of “studs” and “sluts”. I didn’t realise until after I left school that I was lucky. My experience of sex education is inconsistent not only with other people of my age, but even other people at MY school. One friend who went to a Catholic school told me they were shown a condom and how it works and then were told not to use them because they are sinful! It is just so inconsistent, mainly because it is down to the school and individual teachers. If PSHE was treated as a subject in its own right instead of as an optional extra, then everybody would receive the experience I did. It seems we have a long way to go, but there is hope!

Sophie // Posted 20 January 2014 at 11:49 am

I’m 22 and my sex-ed at school started with a video when I was 11. It was about erections and childbirth, the typical penis+vagina=baby. There was no talk about female arousal, only a really embarrassing clip of a man getting an erection seen through one of those heat seeking cameras.

Around GCSE year (2007) we had a really religious biology teacher who told us straight up that she didn’t believe in sex before marriage and have us a word-search with words like “condom” and “infection” in on the day set for us to have sex-ed.

This is literally all my school had in the way of sexual education. At the time I was slightly relieved because it’s embarrassing to talk about sex in a classroom format.

But I’m a survivor of coercive rape from my very early teens and even the slightest hint that sex shouldn’t be painful or unwanted would have helped me greatly.

I was quite an innocent and naive teenager so most of the information I had on sex was from 90’s films and sitcoms where men were seen convincing reluctant women to sleep with them. So I genuinely believed that sex was a male dominated activity. This is why it took me years to discover why this first experience of “sex” made me feel so terrible whenever I thought about it.

Although it might be wrong I hold a lot of blame in my old school for not covering basic consent rules or even that sex is meant to be pleasurable for women.

Saranga // Posted 20 January 2014 at 4:29 pm

Hi everybody. Thanks for the comments.

Re Holly’s edit about miscarriage at the start of the article – I was told explicitly, by 2 doctors and a midwife, that a miscarriage would look like a period and could not be mistaken for anything else. If that is not the case, apologies for the misinformation, it was not intentional. Please do check the miscarriage association website for better information.

Dina // Posted 24 January 2014 at 5:27 pm

What an interesting article. Now that I reflect, the focus when teaching us about sex in high school (I finished two years ago) was very much about the prevention of pregnancy/STDs. That’s understandable, seeing as the school would have developed a terrible reputation if any of the students were to find themselves pregnant or to have abortions. That said though, my memories of sex ed classes seem to suggest that the information that I was provided with had a much more scientific backing and was much broader (so it included all sex, even sex that as a naive fourteen year old seems unimaginable). We were taught all about the biological changes that occur throughout a woman’s cycle, how these stimulate ovulation, a period and so on. And yet the impression that I was left with leaving school was, you’re young and therefore very fertile, if you have unprotected sex, it is quite likely that you will get pregnant so don’t do it unless you’re ok with having a baby. Of course in addition to this there was a looming warning of if you catch stds, mess around with your hormones too much, use an IUD and get an infection or leave it too late, you may never have babies. As far as a how-to guide to getting pregnant went, well I suppose that the school felt that we didn’t need it at that point in our lives so they just didn’t bother.

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