1970 may well have been written up as a time of free love, the Beatles’ long-haired, frock-coated mockery of sexual and class stereotypes and the abundant availability of contraceptive pills, but not in our school, it wasn’t. Ardrossan Academy had different doors for Boys and Girls, and once I was sent home by Head of Girls to put on a proper skirt rather than that frightful curtain pelmet you appear to be sporting this morning. If the cult of new-style individualism – the me-generation – was knocking at our separate-sex doors, nobody was listening. Silentium est aurum and all that; virtute crescam.
The town of Ardrossan was and remains an unglamorous place off the coast of Ayrshire. Its chief charms were the Barony Church, the umpteen-times-hammered-since-the-13th-Century till-finally-flattened-by-Cromwell remains of Ardrossan Castle, the bus station and Glasgow Street – a long, potholed artery of tarmac full of flatted tenaments and excellent chippies. It also had Ardrossan harbour, which was full, allegedly, of pubs and prostitutes. Not that I had much idea what prostitutes were – only enough to know not to ask. The Academy, by comparison, was local posh, and since local knowledge of Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Charterhouse and Eton were limited in this part of the world, got away with it by and large. Context is all.
That’s geography and institution. We, the children within this double-context, were, if possible, even less in line with the metropolitan media’s idea of 1970s teen zeitgeist. From what I recall, we were as sexually ignorant as the average Bash Street Kid. Pop lyrics, no matter how sexually allusive, tended to be candy-cute evasive or downright unplumbable, even to teens who could sing along. Health and Efficiency, a naturist magazine, was indeed stocked in shops but wrapped up and stored under the counter, and though my Uncle George had pin-ups of naked women in his garage, their blanked-out pubes and airbrushed nipples were more than a little confusing.
Most of us had not long given up the Beano, don’t forget, and Jackie (a teen magazine with Cartlandstyle romances updated only by the addition of mini-skirts to the cartoon heroines) was limp enough to read with your mum. The culture of our background was still so choked, so at-sea when it came to the personal, that whatever of sexuality had come our way in childhood would most probably have been crushed and chucked in a bin marked Best Left Alone.
At three, being looked after by my nearly seventeen years older big sister, I saw her first kissing, then lying under, then doing something inexplicable yet obviously not right with an American Soldier – and pretended not to see. Aged eight, I found a black rubber tube with a fat pressure bulb inside a paper bag at the bottom of my mother’s wardrobe, and knew only to put it back where I found it and never refer to it again. Whatever it was (I’m still not sure), it was appallingly secret and rude and it was all my fault for finding it in the first place. Even after I’d been sexually assaulted, aged ten, by a boy on holiday from Glasgow who lured me into a side-street, pinned me by the neck till I couldn’t breathe and put his hand down my knickers making very clear threats, I told no one.
That he gave up and ran away was all that mattered; there was no need to say. I suppose we knew, through invisible antennae, that drawing attention – never much cop for my generation – would as likely incur blame than comfort, and that only if we were believed at all.
Through my teens, I avoided sex-awareness by rigorous policing of feelings and a lighting-quick ability to recode at the drop of a hat. If my sister dropped her knitting and her jaw when Tom Jones came on the telly, it was because she was fixated with his singing; if a flushed sensation not unlike the need to wee made me ripple when that Fifth Year smiled at me in the dinner queue, it meant I had a cold coming on. I had no idea periods connected with fertility -they were merely the short straw, a curse given to girls just because – and breasts were simply lumps in need of harnessing or they’d wobble when you tried to run. Oh, I was ignorant indeed. But I was not alone.
Sex Education, like winning the pools, was something that did not happen to us. Besides, the phrase was a contradiction, a joke. Education, as we understood it, was syllabus, and syllabus was stuff you had to study for exams – it was unimpeachable, socially and morally desirable. As Head of Girls explained the day I showed for school in a purple tie and thigh-boots, You’re not here to express yourself, you’re here to learn. At Ardrossan, we gleaned our Sex Education, and what our attitudes to sex might be, through its complete absence.
Imagine the shock, when one afternoon following a double-period of Cookery, we found something sexy had happened in Physics. We, that is to say Class IIA (A-M) roared upstairs after an ordeal with scone dough only to find our other half – Class IIA (Mc to Z) – reeling along the Science corridor reeking faintly of bunsen-burner flames and sulphur. One girl, a pudding-faced soul with an over-the-knee skirt and strict-observance parents, was scarlet with fury and refused to respond to as much as What happened? but merely stumped off down the stairwell. Our goalie for hockey appeared next, pink and shaking her head. It was sex education, (she mouthed the word sex rather than say it) snorting. Honest, sex! It was absolutely hellish. Don’t ask, said another girl. No, don’t.
As suspected, it was Dora, Miss Thompson, our regular Physics teacher; a woman whose demonstrations of mass, pulleys or anything else reliably failed to demonstrate anything at all and who read out notes for us to copy the rest of the time; this model of tact and ability who had been selected to talk to a bunch of hare-brained second-years about body parts, and, it emerged, draw them. The collective retching and shrieking noises that followed this awful discovery fetched a prefect keen to check what we were up to, whereupon the bell rang and we scarpered. I remember Jan Harris, a tall, crop-headed ragbag of nerves, whispering Dora had told them a fanny was called a regina as we trouped downstairs, which showed how closely Jan listened in Latin. No one needed to say more.
IIa (A-M), my lot, got no formal Sex Education at all. Not on that day, and at no other time throughout our senior schooling. I don’t know why, but it remains a relief; by late third year, it was all a bit late in any case. By fifteen, I’d already lost my virginity without ever learning what the word virgin meant. It happened with a patient boy from my French study group and we took off our school uniforms to do it. We had tried before, at least he had (on the grounds that it was a filthy suggestion, I had refused to open my legs and insisted there had to be another way) and in all that time I never once looked at him naked. That, frankly, was too far.
Janice Galloway is the author of memoir This is Not About Me, which is published by Granta Books.
Photograph by J Mark Dods