When I was 11 or 12, I walked into my biology class and there on the blackboard, drawn in profile, was a scrotum and penis (in a flaccid state). Next to it was a diagram of the female reproductive system. Our biology teacher walked to the front and proceeded to describe what happens during sex. I can only remember two things about it. The first was that he got redder and redder as his talk progressed. The second was his statement that, during orgasm, the man experiences a "feeling of pleasure".
It's one of those ridiculous phrases that sticks in your mind, whereas everything else I learnt in three years of biology lessons has been utterly forgotten.
I suppose I remembered it at first because it was intriguing and latterly because it wasn't quite right. Orgasm may be a pleasurable feeling but that isn't the same thing as having a feeling of pleasure: the man in question may have a feeling of panic, regret, guilt, disgust, hatred, boredom, lots of things. There was a better description I once heard about in a Swedish sex education manual for children, which described orgasm as a bit like the sensation just before you're about to sneeze (come to think of it, Philip Larkin defended masturbation in one of his letters by saying that sex with a woman was like getting somebody else to blow your nose).
That was my entire sex education. It was startlingly incomplete. Showing us that diagram of the ovaries was like giving us the celebrated schematic map of the London Underground but not mentioning trains or escalators or telling us what London is.
The first time we blundered into the Underground - the delayed trains, the broken escalators, the whole experience - wouldn't seem in the least like that clean, brightly coloured map. In fact, if I was going to place myself in this over-extended metaphor, I would be the "man under" whose demise is reported over the PA system to the irritation and amusement of commuters.
Things have changed now. Remember when there used to be jokes about how embarrassing it was to ask for condoms in a chemist? One of the significant moments in the anti-Aids campaign during the late eighties was in a documentary where lots of famous people, including Norman Fowler, just said the word "condom", which was in itself some sort of breakthrough. (People make fun of that campaign but in fact the government's speedy action, especially over free needle exchanges, gave England and Wales one of the lowest rates of HIV infection in western Europe. It was one of the Tory government's great achievements though, amusingly, it wasn't one they ever felt happy boasting about.)
I have on my desk an "activity sheet", part of a series entitled "Wising up on Puberty", which has been given to my ten-year-old stepdaughter's class. It's called a "puberty wordsearch" and features a square of letters 12 across and 14 deep, and instead of the usual sorts of words, such as capital cities or farmyard animals, you're meant to find "24 puberty words hidden in the grid". At the bottom is a list of the words you are looking for. They are: adult, bully, bra, breasts, discharge, erection, health, hormones, hygiene, menstruation, ovum, penis, puberty, pubic, responsible, sanitary, talk, towels, trust, vagina, wash, wet dream.
We're British, so a list like this, especially as part of a word game, seems intrinsically comic. You could imagine it being read out by some Rowan Atkinson-style performer at a comedy club to hoots of laughter.
Actually, looking at the list, I think it would probably do me some good if I sat at the back and took notes. The one that I'm curious about is wet dreams. I have a theory that wet dreams are a myth, a convenient excuse for stains on the sheet, but it's probably just another sign of my ignorance. At this point I was about to give my e-mail address and ask if anybody had had a wet dream, and could they write and tell me about it. But then I thought, what a terrible idea.
I was almost amused by the story of the 14-year-old boy who had impregnated a 12-year-old girl and blamed it on the sex education he had received at school (this bit of cheek was then taken as serious evidence by the Daily Telegraph). Would the Telegraph have sympathetically quoted the views of a young man who ran over an old woman in his car and then said: "It was all those driving lessons that made me want to do it"?