On a mission to open up the menstruation conversation, relationships & sex education (RSE) teacher Saskia Boujo has just written This Period In My Life – a guidebook and journal full of tips, charts and practical and historical facts. Here she talks to us about untangling menstruation myths, walking around naked and how periods are actually a superpower…
ON STARTING SEX-ED CONVERSATIONS
When you talk about sex & relationships in the classroom, by naming the fact that: “Yeah, I feel uncomfortable talking about periods” you release that into the air and then you can get down to teaching. You need a strong learning agreement – a verbal contract with the students – to create a really safe environment where the conversation is respectful and open and people aren’t going to be unkind to others.
How young people respond to talking about sex & relationships topics depends on how approachable and open their trusted adults are. If the conversation has been normalised from an early age, then their response will be like anything else: they might ask what a testicle is while they’re playing Lego – at least in my house! – and that’s completely normal.
As they get older, from the middle to the top end of primary school, they naturally develop layers of awkwardness, discomfort and shame around sex-education topics, so that’s the argument for starting the talk early. Having said that, it’s never too late!
But there are ways for parents to gain confidence. It’s important to name the discomfort and say to your child: “This is an awkward conversation – I couldn’t talk to Granny about this – but let’s have a go…”
If we can start the conversation early, it’s so much easier to build on it later. There are so many layers about sex that are complex and difficult to discuss later on: what’s healthy, what we aspire to, what consensual sex is. At some point we have to answer “What is rape?” and talk about sexual assault – and we don’t want to have the sex conversation at the same time. Let’s begin with what is healthy.
ON WRITING ABOUT PERIODS
What started out as my writing a leaflet for schools took on a whole world of its own when I realised: “I need to go into the history of periods and why we’ve been hiding it for years.” So it became This Period In My Life. Ideally it should be read in the run-up to puberty and before bleeding starts. While I was writing it, my 8-year-old was my biggest crowd. Actually my toughest critics are my 3 young daughters.
Many well-meaning parents lack confidence, for their own reasons, in talking about periods so they haven’t got the tools to start the conversation. It’s been enlightening to hear that fathers, uncles and single dads want the book as a resource to give to the girls in their life.
The book was born out of frustration. Teaching relationships & sex education (RSE) to years 6 to 9 in schools across London I spend so much time untangling misinformation around menstruation. Both girls and boys hold onto lots of angst and myths around periods – they need permission to be able to talk about them.
Teaching sixth form, I’ve noticed that young people who come from different cultures and faiths can have a lot of culturally embedded misconceptions about menstruation that can’t be untangled in one hour and will take time to shift. I’ll leave lessons thinking: “Wow, this stigma is so strong.”
It would be great for all children at the end of primary school to have had substantial period education and to have had the period conversation normalised from a young age. The later we leave it the more we’re essentially working backwards.
ON TEACHING SEX ED
I’ve been teaching for 20 years – and during lockdown I’ve been doing it at home as well, just with more glitter!
I’d been a primary-school teacher for 12 years, and after maternity leave I became fascinated by the lack of education around sex. Because the last government guidance on sex education was in the year 2000, whole generations missed out on it and had other ways of educating themselves – to their detriment.
Now there’s more of a sense of responsibility on the part of parents, teachers, schools and the community for talking about sex education. There’s more accountability for behaviour and more drip-feeding of this information and trying to empower a younger generation.
If I’d had proper sex education myself I could have avoided endometriosis, which I was diagnosed with in 2012. I started feeling passionately that we’re entitled to this information but we’re not getting it. Why did I wait so long to get help when I’d had the world’s worst periods for years, why didn’t I realise that wasn’t right, why did I feel ashamed to ask for some kind of help?
In the Period Drama chapter I tell young people: “You know your own body – listen to it. There’s no shame in getting help, an appointment, a scan, a blood test. Get the peace of mind.”
Often I can see when I’m talking to students that they’re not getting this information anywhere else. That gives me a huge sense of reward but it also compels me to keep going, because for a lot of young people school is their safety net and their security. In a small space of time I can become a trusted adult to them. In giving them sex-education information, I’m trying to right a lot of wrongs that are happening in their lives.
ON BOYS AND PERIODS
Boys are surprisingly open to learning about menstruation, to listening. But they get forgotten in the conversation – a lot of schools will put the boys in PE during that lesson. I tell schools: “Let’s do one lesson with girls and boys together, then one separately with girls so they are comfortable sharing information.”
Boys are fascinated by periods. If you present it that the menstrual cycle has a superpower element to it – that every month is a fresh new cycle, a chance to start over – they are often amazed and realise there isn’t such “bad blood” anymore around periods.
At the end of class I give away period-product samples from the Women’s Environmental Network – and the boys line up too to take stuff for their aunties, sisters and anyone who might menstruate who lives with them.
Changing the narrative about menstruation has to include boys in the conversation – we have to think about this in a really inclusive way.
ON WHAT PARENTS CAN SAY TO THEIR KIDS
The best thing parents can do is to be positive role models when it comes to any aspect of growing up, puberty and adolescence. What we say is important – but if we don’t practise what we preach we’re undoing that work. Modelling is our hugest, most impactful tool.
It’s about really simple things like walking around naked and not hiding your bits no matter how much your body has changed. I have openly left reusable pads, shavers and menstrual cups lying around – that is normalising the conversation, so if your children ask: “What is this?” about a tampon you can say: “This goes in my vagina” and if they say: “What’s your vagina?” you can say: “It’s this little hole.” When it comes to girls discovering their bodies, they can’t see their genitals, so parents can help them by giving them a mirror. In our house we have a vulva mirror and we discuss what the lips of the vulva are and that we have different holes for different functions. We aren’t debating the function of our anatomy – it’s fact – so parents should find comfort in presenting that to their children.
During the Parent Hood podcast episode I did with Marina Fogle, Coming to terms with the sexualisation of your child, I talk about pleasure and masturbation. Why do we recoil from talking about it? When children are young we can discuss the facts about sex, and also that it’s not just about baby-making – it’s because it feels nice.
Don’t shy away from the facts in sex ed!
It is utterly normal for parents to feel anxious when raising these topics with their children. But we naturally want to protect our children, and I believe in making ourselves a source of support for when they will need it.
I say to nervous parents: “Sit down and watch a video – like the ones at AMAZE.org – with your child and ask: ‘What do you think?’” It’s not a one-off big talk, it’s something that’s naturally drip-fed in appropriate ways.
Our default as parents is wanting to protect our children – and protecting them means informing them.
This Period In My Life – A Period Guide Book And Journal (£10.49) is out now (use code EARLYBIRD10 for 10% off until September 2020)