I grew up as a proud working-class girl in an old Welsh quarry village in North Wales. Like many of my friends, I first had sex at the age of 14. It was common for girls my age to shack up with older boys, and occasionally men, who were already prolifically sexually active. As with most of my peers, my first sex experience was tainted by peer pressure, coercion, and a distinct lack of understanding surrounding what sex actually was. My schooling was limited and I was headstrong. I wasn’t going to listen to anyone telling me not to put my hand in the fire. To be quite honest, I’d have sooner seen both hands ablaze than admit my first sexual experience was regretful.
My first relationship at 13 was full of deeply upsetting experiences, from cheating to more insidious incidents like negging. When I would try and leave, I was met with threats of suicide and self-harm from my partner, which made it feel impossible to turn away from. The guilt was heavy and after 8 months I was desensitised. My self-esteem was destroyed and I became increasingly vulnerable to toxic partners and ‘situationships’. Sadly, what followed on from this was a slew of humiliating experiences, each one chipping away at my ego, pride, and self-worth until there was very little of me left. I’d always been a bright, sparky, and affectionate child. As an adult, I’d become horribly self-aware and deeply insecure. This paved the way for abuse. I’ve ducked chairs thrown across rooms, tiptoed around broken glass, was frequently derogated during intercourse, and learned quickly that silence was my ally when it came to arguments. I’d like to say things ended there, but at 22, I still had five more years to go through before eventually taking a year to reconnect with myself and acknowledge the severity that the last eight years had had on my mental health.
Tragically, I am not alone in my experiences. The 2019 study from the British Medical Journal highlighted that more than a third of women did not consider that their experience of first sexual intercourse occurred at ‘the right time’ and a similar proportion of women reported non-autonomous reasons for first sex. The report also shows that among women, a general pattern was observed whereby those who were younger at first sex more commonly reported adverse contextual factors, with significant trends observed for timing, equal willingness, and non-autonomous decision-making, which is truly unsettling. A further study by The European Journal of Public Health found that for girls, the traditional social power structures in society predicts the risk of early sexual debut. In layman’s terms, working-class girls, or girls from low-income families, are more likely to engage in sex younger and as a result, are at a higher risk of experiencing adverse circumstances. This is even more prevalent amongst BIPOC communities. The BMJ found that among women only, a lack of sexual competence was also associated with black ethnicity; reporting ‘friends’ or ‘other’ as the main source of learning about sexual matters and a lack of discussion with parents about sexual matters when growing up.
Parental communication, and school-based relationships, and sex education, provide crucial knowledge and skills required to negotiate a positive and safe sexual experience. Access to this education at the point of first sex is often not available to girls in low-income or working-class households because learning about sexual relationships doesn’t take place until the ages of fifteen, or even sixteen. This means that young girls, like me, who have sex before legal age are left without the necessary tools needed to negotiate first sex. Without access to education, young girls find it difficult to navigate through the incredibly necessary and nuanced conversations that outline boundaries, consent, and expectations. With many young girls entering sexual relationships with older partners, the disproportionate power balance results in accumulative trauma. These circumstances are scaffolded by the societal infrastructures that subjugate women and their bodily autonomy. As soon as we are conscious and self-aware we are consistently encouraged to be beautiful, but not provocative; sexy, but unknowingly so. We’re barraged with body-conscious messaging that erodes our sense of self, and before we know it we’re battling with our agency and worth. Never quite good enough and never fully belonging to ourselves.
The fact of the matter is that gendered children are taught to behave within a society that encourages them to behave per their stereotype. Where girls are told to be careful, boys are told to be brave. When girls show determination, agency, and strength they’re torn down for being bossy whereas boys are rewarded as being leaders. So where does that leave us? I spoke with Peggy Murphy, Senior lecturer at the University of Chester and co-chair of student empowerment group with an interest in health inequalities, who explained to me that: “The issue isn’t around sex, or sexual desire, but around power. Women are exposed to inordinate amounts of pressure from media and as a result, agency is often removed and distorted. The question isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, what can women do – but, how can society change to provide safety education for women.”
“Women need to be able to express sexuality away from societal pressures, in safe environments, and for that, we must have the knowledge on masturbation and what holistic sexual experience looks like. We must know about respect, agency, and how to critically think away from partners.” Peggy continues. “There is so much we should be doing as a society to support young girls’ access to sex education, in a safe and constructive manner. The fact that this is now combative proves that the balance of power is off.” She says fervently. “If anything, to move forward objectification and sexualisation need to be addressed and the structures that support men in society need to share in the promotion of equality. We need to teach women to defy the odds.”
I have somehow defied the odds and found myself happily settled in a respectful and adoring relationship. It took time for me to learn how to trust my instincts after feeling hoodwinked for so long. My partner and I have found space for my trauma to exist and be examined healthily, but by no means has it been easy. It’s taken years of therapy, coaching, and confronting awfully upsetting experiences for me to lessen the impact of other people’s actions. The sad thing is that not one of those ex-partners has ever apologised for their abuse or stepped up to take ownership, I doubt they ever will. Being able to break the cycle of abuse isn’t the case for everyone, which is why we need to pressure powerful people into making meaningful changes on our behalf. We need education services and conversations to take place earlier, for sex to become an honest and shame-free conversation if we are going to make the world a safer place for girls from low-income households and working-class backgrounds.