Going through puberty is a difficult time for teenagers. Your body starts to change, hairs start sprouting, you start to sweat more, your body is being filled with hormones which is affecting the way you think, act, and feel.
You may start to wake up in the morning with semen filled pyjamas and erections appearing at all sorts of times, often feeling out of your control. You are waiting for that moment when your voice starts to break, going through that embarrasing squeaky phase, pushing you towards adulthood. You start to fantasise about sex, noticing the way other bodies are made and move and the imaginings of sexual desire begin. You discover the world of masturbation and how to pleasure yourself and start to explore your body in ways that you haven’t before.
For girls, often the first sign of puberty is that you start to grow breasts. You may feel self-conscious as your body starts to change, your breasts start to be noticeable through your shirt and you may start to put on extra weight which is needed for your periods to begin. How do you decide when to get a bra…..can you make do with vest tops and hide yourself for a bit longer? And what will happen when your period starts? You may know this will happen, but when? Will it happen during the day or night or in lessons? Will I flood the bed, will it hurt? What if it hurts, what will I do? Do I use sanitary towels, or should I use tampons? How do I use tampons? Will they hurt? Will I bleed through my pants, will everyone notice? And then the stirrings of sexual desire will begin. You may discover your clitoris in your bed at night and notice that it is pleasurable to stroke yourself. Is it okay to explore my body in this way?
Now imagine that you are in a boarding school. You may be in a boarding school with 30 other people in a dormitory. There is no privacy. There is no space to explore your own body and develop a healthy discovery of masturbation and your own sexuality. What would you do if you have wet dreams and your sheets have semen on them. Ask Matron to wash them? You wake in the morning with an erection and have to quickly get out of bed and walk past all the other boys to get to the shower, fearing being noticed and getting insults. If you do masturbate, you have to learn to do it in silence, supressing any noise or pleasure you may be having for fear of being heard. The shame. Your emerging sexuality becomes clothed in shame.
The most essential thing for children going through adolescence and puberty is to have healthy role modelling as parents. For girls to be able to have a mother who can gently guide her through all her overwhelming fears about starting her periods and give her the reassurance she so desperately needs at this stage. Not to have to just get on with it in silence and fear the shame that may occur if she doesn’t manage it well. To have to announce that she has started “The Curse” to the other girls in the dormitory, and the only support and advice you can get is via your peers.
“We had something called Corruption, in which the girls on the year above took us into the Lav End, (The shower block) and gave us a quiz on sex and periods. They then got a glass of water and shoved a tampon in it, to show us what happened inside our bodies. I remember being really scared I would come last in the quiz and look stupid.” (Anonymous ex-boarder)
So, what is the impact on children in growing up without parents who can guide them or role model healthy sexual relationships. In single sexed boys schools, boys may develop a fantasy of women that is based on porn and separate off sex from intimacy. When they start having relationships, they may find it hard to combine the two as there was no healthy outlet for their own sexual development. They may then split off their sexual side, surrounding their desire with the shame they experienced at school and not know how to integrate it into a healthy relationship. Marcus Gottleib has written, "The author Paul Monette, a gay boarding school survivor, believed for years that sex and love could no co-exist. "As longs as I kept them apart, love would be sexless and sex loveless, endlessly repeating the cycle of self-denial and self-abuse."
With no space for expression, girls may repress their own sexuality and desire. When they enter relationships, they may not even be aware of their sexuality and only take on the role of serving others, not allowing themselves to experience their own desire. Not even knowing it exists. For those growing up in mixed gender boarding schools, there may have been many opportunities for sexual activity to take place. However, without the guidance and overseeing of parents and healthy adult role models, children may be stumbling into situations which can be inappropriate for them.
“ At our school, the 18-year-old boys used to choose a “Fruit bat,” who was a girl on the youngest year, aged 11. He would come round to visit me, and I’d have to sit on his knee. I felt really uncomfortable, but I was supposed to feel pleased he’d chosen me.” (Anonymous ex-boarder).
If this has raised your interest and would like to explore how your own boarding school upbringing may have impacted you, then join me on my Boarding School Awareness Course, starting on February the 22nd. Here we will explore this in more detail, along with 5 other important themes relating to growing up in boarding schools.