I can still vividly remember the place where my father took me aside, some time in 1976, for the obligatory ‘birds and bees’ talk that all teenagers faced back then. It was a rest stop on the Napier – Taupo highway in New Zealand. For those of you unfamiliar with it, this is a winding, switchback-heavy road across several low mountain ranges separating the central North Island from the Pacific coast. A hundred miles between major settlements… in other words, isolation.

The reason I remember it vividly is because of the shame. Any experiences we have where we feel a burning sense of shame embed themselves more deeply, more viscerally in our memories. What I can also sense is my father’s sense of shame. It felt like he was discharging some unpleasant duty he would’ve preferred to avoid. Of course he would have preferred to avoid it. He was paralysed by an unspeakable fear of sex. No wonder he needed to choose an isolated spot for this repugnant task.

Slag heaps

Of the talk itself, I remember little other than a general admonition against premarital sex. I remember the low hills, the slag heaps from road works, the tree ferns. The sound of a river gurgling through the bush. My attention was anywhere but on the shame-laden wisdom—for want of a better word—my father was, with desperate reluctance, trying to impart.

So what was this wisdom that it was so necessary to beat around the bush about? Wikipedia tells us that “the birds and the bees talk (sometimes known simply as ‘the talk’) is generally the event in most children’s lives in which the parents explain what sexual relationships are.”

Wikipedia goes on to give various possible origins for the phrase. These include an 1825 Samuel Coleridge poem (“The bees are stirring—the birds are on the wing”), a 1909 family education publication called The Story of Life (“The parts of the father and mother plant get together and the seed is made fertile”) and a 1928 Cole Porter song (“And that’s why birds do it, bees do it / Even educated fleas do it / Let’s do it, let’s fall in love”).

Educated fleas

Father and mother plants. Birds, bees and educated fleas. The vagueness shows us with complete clarity the extent to which we’re petrified of sex. We can’t bring ourselves to speak openly of the act by which our species reproduces. Nor can we do something useful like provide teenagers with images. In our failure, they turn to porn.

We can’t bring ourselves to speak openly of the act by which our species reproduces. Nor can we do something useful like provide teenagers with images. In our failure, they turn to porn.

Sex education has improved but remains a contentious issue. Many parents still oppose it, preferring the traditional approach of the inevitably stilted birds and bees.

Can we not see the connection between this basic fear and the conveyor belt of sexually abusive men revealed in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the fall of Kevin Spacey and the #METOO Twitter campaign? Or how sexual shame twisted Gayle Newland’s sexuality so deeply she presented herself as a man, blindfolded her female lover and deployed a prosthetic penis to complete the deception?

Do we honestly think any of these received a sexual education that was free from shame? That focused on the joyful potential of sex? To reduce our society’s endemic sexual dysfunction, the birds and bees have to do a little growing up.