For many of us Sex Education was either non-existent or only focused on pregnancy, menstruation, and STDs. Girls and Boys were taught you had sex ONLY to have a baby and anything other than that would be unhygienic and shameful. Boys were taught to clean themselves and girls were taught the basics of their vagina and that discharge equalled chlamydia (a fear I held throughout my teenage years even though I was not having sex until I was told by exasperated mother that no it was completely normal and to stop freaking out.)
Penetration has been for decades the real way to have sex and the “end game” is for a man to come. Exploration of your own body or a partners has never been a conversation which has sadly, led to many feeling inadequate in sex or like it is not something enjoyable. The orgasm gap between men and women speaks volumes of how sex has been taught to young people as something female-identifying persons are passive participants in so seeking their own pleasure and an orgasm is a fleeting, secondary thought.
There is also a more insidious issue by teaching women that “good” girls don’t enjoy sex, usually told with a “lay back and think of England” attitude. It’s skewed our understanding of boundaries, something needed for teaching consent. Something that has carried on into adulthood – with people still not understanding how vaginas work and sexual exploration being seen as something you only do to “spice up” your sex life not an intrinsic part of sex has led to people of all age groups having bad or painful sex because they feel they cannot speak up about what they like or don’t like.
Thankfully the topic of consent has started to make its way into the curriculum but pleasure, orgasms and enjoying sex are off the table topics (although the topics are connected) and, especially for young adults’ years out of secondary school, to feel anything positive towards sex is still something we are told to be ashamed about.
These gaps in our understanding of sex, health, and relationships, has left many of us in our 20s feeling inadequate and, for many women, ashamed about their vaginas and their masturbation habits (with many of us either not talking about it or not doing it for fear of being seen as dirty). Therefore, for both teenagers and adults, a new approach is needed, pleasure and positivity need to replace abstinence and reproduction to create a healthy outlook towards sex, sexuality, and sexual wellness.
THE ARGUMENT FOR PLEASURE-BASED & SEX-POSITIVE EDUCATION
So, what does a pleasure-based, sex-positive sex education look like? Firstly, it is defined as teaching sex as a positive, intimate experience instead of reproduction. Teaching safe sex and STI prevention is still essential but is only a small part of the world of sexual wellness and health. By framing sex, masturbation and our sexual organs as positive things that bring joy and pleasure, we create an open discourse about wants, desires and pleasure, stressing bodily autonomy and consent over reproduction and health risks.
By using sex education to teach us what our bodies can enjoy and how they work outside of menstruation or creating children, I am talking an understanding of how the clitoris works and the prostate, we encourage exploration and a deeper understanding of our own selves. Giving us the confidence to speak up and set our boundaries.
By teaching people to be positive about sex we teach everyone, no matter sexuality or gender, that that their desires, needs, and enjoyment are equally important as their partners – encouraging communication between partners and healthy sex lives. For those of us that don’t have high libidos or don’t enjoy/want sex at all it gives us a deeper understanding of how to better explain that and explore other options.
When we teach shame and fear around sex, it makes people less able to fully understand what they want or need and how to express themselves for fear of ridicule of being seen as other.
As Zoella writes, a sex-positive education stresses consent and pleasure over fear and shame.
This type of sex education needs to also extend beyond the classroom and into adulthood as well.
WHAT DOES AN ADULT SEX-EDUCATION LOOK LIKE?
As an adult, many of us feel like we know everything there is to know about sex, sexuality, and pleasure, but do we? The answer is probably a hugely resounding NO and that is ok. It has only been in the past 5 years that female sexuality and conversations about sex, masturbation and pleasure have started circulating. It’s been less than that since male sexuality outside of the heteronormative ideas of penetration and pegging took TikTok by storm. I believe that many are embarrassed by not understanding everything about sex but also in not understanding how they like to have sex. But an adult focused sex-education can help this.
Social media plays a key role in adult sex-education, online spaces have popped up via tiktok, Instagram and other places starting conversations about consent, boundaries and sexual wellbeing and online classes with sexologists and people in the know are starting to become the norm. Companies like SH!, who used lockdown to start Sh! Life, their online masterclasses on a range of topics to do with sexual wellbeing, and CLIMAX have created safe, educational spaces for adults to attend without judgement. Ensuring better sex, better orgasms, and a better understanding of what you like.
Outside of the classroom and beyond high school – Pleasure based sex education doesn’t have to be age appropriate or only touch on the topics, it can be a positive experience of actively encouraging grown-ups to explore and try new things. Think of it as high school sex-education as the theory and adult sex-education as your practical, only you can’t fail or loose only gain a better understanding of yourself and what you like. The benefits of learning this as an adult is you can use it to ensure you have better communication and better orgasms.
To understand what we enjoy in sex and relationships (and even that we don’t want sex at all), pleasure-based, sex-education is needed both in high schools and in adulthood. By understanding your body and eradicating the shame that comes with speaking about your pleasure or your desires, we are teaching ourselves boundaries and what we are happy to consent to. By focusing on enjoyment and pleasure over procreation and abstinence, we are teaching ourselves as a society that boundaries, consent, and what we want matters.
By Katrina Fairhurst