In my sex education classes at school, I was told that sex was this:
A man puts his penis in a woman until he ejaculates.
There was a lot of stuff surrounding that, of course, all of it important: how to avoid getting pregnant, or reduce the risk of an STI. How the sperm meets the egg. Why menstruation happens. But at the heart of it was that: a man puts his penis in a woman. Train goes in tunnel, you know?
Everything I learned was grounded in that train-in-tunnel thing. Sure, we got timetables, instructions on emergency exits, and a map to where the buffet car was, but we were still always focused on the train.
When I found out more from my peers, again we talked about acts. You go to first base. You get fingers. You give head. You fuck. The natural progression from one to the other (e.g. you graduate from fingering before you suck someone off) ran through our sex chat just as GCSE choices dictated our A-levels.
Acts, then consequences: you do this, you get that. Like an Ikea instruction manual. Combine these things in this order and hey presto! You have a bookshelf. Or a baby, or an orgasm, or an STI.
Because of that foundation, almost everything I picked up about sex after I started having it was a revelation.
Much like colour, sex is something you can know all about in theory, yet never fully understand until you experience it. I can read up on light waves and patterns, but if I’ve worn grey-tinted specs all my life I won’t know what blue looks like until I take them off and see it for myself. Likewise I can watch videos of people fingering each other, or coming onto each other’s faces, and say ‘OK, I get it. That’s what sex is.’ Then I can go out and have some sex of my own, only to find the experience is completely different. So while the basic info about genitals and STIs is essential, it’s only a tiny part of the full picture.
Better sex education
Alongside the shaky foundations of my sex education, in certain areas I was totally ripped off. For instance, when they split the class by sex, my group got told what periods were (and issued with a plastic bag containing the biggest sanitary pads I had ever seen) while the boys were told about wanking. Like ‘oh hey, you lot get to bleed once a month, they get to touch themselves until they jizz.’
Like I say, kids these days generally have it better. Obviously it depends on the country and the school – some people are working really hard to deliver great sex education (dosreforschools, for example) although sex ed in the UK can still be a really mixed bag. But if young people’s sex ed in school is crap, and their internet hasn’t been censored, there are great websites like Scarleteen and Bish to answer kids’ questions. And one of the most interesting things about this good sex education is that it’s grounded in more than just ‘acts.’
Their classes still cover the acts and consequences but they don’t revolve solely around them – there’s far more nuance and context. They learn about gender, sexuality, and the self. Consent, pleasure, and communication. I was never taught this, which is extraordinary when you think about it. Talking about physical intimacy before being introduced to these concepts is like analysing Shakespeare before you’ve learned the basic alphabet.
Sex that isn’t about the ‘what’
In English lessons I was taught that if you want to write a good news story, you have to answer the five ‘W’s: who, what, why, where, when. Yet my sex education only ever taught me the ‘what’, with perhaps occasional nods to ‘when’ in the form of warnings that sex you have before you love someone will be bad and horrible and will make you sad forever.
What got me thinking about this was an article in the Independent recently: the UK government is concerned that too many young people are having anal sex. They’ve been influenced by porn, apparently, and so lots of them are having anal sex even though – and here’s the kicker – “research” shows that it’s not pleasurable to women.
This whole story is bizarre, but I think one of the main reasons it’s bizarre is because it is so grounded in the idea that sex is always about the acts. It’s the ‘what’. In a good and just world, there should be no earthly reason for the UK government to care what kind of sex anyone has. But in this world – in which we’ve been taught that sex is all about acts, that they should follow a natural progression, that there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to do things – we have either a whole bunch of people having sex they hate, or we have a government concerned with policing our bedrooms because they think that might the case. Either way, it’s pretty fucked up.
But what if sex weren’t just about the acts? What if we’d taught people that sex should, first and foremost, be an exploratory, fun, interesting thing to do on your own or with partners? If we focused on the ‘why’ and the ‘who’ long before we got to the ‘what’? Realistically, you can’t know ‘what’ kind of sex to have until you know ‘who’ you’re having it with anyway: finding out someone’s needs and desires is not just a pre-sex ritual, it’s part and parcel of sex itself.
Despite some massive flaws in sex education, there are more young people today who understand consent, desire, and who have a clearer picture of the hows and whys of sex as well as the what. If everyone were taught this, I think the future would look really interesting. Sex education that’s grounded in consent and pleasure rather than ‘train goes in tunnel’ leads to fascinating changes in the way we treat all sexual activity. Off the top of my head, I reckon:
- We’d lose the ‘base’ system, and teenagers of the future won’t feel under pressure to ‘progress’ from first base through to the ‘home run’ if that’s not what they want.
- The concept of ‘virginity’ would start to lose it’s meaning, and a hell of a lot of the baggage that comes with it.
- Maybe governments would stop censoring porn on the flimsy basis that it contains one specific act.
- We’d have a better understanding of individual freedom and bodily autonomy, having been taught from the starting point that ‘your body is unique’ rather than ‘your body will do this.’
- Articles like the one above, in which the government worries about people who may be trying anal, would be few and far between. Not because people won’t bother trying anal, but because they’ll have been armed with the understanding that sex isn’t a tickbox list of acts you have to do to be in with the cool kids.
Every time there’s an article like this, panicking about what kids may and may not be doing, I wonder how it might be written in a long-distant future, in which kids are given comprehensive, useful sex education instead of the Ikea-manual basics that I (and probably the authors of this government report) got at school. Perhaps there would still be concerns, but more likely, I think, is that it would be less of an issue. Fewer young people would get caught in peer-pressure traps, because they’d be armed with the knowledge that they never have to do anything. Fewer traps would be set in the first place, because hopefully the person who wants anal will understand how to listen to a partner’s needs, and be aware of the importance of consent.
We’ll get to that world eventually, but for now adults can give it a nudge in the right direction by trying to wrench ourselves away from the ‘acts’ education most of us had ourselves. The authors of the anal sex report unquestioningly cite ‘research’ that says women don’t like this particular act. They worry about the number of young people who are trying it. They try to tackle the problem by simply preventing young people from seeing porn that might include it. All of this is focused on the act itself, as if by simply never mentioning anal sex you’ll stop young people from having anal sex. As if preventing young people from having anal sex is even a valid aim!
The problem isn’t young people having anal sex – the problem is young people feeling pressured into sex they don’t enjoy. But we’ve been taught about acts, so we make it about acts.
Even when it’s all about context.