Sex education: what I wish I’d learned

Image by the genius Stuart F Taylor

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.

17 Comments

  • A couple of years back I attended a training weekend on sex education (at which I led a session) for young people run by The Woodcraft Folk. It was genuinely full of one of the most open attitudes to sex ed that I’ve ever encountered, and although I never actually got to teach any youngsters as a result, talking in a liberated was about sex with a whole group of people made me feel ready to do so, should I ever wish to (or be given the opportunity to).

    Comparing this to the sex ed I had at school…

    Unlike you, we had mixed sex education in every lesson – answering the quiz, putting the condom on the cucumber, watching the HIV video (twice). It was, of course, severely lacking in content: taught as it was by form tutors (as opposed to trained sex educators), it focused mainly on how not to get an STI, with no mention of masturbation, orgasms, oral sex or gay sex (well, this was mentioned once, but only in a “gay people get HIV” way). Under Section 28, teachers weren’t really allowed to mention gay sex, but I don’t think that’s the reason they didn’t!

    Periods weren’t mentioned at all. Not even to the girls (but, as I say, we had mixed sex education). I’ve always, always thought that boys should be told about these things (just because we don’t menstruate doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know what’s involved!).

    Anal sex was only mentioned in biology and only once, to point out that it’s painful because the lining of the rectum was thin.

    This was all about 17 years ago, when I was in year 9. While I agree with you that it may have come on since then (and I do hope your wishlist above does become real!), I genuinely had some pretty terrible sex ed. I was, to be fair, in a school where very few people actually did end up having sex while still at school (by the time I left the sixth form, I could only think of five, including me)… but that’s absolutely no excuse!

    • Girl on the net says:

      Couldn’t agree more on the menstruation thing – it’s bizarre that sex ed was the one area at school where we were deliberately *excluded* from learning certain things, and I suspect it was mainly down to embarrassment.

      Gay sex and other kinds of not-straight-cis relationships were never touched on at my school either. Or if they were it was a very brief ‘also some people love people of the same sex’ before swiftly moving on. Again, I think part of it comes down to the focus on acts – our sex ed was so keen on the ‘what’ that any focus on sexuality or identity would have to have been in the context of ‘which bit goes where’. I think you see the same thing when homophobes panic about children being taught about sexuality – ‘I don’t want my children to learn about bumming’ and other bullshit. Totally missing the point that what’s vital is helping children explore and understand their own sexuality – even if they never have sex.

      • Good point about the worrying homophobic parents.

        In year 5, we were to be shown a video about the very very very basics; the customary letter came home with “if you do not wish for your children to be shown this, then let us know so we can let them go and sit in the corridor and pray for our souls” slips. Of course no parent filled them in, and I was quite looking forward to the video itself, but then (typically) I was sick on the day, so I missed the entire thing.

        Not that I hadn’t been told everything anyway, but still!

  • Fesuremaybe says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this!. And no not waffly either!!. I had the same in school and they briefly went over preventing STIs. I always feel that girls should be taught that masturbation is normal. I remember feeling ashamed of what I was doing and I ended up asking my mum and she taught me how it was normal. I’m glad they run workshops it’s something I would consider for both my kids when they were older.

  • Mardi says:

    In my sex ed classes, we were discouraged from using condoms. I live in a country where Catholic influences are pretty strong, and condoms, as other forms of contraception, go against god’s will of everyone having children. Also, STIs are not a problem when you only have sex with your spouse, and that’s the only acceptable way of having sex. That was 10-12 years ago, but I’m not sure if things have changed much by now, to be honest. I got a lot of my own sex ed from reading dirty stories on the internet, which weren’t even supposed to be educational but the authors cared enough about consent and safe sex for me to assume that it was common knowledge. Cue my surprise when talking to my peers and finding out that most of these concepts were pretty alien to them.

    I still wish I had known more about certain things before I actually started having sex, but as a curious (and sex-obsessed?) person, I’ve been devouring all sorts of books and articles on the topic on my way. It helped me realise and better understand a lot of things, but I can’t help but think of the people who haven’t. I’ve lost count of women I’ve talked to who thought there was something wrong with them because they didn’t get orgasms from vaginal sex. An idea stemming directly from the universally taught ‘truth’ that sex is when penis goes in vagina, and if that doesn’t leave you trembling with ecstasy then obviously you’re just frigid.

    We’re getting better, I think, but in general a lot of people still don’t know how to talk about sex. Without silly euphemisms or stereotyping jokes to gloss over things that they’re embarrassed or ignorant about, but just honestly talk about sex without any judgement. That’s where good sex education should start.

    • Girl on the net says:

      “I got a lot of my own sex ed from reading dirty stories on the internet, which weren’t even supposed to be educational but the authors cared enough about consent and safe sex for me to assume that it was common knowledge.”

      Wow, that is really interesting, and (I’m ashamed to say) not something I had really thought of. Explicit consent is not something I used to consider when I was first blogging, and there are some really awful posts where I’ve done CNC and not properly explained. I hope it’s something I’m more aware of now, but it’s really interesting to hear that you got a lot of your consent learning from sexy stories.

      And I couldn’t agree with you more on the honesty thing: jokes and euphemisms often just serve to muddy the waters when what young people need is clarity.

  • Nissemus says:

    We had one lesson – that was it. The science teacher was too embarrassed to even mention things like ejaculation. One girl asked, “How do you knw when to take it out?” and the teacher said, “Well, you just know.”

    Totally useless.

  • I actually have nothing to add. You’ve said it all so well.

    KW

  • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

    Yeah, sex education is traditionally legendarily terrible in this country. Yours sounds much like mine: very much focused on the biological mechanics of what happens, on pregnancy and contraception, and on STIs. Of course children should learn those things, but they’re only a small part of what SRE should include.

    I remember my first sex ed lesson in primary school didn’t even mention that sex is usually pleasurable for the parties involved. I remember thinking as a kid that the whole thing sounded distinctly unpleasant, and being relieved to learn a few years later that it’s actually supposed to be enjoyable…

    These classes should present sex as a pleasurable activity and a way for people to explore their bodies and express their love for one another. I’m sure some teachers find it embarrassing to talk about that sort of thing, but for god’s sake, if they can teach kids about things like the Holocaust, they can teach them about sex as a natural human behaviour!

    Covering sex from a solely reproductive point of view also allows teachers to avoid talking about homosexuality, which is pretty unhelpful to say the least. Ours didn’t, even though it was after the days of Section 28, and I’m sure at least a few of my teachers were gay themselves.

    And they should definitely cover issues relating to consent! I don’t recall ever being taught about the importance of consent as such; but I remember one teacher at my all-boys school who gave us tips on how to pick up girls. So yeah.

    I sincerely hope that things have improved since I was at school, and contemporary SRE is more sensible about these issues. Hopefully it covers things like porn and sexting as well. These days the media are very worried that kids are learning about sex from porn. Fair enough, they should be reminded that porn isn’t necessarily ‘real’, and should be put it in its proper context; but for my part at least, I’m sure I’ve learned far more about sex from porn than I ever did from my so-called sex education, and I’m grateful for it.

    • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

      As an afterthought: perhaps the saddest thing about our sex ed (aside from not covering consent issues) is that I don’t think they ever mentioned to us boys the word ‘clitoris’. I mean, damn. I feel bad for all the poor girls whose first sexual experience was with one of my ignorant classmates.

    • Girl on the net says:

      “I remember my first sex ed lesson in primary school didn’t even mention that sex is usually pleasurable for the parties involved.” OH YES. This is a big thing, and I can see why adults feel uncomfortable saying to kids – when our gut reaction is ‘eww’ – that actually sex is pretty fun. The first ever sex chat I had was with my Mum when I was about 7 I think. I asked her where babies came from and she gave me an overview. My instant reaction was ‘that’s gross! And you’ve got THREE kids so you’ve done it THREE times?!’ I can’t remember what she said but I think it was something like ‘oh it’s quite fun actually.’ Baffled. But yeah, it does seem so odd that a thing which is done at least 90% of the time for fun reasons is only ever framed in terms of it’s very occasional practical applications.

      Seconded on the clitoris thing too. We were definitely told about it, but I don’t think the significance of it was ever highlighted.

  • The quiet one says:

    Sex ed at my school focused on how awful it was if two people were involved ( you WILL get an STI and get pregnant as soon as a boy touches you!!) But was very clear on how to masturbate (don’t bother with those grubby boys, just press HERE!)

    • Girl on the net says:

      Blimey, that’s at least one step up from my sex ed if they mentioned wanking! But so sad that it was presented as an alternative to other forms of sex.

  • When I went to school, they didn’t have sex ed classes. And, I have not thought about the 5 W’s for some time… but they are good to remember. Your post is a thoughtful one and you raise some good questions and solutions. I liked your line ‘it’s only a part of the full picture’.

    Are you sure Stuart F does not work for IKEA? Great Illustration.

  • Gilly langley says:

    A subject close to my heart I even wrote this
    https://stageysex.wordpress.com/2016/03/07/sex-education-in-schools/
    Baffled that our education system and government think it’s ok withhold information to our digital age kids . It’s like sending kids out with no concept of how to add up money.we would not do that do why is this ok? Girls are still not being informed of anything relevant to their pleasure.I’m so mad.

  • Spoon says:

    Speaking as someone who’s taught sex ed in the past, I can say the lack of knowledge is horrifying: 17 year old girls asking whether tampons go in the ‘pee hole’ or the ‘poo hole’ (cue explanation of the vagina, vulva & urethra), students believing that gardasil protects against every sti, that the pill protects against STIs, that periods last for the entire month or that periods happen when women ‘go into heat’ for a few months each year, that condoms should fit over the balls because ‘that’s where the sperm is’, students literally not knowing the anatomical names for their own body parts, and a lot of very worrying beliefs around consent…and these are just the ones that immediately jumped to mind (and were fairly typical teens in a country where at least some sex ed is usually given in schools).

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