I was incredibly lucky with my sex education in school. Sexual health professionals were brought in to ensure that the information we were receiving was accurate and relevant which meant that abstinence wasn’t forced on us, LGBT issues were discussed and we were given free STI tests to take home with us.
Having gone to a state school myself, I was surprised to find out that this wasn’t typical of Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) across the country. More often than not, SRE guidelines are not being implemented and our sex education is being massively undervalued. In fact, I would argue that even my above-average SRE was lacking in that it didn’t promote how fun and enjoyable sex can (and should) be.
What is being taught in SRE?
If you take a look at the Secretary of State’s Sex and Relationships Education Guidance you’ll see that the main issues that the government want to be discussed in SRE are puberty, menstruation, contraception, abortion and STIs – all important issues that I’m glad to have learned about from an early age. However, especially in my own experience, there’s also a lot of emphasis on the reproductive system – labelling it, understanding its processes and functions as well as how these change during pregnancy.
One thing that didn’t raise any alarm bells in my head at the time (but definitely does now) is that we never talked about external sex organs. To this day, I have friends that think that “vulva” and “vagina” are synonyms and that most females have two genital orifices – not three. Even now, I have friends who don’t know where their own clitoris is. Nobody thought to tell us about the only organ in the human body whose sole purpose is to give sexual pleasure. None of us were ever told that we were meant to find sex pleasurable.
My male friends had similar experiences. Their SRE lessons were almost entirely based around changes they would experience during puberty and their overall health growing up: nocturnal emissions, body hair, mental health and sexual orientation. Yet with 93% of males under the age of 18 watching porn, where male genital enhancement surgery is more than common, not once were realistic body image expectations discussed in SRE. Because of this, so many young people are faced with feelings of sexual inadequacy and shame because they believe that their bodies are below-average.
Porn also promotes ideas of reaching orgasm via penetration leading our society to become obsessed with penis-in-vagina sex. When 70% of women can only orgasm via clitoral stimulation and the majority of the remaining 30% are being clitorally stimulated, our beliefs surrounding the “vaginal” orgasm couldn’t be less accurate. So, more often than not, when young people are watching porn and believing that this is how sexual pleasure is meant to be achieved, they’re being left with unrealistic expectations and unsatisfactory sex. This idea applies to all sexual partners (regardless of their genitalia): if we’re not teaching about the sexual pleasure of all people, partners struggle to know how to give someone else pleasure.
Why is this a problem?
Since the 1950s, when the contraceptive pill was put on the market, the role sex plays in our adult lives has come to be intrinsically linked to feeling pleasure. Sex no longer has to lead to pregnancy and statistics show that the vast majority of people having sex in our society are doing so without the intention of getting pregnant. We’re doing so to feel closer to one another and, ultimately, to orgasm – to feel good.
However, the belief that having sex for the first time is painful is one that runs riot in schools. The idea that you will bleed or that ‘sex is terrible until your twenties’ is consistently perpetuated by the media and consistently not addressed in SRE. Whilst it is true that sex can (and does) hurt for many people for a variety of different reasons (stress, hormonal changes and sex that is too rough to name a few), we shouldn’t let it be an expectation or a norm.
Women in particular are particularly vulnerable to these myths as they constantly hear that they should expect to bleed during sex and that the female orgasm is “rare.” By allowing young people to believe that sex hurts, we are setting them up for unhealthy relationships with one another and with their bodies. By ignoring the pleasure-giving nature of sex, we’re perpetuating old-fashioned attitudes towards sex and leading young people (young girls especially) that their own sexual satisfaction is unachievable.
In addition to this, by teaching sex education through the lens of reproduction, we’re choosing to ignore the sexual behaviour of so many people across the UK. The LGBT+ community, post-menopausal females, those who are unable to conceive : are their sexual experiences irrelevant? If we’re trying to give “inclusive” SRE to young people, this must be addressed.
So, how should we be teaching SRE?
SRE lessons are a brilliant platform that should be used to promote the wellbeing of young people.
The most important message that we can get across to them is sex-positivity: open and tolerant attitudes towards sex; a big part of which should be that sex should feel good. I also believe that there are ways of doing this without actively encouraging sexual behaviour in young people: the idea that sex is pleasurable should be firmly attached to ideas of respect, maturity and fighting peer pressure.
In addition, SRE lessons offer us a way to give people the power to combat their sexual difficulties. For example, we should acknowledge reasons as to why someone might experience pain in relation to sex and we should give them advice and solutions to combat this.
In doing this, in teaching young people that sex should be a healthy and enjoyable part of a relationship, we can give them the power to have positive relationships and fulfilling sex lives if and when the time comes.
Currently studying French at the University of London Institute in Paris, Eleanor Pearson is a sexual health enthusiast and writer. As well as managing her blog, Sexclusive, she has written for American sexual health magazine, Sex, Etc., since 2016.