Something’s up with sex ed for young people, have you noticed? It sucks. There’s a clash between what parents want, what governing bodies and policy makers want and want teens and adults want and more importantly, let’s be real here, what they need.
Just look at how many of us still don’t know the difference between our vulva and our vagina.
The conversations around good, healthy, consensual sex, aren’t happening soon enough, if at all, leaving young people (particularly women and girls) disconnected from their bodies and their own pleasure potential. Just look at how many of us still don’t know the difference between our vulva and our vagina. That’s one big crying shame.
P-l-e-a-s-u-r-e. That eight-letter word is likely something we stumble upon ourselves because traditional sex ed failed to tell us that sex and intimacy is for us to enjoy too, it’s not just something that happens to us to please men.
The fundamentals of sex-positive education
Sex-positive sex education stresses consent and pleasure rather than fear and shame. It advocates for knowledge, champions curiosity and confidence and cultivates the skills necessary for developing gender-equitable, mutually respectful relationships.
It facilitates communication and provides people with the lexicon to talk about sex without embarrassment or fear
A sex-positive approach is shame-free, inclusive and progressive. It facilitates communication and provides people with the lexicon to talk about sex without embarrassment or fear, to make informed choices about their sexuality and verbalise their boundaries. It’s equipping people with the skills and awareness to say yes, yes, yes as well as no and enjoy healthy, fulfilling relationships free of coercion, violence and taboo.
Standard sex education practices create a disproportionate focus on the negative health risks and consequences of sex, eradicating pleasure and sex-positive information from the conversation altogether, particularly in relation to physical and emotional wellbeing.
Sex-positive education fills in those blanks, so teens and grown-ups alike can manage their personal and social lives with confidence.
Pleasure anatomy isn’t part of our compulsory learning (yet) and as a result, a lot of us would have a hard time correctly identifying our vulva or drawing our clitoris to scale. It’s kind of like when you realise how long an owl’s legs are. Mind-blown.
According to a survey by a UK gynaecological cancer charity Eve Appeal, 6 out of 10 of women could correctly label the anatomy of the male body, but only a third of them could correctly map the female anatomy. There is a lack of education on the sexual anatomy, especially female sexual anatomy.
The reason the orgasm gap exists is largely thanks to a cultural ignorance of the clitoris.
We learn about our bodies through the lens of fear-based sex education, unwanted pregnancies, menstruation and STIs. Our clitoris is a bit like a vaginal Voldemort (or a vulva-mort if we’re being pedantic about anatomy, which we are), an unspeakable thing we wouldn’t even know how to talk about because it doesn’t do much other than ya know, gift us with the majority of our orgasms. It isn’t the proud owner of 8,000 nerve endings for nothing, guys! The reason the orgasm gap exists is largely thanks to a cultural ignorance of the clitoris. And that’s the tea. Pleasure-based sex education is here to give our clitoris the mic.
In a study commissioned by Smile Makers at the end of 2020, surveying 1,000 of women over the age of 20, only 12% said they had received a sex education that had equipped them well to understand their pleasure and 78% did not have access to either pleasure-positive sex education or other sources of information on the topic of pleasure.
That study also showed that women who have had access to pleasure-positive sex education lead indeed happier sex lives.
The impact of pleasure-positive sex education
A striking finding of the Smile Makers survey was that women who have had access to pleasure-positive sex education are 26% more likely than others to be satisfied with their sex lives. They are 16% more likely to say they know their body sexually well and 20% more likely to say that their partner knows their body well. They are also two times more likely to have turned COVD-19 lockdowns into positive experiences and to reflect on how they will adjust their sexual behaviours to a post-pandemic world.
Challenging gender norms
Sex positive and pleasure-based sex education acknowledges a greater diversity of sexualities, challenging societal norms and the heteronormative discourse and ensuring minority groups are seen understood and represented.
People want LGBTQ+ content and sexual health information that equips all sexual orientations with the education and medically accurate information they need.
Sex ed content is often incredibly binary, limited to menstruation for girls, erections and wet dreams for boys, which further perpetuates the disparity between girls and boys and the notion of reproduction vs sexual arousal.
Pleasure is not a dirty word
There is a concern that education programmes with explicit focus on sexuality and pleasure will encourage more sex but research shows pleasure-based sex ed, combined with honest comprehensive discussions and safer sex messaging, can not only help reduce unwanted pregnancies and STIs but also foster a safer, healthier and more inclusive society. Discussing pleasure alongside basic anatomy, unplanned pregnancies and STIs can enhance equality and empowerment for all.
The team at Smile Makers, working with sexual health experts, define pleasure-positive sex education as “an invitation to look at sexuality as a human experience that contributes positively to our overall wellbeing. It aims at providing a more authentic, inclusive and joyful understanding of sex and sexual pleasure, and in the process, at debunking shame.
Sex positive education can still be age-appropriate, and the learning can be tailored to suit the needs of all students.
Sex positive education can still be age-appropriate, and the learning can be tailored to suit the needs of all students. When children and teens are unwilling to discuss sex because of the inherent shame and systemic stigma, they’re more likely to remain silent when sexual assault or abuse occurs.
Education starts with normalising pleasure as a fundamental part of being human, firstly, outside of the context of sex – what feels good, what’s fulfilling? This then fosters a healthy and positive mindset around the pursuit of pleasure and facilitates the same awareness and mindfulness when applied to sexual relationships later in life, not just for male able bodies but for all bodies.
Change is happening
For the first time 20 years, the official government guidance on relationships and sex education and health education (RSE) has been updated and since September last year, it has been compulsory for all schools to teach this new curriculum.
In primary schools, RSE will focus on the fundamental building blocks and characteristics of positive relationships, with particular reference to family relationships (including single-parent families, adoptive parents, LGBTQ+ parents) and friendships. According to Gov.uk, they’ll learn about the concept of personal space, boundaries and understanding the differences between appropriate or inappropriate/unsafe physical, and other, contact.
There’s no mention of pleasure or masturbation, so there’s still a long way to go where sex-positive and pleasure-based education is concerned
RSE in secondary schools will cover contraception, internet safety, developing intimate relationships and resisting the pressure to have sex / not applying pressure to have sex, gender identity, FGM (female genital mutilation) what consent is and what it’s not, the definitions and recognitions of rape, HIV/AIDS, sexual assault and harassment and facts around pregnancy and miscarriage.
There’s no mention of pleasure or masturbation, so there’s still a long way to go where sex-positive and pleasure-based education is concerned but now RSE is going to be reviewed every three years, there’s hope for a more inclusive syllabus and a safer, more empowered generation, yet.