The Importance of Real Sex Education

When I say “real sex education,” I don’t mean teaching more than “sex is wrong.” I don’t mean simply teaching that oral and anal sex (*gasp*) exist. I don’t mean just teaching teens how to avoid STDs or pregnancy.

I mean actually teaching them about sex. For me, real sex education (a phrase I will use in this way from here on) is teaching not only about taking precautions, but also teaching that sex is a normal part of life, healthy, varied in terms of both preferred partners and preferred acts, and should be consensual and pleasurable for all participants.

This is a topic that I’ve written on before, usually in bits and pieces, and some of that will be linked to later on. But I wanted to expand upon a comment I made over at Feministing, on a thread regarding parents freaking out about masturbation being taught as a part of sex ed. The comment I was responding to was this one (excerpted; click over to see the full thing):

I’m all for teaching seventh and eighth graders about condoms, date-rape, and the medical stuff, but I’ll pick and choose my battles…if parents are weirded out by adults talking frankly about sexuality with them…enh.

My mom isn’t a super-prude or in the dark about birth control, but I don’t think she’d be thrilled to see me reading about masturbation when I was 12.

Kids experiment on their own–do parents or their surrogates in educators need talk know anything that doesn’t have to do with their safety (or sense of safety/acceptance, if we’re talking about non-heterosexual kids )? Can’t they figure out the “pleasure” part themselves? Are the two battles of “teaching your kids to be safe/avoid and STOP sexual harassment or rape” and “teaching your kids to get off” enmeshed?

I want to respond to it because while I very strongly disagree, I don’t think that it’s wingnut stuff. In fact, I think that it’s common and generally seen as reasonable. It’s probably the prevailing view.

The two battles that the commenter mentions don’t necessarily have to be enmeshed, and I see the value in a gradual approach. I’d rather see kids learn about STDs, condoms and birth control without all the rest than see them not learning it at all. But I do believe that the two should be enmeshed. And there are four basic reasons why.

Not Teaching Real Sex Education is Sexist

Sex education that doesn’t involve discussions of pleasure is innately sexist. Why? Because one can discuss pregnancy/prevention and STDs/prevention in heterosexual sex without a single mention of the clitoris. One should not do this, but the fact is that it’s entirely possible to give a scientifically accurate and even practical description of birth control, condom use, vaginal intercourse, etc. without ever acknowledging its existence. And the same holds true for female orgasm.

With men, it’s very different. First of all, no one ever tries to hide a man’s penis from him. Secondly, in discussing intercourse and pregnancy, you can’t escape the male orgasm. It has to exist for pregnancy to happen. Furthermore, men get a description of what is generally perceived to be the most common and/or enjoyable way to orgasm during partnered heterosexual sex. And this description — just as describing the most common methods of orgasming for women would — basically gives them a road map, if they haven’t figured it out already, to the most common masturbation techniques. When only coitus is discussed through pregnancy and STD prevention sex education, women are left yet again with the impression that they are primarily meant to derive pleasure from penetration. Of course, tons of women straight, lesbian and bi love penetrative sex. Many can indeed achieve orgasm through this method. But you know what? Most can’t.

And with this being the case, failing to teach real sex education is not okay. Though its increasingly less common these days, its entirely possible and not unheard of for women to get to college or beyond and a.) not know what a clitoris is b.) not know where it is or c.) not know what to do with it. As someone who believes that all people have a right to knowledge about their own bodies, I can’t justify this in any way shape or form. Teaching about sex without teaching about pleasure is, in my opinion, damaging. But we also need to acknowledge that it is not equally damaging, and in fact reinforces old but alive ideas that sex is something men like and women endure.

Of course, in many cases, the failure to teach real sex education is heterosexist as well. Sex between women and between men is often discussed these days in terms of STD prevention. But here, once you remove pleasure from sex, it has no purpose. You can’t procreate this way, what’s the point, right? This is the one thing that the wingnuts are right about — when arguing that sex is not or should not be about pleasure but about procreation, gay and lesbian sex does indeed seem rather odd and even wrong. Failing to teach real sex education therefore invalidates and/or erases entire groups of people and their experiences.

Real Sex Education Breeds Smart Sexual Choices

Teaching real sex education is about teaching that sexuality is natural and varied. And so, in teaching real sex education, we’re also teaching teens to make smart sexual choices. When aware that there is sex beyond heterosexual intercourse, they can make better choices about sexual gratification. They can choose masturbation, mutual masturbation, oral sex and a whole variety of other sexual acts — as an alternative with no risk of pregnancy, and also just because many people find these acts enjoyable.

Knowing that sex is normal, healthy and not uniform also encourages people to learn what is most enjoyable for them, and helps in setting sexual boundaries. As a woman, who is most likely to be taught otherwise, once you know that you are supposed to enjoy sex and might not enjoy certain kinds of sex, you also generally learn to start asking for what you like and feeling more confident in expressing what you don’t. There’s absolutely nothing to not like here.

Furthermore, studies show that sexual partners who discuss contraception are more likely to use it. This seems like a no-brainer, but needs pointing out because people seem to often forget it when arguing that sex education should be about safety and not pleasure. If you’re not comfortable with sex or feel guilty about it, you’re generally going to have a tough time talking about it. And what does that mean? It means no protection. If we want people to engage in safer sex, we need to give them the tools they need to engage in safer sex — and that’s more than just showing them how to put on a condom.

Real Sex Education is a Part of Anti-Rape Education

This may be the most controversial point. If we want to teach about sexual assault intelligently and meaningfully, we have to teach about enthusiastic consent. I know we’re still a far cry away from this point, but it should indeed be our goal, and for most feminists it is. I personally do not have the slightest clue how you teach about enthusiastic consent without teaching about how healthy sexuality is pleasurable.

To state it up front, I do not mean that men would not commit heterosexual rape if they knew and understood that women are supposed to enjoy sex too. I don’t believe that, and this is where things start getting personal for me. I doubt that my rapist had ever heard the concept of enthusiastic consent in his life. But I absolutely don’t believe that if he had heard of enthusiastic consent, he wouldn’t have inflicted sexual violence. I think that many men (and women!) don’t understand what rape is. That doesn’t mean that men who rape fail to understand that the woman has not fully and enthusiastically consented or that what they’re doing is wrong — they simply fail to understand that what they’re doing actually falls under that scary word that no one wants applied to them.

The goal is that enthusiastic consent models will help to change the thinking from “sex when someone says no and fights back is wrong” to “sex when someone doesn’t openly and enthusiastically want it is wrong.” Since I think that all but maybe a tiny itty bitty percentage of rapists realize that what they’re doing is wrong (and they’re still responsible for their actions regardless), I don’t think that teaching enthusiastic consent will stop rape on its own. I don’t think that any one particular form of rape prevention education will. But I do strongly believe that rape is allowed to keep occurring because it is socially acceptable to the much larger group of people who aren’t rapists but just “don’t get what the big deal is,” think it’s the victim’s fault, etc.

The main reason why I think that real sex education is a necessary part of any good anti-rape education is for those who are victims or potential victims. Not because I think that people are responsible for making sure they’re not raped — anyone who reads this blog should know that I don’t believe that in any way. But we do have a responsibility, particularly to young women, to give them the tools they need to recognize abuse.

As I said, this is somewhat personal for me. The fact is, many abuse victims don’t realize that they’re being abused. They feel the same pain, and they just don’t get why it hurts. I was never taught enthusiastic consent. I never even heard the phrase until a couple of years ago, though I had come to believe most of what it encompasses on my own before that. It pains me to think of the difference that would have been made in my life if someone had taught me with regards to sex that I was supposed to want it and say so, otherwise it was wrong. I don’t know that I would have avoided the initial assaults. I do believe with all my heart that I would have gotten myself out of that situation sooner. I was little feminist-in-training at 14/15. I thought that rape and physical assault were very, very wrong, and was also naive enough to think that women should report any such violence as some kind of responsibility to society. I just didn’t realize that what was being done to me was rape. For that reason, it took me until ages 16/17 to figure out why the hell I was so fucking traumatized.

Though I regret not getting out of that relationship, I don’t blame myself. I know that I did the best that I could do at the time with what I had. But the fact remains that I could have done better if I had been given more.

I said before that I don’t think this kind of sex education, or any kind of sex education, is going prevent all or even most rape. But don’t we owe it to those for whom the information could someday be valuable? I believe that we do.

Real Sex Education Isn’t Porn Education

This is really just a clarification for those who still misunderstand what I mean by “real sex education.” Sex education that teaches about pleasure doesn’t have to teach about technique (though I think elective college-level sex ed that does this is great). Letting girls know that women usually achieve orgasm through rubbing of the clitoris, whether with fingers, mouth, object or penis, isn’t the same as breaking out an instructional video on giving good cunnilingus. It’s not the same as writing down the names of sex toy shops on the blackboard, or handing out diagrams of cool and exciting coital positions. Though for women everywhere, I don’t think that teaching about the importance of lubricant is incredibly far behind the importance of teaching about condoms.

Real sex education is not the same as porn education. It’s about teaching that pleasure is an important part of any sexual relationship. It’s about teaching that there is nothing wrong with wanting to feel sexual pleasure and wanting to seek it out, so long as it is done safely and responsibly. It’s about teaching comfort with one’s body, a lack of shame over desires, and that there is more to sex for all people than sticking penises inside of vaginas. Real sex education is teaching how to go about making intelligent, safe choices, rather than just stating the choices available. I believe that there is a big difference. And I believe that teaching teens to make smart choices about sex must involve teaching them that having sex, partnered or alone, can be a smart choice.

0 thoughts on “The Importance of Real Sex Education

  1. thordora

    I hate that they assume all this starts at 12-that you can wait until the kids are older to talk about it. With a (nearly) 5 year old and 3 year old, both girls, I am open and frank, within reason, when it comes to their sexuality.

    I have no intention of relying on someone else to explain any of this-and have a LOT of concern with ADULTS who are afraid of talking about sex, or who leave things out. Real sex happens-why some parents sit with their heads in the sand is beyond me.

    I was masterbating well before 12, and could have used supportive parents instead of a mother who freaked out and then never spoke of it again. Real sex education will only occur when parents get over the idea that having children who recognize their sexuality is a bad thing.

    Drives me insane, what my children will have to contend with in their peers. I hope it gets better as they get older, but I’m not holding my breath.

  2. Tracey

    THANK. YOU. It’s amazing to me that I feel LUCKY to have had sex-ed in high school that at the very least included discussion of pregnancy, STDs, and various forms of protection. Better than a lot of today’s abstinence only shit, but at the same time, it NEVER addressed pleasure and assumed that penis-in-vagina-sex was the only sex that needed to be addressed at all. We girls, of course, were left with nothing but fear of consequences and no idea how our “down-there”s worked.

    Things have got to change.

  3. Michael

    I just want to second this article. I think that it would be a great improvement to sex education to expand it to include some discussion of pleasure and the normality of sex. I really feel sorry for the people being taught abstinence only sex education they are really missing out on a lot of important information.

  4. Heather

    This is an amazing post, and it’s sad to me that these thoughts are considered as “progressive” as they are. I totally agree with you about the enthusiastic consent part… I had some pretty terrible experiences with a boyfriend of mine when I was 21, and more education in my teens definitely could have helped me identify what exactly was wrong with what happened to me. Instead, I felt awful about myself and just figured I must have been doing something wrong, not realizing that what was happening to me was rape or sexual assault, depending on the night. I appreciate everything you do, Cara, especially posts like this one.

  5. ouyangdan

    beautifully done, Cara!

    it’s amazing to me that more parents don’t

    a) start teaching their kids about sex/sexuality/bodies and younger ages. like thordora, i am frank and open in an age appropriate manner w/ my Kid about sex. she knows about anatomy, the proper words, how babies are made (the basics), and what good touches and bad touches are. it just seems that if parents start talking about it openly w/ younger children then they won’t have to worry about how to talk about it w/ older kids who are likely to already have learned something on their own. it will be natural for the conversations to happen when needed.

    b) support masturbation. what could be safer sex than having sex w/ yourself? it actually boggles my mind that parents would rather shame kids for getting that pleasure in the safety of their own homes where they know where they are than have them out wherever doing whatever w/ whoever (not a judgement, please don’t take it that way).

    parents (and people in general, i think) are so uncomfortable talking about sex that they avoid it until it “has to happen” (the old “birds and the bees” talk), which i think doesn’t happen until the child has already learned or heard about something. real sex education (awesome phrase!) begins at home w/ us breaking out of our comfort zones for our children’s sake.

  6. Holly

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Real sex education is a key part of someone’s education and teaching people that sex is a normal and healthy part of life is the best thing you can do; especially since there are still adults out there who can’t grasp that concept.

  7. Scott

    I like this. I feel that the argument for “Not Teaching Real Sex Education is Sexist” is your weakest point, though I agree fully. The problem is that it is sexist in an exceptionally subconscious way; however, I can very easily feel how outraged I would be if I were female, did not listen to “Love Line” or find such shows/resources intrinsically fascinating, endured a traditional sex education course, and only learned much later in my life about the clitoral orgasm.

    It is probably no coincidence that so few of my female friends masturbate. It is not because they are not sexually aroused very often or consider it immoral for any reason; it is because they have not learned how to properly and pleasurably do so since the answer is presumably less obvious than with male genitalia.

    The line “sex when someone doesn’t openly and enthusiastically want it is wrong” resonated strongly with me. I have always acted based on that principle, but have never seen it spelled out or worded well. It probably should be a matter that conscience stops, but unfortunately I recognized long ago that it is likely not for most people. Lack of information often leads to confusion, and confusion often leads to bad decisions. I feel that because we as a society tend to thrust sex into people’s faces through entertainment, then shy away from openly talking about it, many otherwise well-meaning people are inundated with this goal of ‘scoring’ (pun intended) without much understanding of basic ethics involved, or how to achieve the goal healthily for everyone involved. In the moment, I can see how it would be easy (and preferable for one’s goal, given that a person is of that mindset) to assume that since one’s partner does not object, that partner is alright with what one is doing. Real sex education could help tremendously in such a situation–I know I have at least one friend who has regretfully endured similar circumstances in which neither him nor the girl who seduced him meant harm, but for which he still feels violated years later. Do I think real sex education will change the unhealthy view of sex as a ‘goal’? No–I believe that is a very complex social issue that one source will likely not significantly thwart. However, I think that open discussion of topics like vulnerability can help people who are caught up in the opportunity of reaching their “goal” recognize when to put that goal in check, and save a lot of potential victims from feeling violated, misused, and taken advantage of.

    I feel like we should do more to raise awareness of the Real Sex Education goal and take more active steps toward implementing the program. There are good ideas here, which, if adopted, would provide a system definitely and significantly better than the status quo.

    If only I could magically convince Arizona voters to not be predominantly conservative, or to do something as silly as paying taxes for the benefit of public education…

  8. Renee

    I personally did not discover my clitoris until I was 24. I think had a gotten more than the standard penis in vagina speech I would have had a better understanding of my body and taken a more active interest in sex. We are doing girls a disservice by not teaching them about their bodies. It seems to me that this sort of sex education prioritizes male pleasure. No wonder so many women are walking around lost.

  9. Sarah

    Fantastic post!

    I was extremely lucky in that I had excellent sex education classes which were informative about health and safety, but not afraid to bring pleasure and enjoyment into the discussion. But I have come across plenty of people who are shockingly misinformed. What I find really scary is that a majority of the people I know who got poor or even no sex education in school, continue to think that thats the way it should be – that sex is a private matter that should be kept as part of a home discussion only.

  10. roses

    Amazing post.

    I learned that women have orgasms from the penthouse magazines I found in my dad’s dresser drawer. The first time I had an orgasm (after sex ed but before I found the magazines), I had no idea what I was experiencing. Nor did I know what a clitoris was. I just knew that when I touched myself there, it felt good, and if I did it long enough, it started to feel really good. I think it’s ridiculous that I didn’t learn about the existence of the clitoris or the female orgasm in sex ed. In fairness to my dad, he did give me a copy of “Our bodies, ourselves” when I hit puberty. Unfortunately, I was too embarassed to read it because I was a teenager and it was a book about sex from my dad. (Why I was less embarassed to read his porn, I’m not sure).

  11. misslyddie

    Seriously. I think that shame about our (meaning women) bodies and sexuality is a major contributing factor to why there is a tendency among women and girls to turn to disordered eating in times of stress. Real sex education that doesn’t teach shame and body guilt would be a wonderful thing.

  12. morgan

    That the sexist aspect of most sex education programs seems “subconscious” does not make their design and effect any less pernicious. They seem normal because they fit neatly with rhetoric commonly deployed to suppress the sexuality of women. In addition to being profoundly heterosexist, exclusively discussing male-female penetrative sex reinforces the notion that women do not enjoy sex (narrowly defined as it is in schools and elsewhere), thereby instilling in young men the idea that if they want sex, they’ll have to take it, and that they have every right to do so.

    And, Cara, I could not agree with you more. Thanks for all you do.

  13. Ned B

    Excellent Post. My own experience backs up Cara’s points. While I had good sex ed. when I was in high school (I’m in my late 40s now, so its been a while) that even discussed things like the clitoris, where it was, and what it did. The course did not really discuss pleasure. I was fortunate in my first few invovlements. These women had been raised to, at least technically, maintain their virginity till marriage. Hence we did other things besides traditional intercourse. That taught about female pleasure generally and taught about listening, in both the narrow and broad senses, to see how your partner was doing. This is something that wouldn’t likely have happened as much or as quickly with an emphasis on just intercourse. Also, these early partners masterbated. So they knew what they liked and wanted. Believe me, in addition to including aspects relevant other than those of traditional hetero practice, your nicer hetero guys appreciate any helpful hints from partners who know themselves and know what they want. Kudos for calling on sex ed. to go beyond what George Carlin referred to as “good old American man-on-top get-it-over-with-quick.”

  14. Kate

    Bravo! Wonderful post! Even though my son isn’t even 2 years old, I often fret about what I can/should do to raise him with feminist ideals so that he will grow up to understand sex in the ways you described. I was wondering, does RH, Planned Parenthood or any other organizations like that have lesson plans or the like for teaching kids along the lines of enthusiastic consent? Has anyone ever heard of some type of curriculum or talking points being made for parents who want to give their kids real sex Ed?

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