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.