If I asked you to recall your sex education, chances are high that you, like me, would struggle to think beyond awkwardly putting a condom on a banana.
After all, our sex education lessons were rarely pleasant, shame-free zones where curiosity could be met with compassion and experience. In most cases, including my own, they were focused on delivering biologically-accurate renditions of the heterosexual dual unit, usually in frosty classrooms.
Needless to say, there was nothing in our textbooks that mentioned sex could be fun, let alone an adult to whom we could turn to confirm such wild rumours. This inaccessibility led me, and doubtless many others, to a first encounter fuelled by peer pressure, coercion and naive curiosity. Not a good mix, and one that left its own set of psychological bruising.
Now 29 and armed with experience under my belt – excuse the pun – my curiosity has shifted. No longer throwing myself in the deep pool to figure out what lies beneath, I now find myself questioning the infrastructure that led me to jump dangerously into an adult world, ill-equipped, in the first place.
The modern way?
You’ll be glad to know that some things have changed since my own sex education. In 2018, YouGov discovered strong support for a progressive sex education curriculum, with 57 per cent of those surveyed in favour of teaching orgasms to teenagers as part of a holistic sex ed curriculum. It would seem public attitudes towards sex education are shifting in a more sex-positive direction – and yet, the mention of pleasure-led education on the government’s curricula is still nowhere to be seen. In fact, recent evidence suggests the powers that be are still very much pleasure averse.
Just last week, vlogger and online entrepreneur Zoe Sugg came under scrutiny for her affable sex-positive content. Unbeknownst to Sugg, her Zoella blog that had been included in a GCSE syllabus was swiftly removed by the AQA after it published an article discussing the best sex toys for 2021. This was done in response to a parental complaint, despite the site having previously published articles that openly discussed period sex, revenge porn and fertility.
In a statement responding to the furore, Sugg said the row had left her concerned for young people. “It worries me that they think 16-year-olds aren’t exploring their bodies, doing this with someone else or know what a sex toy is.
“Although we don’t aim our content at teens, I don’t think it’s a bad thing that it’s there for them to read at all, and these media articles are just perpetuating the fact that female pleasure is something that we should feel ashamed of…”
Despite the public shaming, the Zoella team said it remains committed to maintaining a platform that empowers the female masturbation conversation.
Pursuit of pleasure
That conversation is one our youngsters still struggle to find in a formal education setting – and that alone is reason for concern. A host of studies, the most recent in 2019, have highlighted an existing pattern between those who have sex at a younger age and lack of access to realistic sex education from experts and educators. This research suggests, unsurprisingly, that those young people who engage in sex before ‘sexual competency’ are more likely to have an unhealthy relationship with sex.
Furthermore, the lack of diversity in sex education forces many young people to look online for inclusive resources and LGBTQI+ specific information – and when it comes to sex online, often what they find is pornography. This comes with its own set of risks. Without anyone to mediate fact from fiction, the fantasy of what sex could look like infiltrates the expectations of inexperienced minds.
Porn as an educator, not entertainer, should be more worrying than pleasure-led sex education, especially with so many sites now championing user-generated content, leading to a blurring of the lines around issues of age and consent.
The unlikely heroes in this space are Instagram users championing sex-positive and sex-education content, with parents and teenagers alike flocking to these spaces for advice, discourse and resources. However, in recent months the censorship of the sex-positive space has caused great concern amongst activists.
“Purging all sex content from social media sends a terrible message to people about sex in general,” says Dr Carolina Are, an online moderation researcher, activist and pole dance instructor.
“It’s a hazardous message to send young people who are starting to open up about sex in an open-forum because the impact can be that young people can think that talking about sex is shameful or taboo. The knock-on effect is that they can misunderstand consent and they ultimately will not see pleasure as purposeful. Exposure to sex-positivity helps with self-acceptance and understanding consent. Ultimately, sex-positivity in social media is vital for young people who don’t have access to it at home or school.”
Let’s talk about sex
The reality for many people is that shame around sex still holds adults and teens back from experiencing pleasure – something that counselling psychologist Ruth Hare encounters often in her practice. “[When] I wonder aloud about why teenagers are having a discussion with a psychologist, not their parents, the typical response is embarrassment and shame – and that beyond the ‘don’t get pregnant’ instruction, conversations [at home] have reached their limits.
“Teens tend to bring ‘should-I-or-shouldn’t I’ dilemmas, relationship anxiety, stories of coercion, sexuality confusion,” Hare explains, “while adults tell stories of love, lust, rejection and hurt. They are often pained and paralysed by their own experiences, and find it difficult to model healthy conversations about sex and relationships with their own children.”
From these conversations, she says, a vicious cycle begins to emerge, forming a seemingly hereditary accumulation of trauma fed on misinformation. And as the mother of an eight year old herself, Hare says, she understands how important the creation of a no-shame climate is. “Some conversations may need to be private, but they don’t need to be avoided or kept secret. Usually, anatomically correct language alongside colloquialisms normalises things too.”
This view on terminology is shared by Gigi Engle, a certified clinical sexologist and author of All The F*cking Mistakes: A Guide to Sex, Love, and Life. She says removing pleasure from holistic sex education is doing more harm than good. “We’re in a time, in 2021 when adults have grown up with little to zero sex education and absolutely no understanding of pleasure.
“I have couples coming to me constantly that have been together years, have everything else in their relationship on point, but have never had a good sex life. They don’t know where to turn or what to do because they lack the language and tools to properly communicate about sex.”
Asking for, expressing and discussing pleasure, she says, is where these couples often come unstuck. “Pleasure is a key component of sexuality, and what it means to be a sexual human being. It is as fundamental to our wellbeing as eating and sleeping,” she says, fervently. “Sexuality is not bad because it is inherently bad, it is bad because we SAY it’s bad. But the only thing that happens when you keep young people in the dark about sex is STI spread, consent violations, unplanned pregnancy, and general misunderstanding.”
The reality is that, without normalisation and demystification, sexual competence at the time of first sex is out of reach for many young people – and most at risk are young black women.
A British Medical Journal study in 2019 found that young black women are most likely to receive the majority of their information about sex from ‘friends’ or ‘other sources’, rather than from school or family members. The report further warned that a lack of discussion with parents about sexual matters directly impacted upon the levels of sexual competence of these young women. “When parents think that school will explain sex and school thinks that parents will explain sex and everyone thinks ‘sex’ is PIV intercourse, everyone loses,” Engle says.
“We have this bizarre notion that kids shouldn’t know about pleasure because then they’ll want to have sex. Well, spoiler – they figure it out on their own, have sex in unsafe ways and wind up confused and vulnerable. All studies show that comprehensive sex education is a key factor in safer sex.”
It seems, then, that the only way to break the cycle is to open the door for conversation, normalisation and curiosity. If we want to ensure that future generations are having safe sex, we must start by dismantling internalised shame and debunking the myths we’ve let fester in the minds of countless generations.
Many of us are products of playground learning, fumbled encounters and, sadly, sexual violence. Perhaps it’s time to recognise the institutional barriers that remain, still, to safe sex, and stop blaming young people’s curiosity about their pleasure potential.
Zoella might have been a good place to start…