- 15 Oct 19
How should we speak to our children about sex? And when? What should we tell them? And how might all of that affect our mental health as teenagers and adults? Questions abound. Do I have all the answers? No. But a good place start is with pleasure education…
What is pleasure education? Pleasure education is about approaching sex education from a pleasure-based perspective. Sex education traditionally deals with pro-creation (this is how you make babies) and occasionally STI’s. Pleasure education teaches about the importance of pleasure in sex.
It doesn’t hide the fact that the primary reason people have sex is to be pleasured.
Shocking right? The majority of the time, people have sex not to make a baby, but for fun, for love, for pleasure. They do not want to procreate. And this is particularly so when teenagers and young adults are involved.
Now, to teach sex in a way that ignores this is not only archaic and condescending, but also hypocritical – and ultimately dangerous. Sex education teaches us about how to see ourselves, our self value and our worth, ultimately feeding into our mental health. And being alienated from our sexuality creates all sorts of complications.
We need to do everything we can to ensure that young people feel comfortable in their own bodies; at home in their own skins. A good, open, honest sex education is not a panacea that will automatically prevent conditions like anorexia, bulimia, body dysmorphic disorder, self-harm and related conditions. But it will certainly better equip young people – and young girls in particular – to cope with the difficulties and physical changes that are experienced during teenage years.
And here’s the thing: I know it can seem super-scary to parents and educators to think about teaching sex in a way that speaks honestly about what it is. The fear arises that it will encourage teenagers to have sex earlier and that it will increase the risk of STIs – but the evidence proves that exactly the opposite is the case.
It has been shown that students who receive sex-positive, pleasure-based education are choosing to have sex at a later age; and also that more are choosing to use protection. The reality is that, if you strip everything back – education or no education – people are still going to have sex.
Teenagers are still going to have sex. People can try to discourage this, but they will fail, because it’s built into us. Humans are sexual beings. And I would personally rather teenagers were equipped with the knowledge of what good sex should be, what consent is and how to protect themselves during sex, than the incredibly limited education that defines sex as a penis entering a vagina.
And guess what? Some of the time, a penis isn’t involved at all. Sometimes a vagina isn’t. Teaching sex in a solely hetero-normative way, and excluding the LGBTQ+ community, is homophobic and transphobic. It is a product of the outdated fear that teaching about anything other than straight sex will “make” teenagers gay.
Sexuality involves a spectrum. It isn’t ‘taught’: it’s part of life as we live it. People can and do change, moving across the spectrum in different ways. So we should deal with it on those terms. Ignoring LGBTQ+ sexual experiences in sex education represents a failure to equip teenagers who are LGBTQ+ with the knowledge, power and support that everyone needs in relation to sex. It subliminally tells them that there is something wrong with them. It shames them. It is not for no reason that incidences of self-harm and suicide are higher among young LGBTQ+ people. From a mental health perspective, there is no doubt that informative, inclusive sex education has the potential to save lives.
Furthermore, defining sex as a penis that enters a vagina, spreads the message that girls or women are objects to be penetrated – rather than people who should be as intimately involved in the sexual experience as any teenage boy or man. It tells girls that sex is something that happens to them rather than something they are a part of. It also ignores the fact that the majority of women can’t orgasm from penetrative sex alone.
Teaching about sex in this way is damaging to girls and boys alike because it also conveniently ignores the issue of consent. It teaches men not to see a woman as a person but as an object. It teaches them not to talk with women, not to consider their feelings – or their pleasure.
In this way, the absence of proper sex education feeds into rape culture. It reinforces the mental health issues that underly what has been characterised as toxic masculinity, creating an incredibly unhealthy domino effect. Currently our sex education system values the fear that teenagers might have sex over the concern that they don’t understand consent; over their right to knowledge; and, finally, over their mental health. On the flip side, approached in the right, open, mutually respectful spirit, sex is fun. Sex is a form of love. Sex is pleasure. It took me too long to find that out. It took me too long to understand that I was an active part in every sexual encounter. And it took me far too long to understand my right to consent.
For the good of our sexual health – and our mental health – we need to change that. It won’t solve all of our problems by a long shot – but providing inclusive, pleasure-based sex education would be a big step in the right direction.