During my childhood, nearly all of the lessons I received about sex in school emphasized its physical risks, like sexually transmitted infections and getting pregnant. I could avoid these consequences, my teachers and parents would say, by delaying sexual activity until marriage.
I don't recall learning about things such as the emotional implications of sexual intimacy; how to identify and express feelings of wantedness and consent (i.e., sex that is agreed to and fully desired); and understanding my own identity and body, including what gives me pleasure.
Come to think of it, I received education against pleasure.
As countries around the world attempt to modernize the sex and relationships curricula that children are exposed to today, the message, in many ways, remains the same. Sex is not a healthy part of life, and it is certainly not meant to be fun. Sexuality is dangerous.
As a result, much of the information young people receive is aimed at guarding their sexual health. Yet it has become increasingly clear that what young people really need is information to promote their sexual health.
Many women are cultured to believe that painful sex is the norm and to view their own sexual pleasure as secondary to their partners'.
A lack of pleasure-focused sexuality education leaves many young people ill-equipped to navigate today's sexual landscape. By pleasure, I mean not only experiencing joy in sex, but also in our identities as sexual beings and our relationships with others — in other words, physical, emotional and psychological happiness in relation to sexuality.
A genuine discourse of pleasure is especially neglected when it comes to the sexuality of young women, and women in general. For example, many women are cultured to believe that painful sex is the norm and to view their own sexual pleasure as secondary to their partners'. In this context, bad, unsatisfying sex is all too common.
Christopher Fisher, an Associate Professor at La Trobe University who works in the area of young people's sexual health, agrees that pleasure-focused sexuality education is lacking. "The young people we talk to in our research say they know their sex education in school isn't telling the whole truth about sex, particularly when it comes to pleasure," says Dr. Fisher. "And they want to get the whole truth."
La Trobe researchers have conducted five national surveys of Australian secondary students' sexual health since 1992. In their latest report, one of the most comprehensive of its kind, 50 per cent of the students surveyed reported having had sex by Grade 12; 54 per cent said they received a sexually explicit text message; and 25 per cent of sexually active students had an unwanted sexual experience. Overall, 50 per cent expressed significant dissatisfaction with sex education at schools.
Canadian research paints a similar, multi-layered picture of teenagers' sexual behaviours: 66 per cent of 15- to 24-year-olds have had sexual intercourse; 40 per cent of youth aged 16-20 have sent one or more sexts; and 80 per cent of young people report sexual problems. Common concerns among young women include not having orgasms (59 per cent), low satisfaction (48 per cent) and pain (47 per cent).
With statistics such as these, and the fact that sex seems to be everywhere today, it is ironic that, in 2018, there is still immense trepidation and fear around talking openly and holistically about sex in the classroom, especially when "young people identify schools and their teachers as one of the more trusted sources for accurate information about sex, sexuality, sexual health and relationships," explains Dr. Fisher.
When sex education is comprehensive, sex not only becomes safer but also truly pleasurable.
With pleasure-relevant topics like consent, gender expression, masturbation and sexting under unceasing debate at the moment, we should be using scientific evidence, not ideology, to inform our approach to comprehensive sexuality education.
A case in point is the Netherlands, thought to have one of the most progressive curriculums in the world. Kids learn the proper names of their genitalia by age seven and that masturbation is a normal, healthy way to discover one's body. They also learn about gender identity, sexual orientation, and the various cultural norms that can lead to socially learned sexual desires and behaviours. Their approach reflects a broader emphasis on positive sexual health and young people's sexual rights.
Empirically based research on the Dutch model suggests teens and young adults experience less negative, and more positive, consequences of sex. Dutch people under 25, for example, account for just 10 per cent of new cases of STIs, whereas, in Canada, rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea and infectious syphilis are the highest among this age group. Dutch teenagers also have some of the lowest rates of pregnancy and abortion in the world. What's more, most sexually active young people in the Netherlands say they find sex enjoyable (90 to 94 per cent), results which don't vary by gender. Communication regarding sexual likes and dislikes correlates with more sexual pleasure.
In other words, when sex education is comprehensive, sex not only becomes safer but also truly pleasurable. This is, in turn, directly linked to positive physical and mental health and well-being outcomes.
For older teens who are sexually active, says Dr. Fisher, those reporting more positive emotions towards their last experience are significantly more likely to discuss avoiding pregnancy and STIs with their partners prior to sexual activity. Joyous and happy sexual encounters have also been linked to higher agency among women. The more women are able to exercise control over their sexual lives, along with efforts to address gender and power, the lower their likelihood of unwanted sex.
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Empowering young people through education, thus, has implications for reducing the risk of gender-based sexual violence and creating positive change in society.
Age-appropriate, pleasure-focused sexuality education is an important part of adolescents' health and development. It's time we stop playing politics with young people's lives and embrace a curriculum that considers the full diversity of possibilities for pleasure.
This blog was previously published in Find Your Pleasure. Dr. Allie Carter is a Lecturer in Sexual Health at The Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales. Twitter/instagram: @DrAllieCarter.
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