At the tender age of 14, I knew it was time to start asking the big questions in life. What is consciousness? Are morals innate or learned? And how can I get my boyfriend off with my hands?
I posed this last question to a male friend, amidst discussion of the others in our middle school philosophy class. “Er…” he responded, stoically avoiding eye contact, as he mimicked a movement similar to utilising a Shake Weight. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
At that stage of my life, I barely knew the first thing about penises. I did know that, if inserted into me without a sheath of latex covering them, they could potentially cause all kinds of unpleasant things, including STDs and babies. That was covered in our Year 7 and 8 sex education, where a stuttering PE teacher outlined the changes of puberty that three-quarters of the class had already experienced, where we spent 45 minutes on STDs and different types of contraception. But hey, compared to abstinence-only education, my school was progressive in terms of sex ed.
Across the board, high school sex ed is woefully lacking when it comes to learning about the safe and responsible giving of pleasure. Focusing on the nuts and bolts of straight sex overlooks many of the questions young people really want answers to, but may either feel too anxious to ask, or may not even know yet that they need to be asked. This leads to a deficit of knowledge that impacts individuals not only in their early sexual encounters, but also into their adult lives.
A high school friend was in Year 10 before she determined once and for all that she was Kinsey Scale 6 gay. Suddenly she had a whole host of new questions about safe sex and pleasure that had never been addressed by any adults in his life. Another mate, in her early twenties when we talked, hadn’t ever had an orgasm due to her guilt and awkwardness surrounding masturbation and sex – and, surprise surprise, a history of partners who had been taught less about female pleasure than she had. I’ve talked to people who can’t understand why they gain so little enjoyment from one night stands found on Grindr or Blendr or Tinder – even questioning their own sexuality or potency as a result – as well as people who want to get promiscuous, kinky or polyamorous, but fear negative reactions or simply don’t know where to find information on the things that interest them.
Since that fateful day in Year 9, I’ve learnt heaps more about sex. Much of this is due to my personal experiences with a range of humans – some experiences delightful, some abysmal, many ho-hum, some hilarious (FYI: sex on playground swingy bridges is rather unpleasant in real life, but it always gets a laugh in Never Have I Ever). But practical trial-and-error should not be our first honest exposure to the minefield that is sex and all its accoutrements. And mainstream porn – increasingly available, and increasingly accessed by young teenagers – can’t be considered “honest” in the least.
Here’s a novel approach: we should normalise frank and open discussion with as wide a range of people as possible. Discuss your best experiences and why they were great; your crappy experiences and how you wish they’d been better. Talk about contraceptive options; sex toys; STI tests; about consent and safe words; the “weird” stuff you’ve done and why you would or wouldn’t do it again. Informal discussion is a two-pronged approach. Contributing your experience helps to educate others, while you simultaneously learn from their experiences.
Everyone gets awkward talking about sex, especially in non-sexual contexts. But the current lack of adequate sexual education in youth means we need a grassroots solution while we encourage educators and policymakers to come to the party. We ought to be openly discussing how to have good sex as much as we discuss parenting or job hunting. If you have knowledge, dispense it freely. Talk to your friends, your partners, your family if you possibly can – as much as thinking about your kin doing the nasty might make you squirm, I doubt anyone wants their siblings, or indeed anyone they care about, to have bad sexual experiences due to a fundamental lack of knowledge.
Sex-positive education, formal or informal, won’t prevent teenagers from having sex: sex is inevitable. But it might prevent them from having at best, lacklustre, or at worst, traumatic sexual encounters. Understanding diverse sexual needs might free them from shame, whether that shame is attached to same-sex attraction, interest in polyamory, masturbation, or wanting to try anal play. At the very least, sex-positive education will fix the problem of having nowhere to turn to for information other than porn.