Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sex education - core values and a wide range of options

For a while now I've thought of writing down my thoughts about sex ed, as it is a topic that interests me greatly, but I have not really structured my thoughts on. So I'll try to do that here (this sprung out of some thoughts I had involving safewords sort of developed towards healthy communication surrounding sex in general, being a bit of a prerequisite for more complicated conversations).
In sex education, there are five core values which I think should encompass the entire educational programme:


Consent is perhaps even more than a core concept, indeed without it the idea of a positive sexuality is a joke. To be more specific, what I'm writing about here is affirmative consent, and preferably enthusiastic consent, meaning that people should expect their partner or partners to be into the idea of having sex with them and that cajoling someone into sex is pretty weird. The lack of a no should not be understood by anyone to mean "yes". If everyone had enthusiastic consent as the standard, the points about communication and confidence would be unnecessary, as they would be part of the definition of consent. Alas, we are not living in a world where enthusiastic consent is the universal norm, and that's something we have to deal with.


I must admit that I kind of took this for granted until I was reminded that it's really a pillar of the entire activity, and though I find it to be obvious, what motivates me to write this post is, after all, that the way sex is handled in society does not seem to be aimed at pleasure. Having pleasure as an expectation both for yourself and for your partner gives a pretty good goal to reach for with your communication. Of course, everyone gets to define for themselves what is pleasurable.
This is not to say that all sex has to be super-pleasurable, nor that sex should be an activity always targeted at achieving orgasms. That can quickly lead to people putting mental pressure on themselves to perform, either by always being ready for sex (which is pressure often put on men today) or to always orgasm (pressure that is often put on women to be an ideal sex partner). Putting the expectation on people to be up for sex are against the ideas of pleasure and consent both. Not everyone can reach orgasms, or cannot do so easily or in certain situations, but can enjoy sex all the same. Putting mental pressure on someone to have a certain small set of reactions is also pretty antithetical to the idea of pleasure.


Communication makes most social interactions better (imagine that!) In fact, you could even say that sex itself is communication, using verbal and body language. As such, it's important to let people gain a vocabulary for expressing themselves, as well as understand that everyone's different in how they communicate, and of course respect for the fact that communication is a mutual and reciprocal activity. By nurturing ideas of the value of communication, we make the sex that does happen more enjoyable and into more of a positive experience, and hopefully avoid sex that would not feel good or be a negative experience in the long run.
Continuing the point about pressure above, communicating when you want or do not want to have sex should also be free of any kind of guilt, and no one should feel that they need to fit what they want to express to some ideal standard of sexuality.
To tie communication to consent a bit further, it is also important for people to start questioning those who do not seem to care about communicating with their partner, and make it clear that there is no excuse for not making the effort to understand your partner or presumptive partner.


Having a vocabulary for sex and consent is all well and good, but it's useless without the confidence to express it. That means that people need to be confident that they will not be shamed or mocked for their bodies or sexual desires, and take pride in yourself. Although every aspect of sex education is something that is made difficult by the wide world out there with its many different messages, the way a lot of those messages whittle down our confidence in ourselves and shame us for who we are might be the most obvious. There is also, sadly, a constant pressure to conform to the right kind of sexual drive, like being constantly "up for it" as referenced above, or to perform a certain way while having sex. Confidence can be important to stand up to that kind of pressure to conform, and to be able to communicate what you actually want and what would be most pleasurable to you. Confidence also means accepting that people have a wide range of reactions to sex, and to listen to your partner with an open mind instead of, say, getting upset when they might not want to have sex or when they react to something while having sex in an unexpected way.


Safety means both getting the knowledge you need to have sex, as well as learning warning signs for stuff like patterns of abuse, both to keep yourself safe and to protect others by calling others out for unacceptable behaviour.

At the end of the day, these values are what I think should be expected parts of sexual interactions (there is, of course, an argument that they should hold true for all interactions). It is perhaps important to note that these core values are the same for everyone, I see no reason for different core principles for different genders, although in practice how we relate to them might differ as we are dealing with a long history of male, hetero and cisgender privilege which behooves us to take extra thought on how to realise these values. The idea of sex as a transaction (where men gain something and women lose something) or the idea of women as gatekeepers and men as sex seekers are both pretty wide-spread, so that even though I want to define a new normal, it might be better to specifically argue against prevalent and pernicious ideas of sex and sexuality.
In presenting these values I am not saying that sexual education is just about teaching them in a vacuum. Regurgitating the definitions of the words would serve little purpose; what we need is to build knowledge and understanding about our bodies, sex, and sexuality in a way that makes the above terms possible and meaningful, which is what I'll try to do in the following part presenting a rough outline for the topics that should be covered.

Our Bodies

It is pretty important to understand our bodies - sex education should allow kids of all genders to understand their bodies and what happens to it during puberty, and appreciate that the body is a pretty awesome thing. This of course also has to give information about cis- and transgender issues as well as other gender identities. Perhaps most importantly, it has to instill a sense that it's good to ask those who are knowledgable if you wonder about something and not create a dichotomy of "normal" and "other". When teaching younger kids, I must admit that I'm a bit uncertain of how to teach kids about sexual abuse in a way that does not send mixed signals - explaining meaningful consent and age seems a bit too complex, but simplistically making some parts of your body "bad" for touching seems like it could be negative in the long term - this seems like something I should read up on.
Moving up in age, learning about erogenous zones and how everyone's different in that sense and how they can find different sensations pleasurable is of course also important, as is learning about the wonders of pregnancy and vectors for infection - ideally before anyone can become pregnant.
Learning about our bodies is essential to create confidence in our physical selves, gives us understanding about what pleasure is and can be, lets us understand the risks associated with sex, and thus improves the foundations of communication and makes possible informed consent.


A problem with teaching about sex is that it's impossible to define what a good sex life is. It varies from person to person and trying to impose a model of normality in it would be both foolish and wrong. It is easier to teach what good sex isn't, but has a potential to get mired in negative messaging where you tell people what not to do all the time, which doesn't seem very pedagogical or constructive. What is needed is to give some notion of what sex can be while having an open and constructive discussion about what can go wrong, ever keeping an eye on the five core principles above. What is most important is to give a sense of the possibilities that exist, while stressing that it comes down to personal preference and communication with your partner or partners. I see no reason why we should privilege either sex in long-term relationships or sex as an activity like any other as the "normal". It might sound a bit trite, but people really should do what is right for them, based on being given solid information and the tools to use that information in a positive and constructive way.
Personally, I think a programme for sex education should, at the very least, include information (and, based on the recommendation of a friend, personal stories from these perspectives) about people who are not interested in having a sex life at all, for whichever reason, who are not interested in having a sex life with other people, who only have sex in long-term relationships, who don't connect sex to romance, who have sex with any gender (and hopefully the discussion would make it obvious that "any gender" does not mean "any person"), who have trans bodies, who have sex with one particular gender, who associate pain with sex, who associate giving pain with sex, who associate dominating others or being dominated with sex*, who are genderqueer, who like one kind of sexual contact and not others, who like lots of different kinds of sex, and who have different levels of sex drive in general. There is definitely more that can be mentioned and talked about, but those are what come to mind at the moment, and a problem with education in general is that you have a limited amount of time, so some limits must be imposed. In addition to the sexual interests listed, I think it would be very important to teach that sex drive, different likes and dislikes, and pretty much anything in regards to sex can change for a person over time, and not necessarily in an expected direction, and that even if you have a long-term partner, communication remains a crucial part of your sex life.
Though all the different views on sex and preferred kinds of sex above are different in many ways, I think the values of consent, pleasure, communication, confidence, and safety remain true for all of them, and the best way to communicate how those values relate to different situations is to talk about it and discuss in an open manner. It's important to note, to avoid becoming lazy, that the above values might be most important to talk about for sex that has been considered the "normal" for a long time; if you're doing something that is not considered "normal", you're more likely to think more about the fact that there are things that you like doing that your partner might not like, making communication more clearly important. If "everyone knows" about a specific kind of sex, then people might think communication isn't as important, meaning people might end up not having as good a time as they could.

Though I could probably present some ideas stressing the value of having relationships where you communicate with your partner and mutual respect and all that, I think I will leave it at the sex, for now.
Finally, I should mention that I do not think that a sex education programme can be a panacea to things I think is weird with the way sex and sexuality is treated in society today, but it is one factor we can and should strive to make as good as we can, while we also work to make the rest of our culture and the messages communicated about sex and sexuality better. Of course, there are lots of passionate people who do sex education already, and have worked on doing it for a long time, so this should be seen as no more than my thoughts about (part of) it given form. To be better informed, there are lots of other sources to consult, from Sweden and elsewhere. I'm also going to link yes means yes! because I really like it and it has been really informative about consent and sex.

* yes, really. Consent, pleasure, communication, confidence and safety are important terms and reading about the BDSM community has further informed my opinions about them to a great extent - I think discussions about relationships like that would be useful. One can of course discuss at which age such a discussion should take place.

I've added a follow-up to this post.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent piece, gave me a good bit of food for thought.

I completely agree about teaching kids of a certain age about erogenous zones. I can admit I did not no know what or where my clit was and it took me a while to figure that one out. Also, it goes without saying, that religion has to be kept out of sex education. I think it would be ok to state "Different religions have different beliefs about certain sexual practices" but other than that, leave it out. Again, going back to my own childhood, my parents told me about sex by giving me a book which clearly had a Catholic agenda, as it mentioned nothing about same-sex interests and also spoke against touching yourself as god didn't want that. I would also like to see masturbation being addressed clearly and openly, as something natural (But also to speak of negative effects of doing it too much or only that. Responsible masturbation?!) and also as something that girls do as much as boys. I had another time in my school class where masturbation came up in a conversation among friends and I expressed that I indulged and my female friends all expressed disgust and "I would never do that." reactions, which made me feel a bit crap for a bit and also left me under the impression I was on my own with this.

I agree that in sex ed other forms of sexuality need to be addressed, specifically LGBT(QSIA). If kids learn from an early age that there are different forms of sexuality, they find it easier to be accepting than adults I generally find. It would be an investment in the future.
However, I think discussing different types of sexuality in terms of BDSM might be too much for me. Part of the enjoyment I got from my first forays into sexuality was the discovery of things. I think laying it out for teenagers, all the subcultures might be a bit premature. Of course they should be aware, but I can't help but feel that first they should learn the core values you write up, then have their first experiences ideally with these core values in mind. Then after they are comfortable enough with their own bodies and the act of sex, and confident too, then I think the time comes for exploration and development. Perhaps I was a slow starter but when I was a teenager even acts such as oral sex were terrifying to me, I don't think I could have coped with the concept of anything further. Of course, once I got to perform this act in a safe environment with someone I trusted, I loved it and now my mind considers other options. I think if kids have a good foundation, then they can go onto to enjoy exploring what sexuality has to offer.
I also would like to see porn being addressed in sex education. It is so prevalent now and a huge problem as it contradicts most of the core values you have discussed. If boys and girls are watching porn where it is a transaction and both the woman and the man are expected to perform (the man most always be able for sex and the woman must be willing and able to do anal sex/oral sex/threesomes), it sends a very limited message to kids. Porn should be, well, not condemned but highlighted as not being a realistic portrayal of sex, or a safe or ideal one.