In my eighth grade health class, we learned that for girls sex had three outcomes. Either we would contract an STD, become pregnant, or fall into unrequited love with our partner and have our hearts broken. Sex was talked about in extremes and consequences. There was no room for pleasure, no in-depth discussion of female genitalia, no conversation about sex for LGBTQ students. We were told that these lessons were in our best interest and for our safety and modesty. Our bodies and how they worked became unnameable and unspeakable, and that made them feel shameful and wrong.
Once, when I was around fifteen, I was out at my favorite diner with a group of my friends. Our conversation quickly turned to sex, and I found myself halfway through a brownie-Oreo-peanut butter milkshake and in the depths of a heated discussion of how many holes were “down there.” By this time I had friends who had had pregnancy scares, and who had been caught hooking up in school stairways or their parents’ hot tubs. My female friends talked about these things like it was something you had to do, whether they enjoyed their experiences or not. Even after a handful of my friends had started hooking up, there was still a lot we didn’t know about healthy sex and relationships. Looking back, I realize how in the dark we were about our own bodies. Sure, I could rattle off the periodic table of elements at the drop of a hat, but when it came to my own body I had no idea how things worked.
The dismissal of female sexuality and pleasure in sexual education is harmful to girls’ physical and mental well-being. When we don’t make comprehensive information available for young girls about their bodies and sex organs, we cannot guarantee that they are getting responsible and medically accurate information. In fact, only thirteen states require sexual education be medically accurate, which means there is a lot being missed by students about the bodies they inhabit every day. If students aren’t comfortable talking about sex with their parents (who may or may not give accurate information anyway) and they aren’t getting it in school, they are forced to look for answers elsewhere. Often, that leads them to media and pornography — which can reinforce or intensify sexist and heteronormative views. Even some of the most comprehensive sexual education courses still lack information on female sexuality.
Peggy Orenstein believes that teaching consent in school is incredibly important, but teaching female pleasure in sexual education is also important to girls’ health. Orenstein spoke to over 70 young women while researching for her book Girls and Sex. She asked them about their attitudes and expectations of sex, and what she found was that while girls felt more empowered in their lives, they were lacking empowerment when it came to their own pleasure. Orenstein told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, “They’re supposed to be sexy, they’re supposed to perform sexually for boys, but their own sexual pleasure is unspoken.” The expectation that girls will perform sexually for their partners, but not vice versa opens the door for disrespect and a power imbalance. Orenstein found through these conversations that girls viewed their own sex organs as both “icky and sacred.” Because of that, they were uncomfortable exploring their own bodies.
Teaching girls about sexual pleasure can also aid in teaching about and preventing sexual assault. If girls are unable to advocate for their own pleasure, they are also less likely to feel able to advocate for their own safety. Sexual education puts an emphasis on male ejaculation and subsequently male pleasure — In short, boys have wet dreams, and girls get their periods. Emphasizing male pleasure, especially without teaching about consent, perpetuates rape culture. Painful or uncomfortable sexual encounters are normalized for girls and women. In all kinds of ways, we expect women to be complacent in their discomfort. We expect them to make their male counterparts comfortable or joyful even at their own expense. It’s disrespectful, and frankly, it’s unfair. The consequences of that are detrimental, and the reason so many women identified with stories like babe.net's Aziz Ansari piece and The New Yorker short story “Cat Person.” It is also important to chip away at this thought process for boys. Preventing sexual assault also means preventing sexual assaulters. What if we could emphasize how fun and cool sexual exploration can be with consenting partners? Making the pleasure of both partners an equal goal can help create healthier sexual relationships for young people — sexual relationships that are safe and respectful. When talking about consent, it is important to also discuss how positive sex can be with it.
Female sexual pleasure has been controversial since the beginning of time. It was believed that if women tapped into their own pleasure, they might realize they didn’t need men for sex anymore. Since the clitoris was not imperative to reproduction, medical professionals of the 1800s left the organ out of anatomical diagrams. At the time, medical diagrams were mostly drawn by men, who associated the external part of the clitoris with intersex people and lesbians. The clitoris has been added and removed from different editions of anatomy books depending on social concerns about morality. Although the clit has now been discovered in its entire eight-inch glory, the heteronormative emphasis on sex for reproduction has carried into modern education. Many diagrams still leave out external female genitalia, and leave the clitoris out entirely.
Despite sex education being so focused on reproduction and prevention of unwanted pregnancy, the United States has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the industrialized world. In schools that teach abstinence-only education, the rates of STIs and unwanted pregnancy are not reduced, and students are left even more in the dark about their bodies. This emphasis on heterosexual sex for reproduction is especially exclusionary to gay and bisexual girls. The Public Religion Research Institute conducted a study in 2015 that found that only 12% of millenials had been given information on same-sex relationships in sex education.
Sex education can be reformed to focus less on the negative messaging of sex, and more on the positive. There are plenty of reasons to engage in sex or sexual exploration other than reproduction. Sexual stimulation, including masturbation, can help boost mood, relieve stress, and improve self-esteem. Introducing a positive message about sex in sex ed will help improve girls’ self worth, help them better advocate for their needs, and reduce the pressure to have sex before they’re ready.
The problem goes beyond negative body image or girls missing out on orgasms. Without labeling and defining the parts of the vulva, it is not possible to properly teach about disease and pregnancy prevention, sexual assault, or what healthy sex looks like. Girls are entitled to know about their bodies' abilities. Girls are entitled to respect, pleasure, and healthy sexual relationships. But if we don’t name that — if we make it unspeakable to them — they may not get it.
top photo: Pixabay creative commons
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McKenzie Schwark is a freelance writer and editor whose work focuses on feminism and women's issues. Her writing is published or forthcoming in BUST, Bustle, bitch media, Storm Cellar, Cherry Bombe and Honeysuckle Magazine. She is the associate editor of Honeysuckle Girl, a magazine aimed at inspiring and empowering young girls through storytelling. Find her writing and contact info at www.mckenzieschwark.com or @schwarkattack.