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back to ba(sex): learning about pleasure in sex ed would be a pleasure

Image: Tom Morris

Image: Tom Morris

When I was 13, I had a very awkward conversation about the clitoris and masturbation with my mother. It was one of those parental chats where you’re inclined to scream ‘I know!’ at a certain point of their lecture so they’ll remove themselves from where they’re seated (usually beside you on your childhood bed) and say ‘I just wanted you to know’. But I didn’t scream; I listened. In spite of my red face back then, I’m pretty proud of my maverick mother (bluntest woman I know, really) when we consider the lack of such frank discussion in sexuality education in schools.

Last week, there was a push for the sex ed curriculum to include open discussion of pleasure and orgasm by women’s health advocates during a forum in Canberra. Perusing a number of external providers of sex education and curriculum-sanctioned programmes in New South Wales and Victoria shows little overt detail of pleasure. There are, encouragingly, mentions of diverse sexual attraction and the need for respect of this, negotiating consent, and the classics: sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and pregnancy prevention.

As sex ed is largely focused on young people – and older people tend to have an array of moral panics about young people’s burgeoning sexuality – sex ed has been historically framed around risk rather than the positives of sexuality. This partly explains its emphasis on preventing STIs and pregnancy, the latter of which doesn’t really apply to all sexualities or sex acts.

As was decreed at the recent Canberra forum, portraying sex solely as risky business in health class is reductive of the capability of sex to be consensual fun. Undoubtedly, there is a strong argument for conveying the negatives associated with sex and how to maturely navigate these: we need to arm all people with adequate information to make choices about their sexual health and relationships. Sex ed wouldn’t be the whole picture of sex without that either, but focusing on the cons doesn’t enable sex-positivity.

Discussion about the issue of pleasure’s role in sex ed and related issues of improving upon mediocre consent and diversity lessons in the curriculum has been illuminated for good reason. While there have been a number of improvements of recent decades, we’ve still got a long way to go after last year’s review of syllabuses deemed there was no real requirement for any change.

Also disconcerting in this review was the statement that teachers are given scant information on how to actually teach sex ed effectively during their undergraduate degrees, and there has been an outright refusal to teach sex ed by some (likely religious) schools. Call me naïve, but I somehow told myself that latter point was an ‘Only in America’ phenomenon. The recommendation that there should be flexibility in what is taught instead of a full, comprehensive (and sex-positive) approach to sexuality is also troubling. It’s arguable these factors largely contribute to difficulties in implementing frank discussions of consent, LGBTIQ sexuality and development, and as is our main focus here: information on pleasure and orgasm.

By proxy, male ejaculation would constitute the most overt mention of pleasure in the present curriculum. There are also the ever-so-brief discussions I myself remember of oral sex and mutual masturbation, both topics providing pretty scant detail on female pleasure.

I can’t remember adequate discussion of the clitoris or anything much to do with female pleasure (one only needs to read over the CLITERACY Project on Huffington Post to know why). I only remember anatomical terms and being told the vagina lubricates itself when women are aroused to aid penetration. But just how does one woman become aroused and why is everything in sex ed so focused on penetration? Hm.

The government’s report on the curriculum acknowledges arguments of political bias in sex ed curriculums. I would have to agree, but not because of any present bias in the fact it’s actually being taught (subpar at that). Present sex ed dynamics are demonstrative of our politicians’ and educators’ lack of regard for female sexuality beyond their imperative to maintain public health through contraception and STI prevention. This is because, you know, women are to this day seen as vectors of disease, baby breeders and sex objects. (Evidently women have too much to think about already so teachers can’t waste time teaching them or their prospective partners about women’s pleasure, right?)

It’s a legitimate concern that the fake orgasms of porn stars or movie stars may be the first port of call for education on the matter of female pleasure. But women’s pleasure and orgasms are largely contrived in such work, produced more often than not through the male gaze. Not all erotica or porn is produced by men, for men, but such product is what’s most readily available.

With more young people accessing porn earlier, sex ed on female pleasure could correct unrealistic ideas of what it is. This is not only because it would be more accurate information, but because it would encourage more women to explore what they like and to be open about requesting it (Ms Iuliano said about the sexy things in class, I can say them too.)

It’s not far-fetched to suggest lifelong ignorance of female sexuality and pleasure may begin with sex ed classes devoid of its discussion, either. This ignorance is not only an issue for any prospective male partners, but – more significantly – for women themselves as they are being taught their desires are not worthy of being addressed.

Sexuality can sometimes be difficult enough to navigate when you have a clear idea of what you like where, when and how – even when you are able to communicate effectively. Until sex ed curriculums discuss female pleasure more frankly, they retain a patriarchal bias that female sexuality is not to be explored unless it is reflective of women being vessels of male pleasure, human reproduction or a public health issue.

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