I grew up in a very conservative, small town in Virginia. My first experience with sex education was in fifth grade—the girls were shuttled into a classroom, and the boys were sent outside for an extended recess. We were shown a video where three young girls were having a sleepover, and in the morning one girl’s mother made them eggs for breakfast. She called them to the stove and exclaimed “Girls! This is what YOUR eggs look like!” This was probably the farthest you could get from a spectacular (or accurate) first foray into sexual education. Unfortunately, the rest of my sex ed lessons in middle and high school were no different—we watched a live birth, were shown pictures of worst-case-scenario STIs, and talked about what a penis looks like when it gets hard. Everyone made fun of our teacher because they thought she was a lesbian. There was little to no discussion of women’s anatomy, and certainly no mention of the clitoris or—should I dare say it?—orgasms! (Cue gasps and giggles from a gaggle of fifteen and sixteen year olds.)
I am now a senior in college, yet still find myself deeply disappointed in the sexual education my peers have received and continue to embody in their views on sex and pleasure. Despite being in an environment of higher learning, young people still have not been given a proper understanding of sex that includes the possibilities of pleasure. It takes a long time to unlearn the damaging and dangerous rhetoric we are taught as teenagers, and difficult to do so given that our sexual culture is so intensely focused on protection and not at all interested in pleasure. While I have a number of friends whom I can talk openly and honestly with about sex, specifically pleasure and knowing our bodies, I have found that college culture in general stifles women’s sexuality. While women may feel freer to have casual sex (which is awesome!), self-knowledge and sexual self-discovery are rare. There is still very little dialogue surrounding pleasure—while women may be having more sex, this does not necessarily mean they are experiencing pleasure or having orgasms. The blame here does not lie with women, but rather with a conservative sexual culture that only ventures to discuss pleasure in a male-centered context.
In a culture where sexual pleasure is a revolutionary concept, my experience with sexual education (and those of innumerable other women) is probably no surprise. However, it should come as a surprise. While of course people have sex for the purposes of reproduction, sex is also about hugely about pleasure, a fact that is glaringly left out of young folks’ sexual health and education classes and curriculums. Think about masturbation, for example: It’s all about pleasure. However, young women are socialized to think it’s weird if they masturbate because it’s mainly a “guy” thing to do—furthermore enforcing the idea that men can get pleasure out of sexual activity, but if women do it’s just some sort of added bonus. This falls right into our culture’s notions of sexual passivity and sexual desire—women are expected to take a passive role in sex, while men take an active role. In this kind of sexual encounter, which happens all too often, there’s certainly consent, but the woman doesn’t have a space to express her needs, wants, and desires. (Not to mention this idea of sex is extremely heteronormative—just another reason to do away with it!)
We must critically analyze our culture’s understanding of sex without pleasure instead of just accepting that it is so. This process is never easy, but it is rewarding—gaining better knowledge about sex outside of a strictly-protection standpoint leads to healthier and happier sex for everyone involved!
Sarah Hogg is a queer feminist activist in her final year at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She's most passionate about reproductive justice, healthy sexuality, and body positivity. Feel free to get in touch with her @SarahLovely.