Sex Ed: Five Things Every School Should Be Talking About

by Richard C. - May 23, 2016

Sex education has been and continues to be a sore subject for many people. Sex is not just a fact of life, it’s the very cause of life. It’s something that almost every single person on the planet will experience, but there are many physical, emotional and psychological pitfalls that need to be avoided.

The quality and availability of sex education is not what it needs to be to prepare teenagers for the world - a world that has changed almost beyond recognition in the last 10 years. Demonstrating how to put on a condom is no longer enough; in fact, it was never enough. So what are the conversations we should be having?

1. How to enjoy sex

Photo credit: by Jacob Bøtter
Photo credit: by Jacob Bøtter

Obviously the most important aspect of sex education is to teach safety. Knowing how to use contraception to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is not just important advice, it’s a statistical necessity. A study by the University of Washington found that teenagers who received a complete sex education were 60% less likely to get pregnant than students who were only taught abstinence.

But there’s more to sex than pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and thank god. Sex is one of the best things about being a living, sentient being (the constant awareness and fear of mortality notwithstanding). It has to be practiced responsibly, of course, but right now that’s where the conversation ends.

The reason for ending the conversation there is pretty plain: it would be incredibly awkward and inappropriate to be handing out in depth sex advice in the classroom. This is where publications like Cosmopolitan fill the void, and while these can be useful resources for helping teens understand what sex is like, the advice can also be utterly ludicrous and dangerously misinformed.

Many young men and women grow up not understanding their bodies and knowing even less about each other’s. Sex is something you have to explore and that’s part of the fun, but there are a great many unanswered questions along the way. “Is this normal?", “Is it okay to enjoy this?", “Am I normal?" We could spare young people a lot of doubt and worry if we spoke to them like the adults they’re becoming.

2. Healthy relationships and sex

Photo credit: by Vivian Evans
Photo credit: by Vivian Evans

You don’t just discover what’s between your legs as a teenager; corny as it sounds, you start to learn about love and romance. Our high school relationships taught us more about themselves than any class ever could, and for many of us those relationships were also our first experience of sex.

Whether we like it or not (and let’s be honest, most of us really like it) sex is major pillar of adult relationships, the others being trust, compassion and remembering to take out the garbage. A healthy and happy sex life is a functioning part of a healthy and happy relationship, but it’s so important to help teenagers understand what each of those looks like, and how they feed into each other.

Consent is, above all, the most important thing to have in a sexual relationship. Young people need to know that their body is their domain, that they own it and no one else can tell them what to do with it. Big red flags need to be raised when a partner tries to infringe on their bodily rights, especially when you hear things like “she doesn’t want to wait any more" or “he thinks I’m weird for not wanting to do it."

At the heart of every good relationship is respect. Respect for each other’s bodies, respect for each other’s wants and needs - it’s imperative for every relationship, sexual or otherwise, to be founded on mutual understanding. A relationship without respect can easily turn toxic, and teenagers need to be able to recognise what a strong, safe relationship looks like.

3. Sex in pornography is not real sex

Photo credit: by Hansol
Photo credit: by Hansol

Growing up in the internet age provides a new set of challenges for parents and teachers when it comes to sex education. In the days before computers, pornography was not readily available to teenagers - unless you snuck into your old man’s closet and happened upon an interesting stack of magazines.

Now porn can be accessed almost anywhere; from a laptop or smartphone, and absolutely without a parent’s knowledge. The debate about whether pornography is good or bad is already raging and has been since the invention of photographic equipment, but there’s no question that young people need to be taught about the reality of porn.

Sex in pornography may resemble the physical act of love, but it rarely if ever has anything to do with love itself. Equating porn with sex is like comparing the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan with the D-Day landings: it’s a reasonably accurate depiction of it, but it’s nothing like the experience itself.

There is no filter for pornography on the internet, despite the best efforts of governments and service providers. Teenagers can access extreme sexual content with relative ease, but there’s no warning label that says ‘Not representative of actual human relationships’. This is where schools, in tandem with parents, need to step up and open a dialogue.

4. Every body is different

Photo credit: by Johan Bichel Lindegaard
Photo credit: by Johan Bichel Lindegaard

Being a teenager is a scary, confusing time. Your body is constantly changing, morphing from childhood into adolescence, and there’s no telling which way this pubic minecart is going to lurch next. There are worksheets and diagrams they make you fill out, but the body you’re looking at on the page may not resemble your own.

Human beings are not standard issue. We all start out roughly the same - small, pudgy and typically wearing a diaper - but from there on it’s anyone’s guess how we’ll end up. There’s no textbook or guide to how you are supposed to look, but if the fact that we’re not all supposed to be same isn’t addressed, which leaves young people at the mercy of conformity.

Body confidence is a major issue among teenagers, especially young women. The pressure to look a certain way is immense, laid down by movies and magazines, then filtered through peers: “You have to look this way. If you don’t, guys won’t like you. And if guys won’t like you, then there’s something wrong with you." The various shapes and sizes that bodies come in may be noted, but one place no one wants to talk about is the genital area.

Every vagina and every penis is different, but teenagers can grow up scared that what they have isn’t normal, even though there’s no such thing as ‘normal’. Some boys may worry that they’re not big enough, some girls are concerned they’re not ‘tidy’ enough, but the message that needs to get through is that as long as everything works as it should, none of that stuff matters.

5. Sex is whatever it means to you

Photo credit: by Gabriel S. Delgado C.
Photo credit: by Gabriel S. Delgado C.

All too often the act of sex is characterised simply as ‘put penis in vagina’. To completely reduce sex to a single motion is not only misleading but woefully unfair to young people who potentially don’t identify as heteronormative.

Inclusivity in schools has to extend to sex education. A young gay man or woman might rightly ask why they haven’t been provided with the same resources to safely practice sex as their heterosexual peers. But inclusivity is not only for the benefit of LGBT students; it promotes tolerance and understanding among all. Fear and hate stem from ignorance, and the world will be a better place when we see less of all three.

We must also look to build acceptance and understanding of how one has sex as well as whom one has sex with. Even for heterosexual couples, ‘P in V’ is not the be-all-and-end-all of sex. Fundamentally, sex is a way of physically communicating how you feel about someone, whether motivated by lust or love. There are any number of ways to do so, and it all counts as sex.

The taboo nature of sex means that it’s hard to talk about our kinks, quirks and fetishes, which can then marginalises people and make them feel as though they’re wrong. Everyone has a right to express themselves sexually, so long as it’s not hurting anybody. The sooner this compassion for others is instilled in people, the more pain and stigmatisation we can prevent.

All photographs licensed under Creative Commons


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