When I was at intermediate school, sex education was mostly pads and a little bit of tampons.
The girls, hushed into a separate room from the boys, were told all about menstruation (much too little, and far too late – many of the girls were already seasoned bleeders), and instructed vaguely to take the pill (the what?) if we ever began planning to get into a relationship when we were older. Finally, we were warned not to let boys “take advantage of us.” Sex was between a man and a woman who were married; our bodies were precious.
Someone asked what sex actually was. Sex, bellowed the woman, is when a penis goes into a vagina to make a baby. You can get a lot of diseases from doing sex.
We left the room almost entirely none the wiser.
The boys, meanwhile, were rolling condoms onto wooden penises and being shown how to use them during sex. They discussed the processes of both wet dreams and male masturbation in detail; they were informed that both are normal and natural.
Things the girls weren’t told about:
- Female masturbation (at all)
- Masturbation being normal, common, safe, and nice
- There is a thing called orgasms!
- Orgasms are something you can enjoy by yourself without needing a sexual partner at all
- Orgasms, human-to-human intimacy, and general sexual pleasure (not babies) are the main reason people enjoy and seek out sex
- You are in charge of your body and your sexuality
- How to and why you should use condoms for sex with a man; other forms of birth control and how to access them so you don’t become a teenage parent adding another unwanted baby to the world
- How to avoid STIs and how to get assistance if you suspect you have contracted one
- What rape is, and how to stand up for yourself and others
- How to maintain your dignity and self-agency and rights when in a relationship with someone
- How to talk about sex with a new partner
- What domestic violence is and what abusive relationships look like
- Some girls like girls; some guys like guys; some of each like both.
Things the boys weren’t told about – almost all of the above, plus:
- Rape is a male issue – how to refrain from rape; what to do if your friend rapes someone
- Sex isn’t something you get; it is something you share with someone.
And all these entirely undiscussed things are the most important bits.
Instead of nearly non-existent sexuality education, imagine if girls were told that orgasms were lovely. That it is safe, normal and common to bring yourself to orgasm. That you can have an orgasm without a man; without any sexual partner. That having an orgasm by yourself will not make you pregnant, infected with an STI, or ruin your reputation. It is all yours, your orgasm. You are allowed it. And here’s how you might do it.
Imagine if girls were given simple vibrators in sexuality education. Imagine if they were given some suggestions to discover and own their own sexuality. Imagine if, as boys in the next room are told the mechanics of male masturbation, girls were given instruction on how their own bits work, and what to do to join the orgasm-enjoying world, which they have every right to be a part of.
Imagine if they were given the same sexual autonomy that boys are assumed to have.
Girls get nothing of the sort.
Girls are not expected to take their own sexuality into their own hands. They’re not really allowed. Imagine if we acted like girls were in charge of their own bodies. Like the wider world wasn’t the owner of female sexuality, including theirs. It seems far creepier to withhold the information from them than to give it freely.
Te Ara points out that there have been attempts since 1999 to “move away from a narrow focus on biology, reproduction and contraception to a broader set of issues including the physical, social, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions of sexuality.” But with most schools not fulfilling their legally-required sexuality education responsibilities to any degree, girls still get most of their advice from friends and the media.
Listen to your friends as a young teen, and you just get their own version of misinformation. Listen to the media, and you will only receive an understanding that the female orgasm is “elusive” (it is anything but elusive with a little practice and proper information). The media will tell you that you should be sexy, because then men will want to have sex with you – “here’s how to blow his mind!!!!” And that the way to have an elusive orgasm is through sex with men (try this athletic position!); sex is expected of you, so don’t try to avoid sex, but if you have too much of it you are a big slut and deserve a world of shame and disdain.
Accordingly, the categories under “Sex Tips” on the Cosmopolitan Magazine website are as follows:
- Get Him Riled Up (“Wet your lips and moan that you can’t wait to taste [him]”)
- Feisty Foreplay (“My girl pretended not to want to kiss me. I had to use my tongue to pry her mouth open passionately.”)
- Getting It On (“Let [him] go deep during missionary”)
- His Down-There Domain (Explicit tips for giving him pleasure)
- Kink It Up (“Treat your guy to sex under the water”)
On Sex Advice, the first topic is 24 THINGS NOT TO SAY TO A GIRL WHO’S BEEN CHEATED ON. The second topic is a bio on an adorable gay dad couple, and the third topic is “20 INSANE THINGS FOUND IN BUTTS” followed by “HOW TO CAST THREE LOVE SPELLS.”
Look, I wouldn’t even bring it up if Cosmo wasn’t – realistically – where many girls and young women still go for sex advice.
It isn’t a big stretch to see that a lack of information given to girls about their own sexuality results in a lot of repeated but unsatisfying casual sex; soooo many of my female friends tried all through their teens to experience an orgasm, but experienced only disappointment. Yet heterosexual sex was the only option for orgasm that had ever been presented to them. Only once they got older (and, for some, had had a bunch of abortions, STIs and rapes) did they first have an orgasm, and usually after the giggle-filled purchase of their first vibrator.
It shouldn’t be like that.
Lack of information about sexuality results in rapes. It results in boys growing up into men thinking that they are entitled to sex; that sex is something they can get from girls who don’t really want to give it to them; that men should have pick-up lines, that they need to deceive, need to trick and stupefy to avoid frustration.
2013, the year of misogyny, the year of revolting Roast thingies: this is what we got from shitty sexuality education.
I never saw much decent sexuality education when I was teaching. During my time, in Years 1-3 our department covered “Bodies” as a topic, but it was almost all healthy eating is good, mums have babies, and don’t let anyone touch you. In years 5-6, a contractor came in, and the girls came back talking excitedly about periods, while the boys came back shoving each other and calling out things like “Wanker!” and “David masturbates!”
So I don’t think too much has changed, though I understand some of the contracting companies are much better than the one we got.
Regardless, I am not the only one calling for better sexuality education for our young people.
A 2007 ERO report found that “the majority of sexuality education programmes were not meeting students’ needs effectively.” Katie Fitzpatrick, a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education, is alarmed at the obvious implications from a lack of information on sexuality. Rebecca Kamm wrote about “society’s almost paralytic inability to study its own social paradigms.” Youth Wellbeing campaigns frequently for better information for our youth. And the NZ Herald, 3 News and their contemporaries frequently post alarmist articles about parents horrified by sex education in schools (spoiler: one father is outraged that his son was taught that he can only touch a girl’s private parts with her consent).
What are we so afraid of? These people screeching about their 12 year olds potentially learning what oral sex is: do they know that their 12 year olds are already having it?
I don’t find it alarming that 12 year olds might find out from trained professionals that oral sex is a thing. The most alarming thing to me about modern sex education is that parents can opt their children out of it at all. In my experience, this is often for cultural or religious reasons; children in these communities probably need even more neutral sexuality information than their peers, not less.
Yet there are no checks to see if schools are teaching it correctly. ERO doesn’t routinely monitor it. There are few guidelines. There are no penalties for schools who do not teach sexuality education at all. Most contractors are Christian groups who come in as strangers, complete a presentation, then leave – but they are utilised mainly because there has been almost no training for teachers. It is largely up to the principals whether any sexuality education is undertaken at all. And it stops completely in Year 10 unless the individual student decides to undertake Health as a topic.
That awful year we had last year, you know, when men found out how we women are expected to live with rape and assault and abuse and constant, unrelenting discrimination and condescension? It has meant that I constantly try to think of ways we can improve things.
Often I come up short. Like, what can we do, except stick up for each other?
But other times, I realise there are real, genuine ways of changing the culture that has provided our nation with such heartache, from each teen abortion, each unwanted child, each report showing young people contracting STIs, each discovery of another rapist raping someone. Well, you can start with an email to the Minister for Education, Hekia Parata (firstname.lastname@example.org) to let her know your requirements for decent and equitable sexuality education in our country.
Because our useless sexuality education – which doesn’t even teach girls about pleasure – has failed my generation, it probably failed yours, and it is failing our young people now.
Perhaps it’s super awkward to discuss, but to have equity in society, girls need to learn how to get themselves off too.
And I’m not sorry for saying so.