For equity in sexuality, teach girls to get themselves off.

By   /   January 21, 2014  /   21 Comments

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When I was at intermediate school, sex education was mostly pads and a little bit of tampons.

female orgasm button

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:

  • Consent
  • 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 that.

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 (h.parata@ministers.govt.nz) 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. 

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21 Comments

  1. Lara says:

    thank you for such a spot on article!

    you’ve made a brilliant point which has not occurred to me before, that we need to teach girls how to get an orgasm on their own, so they know how their bodies work. perhaps then girls and women would stop accepting second rate sex where their partners are interested only in their own pleasure, and perhaps then women could show men how our bodies work and how to have mutually satisfying sex.

    I used to teach high school science, and I always wondered when exactly the kids received sex education. the bits I taught were only the biological aspects of ovulation, menstruation, gestation, birth and early development. nothing about actual sex or pleasure. I always thought that in science it would be appropriate to introduce ideas of contraception and consent, but although it was not made explicit I was aware that I was only “allowed” to teach the scientific aspect.

    I had no idea that it was outside contractors, often Christian groups, who were brought in to teach sex ed. why on earth could this not be left to the teachers who actually develop relationships with their students? kids often need to know you before they’ll relax and be able to ask you questions.

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  2. Jessie Hume says:

    Well put! So important! Would be nice if they talked about trans issues as well. And Cosmo are simply repulsive. They do not see what is wrong with the entire foundation of thought that they operate from. Less tampons, more strap-ons!

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  3. fambo says:

    Funny, I’ve been thinking along those lines myself lately. A few points to ponder:

    When I went to school in the 1970s there was no sex education as such. Just sperm travelling up to the egg in biology class. Nothing in the library either. Therefore it was completely impossible to have an understanding of the female body as a male.Young men need to understand women’s sexuality better from an early age. Maybe this is taught in schools these days.

    I think girls would benefit not only from being comfortable with masturbation but maybe for a lot of them sexual activity with another female might be a positive first experience (s) before moving on to boys. I think historically this happened a lot for both boys and girls in the early experimental stages in the “olden days”. Perhaps if girls have positive sexual relationships with other girls, they will recognise when they are dealing with shit from a male sexual partner. It should be a choice thing but not deemed unusual when it happens.

    The term “wanker” continues to be used in a derogatory sense with the implication that only sex with another person is deemed okay, normal and non-self denegrating. In reality, who in the world ever has a sexual partner available and willing on call 24/7. We are all alone in this world so unless we have no sex drive, wanking is fact of life. About time everyone got used to the fact.

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    • Debbie Brown says:

      Um really?sorry but I completely fail to recognise why gay sex would hold any appeal to the average straight girl, let alone improve her sex life?

      School girls practicing on each other sounds like a sick paedophile fantasy, not a genuine tool to enable and empower young girls.

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  4. jane says:

    Brilliant article, B.O.T!! and it couldn’t come at a better time. I’m honestly so sick of reading (well, stopped a while ago) those beastly glossies advising young girls ‘how to give a top blow job’, etc. and maintaining the perpetual catch22 set up by the industry. How about: ‘Self-image/self-esteem/self-focus…self-fulfillment’ (& fuck off E.L.James)

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  5. Merrial says:

    Couldn’t agree more! Proper sexuality education would go a good way towards ameliorating some of the more repellent aspects of modern mores. Roastbusters, eg.

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  6. ak says:

    The single article to cross my path in scores of years with the greatest potential to reduce misery and pain that I have ever seen. Thank you so much, keep it up, and the rest of you read it aloud to your daughters without delay.

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  7. Kayla says:

    Sorry, but I disagree with quite a lot of this. While I agree it is important for girls to be aware of their sexuality, the very fact that it IS such a personal thing means that I dislike schools being too involved. I am only 21 myself, so am not long out of school. I think it is the parents’ job to educate on matters like this. The schools should DEFINITELY talk about some major issues that could cause harm, like rape, but teaching about sex itself should be left to the parents. Also, as a Christian myself, I know that a lot of what is taught in schools is contrary to many religious beliefs, so it SHOULD be up to the parents whether they want their children participating in school-provided, nanny-state sex ed. Make parents take some responsibility instead of palming it all off to the teachers! However, I commend your concern for the discrepancies in society and education around sex ed.

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    • Merrial says:

      @ Kayla: In my view, there are a couple of problems with the notion of parents doing the heavy lifting with regard to sexuality education.

      While it’s certainly possible that some parents are willing and equipped with the knowledge and skills to do it, in my experience many aren’t.

      Secondly, while young children are usually receptive to their parents giving them information about sex and sexuality, how many teenagers would accept it? Very few, I suspect. I’d guess that the number of adolescents who’re able to countenance with equanimity the idea of their parents doing “it”, let alone masturbating, and explaining to them how to do it, is vanishingly small. For these reasons, education of this sort is probably best carried out by specialist teachers.

      The parental role is vital: we need to give our children as much information – tailored for their age – about sex and sexuality as they’re able to handle. And we need to give it in a way that isn’t freighted with our own prejudices and hang-ups. But once they reach adolescence, we need to recognise that they’ve gone beyond our ability to share information of this sort with them, and be willing to allow neutral others to do the job.

      Finally, we need to allow them to attend sex ed. classes, and not use the opt-out clause. The issues Burnt Out Teacher raises here are of prime importance, for our daughters especially. How I wish we’d had education of this sort at school, instead of what we got!

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  8. Jenny says:

    Ignorance is the enemy.

    Education in effective masturbation. Should be seen as an act of empowerment.

    Why should young women (and men) be kept in ignorance, and at the mercy of raging hormones, when there is a simple and effective way to regain control.

    In my opinion masturbation, is probably the oldest form of contraception.

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  9. Zoe says:

    NZ has an in depth sexuality education curriculum that us required to be taught every 2 years with different aspects to be covered at each stage. As a teacher I have taught it and as a parent my children have also been on the receiving end of the delivery and no where in the document is any of the stuff mentioned by the writer. Masturbation is mentioned in the curriculum briefly with the response kept factual and stated to be natural. It is not dwelt on in any detail and in a classroom situation shouldn’t. Touch by anyone other than yourself of any body parts is taught that if it makes you feel uncomfortable or feels wrong is a no no and you should tell someone you trust – this is taught to both boys and girls. Also your idea that girls should practice with each other – if as a girl you are uncomfortable with this, in your scenario would they fail or be seen as wierd? Personally there is no way I as a girl would want to do that. If you are attracted to the same sex that is fine but has no place as a classroom activity – no one should be forced to do something against their nature regardless of their sex or sexual orientation. I look with interest to see if this actually makes it through the moderation process to be added to the comments.

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    • Lara says:

      the author does not mention the idea that girls should practice with each other, that was another commentator

      try reading the article again?

      you seem to be saying that NZ sex ed is good enough

      but clearly it’s not working if we have young people in Auckland coming up with an idea as horrifying as “roast busters” and their peers thinking this is normal for their group

      at the very least we need to teach the idea of consent in sex ed, and I don’t mean just the touching good / bad idea, I mean teaching boys mostly (and girls too) what consent is, looks like and feels like, and that it’s important for you to be sure you have the consent of any partner of any gender for every sexual encounter

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      • Zoe says:

        Apologies to the author for mistakenly attributing that part to them. I was reading from my phone & the text is quite small. It was actually mentioned in a comment from someone else. But my other comments still stand.
        The notion that NZ sexuality education is not working because of a criminal case “Roastbusters” is a stretch at best and knee jerk reactions and painting a group of NZers with the same brush is unfair to them.
        Good and bad touch is introduced at 5 and it is built onto over the years and is all about consent.

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        • Lara says:

          I’ve spent years in NZ high schools teaching teenagers, and I disagree very strongly with your assessment that our sex ed is working.

          we have a high teenage pregnancy rate. we have a high rate of sexual abuse and violence in NZ. we have high rates of STI’s.

          these things can be, and need to be, addressed by better sexuality ed.

          “roastbusters” is normal. the peers of those kids have stated publicly that the behaviour of teens involved in that group was and is considered normal.

          the rate of rape in NZ is way too high, and this is unacceptable. teaching teens about consent, and owning their own bodies, is essential.

          teaching them as you do about good / bad touching is not working, and it’s not enough.

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      • Merrial says:

        I agree with you, Lara. That’s the very least we should be doing for our young.

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  10. Lea Cowley says:

    Love to make some comments on your Blog as this is my area of expertise and I love your blog….cheers and ups to the girls for exploring their bodies and enjoying the pleasure it brings..thanks

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  11. Michal says:

    This is an excellent there is lots of stuff in here that I wished I had learnt as a young person to understand more my own body and my responses to it around sexuality. I cannot understand some of the minus voting around the comments by Merrial, Ak, Jenny and others, who are these people, should women not masturbate the same as men? I hope they are not males who think women’s bodies belong to them! Most parents in my view don’t do a good enough job around sex education, I was given a book to read – that was that, it certainly didn’t cover much of what is in the article. I am all for skilled adults teaching this in schools. I too am a Christian but the church and the teachings of Christ who did after all have a penis are often at odds. One of the most disturbing and saddest things about sex for women is the huge number of women who regularly have sex without orgasm.

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    • Merrial says:

      @ Michal: I chuckled at your account of having been given a book to read. The same thing happened to me: and it was so vague as to be completely useless.

      But that was almost 60 years ago; I’d hoped that things were better for young folk now.

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  12. Debbie Brown says:

    I’ve been mulling over this several days now. I have mixed views.

    Firstly, I believe the curriculum has already broadened somewhat. My teenage daughter and her friend had a very animated conversation with me a couple months back, wherein they told me (between fits of giggles and exclamations of “ew, gross!”) that their sex ed teacher had told them that masturbation is good and (apparently) that she enjoyed it.

    To be honest I’m glad I wasn’t the one having that particular conversation with a class of 30 girls. But I digress.

    My other thought is this. Often, in discussing sexual education, there seems to be an unspoken assumption that the students are inexperienced and need to be taught these things in order to protect themselves from future dangers (be they stds, rape, unplanned pregnancy or broken hearts), but sadly, in many cases it is already too late. There will be girls and boys in nearly every class who have already been molested or abused or raped, who will find these classes very difficult and a trigger point.

    It is true that sexual abuse survivors can benefit from talking about it. But, probably in a class with their peers (and teenage kids can be awful cruel) is not the ideal place. How many adults would feel truly comfortable to talk about their sex life, let alone a rape experience, with their workmates? Times that by twenty for an insecure or angsty teenager.

    I don’t know what the answers are, and I think Burnt Out Teacher has made a lot of really good points – and I think it is really important that we do stress the importance of consent, and of feeling comfortable and safe. But there are probably some very good reasons to avoid some more sensitive issues, too.

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    • Merrial says:

      @ Debbie Brown: your point about sexual abuse survivors is well made. But I don’t think that such considerations ought to crimp access to decent sexuality education for other children.

      I have no expertise in this area – beyond being a woman and a mother – but I wonder if education of the sort adduced by Burnt Out Teacher is just what abuse survivors would find useful in the healing process.

      I recognise the difficulties of discussing rape and sexual abuse with a group of adolescents, when it’s not known if anyone in the group has been abused or coerced into sex. But nevertheless, difficult as it may be, it’s a topic which must be confronted.

      As a child, I was targeted for unwanted attention by a male relative. Fortunately, his timing was off, and I reached adolescence – and the ability to dodge him – before he did anything too serious.

      Had I known then what I know now, I’d have realised he was a paedophile, and would have told my mother much sooner than I eventually did. Bless her, my mother believed me; something similar had happened to her when she was much younger than I was at the time. And her parents believed her too!

      Give our children knowledge about their sexuality: it gives them power.

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  13. G says:

    I totally agree with the argument made in this piece, but wanted to offer a slightly different issue to the table. I received no sex ed in primary school, but at both intermediate and high school was presented with extensive sex ed that covered all the points listed in your list of things to teach girls. We weren’t given vibrators – and, generally, sex toys were not discussed – but all other things were mentioned. (My friends at the boys’ school up the road, however, received woefully little sex ed.)

    But here’s the issue: we all still read Cosmo. We – or at least my friends and I – saw it as more authoritative, more technical, more creative about sex than the version we were presented with at school. I re-read some Cosmos I had kept from when I was in 7th form with horror recently. The dialogues we were given to rehearse at school were written by out-of-touch adults; they weren’t in our vernacular. I still think my experience with school sex ed was hugely valuable (and didn’t realise how rare it seems to have been), but I wish it’d been enough to render Cosmo entirely passé. Perhaps now that the internet has material it didn’t then – Scarleteen and features like The Pervocracy’s Cosmocking column – there is hope for better alternatives.

    And the experience I had at school should be the norm.

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