This article originally appeared on VICE US.
It's time to have The Talk. In an episode of VICELAND's SLUTEVER, Karley Sciortino dives into the world of what she calls "alternative sex ed"—the variety of programs that aim to teach actual sexual education to make up for all the ways traditional sex ed has failed young adults. Sex ed in the United States is woefully ill-equipped to actually address matters of consent and communication, much less pregnancy and STI prevention. As of 2017, only 13 states require sex ed to be medically accurate. Naturally Sciortino attends a BDSM workshop at the sex educational O.school, and learns about Make Love Not Porn, a social media site where users post 'porn' they've made to counteract the tropes of unrealistic mass produced porn. Her alternative sex education teaches her a few new tricks:
Is sex education adequately serving teens?
This one is easy: No. Thirty-seven states mandate that abstinence be covered, and in some cases "stressed," despite evidence that abstinence education isn't effective—it's correlated with an increase in teen pregnancy. Beyond being ineffective, it also peddles myths about female virginity being precious or "a gift." It makes girls feel as if they're gatekeepers and, ultimately, sexual objects.
The quality of sex ed is so bad, teens are taking it into their own hands. Sciortino met with high school student Trinity (identified only by first name), the leader of a peer group that attempts to "make the curriculum more inclusive and just better for all students.” The majority female group meets regularly to vent about the terrible sex ed experiences they've had and to discuss how it can be better. They also share information about how to have sex safely—things like barrier methods, birth control, and communicating consent.
During the session Trinity's peers shared horror stories about sex ed classes, including abstinence pledges that students are asked to sign in front of their peers. "If you didn’t sign it, you were publicly shamed," a girl in the group explained. "They said ‘your virginity is a special gift only for your husband, I want you do pretend it’s a physical small object that you can unwrap and give to him on your wedding night.’”
States where abstinence only education is a significant component of sex ed curriculum. Image by VICELAND
Members also talked about videos they'd been made to watch, which included a live birth. Most of the videos were uninformative and slut-shamed women. One video compared a girl to a dirty shoe—a young man holds up a sneaker and says, "it looks like the entire football team has been in these things.” Another girl talked about the "tape" method, a fairly common sex ed skit that involves a teacher taking "a piece of tape, and she stuck it on a student’s arm. And then she went and stuck it on another student’s arm, stuck it on another student’s arm, and stuck it on another student’s arm, and then she held it up.”
This used tape is a depressing and degrading metaphor for sexual promiscuity. "This is all gross looking and it’s not sticking to people anymore," the girl said, paraphrasing the video. "Don’t be this gross piece of tape. You keep having sex, you’re going to be nasty looking and nobody’s going to want you.” The group describes these videos as exclusively using "scare tactics" that aren't very effective.
They want to overhaul this, but understand the limitations. At the very least, the group thinks sex ed should actually provide "medically accurate information" that's inclusive and without stigma. "We’re going to mobilize and vote and bring this issue to other people’s awareness," Trinity said. "It’s time we say that ‘enough is enough’ and ‘we deserve better.’"
Is porn bad for sex education? Are there alternatives?
“Nothing educates people about sex like watching people actually having it," said Cindy Gallop, founder of sex positive social media site Make Love Not Porn. Unlike places like Pornhub that aggregate what we widely consider "porn," Make Love Not Porn lets everyday people post pornos they make themselves. "We are what Facebook would be if it allowed you to socially share real world sex," Gallop explained.
It's educational, especially for teens who might be learning about sex for the first time from watching videos of people having sex. But it's also a great way to get off, because you can more comfortably assume the performers are actually enjoying themselves. And it sets a positive example of what every day human bodies look like. “Real world bodies, real world penis size, real world breast size," Gallop explained.
Gallop doesn't think porn is necessarily bad. She just believes it isn't the most realistic or instructive tool, because it's not an accurate reflection of what sex actually looks like. “Everybody wants to be good in bed, no one knows exactly what that means," Gallop said. "And so you’ll cease your cues from anywhere you can. If the only cues you’ve seen are in porn, those are the ones you’ll take... Our tagline on Make Love Not Porn deliberately is ‘pro-sex, pro-porn, pro- knowing the difference.' People have unconsciously internalized porn tropes without realizing they’re doing it, because porn is now so ubiquitous. Sex in porn is performative, and sex in the real world isn’t.”
Videos are heavily moderated by a team who both look out for content that doesn't meet the site's guidelines, but also consciously creates site tags that aim to change the way we think about sex. So many porn site search terms were made with the male gaze in mind, and cater to an idea of female pleasure that simply doesn't exist. Rather than using tags around sexual moves that enhance the appearance of masculinity but marginalize women's pleasure—think "smashing"—the site uses tags like "juicy" and "succulent."
"The language of porn is predominantly male generated," Gallop said, "Pounding, banging, slamming, wrecking, smashing, destroying, all terms created by the people who do not possess the soft internal tissue to which those things are being done. So at Make Love Not Porn, we are building a new vocabulary."
What other options are there for learning sex education?
Sciortino met with Andrea Barrica, founder and CEO of O.school, a sex education organization that live streams classes at all levels of sexual understanding and exploration. “We have live streams every single day," Barrica said. "Anywhere from buying your first sex toy, all the way to, 'I think I might be bi, queer, poly.'”
Attending a sex workshop can be both liberating and informative, especially considering how little women—and other marginalized folks—are taught about their own bodies and their own pleasure. This is especially true of the clitoris, the pleasure organ with “8,000 nerve endings" whose full structure wasn't discovered until 1998 by Dr. Helen O'Connell. (It took that long for someone to find the clitoris.) It wasn't in medical textbooks, and it certainly isn't being taught to young women in sex ed. “We put someone on the moon, we invented the internet, before we really understood this organ that’s in half the population today," Barrica said.
Photo by VICELAND.
“Sex and pleasure are major parts of human sexual wellness," Barrica said. "I’m shocked that we’re still not admitting to young people that a lot of the reasons we have sex is because it feels really, really good.”
O.school, like many other sex positive resources, is radically inclusive. It's meant to cater to anyone, especially those who have been underserved by conventional material. “We have an educator on the platform who has cerebral palsy, and educates on all the issues of sexuality that can come with having a disability," Barrica noted. "People from 130 different counties have tuned in and have been able to experience this type of education for the first time.”
This article originally appeared on VICE US.