In Australian schools, sex ed is all about pregnancy and chlamydia. But what about pleasure?
When I was in school, we were taught that sex led to pregnancies or chlamydia. If you got chlamydia, you'd die, and if you got pregnant, you'd want to.
There was no mention of the fact that most people have sex for positive reasons. No suggestion that people masturbate because it feels excellent or even improves self-esteem. We learned nothing about gender and sexual diversity, and only the basics of how to navigate consent. Past being proficient at putting a condom on a banana, I fumbled my way through adolescence feeling a deep sense of shame about my sexuality. Thank God I had Cosmopolitan magazine to tell me that all men really wanted was for women to eat donuts off their dicks.
Nearly two decades later, students are still squirming their way through awkward, uninformative sex education classes all around Australia. Several participants in the fifth National Survey of Secondary Students and Sexual Health complained that sex ed classes were all anatomy and abstinence, and no fun. "It was all about biology and contraception," noted one Australian student. "Nothing about sex for pleasure or LGBT+."
These criticisms were echoed by young female participants in a recent national survey conducted by the Equality Rights Alliance's Young Women's Advisory Group. Data from the survey, which captures the views of more than 1,000 Australian women on the sex education curriculum. the survey is still being collated, but preliminary findings reveal students are hungry for more information on pleasure and navigating intimate relationships.
One survey respondent said: "I found that sex education covered mainly periods and pregnancy and discussed very little about the actual act of sex and what consent is and the fact it should be pleasurable for girls as well. There was also no discussion about masturbation. I thought only boys could masturbate until about year eight." Another reported: "I would very much like it if there was a more open discussion surrounding the positives of sex and the emotions around it."
Author, speaker, and sex education advocate, Nina Funnell, who runs Great Sex workshops for university students that focuses on pleasure and consent, agrees. She feels high school sex education leaves young people ill-equipped to navigate intimate relationships and communicate with their partners about desire and pleasure.
It's highly heteronormative—it often doesn't acknowledge, let alone discuss, queer relationships and issues... –Nina Funnell
"When we look at high school sex education there are a number of deficiencies and gaps that young people themselves identify as being deeply problematic," Funnell told VICE. "It's highly heteronormative—it often doesn't acknowledge, let alone discuss, queer relationships and issues. There's a lack of information about consent, a lack of information about young women's pleasure and pleasure in general.
"[Sex ed classes] also tend to be quite pejorative... they can pathologize young people's interest in sex as being inherently deviant or dangerous rather than acknowledging that sexuality is actually a healthy, functional part of almost everybody's lives."
Feminist circles frequently cite the orgasm gap—whereby heterosexual men orgasm two to three times more often during sex than heterosexual women—as a major reason for educating people about female sexual pleasure. And certainly, achieving orgasm equality is an important goal—after all, everyone deserves to feel great during sex. But the benefits of teaching pleasure extend far beyond the bedroom into wider society, and are crucial in addressing violence against women and sexual assault.
Catharine Lumby, a Professor of Media at Macquarie University who has spent the past three years interviewing high school students about sex and relationships, says conversations about pleasure are inherently connected to conversations about consent. Asking a sexual partner how they'd like to be pleasured is simultaneously seeking affirmative consent. "We need to be open about the role pleasure plays for women, and I think we need to start those conversations really young," Professor Lumby told me earlier this year. "It's about language. Communication is always about giving people the language around something. It's not saying, 'did you consent to that?'—it's about, 'how does this feel for you?'"
One of the ramifications for not including conversations about pleasure in sex ed is that we're not going to be able to really effectively address domestic violence unless we're addressing how we think about pleasure and sexuality education and its relationship to consent. –Mary Lou Rasmussen
Mary Lou Rasmussen, an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Monash University who studies sexualities, gender, and education, says conversations about pleasure in sex ed are also important for tackling domestic violence, an issue affecting Australian women at epidemic proportions.
"One of the ramifications for not including conversations about pleasure in sex ed is that we're not going to be able to really effectively address domestic violence unless we're addressing how we think about pleasure and sexuality education and its relationship to consent," Professor Rasmussen told VICE. "We need to be really explicit about that with young people."
But schools' commitment to delivering comprehensive sex education goes largely unregulated—individual states determine what is and what is not included in the curriculum, and even then there is no guarantee it will be taught. Last year's review of the curriculum found no need for major changes to the sex ed program, but recommended that schools be given greater flexibility to determine what is taught and when. "There isn't an agreed national curriculum on sex education," Professor Rasmussen explained. "We've been waiting for it to come down from above for a long time but it's not happening."
The exception is Victoria, whose curriculum is considered to be one of the more progressive globally. "The Victorian curriculum is probably one of the most liberal internationally, that I'm aware of," said Professor Rasmussen. "It is absolutely explicit about the importance of teaching about pleasure and sexuality education. Liberal and Labor [state] governments have been incredibly supportive of the inclusion of LGBTQI young people, inclusion of issues around domestic violence."
As part of its pledge to curb violence against women, the Andrews Labor government recently announced it is introducing respectful relationships education to the school curriculum. From 2016 students from prep through to year 10 will learn about building healthy relationships, gender equality, and appreciating and respecting diversity—all important stuff really.
But the issue of including pleasure in sex education is bigger than the Department of Education or the Victorian Senate. Professor Lumby believes the huge social stigma surrounding women's sexuality is also to blame for schools'—and society's— reluctance to embrace it. For all feminism's achievements, it remains taboo for women to talk about wanting and enjoying sex.
"We still live in a very patriarchal, male-dominated society. And so the primacy of the penis, and the idea that it's men who want sex and women just kind of 'give in' to it, is still a very strong trope... it's got a huge, long cultural and religious history," Professor Lumby said. "Young women have got powerful social messages [telling] them that they're secondary sexual beings, that the primary purpose for women to have sex is to secure a man... for financial security and to have babies, and not for pleasure."
Another argument against teaching pleasure—and indeed sexuality and relationships education in general—comes from various religious and cultural groups. In May, hundreds of parents gathered outside a Toronto high school to protest the Canadian province's new sex ed program (which was overhauled to include consent, gender expression, and masturbation), with many claiming its teachings did not align with their religious values. Rev. Charles McVety, an evangelical minister, condemned the curriculum as "sexually explicit and radical thinking" and a form of indoctrination, while Feras Marish, a Muslim immigrant from Kuwait, told reporters that in his community, sex outside of marriage was frowned upon "but now all of a sudden it's being heavily promoted by schools." Similar attitudes are apparent in Australia.
Sex education also needs to include the topic of masturbation and encourage young people to explore their relationship with themselves.
But Professor Rasmussen believes it's important for sex education to explore different cultural and religious beliefs when it comes to pleasure and sexuality. "I don't want us to exclude conversations about culture and religious difference from sexuality education, she said. "I think that we need to find ways to have conversations that are able to incorporate those sorts of things meaningfully and be able to hear different perspectives... We need to recognize that there are different ways of thinking about sexual pleasure and that not everyone is the same."
Sex education also needs to include the topic of masturbation and encourage young people to explore their relationship with themselves. "Wouldn't it be great if we could have more conversations about things like masturbation at school, that include young people with and without disabilities, and learning about your body?" asked Professor Rasmussen.
For Nina Funnell, educating university students about sex, pleasure, and consent is like watching a light being switched on. "One of the main things [our students] say is 'This is great, but I wish I'd had this information much earlier in my life,'" Funnell said. "This discussion needs to happen right through the education system—it needs to be mandated. We need to make sure every young person has access to appropriate sex education, but sadly, at the moment, that's just not happening."
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