I remember when I had Sex Education at my high school in Bilthoven, the Netherlands. My class was sat around a number of tables, all slightly awkward and silently staring at my PE teacher. I think most of us were about 14 years old, but I’m not completely sure. Back then, I was still blissfully unaware of the little bit of gay that resided in me and I had never had sex before. My friends had a collective crush on the teacher and giggled throughout the entire thing. Basically, he told all feminine-presenting people in my class not to get pregnant, handed out some condoms and consequently I found myself, in a classroom, placing a rubber around a banana while some premature boys watched me and my girlfriends doing this intently. The little pieces of information he gave us were hetero-centered and also mostly concerning the penis. That was it: Sex Education. The word clitoris was not mentioned once.
This week I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Dr. Krebbekx: She was a guest lecturer in a gender studies course I’m in. To start off her talk, she made the class discuss their experiences with Sex Ed in high school. I found a lot of people have had similar experiences to mine. Dr. Krebbekx did an ethnographic research on Sex Ed in four different secondary schools: She wrote a great paper on her findings that I’d recommend to anyone. The Dutch usually praise themselves on (and are praised for) the quality of their Sex Ed, the main argument for this statement being that the Netherlands has a very low rate of teenage mothers (so they don’t vare about teenage pregnancy and abortion rates). What is striking, however, is that there is no national Sex Ed curriculum in the Netherlands: The only things that policy requires schools to teach is the basic concepts of human reproduction, STD’s, and cultural diversity and sexual diversity (all concepts which aren’t specified). These are the only times sexuality is mentioned in attainment targets for schools.
School-based Sexual Education is the state’s attempt at reducing STI’s and pregnancy among teens. Therefore the topics that are most likely to be discussed are contraceptives, condoms, and in more conservatives circles, probably abstinence. However, considering Sex Ed is a part of physical education and also a vital part of growing up: Maybe there should be more to Sex Ed than banana’s and giggles. Like Laina Y. Bay-Cheng points out in her 2003 paper on teenage sexuality: Sex Ed might intend to solely prevent pregnancies here and there, but it implicitly conveys a set of values and norms for the teenagers it is given to. Each aspect of Sex Ed might have an impact on the sexual development of a teen, not only what is talked about, but also what isn’t talked about, the tone of voice and the awkwardness that might be dominating the classroom. Now this worries me, as I feel sex is a very intimate and fragile thing and it is important that people can grow into this aspect of life whilst feeling comfortable and excited instead of embarrassed, unprepared, guilty or secretive. There are a number of things that bother me when looking back at my own experience:
A recurring theme in Sex Ed classes is that sexuality is a ‘natural urge’. Along with this phrasing come connotations of some sort of overpowering hormonal drive that should be suppressed. Sex Ed usually introduces teens to the dangers of having sex and nothing more. Laws and ‘morals’ are two other ways of suppressing this animalistic urge. Whether it comes from the Bible or some Freud-like lad, sexuality is often presented as the opposite of common sense or rational thought. Bay-Cheng argues that teens are considered to be “not only generally in need of adult regulation, but are particularly at risk in the realm of sexuality: their underdeveloped sense of judgment and restraint make them vulnerable to an insurgent sexual drive” (64). Where is teenage agency here? The pressure to resist this urge has a gendered dimension to it: Specifically people assigned female at birth are conditioned to only engage in sexual acts and let themselves ‘loose’ whenever they are in a preferably long-term, monogamous relationship. Someone only ‘deserves’ to have sex with you when you are completely sure they love and respect you, and if you were to have sex for fun or pleasure, you would be doing yourself short. Reinforcing this toxic idea of the ‘sexual urge’ of people with penises and portraying people with vulva’s to be suppressing that urge until they are conquered by the right penis, is harmful. It makes people with vulva’s ashamed and uncomfortable in their sexuality, plus it robs them of their agency: They are taught not to pursue a sexual relationship and whenever they do put out it seems like they lost some of their value. I have a relatively sex-positive friend group, however I do remember having to defend my choices to have sex with someone on multiple occasions. My friends would ask me does he really love me, does he have sex with a lot of people, how long did he try to get with me before I eventually let him? These questions were in no way intended to hurt me, however they were all based on the assumption that I couldn’t possibly want sex just because I wanted sex. In Sex Ed, the teacher told us that you should only have sex “when you and your boyfriend feel ready for it”, implicitly rejecting the idea of having morally responsible sex with someone you’re not in love with. It took me a while to come to the conclusion that my sexual activity had nothing to do with my worth as a girl or potential girlfriend, but eventually I stopped being ashamed of having sex with people who weren’t infatuated with me and it took a lot of pressure off.
At the time when I was in my Sex Ed class, I had the ridiculous idea that I was a heterosexual. However, I still found it striking that the entire class was about straight sex: None of the things my PE teacher said showed any trace of anything remotely gay. Besides being heteronormative, the sex that was discussed was also always monogamous. This seems to be a recurring theme in Sex Ed across the globe. It all begins with the very definition of ‘sex’ that is being used: In Sex Ed, and in heterosexual circles in general, the word ‘sex’ usually refers to penis-in-vagina penetration. Recently I had a conversation with a girl who told me she “didn’t have sex, but did do a bunch of other stuff” by which she meant oral sex. I told her that I thought oral sex also ‘counts’ as actual sex, but she firmly disagreed. I shrugged and thought it was probably her heterosexual mindset speaking. Things I consider to be sex, like eating pussy or sucking someone off, are commonly regarded ‘foreplay’. Apparently lesbians are just really really really into foreplay? When, sporadically, homosexuality is acknowledged in Sex Ed, there seems to be a very awkward way of talking about it. “Whatley (1994) detected a linguistic trend among sexuality education textbooks to shift from using the inclusive pronoun ‘we’ when describing heterosexual experiences and expectancies to the alienating pronoun ‘they’ when discussing homosexual ones.” (Bay-Cheng, 66)
In relation to the generally negative discourse surrounding sex in Sex Ed, the absence of discourse of desire and sexual pleasure is exceptionally notable. Specifically pleasure derived from stimulating the clitoris is heavily neglected. The consistent not-paying-attention to ‘clitoral pleasure’ results in a limited sexual agency for people with a clitoris: Usually the giving of consent – saying “yes I want to have sex” or “no I don’t want to have sex” – is considered to be the entire spectrum of agency a person with a vulva can have. Clitoral pleasure is seen as a nice addition to sex, however the final goal of sex as it is presented in Sex Ed is the orgasm of the penis. I asked Dr. Krebbekx about her findings in her ethnographic study on sex ed and sexuality among teens, and how this relates to clitoral pleasure. She said that at one particular school where she attended a Sex Ed class, people with vulva’s were remarkably silent throughout the session. After the end of the class, a group of girls came up to her and asked her if “girls can have orgasms too”. When she told them that yes, people with vulva’s can have orgasms, they needed to be reassured of this several times as they did not believe her. I, myself, have spoken to several people with vulva’s who’ve told me they remember being told that the first (few) time(s) they were going to have sex were supposed to hurt. Why are we normalizing sexual pain and neglecting clitoral/vaginal pleasure? Telling teens that sex is going to hurt them and that sex ends when a penis ejaculates, will alienate young people with vulva’s from their body. Sex definitely does not have to hurt the first time you try it: It is normal and understandable if you’re nervous and this makes things more difficult, however pain during sex is a sign that you are not yet excited enough to proceed with penetration. There are many other ways to have your first sex that will not hurt you. The narrow definition of sex that I have discussed before – penis/vagina penetration – also revolves around the sexual pleasure of the penis more than that it is concerned with people with vulva’s. In order to provide sufficient preparation for a sexually active adolescent life, Sex Ed should keep these critiques in mind to not deny anyone their sexual urges, their sexual preferences and their sexual pleasures.
Text: Tessel ten Zweege
Image: Tessel ten Zweege