I want to make a number of proposals in this article, but the first, and I think the one that will provoke the most debate, is this: I do not think parents should have the right to withdraw anyone from sex education on grounds of religion, or social conservatism. I am more open to the idea of withdrawing children from sex education due to past sexual trauma, but I think that’s a different, and less common, set of circumstances. Sex education should, and must be compulsory. It also should be broader, and, perhaps most importantly of all, needs to stop being so damn heteronormative.
Society, generally speaking, has two discourses on sex. The first is the one I grew up with. Brought up in a very strict Catholic family, I was taught that sex was reprehensible, not for enjoyment, its purpose is to create children, and it is always heterosexual, and always confined to the marital bed. I can attribute many of the anxieties and insecurities I feel about sex now, as a mature, atheistic, leftist feminist man, to that narrow upbringing. This discourse is often clashed against the second: a discourse of freedom, liberty and the “right” to do whatever you want, as embodied by pornography and pornified culture. Everyone is sexually available, and value is based on sexual prowess, and the number of sex acts one is willing to engage in. Both views are extreme, and I don’t really need to break them down for you to see the flaws in both.
I would argue what we need is a third discourse about sex: one in which we talk about sex, but we also talk about consent. We talk about the right to have it, and the right not to have it, as based on the choices an individual makes and is entitled to make about their bodies. We need a discourse about sex which talks about the signs of emotional abuse around sex, about coercion, about the right to engage in certain kinds of sexual acts and relationship lifestyles (BDSM, kink, polyamory, etc.) as part of a healthy sexual relationship without fear of stigma, but also the right to say no, the right not to have sex until you want to, and that there is no indignity is remaining a virgin or temporarily or permanently celibate. We also need this whole discussion to broaden our understanding of sex. Sex is not just something between a man and a woman which begins clothed and ends with male ejaculation. It can involve many different types of sexuality and gender identity, and many participants, and starts and ends when those participants feel it does, not when someone (the man, normally) cums. I envisage that this is what we need to talk about in sex education. And for the love of God, can we stop with the heteronormativity? Yes, how to use a condom is important. It’s not the be all and end all. What about sex education for women who sleep with women? What about sex education for those who don’t have penises? By breaking down the gender binary when we talk about sex education at a young age, we can encourage people to embrace people of all sexualities and gender identities, not just the “neutral” heteronormativity which is presented to us.
I’m not going to try and argue whether or not pornography is morally right or wrong. I’ve read far too many convincing articles and books from both sides of the argument, and am too morally conflicted myself, to even begin to have that argument. What I will say is that I do think porn should be on the sex education syllabus because it cannot be avoided. Pornography is easily accessible, and even if we block all the porn sites in the world, we still have to deal with pornified culture. I believe that if we are going to learn about porn, we need to situate it in its context. Porn is a fantasy, sure, but like all fantasies, we need to link it to reality. What does it say about us to have those fantasies? What does it say about our ideas about sex? We must also be aware that porn is an action. If we watch a violent porn film, we are watching violence being done to the bodies of the actors. Sure, they may have agreed to it, but it is still violence. This context, and the issues surrounding it, are key to having a mature discourse on pornography.
“Pornified” culture does not explicitly mean accessing pornography. Feminists like Ariel Levy have mapped it out for us: it means a kind of culture where values found generally in pornography abound. It’s music videos which sexualise women; it’s in subcultures based around aggressive heterosexual masculinity; it’s in the standards of social media. Sites like Twitter and Instagram do very little about, say, topless photos of women, or about “upskirt” shots, but as soon as a picture of real sexuality appears, such as that uploaded by artist Rupi Kaur of her with a tiny spot of menstrual blood on her sweatpants, it’s removed for violating “Terms of Service.” If we think about social media and images of women, as just one example, we see a narrow world built for the male gaze. Breasts are fine as long as they aren’t used for feeding, or scarred by mastectomy. Female bodies exist in a state ready to be fucked. This is only one example of the problem of pornified culture.
I should also add that I am happy to practice what I preach here. I think I know a decent amount about sex education, but if I have kids, I want them to attend an enlightened and progressive sex education course. My job, then, is to answer questions, help them come to terms with experiences, enable them, rather than leading them. How is that such a bad thing to want?
I’ve written this because I don’t just care about this in the abstract. I’ve seen the consequences first hand. For the last two years, I worked with young people, many of whom are still in primary school. I recently worked with a small school, and from chatting with the teachers, I found out that the entire class of fifth graders in the room with me had been withdrawn from sex education on religious grounds. Every single one of them. They would learn about the anatomical stuff in Biology, but would get nothing else.
“And it worries us,” the teachers told me. I asked why. I was then told that the school had had significant problems with pornography being distributed among the students. Many had smartphones, and could easily access adult content. Worse, many of the students now had Snapchat, and several of the boys had been disciplined for demanding that girls send them nudes. When I asked what kind of pornography had been circulating, one of the teachers responded “violent.” These kids were ten years old. I had them doing a coloring exercise, for Christ’s sake. And not one of them would be getting sex education. Their ideas about sex, at this early stage in their lives, were being dictated by their parents’ repressive ideologies, and by the porn they had such easy access to.
This is, of course, one example. Maybe this is the exception rather than the rule. But the narrowness of sex education, and the ease at which parental convictions can prevent children from getting valuable knowledge honestly scares me. It has to change.