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Sexual Education Is Missing A Trick - Pleasure

23/12/2016 12:58
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Our schools could learn a thing or two about how to teach sex ed from porn, namely the inclusion of pleasure in the overall picture - this was a takeaway message from an event hosted last week in London by Love Matters, an organisation behind a network of online platforms that engage young people in conversations about love, sex and relationships.

Timed to promote new research on sex ed in the digital age, in collaboration with the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Love Matters invited a group of activists, journalists and industry experts to The Pleasure Portal. There people were blindfolded, tickled and fed chocolate. We were introduced to new sex toys and asked about our sexual super power. Interspersed with these more "fun" elements was less pleasant content - a woman spoke about her experience of female genital cutting, sketches took on the issue of HIV and consent, and one woman recounted her story of coming out to her parents.

This warts and all approach was the night's raison d'être - to show that we can't talk about the negatives of sex without looking at the positives and vice versa.

"By weaving together real audience testimony with theatre, research and storytelling, we sought to create a playful and safe space where our guests could experience first-hand the power of a pleasure-positive approach to educate," said Hannah Walace Bowman, Lead Creative at Love Matters.

Although Love Matters do not work directly with a UK audience, Bowman later tells me that their research and experiences on the ground in a variety of global settings could still be applicable to the way in which schools here address the subject.

Sexual education in the UK has come under fire recently, and for good reason. A condom on a banana; a lesson on syphilis - this was pretty much the entirety of my sexual education when I came of age around 2000. Turns out, the government guidance for sex ed hasn't changed since then.

"Young people are getting information about sex and relationships in a world before social media existed, before smartphones, before equal marriage or Civil Partnerships. It is wholly unfit to prepare them for the realities of sex and relationships in 2016," says Alex Phillips, Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) lead at Terrence Higgins Trust, the UK's leading HIV and sexual health charity.

"It's very difficult to apply the knowledge they are currently learning in the classroom to real sexual situations," adds Bowman.

Sex ed's current inability to say little more than don't has led students in the UK to deem it out of touch with their own lives, so much so that they switch off during the lessons.

Bowman terms the UK's shying away from sex ed as a "British stiff upper lip approach."

"If you don't talk about it, it's not happening."

The outcomes of shying away are not exactly ideal. In lieu of an engaging classroom, many receive their first lesson in sex from porn. According to research by the National Union of Students (NUS) from 2015, 60 percent of students consult pornography, at least in part, as guidance. Nearly three-quarters say they know it's unrealistic, which still leaves a lot who don't know that and whose sexual horizons are being conditioned by the industry's often warped standards. (A study of 50 of the most watched pornographic videos found that 88% of scenes included physical aggression, with the majority of the aggressive incidents being directed towards women, who were shown as either enjoying it or unfased by it.)

It's hardly surprising then that while teenage pregnancy has lowered in recent years, rates in the UK are still higher than a number of Western European countries. There's also been a surge in STIs, especially for men who have sex with men, and stories of sexting gone wrong, revenge porn and abuse at school are rife.

But instead of shunning porn, the industry might actually be able to help.

"We should harness some of the power porn has to engage young people and lots of that power is not being afraid to talk about the sexy part of sex," Bowman says.

That doesn't mean glossing over the bad. Rather, it means confronting the bad, understanding why it exists and engaging more with the industry's good aspects. After all, not all porn is damaging. There are feminist porn makers, as well as pornographers who promote safe sex, such as Porn4PrEP, a group that uses porn to stimulate conversations and bridge gaps in sexual health.

As Pauline Oosterhoff, who leads the IDS research on sex education, says:

"We need to try to understand the gender and power dynamics at play both online and offline if we want to reduce revenge porn and prevent other types of digital violence. With increasing access to online porn, young people should be able to access information to understand their own sexual rights, pleasure and consent, whether they live in the UK, India or anywhere else in the world."

What's more, a growing body of research suggests that looking at the positives of sex can be very constructive. A study in 2006, for example, showed that the more women felt they were entitled to pleasurable sex, the more confident they were in discussing contraception. Another study, in 2008, compared Dutch teenagers, who receive comprehensive sex ed with a focus on relationships and consensual and pleasurable sex, with American teenagers, whose barebones approach is more akin to what we have in the UK. The Dutch had higher rates of contraceptive use and lower rates of STIs, unwanted pregnancy and abortions than their American counterparts.

Phillips tells me that if we aren't taught that sex should be enjoyable and what consent means, it is harder to identify abuse.

"Sex is supposed to be pleasurable; if it's not pleasurable you're not consenting. Young people need to understand the balance between safeguarding themselves and the nice things about sex," she says.

I discussed the topic with a friend, a former secondary school science teacher. Frustrated by how little sex ed was on offer, she instigated her own lesson where the students could ask her anything. After a few awkward moments and lots of sniggers, the students became very engaged. One girl asked whether sex was painful. Another sensible question was whether you could get pregnant from anal sex.

We can't rely on the occasional plucky teacher to take this initiative. Nor can we assume that everyone wants to chat about these intimate issues with their teacher. But what we can assume is that there's an appetite to learn much more about sex and that far from being bad, a pleasure-based approach is actually very good.

Love Matters has collaborated with the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) for the forthcoming bulletin Digital pathways to sex education, launching in February 2017. Following on from the IDS' briefing Is Porn the New Sex Education? which analysed data from porn, the new bulletin brings together leading voices in the field of sexual reproductive health and rights.

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