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Like so many people going through school in the Noughties, I got my sex education from playground rumours and science books – and, eventually, free porn.
When we did have any classes, teachers would shuffle about at the front of classrooms, red-faced, waving around bananas and condoms. The (only) message they hammered home? Unless you want a baby or a mysterious disease, leave sex well alone.
When sex was spoken about in the classroom it was always about the physical act of a man and a woman getting intimate and the possible implications of that (again: babies and STIs.) Pleasure and consent weren’t mentioned, and anything other than a penis penetrating a vagina wasn’t touched upon – not to mention LGBTQ+ relationships, which were, of course, entirely off the syllabus.
In truth, I always thought sex was something that was done to women. When you’re 14, curious, and immersed in a world of free porn where women are repeatedly told they’re going to be ‘fucked’, it’s hard not to think that way. It never occurred to me that as an active participant in my own sex life I deserved to enjoy it.
I still remember the first time I kissed someone I didn’t want to – I was 16, and we were in the bathroom at a house party. Afterwards I debriefed with my friends and we came to the conclusion that it was probably fine, it was what he wanted, and we let the moment pass. When I left for uni and people would try and put their hand up my skirt in queues for the bar, I didn’t say anything either. It was ‘just what happened’ and I ‘should probably take it as a compliment’. When someone tried to touch me without my consent while I was sleeping at a friend’s house, I simply got up silently and moved away.
“Free porn taught us that sex is a performance – and that means finishing on demand so as not to hurt your partner’s feelings, whether it’s real or not.”
I’m smart, independent, and pretty outspoken. I’ve called myself a feminist since I was old enough to pick up a Roxane Gay book. But looking back over the innumerable times that I’ve been touched without consent or gone along with getting with someone ‘because it’s the right thing to do’, I never connected that what I learned about sex growing up may have dictated how I engaged with intimacy as a teenager and adult.
This month hopefully marks a change. From September, all secondary schools will be required to teach sex and relationship education. This is so much more than teaching pupils about where babies come from – so much changes during your formative years and while learning about safe sex and physical changes to your body is incredibly important, giving kids the knowledge and space to work out what’s acceptable, what consent looks like, and where to turn should they need help will make a massive difference in how they feel about their sexuality later down the line.
Critics say there should be age restrictions on what students learn, as if there isn’t a whole world of free porn out there, accessible at the click of a mouse. However, when two thirds of young women and girls have experienced unwanted sexual attention or harassment in public places such as at bus stops, parks or on the street, giving them the power and knowledge to know that’s not acceptable and that they don’t have to put up with it is life-changing.
If sex education doesn’t change, then the weird attitudes towards consent and respect that I lived under won’t either. Behaviour is taught and it’s little surprise that one of the main things my friends were resolving not to do in 2020, as grown adults, was fake any more orgasms. Free porn taught us that sex is a performance – and that means finishing on demand so as not to hurt your partner’s feelings, whether it’s real or not.
“The shame, scariness, and embarrassment that I attached to sexuality is pretty much gone. I’m a prouder, more confident person for it.”
The good news is there’s now an uprising of young sex educators, certified therapists, counsellors, and people who work in the sex industry who’ve basically stuck a middle finger up at the poor sex education many of us have received. Social media has become a haven of sex positivity, with people like Africa Brooke, Hannah Witton, Reed Amber, and Florence Bark teaching me that getting in touch with my sexuality might be messy and painful, but it’s also the most fulfilling thing I could do.
Undoing everything I learned about sex while growing up, and revisiting painful intimate experiences, hasn’t been a walk in the park. It sounds silly but I’ve literally read books on how to redefine sex, and ways to prioritise my pleasure. Thanks to all that, the shame, scariness, and embarrassment that I attached to sexuality is pretty much gone. I’m a prouder, more confident person for it.
But prevention is always better than a cure. If schools taught our kids about consent, pleasure, and the emotional side of getting intimate with someone it may save them the traumatic experiences of figuring it out themselves. I know first-hand what prioritising pleasure and consent can do for your confidence and sense of self.
Alice Broster is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @alicebroster1
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