Lucy Stewart argues that teaching girls about female sexual pleasure as part of their sex education will change the way they see themselves.
As part of the editorial team at TWSS, the Alternative Sex Ed week with Bristol Speak Out has been one of the most rewarding and inspiring moments of my two years on the job. Yet it’s also been one of the most harrowing: nothing can ever prepare you for reading so many submissions about rape and sexual violence, especially when those cases are so close to home.
Reading these deeply personal, yet heart-breaking, accounts, it can be hard to remember that there is another side to sex. These articles were written by a selection of women who had their autonomy and control over their bodies taken away from them. Robbed of their own desires and sexualities, they were forced to conform to the sexual desires of someone else.
But this does not mean they do not have sexual desires of their own, and it is on this more positive note that I am choosing to end the week.
Because, without devaluing these brave and inspiring women’s voices, continuing to talk solely about sex as something that has been taken from us as women – as something that we must passively endure rather than actively enjoy – means we forget that there is another side to sex: that actually, sex is fun.
Van Badham’s Guardian article, which focuses on the importance of girls being taught that sex should be pleasurable, opens with memories of Badham and her friends discussing their first sexual experiences:
Danielle grimaced, in consideration. “Like pushing a bruise,” she concluded, finding a dark bruise on her thigh, and poking the tips of two fingers in it, wincing, to demonstrate.
Badham’s description brings back memories of my own classroom discussions. When my girlfriends described their first sexual encounters, the first question was always, “Did it hurt?”
Despite seeming normal conversations for most girls, ‘Danielle’s’ bruise and our classroom discussions of painful encounters demonstrate how girls are trained to expect pain during sex, not pleasure. Our sex education, both inside and outside the classroom, encourages us to fear sex. Sex, it is implied, is for men.
After all, these discussions of below-par sex don’t end when we leave the classroom and enter the more sexually experienced world of young adults. Conversations simply move from the inevitability of pain to the inevitability of dissatisfaction and that ever-prevalent orgasm gap.
My sister (and feminist fairy godmother) pointed me in the direction of an article by Reina Gattuso entitled, ‘What I would have said to you last night had you not cum and then fallen asleep,’ and those words seem to say it all.
Here, supposedly, is what you consider sex: We make out, you play with my boobs, I blow you, you do not go down on me even though I ask [*insert some bullshit on how “I only go down on women I’m in love with. Now put it in your mouth.”]. Penis goes in vagina, penis moves in and out of vagina…
Sex is now over. Sex is now over because you have decided it is over. You have decided sex is over because you are a man, and because this choreography that favors men with penises — man becomes erect, man penetrates woman, man ejaculates — is what we have been told sex is.
Yet despite the expectation of inevitable dissatisfaction from sex, as Gattuso later points out, this ‘orgasm gap’ is not simply a case of biology. ‘We know that women tend to come less than men during sex,’ Gattuso explains, ‘but we also know that – for example – women come more during lesbian sex than during heterosexual sex.’ The problem then is not us and our biology, but what is being done to us (note the passive tense). Sex has become something not just taught as being for men, but quite literally, for men.
Girls first learn about sex in a sphere where they are encouraged to fear it. We are told to be careful, to not get pregnant, to not get STIs, not be too slutty, not let him take advantage of you, not let him ‘take’ anything from you (least of all your virginity, which of course, is his right to take). We may grow up to learn that sex is okay, but only okay; although our progress involves sex, multiple sexual partners, sex outside of relationships, it is still a lot of the time sex that we dislike. The sex we have, the sex we consider ‘normal’, is of course dissatisfying: it is dissatisfying because for so long we have accepted a lack of pleasure as the norm and our definition of sex is no longer something for women.
I recently took matters into my own hands and recruited my very own Friend with Benefits, emphasis on Benefits. FWB and I have sex, we sleep next to each other, we chat occasionally, we don’t have breakfast together. I know some of his plans for after university but I don’t need or want to be a part of them. This sexual relationship, I can confirm, is not just for him.
“But what if you start liking him?”
People have mostly been curious – sometimes congratulatory, always surprised. Yet this question still permeates most conversations, even though I doubt it’s something anyone would ask him. It’s a question that epitomises the acceptance that there is no pleasure in sex for women. In everyone else’s eyes, there’s no way I don’t have feelings for him: I, as a woman, can’t want sex just for sex, for pleasure.
This is what I’m arguing to change, and it comes from a redefining of ‘sex’. The patriarchy structures sex in a way that we don’t even realise. The expectation of ‘sex’ being merely male inserts penis, male ejaculates, is damaging for women and teaches us not to expect pleasure. But, as Gattuso explains, we can.
I don’t mention this because I think all women should just convert to lesbian, Gattuso explains, though by all means dear god do. I’m saying this because we need to know — you, human male lying next to me; you need to know — that the way you conceptualize pleasure and its choreography is not the way sex inevitably is. You can fuck differently.
You can fuck like a girl.
This is what sex ed is missing. We need to redefine sex and learn what it means to fuck like a girl, starting with our education. I wish instead of endless lessons of putting condoms on bananas, we as girls had been taught that there is such thing as a female orgasm and that we have a clitoris. More than that, I wish we were taught to find this clitoris and demand orgasms from whatever sexual partner we choose.
If we take this week-long conversation of sex back to square one, back to Danielle’s bruise, the expectation of pain, the entitlement of man, back to before we ever began to suggest that sex is unpleasurable for women, many problems can be obliterated. Because if women aren’t taught to fear sex, but are taught in a pleasure-led way, maybe they will also be taught how to control their own bodies and, in turn, to not feel like they can’t say no, or that their body – which itself cannot feel pleasure – is not just a glorified sex toy for a man to enjoy.
Girls can learn what it means to be in a healthy, happy, and equal relationship, because they will have the strength to know that sex, and consequently their relationship, is not just for the man.
Photo by Chloë Maughan