We’d all be dead if it wasn’t for sex.
Most of us want to do it at some point in our lives, and it would be really simple if we could do it on our own. The confusion begins when we want to do it with someone else.
It is hard enough to be a person getting along in the world with other people, in clothes, without all that touching and nakedness and intimacy and everything. Whilst it is entirely possible to do sex without nakedness, it is very much harder to do it without intimacy. Even completely meaningless sex with a stranger whom you will never see again involves touching in our most private places. In opening ourselves up to this kind of touch, we make ourselves vulnerable to another in a profound way. The other may break our trust, may hurt us, may scar us for life, may go further or faster than we want.
The fix for this is communication. All parties involved must be able to communicate desire and willingness and all parties must respect bodily autonomy at all times. In short, consent is vital to the whole affair.
This is all well and good, but now we start to think about our children. In the UK and the US, we tend to be very nervous about thinking about youngsters and sex. Sex is, generally, what caused them to be, yet we still maintain a Victorian taboo 116 years after the lady passed from this realm. It’s not something we like to talk about.
The newspapers on this sceptred isle swing wildly from one extreme to another, alternately demanding that we teach our children more about sex and then being horrified that we’re teaching our children about sex at all. I mean, if we decline to give them good information, they’ll just not do it, right? When was the last time that a taboo subject attracted children like an afternoon picnic attracts wasps? Hmmm… Children use taboos as marker flags to indicate realms of knowledge that are going to be interesting and fun to find out about, with the added sauce that the adults around them are going to be profoundly embarrassed the whole time. Adult embarrassment is a delightful motivator for children to keep pushing.
So, what do we do?
Amid much public nervousness, schools do teach about sex. Frequently, schools don’t teach very much about sex, but they do have some lessons. Unfortunately, it seems, these lessons concentrate pretty much exclusively on the mechanics of penis-in-vagina heterosexual sex and leave everything else as an exercise for the reader. This leaves out a vast swathe of data that would come in really handy. For example, it leaves out the very reason that most of us do sex in the first place: the sheer pleasure of it all. When it comes down to it, most of us don’t do sex because we think that the house is too quiet and we’d like more children around to liven the place up a bit.
Once we’ve covered the mechanics of how babies are made, we can relax in the knowledge of a lesson well-delivered and get back to worrying about the upcoming exams. Nothing can possibly go wrong with that, right? My guess is that the lessons that those people attended didn’t focus too heavily on consent. Or mutuality. Or respect. Or enjoyment.
Also, a good handful of people in any given sex-ed class will be gay or bi. The legacy of Section 28 still looms over our classrooms and we seem to be quite shy about admitting it. It seems that many of us are still a bit ewwy about same-sex sex. I think we’re happy to live in a society where gay people can be treated as equals, as long as we don’t know who they are. To some extent, this is a peaceful (and very British) compromise solution. It is also a very British approach to sex-ed in the classroom.
If our teachers are unwilling to address sex-for-pleasure in general or same-sex sex in particular, then the people in the classroom who genuinely need that information are going to be left out in the dark. Not only will they lack the knowledge, they will also be indirectly stigmatised: their sexuality isn’t real enough for the lesson to even address.
Less common, but still in most of our schools (research by GIRES suggests that schools should anticipate that 1% of their roll is transgender or gender-nonconforming) are transgender and intersex people. If we’re not talking about women who love each other or men who love each other, then we’re certainly not talking about women with penises, men with vaginas, or intersex people with a whole range of options under their pants. Or, indeed, the options for love and sex for any of these people. Or, indeed, what binary, cisgender (cis is the opposite of trans, so a cisgender person is quite comfortable that their body’s sex matches their mind’s gender) people’s etiquette should be if they get into a sexual encounter with one.
What, for example, if a straight, cisgender young man (who has done all this sex-ed in school) hooks up with a person whom they read as a young woman, then finds out that said young woman has a rather different genital configuration than they were expecting? Well, the young woman could end up in court for starters… Maybe a little education might help. The trans person is taking a huge personal and physical risk when she hooks up with the young man. It would be nice if she could do so without expecting to be assaulted because of who she is. If the young man has been taught not to expect a specific genital configuration in others, the experience for both of them in this encounter will be hugely more positive.
To conclude, I think a person-respecting sex-ed class will focus on the person. It must emphasise that we are all equally valuable and that consent and respect are foundational to healthy sex. It will speak about the different ways people love each other, and the different shapes of our bodies. It will talk about the way that some of us look rather different with our clothes off than may be expected, and that this is a good thing and not a reason to inflict violence.
A person-respecting sex-ed class will remind students that we are all people and we all deserve respect.