By now you’ve probably either heard of Netflix‘s new series Sex Education, or you’ve been watching it. The UK-based show has been garnering great reviews for it’s portrayal of teen sexuality and the general experience of being a teenager and discovering sex for the first time.
Just in case you’re not across it – the show centres on Otis Milburn, an awkward high schooler with a sex therapist for a mum (Gillian Anderson just killing it in a great role, btw).
After helping a student with a sex-related issue, Otis ends up starting an unofficial clinic alongside Maeve, another student. Together they help teens with an array of sexuality-related concerns and issues, using his mum’s advice (which Otis garners via eavesdropping).
The show is great, and it makes a great point that I don’t think is limited to it’s UK context. Teenagers are just not getting the sex education they should be getting, and they’re going through their early sex lives fundamentally clueless and frankly, scared.
I didn’t have sex for the first time until I was in my 20’s. Because of this, I knew a bit more about sex than I did at, say, 16. My first time was great, and barely awkward at all – predominantly because I was with someone who had been sexually active for years, and had also been around friends who had been so as well.
Thinking back to how I learned about sex, which was mainly via high school, I remember fear. The entire curriculum was based around scaring students into avoiding STIs, maintaining consent and unwanted pregnancies. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad strategy. STI’s do need to be taken seriously – they can affect everything from your long-term health to your fertility. Consent is important, and it’s vital we emphasise how traumatic and criminal it is to force yourself on someone else. Preventing pregnancies you don’t want? Not a bad thing to drill into teens.
But the majority of my sex education beyond these three areas (and in some very integral ways, ABOUT these three areas) came from friends and sex partners who figured it out along the way. As an adult who knows more about her body and about sex these days, this introduction infuriates me. Why was I left to flounder in the very awkward and confusing ocean that is first sexual experiences? And how much worse must it have been for my friends who had sex for the first time in their teens, with boys who had the same limited understanding of sex as they did?
My experience is old news now. But something I’m noticing is that it’s 2019 and things have barely changed since I was in school. How are we still teaching teens the absolute basics of sex ed and then just leaving them to fend for themselves once they decide to become sexually active? Why are we making teenagers afraid of sex instead of equipping them with the knowledge to have good, consensual sex that doesn’t leave them in pain or feeling inadequate?
Let’s look at the facts. The age of consent across Australia is either 16 or 17, depending on the state you live in. So by year 12 at least, teenagers are of-age to legally have sex. The Australian Study Of Sex and Relationships last data collection from 2013 found that around 50% of people had sex for the first time across the ages of 16-18.
What this says is: it’s not illegal for our schools to teach sex, and it’s clearly necessary because we’re all starting to become sexually active around the end of our school years.
Here’s the thing. School-based sex ed is the one place teenagers can be confronted, whether they seek it out or not, with accurate facts about sex. That’s why it’s important – because many teens won’t seek out advice and education for multiple reasons, from shame to fear, to a lack of resources or people they can trust.
So what happens? They learn from pornography. The effect of porn on (cis-gendered) teenage boys is constantly discussed in studies and the media. As a sexually active female in Australia, I can vouch for the influence of porn on young men who have clearly learnt about sex from watching actors go at it. Any woman who has sex with men could tell you a story of being thrown around a bed like you’re on a film set. It leads to plenty of average or frankly terrible sexual experiences, because the way a woman acts on a porn set is completely fabricated. We know this, of course. But for a desperate teen boy looking for some direction on how to have sex, it’s often the best example they’ve got.
For women, we’re learning from our friends. This is great and healthy, in my opinion. I’ve noticed a change in the openness of speaking about sex with friends – call it the Sex and The City effect. We’re honest about orgasms, kinks and bedroom issues. But is it not sad that we HAVE to learn from our friends, who in turn either learn from other friends or by trial-and-error? And what about women who don’t have close female friendships?
And what about teenagers identifying as (or who will eventually identify as) LGBTQI+? A teacher friend of mine told me the current syllabus “doesn’t have much” in regards to the LGBT sexual experience – a horrific oversight considering LGBT-identifying teenagers are suffering from mental health issues stemming from stigma and prejudice. And what about gender-inclusive sex education? What about trans and non-binary students?
What I am saying here is it’s high time in this modern world that we let go of the hush-hush attitude toward sex and teenagers. Teach teens how to have good sex. Teach them about foreplay, what it feels and looks like for a woman or a man to be turned on and ready for intercourse. Explain the basics of anal and oral sex.
Does this sound insane to you? I understand that the school system likely can’t be all “here’s how to give the most insane blow job ever”. But I’m not saying we go HAM with the syllabus and turn it into the Cosmo sealed section. It doesn’t have to be crazy levels of in-depth. But even the simple science of sex beyond the world of STIs, pregnancy and consent explained in a positive slant would equip teens for more pleasurable first times and early sex lives.
Let’s stop leaving sex-positive, inclusive sex ed to TV shows, porn and people who’ve had to learn by experience, and start making it part of our national education.