Looking back on my own sex education, I remember very little mention of the fact that sex was something that could be pleasurable, something that felt good or that sexual desire (or no sexual desire) was completely normal.
The sex education that I received at a Catholic high school was focused mainly on reproductive and biological processes. I remember learning about how babies were made and about the functions of the male and female reproductive organs (minus the clitoris, the part of the female genitals with the sole purpose of sexual arousal).
By focusing only on reproduction in sex education, the clitoris (the main source of women’s pleasure) is made invisible, because while the male orgasm is central to baby making, the female orgasm is not. Moreover, focusing purely on reproduction also works to exclude young people who are same sex attracted.
It doesn’t make much sense to only focus on the baby making side of sex, when young people most likely aren’t having sex to get pregnant, but are doing it because it feels good. Sex education that fails to promote fun, pleasurable and positive sex is harmful because without education on (female) pleasure we turn to other more unreliable sources, such as porn. This is an issue because the majority of porn that’s out there (and there’s lots!) tends to focus on male pleasure, rendering female sexuality invisible.
As women’s pleasure remains a taboo subject, myths and misinformation remain commonplace, impacting on understandings of the female sex organs. Women are then left without the information or knowledge to gain pleasure on their own, let alone with a partner. A focus on sex for a reproductive purpose may also contribute to the false assumption held by young males that all women are able to orgasm through penetration alone, when it is often the case that women need to become aroused in other ways first.
We also see this lack of acceptance of female pleasure when comparing portrayals of female and male pleasure in the media we consume. I was 16 when I found out that oral sex could be performed on women, but I’d known that men could receive oral well before then. The fact that there is so much more representation of male pleasure in film and television (with women’s oral sex scenes receiving a higher movie classification (R 18+) than men’s oral sex (as low as PG13+) is most likely the reason for this.
It is not surprising then, that conversations about women’s pleasure are also missing from our school curriculums. According to the Australian Curriculum, teachers of Years 3 – 12 are not required to include any information on sexual pleasure and desire into their sex education lessons. Although ‘reproduction and sexual health’ is mentioned as a very broad requirement, lesson plans adopted by individual schools in Victoria vary, making sexual education inconsistent across the state. Catholic and independent schools are not even required to follow the Department of Education’s sex education policies.
On the flip side, in the Netherlands, sex education is mandatory from age 4. Not only that, but the purpose of sex education isn’t to scare kids and teenagers into a life of abstinence (the practise of refraining from sex). Rather, it actively fosters the development of sexuality as pleasurable and positive.
A lack of discussion about pleasure leads young people to feel shame about something that is so normal and that’s supposed to make us feel good. Surveys have found that where there was comprehensive sex education (such as in the Netherlands), young people were equally as likely to feel good about their first time, whereas surveys show that boys in the US (where abstinence is promoted) walk away feeling good after sex while most girls feel regret.
Sexual health doesn’t just mean being free from STIs, pregnancy and violence. Feeling like we are able to claim and seek out sexual pleasure is essential to individual wellbeing, mental health and self-confidence. As much as society doesn’t like to acknowledge it, addressing the issue of sexual inequality is just as important as addressing any other form of gender inequality that women face.
Peggy Orenstein, author of Girls and Sex, refers to the issue of equal pleasure as “a social justice issue in the same way that who does the dishes is a social justice issue”.
When we feel empowered to claim our sexual pleasure and embrace our own desires, we may also feel empowered to become active in seeking pleasure in other areas of our lives.
In saying this, sex education has come a long way. It has slowly begun to incorporate topics that are gender relevant, now usually including information on sexuality, respectful relationships and consent. However, education still fails to address poor social attitudes about female pleasure. There is still a long way to go before we have fully comprehensive and positive programs that work to reduce shame and promote full sexual wellbeing.
Addressing the gap between male and female pleasure starts with shifting social attitudes from an early age. Better sex education in schools may be the answer, with the potential to be a place for the changing and reshaping of our attitudes to promote gender equality in sex.
As a woman, I feel there is an unnecessary shame that comes with expressing my own sexuality. Social norms teach us that male pleasure should come before our own, and it’s about time this changed. It’s important to acknowledge that our sexual pleasure is just as important as our male partner’s in a society that often fails to acknowledge women can be sexual beings, too.
Ruby is a sociology and law student with a passion for gender studies and dismantling the patriarchy. She aspires to one day complete a PhD and can be seen in her spare time bike riding, op shopping and obsessing over cats.