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Why are we filling young people with shame?

Where are young people learning about sex?

Where are young people meant to find out how to have great sex? Where can they get advice about how to give good cunnilingus, or how to take a blow job well?

It’s not likely to be from schools or from their parents. A recent survey of Australian high-school students found that formal sex education is still stuck on things like STIs and pregnancy – “plumbing and procreation”. These fifteen- to seventeen -year-olds said things like

Please teach students that sex is a healthy part of growing up and that they should practice it safely if they want to and they shouldn’t feel ashamed of themselves for enjoying it.

And

The education I received didn’t prepare me at all for a sexual relationship. I learnt how to use a condom and that only bad things happen ever. Now I’m too scared to have sex from fear of getting my partner pregnant. Just getting more education about what can happen and the good things would’ve been great.

Even in the twenty-first century, most parents and schools are still making sex sound scary and negative, like something bad that should be avoided. And that’s a real problem. Sexual health isn’t just about avoiding risk, STIs and pregnancy. If that was the case, nuns would be the sexual healthiest people in the world, because they never have sex. The World Health Organisation definition of sexual health explicitly includes “the possibility of having pleasurable … sexual experiences”. 

Couple cuddling in the bedroom

Young people and pornography

So parents and schools are doing a good job of teaching young people about HIV, and chlamydia, and pregnancy; they’re even talking a lot more these days about consent and healthy relationships. But they’re still not telling young people about how to have good sex. And sadly, given the way that things currently are in Western countries – shame about sex is still riding high in our cultures, and even basic sex education in schools has been politicised as somehow destroying children’s innocence – it’s hard to imagine that most schools are going to start talking to young people about how to have good sex any time soon. 

It’s bad enough that we’ve given up on teaching young people how to have good sex – abandoning them to their own devices, letting the blind lead the blind, almost as though we think that having bad sex for a few years, fumbling around in the dark is somehow the right thing to do (“That’s how I had to learn to do it – you should too!”). Even worse than that, when young people then do the sensible thing and look for other sources of information about how to have good sex – by looking at pornography, for example –  then we tell them that they should be ashamed of that too. They just can’t catch a break. A 2016 study of young teenagers in Finland showed that the constant messages that pornography is harmful is having a negative effect on young people. One thirteen-year-old wrote:

Hi! I’m a 13-year-old boy and I masturbate while watching porn online. So is this ok or is my behavior abnormal? And does masturbation have an effect to physical development?

No! Masturbating is fine! It’s good, and healthy. It helps people develop sexual agency and lets them explore what they like sexually, in a completely safe context (nobody ever caught an STI masturbating by themselves). But we’ve made young people so paranoid that we’re damaging their healthy sexual development. “I would like to know that is it normal to watch porn with my mates from time to time? Or do me and my mates have some sort of a problem?”, asks another thirteen-year-old. “ Everywhere they say that it’s harmful but they don’t say how, so I’m asking about it here”. No, we have to say – no, the fact that you watch porn, or that you masturbate, or that you enjoy sexual pleasure doesn’t mean you have some sort of problem. 

The man and a woman laying under a duvet. evening night time. view from above

Healthy porn

Of course it’s far from ideal that we’re abandoning young people to their own devices in learning about sex. Most pornography isn’t designed as sex education. It doesn’t usually show negotiations for consent, for example – that’s usually done off-screen, with formal contracts. And a lot of the sex that we see in porn is designed to look good rather than feel good. Don’t even get me started on the way that women in porn consistently have orgasms caused by penis-in-vagina sex, when in the real world, only about half of all women can actually reach an orgasm that way

So what can we do? We need to keep talking, loud and proud, about a sex positive approach to life. Don’t be ashamed to let people know that you enjoy sex, and that it can be pleasurable. We can also identify pornographic resources online that are more oriented towards explicit education, and point young people towards them. And encourage young people to read pornography well – to understand that it’s a genre of entertainment, to be enjoyed for what it is – don’t assume that because the consent and negotiation for pornographic sex happens offscreen, that you should therefore avoid consent and negotiations in your own sex.

And let’s keep reassuring the young people who are worried that sex is negative, or scary, or that masturbating means there’s something wrong with you – no! Go on – have a wank right now. It’ll do you the world of good.