As much as I hate to see it, we live in a world of sexual ignorance and fear. Society only deems sex acceptable when it falls inside of a cis-heteronormative context. If it’s not “P in the V” sex for making babies, it’s shameful and wrong. We’re told that we should stay as sexually inactive as possible until we’re in a long-term relationship or marriage. If we deviate from these scripts, we’re bad, wrong, and sick in the head.
Excuse me if this sounds dramatic, but it’s an accurate portrayal of the social pressure we all feel. It’s what drives everything from slut-shaming to sexually transmitted infection (STI) stigma—and it results in only 39 states requiring HIV education and/or sex education in school, with only 17 of those states mandating that that sex education be medically accurate.
In what little sex ed we have, there is so much focus on the pregnancy aspect of sexuality that everything else is left out—i.e., the real reasons people even have sex: To get off. To feel good. To feel closer to their partner. To feel good about themselves. To feel desire and to be desired. To feel alive. And on and on. “Not including pleasure as part of sex education and only focusing on the fact that it is the main way to procreate completely avoids the fact that humans are just one of a few ‘animals’ that have sex just for pleasure,” Taylor Sparks, erotic educator and founder of Organic Loven, the largest BIPOC-owned online intimacy shop, tells TheBody. Pigs, bonobos, dolphins—these are just a few of the creatures who bang for pleasure. It is natural!
This lack of proper education contributes greatly to adulthood trauma around sexuality, owning our sexual identities, shame, and general fear. It is only with education that we can reduce the harm of these traumas. If we begin teaching sexuality in a comprehensive, holistic way, we will wind up with a healthier society.
Allow me to explain.
People Don’t Have Sex to Make Babies 99% of the Time
We have sex for pleasure. It feels good. We want it because it feels good. We have orgasms and we want more orgasms. We want sex for many reasons that don’t even have anything to do with orgasms—maybe we want it because it brings us closer to a partner, ourselves, our self-understanding. Maybe we want to have sex because we are curious about trying something new, are feeling horny, want a pick-me-up, or are just bored. Maybe we want to get it on because it’s a Monday.
Who the fuck cares? Sexual expression is magical in all its forms. Y’all know I’ve said it before, but I cannot say it enough: What happens between consenting adults is no one else’s business.
There is long-term damage to an individual’s wellness (and the impact of trauma resulting from sexual shame) when we discard pleasure as meaningful and purposeful in education.
Hiding the fact that sex feels good has never, in the history of humankind and the world, ever stopped anyone from getting it on. The only thing that arming young people with information does is curb STI spread, bring down unwanted pregnancy rates, and increase sexual self-esteem.
It would be irresponsible not to point out that focusing on reproduction in intercourse also ignores everything queer in sex. A lot of people are not heterosexual or cisgender. In these cases, heterosexual penis-in-vagina sex may not even be relevant to them, their experiences, or desires. You wouldn’t know queer sex (or queer people, for that matter) existed based on our understanding of “what sex is” and how we explain it to young people. This absence of queer sexuality in sex ed programs tells queer people that their experiences don’t matter and that their desires are wrong.
Understanding sex—what it is, what it isn’t, that it’s natural, that there are ways to have it safely, that being queer is normal, that sex is fun—allows people to make informed, educated choices about their sexuality.
“Young people must be encouraged to own their pleasure and their bodies in order to live happy and fulfilled lives,” Joe Vela, CEO of Emojibator, a shame-free, accessible pleasure-tech brand, tells TheBody. “We should normalize pleasure not only as an act of sex or desire, but an act of a healthy relationship. It is a natural part of life, and denying this to young people is denying their right to health.”
When we increase information, we decrease shame. Shame inflicts trauma, so we should aim to reduce it as much as possible. “There is already immense shame about sex in our society, and the lack of information compounds that shame,” Kamil Lewis, AMFT, a somatic sex therapist, tells TheBody. “Shame is incredibly isolating, and isolation both produces trauma and makes trauma harder to navigate.”
Harm Reduction Works Best for Society as a Whole
I cannot, not for one tiny second, stress enough how much overall harm reduction could be done with this holistic roadmap for sex education. “This type of comprehensive sex education would include the removal of shame and fear-based narratives and centralize our own personal pleasure and agency, including exploring consent, masturbation, how to advocate for your needs and desires, set your boundaries, and communicate with partners,” Lorrae Bradbury, a sex coach and founder of the sex-positive site Slutty Girl Problems, explains to TheBody.
The misinformation (or lack of information) around sex is truly dangerous. A lack of comprehensive, pleasure-inclusive sex ed damages society as a whole. We’re a culture that learns about sex from watching mainstream gang-bang porn because no one wants to claim responsibility for proper education.
Porn isn’t sex ed and has never claimed to be sex ed, but when there is nothing else to turn to, it becomes the default tool kids use to learn. If you think you’re protecting a young person from sex by hiding it, ask yourself this: What do you think pops up when they come home from school and Google the new word they learned—penis?
When parents think schools will explain sex and schools think that parents will explain sex and everyone thinks “sex” is PIV intercourse, everyone loses.
Our puritanical culture teaches us that Sex is Shame.
Many of us feel deeply, deeply ashamed, scared, confused, frustrated, and misunderstood in our desires and our sexual identity because of all of this bullshit. When this is the culture people grow up in, we become adults who don’t know how to ask for what we want sexually—because we probably don’t even know what we want. We are wounded by shame. We are wounded by the lack of information—and society feels this intensely. How could it not?
We’ve been living in a vacuum of shame, guilt, and a dark pit of lies. “As we take the lack of pleasure-based sex education to a societal scale, more consequences arise,” Bradbury warns. “Sexual repression and the inability to express our desires with our partners can cause mental health challenges, including anxiety and depression, and relationship challenges, as we feel unfulfilled and unable to explore our pleasure with our partners.” This impacts everyone, everywhere. It is woven into the ways we understand who we are and our ability to discover who that “true self” even is.
No wonder we’re all in therapy. We are a culture of sexual ignorants. We did this to ourselves. And we need to do better.