Monday, March 20, 2023

Why We Need To Change How We Speak To Young People About Sex

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In her new book, Losing It: Sex Education for the 21st Century, UK journalist Sophia Smith Galer talks in-depth about how the current curriculum is failing to emotionally or physically prepare young adults for the realities of sex. In this extract from the excellent, well-researched book, Sophia looks at the current state of play for teenagers and what it means to be prepared, e.g. “sexually competent”, in order to both take sex seriously AND enjoy it.

TW: Sexual assault and rape

The number-one reason people seek out sex information through pornography and the internet? They ‘didn’t learn it at school’. If you don’t have the right toolkit to distinguish between good and bad information, reliable and unreliable sources, what’s going to happen when you read comments telling you that you’re worthless if you have numerous partners? What happens if you encounter pornography, which the British Board of Film Classification found was true for the majority of British teenagers, and you don’t realise that half the stuff you’re seeing isn’t what actually happens between most people in bed?

We have fostered a society where condom use has been pitched as the best way to protect ourselves, with very little preparation on understanding what it truly means to be in control and happy the first time we have sex.

The British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) found that men and women who reported school lessons as their main source of sex education were more likely to be ‘sexually competent’ when they first had sex. This is social scientist jargon for ‘ready’, and the findings were especially true for young women. Sexual competence is the gold standard we should all be trying to meet; young people and/or the sexually inexperienced on the internet might be worried that it’s their inexpertness, penis length, pubic hair, tightness or squirting abilities that are at the luminous epicentre of their sexual maturity, but they aren’t. It demands nothing of our looks, skill-set or experience. Instead, sexual competence the first time we have sex is defined by Natsal as a sexual debut past the age of sixteen, using contraception, which has a sense of the right timing and where both partners are equally willing.

Losing It

Our sex education, as it stands, is a damning indictment of how poorly young people are meeting the basic criteria of sexual competence when they first start having sex. It is a tale of two halves, in a country whose curriculum has for so long focused on ‘bugs and babies’ – STI transmission and the prevention of teenage pregnancy. The result is that nine out of ten young Brits use a condom the first time they have sex, but nearly 40 per cent of young women and 26 per cent of young men don’t feel that their first sexual experience happened ‘at the right time’. Young women in Britain might not be getting pregnant, but the Natsal survey also showed that one in five of them say they aren’t as ‘equally’ willing as their partners the first time they have sex.

Nearly 40 per cent of young women and 26 per cent of young men don’t feel that their first sexual experience happened ‘at the right time’

We have fostered a society where condom use has been pitched as the best way to protect ourselves, with very little preparation on understanding what it truly means to be in control and happy the first time we have sex.

When young people reflect on how well their education prepared them for sex going wrong, 42 per cent of men and 47 per cent of women wish they had known more about psychosexual topics at the time they first felt ready to have sex. Awareness about sexual dysfunction – be it pain, premature ejaculation or a seeming inability to orgasm – has still not penetrated the school curriculum, despite so many people asking for it when surveyed. As a result, many of these early problems are not only destroying young people’s first sexual experiences, they are going on to affect their lifelong sexual function, wellbeing and happiness.

How A Bad First Time Can Affect Us

We need to be asking why young Brits are getting contraception so right, but why so many other things seem to be falling apart – especially in a country reeling from the kind of testimonies of sexual horror revealed by initiatives like Everyone’s Invited, an Instagram campaign that exposed a culture of rape and assault across UK schools and universities. We need to comprehend the gravity of these negative first times, which are more likely to lead to lower sexual function throughout adult life. We need to look at success stories of happy, equitable sex, and figure out how it is we can get everyone there.

The Natsal survey shows us it’s not only gender making us step into our first sexual experiences on an unequal footing. If you’re male and from a low socio-economic background, you’re less likely to be sexually competent. If you’re female and black, you’re also less likely. If you’re female and your main source of learning about sex was through friends and not the classroom, you are, again, less likely. And if you aren’t in a steady relationship, or feel uncertain about your partner’s virginity status, you are also less likely to feel confident and happy in bed.

Combine this with the general lack of data on homosexual sexual debut, and the fact that we know some young people’s sexual initiations happen because they are trying to ‘test’ their attraction or sexuality, and it becomes clear some people are simply more empowered than others when they have sex for the first time; a power and control resembling the power imbalance of our non-sexual social world.

Losing It: Sex Education For The 21st Century by Sophia Smith Galer (HarperCollins, RRP $37.99)

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