The past century has seen unbelievably and unimaginably impressive leaps forward in the realm of human knowledge and achievement. We’ve mapped human DNA, sent satellites far into the reaches of space, and built a communication network capable of connecting people instantaneously from anywhere on the planet.
Yet teenagers today sometimes seem to be no more sexually educated than teenagers in the 1920s were. Misinformation, myths, urban legends, and bigoted assumptions and lies remain all too common pieces of data that teens pick up regarding sex long before they become legal adults. When we know so much about the human body and are so good at transmitting information, why is sex education still in the dark ages?
Much of the problem is cultural. As Jonathan Zimmerman says inToo Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, all over the world, for decades, people have pushed for comprehensive, easily available sex ed for young people. But in every country, from the most to least sex-positive, other people have pushed back against these ideas, claiming they are dangerous ones, even when the young people themselves are clamoring for this information.
In the internet age, sites like our own are often in a position to pick up the slack from parents and schools when they can’t, won’t, or don’t educate their kids about the basics of sex. Naturally, that's what we're going to do here.
AskMen spoke to a handful of experts about what they considered the most important things for people to know about sex. Welcome to your sex education basics.
Particularly if you’ve never had sex before, sex might seem like it’s not such a big deal. Even the people who have the most sex spend a relatively small percentage of their life actually engaging in the act, and some people go their whole lives without ever having sex. To the average person, it’s likely to amount to under 1% of your life. That leaves us with the important question: why is sex education so important?
“Comprehensive sex education is vital for society to make informed decisions about their bodies,” says clinical sexologist Valerie Poppel, co-founder of The Swann Center and founder of the Integrated Social & Sexual Health Institute. “Sexual education must include how individuals can protect themselves from sexual transmitted disease and unwanted pregnancies.”
In short, it matters because what happens during sex can stay with us. The people who create sex education programs recognize sex's life-changing potential, and their focuses are often on preventing STI transmission and pregnancy as a result. However, Poppel notes, there’s much more to good sex education than that.
People “need to understand how their bodies work and how to give pleasure to their partners,” she says. “Studies have shown sex education reduces teen pregnancy, sexual violence and STI [rates].”
If bad (or no) information can lead to these terrible outcomes, it’s all the more important to get educated.
There might be no aspect of sex education more important than sexual consent. An incomplete or inaccurate understanding of how consent functions can, in a worst-case scenario, cause lasting and highly damaging trauma to a person. Not only that, but its effects can ripple out through time and place like a curse as that trauma impacts others second-hand.
“Research has shown sex education that teaches sexual consent basics aids in preventing sexual abuse and assault, especially in high school and college,” says Poppel. “It is imperative that [...] students receive full sexual education and not just sexual risk-avoidance education.”
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How does consent work? It means you don’t do something to someone unless they want you to, and you stop doing it if they stop wanting it.
It also means you do your best to make sure they do want it, and are in a position to tell you honestly. That means people who are conscious and sober, not being implicitly or explicitly pressured, and old enough to legally consent.
By then time they’ve started having actual sex with other people, most people have already internalized some form of shame or negative emotion about sex.
Whether they’re subtle or very clear, we often pick up messages from the people around us or from the media that sex is bad. Experiencing desire can feel shameful, wanting to express desire can feel gross, and certain kinds of sex might seem more ‘right’ than others.
None of these things are true, but hearing them before you’ve heard anyone say otherwise can mean the impression sticks around for a long time. What we don’t hear are messages like this:
After consent, perhaps the next most important thing to hear is that, no, you’re not weird. Not for that, or that, or even for thinking about nothing at all.
Anatomy is an aspect of sex that often gets covered, to some extent, in sex education. Knowing what body parts are called and what they do, however, is really more a medical education than a sex one. What’s often glossed over is the pleasure potential in people’s parts.
Most guys recognize relatively young that it’s a lot of fun to touch their penis and to feel it touched by other people. What they might not realize is the importance of the clitoris, which cis women, trans men, and non-binary people assigned female at birth have.
“Learning that the clitoris is equivalent to the penis is important," says Kenneth Play, a sex educator and author of Beyond Satisfied. "Expecting a woman to cum without touching her clit is like expecting a man to cum without ever touching the head of his penis.”
RELATED: Understanding the Clitoris
Another anatomical aspect that gets overshadowed in sex education discussions is the anus. Particularly if you’re a man who’s attracted to men, giving and/or receiving anal pleasure can be a big part of your sexual experience. Regardless of sexual orientation or gender, some people find having their anus played with — with fingers, tongue, sex toys, or a penis — can be immensely pleasurable.
Nipples, too, can be intensely erogenous, but really, touching almost any body part can feel erotic when done in the right way by the right person.
For many people, sex education boils down to teaching young people how not to contract STIs, which is often a case of preaching abstinence or handing out condoms.
And while proper condom usage is important, and highly effective preventing unwanted pregnancies and/or infection transmission, there’s more to safe sex than simply putting on a fresh condom every time you engage in penetration.
“When we think about safer sex, we often think about condoms, but don’t consider testing,” says Jess O’Reilly, sexologist & host of the Sex With Dr. Jess podcast. “The stigma that surrounds STIs is a significant barrier to safer sex. It holds us back from having important conversations. But if you’re willing to strip down and get as physically close as possible, shouldn’t you be able to talk about it?”
She suggests the following approaches for discussing getting an STI test with a sexual or romantic partner:
While free condoms (and information about them) are a hallmark of basic sex ed, because risk-reduction is seen as more important than pleasure education, lubrication isn’t given the same kind of focus.
But under-lubricated sex can, in fact, be more dangerous, as it can lead to tearing in the anus or vagina, which can increase a person’s risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infections, or simply a bacterial infection.
“Regardless of age, gender identity, sexual orientation or body type, lube can make sex safer and much hotter,” says O’Reilly. “The possibilities for sex play, pleasure, techniques, positions and orgasms multiply when you add the slippery stuff.”
Because vaginas typically self-lubricate, the perception often becomes that using lube is a sign that the person who’s being penetrated isn’t turned on enough. But there are lots of reasons besides psychological arousal levels that might lead to insufficient lubrication, and there’s really no harm in adding a dash of lube to the mix, says O’Reilly.
“Many people use water-based lube for penetrative vaginal sex and oral while using silicone for hand jobs, shower sex and anal — but it’s really a matter of personal preference,” she explains. “Silicone tends to be slicker and longer lasting, whereas water-based formulas will wash away more easily. Just don’t use silicone lube with silicone toys (use a water-based formula instead).”
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Perhaps the most special aspect of sex and sexual interactions is how good they can feel, both physically and psychologically. Many young people start having sex without understanding either their own pleasure or their partner's pleasure, and thus are sometimes willing to put up with unpleasant, or even painful sex, becaue they’ve never been taught that, done right, sex should feel incredible.
This is a particular issue for women who sleep with straight men, as they’re often experiencing intimacy with people who haven’t been taught to know how to (or care about) giving them orgasms. This leads to something called the “orgasm gap,” a term for the disparity between how often men and women orgasm during sex with each other.
“There’s an abundance of sexual health-related topics out there already, but pleasure education is truly lacking,” says Play. “I believe the orgasm gap is a skills gap, and if we don’t educate people on how to develop sexual skills, they will get their education elsewhere, like from porn. Porn sex is not good sex.”
RELATED: 7 Ways to Enhance the Male Orgasm
In the midst of all the silence, secrecy, and euphemisms around how people discuss sex, it’s no surprise that Internet porn — free, readily available, and extremely graphic — has become a kind of de facto sex education for many young people, often the better part of a decade before they’re old enough to legally access such content.
While porn may be able to show people what sex can look like up close and personal, mainstream pornography provides a very narrow and often misleading view of sex, over-emphasizing some aspects while leaving others completely out of the picture.
“Porn is entertainment — not education. You don’t learn to drive watching race car movies and you don’t learn how to navigate relationships watching reality television (hopefully),” says O’Reilly. “The same applies to porn. Enjoy it for what it is and accept any reaction you may have to it — from being put off to feeling neutral to being highly aroused. But don’t use it as a model for how you ought to have sex.”
“Not only do you not see all the prep they do beforehand off-camera (e.g. conversations about consent, STI testing, discussions of boundaries and preferences, prepping their bodies, warming up, connecting with their on-screen partners),” she adds, “but much of what they do on-camera is for the camera — not for their own pleasure.”
RELATED: Why Porn Is a Terrible Form of Sex Education
One thing that’s almost never explored in sex education is how desire functions in a real way. People often develop sexual proclivities for different things at quite young ages, and, looking back, adults are often able to trace their sexual kinks and fetishes to early erotic experiences.
It’s both useful and important to recognize early on that there’s no one way to be a sexual being, and that things that fall outside of what’s considered ‘mainstream’ or ‘vanilla’ sex aren’t anything to be ashamed of. If anything, they can connect you in meaningful ways to other people who feel aroused by the same or similar things.
“The thing I wish everyone understood about kink — whether that’s kinky sex or living a BDSM lifestyle — is that there is no standard about what it looks like or what you can do,” says Kayla Lords, kink educator and co-host of the Loving BDSM podcast. “Not everyone is into choking. Not everyone is into bondage. Not everyone wears latex or leather. The stereotype of kink does everyone a disservice.”
Instead, she says this: “The very first thing you should do in kink [is] start talking about it with your partner and learning what it is.”
RELATED: The 10 Most Popular Fetishes and Kinks
Information on anatomy, comfort, lube, and kink can be useful when it comes to masturbation. When it comes to engaging in sex acts with other people, however, you need to be able to talk to them about what’s happening between you.
“Unfortunately, telling people to just ‘communicate’ is not specific enough advice to be useful,” says Play. “We have to give people a framework and then have them practice until they demonstrate that they have the skills to effectively communicate.”
Part of good communication means dropping whatever scripts you may be holding onto and genuinely sharing and listening. That’s why O’Reilly advises you to forget gender roles when it comes to sex.
“They’re highly likely to limit pleasure, expression and connection,” she says. “Instead of doing what you think you ought to do based on gender, do what feels good for you. This might involve considering multiple aspects of sex — the emotional, physical, relational, spiritual and practical. When we allow gender stereotypes to guide us, we often miss out on pleasure and connection and we can do harm in the process.”
Being brave enough to be vulnerable, and sharing your authentic sexual self with someone can be scary, and it might not always lead to the acceptance you’re looking for. But if you never communicate your genuine desires to your sex partners, you might never get to experience the magic of genuine sexual connection.
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