Sex education classes at school are usually basic at best, if the school offers them at all. Compared to several people I spoke to who went to strict Catholic schools, who were taught abstinence and abstinence only, the classes I was allowed access to were certainly not as bad as they could have been. It’s only as I’ve grown up that I’ve realised how much they didn’t cover. In my memory of them, sex ed. classes were embarrassing, uncomfortable hours spent in stuffy classrooms watching videos that talked logistics in cold, purely anatomical terms, all of us desperately trying not to make eye contact with one another. The gist was that penis enters vagina, ejaculation occurs, and baby is made. Or not, if you put the condom on the banana as shown. Neat. The entire purpose of sex, in any case, was the male orgasm. LGBTQ relationships were ignored. The idea that sex could be pleasurable, intimate and fun was also ignored. We didn’t touch on the realities of sex in real life, nor its function in relationships. We didn’t learn about consent. We didn’t learn what a clitoris was. The pleasure a woman might take from sex was not mentioned.
There’s a long history behind us of female sexual pleasure being erased. Freud’s theory of the development of female sexuality, the vague Electra Complex, is little more than a mirror of that of his theory of men’s sexual development and it leaves many questions unanswered. Novels and poetry through the ages that celebrate female sexual autonomy seem relatively few and far between; they were ground-breaking then, and often even now, for a reason. The female libertine is not a familiar figure. In our society today, everything is hyper-sexualised while, paradoxically, female sexuality itself is feared, shameful; even taboo. Without proper sex ed. classes, children turn to other means to learn about sexuality.
We learnt that it both serves a biological function, as the videos explained, but is also a pleasurable end in itself. But whose pleasure is emphasised? I’ve spoken to a great number of women whose experiences suggest that there’s a tendency to see sex as geared towards male pleasure, fulfilment and enjoyment. In this thinking, the aim of penetrative sex seems to be entirely the man’s pleasure, culminating in his orgasm, while other acts are often reduced to foreplay, the precursor before the main act, and not as valuable in themselves. The implications this has for sex in LGBTQ relationships are deeply uncomfortable at best. The sex education classes we were given taught us nothing about porn and the fact that most porn videos are usually fantasies enacted out; purposefully unrealistic. Many young people learn about sex through porn and, because the vast majority of porn users are men, it is an industry that is largely geared towards men which thus generally emphasises the importance of male pleasure. From this, young, cisgender, heterosexual men might feel more encouraged to be comfortable with their bodies than women, in taking control of and demanding their own pleasure, perhaps even to believe that the aim of sex is their own ends, that a woman’s pleasure, if it factors at all, is the pleasant cherry on top. But the cake is just fine without.
This isn’t to say that all men are selfish, uncaring and supremely confident in themselves; of course, these things are not true for many men. But in general, women simply are not taught to be as comfortable with their bodies as cis, straight men are, or to view their relationship to sex in the same way. Hence why in school, if a girl admitted to masturbating, they’d be met with discomfort at best, treated like something of a pariah at worst, whereas masturbation was a normal pre-lesson conversation topic for most of the boys, it seemed. If we are not encouraged to understand our own bodies and pleasure, how on earth are we supposed to guide others to do so?
My teenage years were spent being told by boys that giving head to a woman was too distasteful and disgusting to bear thinking about. But blowjob jokes abounded. The end goal, I thoroughly believed, was the man’s pleasure – and that was the function of sex. What did I want? I wanted what he wanted, because that was the aim, right? What did I get out of it? Very little, in retrospect. On a feminist forum, Freya Judd, a student at Oxford, claimed that when describing a sexual encounter to one of her friends, she initially wrote ‘we finished, had a fag, he got the bus home,’ before rewriting it to say ‘he finished, we had a fag, he got the bus home. I didn’t finish, I didn’t even get close to starting.’ For me, this says it all. A shift in focus onto mutual pleasure seems needed, but is rarely as easy as it sounds; girls I have spoken to report, in attempting to do this, feeling a predominate sense of guilt, quite simply because they’ve been told that their own pleasure shouldn’t share the stage, let alone take front and centre. And when mags like Cosmo offer us ‘twenty ways to please your man’, it’s not difficult to see why. Of course, there’s porn that emphasises female pleasure, but the vast majority of that is also geared towards cis, het men. Lesbianism is often fetishized to arouse male desire. If a woman admits to being bisexual, and I speak here from experience, often the response from straight, cis men is how this benefits them and aids their own pleasure (threesome, anyone?).
This isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of men who do genuinely care about their partner’s enjoyment, or that all men encourage this sense of guilt. But a general shift in thinking seems needed. Sexual experiences should have value in themselves, rather than being seen as a precursor to the ‘main act’. Talking and listening with a partner about what they enjoy should be encouraged. Making a woman orgasm should not be seen solely as proof of sexual skill or a show of masculinity and not as a valuable thing in itself. Making a man orgasm should not be the sole, sacrosanct function of sex. A continuing focus on this being the end to which both parties should be working towards implicates a sense that the woman in question should feel ashamed or disappointed with herself if she ‘fails’ to make a man reach this point. Quite simply; a person shouldn’t be treated as a replacement hand. And if sex ed. classes talked more honestly and more openly about sex rather than prudishly cowering purely behind the science of it, that would certainly be a start.