CW: Mentions of sexual experiences and stigmatisation
(Artwork Credit: Ailsa Schreurs)
Sex positivity is a fairly new term for me. For me, it encompasses the belief that Sex is a normal and healthy part of life that cannot be categorised as a universal experience. Growing up and attending an all-girls high school, sex was rarely talked about. In our three weeks of sex education lessons when I was 13, we were taught extensively about human anatomy, contraception, and how babies are made. We even had to watch videos of live-birth, documentaries on the different stages of pregnancy and TV episodes about the struggles of teen mums. It felt that what I was being taught was aiming to scare me into celibacy rather than educate me about positive sexual relationships.
When I was 15, I started to watch more teen romance movies and TV shows, a favourite of mine at the time being Gossip Girl. This was one of the first times I was exposed to the concept of Sex outside of a school context. My friends and I would all go home after school, watch a few episodes of GG, and spend our breaks the next day talking about what had happened in the episodes we’d watched. The way that sex and sexual relationships was depicted in teen romances such as in GG was completely different to anything I had been taught in school. I remember when my favourite character Blair had her first sexual experience with someone she loved - dressed in sexy lingerie, the lights dimmed and smooth music playing in the background. For the first time, it seemed that Sex could be a positive, pleasurable experience.
By the time I was almost 17, my friends and I began to fantasise about what Sex would be like. Would it be in a fancy hotel room lit by candlelight with rose petals sprinkled onto the bedsheets? Or maybe on a warm, tropical beach somewhere with a sexy Spanish stranger I’d met at a bar? The reality was, much to my disappointment, a lot less glamourous. After my first sexual encounter, I remember distinctly feeling as if all of the movies and shows had lied. Sex was neither romantic nor pleasurable. If anything, I think my teenage self would have described the experience as ‘underwhelming, disappointing and stupidly painful’.
Now at university and going on 22, I can safely say that my perception of sex has changed and evolved with time, experience and more open discussion with friends. However, I can’t help but feel that my high-school education surrounding sexual relationships, and the media I’d been exposed to growing up, failed to prepare me for what my first, and consequent, sexual experiences would be like. Scaring young teenagers into believing that sex is a traumatising, taboo experience that will ruin your life is not a positive way to speak about sex. Similarly, glamourising the experience can be just as harmful, especially in the way that young people think about themselves. Just because a sexual experience wasn’t magical and life-changing doesn’t mean that something is wrong with you.
The best way to educate young people about sex is to normalise open discussions about sex and consent in diverse relationships, to remove the stigmatisation surrounding these topics. What we learn in school should be a reflection of the greater world around us. Until we begin to talk about sex positivity in the context of sexual relationships within an educational setting, we are not preparing and supporting young people to navigate sexual experiences safely without stigma and shame. I like to think that if I had been taught about sex positivity throughout my teenage years, I would have felt more comfortable to seek advice about sex and contraception when I needed it, and more informed when making sexual decisions. Young people do not have to experience the confusion, stigmatisation and consequent trauma that I did growing up.
Changing the way that we talk about sex is the first step we must take to create a world where diverse sexual experiences are normalised and accepted. It is my belief and hope that by encouraging cultural shifts such as these, we can make a positive difference in the way young people experience the world.
By Carla Bennett