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Sadly, This Deficiency Is The Norm

February 22, 2010

Froth posted this to the Feministe weekly self-promotion thread. She says she’s writing because this is typical, and I agree. Here’s her experience with sex ed:

Nobody told me I had a clitoris.

Nobody told me I was capable of having orgasms.

For five years I was given “sex education”. It mostly consisted of periods and condoms. It didn’t talk about consent. It didn’t talk about the actual mechanics of sex, about arousal and lubrication and oscillation. It didn’t tell me a single thing about relationships and it didn’t tell me I had a clitoris.

I only know now because of the internet. Nobody entrusted with my care and education has ever told me that the female orgasm exists, or about the parts of my anatomy necessary for it.

I didn’t find my clitoris until I was eighteen, after six years of active sexuality.

When I was in high school, it was the late 1980s, when het America woke up to the AIDS epidemic, and parents were scared enough in some parts of the country to want someone (NOT THEM, but someone) to tell kids how not to get a terminal STI. What did we get?

what all the STIs were and how they were transmitted, what infection rates looked like, all the birth control and STI-prevention methods, what they would do and how effectively. We even got that video with Rae Dawn Chong explaining anal sex, telling us that the anus was tighter and drier and required external lube as well as a condom. Wow! (It helped that, at 16, I thought Rae Dawn Chong was really hot.)

I can imagine a better program, of course. In fact, I did. I told you (in the way only self-righteous sixteen year olds can) how to make the program better. There are better programs at many universities. But what I didn’t understand at sixteen was that the education we got was as good a public school program as we could find then, better than anything the generation before got, and as I am reminded almost daily by younger readers on Feministing, almost immesurably better than what the kids get now that the religious conservatives have had a generation to pressure the schools.

Because it came with a heavy dose of pro-abstinence value teaching, I got all anti-authoritarian about it. I got more about sexuality as part of the whole person than what Froth describes; the part I took issue with was the communication of values that at the time I recognized as having a bias that I didn’t agree with. We did talk about orgasm and the clitoris, and we did talk about sex as part of relationships, though it wasn’t the kind of comprehensive treatment one might wish for it wasn’t entirely omitted either. I didn’t appreciate at the time that it was about the best that public school kids got, and it hasn’t been that good again in most of the US.

Part of the problem is squeamishness, and part of that is the schools. There is a loud minority of people who either really believe that teaching teens how to have healthy sexual relationships is an inducement to sin; or who want disease and death to be the inescapable consequences of fornication. They are just waiting for school administrators to let teens hear something that might win them allies among the rest of the public. Schools that have not bought the abstinence-only snake oil instead hew closely to a disease-and pregnancy prevention model, because it is most easily defended in the political arena, though it is far from all that our teens need.

Part of the problem is parents’ squeamishness and reticence. I’m not talking about the socially conservative parents who really want their kids to enter marriage totally ignorant. There is no point in seeking common ground with them. I’m talking about my friends and neighbors, my well-meaning peers.

Delilah Night is an erotica writer and pens a column for Carnal Nation, and yet when her toddler daughter masturbated during diaper changes, she went weak-kneed. She tells the story of a discussion in her mom group:

“Speaking of diaper issues,” I began. “So, I know it’s usually in the 2-3 year range, but…um…when I’m changing her diaper? Her hands? She likes to explore down there?”

Down there? Had I seriously just used the phrase “down there?” I have ranted on the subject of how much I loathe that particular phrase to friends and my partner at length and on multiple occasions. What is it about being surrounded by those who most likely do not share my values that made me fall into pathetic phrasing like “down there” as opposed to vulva, clitoris, or even vagina?

I also do not usually speak in the interrogative, choosing instead to leave that for the tweenagers I used to teach.

My cheeks burning, I glanced around at the other moms in the circle. The moms of other little girls seemed to take great interest in adjusting the barrette in their daughter’s hair, or in a spot of dirt on the opposite wall.

The moms of the little boys were unified in their approach of choice; misdirection.

“Keep a toy or a spare keychain handy,” one mom said with a knowing tone in her voice.

“We use a squeaky toy,” said another.

They nodded. Misdirection. It was the solution. Period.

“Okay! Time to play with the sand table!!!” the group leader, another mom of daughters who’d stayed silent, chirped.

The moment was over; the subject changed before I could really engage them in it.

I found it particularly interesting that in a group that is pretty evenly divided in terms of number of children of either sex, only the boys moms were speaking up. I was curious if that’s because it’s more socially accepted that a son would play with his penis as opposed to a girl playing with her clitoris, or if it was just this particular group of moms? Unfortunately, among my close friends who have children, I am surrounded by parents of boys, so they could not add much to the conversation.

But based upon my experiences in person, in our playgroup and online, only moms of boys are talking about this. But I’m under no illusions that my daughter is in a minority of girls who explore their genitals… only that she has a mother who is in a minority of moms willing to talk about it.

Apparently I’m not the only one who has been discomforted by this.

[Emphasis supplied.]

She reminded me of my own friends who struggled with what to name their daughter’s genitals, and blanched at “vulva”, which is the correct name.

To be blunt, I get annoyed at this. I have to remind myself that the cultural learning that makes sexuality education and even the acknowledgement of childrens’ genitals so fraught is long-standing and powerful. These really are well-meaning folks, and their fears of being judged are not unfounded.

Finally, though, I think squeamishness is only part of the problem. The other aspect, as I see it, is that sexuality education is too often seen as a piecemeal solution to specific informational deficits. The problems are STIs, unplanned pregnancy, ignorance of reproductive biology, etc. The solutions are to address those subjects narrowly. That’s the wrong way to go about it.

Our sexuality is part of our personhood. Each of us has a sexuality, whatever form it takes (including asexuality). We start as children, but we end up as adults. In between, we go through a maturation process. We don’t go to sleep as children one morning and wake up fully realized sexual adults the next.

We also go through a physical maturation process. We don’t go to bed in the bodies of third graders and wake up in our adult bodies. We grow into ourselves in fits and starts, we have our uncoordinated and awkward phases as we transform. (And we never fully stop transforming; our bodies at 25 are not our bodies at 45 or 65.) Our sexuality, physical and mental and emotional, develops. We gain our understanding a bit at a time.

The purpose of sexuality education is to connect the child to the adult over time, and to participate in that transformation: by imparting information, and by instilling values.

If we want our children to value consent, we should participate in teaching that. If we want our children to understand their bodies, we should participate in teaching that. If we want our children to have a model for good decision making around sex, we should participate in giving them that. The key, in my view, is not to think in discreet pieces, but to picture the adults we would like our children to be, and to try our best to set them on the course to get there. Isn’t that how we teach everything else? Or, at least, how we should?

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2010 3:42 pm

    I remember when I was fifteen and asked my mom what orgasms were.

    Mom: It’s when people feel very good during sex.

    Me: What do you mean?

    Mom: Jeez, I’m not going to tell you how!

    -end of conversation]

    I knew what blowjobs were, but not cunnilingus. I knew about about pleasing a man but didn’t have a clue as to how I would want to be pleased. I knew that No meant No and that that was all I was allowed to say in response to the prospect of sex anyway.

  2. Mar permalink
    February 22, 2010 8:02 pm

    And even with their narrow focus on STI infection, they still do a rather poor job of teaching about STI infection and prevention. I remember having to educate a friend in high school about oral sex being a transmission vector, and me and another friend had to explain to her that condoms had to be put on an erect, not flaccid, penis.

    While some small portion of my sex education arises from school (and I actually got a better edu than most, since I took an IB Biology class that taught reproduction in detail), almost all of my knowledge comes from a combination of word of mouth, internet research, and erotic fiction, and that’s true for just about everyone I know. It’s great that the resources are out there, but it’s far from an ideal situation and can lead to some big problems.

    The most troubling part is that parents and schools don’t realize they need to discuss sex and sexuality with kids as early as they do. My first sexual experiences occurred when I was 9, and I wasn’t alone amongst my peers. I know the notion of kids + sex terrifies parents as much as the notion of parents + sex terrifies kids, but the discussion has to be opened or severe consequences shall result – and are resulting already (teen pregnancy rates, rape rates, problems in the sexual culture…)

    And since I’ve yammered on as long as I have, I might as well bring up one thing – even if a person were to abstain from sex until marriage, sex education is still essential. Married people still need to know about birth control, disease transmission (because the chances of marrying an untouched virgin are slim at best), and how to have sex in the first place. (A friend’s relative was a virgin man who married a virgin woman, and he had to call his father for help because no one had informed either of them about the need for lubrication.)

    Additionally, if the goal is to prevent PIV, knowledge about alternative methods of sexual activity help that.

  3. phrodeaux permalink
    February 23, 2010 1:45 am

    I love your blog but I don’t read it as often as I’d like. Tonight I realized that one of the major things that keeps me away is the grey text on the black background. It’s just hard to read!

    I realized this especially when, tonight, I copied and pasted the column into a word document where it was simple black on white. Wow.

    This is just MHO of course. Still, I am wondering how many others may stay away for the same reason?

  4. sushi permalink
    February 23, 2010 10:18 am

    As a parent I don’t really think it’s necessary or desirable for my daughter to be taught about her clitoris in school (although she already has been). If she ended up not knowing she has one at eighteen, that’s a failing on my part, not the public school system. I mean what else should they teach? How to attempt G-spot stimulation? How to milk the prostate? Perhaps the Kama Sutra should be given out as a textbook?
    Basic body mechanics and disease and pregnancy protection should suffice and anything else should be left for people to discover (as people have managed to do since forever) on their own, through peers, or through parent education if the parent so chooses.
    I know personally that although I talk to my daughter a lot about sex and pregnancy and disease and what healthy and unhealthy sexual circumstances are, I have no intention of having a conversation with her about how to best get off.

    • February 23, 2010 11:51 am

      “anything else should be left for people to discover (as people have managed to do since forever) on their own, through peers, or through parent education if the parent so chooses.”

      I dispute that people have learned on their own, in any way that we want to continue. I think the history of people learning about sex has been one of misinformation, ignorance, secrecy and shame, much to women’s disadvantage.

      If women are going to be willing to even explore their own bodies to figure out how to get off for themselves, they have to be comfortable enough with their genitals to do so. For so many women, we’re not there. In the passage I quoted – from an erotica writer and sex columnist, mind you – she’s embarassed by her daughter masturbating and can’t talk about it to other moms. And the mothers of boys are actively discouraging them from touching their own penises by distracting them. Actively discouraging exploration of their own bodies.

      The parade of horribles argument is almost always part of a false dichotomy, and your is, too. You say, “Basic body mechanics and disease and pregnancy protection should suffice”, and you posit the opposite pole as using the Kama Sutra as a textbook. That’s a false choice. There are a lot of alternatives that are neither of those things. In fact, you say, your daughter already knows what her clitoris is. So does mine. There, we have an option that’s neither ignorance nor handing out sex manuals to teens.

      Parents have to do a lot of the job, because getting to a place where schools could do even as much as mine did twenty years ago is a long way off. More parents send their kids to extracurricular programs; the Unitarian OWL program generally gets rave reviews. But I’d rather start from the position that the schools ought to teach kids most of what they need to know, because IME one does not get very far by starting from the compromise position.

    • February 24, 2010 6:58 pm

      I think your assertion that your daughter shouldn’t automatically be taught about her clitoris as part of any sex Ed is unintentionally sexist. Absolutely everyone knows that boys/men orgasm, and they know that because that’s a rpetty unavoidable end result f PIV sex. It’s not fucking fair at all to let girls think that they can’t orgasm too just since it’s not relevant (ie pregnancy or disease-inducing) enough to you.

      Because, I promise you, those girls whose parents fail them by not telling them they have a clitoris and what that clitoris can do — those girls will still learn early on about how great cocks can feel. And they will think that’s wholly what sex is — making men feel good.

      • March 1, 2010 2:09 am

        “those girls will still learn early on about how great cocks can feel.”

        Yes. I had at least two friends in high school who’d had penis-in-vagina sex and were totally turned on by it, but had no idea how to climax–so they assumed that they just needed to be penetrated faster or harder or for a longer time.

        So when you don’t teach a girl how to get off, a) SEX becomes the be-all and end-all and she may well sleep with her bf in search of pleasure when she could have opted for a hand job or toys instead, and b) the girl expects her partner to be entirely responsible for her pleasure–which is a lot of pressure to put on anyone.

        Nobody’s saying the schools need to teach kids every single possible way to get off, with detailed instructions. But for fuck’s sake they should at least teach kids that female orgasms EXIST.

    • jennygadget permalink
      March 19, 2010 6:58 pm

      I consider the fact that I have a clitoris and can have orgasms to be basic body mechanics. I also consider this knowledge to be something that every adult who is able to vote on laws* pertaining to abortion, adoption, physical health, mental health, rape, sexual assault, prostitution, exotic dancing, and other types of sex work (to name just a few) should be aware of.

      *or, the legislators that write laws, as the case may be.

  5. February 23, 2010 7:00 pm

    I really liked reading your post!. Quallity content.
    thanks for sharing

  6. Passerby permalink
    February 26, 2010 3:08 am

    I know a lot of people would object to this, but it would be nice if kids were taught that not everyone is heterosexual, not everyone wants PIV sex, and PIV sex is not the “be and end all” form of sex. And consent is a biggie, as well. So many girls think they MUST have sex because they aren’t allowed to say no; I find that despicable.

    @sushi
    You say kids shouldn’t be taught all that, I ask, who’s going to teach them then? Yes, you have taught your daughter what/where her clitoris is, but understand that most parents simply refuse to do so. And who loses? The child.

    Also, Thomas, I really wish there were more men like you; more power to you :)

  7. Ms. permalink
    March 1, 2010 4:45 am

    In 6th grade we had to take a crash course. Oral sex was mentioned once in a tone of disgust. Afterward I still had no clue as to what sex was, though the part that bothers me is that during a critical point in my physical development they wouldn’t explain what was going on. I panicked when I got my first period.

    We had our first ‘comprehensive’ sex ed when I was about 17, several years too late.

  8. Desi Yoni permalink
    March 2, 2010 6:48 pm

    “The most troubling part is that parents and schools don’t realize they need to discuss sex and sexuality with kids as early as they do. My first sexual experiences occurred when I was 9″

    Mar, do you think you would not have had sex that young if you had gotten sex education in school?

    As far as finding out about your clitorous and what makes you feel “good”… kids discover for themselves. I mean, HELLO, the blog is about a Mom who’s 2 year old is touching herself “down there” right???

    Human beings INTUITIVELY know from babyhood what feels good and what doesn’t.

    Nobody taught me about my clitorous and I discovered it soon enough, as a kid.

    Duh.

    This is a no-brainer.

    • March 3, 2010 10:41 pm

      Yeah, I had my first orgasm when I was like 8 or something and I don’t understand how anyone couldn’t figure out how. But some people honestly don’t.

      I had at least two friends in high school who were sexually active but had never had an orgasm. They said they tried but it didn’t go anywhere (I was too embarrassed to ask what they meant by “tried”–if they knew where the clit is, or if they thought penetration was the key, or what. One of these friends did tell me “When I meet the perfect guy, I figure it’ll just happen” which puts all responsibility for her pleasure in the hands of some dumbass teenaged boy and confuses the concepts of sex and love in a really dangerous way). I have a friend now who’s in her 30s and has never had an orgasm.

      So, apparently not all women get a distinct tingly feeling in their clitoris when they’re turned on that instinctively leads them to touch there. Also, we live in a culture that kind of ignores the clitoral aspect of female pleasure (how many scenes can you think of from television or movies where a woman gets a hand job or oral sex from a man? Usually women are portrayed as magically having orgasms from penetration, even though if I’m not mistaken the Hite Report states that only 30% of women are actually capable of vaginal orgasms). And it’s not like our genitals hang out like a guy’s do–we don’t hold our clits to pee and we don’t get erections that tip our clits upward to stare us in the face. Add in a couple of parents who tell us (tacitly or not) that our genitals are dirty and forbidden, and you end up with a conundrum.

      We need to give girls a space where their bodily functions are described and explained in a totally matter-of-fact, shame-free way. We need to undo what parents, the media, etc. have done to girls.

  9. DESI YONI permalink
    March 4, 2010 6:53 pm

    ” We need to undo what parents, the media, etc. have done to girls.”

    Who is the “we” you are referring to here?

    • March 5, 2010 11:05 pm

      Well, everyone. Those of us who AREN’T repressed/womanhating/etc. should campaign to get proper sex education in schools so kids have at least one place where they’re not made to feel like their genitals are taboo or mysterious.

  10. DESI YONI permalink
    March 6, 2010 1:57 am

    I’m not so sure I want “everyone” to be responsible for the sex education of my children. That’s my job as a Mom, afterall. Not your’s nor the goverment’s. Certainly not the government’s!

  11. Mimzy permalink
    March 15, 2010 4:03 pm

    I apologize in advance for the rambling, but this article brings up a lot of issued that are close to me, and I’m not sure how to address them all concisely or logically.

    As an educator, I couldn’t agree with you more. Sex ed is woefully lacking and (IMO) students are not introduced to their bodies at an early enough age. I teach Language Arts, which is a combination of reading and writing skills. Largely because of my age, I think (I’m young, for a teacher), and because I’m a woman, my female students ask me all sorts of questions relating to their sexuality and sometimes sex in general. My students are sixth graders, which puts them between the ages of 11-13. My usual answer is “ask your parents”, but in most instances, the student says that she has, and Mom/Dad/Grandma/Guardian-of-Choice won’t tell her. Every now and again I even get a “well, I looked it up on google…”

    I shudder at the thought of young women learning about sex not from their parent or guardian, but from the internet! Surely I’m a better source than 4chan? And yet I could lose my job for answering any question a student asks me which is not related to the curriculum directly. Ethically, this practice seems questionable to me. As we are there to teach, shouldn’t we make use of opportunities to help young women learn about themselves? But if a parent were to call my administration to complain, it could jeopardize my career for the rest of my life. We can’t even hug our students anymore, or hold them when they cry, or place a reassuring hand upon a shoulder… because it might be construed as “inappropriate contact”. It’s a double-edged sword, pointed right at educators.

    Now a story, which I feels illustrates the need for early and comprehensive sex ed in the public schools:

    I have a student, we’ll call her V. V arrived in my third hour class to find a note on her desk, written and drawn by two boys, C and D, who are in the class before hers. The image was… grotesque. In big block letters it said “FLAT V” and there was a picture of a naked girl with an arrow pointed toward where the breasts should have been. The text for the arrow read “Not A Damn Thing!”

    C and D had been harassing this poor girl for some time now. It was the note that forced V to confess what was going on. She spent the class period in the counselor’s office (as did C and D*) and when she returned she asked to stay for lunch.

    I allowed her to stay, since she was feeling (understandably) victimized and antisocial.

    The questions V asked me over the lunch hour shocked me. V was worried that she might never grow breasts…she didn’t know what it meant to be “like the 8th grade girls”…she wanted the 7th and 8th grade boys to like her but didn’t know what “easy” was, and that’s what they wanted…she said that some of the girls called her a slut and she didn’t know how having lots a guys like you was a bad thing. “Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen? It’s not like we date, we just hang out. Aren’t boys supposed to like girls? Why does that make me a slut?”

    I assured her she would grow up, just like all the other girls, and gave her the basic “when your body starts to change” talk. I told her that the boys who like to tease will always find something to tease her about. I told her a little story about my 6th grade year, and being teased because I was more ‘grown up’ in that area than the other girls. I told her that when she was in 8th grade, she would be like the 8th grade girls, and for now to enjoy being a 6th grade girl with lots of friends (V is a rather popular little thing). I explained that “easy” meant that a woman shared her body without restraint, and that when you’re 11, it’s OK not to be easy. I also reassured her that having male friends is OK, and it doesn’t make her a slut. And I said that if she ever had questions again, she was free to come to me with them, and if I didn’t know the answer, I would let her either speak to a counselor or help her find it.

    I was blown away by the fact that a girl of 11 didn’t know when she would start growing breasts, start becoming a young woman. Most of what I explained to her about “growing up” she hadn’t known. She didn’t know that puberty was a gradual change. She sort of knew it happened, but didn’t know the how or why or when of it.

    I called her father that afternoon to let him know that we’d had a conversations about “growing up”. By now he was aware of what the boys were saying. “Growing up?” he says. “Yes, sir.” I reply, “You know… girl things. V had a lot of questions.” Silence on the phone. Then, “Oh. Well, better you than me, I guess!” He laughs with relief. I can sympathize with this man, I really can. He’s a single army dad. He doesn’t want to deal with the “girl stuff”. And yet I can’t help but wonder if he was raising a son instead of a daughter, would his child be so ignorant of the body’s changes?

    Who is going to teach girls like V about… themselves? Her’s is only one story, I could probably list 10, maybe 15. I think that’s too many. It is, quite simply, unfair to the students and to the teachers they look up to for sex ed to remain on the fringes of public education. It is as necessary and vital a course as the literacy classes I teach.

    *Incidentally, C and D earned in-school suspension for their antics (although I think the punishment was not nearly harsh enough…), and the 6th grade dean of students had each boy call his mother and inform her of what they had been doing, which I find to be the perfect justice for such a situation.

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