Our March topic of “Sex Ed for Adults” was formerly “Sex Ed 2017” — the intention, both times, was to discuss how we learn about sex and relationships, what works, and what we would like to see more of. Through discussion, we realised that “education” feels limited to a time and place, but sex is learned about in many different ways… and so, this post is titled “Conversations About Sex.”
- How do conversations about sex impact us over time? (conversations with teachers, fellow students, family, friends, co-workers, partners, etc)
- Where would we like more discussion? (topics: how to communicate with partners, stigma around pleasure, sexual expression, gender identity, shame around desires, healthy porn usage, questioning relationship norms, role of marriage and children, love and sex, comfort with periods, infidelity and jealousy, having STDs, having dysfunction, sexualisation and desexualisation of certain groups or characteristics, objectification, consent, anatomy, safety, and more)
- What’s stopped us from having more candid, useful, intimate conversations about sex and related topics? Where are there opportunities for more?
- What would we like to see in sex education (for children or adults) going forward? How do we affect change?
- Good curriculums already exist — how do we get buy-in from education, government, and other organisations? What changes do these institutions want? What would individual people working in the institutions want to see? What about their customers or stakeholders (parents)?
- What does it mean to be sex-positive? Are we implying that others are sex-negative? Are we alienating others?
Below are some of our questions and takeaways from the discussion! Use them as a jumping off point to ask your own questions or have your own insights — take what is interesting or useful to you, and don’t worry about the rest.
KEY TAKEAWAYS — here’s what participants wanted to remember:
- To help normalise sex (to make discussing sex, sexuality, bodies, relationships, etc more like discussing food or sports), I can have more conversations about related topics where I might not have. It takes courage.
- I often self-censor because I judge that others will not be interested or comfortable with these conversations, for example, with friends or peers. But that judgment is unproductive — it means I don’t even try.
- There are opportunities for conversation everywhere — when there’s a joke, when I/someone share an article (science or popular culture), when we see films with relationships, when someone comments on self-expression, with press around gay marriage and human rights, etc. It is easy to ask a deeper question then.
- Perhaps people just don’t know how to have a candid conversation about sex… they may feel pressure to speak in a certain, politically-correct way (and feel too uninformed to speak up). They may think sex can only be discussed in a glamourised or sensationalised way. I might judge them for using the language they know, which may mostly be from porn or other media (and that’s what is easy for anyone to access).
- How do we have more understanding, empathetic, productive conversations with those who disagree with us? Ask more questions about their beliefs, experiences, values, impact. Focus on emotions (citing facts shuts everything down.) Be open to having my own mind being changed.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS — these are the reflections we started with. Feel free to use them to reflect!
- Share about your experience with school or early sex education. What impact has it had on you?
- What’s been changing now that it’s 2017? How should modern tech, trends, relationship models, ideologies etc impact “sex education” (broadly defined).
- What does “sex education” look like for you today? In other words, what have you learned about sex through media, peers, books, jokes, social behaviors, etc?
- What do conversations about sex — sexuality, desire, relationships, pleasure, etc — look like with your friends/coworkers/family/partners? (Pick whichever groups are relevant). What would you like more of in these conversations?
- What questions or ideas would you like to spend more time exploring? Why do you think that is?
Formal sex edu & social sex education experiences:
- I didn’t get much formal sex ed, but I think I turned out ok!
- Lots of focus on protection and the horror of STDs. “Pregnancy will ruin your life.”
- Asexuality is left out of most education — people feel they are supposed to want sex and if they don’t, that they are broken.
- Homosexuality is marginalised — perhaps the impact on those who are homosexual can be part of the teaching in the future. Guilt and shame, the pressure around coming out, shunned by family, violence and self-harm.
- Religious groups can play a big role in determine what is good/bad or valuable/not valuable, what is “kid-safe.”
- Sexual knowledge is “cool” or “rebellious” in school.
- Students learn from porn, so they may see sex as not about love, but rather, positions, stamina, being good in bed, a hierarchy of activities and capabilities.
- In Australia, boys are asking girlfriends to exchange blowjobs/oral sex for kisses and cuddling — sexual favors for romantic actions.
- Virginity as a girl seems highly valued, a “big deal” — having more sex was discouraged for making females “less valuable.” This message came from teachers, too.
What baggage do we carry when educating the next generation?
The impact of media & culture:
- “Friendzoned” is a popular term. It usually means that a male who is interested in a female is “only” considered a friend by that female. What does this imply about gender and relationships?
- Many pop culture magazines are about “sex tips” and “quality of sex life.” Sexiness is frequently used in advertising. Sex becomes something mostly associated with certain body types, a carrot on a stick (something to draw audiences in), something that we should all be “good at” without having to ask questions.
- Literature portraying “real sex” is mostly fantasy, highly romantic, refined and artful. Movies are often also either artful (romantic) or gruesome (rape to advance the plot). It can be hard to enjoy sex because it may look and feel different.
- It’s now much easier to find others of the same interests in relationships or kinks. There can be less shame and more information, more communication and community. However, sometimes people assume that everyone has similar preferences in sex — it is hard to tell how prevalent things really are.
- Moonlight won Best Picture of the Year at the Oscars — it’s about two troubled, gay black men. It was strange for me to see this on the big screen — and I realised how prejudiced I am by all the media I’ve seen.
The expectation to be more comfortable with sex:
- Sex is something people expect to be good at, knowledge about sex and sexuality are things people expect to know… I feel there’s an idea that if we have to learn it, then we’re missing something foundational. Maybe that’s why people who express that they want to know may be judged as perverted or desperate or strange?
- How do we create more curiosity? More willingness and desire to ask? (about anatomy of pleasure, dysfunction, communicating experiences etc)
- What skills do people need to be a good sex learner for the rest of their lives?
- We live in big, modern cities — we expect to be free and open but we aren’t. This makes me feel guilty. very few people work to actively learn about sex and relationships.
- Maybe we need to expand the definition of what “sex education” or “talking about sex” means — it is more than just anatomy and positions. It includes how we perceive people of other genders, express our desires, feel in our bodies, feel about our bodies, negotiate uncomfortable or uncertain situations, explore new areas and draw boundaries, allow for vulnerability and trust, judge others, have thrilling experiences without physical or emotional complication.
Moving from “education” to “conversation:”
- We are constantly learning about sex and related topics through how people talk about and to each other. What people choose to share, what we choose to hide.
- The jokes we make play to stereotypes and judgements… but they are also opportunities to start a conversation about where those stereotypes come from, and what happens when they don’t fit.
- What makes some aspects of relationships or sexuality or bodies ‘private’? For what reason do we keep them from coworkers, family, or friends? Do these boundaries tend to change across culture, generation, or community
- How do I have honest and vulnerable conversations while being respectful?
- I sometimes say “I’m sex-positive” but am I implying that someone else is sex-negative? Am I rejecting or offending them while trying to start a conversation?
- Maybe people don’t know how to talk about sex except by using the language from porn or movies — most often about winning and giving in, or positions and being a man/being a woman and (which sex acts are more risque and thus more desirable/valuable).
Grass-roots change through conversation:
- How do we have more of these conversations more often?
- Keep an eye out for others who are like-minded, who may express their openness or concern around sex and education in different ways.
- Keep channels of conversation open — for example, with siblings — inviting them to approach whenever interested.
- These conversations may feel more conversation with strangers or friends rather than partners for some — partner relationships may be more deep and intimate, but with more fear of rejection or risk (even if it is not true).
- There are many “safe” ways to allow for candid conversations, perhaps by commenting on a movie or an article, or to pretend it is a Q&A game show, or by sharing one’s own uncertainty or mild curiosity about something.
- I often just assume others are not interested in talking about sexuality or relationships and so I self-censor, but I could be completely wrong in my assumptions.
- Ancient Chinese and Indian cultures seemed to be very open with sexuality, or at least bodies, so what’s changed? Perhaps it is about using sexuality or expression as a form of control?
More understanding, empathetic, productive conversations with those who disagree:
- What has worked for you in the past?
- Asking questions about beliefs, experiences, values, impact — being curious, being open to completely different points of view.
- Just citing “facts” can shut people down, it rarely creates understanding. It may give the sense that the facts-citer just doesn’t respect you or value what you have to say, and they can only accept that they are right.
- I hear that you want to have open conversations but also that you want to convince other people that you are right… what is your intention?
- Give people time and space. Remember that conversations evolve and unfold over time.
- Maybe something I share from my experience will make them curious — maybe they’ll say something that makes me really think.
- Go in truly willing to have your mind or opinion changed.
Towards education or government change:
- There are already great sex education curriculums in other countries — it is not about creating more curriculums from scratch, but getting more trials or adoption from big institutions
- How does a conversation to support someone else look different from conversations where I am trying to persuade (ie in business)?
- I often ask questions to increase awareness about their needs, so they can draw their own conclusions, and sometimes they want to go in a direction I prefer
- What does the other party value? What results or changes would they like to see? How does what I am offering align to that?
- I feel impatient — I remind myself that change takes time, but I also don’t want to underestimate how quickly it can happen.
- Would schools listen to the demands of parents? What do a high percentage of parents want to see?
- Maybe change has to start from people already in the system, being courageous and doing things a different way, or changing the mind of someone who can affect greater change (personal versus professional approach)?