fbpx What Your Sex Ed Class Got Wrong About Female Pleasure

What Your Sex Ed Class Got Wrong About Female Pleasure

Spoiler alert: Orgasms don't just feel great, they're healthy for you, too.
Britany Robinson
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Britany Robinson

In a previous article in this monthlong series about sex education, we talked about how many young women are never taught all there is to know about the vulva and vagina, and why those terms are not interchangeable. In glossing over the complexities of basic female anatomy, many sex ed classes ignore important parts of the body and neglect to mention what's arguably the highlight of sex: Pleasure!

We learn where babies come from and we learn about the alleged horrors of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Who can forget the parodied version of sex ed in the film "Mean Girls" when Coach Carr tells students, "If you have sex you will get pregnant—and die!"?

But how many of us were taught in school that sex can be fun, enlightening, empowering, loving, mind-expanding and orgasmic? Not many, it seems. Especially not women.

Guidance on sex education established by UNESCO, a United Nations organization, includes the recommendation to "describe ways that human beings feel pleasure from physical contact (e.g., kissing, touching, caressing, sexual contact) throughout their life." Yet most U.S. schools leave pleasure out of the conversation completely, even though studies show that covering pleasure in sex education increases the rates of safer sex.

Planned Parenthood defines "pleasure-based" or "sex-positive" sex education as that which focuses on consent and pleasure. "Instead of scaring students away from sexual activity with shame and exaggerated statistics, sex-positive sex education arms students with knowledge on how to have a healthy, safe and fun sex life," the organization's education team stated.

On top of traditional sex education failing to address how sex and relationships can and should feel good, the heterosexual framing of sex education focuses on sex that is more pleasurable for men. Since a penis penetrating a vagina is what poses the risk of pregnancy—and reducing teen pregnancy is a big focus of sex education—girls are often never given information about the type of touch and sex that could be most pleasurable for them.

So let's do our younger selves a favor and discover all we didn't learn about pleasure during sex! There's a lot to cover.

Sex isn't just about the male orgasm

When sex education focuses on risk prevention rather than pleasure and sex positivity, orgasms are definitely not a focus. Yet the male orgasm isn't left out completely, because male ejaculation is what might lead to pregnancy, and that's to be avoided. So without even talking about pleasure, the male orgasm gets center stage.

This focus on the type of sex that leads to male orgasm can be misleading and confusing, especially for young women.

"Because we conflate intercourse with sex, a lot of people are disappointed or confused when they do finally have intercourse and find that it's maybe not as pleasurable as masturbation or receiving oral sex," said Kate Sloan, a sex educator in Toronto and author of "200 Words to Help You Talk About Sexuality and Gender."

The focus on the vagina rather than the vulva, which includes the clitoris, means young girls often don't learn about how the clitoris is the part of their body that's most sensitive to stimulation.

"I'd always intuitively known the importance of clitoral stimulation," said Isabelle Uren, a sex expert based in Denmark and writer at BedBible, a source for sex information. "But it was only as an adult that I discovered most women don't orgasm from penetration alone. Had I known this earlier, I would have felt more confident in asking for what I needed."

Orgasms are good for you!

"An orgasm a day keeps the doctor away," said Gigi Engle, a certified sex educator and author in London.

Stress can have a serious impact on our health, and orgasms have the power to release some of that tension.

"During these uncertain times, our stress levels are extremely high," Engle explained. "And orgasms have a positive impact on stress."

She said even a self-induced orgasm can have a noticeable benefit on our cardiovascular system. These benefits come from the release of oxytocin, which can also provide natural pain relief and anxiety reduction.

"Even nonorgasmic pleasure can boost our health," Engle stated. "During foreplay and sexual excitement, your brain naturally releases the chemical serotonin, which helps to increase sexual satisfaction and regulate mood."

Sex ed taught us that male ejaculation during intercourse may lead to babies. But it definitely didn't teach us that orgasms can be healthy for both males and females. The missing link here seems to be a discussion of safer sex from both physical and emotional standpoints. Condoms protect us from STDs, but healthy sex also requires communication—and for all parties involved to be enjoying themselves.

Engle said she didn't learn about the importance of communication for healthy sex and relationships until many years after taking a sex ed class in school.

"Being able to talk about sex with a partner is foundational to having a satisfying sex life," Engle said. "We are taught not to talk about sex and that makes it so much more difficult to talk openly and honestly about it, even with a partner."

Women can experience multiple types of orgasms

Most popular television shows and movies would have us believe that women experience orgasms primarily from penetrative sex with men. The variety of sex depicted in popular culture has certainly expanded over the years, but we still have some work to do to embrace the full scope and potential of female pleasure. Comprehensive, sex-positive educators argue that education on orgasms can start in the classroom.

Jimanekia Eborn, M.S., a comprehensive, trauma-informed sex educator in Los Angeles, said it's important for everyone to know there are many ways to experience orgasms.

"There are clitoral orgasms, there are orgasms from vaginal penetration. You can have an orgasm from anal sex. There's also the multi-orgasm from doing multiple things at once," Eborn said.

Since everyone experiences pleasure differently, and discovers it differently, it's important for girls to understand that what they see on TV or what they hear from their friends might not work for them. As we get older and more comfortable with exploring the options, we often discover exciting new facets of pleasure.

"There's an area above the mons pubis, between the lower belly and the mons pubis, that I refer to as my external G-spot," Sloan said. "When I press there, it feels like it's stimulating my G-spot on the other side."

A lack of education on the variety of pleasure that's possible during sex can be a serious disservice to women, and it's clearly having ramifications throughout their sex lives. Only 18 percent of women can orgasm through vaginal sex alone. While 95 percent of heterosexual men usually or always achieve orgasm during partnered sex, only 65 percent of heterosexual women get there.

Masturbation is a healthy way to experience pleasure

The average age at which most young people discover their genitals and the experience of sexual pleasure is 6. By 15, nearly 100 percent of males and 25 percent of females have masturbated to the point of orgasm. Sexual pleasure is natural and healthy, and it doesn't require intercourse or another person to be achieved.

On its website, Tufts Medical Center in Boston assures parents there is nothing to be worried about when kids discover self-pleasure: "It does not mean your child will be oversexed, promiscuous or sexually deviant. Only if adults overreact to a child's masturbation and make it seem dirty or wicked will it cause emotional harm, such as guilt and sexual hangups."

"It's really hard to keep kids in the dark these days," said Andrea Barrica, the San Francisco-based founder and CEO of O.school, a sexual wellness education platform. She cites exposure to porn and social media as pervasive and unavoidable. But if young children aren't taught that it's natural and healthy to explore their body, they are more inclined to feel ashamed about it.

"I think that [lack of education] is more dangerous than giving them frank information on how this is what happens to your body and this might be pleasurable and there's nothing to be ashamed of if they're exploring their bodies and getting to know how it works," Barrica said.

Masturbation played a key role in helping Uren discover sexual pleasure.

"Solo play has been a great way to explore what I like and figure out what I don't like, without the pressure of having another person there," she said.

Embracing masturbation can lead to healthier sex lives as adults, too. But women are less likely to masturbate as adults than men. According to the National Health and Social Life Survey, just 39 percent of women ages 18 to 30 reported masturbating in the past year, compared to 61 percent of men. Even if these self-reports aren't always honest, they likely reflect a greater degree of shame around masturbation for women.

Sex-positive education does not lead to more sex—just better sex

"The data is showing that the more knowledge the better when it comes to preventing STIs and teen pregnancy," Barrica said. Alternative resources for that knowledge, including online schools such as O.school, are becoming more common and more accessible.

Eborn visits colleges and universities with her lectures, and back when she was teaching younger children, she saw a lot of fear around sex from parents. A common argument against the type of education Eborn and Barrica emphasize is that teaching kids how great sex can be will encourage them to have sex earlier, which will lead to more teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. But that just hasn't proved to be the case.

Resistance also comes from parents' own lack of sex education.

"They're scared because they don't understand, because they never had the education themselves," Eborn said, adding that parents are worried their kids will come home with questions they can't answer. "So a lot of them asked if they could sit in on the class, too."

With increasing access to quality sex education resources, from platforms like O.school and sex-positive educators like Eborn, more and more young women (and kids of all genders and ages) are discovering healthy, positive information about sex. Unfortunately, we're still waiting on more schools to catch up.

"I think pleasure is power," Eborn said. "Knowing that you are allowed to feel good, I think takes away from any shame."