For many of us growing up, sexual education was pretty abysmal — especially if you went to school in the U.S.
If you went to school in the United States, it’s likely you were taught how to say no to sex. Perhaps you gained a cursory knowledge of the pubescent body, but often little else. According to one study, a whopping 82 percent of American teen girls aged 15 to 19 were taught how to turn down sex.
And while the teen pregnancy rate was at a record low in 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still reported an average of 22.3 births per 1,000 American teens aged 15 to 19 — a significantly higher rate than in other Western industrialized countries. You could definitely argue that abstinence programs just aren’t enough.
As it turns out, more than half of American schoolkids may be missing out on sex ed altogether, as only 24 states and the District of Columbia require their public schools to teach it. Thirty-five states and D.C. let parents opt their kids out of sex ed. So, it really begs the question: You may be all grown-up and may even be a parent, but how much do you really know about sex?
Read on to learn 12 things you probably didn’t learn in sex ed but you really need to know.
1. What is sex … really?
You may have learned that, technically speaking, sex involves penile-vaginal penetration. But that’s barely scratching the surface. There are various forms of sexual acts that don’t fall under the “penetrative sex” umbrella. This includes:
- oral sex
- anal sex
- masturbation (solo or mutual)
- hand or finger jobs
- sex with toys (with or without penetration)
- and much more!
Some people even include kissing as a part of their definition! But in order to partake in other sexual acts (or not), it’s important to know how else sex can be defined. This is a critical part of being comfortable with it or comfortable with saying no to it.
2. There’s a lot of anatomy involved!
Formal sex education usually covers the basics of male anatomy: the penis, the testicles. But hold up — what about the women?! While sex ed may touch on the ovaries, you’ll learn very little about the vagina, clitoris, vulva, anus, breasts and nipples, or other sexual areas.
I have these body parts. I didn’t even know the difference between the vagina and the vulva until I became a sex educator. And I’m not alone.
Part of this is because of a focus on reproductive education versus actual sexual education. But the lack of research on the female genitalia until the late ’90s is also a huge contributing factor.
And speaking of female genitalia …
The clitoris is huge and runs from the vulva’s opening to the vagina. When most people think of the clitoris, though, they think of the clitoral glans — the pea-sized “little hill.”
Believe it or not, the clitoris and the penis are one and the same in fetuses until they differentiate to female or male sex organs. The majority of the nerve endings found in the very sensitive head of the penis wind up concentrated in the clitoris. This tiny part of the female body has over 8,000 nerve endings.
According to a survey in 2016, 1 in 3 women say they can’t orgasm during intercourse unless they receive some direct clitoral stimulation. (I hope you’re taking notes!)
3. The 'Big O' isn’t always the goal of sex
In school and elsewhere, it’s often taught that there’s a linear progression during sex with orgasm being the end goal. In reality, the sexual progression is more cyclical or, at least, non-linear.
Basson’s non-linear model kept women in mind, promoting the gender ideal that all women are into sex for closeness or an emotional bond more than just an orgasm. There are plenty of people of all genders for whom that rings true.
4. Masturbation is totally awesome
Masturbation can be really fun! According to an interview in Huffington Post with Dr. Lauren Streicher, an Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University, it can be good for your health! She says it can potentially help you sleep, relieve pain, and reduce stress, among other things. And research shows masturbating offers other potential health benefits for guys, too.
One of the biggest perks of masturbation is learning what you like and don’t like sexually. It makes it a lot easier to communicate those things to your partner when you’re able to explore your sexuality on your own.
5. Porn isn’t realistic
First things first: There’s nothing wrong with watching porn. If that’s your thing, you do you.
The problem is when there’s nothing to counteract the unrealistic expectations of sex people get from porn. For example, someone inexperienced in the act might believe you don’t need lubrication for anal sex because they don’t use it in porn, or that sex is supposed to hurt. Incorrect and incorrect.
Buying into these perceptions becomes dangerous and harmful for everyone involved. Moral of the story: Porn isn’t reality, so don’t bring it into the real world.
6. Pain isn’t normal
It’s not abnormal for women to believe that sex is supposed to hurt or be uncomfortable. When we’re being taught sex ed in school, we’re told that losing our virginity hurts. Again, not always true — it just depends on who you are.
Pain during sexual activity is usually a sign that something isn’t right — unless you’re intentionally inflicting it through a sexual act you’ve both given consent on! It could be due to a health condition, a lack of lubrication, a position, or a number of other things.
Make sure you troubleshoot this by communicating with your partner so you can both enjoy what’s going on. If that doesn’t work, speak with your doctor or visit an education-based sex shop for help.
7. It’s great to toy around
Sex toys and tools can be amazing additions in the bedroom. Vibrators are often a great first step into toys. And couples’ vibrators do exist! There’s even a whole field called teledildonics that’s pioneering toys that’ll respond to external stimuli (like porn) or can be paired with a long-distance partner’s toy!
8. Gender and sexual orientation are different
If sex educators taught anything about gender identity or sexual orientation, it’s likely they wrongly said the two are connected.
Sexual orientation is about who you generally find sexually attractive. Affectional orientation, another factor sex ed probably didn’t teach, is who you fall in love with — which can be totally different.
On the contrary, gender identity is what a person perceives their gender is, and can be different than the one assigned to them at birth. Gender expression is how that person may (or may not) show their gender through clothing, accessories, mannerisms, and more.
9. Some birth control isn’t good for some people
There are many kinds of birth control, from patches and pills to condoms, diaphragms, and more. One thing that’s rarely taught, though, is that some kinds of birth control aren’t great for some people.
The patch, for example, isn’t as effective if a person weighs more than 200 pounds. And evidence suggests that taking various birth control pills have risks for people living with migraines. Even some condoms may cause irritation!
Long story short, check with your doctor before making any changes in your birth control techniques if your current methods aren’t working for you.
10. Sexual health is way more than just STIs and pregnancy
Douching, shaving your pubic hair, and using the wrong sexual products can very negatively affect your body. Vaginas have natural pH levels as well as bacteria that help to keep them healthy. When you wash away or otherwise harm those things, it can lead to issues like urinary tract infections (UTIs) — as well as make you more susceptible to sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
There’s good news, though — the most common STIs, like gonorrhea, chlamydia, HPV, and genital herpes, are all treatable. The key is getting tested regularly. You can define what regularly is to you, depending on your sexual and relationship habits. But get it done if you’re sexually active!
11. Consent matters, a lot
I wish I could say we’re getting better as a society on teaching and understanding consent. Unfortunately, with the number of sexual assaults that still occur, it’s clear we don’t. And according to Affirmative Consent, a nonprofit combating sexual assault on and off college campuses, only a handful of U.S. states have laws in place that require affirmative consent in high schools or colleges.
If you’re still unclear on how consent works: Unless you receive a clear “yes” without it being coerced, you do not have consent. Giving consent for one activity or time doesn’t mean consent for every time. For further reading on the topic, I really enjoyed Nafisa Ahmed’s way of teaching her followers about consent.
12. Sex and relationships require effort
One of the biggest complaints about high school in general is that it didn’t prepare us for “actual” life. I learned how to balance a checkbook by getting an overdraft fee after a late-night Taco Bell trip, but could do complex chemistry equations I don’t use as a sexuality educator.
The same can be said of sex vs. relationships.
We learned about some of the mechanics of sex or some sexual anatomy in school. We didn’t learn how to communicate pain, handle arguments, or identify signs that our partners might be abusive.
I don’t think love can be taught. But skills that lend to more effective and safe relationships — skills like communication, empathy, and healthy boundaries — all can be. I’m supposed to be an expert on these things, but I was never taught them, either. In fact, I’m still struggling with all three of them!
We all could learn a little more about how to communicate, offer empathy to our fellow humans, and set clearer boundaries. June is adult sex ed month, and it’s the perfect time to take stock of what we know (or don’t), what we like (or don’t), and what we really, truly understand about S-E-X.
So, what do you wish you had learned in sex ed?
Kirsten Schultz is a writer from Wisconsin who challenges sexual and gender norms. Through her work as a chronic illness and disability activist, she has a reputation for tearing down barriers while mindfully causing constructive trouble. Kirsten recently founded Chronic Sex, which openly discusses how illness and disability affect our relationships with ourselves and others, including — you guessed it — sex! You can learn more about Kirsten and Chronic Sex at chronicsex.org and follow her @ChronicSex.