What if…we liberated sex education?

Across the world, there is relative silence in schools when it comes to sex. Husna Ara plots a path to shame-free learning that takes our curiosity seriously.

Illustration: Andy Carter

At face value, the rise of bold, feminist-motivated TikTok videos in the age of #MeToo could signal the end of the State’s reliance on simplistic, awkward demonstrations of the condom-on-a-banana variety to teach children and adolescents about sex. The transnational nature of these videos means that the kind of sex education many wished they had received when they were young is now more easily available. ‘Consent is sexy’, ‘no means no’ – the basic principles of pleasure and reciprocity are free-flowing online.

However, such a notion is somewhat utopian, according to journalist Sophie Smith Galer who has researched sex education in the 21st century. She found that even in the UK – a country decently scored by UNESCO for its sex ed provision – 18-23-year-olds flock to online chat rooms to ask the most rudimentary questions: Should my genitals look like that? Can I get pregnant from masturbation? How do I insert a tampon? Such questions cropping up so late are alarm bells, pointing to deep gaps in our collective knowledge of the basics of sex, never mind addressing issues such as coercion and the nitty gritty of STIs.

A shame-free approach is crucial, which allows students to ask questions considered rudimentary or taboo in a safe environment

A relative silence in schools around sex is common in both the Global North and South – a majority of teenagers reported receiving instruction too late, and admit to filling in the gaps by consuming pornography. This has left many of us in the dark about our pleasures and pains. Myths around virginity and the hymen linked to religious beliefs, and expectations of the conformity of our bodies, can feed into depression and body dysmorphia. Smith Galer links the dearth of education to the extortionate market for operations for hymen repair and vaginal tightness in both the Global North and South. Such procedures fail to recognize that the breaking of hymen tissue is neither necessary nor sufficient for ‘virginity loss’, and are pseudo-science at best. Beyond anticipating discomfort, many girls are actively taught that sex is meant to be painful, and end up silently suffering with conditions such as vaginismus without seeking help.

Numerous independent sex educators have sought to dispel such dangerous myths and end what the late feminist bell hooks described as ‘normalized dysfunction’. A well-funded, multi-pronged approach – digital and schools-based – developed for pupils of all ages would need to be developed to attack this dysfunction at the root. A shame-free approach is crucial, which allows students to ask questions considered rudimentary or taboo in a safe environment. It would also introduce basic principles of consent at a young age.

Even the widely praised UNESCO-led Comprehensive Sexuality Education programme in South Africa, which achieved significant progress in reducing HIV transmission and teen pregnancy in high-risk areas, failed to go beyond the scope of STI prevention and discuss power dynamics in the bedroom. Further, it was made non-compulsory by the Minister of Education after parents organized and objected to it on religious grounds. Scaling up this work would be less about the UN parachuting into countries to warn against early pregnancy, more about developing it judiciously with local sex educators, and ensuring it was couched in language and covered ideas the audience cared about. For instance, Saudi sex educator Rotana Tarabzouni conducts many of her workshops on ‘embodied knowledge’ – moment-to-moment awareness of pleasure in the body – with Muslim women around the world, and frames them through an explicitly Islamic lens, drawing on Quranic concepts to tell a new story about sexual agency.

A shame-free approach that takes our curiosity about sex seriously, and makes strides in substantive education around power, patriarchy and non-heterosexual intimacy could have a preventative function in tackling incel culture – the growth of violent young ‘involuntary celibates’, usually men – and homophobia at their roots. An extensive programme that took power seriously – and yet left room for wonder – would open up avenues for combating widely prevalent sexual violence. This new story about sex – rewriting its script based on reciprocity, separating pleasure from gratification, allowing young people to listen to their desires, care for their bodies and speak to their everyday realities – is one worth writing.