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Last week, a forum was held in Canberra to coincide with the launch of a national survey looking at the experiences of women aged 16-21 with sex education. The findings indicated that while the more scientific elements of sex were being covered, the emotional side of pleasure, orgasm and desire were being ignored.

My own discussions and correspondence with young women has indicated similar, and confirmed that not much has changed since I was at school and fumbling my way through the basics (by which I mean inside my underpants). I knew what periods were and how they happened (sort of) and I understood the words ‘erection’, ‘gestation’ and even that there was such a thing as an ‘orgasm’. The problem was, I didn’t really know what it all meant for me personally, or how it explained the strange, unquantifiable feelings of pleasure that came whenever I made my Barbie dolls kiss each other or rubbed myself against the rim of the bath.

It was while engaged in some innocent bath rubbing one afternoon that I was hit by the full impact of what this pleasure could feel like. The normally pleasant buzz that I’d associated with the activity escalated into something much more intense and before I knew it my temperature had risen about 50 degrees and my brains seemed to have splattered all over the walls. It felt magnificent, but also disconcerting and a little bit scary. Being a hypochondriac didn’t exactly help matters – clearly, I was having a stroke and I was moments away from death.

I didn’t die that day, but I did discover a neat new trick that could be performed in any place that allowed for discretion (which includes airplane bathrooms – who said you can only go to the Mile High Club in twosomes?). That was over twenty years ago and I’ve been a fierce advocate for masturbation and self pleasure ever since. I truly believe that discovering the abilities of my body at such a young age has led to an easier experience with sex in general. Pleasure has always been within easy reach, and I’ve been able to communicate to partners exactly what floats my boat.

So it’s concerning that pleasure, and the pursuit of it, remains so absent from youth education programs. Orgasms to the uninitiated can be a perplexing and unpleasantly overwhelming experience. I’ve met many women who, even as adults, have talked themselves out of climaxing because they find the feeling too intense and anxiety inducing. When female pleasure isn’t taught as a key component of sexual engagement and intercourse (particularly in hetero contexts), female participation is reinforced as something passive and secondary to the male role.

What is it that society finds so troubling about the idea that young girls learning about female pleasure? Perhaps it’s the puritanical fear that it will encourage them to rush off and ‘sleep around’, as if their bodies and sexual pleasure belong to them and not to the society intent on controlling them. This might explain why girls in America are still being sent home for violating dress codes because their clothes are supposedly proving too distracting for adult men who should know better.

And don’t underestimate the misogyny that’s applied to women’s sexuality and the question of who owns it – as actor Ryan Gosling famously pointed out in a response to his film Blue Valentine being given an NC-17 rating by the Motion Picture Association of America, “The MPAA is okay supporting scenes that portray women in scenarios of sexual torture and violence for entertainment purposes, but they are trying to force us to look away from a scene that shows a woman in a sexual scenario, which is both complicit and complex.”

Melbourne based sex therapist Cyndi Darnell experienced a similar form of censorship recently when Facebook refused to allow her to promote an educational video series she had produced. As she says, “The ad was a link to a trailer for a four part video series which teaches people to engage with their anatomy and sexual pleasure. They’ve let me run the trailer, but they won’t let me run a paid ad because they say it goes against their community guidelines.”

These ‘community guidelines’ have no problem with entire pages devoted to racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and every other form of bigotry you can think of. Nor will horrific memes glorifying rape and violence against women be considered a violation of them. But promoting a video series which does not fall under the bracket of “acceptable adult products”? Well, as Facebook says, “this decision is final”.

Darnell is understandably frustrated by the hypocrisy, but sees it as the logical product of a culture which still demonises sexually autonomous women. She told me, “A sexually empowered woman is still not something that’s revered in our society. Historically, men have been empowered to be role models for young boys, culturally praised as sexual beings and pursuers. For women, sexuality continues to be linked solely to motherhood and nurturing rather than their own well-being and self esteem. This is why women get to their 30s and are struggling with their own sexual expression – because they have never been taught they’re allowed to take up space erotically.”

Sex education is about so much more than biology. It’s bigger than the conservative binary of expression we continue to force on young people, which includes the furphies that women use sex to get love and men use love to get sex. Pleasure isn’t a peripheral by-product of sexuality but an inseparable part of it. And there’s something desperately wrong with a world that is okay with making the control of female sexuality the domain of everybody else but the woman who owns it. It’s important that women be aware of this, but also that men are too.

Patriarchal society might be afraid of women’s bodies, but that doesn’t mean women should be taught to fear them too. We should be teaching girls to feel pleasure instead of shame, and giving them a framework to express sexual autonomy and confidence. Remember: If you build it, they will come.

Pleasure or pain. Some of my sister sites below (7)

Henry Sapiecha

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