When I was growing up, it was rare for anybody to talk to me about sex at all, and the few times they did,many of the messages they sent were far from positive. Mostly, I just got the sense that sexuality was really scary. Among the things we teach young people about sex are that it will compromise a woman's value, that it won't be enjoyable for women, and that there's only one acceptable way to do it. These messages not only scare young people, but also prevent them from having healthy sex lives as they get older.
The way we talk to kids about sex often reflects persistent gender inequalities. Even the dictionary itself contains the implicit belief that sex is for a man's pleasure: The definition of "sex" is "sexual activity, including specifically sexual intercourse," and the definition of "sexual intercourse" is "sexual contact between individuals involving penetration, especially the insertion of a man's erect penis into a woman's vagina, typically culminating in orgasm and the ejaculation of semen." So, basically, the supposedly objective meaning of sex is an interaction between a man and a woman from which a man obtains sexual pleasure. OK, dictionary.
This gender inequality, as well as a general sense of sex-negativity, pervades the way we teach kids about sex. And since we often don't talk about sex much at all, young people don't have a lot of ways to learn the truth, often obtaining information from their equally uninformed peers or from porn. (Not that there's anything wrong with porn, but let's face it: It's not generally known for being the most realistic portrayal of sex out there.) Here are some of the toxic messages we often learn about sex at an early age that have really got to go.
1. Intercourse Is The Only Form Of Sex
When we teach people the meaning of sex reflected by the dictionary, we imply both that only one sexual activity "counts" as sex and that sex only takes place between straight, cisgender people. Making penis-in-vagina intercourse into something more important than oral sex, manual sex, or any other type of sex devalues the sex lives of people who either don't have bodies capable of that specific activity, or who just don't particularly like it. Like humanity itself, sexual expression is diverse and can't be defined by one act.
2. Virginity Is A Thing
Along with putting intercourse on a pedestal, we learn to make it into an act that defines us. Before we do it, we are virgins, and afterward, we are supposedly less "innocent" — especially if we're women. But why do we place such weight on this one activity? Why do we hold it above all others? The first time you have a job, go to school, or do other, more significant things doesn't change what people label you as, so why should this? The labeling of virginity exerts undue pressure both to remain virgins until a certain age and to not be virgins after a certain age, rather than just letting people do what they feel comfortable with when they feel comfortable with it.
3. Guys Want Sex And Girls Want Relationships
As a teenager, I was "warned" that guys were trying to have sex with girls, as if this were a negative thing. I was told they'd say whatever it took to accomplish this goal, even if it meant lying and saying they wanted a relationship — because, in sharp contrast, that's what girls supposedly wanted. By making sex seem like something that is done for a man's sake, we devalue women's pleasure. We also make it seem abnormal for a woman to want sex or for a man to want a relationship, when neither is the case. (Not to mention the fact that this belief completely erases any type of relationship besides straight, cisgender ones.)
4. It Won't Be Good At First (If You're A Girl)
Guys are usually taught that sex will feel good no matter what. If you're a girl, on the other hand, you're told it's probably going to be painful at first, and even afterward, it won't be all that pleasurable because women's bodies are just more difficult. This is really a self-fulfilling prophecy: Often, the causes of painful sex are lack of arousal or psychological factors like shame and anxiety. The kicker is that these issues are all fixable if we readjust how we think about sex — namely, if we value women's pleasure and destigmatize sex as a whole. When we say that women's bodies are impossible to decode (which, again, they're not), we discourage women's partners from caring about their pleasure.
5. Your Sex Life Indicates What Kind Of Person You Are
Young people in general — but women especially — are taught that their sex lives are indicative of their character, personalities, and likability. According to a study presented at an American Sociological Association conference, girls actually lose friends after they have sex, while boys don't. Students often designate a "school slut" who they don't respect because she's had more sexual experience than others. But nobody's character should be judged unless they've actually harmed someone, and as long as everybody is consenting, there's nothing about an individual's sex life that hurts anyone.