If only learning about sex was as simple as “birds and bees.” If you’re like most people in the U.S., your sex ed experience centered on pregnancy avoidance, abstinence and fear-inducing information on sexually transmitted diseases. While these topics can and should be respectfully addressed in sex education, according to experts, there seems to be very little information on actual sex or relationships. Filling in these gaps can help ensure a healthy, happy and safe sex life for you and your partner. Here are nine things you should definitely know.
1. Sex Is More Than Intercourse.
Chances are you were taught that sex involves a penis going into a vagina, but there’s a lot more to it than that. “While learning the facts of intercourse and reproduction are important, removing it from the relationship in which it takes place is, in my opinion, a mistake,” says L. Kris Gowen, Ph.D., author of “Sexual Decisions.” She says very few sex ed programs examine traits of healthy relationships, such as trust, honesty, communication and respect. But focusing primarily on intercourse, abstinence and STDs helps perpetuate myths — like oral sex isn’t really sex — which can make it less likely that people use condoms, discuss STI history and take other precautions.
2. Genitals Vary in Shape and Size.
Genitals come in all shapes and sizes. Stella Harris, an adult sex educator, wishes people knew how varied they can be. Her class, Mapping the Vulva, discusses different renditions of “normal,” such as inner labia — or vaginal lips — being larger than outer labia. “People genuinely think there’s something wrong with them when they don’t look like the bodies in porn,” she says, “leading to problems with self image and also unnecessary surgeries.” This seems to be one reason cosmetic vaginoplasty, which hasn’t been proven safe or effective (or even necessary in a lot of cases), is on the rise.
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3. Sex Should Be Enjoyable.
Pleasure is a cornerstone of sex, yet it’s hardly ever mentioned in U.S. sex ed classes. This is as problematic as it is common. “We miss the point that sex is largely for intimacy and pleasure,” says sex educator Stella Harris. So people don’t know to speak up when they aren’t enjoying themselves, she says. Learning little to nothing about pleasure also sends the message that it isn’t important — or worse, that it’s taboo, especially for women. This can lead them to miss out on potential benefits of orgasmic sex, such as reduced pain, more regular menstruation, improved mood and better sleep.
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4. Sufficient Arousal Can Minimize Pain.
In a study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2015, 30 percent of female participants and 7 percent of men reported experiencing pain during vaginal intercourse — most without telling their partners. “Pleasurable sex is related to arousal,” says Carol Queen, Ph.D., writer and cultural sexologist. But she also says that most people don’t know how arousal works, particularly in women. Help stave off irritation and increase pleasure by making sure the vagina is lubricated either with plenty of foreplay, a commercial lubricant or both before you insert fingers, a toy or a penis.
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5. The Equivalent Organ to the Penis Isn’t the Vagina.
The vagina gets a lot of attention in discussions around sex, and rightfully so. But when you’re talking “his” and “hers,” the proper match to the penis isn’t the vagina — it’s the clitoris. Like the penis, the clitoris becomes enlarged and erect during arousal and deserves plentiful stimulation. “If the clitoris is not sufficiently stimulated, orgasm will likely be a problem,” says cultural sexologist Carol Queen. The organ contains thousands of nerve endings and typically paves the way to climax.
6. STIs Are Common and Not Shameful.
Sex ed covers sexually transmitted infections while typically bypassing the stigma attached to having one. While it’s important to learn about preventing STIs, these stigmas can damage mental health more so than the infections, says sex educator Anne Hodder. “It’s important for students to learn how common STIs are so that, if and when they encounter them, they can take care of themselves without shame or fear getting in the way of their sexual health,” she says. This is important all life long, considering more than half of sexually active adults will have an STI or STD at some point. “People with STIs live healthy, ‘normal’ lives and deserve the same level of respect that we give everyone else,” Hodder says.
7. Masturbation Matters.
Masturbation is healthy, natural and often a person’s first sexual activity. Because it tends to be skipped over in sex ed, however, people experience a level of shame around the practice and even avoid it, which could rob them of significant benefits. Sexual self-stimulation doesn't have the risk of STIs and unwanted pregnancy, plus it can boost pleasure and confidence. Research published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy in 2013 showed that masturbation early in life may increase arousal and orgasm in adulthood for women. Another 2016 study from Sexuality and Disability showed that solo play promotes a sense of sexual autonomy in women with disabilities.
8. Porn Sex Isn’t Always Realistic Sex.
Just like rom-coms aren’t always true real-life relationships, porn can be misleading. But because of the gaps in traditional sex ed, many people end up learning more about sex from adult films. And while porn can have a place in a healthy sex life, the sex it depicts isn’t quite what you should aim for. “Porn exists for one purpose: to entertain,” says sex educator Anne Hodder, adding that important parts of sex (STI testing, personal hygiene, consent and communication) happen behind the scenes. Everything from positions to arousal pacing can be unrealistic. Porn can help you explore your sexuality and give you ideas for real-life sex, just make sure that you communicate with your partner and temper your expectations.
9. Consent Is Vital.
Consent should be taught not only in sex ed, but throughout adolescence and in nonsexual contexts, says sex educator Kait Scalisi, M.P.H. Since you probably didn’t learn much about it, there’s no time like the present to make sure you understand and implement it fully now. “The more you model asking permission, setting and upholding boundaries and respecting someone’s ‘no,’ the more ingrained the embodied practice of consent becomes,” she says. You can ask people before hugging them, for example, or say “no’” when you don’t feel comfortable with such an exchange. This all makes it easier to communicate about and respect boundaries in the bedroom. After all, there is no such thing as nonconsensual sex. (The proper term there is rape.)
What Do YOU Think?
Did you have sex ed in school? Do you think it covered all the bases? Did it cover any of the things on this list? Which of these things surprised you? Which did you already know? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments below.
August McLaughlin is a health and sexuality writer, podcast host and author of “Girl Boner: The Good Girl’s Guide to Sexual Empowerment” (Amberjack Publishing, 2018). Her articles appear in DAME Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, the Huffington Post and more, and she loves connecting with readers through her blog and social media. augustmclaughlin.com