We commissioned UK based Venus Libido for these illustrations, her bio is below the article and you follow her on Instagram here
Refinery 29 - part of VICE Media Group - recently fielded a survey exploring where traditional sex-ed has fallen short, how young people get information about sex and sexual health now, and the questions they are still seeking answers to.
To coincide with new semesters and a generation transitioning from isolation to a world of reunion, Virtue decided to answer some of these questions, proposing ways for brands to come in and lead sex culture, borrow cues from entertainment and create better conditions for dialogue around satisfying, safe sex.
PEOPLE ARE ABOUT TO START GOING OUT AND HAVING MORE SEX
Dan Savage termed the period we’re about to enter, “the whoring twenties.” But for some, the anxious and disembodying backdrop of a pandemic has made having satisfyingsex seem distant. The mind, the most erotic organ, has been understimulated. The imagination, where we dream and give meaning, has been stifled, and anticipation and desire has been harder to cultivate for couples who have been locked down together (VICE 2021).
On the plus side, masturbation has been getting people through - helping 71% of Americans feel better during lockdown (Stylus/Tenga). Now it looks like we’re set for a summer of soaring libidos along with vaccinations and eased restrictions, so what better time to pause and think about how to do sex better.
SEX-ED IS NOT DOING ITS JOB
Everyone deserves satisfying, safe sex. Yet only 5% of people we surveyed in US, UK and Canada felt adequately prepared for sex in the real world after sex education, instead it left them feeling nervous, embarrassed and silly, and at worst - they picked up harmful habits (R29).
WHERE IS SEX-ED FALLING SHORT? IN ITS DEFINITION OF SEX
We talk about sex more openly than we ever have, but our education defines it in narrow terms that confuse and exclude. Penis in vagina (PIV) is only one type of straight sexual activity, so we need a definition that can evolve as society focuses more on sexual wellness. As a start it should include:
Mutual masturbation, assisted masturbation, manual stimulation with hands
Transitioning/transitioned (e.g. having sex during gender reassignment)
Failure to mention and discuss all the different ways we can have sex means the LGBTQ+ community aren’t represented - 86% of respondents thought that sex-ed didn't relate to the LGBTQ+ community at all (R29).
However, in Ontario’s sex education program, sexual orientation is taught as a mandatory topic in grade five - before the onset of puberty - (Ontario Children’s Advocacy Coalition, Ontario Government), consequently the percentage of students who agreed that there was sufficient LGBTQ+ representation in sex-ed increases to 42% in Canada.
IT’S ALSO FAILING TO REMOVE SHAME AND UNCERTAINTY AROUND SEXUAL HEALTH
Traditional sex ed makes one thing very clear: don’t get an STI. But only 38% actually felt informed about STIs after sex education (R29). This can have disastrous consequences as associated shame around them can lead to silence, not fully realising the danger in spreading them, or not being open with partners when it could seriously affect them.
It can even cause confusion when it comes to solo play, for example, not knowing whether you could pass an STI to a sex toy, and therefore risk reinfection - you can’t if it’s made of nonporous medical grade steel or silicone and is adequately cleansed post-use, which most good quality toys are (but check!).
SO WHERE ARE YOUNG PEOPLE LEARNING ABOUT SEX INSTEAD?
Media brands like Refinery29 are stepping in to give young people the vocabulary to talk about testing and history. By borrowing from more fluent LGBTQ+ community, R29 are driving a cultural shift where conversations around sexual health are normalised and expected before having sex. They are also working to remove shame and stigma around testing positive for STIs - and understanding that this comes from a place of miseducation.
YOUNG PEOPLE ARE ALSO LEARNING BY WATCHING PORN
Half of the people we surveyed said that porn shaped their idea of what sex looked like, before they had sexual encounters, and 70% tried to replicate something they saw in porn.
WHAT DO THEY FIND WHEN THEY’RE THERE?
There are some benefits. They find, and associate with, a range of gender identities and they see the fluidity of gender that traditional sex-ed doesn’t cover. They discover the different ways that same gendered people can have sex and they can be exposed to diversity of body types and diversity of vulvas. It also affirms and normalises kinks and fantasies, and helps young people to feel guided and informed about them.
BUT WITHOUT PROPER PERSPECTIVE IT CAN CREATE MISLEADING IDEAS
But the bulk of porn performers have ‘perfect’ bodies which creates unrealistic body ideals. Men are hard 24/7 and have huge penises, women cum in 15 seconds and have ‘perfect’ vulvas. This leads to unrealistic expectations about enjoyment and what a sexual encounter should look like.
IT DOESN’T CREATE CONDITIONS FOR PLEASURABLE SEX
84% of women said that porn actually has a negative impact on real-life sex, and that it doesn’t depict pleasure accurately.
SO WHERE DO PEOPLE LEARN ABOUT PLEASURE?
They don’t. Sex-ed completely disconnects sex and pleasure, and porn is reinforcing it. “Make sure you don’t get pregnant,” and “make sure you don’t get an STI” doesn’t exactly create a straightforward road to sexual pleasure. For 72%, the woman’s orgasm wasn’t even mentioned in sex-ed.
Conservatism and patriarchy across the world focuses on avoiding how sex could go wrong with little regard for how it could go right and feel pleasurable. This is something that Hollywood films have amplified: 60% of movies that show dildos and sex toys are comedies (Virtue Intelligence 2021), reinforcing shame, adding to nerves around bringing up play and pleasure in the context of couples, and conditions many to think that advocating for their own sexual pleasure is cultural shorthand for kinkiness, or is in someway not acceptable or not healthy.
NOT LEARNING ABOUT PLEASURE HAS CREATED A GAP
Not learning about pleasure has created a gap between pleasure and sex. And this gap is felt by women significantly more than by men. In heterosexual encounters 95% of men climax, those men also self-reported that their female partner climaxed too, but only 65% of women reported that they climaxed (Frederick et. al 2017) meaning 30% of heterosexual women are not having a fully shared sexual experience with their partners (increases to 50% in a study in Western Europe).
WHERE MEDICAL-FOCUSSED SEX EDUCATION FAILS, ENTERTAINMENT STEPS IN
There is very little scientific research on female arousal or the orgasm, the full structure of the clitoris was only published in 2005 (it was reportedly discovered in 1844 but silenced by male physicians) and it’s a fairly recent discovery that the female orgasm is biopsychosocial - meaning it is related to body, mind, and the relationship between the individual and other people in society. Big Mouth’s “How to Have an Orgasm” episode showed the complexity of this by putting the character of Jessi into a gameshow scenario entitled Do The Thing where the better the vulva feels, the quicker “Heidi Climbs the Alps” - with everything from the pressure the character feels to orgasm, to sounds coming from elsewhere in house, affecting the probability of reaching it.
BUT PEOPLE ARE STILL HAVING SEX WITH HUGE GAPS IN THEIR KNOWLEDGE
Sex education focusses mostly on the medical side of sex - but largely ignores intimate wellbeing. As a result, we are looking to entertainment and brands to learn about pleasure, consent and safety.
IS THIS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR SEXUAL HEALTH AND INTIMATE WELLBEING BRANDS TO STEP IN?
Yes. Here are some ways they might do that:
1. LEAD SEX CULTURE
Being visible and valued at the leading edge of sex culture will make you more central to and more welcome in people’s sex lives.
Going back out into the world is a capital B big event. This means new occasions and new shifts in behaviour. Here is an opportunity to lead the conversation around things like ethical non-monogamy, and safe practises from sex workers.
2. BORROW FROM ENTERTAINMENT
Entertainment influences sexual norms, beliefs, behaviours. It can help make more complex corners of sex-ed more appropriate for a younger audience.
Nick Kroll, creator of Big Mouth, says that the show’s biggest success was to enable a behaviour change where children are able to say: “my hormone monster made me do it,” rather than feel shame about their pubescent behaviours.
OMG Yes offers an educational, sex-positive platform backed by science to explore female pleasure through fun videos.
3. IMPROVE VOCABULARY AND CREATE CONDITIONS FOR MORE OPEN DIALOGUE
Even some smaller changes, like not using the word vagina when we mean vulva could bring around a profound shift in knowledge and satisfaction.
Dr Chapman’s five love languages helped relationships - romantic and otherwise - for the better by normalising the idea that it’s common for partners to not share the same ways of expressing love. A simple card game or app can expand people’s vocabulary and have a similar impact of people’s sexual compatibility and sexual preferences.
Venus Libido is an illustrator, presenter, and sex educator from the UK. Best known for her strikingly honest and sometimes controversial drawings and her sex-positive chat show Private Parts, she proudly works as an ambassador for The Young Women's Trust, helping to support young women in low or no-pay.
Venus also uses her platform to speak on important matters such as self-pleasure, mental health, the LGBTQI+ community, and pansexuality. She also continues to share her ongoing battle with endometriosis and how to have an enjoyable and healthy sex life even with a gynecology condition.
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