How Can We Teach Consent If We Don’t Teach About Pleasure?
Originally posted in The Establishment
After giving a talk about pleasure anatomy to a group of Ivy League students, complete with 3-D models of a clitoris, a tall, soft-spoken sophomore student came up to me with tears in her eyes. “This is the first time I’ve ever learned about the clitoris or anything about female pleasure,” she whispered, “I’ve had sex many times, and I have a boyfriend, but I’ve never enjoyed sex or had an orgasm. What’s wrong with me?”
As a sex educator, I’ve heard this story hundreds of times. It used to be my story, too.
The thing about bad, one-sided sex is that you can be sexually active for years and not realize how bad or one-sided it is — that you’re missing out on a wide array of joy and pleasure. I grew up in a conservative, religious family, and not once did anyone ever tell me that sex… should feel good. I was taught that men would try to get sex from me, and that my job was to say “no” and protect my virginity.
Not only did I never learn about pleasure, no one ever mentioned consent. All sexual acts were equally sinful, so it didn’t matter if a boy went too far on a date with me — why was I letting him touch me at all? This internal shame about sex made it easier for people to coerce me to do sexual things and made me complacent about unfulfilling, ho-hum, or just plain terrible sex… until I learned about pleasure through exploration, actively working through my shame, and extraordinary lovers who supported me. Finally, I learned what a true “yes” felt like.
Not only did I never learn about pleasure, no one ever mentioned consent.
And while recent accounts about Aziz Ansari and the greater #MeToo movement have started a long overdue and deeply necessary conversation about harassment, coercion, abuse, and our culture around sex, it lacks a critical element: any meaningful discussion of pleasure.
But without discussing pleasure, how can we talk about consent?
Overwhelmingly, our media’s reflection of female pleasure is, at-best, one-dimensional. When women’s pleasure is shown, whether in porn or a Hollywood movie, it’s often reduced to a quick, performative expression, an overwrought moan, perhaps, that serves as applause for the man. This not only alienates and guilts women who don’t climax, but such stereotypical representations flatten the complexities of pleasure, and prevents us from discussing its absence. As a result of our media and educational system failings, real conversations about sexual pleasure rarely happen at home or in school either, and discussions of how to achieve it is still, sadly, taboo in many relationships.
Straight women who date straight men tell me about the script: making out, oral sex on the penis, then penetrative fucking. When the penis ejaculates, sex is over. When I slept with straight men, this was my experience too, and my partners never seemed that concerned about my pleasure, or lack thereof.
Statistics show that I wasn’t alone.
Women don’t just face a wage gap at work; they also face what’s being called an “orgasm gap” in the bedroom. According to a recent Kinsey study, straight women have fewer orgasms than any other group*. While 95% of heterosexual men have an orgasm every time they have sex, and 86% of lesbians, only 65% of women sleeping with men do.
So, for women, sleeping with a straight man lowers the chance of having an orgasm by 20%.
Due to my struggle with sexual shame and lack of education, I have spent the better part of my twenties disturbed by and grappling with the lack of sex education in the United States, especially as sex ed in schools has plummeted over the last 20 years.
As a result of conservative efforts, fewer than 50% of schools in the United States now teach any sex ed at all — and of those, more than 75% focused on abstinence-until-marriage. Back in 1995, over 80% of students learned about birth control in schools. The Trump administration has slashed $200 million from the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program started in 2010 that has been thought to be the key driver of a plummet in teen pregnancy in the past few years.
I was so disturbed, in fact, that I founded a live-streaming company for sex and pleasure education called O.school. Over the past year, we have given sex and pleasure education workshops in 15 universities from progressive places like Los Angeles to rural colleges in Kansas to huge schools like Arizona State University. We’ve spoken to thousands of students about the issues they have around sexuality and pleasure.
On our college tour, I was honored to hear personal, at times devastating, stories from the students I met at these workshops. Auditoriums full of underclassmen would crowd around the sex educators and me to share — often for the first time in their lives — the shame they carried around sex, all the things they wanted to learn but didn’t know who they could ask, and how it was life-changing just to witness women standing up and talking about pleasure, not only STIs, contraception, or abstinence — but pleasure.
During anonymous Q&A sessions, we fielded queries that ranged from the most basic anatomy questions (Where does pee come out? Does masturbation really lead to erectile dysfunction?) to communication questions (How do I tell my partner what to do without hurting their feelings?) to questions about kink (Why do I like pain? Does that make me a freak?). We heard story after story about sexual assault, LGBTQ shaming, body shaming, consent violations, and lots of bad, one-sided sex.
One student from UCLA shared that her boyfriend regularly shamed her for asking him to wear a condom. A student in Arizona couldn’t get her boyfriend to cut his nails before fingering her despite it causing her incredible pain. The stories have rolled in from students, teachers, and retirees alike, about women who struggle to experience pleasure with their boyfriends and husbands, about men who never bother to ask what their wives and girlfriends want.
2017 was a raging garbage fire of what happens when society has combined misogyny, power, and a lack of sex or consent education. Because of the #MeToo movement, sexual assault and harassment are receiving media coverage more than ever before. But 2018 is a year we demand more than freedom from sexual harassment and abuse. This year, it’s time we demand pleasure.
Why is pleasure important? Because asking for what we want and saying no to what we don’t want is a direct rebellion against the patriarchy. Because how do we teach anyone about giving their enthusiastic “yes” if they don’t understand pleasure? Because men expect pleasure every single time they are sexually intimate, and women should, too. Most of all? Pleasure is a powerful form of self-care, wellness, and has been proven to be a key driver of happiness.
How should you or your friends figure out if your sex is one-sided? Thirty years ago, author and activist Alison Bechdel introduced a three-pronged test to determine whether a movie was worth watching. Did it feature more than one woman? Did they talk to each other? About something other than a man?
Given the orgasm gap, we thought we’d formulate our own version with criteria aimed at helping you determine if it’s worth sleeping with your Tinder date, FWB, boyfriend, or, really, any man:
- Do I feel safe saying no?
- Is my pleasure as important as his?
- Does the sex end when he does?
For many people, answers to these questions are often disappointing. What can we do about it? Taking your pleasure into your own hands (yes, I mean that literally) is step number one.** Masturbate to get to know yourself and figure out what feels good for you.
I want you to get off, but more than anything, I want to hear your stories, so we can complicate and elevate our collective understanding of pleasure. I’ve worked to build a platform for people of all genders, bodies, and sexualities to talk about and learn about pleasure. Once you’ve gotten off, we want you to join our community. That’s why we’ve launched live streams on learning about orgasm, consent, pleasure anatomy, buying sex toys, and asking for what you want in bed. We also address sex and pleasure after trauma, overcoming religious shame, pleasure and disability, and more.
Right now, a collective “fuck no!” is resounding across the world. When we fuck ourselves just right, we gain the energy and the knowledge to finally say, “fuck, yes!”