To talk about the clitoris in sex education shouldn't seem ground-breaking, but it is.
When sociomedical researcher Odile Fillod unveiled her 3D anatomically accurate model of a clitoris last month and announced that it would be available to use in French schools – from primary to secondary level – as part of their SRE provision, it marked a critical moment in the way we view SRE on both sides of the channel.
Currently the French curriculum is not unlike the British one. From primary age, children are taught the basics about reproduction while secondary school provides an overview on puberty and contraception. The focus is on firstly the mechanics and secondly the prevention of pregnancy and STIs. As the clitoris is neither a necessary component of reproduction nor a factor in STD-avoidance, the closest most kids are likely to have come to learning about it is seeing it on a diagram of the genitals or labelling it on a worksheet.
It is but the only part of the human body – male or female – which functions entirely for pleasure but since it is not biologically necessary, it has long been left out of the conversation, both in the UK and in France.
“The representations of sexuality are mostly centred on the male sexual organs," Fillod told journalists. “Under natural conditions an erection and ejaculation are necessary for fertilisation – which brings the focus to the mechanisms of male arousal and the male orgasm. Whether a woman is excited or not or whether she has an orgasm or not plays no role in fertilisation – which apparently means it can be royally ignored.”
It doesn’t take an expert to see that this leads to an unbalanced view of the sexual experience.
When the narrative is centred almost exclusively around how to make or avoid making a baby, is it any wonder that 80% of young people do not define oral sex as sex?
Sex becomes framed as something that is only happening when a penis is inside a vagina. But only around 15% of women say they can orgasm from vaginal penetration alone so it’s easy to see how this creates a disparity between how men and women view and understand sex. Moreover, it automatically erases LGBTQ people from the discussion. Less than 5% of LGBTQ teens say they learnt a lot about same sex relationships (compared to the two thirds that reported learning a lot about sex between a man and a woman). Meanwhile 89% of LGBTQ young people report learning nothing about bisexuality issues and 94% report learning nothing about transgender issues.
Talking about pleasure teaches us that there are many different kinds of sex and no such thing as ‘proper’ or ‘real’ sex. By talking about pleasure we open up the dialogue to include non-normative sexualities and gender identities. Furthermore, when we understand that sex should feel good for everyone, regardless of sexuality or gender identity, we are able to make better and safer choices about whether and how to have sex. When we eat ice cream we understand implicitly that the goal is pleasure so if we try a flavour and discover we don’t like it, we are unlikely to feel compelled to keep eating it.
If we are offered ice cream we ask what flavours are available and pick our preferred option. If nothing immediately appeals we can choose to compromise or forgo it altogether – not out of shame or obligation but because when we understand that the goal is pleasure, we are able to make better decisions about whether or not to pursue it. But teaching about pleasure allows us to do more than pin down our favourite ‘flavour’ of sex (although that is a worthwhile pursuit in itself). Teaching about pleasure also has a direct impact on people’s understanding of consent.
Too often, says the Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre, sex is perceived by young people as a male pursuit and one which women and girls must decide whether to “allow” or not.
In its resource for teaching sexual consent to Key Stages 3 and 4 (ages 11-16), the organisation notes “The most common stereotype here is that girls don’t have sex for pleasure or don’t have sexual desire – that girls are the ‘keepers’ of sex and boys are the ‘seekers’.” When we teach that the goal of sex is mutual pleasure we break down that assumption and make it easier for girls and boys to communicate their needs and desires. And we begin to enable them to recognise the needs and desires of others. Sex educator Justin Hancock writes that while most of the young people he works with understand the definition of consent, they often struggle to pick up the non-verbal cues. “If I were to ask them whether sex they had was consensual, their immediate response would be: ‘Yeah, it wasn’t rape,’”he said.
“But if I ask them about whether they enjoyed it, how they communicated, what kind of sex they actually want and whether they actually want sex – then it can reveal a very different picture about just how consensual the sex was and how healthy the relationship really is.”
PHSE teacher Alice Hoyle, writing for Mumsnet, agrees.“By emphasising mutual enjoyment, making it clear that sex is about what women want, too, we encourage respect, “ she said. “Learning to recognise pleasure means that boys and girls will be able to ‘read’ the other person’s body language, and stop immediately if there are any indicators that their partner is not enjoying the situation.” From developing their understanding of their bodies to helping them identify and negotiate their boundaries, teaching about pleasure does so much more than tell kids that sex is fun. But it also reminds us not to forget that sex is fun. And they deserve to know that too. If we truly want to empower young people to make safe and healthy decisions about sex, if we want a model of sex education that is inclusive and that enables people to navigate their emotional responses as well as their physical ones, we need to move towards a depiction of sex not just as the mechanics of reproduction but as a mutually pleasurable experience.
And talking about the clitoris might just be the way to start that process.