American sex education ignores sexuality and pleasure, making way for the “orgasm gap”
My entire experience with sexual education occurred in a single afternoon. My best friend and I sat in the back of our sixth grade classroom, stifling 12-year-old giggles as a video played on a clunky TV atop a rolling cart. The film was supposed to illustrate the sterile terms we’d heard our guidance counselor mutter uncomfortably: “Puberty,” “Periods,” and, my personal favorite, “Our Changing Bodies.” To this day, I remember only the way the scenes were spliced. Clips of lacy-bra-clad young women in locker rooms were interrupted by diagrams labeled with other capital-letter terms: “Fallopian Tubes,” “Ovaries.”
High school sexual education isn’t mandated in Iowa (or in the majority of U.S. states), so as my classmates and I matured, all we had to draw upon was that warm afternoon in Mrs. Ryan’s classroom. There was an optional health class, which gave students the token experience of putting condoms on bananas, but few people took it. We were certainly never taught about the range of sexualities and genders. Instead, we were left to learn about Our Changing Bodies and our developing sexualities elsewhere.
Unfortunately, this often resulted in not learning about them. I don’t actually remember having the “sex talk” with my family, and I’m not alone in this; fewer than half of U.S. teenagers have broached the subject with their parents. And when conversations do occur, they run parallel to sex ed curricula, tending toward discussions about contraception and STIs. In the meantime, the topic of sexual pleasure remains wholly unaddressed, both inside and outside the classroom.
To me, this illustrates a huge point of irony, specifically regarding female sexuality in a heterosexual context. In the U.S., we aggressively sexualize women—in movies, in advertisements, and even on the streets of our cities—but we do so without educating young adults about biological female anatomy and pleasure. Our society asserts a woman’s sexuality upon her but condemns her curiosity, only allowing her to use a hand mirror if she’s made sure to lock the door. By failing to institutionalize conversations about sexual satisfaction, we not only ignore the female capacity for and entitlement to enjoyable sex, but also implicitly impede it.
The fact remains that only 25 percent of women are able to regularly climax from penetrative sex, but I’ve found myself explaining the differences between vaginal and clitoral orgasms to many of my male friends. I was hardly surprised, therefore, when I stumbled upon a Men’s Health article, entitled “Five Things You Didn’t Know About Her Vagina,” which preceded its slide-show with a descriptive blurb providing insight to its readers: “Your penis is simple: It only has a few functions, and it tells you everything you need to know about it in one glance. The vagina, on the other hand, is a mysterious thing—an elaborate, multifaceted tool that still confounds men.”
At the time, I laughed. This is just simply untrue; one needs only to Google the infamous scene from Orange is the New Black, wherein a prisoner diagrams the vulva for her cellmates, to grasp a pretty thorough understanding of its anatomy. But the issue is actually more serious. We shouldn’t have to turn to popular culture in order to understand our own bodies. The vulva is not overly intricate, and portraying it as such allows the “orgasm gap” to persist.
Of course, it’s important to note that orgasm doesn’t have to be the end-all be-all measure for sexual satisfaction. But it’s also essential to understand that the idea that female orgasms are less attainable is a total myth. On average, it takes women the same amount of time to orgasm through masturbation as it takes men to orgasm through penetrative sex: four minutes. And yet, according to data collected by NYU sociologist Paula England, men are still twice as likely to orgasm in the context of a casual, heterosexual hookup.
On college campuses, in a country where hookup culture is so pervasive, it’s frustrating to watch young women around me internalize a belief that something is wrong with their bodies due to their “inability” to orgasm. In reality, it’s just that there’s no foundational base of knowledge for any gender. As Peggy Orenstein, author of Girls and Sex, writes, “we expect [women] to be able to have…some sense of knowledge…, to have some sense of equality, and it’s just not realistic that that’s going to happen.”
Sex ed is so limited in its current capacity that students are forced to look outside the classroom for information. And in a society tailored toward heteronormative, male-oriented satisfaction, women don’t find the knowledge to which they’re entitled. They’re left without resources, comprehension, and, ultimately, sexual fulfillment.
But there’s still hope. Where the U.S. is currently failing, the Netherlands has found success. The country mandates that sexuality education begins as early as kindergarten. Students and teachers have open conversations about the way pleasure factors into intimacy, love, and respect; they encourage parents to talk to their kids openly about enjoyment, and they create a supportive environment wherein all genders can explore their sexualities. The result is not only 80 percent fewer teen pregnancies, but 72 percent of women regularly reaching climax with a partner.