As part of our education services we hosted “Fact or Friction: Community Stories of Sex Education” to showcase the importance of early, inclusive, and continuous sex education. This event was a collection of stories submitted and shared by brave, often humorous and always caring members of our community.
Left an Impression.
My first experience with what you might call formal “sex ed” was in a Catholic school in the fifth grade. I think at that time the Grade 5 students were only included because it was a split grade 5/6 class. The details on the actual material taught are a bit fuzzy, obviously, being a few years ago now.
As you might expect, when material is sanctioned by a religious school board, there was no talk of contraception and we were told that at our ages, “nocturnal emissions” were the only official way that sperm could and should come out of a penis. But in my opinion, the teacher did a wonderful job with the material. He answered everyone’s questions with grace and professionalism, and talked to us in a way that did not incite the giggling or immaturity that you might expect from students at that age.
Well, usually – there was one exception. Leading up to this, the most crucial part of the class were the drawings. This teacher was something of an artist. One of the things he did when talking about the human anatomy was to sketch, in white chalk, highly detailed and scientific-looking depictions of the male and female reproductive systems. They were large enough for the whole class to see and were referenced frequently during the discussions.
The moment where immaturity did kick in for most of the students was when our teacher, after having spoken (at length) about the male reproductive system, engaged the class in discussion but gradually leaned back against the chalkboard as he took questions from students. When he turned around a few minutes later to continue drawing, there was an impressively detailed chalk outline of a penis and scrotum on his vest.
I don’t remember how long it took for someone to tell him, but I think it remained visible for the better part of the day. For better or for worse, that was the most memorable sex ed experience I’ve had.
A Funny Story
I went to a completely French Catholic high school, which means two things: I couldn’t speak English, or talk about sex. Unfortunately, I never had any sexual heath education, absolutely nothing. Even abstinence wasn’t discussed. Therefore, anything I knew about sex and sexuality was from my peers, online forums, porn and a book about puberty my mom decided to give me one Christmas morning.
My school was so against discussing anything sex related, that my 11th-grade biology teacher told my class that we were not learning about the reproductive system because we were too young and too immature. In 12th grade, I finally learned about what happens when I menstruate. In 12th grade…when I was 17…and had had my period for 5 years already!
You know that actually reminds me of a funny story. When my younger sister got her first period I asked if she was going to use tampons and she answered, “no, that is disgusting.” I replied with “why?” and she said, “Why would I put something up my ass?” Now I know this sounds funny but it speaks to the larger issue of the lack of sexual health education offered to youth can be dangerous and lead to risky sexual behavior in the future. My experiences in my program, volunteering at the Wellness Education Centre on campus, and at SHORE Centre motivate me to educate individuals on this matter and to advocate for comprehensive sex education for everyone.
I Just Got Lucky
One of my most memorable, and negative, experiences of sex ed was in high school, which I attended locally. They gathered a large group of us teenagers in a presentation room, there were probably a little more than sixty of us. A presenter gave us all small white cups filled with liquid, without fully explaining what was happening – just that it represented sex.
We were told to combine our cups into one of our neighbour’s, then even out the liquid between the cups again, and to do this as many times as we wanted with as many people as we wanted. Innuendos started immediately. I ‘shared’ my cup with three people. Once this had gone on for a while, everyone was told to return to their seats and stop swapping fluids. The presenter then explained that what we had just done represented sexual relations (heterosexual, nothing otherwise was mentioned), and that it represented our risk of disease.
They showed us one of those scare-mongering charts that shows if you’ve had sex with two, or three, or four people, and each of those people has had sex with more than one person, then ‘by extension’ you’ve had sexual contact with hundreds of people – and are at severe risk. She then began using an eye dropper to put a drop of liquid in every one of our cups – if the cup turned pink, it meant that in the metaphor of our game, we had gotten an STI. All of the cups, except mine and the person beside me, turned pink.
The presenter knowingly nodded, smiled. She gestured excitedly at me: “This has happened before. Did you cover your cup and say you were a virgin?” I shook my head and started laughing. “Naw, I just got lucky, I guess.” All the kids around me burst out laughing, to the dirty looks of the presenter. At no point during her presentation did she talk about risk prevention – just abstinence, with STIs as a kind of moral enforcer.
She went on to talk about how when women have sex with men, their brains release the bonding hormone oxytocin, ‘only released when a woman gives birth or has sex.’ She also said this was not the same for men – and so men would leave us if we had premarital sex with them, because they wouldn’t be bonded to us, but ours was an unbreakable bond, and it was strongest the first time we had sex.
She then told the story of someone who came up to her after a presentation and had explained how she’d been sexually assaulted as a child, and the presenter said this bonding ‘didn’t count in instances like that’. I was very into sexual health at this age (around 15-16), and I was boiling mad throughout the presentation. We came out of it and I started telling everyone about how everything we’d just heard was complete misogynistic bullshit. I still really bothers me that we were ‘taught’ this information.
In the mid-80s, I was a high school student raised in a Christian apocalyptic cult in a rural, conservative part of Canada. I was a homophobe, because I’d been raised to be one. My parents did not believe in public sex education, yet were supportive of my self-motivated learning. I was an unpopular child, and threw myself into academic research. I was fascinated by AIDS, and I read everything I could find on the topic.
I read everything from tabloid articles (Rock Hudson and Liberace had reams of articles written on them) to medical journals. Where most kids I knew would hang out with one another and play hockey or chat on the phone, I would beg to be taken to the university an hour’s drive away. There I’d sit and read articles in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine. I had a written correspondence going with the World Health Organization, the science editor at Time magazine, and the head of AIDS research in Canada (I’ve long since forgotten his name). I talked to doctors, nurses, and professors of virology. I researched everything from social ramifications to medical testing and treatments to safe sex practices.
This latter topic was the one which landed me in the most trouble. I purchased educational pamphlets from safe sex organizations in San Francisco. Here I was, a homophobic virgin, reading about anal sex, fisting, docking, poppers, and all sorts of things for which I really had no understanding. Poppers were as mysterious to me as retroviruses, but I kept reading, hoping that eventually, I’d be able to understand what it all meant.
As a result, I ended up becoming one of the most educated people on the topic of AIDS in Canada for that short period of time. Professors started coming to me for information and my opinion. I put together an education system on teaching about AIDS in junior high schools. Suddenly I was introducing safe sex topics to rural New Brunswick. The principal accepted my program, with the exception of any sympathetic talk about homosexual behaviour. I accepted this because I figured some education was better than none. There was already one reported AIDS case in the region, after all.
I wrote up a survey to be given to the students before and after taking the lessons on AIDS education. It demonstrated that the message was getting through to the kids, and that they were learning about AIDS transmission, safe sex, blood transfusions, and IV drug use.
I took my findings to a regional science fair, and that’s when things got nasty. Some of my materials (e.g. the safe sex pamphlets from San Francisco bath houses) was sexually explicit. One kid kept showing up and taking my materials, taking off with them to snicker and show his friends. I had saved up my allowance to purchase these, and didn’t appreciate having them taken, let alone to have them being laughed at. I managed to get them back, and put them away in my purse.
While I wasn’t looking, the kid came back and stole them from my purse. I had no idea anything was wrong until an angry mother stormed over to me with my pamphlets. She screamed at me, told me I was a pervert who was corrupting her son, and then she tore up my pamphlets and brought over science fair staff. They went through my materials, ensuring there weren’t any more “dirty” materials.
I was not reimbursed for my stolen and destroyed property.
I received an honourable mention for my science fair project. I was invited to address a class at a local university (I demurred, because I thought that since I was just a high school kid, I’d have nothing to teach to university students). And when I went on to the provincial science fair, I had all my materials searched for contraband perversion before I was allowed to set up.
And For Goodness Sake Pleasure
Notable moments of my grade 9 sex ed experiences were:
- Watching a condom demonstration with a USED condom (previously used in the last demonstration) over the end of a tennis racket.
- Being told by the supply teacher in one class that the clitoris is the g-spot (which I sheepishly challenged her on when I was 14)
- and seeing a cartoonish drawing of a vulva and thinking, “oh my god, I stretched my labia from masturbating too much. I’m not symmetrical at all!”
I tried to quit masturbating which lead to a lot of frustration, crying, and feeling ashamed until after about 2 weeks of emotions I thought, “Fuck it. I’ll just be deformed then. This is ridiculous.”
I confused my hymen with an elongated inner lip until I was 18 and my partner at the time gently informed me this was my inner lip. I had no idea what inner lips could look like because we weren’t shown real pictures of real bodies. Ever.
I had painful intercourse from the age of 16 – 21 because no one told me sex wasn’t supposed to hurt for girls. Ever. But none of that upset me much at the time (it does now as an adult, now that I know more about things and life and the fact that I have endometriosis to manage).
What upset me and left me feeling empty was the question, “when do I know I’m ready to have sex?” My teacher was generally kind, compassionate, approachable, and liked me. She very earnestly tried to answer and said it’s different for everyone but that, “the average age is about 16 for girls to lose their virginity.” So I had penis-in-vagina intercourse when I was 16. Aside from the fact that she missed discussing other kinds of sex (oral, digital, masturbation, etc.), she didn’t really answer my question because my question wasn’t about when. It was about intimacy. Trust. Risks versus benefits. Connection. Pleasure. Permission.
I think 20% of sex ed should be about STIs, treatments, testing, risks of different activity, and pregnancy. 80% needs to go toward relationships, self-esteem, challenging the status quo, and for goodness sake pleasure.
In 7th and 8th grade, we were taught pretty basic sex ed by our gym teacher named Mr. Love. As if that itself wasn’t funny enough, every time he said the word “penis”, his voice got a lot louder. I’m not sure if it was an intentional emphasis or not. I think he was a lot more uncomfortable than we were.
Are you sure you weren’t circumcised?
When I was sixteen, I was in my first serious romantic relationship. We were both each other’s first sexual partners. I remember one day, before we were sexually active, we were asking each other questions about the other’s body, you know, sexual curiosity, and because I still thought that penises were mostly just terrifying, ugly mushrooms I wanted to get more comfortable with the idea of one day looking it straight in the face.
I asked him if he was circumcised, and he said no. I said, “Really? Isn’t it common for boys to get circumcised in Canada?” He replied, “Well I’m not Jewish”. I explained to him that while it was a common practice for Jewish males, I also had Catholic family members that circumcised all of their sons, and that it was a wider practice than he thought. He was adamant that he had a foreskin, and I was like “Ok, neat”.
Flash forward a couple of months to when we started exploring for real, I saw his penis. There was no foreskin. I asked him again, “Are you sure you weren’t circumcised?” He was very confused, and pointed to the tip of his penis, saying “Yeah, look”. He thought the head of his penis was a foreskin.
I asked him if anyone had ever shown him in school a picture or diagram of what a penis looked like on the outside, he said no. He was obviously embarrassed now at the lack of knowledge regarding his own body, and as a sixteen-year-old who was seeing her first real-life penis, I did my best to balance education with understanding and reassurance, but this was a flaw in his sexual education, from his parents, and from the school’s sex-ed program.
I myself had circumcision explained to me by my family as a child, because I asked what it was. There was no skirting around the issue, I got told in plain and simple language what was happening to my younger cousins, and it taught me not to be embarrassed to call a body part by its proper name, and to ask questions about sexual health as I matured. Regardless of your individual opinion on circumcision, we need to teach people about their body parts and their functions to minimize awkwardness in sexual debut!
Something in the back of mind went *ding*
Trigger warnings for discussions of sex-negativity and sex-repulsion, dubious consent, and description sexual experiences.
A preliminary definition: Asexual – someone who lacks the experience of sexual attraction to others. The community around asexual identity is highly diverse and represents a range of experiences, the common thread being a lack of sexual attraction, or conventional sexual attraction to others. Notably, I’ll be sharing my own experience with asexual identity, which is not representative of the community as a whole.
Somewhere around 4 years ago in the summer between my second and third years of university, I stumbled across a post online about asexual identity. I’ve since been unable to re-locate it, but the gist was this: Asexual people can enjoy sex.
Asexual people can be in sexual relationships. Asexual people can masturbate. Asexual people can have libidos.
I’d seen other brief writings about asexuality before but being someone who found sex to be enjoyable and who was comfortable being in sexual relationships, I never found much reason to look more closely into the label of asexual, or ace. As I alluded to before, asexuality is a range, or spectrum of different identities. Some folks choose never to have romantic or sexual relationships for their entire lives, some are sex-negative or sex-repulsed, some are ambivalent about the whole thing, some only experience sexual attraction and interest after intense emotional connection over a long period of time, some are interested in and enjoy sex.
For me, this post broadened my understanding of what ace identity could be, and while scrolling through the internet, something in the back of my brain went ……. *ding*. Like something had been baking in some oven in the depths of my mind for longer than I could remember. And now it was done?? And I ignored it to continue scrolling through tumblr, leaving my sub-conscience to go poke it with a skewer and see if it was baked all the way through.
I didn’t consciously revisit it until 2 weeks later.
In two weeks’ time I found myself on my back in my girlfriend’s bed. She was working her magic on top of me, inside of me, my thoughts wandered as they had want to do with such mind-blowing and incredible sensations. They wandered to my baking, still fresh from the oven, and in this moment of intimacy and sharing, mid-thrust, I blurted rather without any forethought “so… I think I might be asexual”
She looked down at me and said….
“Do you want me to stop?…”
“No! No”, I reassured her, “this is great, please continue. I just read something about how asexual people can still enjoy sex… and it got me thinking”
It got me thinking about all the times I’d looked at the people I cared for deeply and wanted to kiss and snuggle them but never farther than that. About all the times while kissing that my partners would get frustrated with me that I “never initiated”. I do initiate, I would retort, I felt that I initiated… I initiated foreplay, I initiated kissing. “That’s not the same” they would say, “you never go farther than that”.
I got thinking about when insecure partners would ask how I felt about their bodies. Imploring me for more detail, I would say “I like your body, because I like you, and your body is you.” No, they would say, now disheartened “not how you feel about me, just my body”. They felt I was saying “I like you for your personality” but in reality I didn’t have the words to say “I don’t experience sexual attraction, but I’m attracted to you in all of the ways that I know”.
Now, I felt like part of me was missing. I didn’t know how but I didn’t understand the premise of their questions about bodies, or their concerns about initiating, and whenever it came up it was upsetting for them. And I felt inadequate, like my love was broken. Like it wasn’t enough.
I got thinking about all the times that my partners needed reassurance from my confusing inability to connect in these particular ways. And the reassurance they would seek was in sex. I felt that I owed them a better demonstration of my love. My inability to be reassuring led me to want to reassure however I could, so I would give them my body for that reassurance. But since I didn’t understand what this issue was, what created this disconnect in the first place, i didn’t have the words to ask for connection in a way that would also work for me.
I don’t care to remember how many times the direct and immediate result of conversations where I felt that my love was inadequate was me giving up my body without connection that I could feel. I am only thankful that on that occasion on my back with my girlfriend saying incongruous things while we shared our bodies together, I started to make a more robust definition of consent for myself.
I have the capacity for sexual enthusiasm, but in trying to unravel all of this I find myself more often sex-negative, or just ambivalent about the entire thing. Sex might feel good for me, but to this day I carry the weight of expectation to meet my partners where they are sexually, whether the expectation is actually from them or just from me.
Discovering the breadth of asexual experience has helped me reclaim my own experiences, the good and the bad. I’ve seen small beginnings of how I can feel about sex when I feel no expectation and when there is connection that is spoken in my language. I now know what true and enthusiastic consent can feel like, when a breathy “yes” carries all the weight of “don’t stop, don’t ever stop, this is amazing sharing here with you”. And I know that sex makes a hell of a lot more sense to me when preceded by a hell of a lot of kissing.
My greatest hope for everyone is that the more we share our ace experiences, the less alone and broken we will feel. I want to give this recipe away so that others struggling with baffling ingredients they don’t know how to work with can maybe start to make sense of some things. Because the more we share and have the words for what we feel, the more we can be free to choose and to ask for the relationships and interactions that make us feel whole and enough.
Corn, corn, corn – sounds like porn, porn, porn
I can’t quite pinpoint the first time I learned about sex or sexual health, other than the fact that it was treated, as we got older, as an ongoing discussion in my family’s home. If a sex scene ever showed up on TV instead of turning it off or covering our eyes, my parents would turn to my brother and I and ask, “Do you know what is going on here?” and proceed to explain why what we were seeing was sexual but also very fake. I appreciate their openness and frankness that taught me sex was natural and healthy but also sensationalized and often portrayed for shock factor in movies and on TV.
If I think back to when I was much younger, I think it is quite possible that I learned the word porn before I learned what sex was. This was in no part my parents’ doing. In fact, I remember quite clearly being at a Canada Day BBQ in our backyard with all our neighbours and friends. I was probably about 7 or 8 years old. An older neighbour was so excited about the food we had on the BBQ and had clearly just learned how to use his dial-up internet. He took a cob of corn, starting munching on it and singing “Corn, corn, corn – sounds like porn, porn, porn!” Of course, this sounded like a fun song, so we all started singing it!
I remember thinking that porn was a word I had never heard before, but the adults all reacted very quickly and got everyone to stop. There was my first clue that porn was something secretive and special in some way. So of course, I handled it how I handled all problems at that age, and gathered up my friends for a secret meeting in my room. We discussed what we had seen and heard and tried to figure out what porn was. The boys started yelling again through the screen window, so we yelled back “What does porn even mean?” Then they said it: “it has to do with S-E-X!” I had never heard of sex before but one older friend explained: “It’s what adults do when they get naked”. It would be a couple years still before I fully understood, but I remember spending the rest of that BBQ imagining all the things naked people could possibly do with an ear of corn, and avoiding eating the corn my family was serving at all costs.