In my early twenties, I started volunteering at an AIDS service organization in the Northern city I lived in before coming to Vancouver. I was involved in a peer education program, and I co-facilitated workshops on sexual health, and harm reduction practices. I found this work extremely rewarding, although it was challenging at times. As I grew more comfortable talking openly about sex, I became frustrated with the limitations of what we were able to do in our role as educators.
When I started this work, I was told that we can teach teenagers how to have safer sex, but we could not teach them ‘how to have sex.’ Discussion around sexual pleasure was off-limits. We could discuss communication with a sexual partner, as long as it dealt with condom use.
This bothered me a lot. I remember being a teenager and trying to navigate the varying degrees of partnered sex with other inexperienced teenagers. I remember making out with clumsy boys who would shove their fingers into my vagina roughly, thinking that it would make me feel good, and me being too afraid of being seen as damaged in some way for not enjoying it, faking it and smiling through the pain. Although my sex education was far better than most, I think (my parents were quite forthcoming with sexual information) I still wasn’t sure how to own my own sexual needs and communicate them to another person. I learned how to offer feedback as I gained experience, but the memories of those early experiences still make me cringe.
Although all genders can experience pain during sex, it is most commonly reported by women. Women generally take a little longer to become fully physically aroused, and we tend to prefer a lighter touch on our genitals to start. There are exceptions, of course, but it is safe to say that the majority of women will not have their sexual needs met by the rough, hard and fast sex styles commonly seen in porn. And because porn is too often the main way that youth learn about sex, young women may internalize the belief that something is wrong with them when they don’t respond to that type of stimulation. I know I did. I felt damaged as a young woman for entering into sexual situations and feeling mostly pain.
The discussion of pleasure is a human rights issue. Sexuality is such an important part of who we are, and yet, in the name of ‘preservation of innocence’ we deny teenagers basic information about their bodies and their sexuality. I started masturbating at eleven, and I know that I would have benefitted greatly from having access to better information about how my body works. I also think that sex toys should be available to teenagers to help them learn about their own bodies. Sadly, because of adult hang-ups and a desire to see teenagers as non-sexual, our culture limits their basic freedom to have comprehensive information about their own bodies.
How different would it be for a young woman if she, at the onset of puberty, was told that she had absolute rights to her own body? If she were given information on her body, including her genitals (I’m talking the clitoris too, not just the reproductive parts), and had the freedom to explore masturbation, including sex toys, if she desired? If someone told her that sex was supposed to feel wonderful, and that she was deserving of pleasure and respect in her sexual relationships? Young women are told that ‘sex is supposed to hurt the first time.’ The first time I had intercourse, it was excruciatingly painful. At the time, I just assumed that that was how it was supposed to be. Later on, I realized that it was painful because I was not aroused. I was nervous, and my partner and I had not engaged in any foreplay. We used a condom, but no lube. Of course it hurt, and it had nothing to do with the fact that it was my first time.
When we are silent as a culture about sexual pleasure, we create physical and psychological suffering for everyone. We also contribute to an environment in which sexually transmitted infections can be contracted more easily. If sex is pleasurable, there is less tearing of sensitive genital tissues, reducing the risk of STIs being transmitted. All in all, it is time we stopped allowing sexual shame and centuries of repression silence us. It is no coincidence that the most free and just societies throughout history had a free and open attitude about consensual sexual exploration, and that totalitarian regimes across the board make laws to limit sexual freedom. Being well-adjusted and healthy about sex, wherever you land on the many spectrums in the complex rainbow of human sexuality, is one of the vital prerequisites to living a free life, and to creating a free and just society.