Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Clitoris?

In the first birds-and-the-bees talk I ever had with a grown-up, I was told that, above all, sex is special. It sounded a little ominous, like a big responsibility, kind of like First Communion — something to take seriously and not mess up. It was years before anyone suggested to me that it should be fun — and “fun” was far from the focus of ninth-grade sex ed. We learned about STIs, unplanned pregnancy, and the basics of consent, sure, but next to nothing about how to actually masturbate or have sex. I was one of the lucky few U.S. students to receive education that extended beyond slut-shaming and exhortations to abstinence, and still I was on my own when it came to getting to know my clit and its 8,000 sensory nerve endings.

Even those who would like to see pleasure addressed in sex ed tend to think of its inclusion as icing on the cake, a nice bonus. After all, boys will probably be able to work out how to get their rocks off without assistance, while girls can just figure out all that pleasure stuff when they’re older, when they start buying fancy rabbit vibrators and going to New-Agey orgasm workshops and eventually psychotherapy, right?

But our collective failure to discuss the pleasure of sex is far more sinister than prudish. Sex-ed curriculums that omit it aren’t just incomplete. They’re dangerous. When we neglect to teach young women and their partners that sex should feel good, and should be, of all things, fun, sex becomes something for men to request and women to submit to. I think of the system of Intuitive Eating, which has been championed by Refinery29’s Kelsey Miller and holds that your body’s internal cues rather than external rules or triggers should guide what you eat: When we separate how our bodies feel from the act of sex — when we treat intercourse only as an occasion for people to get STIs, get unintentionally pregnant, or get in trouble for not obtaining consent — we open the door to sexual coercion, pressure, and even violence. How else could a man get a woman to do something divorced from her own desire to do it?
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Girls can just figure out all that pleasure stuff when they’re older, when they start buying fancy rabbit vibrators and going to New-Agey orgasm workshops and eventually psychotherapy, right?

We can advocate for consent until we’re hoarse, but unless we also emphasize pleasure, our myopic focus on “yes means yes” may lead to a lot of unenthusiastic “sures.” The clitoris, for example, is the reason most women are able to orgasm at all, and yet sex-ed programs bury its superpower in clinical anatomical diagrams.

Maybe we’re embarrassed by the little wishbone-shaped structure, whose only function is to make women feel good, while the penis, on the other hand, also has the more utilitarian responsibilities of expelling urine and semen. That’s why I’m heartened to see a new high school sex-ed resource out of Australia’s La Trobe University that addresses not only sexual and reproductive health but also desire and pleasure; I’m also depressed that this approach is still so novel as to be newsworthy. It was 22 years ago that the Clinton White House forced Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders to resign after she recommended that students be taught how to masturbate as part of the effort to stem the transmission of HIV, and her suggestion remains nearly as “radical” today. President Barack Obama's move last week to cut federal funding for abstinence-only sex ed in public schools has been lauded as bold and momentous. It also has next to no chance of being approved by the Senate.

In an op-ed for The Guardian on the new Australian sex-ed initiative, the feminist social critic Van Badham cites a line in the book Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley: “Sexuality itself was sometimes understood, by the women in my family, as a kind of violence that must be submitted to, buried deep in the privacy of domestic life.” This kind of violence — the kind you submit to because your own desires have been suppressed — may not be rape. But it’s also not much fun. We owe ourselves, and our clits, much more.
The Bed Post is a series that explores what holds us back from sex and love with whom we want, when we want, where we want, and how we want — because we all deserve sex and love lives that are not only free of evils, but full of what is good. Follow me on Twitter at @hlmacmillen or email me at hayley.macmillen@refinery29 — I’d love to hear from you. Find all of The Bed Post right here.
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