When I was a child I thought the word 'clitoris' was slang. I had heard it talked about on TV and in the movies and some girls at school had mentioned it, but because I’d never seen it written in a textbook or heard it discussed in the classroom, I presumed it was a colloquial term, rather than an anatomical description. I was a teenager before I realised that it was a proper word, included in the Oxford English Dictionary and everything.
I’d had sex education – a single day towards the end of primary school that crammed in instructions about wearing deodorant alongside segments about periods – when I was 11 but the clitoris didn’t come up then. Neither did masturbation or female orgasm. A few years later, when teachers showed us videos featuring anti-choice, pro-abstinence Americans as part of our sex education, any talk of female pleasure was similarly absent.
I am Irish and I had always assumed that the dire sex education I received was an anomaly in the developed West, a symptom of how the Catholic church was intertwined in the Irish education system. However, when I started writing a book about female health and sexuality, I realised that it wasn’t just me. It turns out that children and teenagers all over the world, including in the UK, are let down by educators who are too squeamish, too nervous and too unsupported to properly deliver a robust sex education. In 2012, the last time Ofsted carried out an analysis of sex education in UK schools, inspectors found that it required improvement in more than a third.
Last year I spoke to Lucy Emmerson, director of the UK’s Sex Education Forum, a group that works to achieve good relationships and sex education (RSE) for British children and teenagers. She confirmed that the standard is still patchy throughout the UK.
"I think you would find some examples of schools where they’re teaching RSE in a sex-positive way, where they have good lessons on anatomy, where they are talking about pleasure, female as much as male," she told me. But when pushed to guess at the proportion of schools providing an excellent standard of sex education, her verdict was bleak. "One in 10 or one in 20."
When researching this piece, I spoke to 10 women in their 20s and 30s, all London-based but from various parts of the UK as well as Ireland and Australia, and each one recalled an abysmal sex education, especially pertaining to female pleasure. "Lol, no," was the standard response when I asked, "Were you told about the female orgasm at school?"
So much of sex education focuses on pregnancy – and how to avoid it – at the expense of all the other aspects of sex and sensuality, and that’s a situation that disempowers women, minimising their desires and needs while prioritising the straight male experience.
Laura, a 38-year-old marketing director from Berkshire, described how her sex education "explained sex as a penetrative linear experience culminating in male climax". Catherine, a 35-year-old working in the charity sector, said: "The approach I encountered definitely set up the boys-want-sex-your-job-is-to-avoid-it discourse."
It’s important to educate everyone about their own pleasure and what they themselves enjoy – we're all our own primary sexual partner ultimately.
The women I spoke to grew up being taught that pleasure was something you give to boys or men, not something you strive for – on your own or with a partner. That message was reinforced by the pop culture of the 1990s, too. Britney Spears was a virgin, we were told, and yet she also was a sex symbol. A girl’s desire didn’t matter; it was all about desirability. Clare, a 33-year-old producer, recalled growing up alongside The Rules, the 1990s US dating book that discouraged women from "aggressively pursuing" men, telling them instead to "slow down the courtship process" by making themselves "seem unattainable". "Sex became a weaponised commodity to trade with men for gifts and affection," she said.
When female pleasure is absent from the sex-ed curriculum, girls begin having sex with warped notions of what is expected of them and what they can expect. One 36-year-old producer told me recently: "I wish I'd been taught that sex can hurt, but it doesn't have to." It took her years to learn that lesson herself.
I’m in my mid 30s now and many of my peers have young children. There is an assumption that the sex education they’ll receive will be better than ours but it’s not guaranteed. A new RSE curriculum will be made compulsory in UK schools in September 2020 and, crucially, there will be an increased focus on consent and LGBTQ+ relationships. But looking at the draft guidelines for the overhaul, it’s not clear whether female pleasure and orgasm will be highlighted. It seems absurd, as the issue of pleasure for everyone – female, non-binary, male – is surely integral to both consent and queer relationships. If we are going to actually challenge the male orgasm-focused status quo, we have got to start talking about – and teaching others about – female pleasure.
Clare put it this way: "It’s important to educate everyone about their own pleasure and about what they themselves enjoy – male and female, gay, straight, bisexual, we're all our own primary sexual partner ultimately." Laura agreed: "Everyone should understand that pleasure is something to learn to cultivate for yourself and to learn to give to others. It's a conversation with yourself and your body and then in time with another self and another body and so on."
For half of us that conversation begins with the clitoris. In some French schools, children and teenagers are being shown 3D models of the clitoris – including not just the visible head but the clitoral bulbs and legs that extend inside the body, too. It’s an initiative that should be rolled out everywhere; educating girls about how their bodies work must be the basis of any education that tackles issues like consent and gender inequality. Every child should know what the word clitoris means. And every child should know what it’s there for.
*Some names have been changed