I read a great book this week that got me thinking about penile-vaginal sex. Not in that way, you seedy beast, but in how much it rules what we do in terms of sexual health education, societal norms and perspectives.
Please note – I’m going to use the term penile-vaginal sex a lot. If that makes you feel uncomfortable – I want you to know and understand that I could not really care.
Karley Sciortino’s book Slutever is part memoir, part sociological critique of gender and sexuality through a sex-positive lens. It is not for the faint hearted and not a perfect book – but I really enjoyed some of the questioning moments in the book. I particularly enjoyed the section on what is sex and what isn’t. It is something as a researcher I think about in terms of education and information. Its a fascinating thing we’ve constructed as far as our societal definitions and cultural norms.
As a society, we place such a misguided amount of weight around penile-vaginal sex. It is what “counts” in losing your virginity. It is all all our relationships and sexuality education in schools often dares to focus on. Sciortino talks about how it is often the “goal” in sex between cisgendered heteronormative couples. Its great fun, but is it all that sex is? We’ve been having different types of sex since time began, but rarely educate on it.
Within my own research (as in, published scholarly, not google/wikipedia), young people voiced a desire for relationships and sexuality education that acknowledged same-sex attraction as well as diverse sexuality – and they wouldn’t mind some information that they actually need. (gasp) In another paper about to be published in Sex Education, stakeholders I spoke to who deliver sexual health promotion in the community, either as a job or as accidental experts – also talk about the need for education that is relevant and meets young people’s needs [edit: it is now published. read it here]. There is also a fair bit about being afraid of stigma and backlash – but both groups agreed it needs to be more than cross section diagrams of genitals.
So much of our relationships and sexuality education focuses on biology. It targets penile-vaginal intercourse with laser like intensity. Heaven forbid we acknowledge that sex is much more than that. God only knows what would happen if we acknowledged in our education that lesbian, gay and bisexual people have sex that may not involve either a penis or a vagina. Or that penile-vaginal intercourse is just one way to get off. I know the sky would fall in if we delved in to the pleasure zone, so lets keep things functional for now.
We could start by looking at what young people are actually doing. We, as a society could acknowledge that more than 50% of young people in years 10 to 12 have received oral sex (surveyed as part of the 6th National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health). Or that 50% have given oral sex. Or that 65% have already been off touching genitals and/or having their genitals touched. Experience in penile-vaginal sex comes in a lowly 44% of all genders. So what counts as having sex? Does oral sex? What about a hand job? What information is important?
If we think of sex in purely pro-creative and biological terms – of the young people surveyed, 66% were still virgins. And their future partners will be so happy to hear that. Or something. No one wants to marry a sullied “non-virgin”. So with that in mind, how do you lose your virginity if you are gay, lesbian or bisexual and only engage in same-sex relationships? Are you always a virgin, regardless? Frozen in time.
Maybe all these young people are just saving their “Technical Virginity” by giving handjobs, having oral sex and anal sex. If you’ve never heard of “Technical Virginity” – its where you abstain from penile-vaginal intercourse while engaging in everything else. For some reason. Morality probably. It ensures that when they hold your sheets up Day One of your honeymoon that the awaiting crowd can be reassured you were a virgin. If you were a women. Because guys can slut it up as much as they want. Cause that doesn’t matter. Duh!
I find the most confusing part about it all this, is the focus around this coveted virginity test (I am aware the sheet showing doesn’t happen now). Does counting your sexual partners in terms of penile-vaginal intercourse really make sense? Aside from the fact that counting sexual partners in some form of chaste morality contest is pretty strange – does it really make sense saying that giving blow-jobs doesn’t count? What is sex? If blowjobs and going doing aren’t sex, then we don’t need to cover them in education after all. Or, maybe our education can get with the program and start focussing less on preventing pregnancy, and more on giving young people information they need. Lets dump our societal baggage and get real.
To be clear – I think if you’ve chosen to safely and consensually enjoy your body and someone else’s – that is awesome! If that is with a heap of people over time – great. Seriously, who cares? If you’ve decided to wait for “The One” to have penile-vaginal sex with – that is really super too! If while waiting, you’ve decided to have oral sex with a heap of people – again – that is great. But can we please move on from defining sex in terms of penile-vaginal intercourse? Can we perhaps even move on from competitions that spring from maintaining “Technical virginity” and gate-keeping morality and get real?
Sex comes in a heap of different sizes, shapes and styles. Its a heap of fun and it is for a lot more than procreation. Young people for ever and a day have been having oral sex and jerking each other off in the back of their cars/wagons/etc. It is all sex. If you’ve been having a really fantastic time with someone and engaging in oral sex (giving and/or receiving) – I don’t know or care if you’re a virgin (and to be honest, no one really knows – or cares – so get over it). But I do know that it is sexual activity. You are or have been sexually active. You have sexed with people/s. Surprise!
Now you’ve gotten over that shock – we need to think about what we can do about all this sex that is going on.
We all need to learn about sex, about being sexually active and about how to negotiate consent. Preferably before we start doing it. We all need to learn how to do it safely and hopefully well, so everyone involved has a good, wholesome, fun ole’ time.
As adults, we need to advocate for real relationships and sexuality education – stuff that will actually help. When it’s needed. Lets get real and give people what they want. Useful information with a lot less slut shaming.