1. There's no "normal," only what's "normal" to us.
I grew up in the southern United States after the rise of abstinence-only-until-marriage sex-education programs.
We didn’t learn about STDs, contraceptives, or other safe sex practices. We didn’t learn how sex worked or how it could be pleasurable instead of just for conception. The emphasis instead was on simply not having it, though we weren’t even taught what “it” was.
In gender-divided classrooms, I only learned about my period and how to properly insert a tampon. I never knew what the boys learned, but I assume it was similarly restricted.
Sadly, sex education programs here in the south and elsewhere in the U.S. haven’t progressed much, and there is much we may have missed in the process.
Here are 4 facts your sex education program may not have taught you or you still don’t know:
1. There’s no baseline for what’s “normal.”
The problem with withholding or blatant misinformation is that we tend to internalize it as shame. Our bodies seem alien, and we’re so uncomfortable with what we perceive may be “different” or “weird” that we don’t talk about it or ask questions.
When we think of sex drive, for example, we may assume from gender stereotypes that men as a whole have a greater sex drive than women.
But in multiple studies, it’s been found that the sex drives of women, men, and gender nonbinary folk range across the map. Age, physical activity, mental health, personal beliefs, medications, etc. can all influence someone’s sex drive, and there’s no “normal” to base it on. There’s only what’s “normal” for each individual.
Whether we’re dealing with arousal issues, our sexuality (gay, bi, straight, queer, ace, demi, etc.) or kinks, there’s only what’s normal for us, and to hell with what we’re worried about as what’s “normal” to other people.
2. Sex isn’t just about conception.
Despite what abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education programs might have you believe, sex can be a very healthy part of any romantic relationship, whether a couple desires to or can have children or not. Sex should also be pleasurable, and if it’s not, it’s important to seek help to learn why it isn’t.
Sex, according to sexologist Laura McGuire, is pleasurable because of “ the pudendal nerve, dopamine, and oxytocin.” The release of dopamine and oxytocin during sex can actually make you feel more connected and “in love” with your partner.
If sex was just about conception, it wouldn’t also have the chance to be pleasurable. Sex can be incredibly pleasurable so if we understand and are comfortable with our bodies.
3. It’s not always easy to spot STDs.
If we did learn about STDs in our sex education programs growing up, it was likely we learned about the most terrifying ones, the ones that are painful, physically obvious, and/or life-threatening or incurable, like genital warts or AIDS.
But not all STDs are the same. Some can be asymptomatic, potentially for years. Some present in certain folks, but not in others, and still others aren’t even tested for in all people.
For example, HPV, which can turn into cervical cancer for those who have a vagina/cervix, is asymptomatic in those who have a penis. There also is no approved test for HPV in men, which means that the only way that a man or a person with a penis might learn he/they is a carrier is if his female partner or partner with a vagina were to get it.
Because all STDs aren’t easy to spot, it’s incredibly important to regularly get STD tests, especially before and after new sexual partners. It’s also important more than ever to practice safe sex (condoms, dental dams, etc.) if you plan on having sex with multiple people at once.
4. Learning more about sex isn’t a bad thing.
Part of the whole push against comprehensive sex education programs has always been that the more kids learn, the more they’ll have sex (and the thinking that more sex will lead to STDs and unwanted pregnancies).
In reality, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists found that comprehensive sex education programs “reduce the rates of sexual activity, sexual risk behaviors (eg, number of partners and unprotected intercourse), sexually transmitted infections, and adolescent pregnancy.”
Sex is such an intimate thing that can be wrapped up in a complicated web of our personal, religious, and moral values. Learning about sex, a seemingly shameful or shame-filled thing, can seem frightening, but the more we learn about sex, the better we can handle ourselves, both in a relationship or not.
Jenny Block, author of The Ultimate Guide to Solo Sex, reminds us that, “It’s hard to have a healthy, happy sexual relationship with another human if you don’t know how to have one with yourself.”
Having a healthy self-love practice should be a key part of our own self-care.
If you’d like to learn more about sex, you can check out any of the following books (all affiliate links):
Sex is a part of all of us, and it’s important to get past our shame and fear around it and move into curiosity. Whether your sex education taught you these things or not, now that you know you have permission to seek out the answers to all of your other questions, and I hope you do.