Like most people of this generation, I was taught in school that sex was penetrative, and between a man and a woman. From the penis-in-vagina cross-section diagrams in my 7th grade biology textbooks, to my parents’ ‘when a man and a woman love each other very much…’ spiel – the whole thing was disastrously heteronormative. This was problematic for more reasons than one.
The first problem is the obvious one, such an education engenders compulsory heterosexuality, to use Adrienne Rich’s well-known phrase. We’ve moved on from a society where women were seen in terms of motherhood and sex was seen as purely reproductive. We’re way beyond that. But for some reason many people still hold onto latent beliefs from that time with vigour.
This does not only preclude and ostracise queer identity. This form of sex education also sows the seed for queerphobic commentary often made out of ignorance in later life. The claim that lesbian sex isn’t “real” is one example. This early and supposedly inconsequential education sets the scene for these misunderstandings. It’s unsurprising that many deem heterosexual sex to be the only ‘natural’ option when that is all that we’re taught about in school.
A friend of mine was publicly accused of lying because the guy she’d had sex with had considered her a virgin, despite the fact that she’d already been with a woman. When she turned out to be more sexually experienced than he’d anticipated, he accused her of sleeping around – with men. Personally, I once went for a sexual health check-up where the doctor just couldn’t get his head around the idea that I’d had lesbian sex without having used some form of penis-shaped toy.
To further dissect the phrase ‘when a man loves a women very much’ such statements are the starting point of romantic privilege. It completely ignores the existence of aromanticism and asexuality. It suggests that if people love each other, they should have sex; if they don’t, then their love is somehow inferior. Queer platonic relationships and zucchinis are pushed to the sideline, as “real sex” also comes to define ‘real relationships’ in a negative and exclusive manner.
In addition, it also has an impact on the way we navigate consent and readiness. Throughout my journey to sexual maturity I was taught to question whether I was “ready” for “sex” and not to feel pressured if I wasn’t. The problem with this is that to me and many of my peers “sex” at this moment only counted as penis-in-vagina sex, and I was left busy “saving myself” in this respect that I thought very little about the decisions I made around my first experiences of intimacy.
Mutual masturbation (for example), or any of the so called ‘bases’ or ‘percentages’ of virginity you can lose before the “real deal” still put people in a very vulnerable position – emotionally and physically. The idea that you only have to value “real sex” trivialises our experiences, and suggests that they won’t ‘mean as much’ as your “first time” – that virginity is synonymous with “popping your cherry” and “losing it”.
This put my friends and me in quite a number of horrible situations, where consent was not considered to be necessary for any kind of touching. Instead we allowed things to happen because we still had our virginity. It wasn’t “real sex” and you didn’t need consent.
After entering the wonderful and queer-friendly environment of university and throwing myself into a plethora of cherished and enlightening experiences I’ve come to conclude that sex is more a concept than a specific act. If you feel like you’ve had sex and the other person feels like you’ve had sex, then you’ve probably had sex. It’s a form of connection more than any sort of methodological formula for what body parts go where. With this knowledge we should now apply ourselves to the next generation’s education, choose not to begin with “when a man and a woman love each other very much” and at least allow a sentence or two in sex education lessons about the sexual minorities that exist. We need to acknowledge that not everyone is straight, not everyone’s genitals define them and not everyone falls in love – or enjoys sex. This is a biological fact as much as any other.
Sex is when two (or more) people interact in a way that is pleasurable and consensual. Maybe that is too general a definition, but it is better than being too specific. The way in which we are taught to perceive sex could potentially be the starting point in dispelling a lot of the marginalisation and prejudice that LGBT+ people experience in later life. Let’s do it. Let’s change things now.
Kit H. Parkins (GR. Comment Contributor)