Should Sex Ed Always Be Sex-Positive?

I’m sure you guys have all heard about the new web site called Sex.Really., sponsored by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Unlike some other sex ed web sites, it’s geared towards women in their 20’s, and is designed to

"provide food for thought, and for discussion. Sort of like a sex site for the brain…"

I love the idea of the site in theory – yes, people of all ages need sex education, especially those in their 20s and 30s (and even 40s, 50s and 60s) who are making up the ‘rules’ as they go. But have you read it? Unfortunately, most of the content seems to revolve around the work of author Laura Sessions Stepp. And as a post over at Jezebel so aptly describes, that means:

In the system of sexuality that Sessions Stepp seems to favor — the slow, steady, codified "running of the bases" within a relationship — women are always the sexual gatekeepers. This stance neatly sidesteps any notion of men’s responsibility for, well, anything. In Sessions Stepp’s view, women trade sex begrudgingly in return for access to the socially-protected role of "girlfriend" and the supposed privileges that come with it.

Exactly why can this approach be so harmful?

As my friend Jessica*, who just started dating casually after getting out of a four-year relationship, put it:

It was weird for me at first to have sex with someone I wasn’t in a relationship with, and I kind of freaked out and thought I was doing something wrong.
But then I realized that "I feel like I’m doing something wrong" thing wasn’t coming from me, it was coming from my fear of being judged by other folks.
For me I couldn’t make sex contingent upon a relationship because I wasn’t ready to get into a new relationship. But I did want to have sex.
It’s weird, it probably would have been more unhealthy for me to force a relationship in order to have sex. But I think [Laura Sessions Step] would think that having a relationship was more healthy.

She’s not my only friend who’s had this reaction, especially after getting out of a relationship. 

I agree that it’s good for sex ed to be holistic, and to talk about the emotional consequences of the decisions we make — Planned Parenthood of New York City uses a model of sex ed that talks about body image, relationships and everything else in between. I also agree that navigating just what kind of sexual relationship (no strings attached, long term relationship) you’re comfortable entering into can be tricky. 

But so far, the content on Sex.Really., with its warnings about the negative consequences of hook ups and stark lines between sex and relationships, isn’t doing much to help the matter. 

But maybe I’m being too anything-goes sex-positive. What do you think? Is there value in what Laura Sessions Step has been producing for the site

* Yes, names have been changed to protect the newly-singe

This piece was cross posted to the PPNYC blog

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  • emily-douglas

    Erica, thanks so much for posting this and for bringing this site to our attention! You pose an interesting question — “maybe I’m being too anything-goes sex-positive.” I don’t think you are. The Laura Sessions Stepp model — in which only women bear emotional and physical consequences, supposed or actual, of sex — is not the only one in which we can acknowledge that sex can be a complex experience and can have negative outcomes — emotional or health-wise. My favorite site about sexuality and sexual health, Scarleteen, is very honest and straightforward about people’s negative experiences with sex. But Scarleteen doesn’t assume that only women suffer the consequences, or that any particular set of experiences always leads to suffering.

  • invalid-0

    I’m all for the Campaign opening up the discussion about sex and relationships to people in their 20s–as a sex educator at a huge university, I find it a hard sell to recommend the best websites (like Scarleteen) which are really geared toward teenagers. Most of what my students absorb comes from television and popular magazines, like Cosmo, Men’s Health, etc., because they long for conversation that is peer-led in tone, not too clinical nor to teenager-y.
    So while I was initially excited about sexreally, the Campaign has totally fumbled this one by choosing Laura Sessions Stepp to headline this website. First of all, she’s decades away from actually being in her twenties and secondly, the majority of her “work” around sex is specifically designed to terrify women into NOT having it. Neither of those are going to win her any credibility with women in their twenties–there are plenty of them (and, ahem, us) who are qualified to lead this discussion on our own, thank you very much. As anyone who works (successfully) with college students knows, if you start off with the old abstinence canard, “Well, you really shouldn’t be having sex, but if you are…” they just won’t listen. They don’t have to, because they’re ADULTS.

  • invalid-0

    I found it very interesing how your friend realized how her sense of “wrong” stemed from how she felt she would be judged by others. It remindeed me of the remark by Sarah Palin about when the possiblilty of abortion occured to her, it was focused on how “nobody would know”. It was all about how she would be judged by others. It does seem that society expects everyone to conform to a certain norm and anyone outside that norm is condemed and ostracized and expected to change. It would be nice if society could emabrace diversity and tolerance a little more and allow people to have their own values and pursuit of happiness.

  • erica-sackin

    Thanks for the comments guys — Guli, I think that women in their 20s (and 30s and 40s and on and on) are definitely aching for good honest discussions about sex and sexuality — personally I think that might be one of the reasons things like Dan Savage’s Savage Love or even Sex and the City become so widely popular. I’d be curious about what resources you’ve found useful (even if it’s just open honest conversation).

    Erica Sackin

    Planned Parenthood of New York City

  • invalid-0

    What a great article! I’m in my 30s and entering “sex with no attachments” dating for the first time in my life. I like it, but I’ve also felt horribly guilty for wanting it. I wasn’t raised with an abstinence-only education, but all you ever hear is what to do to not get pregnant or get STDs. I feel well educated about this now, but the emotional aspects of sex are never discussed. I end up having discussions with my friends for hours on this, but we don’t necessarily come up with any solutions. For me, no matter how hard I try, the guilt of wanting to “sow my wild oats” still lingers with me at the end of the day. Luckily, I am finding that younger guys that I am dating aren’t offended by the fact that I want to have sex without the benefit of a relationship. My hope is that, over time, this type of attitude, which isn’t odd for men, will become okay, at least in some circles, for women.

    Finally, does any know good “sex ed” websites for 20+ women/men? I like Scarleteen, but I’d also love to find something a little more age appropriate for me.

  • invalid-0

    Fight the guilt, dmp. You’re doing what more than a millenium of Western misogyny has feared and done its damndest to stop you from doing. When most anti-choicers condemn abortion, it’s not because they care about fetuses (despite their protestations), but because they see abortion as enabling women to do exactly as you are.

    The more I’ve studied feminism and the issues surrounding reproductive health, the more I’ve become convinced that the real bete noire of the entire social-conservative movement is a strong, smart, independent, hedonistic woman, who diligently avoids STDs and unwanted pregnancies (i.e. the “consequences” that many would feel she deserves). They want to see her submissive, they want to see her married, to have her act meekly, enjoy sex only to the extent that it pleases the man she is bonded to, and put aside her own desires for the whole maternal enterprise. It’s like… they’re so hell-bent on stifling the potential of womens’ lives… enslaving them, in a sense, with all the attendant costs.

    Anyway, you’re coming close to the opposite pole of that, so… try not to let that little fundamentalist’s voice inside your head distract you too much :-)

  • invalid-0

    Hey Anon, thanks for the reassurance. I completely agree with you– I’m supposed to be the dutiful woman who lives only to be a wife and mother and only has sex to procreate. Yeah, I don’t fit that mold at all. I adore my job and what I’m able to do for the community. Yeah, I want to get married and have kids, but I will always work… because I like to! I’m glad to be the woman that conservatives can’t stand. I’ll remember that the next time I feel guilty…

    • erica-sackin

      Thanks so much for sharing DMP. I too have found that while so much of the sex ed we receive covers the facts & biological specifics, it fails to delve into the emotional. Which you know makes sense when you consider that no one person can tell another how to feel about sex or relationships. But I agree with anon — sometimes it takes peeling away layers of judgment like an onion to get down to which part is what YOU really feel versus what you’ve been told all your life you SHOULD really feel. 

      Erica Sackin

      Planned Parenthood of New York City