By the time I was 16, I’d received most of my sex education from free online porn and the back pages of my mum’s Cosmopolitan. As the school nurse awkwardly waved a condom-coated banana at the class and put the fear of God into us about STIs, I’d already decided I knew the important stuff.
Sex meant a penis entering a vagina until the man finished, and then you’d pray you wouldn’t get pregnant. A decade later, the sex-positive communities online saved me – but it seems schools continue to censor sex education; making it seem, at best, a low-priority matter; and, at worst, dangerous and shameful.
I probably don’t need to tell you that sex education in the UK is far from adequate. You’ve likely had your own experiences. However, some toxic attitudes towards sexuality perpetuated in schools have hit the headlines again after it was announced that Zoella would be removed from AQA’s GCSE Media Studies courses.
The pioneering blogger, who began posting videos to her YouTube channel in 2009, has been featured on the syllabus since 2017, yet has been removed after posting a guide for the best sex toys to “spice up your life.”
AQA said that when Zoella was added to the syllabus, all her content was appropriate for teaching, but some of her recent content is aimed specifically at an adult audience and therefore “isn’t suitable for GCSE students”.
Zoella, otherwise known as Zoe Sugg, is now 30 years old – and said she wasn’t even aware her brand was on the syllabus until AQA decided to remove it.
“I actually disagree that teens shouldn’t be learning about this stuff,” she said. “Maybe not in their bloody [exam curriculum] but how else are teenage girls going to find out more about being a woman?”
AQA’s decision to remove Sugg from school syllabuses isn’t strictly an issue in of itself – after all, she may be the owner of a recognisable and relevant brand that speaks to teens, but she’s never presented herself as an educator.
The real issue is in denouncing her as “unsuitable”, which sends out a clear message that sex toys and pleasure – specifically, female pleasure – is wrong.
Sugg has explained that the purpose of the Zoella website, which is made up of “a team of women who all share a joint passion for other women”, is to “talk about taboo subjects”. She has said she wants to open up conversations with experts, ask those less heard to use their voice – and try and have a really varied range of topics to help, inspire or make people feel “less alone”.
The sad fact is that female pleasure is already presented as a “taboo” in society, unless it’s for male enjoyment. At 16, me and most of my female friends were using shower heads, tooth brushes – or just about anything we could get our hands on – to explore our bodies... not that we’d have admitted it at the time.
Boys masturbated, and girls pretended they didn’t know anything about orgasms. By removing Sugg from the syllabus for a post about sex toys, schools are reinforcing the idea that female masturbation is something to be ashamed of. This isn’t just archaic – it’s dangerous, and can seriously affect formative sexual experiences. It affected mine.
As a queer woman who didn’t come out until long after I’d left the classroom, I became very accustomed to not seeing myself in the sex and health education that my secular school presented as the norm. If I wanted to learn about the type of sex I wanted to have, then I had to turn to porn. It felt wrong and it scared me.
At school, sex was presented as a purely functional activity between a man and a woman. Pleasure and consent weren’t touched upon and I didn’t even know where to begin when it came to LGBTQ+ relationships.
When I sought out alternatives on the internet, I was faced with a world of free porn. Uneducated, and left to my own devices, I learnt that yes and no meant nothing; the louder you are the better; and one partner always seemed to be taking something from another.
The first time I was kissed by someone without my consent, I was 15. Gathered in the sticky basement at a party, I told my friends that it was awkward and he’d hurt me – but that was how it was supposed to be, right? He liked it, and it was over quickly.
I was 18, the first time I was assaulted by a partner; and at 20, I faced persistent offers of “real sex” from strange men on nights out as I stood next to my girlfriend. As I look back now, after hearing hundreds of the same stories from all of my friends who simply weren’t given the language for consent and pleasure, or the tools to say “no”, I count myself lucky that it wasn’t so much worse.
If you’re under some kind of illusion that 16-year-olds aren’t aware of sex toys, intimacy, or pleasure, then you’re naive. You might be too uncomfortable to create a safe space for them to learn about consent and choice, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t seek it out.
Sexual pleasure is healthy – but when teens see the adults in their life perpetuate shame culture, it only ever ends badly.
Over the last five years, TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube creators have taken it upon themselves to spread a sex-positive message that has consent, choice, and diversity at the forefront. Is it any wonder that young people are using the platforms available to them to teach each other about pleasure and autonomy where the adults in their life have failed them?
Zoe Sugg isn’t a sex educator, but by excluding her, schools are teaching teens that pleasure is something to be hidden. Sex education in your formative years can be the difference between forming boundaries and a healthy relationship with your body – and years of traumatic experiences. And spreading the misconception that female pleasure is “taboo” is harmful, and only adds to the culture of silence surrounding sex and consent.
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