This is the country that is getting sex education right

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  • P.S. It's not the UK

    Peggy Orenstein, sex educator, campaigner, and author of the bestselling Girls & Sex and Cinderella Ate My Daughter is an all-round expert when it comes to female sexuality, sex education, and the perils of social media. So we asked her – in a world of Trump, Instagram and the DUP, is anyone getting sex education right? Here’s what she had to say:

    ‘Getting sex education right means talking to girls about the clitoris

    In sex education class, kids learn the thing that looks like a deer’s head with the ovaries. Then it greys out between the legs, so they never say vulva, and they certainly never say clitoris. In one of the most popular books sex education books in the US, they have diagrams of the external female genitalia and they don’t name the clitoris. It’s like they are pretending that it’s not there. If you don’t talk about girls’ sexual pleasure, then they will think they are there for boys. That is a set-up not only for unsatisfying sex but also for assault. It’s not surprising that 40% of teenage girls have never masturbated between the ages of 14 and 15, and then they go into their partnered experiences with unrealistic expectations. In my daughter’s education class the teacher said “this is the clitoris – it is for making good feelings.” End of story. What is the big bad fear? Nothing is going to happen if you let girls know that they are entitled to pleasure in their intimate lives.’

    ‘Girls are sold the idea that self-objectification is the same as self-confidence

    I met a girl who was a sophomore [second-year] in college. She showed me pictures of herself going to a party, wearing a crop top, skirt, and 5 inch heels and she said ‘I am proud of my body.’ We talked further and it turned out that she would never have worn that outfit a year earlier because she was 25 pounds heavier, and as she put it, some jerk at the party would have called her fat. So you have to ask, who wants us to be proud of which body, under what circumstances? And whose criteria, and how liberating is that when a sense of humiliation lurks right round the corner?’

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    ‘I met so many girls who spoke about non-reciprocal blow jobs

    One of the big changes in modern sexual behaviour is the idea that oral sex has become less intimate than intercourse, but only if its female to male. I met girls who often gave non-reciprocal blow jobs, which they did for all kinds of reasons – whether it was for social status or to avoid intercourse – but it didn’t occur to them that this was an unequal relationship. Many of the girls I met saw their sexuality as something that was almost external to them, and more important than their own desire. They were really literate in the language of how to present themselves as sexy, but they had very little understanding of their own bodies and their own capacity for pleasure. If you are going into a sexual encounter wanting to impress your partner, hoping he will have an orgasm and hoping that it wont hurt, then that is a pretty low bar. So we have got to raise the bar.’

    ‘The Netherlands are the ones getting sex education right

    In the Netherlands they start sex education right away, talking about healthy relationships, consent and friendship from a young age. Studies have found that Dutch women were more likely to say they enjoyed sex and less likely to be drunk when they did it. They found that the Dutch women credited their parents, teachers and doctors with talking to them at a very early age about sexual pleasure and the importance of trust and love in their relationships.’

    ‘It’s easy to talk to kids about consent

    I think in England, as well as the US, we tend to frame all of these conversations in terms of risk and danger, whereas the Dutch talk of balance and responsibility and joy. It’s really easy to talk to little kids – boys and girls – about consent. If they are playing with something [and don’t want to share] you can just say, “she said no and she means no”. “When someone says they don’t want you to hug them that means they don’t want you to hug them”. I think one of the issues we have when talking about sexuality is that we think it is so different to everything else that we are teaching young people, but in fact it is the same set of values – being a decent human being, and treating people with compassion, humanity and kindness.’

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    ‘Representation matters in getting sex education right

    It’s so important to support girls in their own activism. In the US, the girl-led movement against sexual assault on campuses was made possible because of the internet and that was a huge triumph. There are really great groups like the Gina Davis Institute that hammer on Hollywood to get women to get into film. Representation matters – over the last four years the percentage of girls doing archery has sky-rocketed, and it can be directly linked to Katniss Everdeen [from The Hunger Games], and Merida [from Brave]. Suddenly girls had a different image of what it meant to be a girl and what was allowable for them – just imagine if we applied that elsewhere.’

    Peggy Orenstein spoke at the Girls Day School Trust 2017 conference on ‘The challenges for girls presented by the media, self-objectification, sexualisation – and how schools can help’. For more information visit

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