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  • Leah Jewett

The power of positive teaching: how to approach porn and pleasure in sex ed – interview #3 with Outs

Updated: Oct 12, 2019



Outspoken co-founders in conversation – relationships and sex (RSE) educator Yoan Reed (above right) talks to Leah Jewett (left) in the last of a 3-part series

We’re surrounded by sexualised images. How do you think children and young people are being affected by the messages around sex, sexiness and sexuality that they see on TV and on billboards, in music and YouTube videos etc?

YOAN Sex sells everything from cars to yogurt – it’s an advertising tool. There are so many hidden messages that children will pick up on about sex just walking through a shopping centre. And the way it’s portrayed is very gendered and heteronormative. Children get implicit messages about sex and sexuality that we as parents might not be aware of.

You can see in media now a move towards gender-neutral toys and colours and definitely a move towards examining that closely.

But there is also a big difference between being aware of this and actually talking to your children about it. That’s where we keep seeing a discrepancy – we may learn how important it is to talk about sex, to challenge gender stereotyping and sex in the media – we know this as adults, as parents, but there is a reluctance and lack of skills to actually engage with children about it.

Why are people reluctant? What are they scared of?

YOAN We have this thing about keeping children innocent and pure for as long as possible. We equate that with not talking about sex, because sex is a taboo subject for adults, not for children. We want to shield children from knowledge about sex because we equate that with danger and with not sexualising children in any way, shape or form. They need to be free of that pressure, which is what drives parents to maybe not talk about the educational part of sex.

In essence we need to distinguish between sex and sexuality. We are all sexual; we are made from sex; the vast majority of human beings will end up having sex, and it will be a huge part of their lives.

We are mistaken if we think that very young children and babies suddenly start to become sexual, or sexual beings, when they hit puberty. Children are already sexual – they are developing their sexuality, though they haven’t developed it as adults have. Children will be curious about sex. They will want to know about sex, but that doesn’t mean they are sexualised – that means they are informed.

We must also make a distinction between sexualising children and educating children about sex. That’s differentiating again between sex and sexuality. When we talk about the physical act of sex and sexual practices – young children aren’t interested in that. They may become interested as they grow older.

As young children they need to learn about their own bodies and who they are as human beings. We cannot pretend that they haven’t got genitals. But that’s what we basically do. We pretend that they’re not there; we give them a pet name. In illustrations a child will be covered, their genitals will be covered, and a girl’s top half, her breasts and nipples, will be covered. We pretend for years and years that they’re not there.

There are even practices where you shush a child who is asking about their private parts, or children are taught not to touch their genitals. In doing that in very formative years, we teach children that this is something we don’t talk about – it’s forbidden territory. As soon as you give that message to your children, they won’t talk to you about it because they associate it with shame, with being naughty.

The paradox is that when they become teenagers we suddenly think: “OK, we have to tell them everything.” But we haven’t put down the groundwork for talking about a totally natural thing – a sexually developing human being. We suddenly want to have that connection with our child – to sit down and have a big talk about it – but in fact in the background they have already developed themselves and found out what they needed to, but often from not very good sources.


These days there’s a general raised awareness about digital literacy, risk-taking, e-safety…​

YOAN Sexual exploitation is driving parents to attend things like sex-ed classes because sex is now in the media – for all the wrong reasons.

There are so many negative connotations around sex – it’s deemed consensual or non-consensual, with talk of coercion or pressure or whatever.

We tend to focus on preventative measures to keep children safe. To make young people have good sexual experiences, we talk about how they can protect themselves. We forget that sex is fun and enjoyable and loving.

I really feel that areas such as pleasure, positive sex and love are hardly ever spoken about in sex ed. I don’t think we talk to young people enough about how to assert themselves and how to realise the positive aspects of a sexual relationship.

Recently I was teaching a group of boys. Rather than saying: “If you want to have sex one day, here are the things you need to think about: contraception, all the safeguarding issues…” instead I asked them: “Do you want to become good lovers?” They all said yes. I said: “Well, if you want to become good lovers there are certain things you need to think about.”

I don’t think any of us talk enough about the pleasure and the love aspect of discovering your own body, sharing your own body and taking joy in sharing somebody else’s body. I think it’s missing. Do you think it’s missing?

Yes! It’s hard if people don’t come from that vantage, if they grow up dissociated from their bodies. Also cultural conditioning and the male gaze in porn encourage people to objectify and compartmentalise others and themselves.

YOAN We don’t align sex ed enough with developing a sense of integrity. This involves empowering people with a set of norms or criteria that will guide them in their decisions about sex.

I think back to myself. I had these romantic ideas about sex for many years, and when I became sexually active I made good choices because I had a strong sense of integrity. It helped me to make good decisions that felt right.

That’s so good.

YOAN It is good. Because I hear from so many people who had sexual experiences that were not good.

We owe it to our children and young people to give them space to find out what it is they want and what feels good. And to counter all those horrible messages they get from the world around them, from social media, from pornography, just that whole gender-stereotypical world that they are receiving messages from.

The messages they get are a lot about image, appearance, performance – it’s not about the feeling or exchange or connection.

YOAN The spirituality around sex has been lost over the years. I mean how you meet on a spiritual level: you have a connection, you seek a connection – and then when that connection is there and you discover and enjoy each other’s bodies, it’s just amazing. I want young people to have that experience.

Some young people might be guided by their religion or their culture, but there is still room to discover those important ground-level feelings. Experience can be brought into any context. It’s not prevented or limited by culture or religion.

If you ask any parents, regardless of their religion: “Do you want your son or your daughter to enjoy sex?”, I think most of them will say yes. There might be exceptions, but I think it’s every parent’s wish for their child to grow up and have good sexual experiences.

So if that’s a common denominator, parents have got a responsibility to shape the learning at home with their agreed values, religion or parameters – but I think you can teach comprehensive sex education at school if parents know that what you’re teaching is going to be empowering, informative and enriching.

In terms of enjoyment, it’s so important to talk about pleasure and how knowing yourself means you are confident in asserting what you like and don’t like, which enables you to think and talk about consent. We also need to talk more about female desire.


YOAN Yes. I come from a rights perspective – not just children’s and young people’s rights, but also women’s rights drive my wanting to teach relationships and sex education (RSE) well.

I’m disturbed by the fact that sex belongs to boys and men and that girls need to be protected from “bad” men and “bad sex”.

I’m disturbed by the fact that 13-year-old boys and girls recognise masturbation as a male practice. A woman in one of my focus groups said that in her house masturbation is a male thing – gestures are made in fun and it’s joked about and mentioned all the time. But not when it comes to girls.

The fact that we naturally ascribe masturbation and pleasure to boys and that they will do that themselves at this age – what does that say about the origins of their information about sex? Where are they learning from to have that view? Is it just from home? I’m pretty sure it’s pornography.

I’m also disturbed by the fact that none of the children in that age group know what a clitoris is, and the ones who do are boys who’ve heard about it. Girls have no idea. I find it really strange that, at 13 or 14, a girl who has menstruated for a while, who’s in the middle of her puberty, has no idea about her own genitals.

I was shocked to read an American professor talking about the prevalence of young women who arrive at university never having masturbated or had an orgasm.

YOAN In the feedback after one mother/daughter session I did, a mother wrote: “I was happy with all of the information until you mentioned the word pleasure.”

That says it all for me. If a mother can’t mention the word pleasure and talk to her daughter about pleasure, what hope has that girl got to be empowered to have a pleasurable sexual relationship? She’s not going to put that first, is she? It’s not going to be one of her criteria.

I love the exercise I do with young people at the end of their scheme of work when I ask them to map out “My Future Sexual Experience”. I ask them to write down four criteria – what would they want to have in place before they have sex for the first time – and then to link the criteria and elaborate on them. It’s a fantastic exercise to get young people to evaluate what they’ve learned in RSE and to think about their wishes for the future. You’d be surprised what they write. They’re beautiful things. They will always have things like contraception and consent – but also things like a loving relationship, marriage. One boy wrote: “She needs to have experienced life so that she’s on the same level as me.” There are some really interesting, very personal observations.

If you did this exercise before and after these young people have sex ed, it would be interesting to see what they’d be able to add. At the moment I only do it afterwards, then I share my observations with the parent group.

It’s a good way for people to look at the kinds of values that young children take from home and put onto their sex ed. You don’t indoctrinate them; you don’t tell them what to think – you ask them to think and make decisions.

I think that is one of the nicest things about teaching – it’s the empowerment of children.

#sexeducation #relationshipsandsexeducationRSE #parents #children #sex #sexuality #pleasure

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