When I was 16, I borrowed a book from my friend’s mum. On the inside cover there was a quote by Albert Camus. It said, ‘The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.’ For a teenage girl, that felt like something to live by.
At 29 I don’t actually think my very existence is an act of rebellion but I’ve tried my hardest to advocate for the freedoms that I think are important. I write about and represent the mental and sexual health and wellbeing of women and young people, I’m a consultant for female-focused brands and organisations and I’m vocal on Instagram about sex positive, comprehensive education for women and girls.
I don’t mind sticking my head above the parapet. I’m not especially shy and it doesn’t really bother me if not everyone agrees with me. My personal experiences have taught me that all that ‘be the change you want to see’ stuff, that’s legit. But it takes a village. We live in a society marred by shame, in a hungover state, made dizzy by Victorian values and moral codes that contradict our most natural behaviours. Shame and fear are silencers, they’re coercive tools and worryingly, they’re also the primary emotions associated with female sexuality thanks to the focus of historical sex ed.
Throughout history, women who haven’t separated their sexuality from their public persona have been vilified, but why should we erase or be ashamed of our sexual identities? Sex is kind of the reason we’re all here, so why is it considered shameful to admit that we think about it, we have it, we enjoy it and that we want to know more about it?
In the UK we’re totally caught up in shame culture. But strangely, it doesn’t affect men in the way it affects women. Women are taught to be ashamed of their sexuality and that sex isn’t for them. That it’s dangerous and risky, that it’ll damage reputations and ruin lives. Sex is a burden best left alone. But why do we teach our girls this when a) we don’t teach boys to be afraid of it and b) it isn’t remotely true.
Listen, I’m not saying you should be so open about sex and pleasure that you’re touching yourself in public or discussing your orgasms at family dinners – there’s a time and a place for these conversations and this type of honest, unbiased education. But we’re not going to get to that place unless we’re driving these conversations forward now, doing away with sexual shame, normalising realistic depictions of sex and giving education on male and female pleasure and sexual health equal weight. Everyone should feel comfortable and safe talking about this stuff and regardless of gender, young people should know the facts.
The majority of young people don’t feel very comfortable or know much at all, so what do they do? They Google a lot of stuff. Much of the sex they’ll see is performative, intense and unrealistic. It’ll be porn. Probably pretty graphic hardcore stuff. We’ve come a long way from looking at an adult mag you found in the woods. Kids have access to a vast and overwhelming library of reference points that don’t reflect real sex, intimacy, consent or pleasure and then just get on with it.
For the record, I’m not anti pornography. I just don’t think it’s for kids. And I don’t think it gives them the right ideas about sex. It’s content for adults who know it’s fake, it’s not not educational content.
So then there’s me, feeling that what women are taught about sex is paltry, biased, antiquated, rooted in shame and fear and is ultimately damaging. I worry about young women finding themselves in uncomfortable situations, learning that sex isn’t pleasurable and that orgasms are a performative gesture that can easily be faked. If I can provoke a conversation around sex positivity and why women’s sexual health and sexual pleasure deserves a place on school curriculums and in households across the UK, then great. I’ll do whatever it takes.
I had a real orgasm on national TV because I’ve never seen a real one on TV before. I’ve seen fake orgasms since I was about 12 years old. And mine never looked like those. That can create a discord within your sexual identity. ‘Why don’t I look or sound like that? Am I doing it wrong? Am I not sexy? Maybe I should just pretend to do it like that. Mine doesn’t feel like that one sounds. Did she just pee?’
Viewing a lot of pornography can provoke self esteem issues among young people and often storylines perpetuates the nice girl/slutty girl narrative – another reductionist product of Victorian morality. Teenage girls aren’t the ‘fallen woman’ or the ‘girl next door’, the Madonna or the whore – they’re complex human beings who are developing their belief systems, boundaries, likes and dislikes and their sexual identities. Throw fear, shame and unrealistic depictions into the mix and you’re headed for a dark place that robs them of positive sexual experiences.
There was a time when I was afraid of sex and I was very ashamed about my sexuality, about wanting pleasure or about experiencing it in my own way. I’m now a campaigner and advocate for women’s mental and sexual health, because I believe women and girls shouldn’t feel negatively about a natural and essential part of their identities, or that their pleasure is secondary to anyone else’s. They should know about their anatomy, about contraception, about menstruation, hormones, body confidence, pleasure and consent. This is basic stuff.
Sure, having an orgasm on television was a pretty bold thing to do and my mum was kind of upset about it. But I’m not ashamed. Why on earth would I be?
How To Have A Better Orgasm aired on Channel 5 in February 2020.