It could be porn, movies, ancient books, activists or specific people – who are we letting teach us about sex?
Mature written content warning.
I’ve been on a real 90s NBC sitcom kick recently. More specifically, I was on a kick of the original run of Saved by The Bell, into the more adult themed The College Years, and now back into good ol’ Fresh Prince of Belair. The hair was crazy, the fashion was outrageous, and the super overt life lesson per episode cringe was in full swing.
Last night I rewatched an episode where 13 year old Ashley is starting to have feelings for her long time friend, and comes to her cousin and eventually her parents to talk about sex. Some of the main points the episode were trying to get across were making sure parents and kids were talking about sex before someone else did, and even for the older kids that the views on sex they had were incredibly challenged when it was time for them to teach the youngest in the family about it.
Sex is a domineering force in a person’s life. Sex sells. TV shows and movies get much higher ratings if they feature sex. Video services, videos and products get more clicks if they have a sexy person on their video thumbnail or advertising – I’ve noticed this especially recently for ads for TikTok and shows on Netflix, Hulu and Stan. You probably even just clicked on this link because sex is inherently fascinating to us.
And there’s been a lot of talk about sex in the media recently. Well actually, it’s probably most accurate for me to say that sex has never stopped being a topic in the media. Who is having sex with who, what positions work best for pregnancy or pleasure, how frequent it should be and the perils of when it isn’t frequent enough, the rampant scandals of sexual abuse or illicit affairs in large companies and governments, what kids should be taught about it, and even about people who decide to have sexual relationships with rollercoasters, sex dolls and Japanese robots.
It seems we’re either thinking about it, having it or talking about it at least a few times a day.
And this simple little episode of Fresh Prince got me thinking about who we are all letting teach us about sex. I mean, sure, for the earlier years it was probably a health class, an awkward parental conversation or one of those “E for Everyone” videos you had to watch in school or at home.
But what about now? There are literally fights in the streets in multiple countries for the right to dictate what people should be told or believe about it. Advertisers, TV executives and adult content creators are doing all they can to use it to achieve profit margins and influence. It seems the battle for sex education is still on today no matter what age you are.
And it makes you think about your own life, and the lives of those in your care. As a father myself there will come a day when it’s time for “the talk” and to negotiate that aspect for the youngings. But even as a married man in a hypersexualised world, I wonder who I am allowing to teach me about sex. If you’re in a relationship or want to be in a relationship with someone, sex is going to come up, and you want to make sure you’re going at it in a way that works for everyone involved.
I did put a mature written content warning above, but seriously, this will be graphic in nature, and I would also mention that viewpoints on sexuality are inherently offensive to a variety of groups. Given the deep division and the passion with which people subscribe to certain viewpoints, chances are you’re gonna read something you vehemently disagree with. You’ve been warned.
So I thought I’d have a look at what voices are trying to talk to us about getting busy, and maybe just to take stock of whether or not we should be listening to every voice. Who are we letting teach us about sex? Let’s have a look.
Porn and TV
I think by far the most influential and loudest voice of the modern era in the conversation around sex are in the forms of porn and TV.
We’ll start with porn first. We know people are watching it, but I wonder how aware you are of how much people are learning from it?
The Australian Institute of Family Studies cites nearly 50% of children between 9 and 16 are regularly exposed to sexualised imagery, and their research shows this exposure is correlated to attempting sexual acts at an earlier age, as well as anal intercourse, facial ejaculation, and participation with multiple partners. The American Psychological Association has done extensive studies showing that pornography affects men in particular in their treatment of women and sexual partners, from a young age but even into their older years.
Psychology Today amongst many others who write on this topic tell us of mirror neurons, which allow the mind to experience the feelings and sexual interactions of what we’re watching personally. This means I can be watching you do it but feeling like I’m doing it.
Perhaps no organisation is more focused on the science of pornography than Fight the New Drug. They have highlighted several times the research that continually shows that porn rewires the connections in your brain. So when people are touching themselves looking at those actions on that screen, they aren’t just finding their sexual identity or experiences, they’re actually framing them. Such connections can make men especially more likely to treat women as objects or toys, and women feel the need to be subjegated or even abused. Your fetishes, your sexual preferences, the things that turn you on or off – the few minutes the content is going is rewriting all of your rules without you noticing it.
There are those who would defend porn as a source of information and argue we should be letting porn teach us about sex. However, even a much more liberal source like The Sun would tell its readers of all the things that never happen in real sex that happen all the time in porn. Or how the male performers in particular are injected prior to shoots in order to give them the “longevity”. Ouch.
Why have I included TV shows in this category? Because streaming services are currently dominated by incredibly (and proudly) gratitutous sexual content. Tabloids and magazines even recommend to their readers that shows on Netflix or Hulu can be even hotter than porn. Given the fact it’s exactly the same sensation being enacted in the brain, I tend to agree with them. More in 5 Ways Sex Scenes Ruin Your Love Life and What Porn Teaches Us About Men.
Can you learn from porn and TV shows about what sex is like or should be like? Absolutely. Should you? Only you can make that decision. But I’m calling this out as the king of sources that we are letting teach us about sex.
Ancient books and religions
Here’s one that’s been in the news quite a lot recently. Religions have a lot to have to say about how people could and should live their lives. By their very nature they call people to conform to a certain set of principles and belief systems that are then reflected in the way they act, and they also tend to have beliefs about the consequences of living otherwise.
I will say all of these have people who passionately, passionately disagree with them, as well as those who passionately, passionately agree with them.
For instance, Islam is noted for its views against sex before marriage and you would be well aware no doubt that adultery and certain sexual acts are still punishable by law (even unto death) in several Muslim countries even today. Many Muslim women also wear a burqa as a sign of respect for their husbands in that no part of their body besides their face is to be seen by anyone else. This has been viewed by liberating by some, and oppressive by others.
Buddhism isn’t as well known for its views on sexuality but it does have several. Whilst it is more open about sex before marriage (but only within a committed relationship), certain practices such as oral sex and cheating are condoned by the Dalai Lama.
The one I’m the most familiar with are the teachings of the Christian Bible. Whilst there are differences on views such as homosexuality, contraception, and even whether or not ministers should be sexual, the most common denominations (besides the Anglican church) believe that sex was intended for a married man and woman to the exclusion of all else. It’s the issue of repentance on these views that are called to account, given that Christianity is inherently about whether or not a life is surrended to the life and teachings of Christ. Jesus was even so extreme to say that sexual faithfulness is a matter of the eyes and the heart, even before any physical action takes place. Then again, sexuality is one of many areas – finances, dreams and desires, anger, even the way they speak – that the Christian is called to surrender in their relationship with God.
The Christian Bible calls the marriage bed a holy place and that the natural order is respected, but within marriage even encourages practices such as oral sex, stripteases and seduction. The Song of Songs in particular is so passionate and overtly sexual in its language that young Jews were forbidden from reading it until a certain age. The couple is held up as a model of exemplery sexual freedom.
I think Christians do themselves a disservice by selling short just how fulfilling a married sex life can be. I think most people have bought into the view that the wedding night is the first and last time you’ll be having sex. The apostle Paul even encouraged married people that it should stay hot and heavy, and you shouldn’t abstain from it for very long even for a spiritual reason.
I mention the Christian view the most because this is the one I am most familiar with, but Jews, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus and even Scientologists – all ancient and modern religions and texts have something to say about sex. The level of acceptance or offense attributed to these beliefs probably depend on what you believe about the fundamental elements of each faith.
Activists and school education
As contentious and even offensive to modern sensabilities as religious views on sexuality are, it would be remiss not to mention that non-religious or those who consider themselves secular in their sexual beliefs also have some strong views on sexuality. When there isn’t a core religious document or statement of faith, there are quite divergent views on sexuality out there. This also applies to what views on sexuality are then taught to others.
This has been especially brought to the spotlight with the Australian Government’s Religious Discrimination Act being put forward at the federal level.
The most united front that has been in the media over the last few years, in Australia at least, is the content put forward by the organisation Minus18. In fact it is preached so passionately by its representatives that you would almost mistake it for a religious belief of its own. And it’s strange to me that this content has not been given as much detailed coverage as other views on sexuality.
Minus18, an organisation funded by the Victorian Labor Party and pushed heavily by the Australian Greens, is and has been featured very heavily amongst several protests and comments on what views on sexuality should be taught in schools and elsewhere. It is also worth calling out that the content of this organisation was a key driver in the opposition and eventual rehaul of the Safe Schools program, which is a program that the Australian Greens have a key policy in their charter to revive should they get the opportunity to do so.
While many activists have shared this content in regards to assisting those who are dealing with being intersex, the reality is these views are shared in schools and public forums to a wider audience, teaching that sexuality is completely fluid and can change over time (although many activists cite being born this way which various studies also contest with), and students of all persuasions are encouraged to experiment and explore.
Perhaps some of the views I’m surprised don’t get much attention not just spoken to intersex minors and people but all students and people that binding and tucking your body are valid ways of playing with your gender expression, that puberty blockers are safe and recommended for exploring this, and regular speakers for the group actively encourage exploring your sexuality through the physical relationships you have and the videos that you watch. This encouragement is given to minors as young as 9, in a country where the age of consent is 16 and access to pornography is illegal until the age of 18.
I’ve been reading recently from some parents on Dr Justin Coulson’s Happy Families page as well as several other school and parenting sites about students being exposed to pornography in their lesson plans, including one school which got all the students to write down all the categories of porn they knew, as well as a 12 year old possessing and sharing pornography of “furry” nature, and the teacher was unable to do anything about it as it would inhibit the child’s sexual expression.
There are other viewpoints on sexuality out there, but I would be remiss to ignore this content which is being heavily pushed in Australia currently in place of other views. As with all other views on sexuality, these can be freely embraced or challenged, depending on who we’re letting teach us about sex.
Ted Talks, modern books and sexologists
There are a whole bunch of varied opinions on sex out there from a number of sexologists, psychologists and other researchers in a variety of Ted Talks, books and other content. Some great content that I know I have found helpful are from Dr David Schnarch, Patricia Weerakoon, Esther Perel, John & Helen Burns, Dr Kevin Leman, Dr Gary Chapman, Nicky and Sila Lee, amongst many others.
There has been such great variation in sexual views over time. I think much of how you interpret and receive this content and its various authors depends on your worldviews and beliefs.
The challenge here is with whose credentials and viewpoints you recognise. But it’s worth thinking about whose sexual practices and attitudes we allow into our bedrooms and worldviews. The ones we’re letting teach us about sex may be the ones controlling our sexual satisfaction and fulfillment, for better or worse.
Not learning or listening at all
I think the final approach to who we’re letting teach us about sex is to be completely ignorant. To stick our heads in the sands, to avoid any and all content referring to sexuality, and to just try to figure it out ourselves.
There are many people who believe sexuality shouldn’t be taught in schools at all. I’m not sure I share this opinion personally, but in the diverse spectrum of sexual thought, as well as the complete opposition in some of these views, I can see where it has a case.
And there are those who believe even in a sexual relationship that it isn’t a topic to be broached. I would encourage you to consider the advice and research of the Gottman Institute which highlights that the couples who talk about sex are the most likely to enjoy it and to experience healthy sex lives.
All in all, there are so many people we can, and probably are, letting teaching us about sex. The question is whether or not we are aware with just how much goes into our minds affects what we do and how we live.
The apostle Paul wrote to the churches in Corinth that sexual behaviour affects us more than anything else we can do, because all of our other actions happen outside the body. Sexuality affects us inside. Profoundly. We even see today that people will stake their whole identity on their sexual experience and persuasion.
Our views on sex how we date, how we treat a partner, whether or not we become abusive, what we will and won’t do in the bedroom, whether or not we even define abusive the same way, our mental health, and our satisfaction in life.
I think when it comes to sexuality it’s important for us to take personal stock, because the person who is affected the most by our sexual inputs is us.
Who am I letting teach me about sex? How is this affecting my marriage? My relationships? And are these voices I really want to be listening to? With everyone screaming a perspective on sexuality, let’s make sure we’re okay with the ones we’ve decided to listen to.