(Photo: J Studios via Getty Images)
How much do you know about sex? And I mean really know about sex. For most of us, our sex education started and stopped with the birds and the bees. We were taught the biology of our bodies, how to make babies and if we were lucky the difference between STDs and STIs.
Since our knowledge around sex has been so limited, the internet has been our sex ed teacher, which often has more cons than pros. This is what Sophia Smith Galer touches on in her new book, Losing It.
Drawing on some of her own experiences around sex ed, ‘Losing It’ explores the way we’ve been taught about sex in the 21st century and how this affects how we engage with intimacy.
“I didn’t have a comprehensive sex education,” Galer tells HuffPost UK. “I did have sex education at school. But the things that left a mark on me were, as I described in the book, the focus on ‘bugs and babies.’ So the avoidance of STIs and the avoidance of pregnancy.”
She believes the information she was taught about sex didn’t set her up well enough to deal with real life sexual scenarios. “My sex education could have definitely been a lot better. And what I really argue in the book is that I ended up leaving school endorsing a number of myths about the body because of things I’d heard.”
Author and journalist Sophia Smith Galer and her new book, Losing It. (Photo: Brian Prentke)
There were multiple reasons why Galer wanted to write the book, but one them was linked to her previous role as BBC religion reporter. “Time and time again, sex and relationships would continue cropping up in stories I wrote about young people and young women,” she says.
Though she isn’t currently practicing, she was raised catholic. “Our world views and our perspectives are either informed by a religion we believe in or it’s influenced a society that we live in – and with sex there’s a lot of collision.”
This is something that she further analyses in the book, under a chapter called ‘The Virginity Myth’, which looks at the role Christianity has played in sex education.
Through her research, Galer found that there are some states in America where the sex education curriculum focusses solely on abstinence.
She spoke to a young woman called Blair, who grew up in a southern baptist community. Blair touches on how she latched onto purity culture because she wanted to please God, but it ended up making her mentally ill. She recalls the first time she made out with a guy, saying she took the morning after pill as she thought she would get pregnant.
“What really threw me was how much of this educational resource also exists in the UK,” says Galer. “In the book there are a number of stories about people being given quite purity culture messaging in British schools.
“There is research that has been commissioned by the highest powers in the land that have found abstinence-only education does not work. Not only does it not work, it can be actively harmful. It can do things like contribute to sexist values, or it can reaffirm sexist values.”
So, how can we unlearn what we’ve been taught about sex?
As her knowledge of sex after school was basic, Galer explains that she taught herself the need-to-know info through reading. “That’s how I’ve always found out about stuff as a young person. I would go on the internet and look things up,” she says.
“That is fraught with danger as much as it is good, reliable information. For me, I learnt through reading and podcast listening. It’s kind of been quite private information acquisition, on top of my own experiences with partners.”
When asked where young (or older) people can safely learn about sex online, Galer says sexual health charities and reliable national websites.
“Most sexual health charities that are smart and support young people have pretty good Instagram pages where they do a lot of debunking myths and sharing information and Instagram infographics, which is really good,” she says.
The book touches on issues such as virginity as a concept, the obsession with hymens, tightness, penetration and consent.
On the latter, she writes: “There are many occasions in my sexual biography where I gave my consent at the time but the details suddenly and dramatically changed – like when a partner disclosed he’d lied about his age, or was breaking up with me, during or after sexual contact.”
Galer tells HuffPost the chapter on consent was the quite hard to write, because it made her reflect on some of her own experiences.
“It made me think deeply about bad ethics of sex,” she says.
“I think we don’t talk enough about coercion. What is a coercive act? I think it’s quite helpful to adopt that vocabulary when we talk about consent, because we’re often too limiting. We just restrict it to something being consensual or non consensual.”
Though difficult, if you truly want to unlearn what you’ve been taught about sex and overcome any misplaced shame, Galer believes it’s important to introspect.
“If you want to unlearn sex myths you’re going to have to be ready to possibly rewrite your own sexual biography as it may make you think differently about things that happened in the past,” she says.
Even though some themes on the pages are quite dark, Galer wants the book to highlight how important it is to prioritise information around sex and the body in the world we live in.
“What I find in the book is that so many of us don’t get that access to sex education and sex myths pave the way to so many harms,” she says. “I want people to know that sex is not a sex issue. I want people leaving this book to think it’s a political, socioeconomic, health and human rights issue.”
Losing It: Sex Education for the 21st Century by Sophia Smith Galer is out now.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.