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Audio Transcript: Good Sex Education for Good Sex with Grace Gecewicz

Grace Gecewicz: A flourishing life is a life that goes really, really well. That doesn’t mean it’s easy or without bumps. It just means it’s a life with meaning.

Carrie Welsh: You’re listening to the ethics and education podcast from the Center for Ethics and education at the University of Wisconsin Madison. I’m Carrie Welsh. I’m the program director of the Center. This piece was written and produced by recent UW Madison graduate grace Savage, race worked with us as an undergraduate project system at the center. And this piece is about her senior honors thesis: “Let’s Talk about the Birds, Not the Bees: Sexual Education for a Flourishing Life.” She asks, How can educating students about good sex help contribute to their flourishing?

Grace Gecewicz: I’m Grace Gecewicz. I’m a senior at the University of Wisconsin, and I’m studying philosophy and gender Women’s Studies. Throughout my time at University of Wisconsin, I’ve been really interested in sex, gender, feminism and education.

So today, this is good sex education for good sex.

Most sex education right now is not good. We’re given misinformation we’re taught to be fearful, and we often miss out on the truth. The truth is that sex can be good, even great, and it can help us have flourishing lives. And if we educate young people well, then they can have good sex that contributes to their lives flourishing to.

For me, when I think about sex education, I usually think of abstinence only education. And what I call the “just the plumbing” education. Both typically include teaching about STI s pregnancy and assault. But abstinence only education takes a particular stance on when students should be having sex. The “just the plumbing” approach teaches about sex in a more clinical, anatomy-based format without including much information about relationships.

Currently, there’s been a shift towards combining the “just the plumbing” approach with teaching about consent and relationships. There are a lot of incredible initiatives in high schools and on college campuses to educate students about consent. These initiatives are partially response to the striking statistics on sexual assault. About one in four women will be sexually assaulted during college. The shift towards consent-based education is a welcome change. However, I’m cautious to accept this as the best form of sex education. It seems like we can have all sorts of totally consensual sex, that just lousy. Maybe it’s boring. Maybe you’re distracted. Maybe you’re just stressed out about something at work. We shouldn’t be educating students to just have consensual sex. Well, consent is a prerequisite for sex. If there isn’t consent, then it’s just not sex. It’s not all we need students to know about. Understanding consent is essential. But it’s not enough to enable students to have good sex. And that’s what I’m really interested in. Sex educators should give students the tools to have good sex that contributes to their overall flourishing.

Good sex is sex in which there’s open communication and a high level of regard for the pleasure of all involved. What’s important, and which some consent education starts to get right, is communication. For sex to go well, we need to be able to communicate accurately and confidently our sexual desires, our wants and our needs. Learning to prioritize open communication can do two really vital things for us. First, it can help us avoid the lousy sex, the boring, that distracted sort of sex because we’re in communication about what’s going well and what’s going badly. It can help us to switch things up to make it go better, or stop having sex if it’s just not the right time or place for it to be good. Second, learning to openly communicate in all of our sexual encounters helps us to show regard for our partners. Checking in periodically sends the message that you care about your partner, and that their pleasure matters to you. If we teach students that open communication is essential to good sex. We show them that sex is a collaborative endeavor. It’s not something that one person does to another.

And communication can be a lot of different things. It could be a full conversation before sex, a full conversation during it could be a “yes” or “no”, a “that feels good”. Good sex is sex where there’s open communication and regard for pleasure.

Obviously, good sex should feel good and be pleasurable. What you think of when you think of pleasure, that’s what I mean. You get pleasure when something simply feels good. Pleasure could come from eating a slice of cake, walking barefoot in the grass, getting a backrub. Pleasure doesn’t need to have any greater purpose or end; you might just want to feel pleasure for the sake of feeling pleasure.

You might be thinking right now that good sex usually involves orgasm. I think that’s true. Sometimes good sex results in an orgasm. But I don’t think an orgasm is necessary or sufficient for good sex. Here’s why. Orgasm can’t be a necessary component of good sex. Because we can have totally good pleasurable sex without an orgasm. If all people involved had to orgasm for the sex to be good, then our category would be too small and when miss out on a lot of good sex.

Orgasm also can’t be sufficient for good sex. We know that sometimes people experience orgasm when they experienced sexual trauma. Our bodies are responding to what’s being done to us, even if we’re not enjoying it, and not consenting to it. We might also have orgasms during the lousy boring, distracted sex. So, it just doesn’t seem like orgasm is the end all be all have good sex.

Another advantage of prioritizing pleasure for all in sex education is that it could actually help us close the ever-present orgasm gap. Right now, there’s a big gap between the frequency of male and female orgasms. Men have more orgasms on average than their female partners. And women who have sex with women have more orgasms than women who have sex with men. So there’s an orgasm gap, but there’s also a pleasure gap.

Educating students to prioritize the pleasure of all involved, including and especially the pleasure of women might help us to decrease the startling discrepancy. It will show women who have not typically been told that their pleasure matters, that whether or not they’re enjoying sex is a key component of the sex going well. It will show men who have typically been told that their orgasm is all that matters that they need to consider and care about the pleasure of their partners. It will show them that orgasm isn’t all that matters.

Educating students about good sex can contribute to their flourishing. Some say a flourishing life is one where you are economically productive, autonomous, democratically competent, have healthy personal relationships, treat others as equals and find personal fulfillment. To put it in slightly simpler terms. A flourishing life is a life that goes really, really well. That doesn’t mean it’s easy or without bumps. It just means it’s a life with meaning. This looks different for different people. A flourishing life might involve being active in your local church, volunteering at reproductive justice events, running early every morning, being a parent, working as a firefighter. We all require and desire different things in order for our lives to go well.

One thing that many of us share in common is our desire for fulfilling and healthy personal relationships. engaging and good sex for many, though not all, is an important part of their intimate relationships. Sex educators should also make sure that students know that not having sex might help them have a flourishing life to good sex can deepen emotional connection and trust between partners. Sex could contribute to one sense of security and confidence in their body. Good sex can contribute to a flourishing life.

So, if sex can contribute to one having a flourishing life, then we should tell our students that. We should stop educating students only about all the bad parts of sex and start telling them about all the good parts.

While it’s essential to tell our students the realities of sex, which can sometimes be scary, we need to tell them about how good sex is. And we must equip them with the tools to have good sex so that sex can contribute their lives flourishing instead of being that scary, boring, thing they learned about in a high school sex ed class.

Carrie Welsh: Thanks for listening. If you’re an instructor and you think this audio would be useful to us in a class, see our show notes for a list of suggested readings that Grace compiled. We also make study guides as a teaching companion to our podcast with ideas for readings, discussion questions and class activities, which you can adapt to online classes. You can download the study guides at our website. This episode was written and produced by Grace Gecewicz.