This is part two of a two-part inquiry into the restraints placed on female bodies and sexuality.
Editor’s note: Myself and the two women who’s experiences I share in this article are cis-gendered. The vast majority of sexual education in Canada refers to heterosexual people, meaning there are woefully few educational tools for the many who don’t fall under this narrow definition.
I sit in my grade seven classroom.
A group of kids giggle in the back of the class. My teacher shushes them and points to the penis in a decade-old anatomy textbook.
The vagina is gone over briefly—the parts that make babies, how to prevent STDs, and the benefits of celibacy.
I listen intently as my teacher explains erections, but fails to mention female arousal.
She teaches us how to put on a condom, but doesn’t talk about the clitoris.
By the end of class, I know how to prevent pregnancy but nothing else.
I’m too young to know the impact this one-sided education will have on my future relationships, personal pleasure, or perception of women’s sexuality.
I assume I’m being taught everything I need to know.
I’m now 23-years-old. Old enough to realize the gap in my sexual education. There’s a void where pleasure, sensuality, and confidence should be.
I’ve shied away from my own needs because the system in place told me to.
I’m tired of the taboo placed on women’s sexuality, and I’m tired of feeling guilty for wanting to feel good.
According to a study published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, more than one third of participants reported needing clitoral stimulation to reach orgasm. Four out of five said intercourse alone wasn’t enough.
But the clitoris was an unknown word for the majority of my teenage years.
Conversations with my friends were kept to who we were sleeping with and what base we got to. There was no mention of personal pleasure like masturbation, or what we did to feel good in our sexual relationships.
For many people, female pleasure is kept in a locked box that’s never supposed to be opened.
Craving relatability, I spoke to 23-year-old Nicole Moore and 24-year-old Jordan Labas. Both had varying degrees of sexual education. Moore’s knowledge was more restricted and she struggled prioritizing her own pleasure in early relationships. Labas luckily grew up with parents willing to be open about her sexuality.
Honestly, writing this piece was extremely uncomfortable for me. Surprisingly so.
I was initially excited to chat to women about their sexual education because I felt a lack of these conversations growing up. But as soon as I started writing questions for Moore and Labas, I felt embarrassed.
I struggled to be open in what I put on the page.
It felt wrong writing the word ‘clitoris’ in a sentence. I was mentally holding myself back because there was a voice in my head saying women shouldn’t talk about sex.
I had to knock down some of my own barriers in order to open the door to female sexuality.
Yes, asking women how old they were when they first orgasmed or their thoughts on female masturbation was weird. There were lots of awkward laughs.
I addressed how uncomfortable I was in the interviews by openly pointing to my feelings. Moore and Labas agreed but said that tension is precisely why talking is so important.
That’s how taboos are broken— by being as open as we can, even if the conversations are awkward.
“It wouldn’t be weird to talk about if [the system] didn’t make it weird.”
Moore’s sexual education growing up was similar to mine. She remembers having sex ed in grades five and seven, but nothing after that.
She laughed as she told me she was still confused how sex worked in grade seven.
“There was an anonymous question box in each sex ed session,” Moore recalled. “I asked, ‘How long does a penis have to stay in a vagina to have a baby?’ That’s where my education was at.”
This level of education isn’t uncommon. Each province has varying sex ed requirements and there’s no system in place that monitors results and needs, according to a publication by Action Canada for Sexual Health & Rights.
Sex ed is supposed to begin in kindergarten, initially teaching how to respond to unsafe and uncomfortable situations. Grade three and four explains consent, while grade five explores puberty and sexual identity, progressing to STI/STD protection as students enter highschool.
But sex ed is almost never consistent, as it depends on who’s teaching the course and what resources are in the school district.
And there is little to no education on personal pleasure or of knowing the ins and outs of everyone’s body, which includes LGBTQ+ content.
This means countless kids like Moore receive little knowledge, or none at all.
I asked Moore if she learned about pleasure for women. Her response left me shocked.
“I didn’t know sex wasn’t supposed to be painful until I was 20,” she said.
It wasn’t until Moore was in a therapy appointment and her counselor asked if she’s ever enjoyed sex that it was clear pain wasn’t the norm.
“I just thought that’s how my body is and that’s how sex is always going to be,” Moore said.
Moore got referred to a pelvic floor physiotherapist where she learned she suffers from Vaginismus, which is when your vaginal muscles involuntarily or persistently contract, causing pain during sex.
Symptoms of Vaginismus can feel different for everyone. There can be pain at sexual entry, pain inserting a tampon, or even pain when a women is touched in the genital area.
Pain during sex could easily become someone’s normal if they were not taught otherwise in school.
Because having sex was a negative and painful experience for Moore, her intimate relationships through her teenage years had nothing to do with her own pleasure and entirely her partners.
“I felt like my job was to please the man and the only thing I got from [sex] was the attention,” she said.
Moore emphasized the deep discomfort she had talking to her partners about her own needs. There was fear of rejection in relationships, a people-pleasing tendency, and essentially the desire to be wanted.
Now in a committed relationship where Moore’s needs are talked about, she still feels guilty about how long it takes her to orgasm.
“You don’t even know how many times I’ve apologized, saying, ‘I’m sorry this is taking so long,’” she said.
The average time it takes cis women to orgasm with a partner is around 14 minutes, with penetrative sex rarely being the factor that makes women cum.
Female orgasms usually result from at least 20 minutes of non-gential touching prior to intercourse, according to Psychology Today. This includes massaging, caressing, etc. Then followed up by genital touching, focusing more specifically on the clitoris.
But I didn’t even know where my clitoris was until after multiple relationships.
I felt such an underlying discomfort surrounding my sexuality, that I just went along in my intimate encounters, not once considering what would make me feel good.
The shift only happened when I essentially took matters into my own hands and bought a vibrator after thorough research into why I didn’t really enjoy sex.
I heavily lacked the information surrounding female masturbation and had a negative connotation towards it.
I asked Moore what she had learned in school about masturbation. She had a similar response of not having it taught in school and that she had to do her own research much later in life.
“A lot of women don’t get pleasure from penetration alone. This needs to be talked about in school, so women don’t feel ‘broken’ [when they can’t orgasm with their partner],” she said.
Masturbation has benefits including stress relief, increased libido, and self-confidence. It allows you to understand your body on a deeper level and puts you in the position of knowing what you like or don’t like.
After exploring masturbation myself, I was able to be more open in the relationship I’m in now.
But perish the thought we teach young girls this.
At the end of our conversation, I asked Moore what sexual empowerment meant to her.
“Know your body and normalize pleasure—let’s talk about it.”
Labas had a similar take on sexuality.
“We need to be as comfortable with [our genitals] as we are with the ‘regular’ parts of our body that we use everyday, like our hands and feet,” she said.
Like Moore, Labas had little sexual education from the public school system. She described it as “very basic and informative on how to make a baby.”
But Labas had an advantage: parents who were open about sexuality and body positivity.
Labas’ mom felt it was important for her daughter to have bodily autonomy by knowing how it functions and how it feels.
By having such an open relationship with her parents, Labas was never embarrassed to talk about sexuality. But she realizes that most women are.
“I’m super open about my body, but about 90 percent of my friends aren’t,” she said.
Similar to Labas’ friends, I was also closed off with anything to do with my body. I wasn’t able to openly talk to partners or even friends about sex without wanting to change the conversation.
I’d be asked by a partner, “What do you like?” and I’d stare at them blankly, confused on what they meant and quickly say, “Oh I don’t know! It doesn’t matter.”
It wasn’t until I got into my current stable and safe relationship that I’ve finally been able to open up to this idea that sex is supposed to be for the women too.
Labas was ahead of the game, and this confidence she learned early on trickled into her relationships growing up.
She’s always told a partner what she needs sexually, even if it’s a little awkward at first.
“It’s not about them, it’s about you,” Labas said.
She also emphasized the importance of positive embodiment—feeling connected, comfortable, and passionate about her body. Labas had the importance of knowing how her body functions and feels rooted in her childhood by her mom.
Imagine if the education system started talking more openly about female sexuality and pleasure. Women would be able to go into relationships empowered to have a positive sexual experience that includes both party’s needs.
I also asked Labas what sexual empowerment meant to her.
“Knowing yourself, knowing your body, and being confident with it.”
Power Up Education, founded in 2009 in Nanaimo, offers workshops on sexual health and education for students from preschool to grade 12, as well as outside the school system.
They specialize in sexual abuse prevention, supporting youth and children with FSAD (female sexual arousal disorder) and ASD (autism spectrum disorder), and teaching adults about the effects of viewing pornography as an adolescent. Isham’s primary focus is Indigenous communities.
I asked her take on the limitations the school system has when it comes to sex ed.
“We’re still lacking training and resources. For some of the teachers, [sex ed] becomes optional due to comfort levels, sexual traumas, religion, etc.,” she said.
I learned from Isham that anybody in BC who teaches physical education is also required to teach sex ed—it’s part of the same curriculum.
I definitely didn’t learn anything about sex in gym class. Nor could I imagine my gym teachers trying to teach sex ed to a group of 25 kids in a gymnasium.
But as Isham explained, there’s loopholes for educators to not teach it and no one is comfortable enough to mandate it.
“Asking teachers to teach what they are mandated to teach causes a lot of weird tension and getting principals involved is weird too, since they are also uncomfortable,” she said.
If the principal is uncomfortable enforcing what’s required in the curriculum, something’s wrong here.
Fortunately, Isham has a lot of freedom and autonomy in what she teaches students. But not every school hires an outside professional.
I was eager to hear what Isham believes should be taught on female pleasure.
“There are three reasons we have our genitals: production, to go to the bathroom, and pleasure,” she said.
Isham strongly stated the need for everyone to know their ‘parts’ and how they function. She then grabbed a model of the clitoris and held it up to her computer’s camera during our video interview.
“I want kids to know the clitoris looks like this and that it’s a complex structure,” she said.
No, the clitoris isn’t a small little bean at the top of your vulva. It actually looks like the sidebar image in this article.
Isham brought up how we talk to kids about sexual assault and the abuse cycle but fail to mention pleasure to young girls.
By only talking about the negative sides of being a vagina-owner, it brings a negative view towards the vagina itself.
How can this body part offer me pleasure when people say it will hurt me?
This narrative needs to change.
“Pleasure is a birthright, and people with a clitoris particularly should experience orgasm much earlier than ever being with a partner,” Isham said.
But while the education system fails to provide us with such details, Isham has solutions:
“My number one tip when you’re a person with a vagina: take your time. It generally takes about 20 minutes for the vagina to properly lubricate itself.”
And for anyone having sex with a person with a vagina: “Do you have hands? Do you have a mouth? Use them.”
And my favourite tip from Isham:
“Bring a sex toy in and don’t be a wiener about it.”
I then, of course, asked Isham what sexual empowerment meant to her. She had a couple answers.
“Being able to access accurate and up-to-date information, take part in [sex ed] classes, feeling comfortable in your body, and being able to ask for what you want and say what you don’t want.”
Isham is also a strong advocate for the disabled and the LGBTQ+ communities and stated:
“You should have the ability to choose how you want to have sex, who you want to have sex with, and whatever gender you want to have sex with.”
There’s a clear lack of education being provided by the school system regarding female pleasure and sexuality.
It’s led individuals like Moore to believe sex is supposed to be painful and for myself a discomfort in talking to partners about my sexual needs.
If you didn’t or don’t have parental figures like Labas, you’re essentially navigating your way through a very dark and uncomfortable landscape.
I asked both Moore and Labas what they believe should be taught in sex ed programs.
“First off, it needs to be taught. But the course itself should talk about age of consent, women’s pleasure, and LGBTQ+ sex education,” Moore said.
“I think sex ed courses should be focused on all genders and their pleasure needs and wants,” Labas said.
Both Moore and Labas stated that further education is needed both in and outside of high school. They mentioned that extra courses need to be offered focusing specifically on pleasure. There also needs to be outside resources available for students to continue asking questions and learning about sex.
Isham’s advice is for people to talk more openly about menstration, pleasure, and sex toys whenever they can.
“Mentor women so that they expect pleasure and don’t accept mediocrity,” she said.
And that’s just it.
Mediocre sexual experiences shouldn’t be the norm for women.
We need to talk about it, learn about it, write about it, and start breaking the taboo surrounding women’s sexuality and pleasure.
Find more resources Isham mentioned here: