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How did you learn about sex?

We asked, you answered

Welcome to the Impact newsletter, the home of thought-provoking feminist journalism. This week, we bring you the latest in our collaborative series on sexuality education around the world.

  • How do people actually learn about sex? We wanted to hear your stories.
  • 🎤 This newsletter hands the microphone to the readers who responded to our callout on sexuality education. 
  • 🗣️ From consent, to periods, porn and pleasure, you shared your experiences with getting ‘The Talk’

It’s the last week of our donation campaign and we are so close to reaching our goal of raising €1000 for our reporting. If you value feminist journalism, please consider making a donation today!

You can help us reach our goal by clicking this button 👇

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What is the best, the healthiest, the safest way to learn about sex and relationships? To understand how our bodies work, to find out about consent, to know how to protect ourselves against STIs?

We all learn about sex and relationships differently depending on our age, the country where we live, our cultural background, our schooling and our families. And, as we reported earlier this month, the right to comprehensive sexuality education is facing significant backlash around the world. So what would good sex education actually look like? And how can people actually learn about healthy relationships?

We’re asking these questions as part of The Talk, a series of stories, each produced by a different newsroom, on the state of sex education around the world. For the series, the Impact newsletter looked into the conspiracy-driven attacks on schools in Belgium linked to sexuality education, CNN’s As Equals investigated how changes to moderation policies on social media platforms are silencing sexuality education influencers, and Nadja Media explored how women from the Druze religious minority are balancing tradition with learning about sexual health. You can see all the stories in the series on our dedicated landing page.

We also wanted to hear from you, our readers, about your experiences with sexuality education — what you learned, from whom, and what you wish you’d known. Many of you responded to our call-out with thoughtful, moving testimonies. A selection of those responses is included below. They have been edited for length and clarity. Please be aware that some of the responses contain distressing material.

Thank you to those who wrote to us, and thank you to all of you for subscribing to the Impact newsletter. And please, if you ever have something to share about what you read in any of our newsletters, never hesitate to hit reply.

Alberto Mier, CNN

“It was the midwife who taught me the most.”

I’m 40 now, so my sex education started a long time ago and continues to this day.

As far as sex education classes in schools are concerned, I don’t remember receiving any at all. I remember the biology lesson on anatomy and I found it pretty uninteresting. I just remember seeing a penis and as far as the female genital system was concerned, all I remember was the reproductive system.

My real sex education was primarily developed with my friends. We talked about it openly, we exchanged a lot about our experiences, we sometimes went into a lot of detail, which allowed me  to explore things I didn’t know about and which was usually very pleasant for me and for my partner.

I realised that, with the exception of my girlfriends, I had never heard adults talk about sexual pleasure, sexual fulfilment, consent, love and so on.

Today I’m still learning a lot about my body and sexuality in general, with all that revolves around it. Thanks in part to Causette magazine and programmes, documentaries and reports on the subject. I’ve also learnt a lot thanks to my pregnancy. I learnt a lot about my body in childbirth preparation classes. I was amazed by this incredible machine! I thought it was such a shame that I only discovered all that by that point …  Because even though I was very interested, and did a lot of research, it ended up being the midwife who taught me the most.

— M

“All that was said was that condoms had to be used.”

I can’t remember a time when I « learned » what sex was. In my family, there was no taboo or shame (the subject of periods was always discussed as something completely normal, no fuss was made about the HPV vaccine), but still I wasn’t at all close to my parents and neither I nor my sister would have thought of discussing our personal lives with my parents.

At school, I know that when I was in seventh or eighth grade, my class had a sex education session, but I have a two-second memory of that hour-long session, and that’s it. I think all that was said (by, I think, the school’s teachers and not by specialist outside speakers) was that condoms had to be used.

I went through a lot of trial and error at the start of my sex life, but I’m lucky enough to have had relatively little exposure to gender stereotypes in my upbringing and, above all, to never have been expected to be submissive in any way whatsoever. That certainly saved me a lot of trouble in my early relationships, and even now. I did the rest of my sexual education as a young adult with feminist reading and open discussions with my friends, as in fact I still do now.

To sum up, my personal experience of sex education is that you have to manage on your own, with a little help from a circle of close friends of roughly the same age. The supposed educational authorities (adults in the family, school) had nothing to do with it.

— C

“I would have liked to have been told about consent”

It was my mother who explained sexuality to me. I must have been 13. I had the laugh of my life, not only because I was embarrassed to talk about such things, but also because she compared the clitoris to a mini-penis. We didn’t talk about consent at all, just about how babies are made. I’m grateful she did, because at least I knew where children came from. However, given my reaction, I’m not sure she repeated the experience with my brothers.

I would have liked to have heard about consent, to have been told that I had a choice, that just because I agreed to go to a boy’s house didn’t mean I was forced to sleep with him, that I could always say no. That no one had the right to do anything to me. That no one had the right to touch me without my consent, that sexual touching was sexual assault. Because I was touched sexually several times when I was underage and I thought I had no say in the matter. And that’s what abusers use: they believe that silence is consent, which is not true at all.

Later, when I had questions about sexuality, I used to call a health hotline for young people (fortunately the call was free, because I contacted them often). I also did a lot of browsing medical and news websites.

I knew that my mother would be embarrassed to talk about these things, so I didn’t ask her. I couldn’t see myself talking about it to anyone else, and my girlfriends and I didn’t talk about it either.

— A

“I learned what marital rape was”

I’m 62 and received a few hours of sex education at school when I was 18. It was very well explained, with respect and kindness. I remember it perfectly.

When I was 23, I married the father of my children. We’d known each other for six years. So I met him young and that was my first sexual experience.  We had two children. However, very soon after the wedding, this man began to claim his « marital duty », enforcing pressure and power on an encounter that should have been beautiful and respectful. I learnt what marital rape was. The act had to be carried out despite my tears. After seven years of this ordeal, I filed for divorce.

Fortunately, life has since offered me the chance of a healthier relationship, so there was no question of accepting something I didn’t want. But this affair did a lot of psychological damage to me.

So yes, I’m all in favour of information sessions for our young people.

— A

“We’re a family with no taboos.”

Around the age of twelve, after I started menstruating, I became interested in sexuality and asked my mother about it. She’s a woman with a lot of faults, but she’s not one to mince her words. We’re a family with no taboos.

The most important thing to know, according to my mother, was that penetration was only the end of the road. Before that, I had to discover my body on my own by masturbating, because you can’t ask a man to make you come when he knows nothing about the clitoris or the vagina. If I wanted to come with a man, I’d have to guide him. That we should also learn to make love with our hands before considering penetration. It was also very important to attach more importance to foreplay.

I followed all her advice! It didn’t hurt and I even enjoyed it from the very first time. I knew how to guide, how to ask to slow down, how to listen to my desires and how to say stop when I needed to. For all that: thank you, no-taboos mum!

— S

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