The new sexual pressure felt by teenage girls

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Photo: Trinette Reed Photography

As a non-parent, I accept that my views on adolescent sexual education might not mesh with people concerned about their offspring diving into experiences they may not be ready for. The advent and growth of sexting alone is a terrifying prospect for parents suddenly confronted by their child’s burgeoning sexual exploration, and it’s understandable - if unreasonable - that some people want to ignore it for as long as possible. But healthy sexual choices are best made by people who’ve been encouraged to have a healthy, open dialogue around sexuality in all its complexities. And unfortunately, this dialogue still appears to be largely missing in Australia’s education institutions.

Earlier this year, sexual health experts argued that Australia’s sex education system was in drastic need of an overhaul. Professor Catherine Lumby, who has spent the past two years working on an Australian Research Council project called ‘Young People, Sex, Love and Media’, expressed concern over the high degree of confusion felt by sexually active adolescents grappling with the issues of consent and pleasure. Professor Lumby’s research shows that girls feel pressure to be sexually active from a young age while boys have different anxieties about sexual expectation and appropriate behaviour.

In the same article, journalist Jill Stark spoke to Stef Tipping from the Centre Against Sexual Assault. Tipping is the co-coordinator for CASA’s secondary schools program. Tipping says staff involved with the centre’s six week sexual assault prevention program still encounter the kind of double standards which see sexually active girls and boys separated into ‘sluts’ and ‘legends’. She says these attitudes still lead to confusion around matters of consent.

Worryingly, new research coming out of UK shows there’s also an inadequacy around sex education in a world where hardcore pornography is easily accessed by teenagers. Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine interviewed a sample size of adolescents across three British locations for a study which focused exclusively on the ‘expectations, experiences and circumstances of anal sex among [heterosexual] young people’.

In addition to concerns around the lack of discussion about anal sex in general sexual health education, researchers found that many adolescent girls felt expected to do it while boys felt pressure to persuade or coerce them into it. While some young men said they avoided anal sex out of concern for their partner’s comfort, others admitted to pushing for it despite believing it would probably hurt her. In fact, researchers found that girls’ pleasure was “often absent in narratives of anal heterosex” and that this was seemingly accepted as normal.

Issues of pleasure and consent should be considered central rather than peripheral to comprehensive sex education. Gone are the days when parents and educators could focus exclusively on the matters of biology and reproduction, leaving children to figure out everything else in the backseats of cars and in other people’s bedrooms. Sexual exploration is unavoidable in adolescents, and healthy teenagers are the ones who’ve been empowered to make informed choices. As uncomfortable as it might make adults to think about children having anal sex, the reality is that it’s not only happening, it’s happening with the absence of information and sensible instruction.

Practically speaking, anal sex is something that requires substantially more preparation than vaginal penetration because the anus isn’t self lubricating. It deeply concerns me to read via this research that some young heterosexual boys are attempting to ‘sneak one past the goalposts’ by claiming accidental penetration. Prioritising your desires over your partners to the point where you don’t seek consent for sexual activity isn’t just a jerk move - it’s sexual assault. Everyone - not just young people - needs to understand that this kind of behaviour isn’t okay.

But even if consent has been given, it’s physically risky to attempt anal sex without adequate lubrication or care. The tissue inside the anus is vulnerable to tearing, meaning it’s also vulnerable to the spread of infections and bacteria. Young heterosexual people who access their primary sex education through porn might not be aware that switching directly between anal and vaginal penetration can transmit bacteria from the anus to the vagina and increase the risk of painful bacterial infections.

The researchers conducting this study acknowledged that mutually pleasurable anal sex is possible for heterosexual couples, but like any sex related activity it hinges on issues of consent and respect.

These are uncomfortable realities for many adults to confront about adolescent sexual behaviour. However, it’s vital that we do so if we want to encourage healthy sexual relationships rather than coercive behaviour that has the potential to be both emotionally and physically destructive. ‘Talk to your child today about safe anal sex’ may not be something a parent ever thought they’d be advised to do, but it’s time that everyone face facts.

The kids are doing it, and we need to make sure they’re alright.

 

40 comments

  • It is about time our children are given sex education instead of reproduction education. Words that need to be used include pleasure, orgasm (for all sexes), consensual activities, foreplay for starters. We try to teach them almost everything else except how to be good and competent sexual partners.

    Commenter
    Helen
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    August 19, 2014, 8:53AM
    • Some children receive comprehensive sex-positive sex ed., but it basically comes down to the individual school (or even individual teachers at a school).

      You could fix this with a comprehensive mandated program, but the real resistance to that change doesn't come from parents with double standards about their little girls (not that I'm disputing they exist), but because you run head first into religion and culture. This isn't just a simple update to an outdated program, you've gotta make the argument that the rights of children to a comprehensive sex education trump the values of multiculturalism and religious freedom in schools, which is a bigger hurdle. Given the current politicised state of the curriculum, the fact that it has just been put to review by Kevin Donnelly, and the hardiness of the school chaplaincy program, I wouldn't expect to see anything under the current government.

      Commenter
      kindsight
      Date and time
      August 19, 2014, 9:14AM
      • Way to turn this into a Government bashing article. My children received mandated sex education starting in primary school and it had nothing to do with religion or culture.

        Commenter
        Catherine
        Date and time
        August 19, 2014, 1:55PM
    • It's not often I agree with nearly all of a Daily Life article, but this is one of them.

      Fully-informed and free consent should be the cornerstone of all relationships, sexual and otherwise.

      There are always grey areas around feeling of obligation, mutual respect and give-and-take in any relationship, but honesty and choice free of coercion and pressure should always be the goal.

      Commenter
      DM
      Date and time
      August 19, 2014, 9:27AM
      • What is firstly very difficult about this discussion is how many adults have difficulty confronting the taboos of anal sex. Given the right precautions, anal sex can be very pleasurable. In a heterosexual scenario, there is not only the case of a man penetrating a woman, but also the possibility for a woman to digitally penetrate a man, or to use toys to do so. It can be very psychologically challenging but ultimately very rewarding for a man to allow a woman to penetrate him. It does however require a great degree of trust for a couple to arrive at being able to do that, together with a great degree of confidence on the part of both partners in their own sexuality.
        Critically, it is important never to push someone into something they are not comfortable with. At the same time, I am very grateful to an ex-girlfriend who was able to gently push my limits to explore new things.

        Commenter
        G
        Date and time
        August 19, 2014, 10:38AM
      • @G: Sounds as though the man gets all the pleasure out of this - stimulation of the penis while penetrating the woman's anus, plus the pleasure you mention of being digitally penetrated. What's in it for the woman?

        Commenter
        huh
        Date and time
        August 19, 2014, 3:46PM
    • I expect to be howled down for this 'incorrect' view, but maybe its time we encourage people to delay sexual activity until there is mental and emotional maturity and until they are in the security of a mutually-respectful and committed relationship.

      I know that this is counter to the view that 'since they are at it, let's try and limit the damage' .. but as I look at the growing sexual exploitation and degradation of young people (& esp girls), I wonder who is standing up for their future.

      Commenter
      Peta
      Date and time
      August 19, 2014, 9:31AM
      • "we encourage people to delay sexual activity until there is mental and emotional maturity and until they are in the security of a mutually-respectful and committed relationship."

        a) There have been people have been trying to 'encourage' teenagers not to engage in sexual activity since there have been teenagers. It hasn't been noticeably successful in 10,000 or so years of recorded human history, I don't know why you think it would change now.

        b) Why does it have to be about a committed relationship? It's entirely possible to have consent and mutual respect in casual relationships and one-night stands. One of the reasons it's less common right now is exactly because of the lack of teaching around sexual respect and consent that this article discusses.

        Commenter
        DM
        Date and time
        August 19, 2014, 10:09AM
      • People reach mental and emotional maturity by learning, so education actually assists young people in having the maturity to navigate their first sexual encounters. As an added bonus, comprehensive sex education delays sexual activity (abstinence education does the opposite), so it's a happy win-win :)

        Commenter
        kindsight
        Date and time
        August 19, 2014, 10:15AM
      • I don't believe anyone is encouraging young people to go out and have indiscriminate sex. In an ideal world, we would indeed "delay sexual activity until their is mental and emotional maturity". But you don't have to reject the idea of delayed sexual activity in order to educate young people about respect, consent and pleasure. Concealing information is never a successful strategy when it comes to sex, drugs and other risk behaviours. And for the record - this isn't "howling you down" ... just a contributing view.

        Commenter
        Deb DeGood
        Location
        Granville
        Date and time
        August 19, 2014, 10:32AM

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