teach yourself sex ed bodies

Teach Yourself Sex Ed – Bodies

We’re back again at Teach Yourself Sex Ed classes. This week we’re going to explore bodies – not like that, obviously.

You might think that this section is pretty easy and that all you would learn about is anatomy. What goes where, what does what, what goes wrong etc. Nope. It’s much much more complicated than that, and so also more interesting.

Like everything at this website, this lesson is for over 14s. This is lesson number 9, so it won’t make much sense if you haven’t done the others. Here’s the first one.

Parents, if you want to teach this I’ve made a resource and also check out the rest of the teach section here. Teachers, check out my resources at BishTraining and the free ones at DO….

That said, there is a huge section here about anatomy and bodies so go and check them out.

I don’t know whether you’ve seen the Bad Sex Ed Bingo card I made the other day. No? Go and have a look, it took me bloody ages! Anyway, in that I suggest that sex ed that is just about biology is not very good. In the first sections we’ll think about this.

1. Reproductive Bodies

Let’s say you’ve learned about the ‘reproductive anatomy’. You know: ovaries, fallopian tubes, the womb, the womb lining, eggs, semen, sperm and (at some point) a penis and testicle. All interesting stuff to know about but what else is this teaching you?

  • What do you learn to be the function of those bits of anatomy? How are they ‘supposed’ to work? Who is ‘supposed’ to have these bodies?
  • If this is presented to you as sex education (rather than just biology), what does it teach you about why people have sex?
  • What does it teach you about what is sex? What’s the should story?
  • As well as what you are taught about why people have sex, what does it teach you about who has sex? What is ‘natural’?

Think back to the first lesson about your sex ed so far and the lesson about sexualities, can you see any themes cropping up?

Also think about what it actually takes to start a pregnancy, or to give birth, or to raise a kid. How much of that is to do with just ‘reproductive anatomy’. What parts of our bodies might be involved in this? How many people’s bodies? What kind of emotions would we go through, new skills we’d have to learn, different ways our bodies would have to change and adapt?

2. Pleasurable bodies

To balance this out you might have received some sex education that focused on pleasure and different body parts. Well some of them are different but some of them are also the same. You know: the clitoris (outside and inside), the prostate (‘male’ and ‘female’), the vagina, and the penis and maybe a testicle or two. All interesting stuff to know about I guess, but what else is this teaching you?

  • What do you learn to be the function of those bits of anatomy? How are they ‘supposed’ to work? Who is ‘supposed’ to have these bodies?
  • If this is presented to you as sex education (rather than just biology), what does it teach you about why people have sex?
  • What does it teach you about what is sex? What’s the should story?
  • As well as what you are taught about why people have sex, what does it teach you about who has sex? What is ‘natural’?

Think back to the first lesson about your sex ed so far and the lesson about sexualities, can you see any themes cropping up?

As you can see, not only does only teaching about biology miss out a load of stuff, but it also brings with it a lot of assumptions and should stories for you, the learner. Teaching about the pleasurable body sends very strong messages about how our bodies should work, what we should do with them, and how we should relate to them. That’s a lot of shoulds, particularly if you are: trans, or only have sex by yourself, with people with similar genitals to you, or if you are asexual.

What else needs to be taught

We don’t have orgasms in our dicks and clits. They happen in muscles in the groin and lower abdomen, in various parts of the brain, throughout the central nervous system, in the face. People can experience an orgasm without touching their dicks or clits or in fact any part of their body.

What is required to experience an orgasm has often very little to do with the physical body either. Trust, privacy, comfort, time, imagination and attention are vital, but we get those from our surroundings or people we are with. We might also need tools such as a sex toy, lube, or a phone. We’re going to look at this later on.

Just teaching about biology on it’s own in this way isn’t neutral or ‘more factual’. Bodies are not just tissue, muscle, bone, nervous systems, blood – they are also social, political, philosophical, gender(ed), loved, cared for, desired, working etc etc.

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3. What can the body do?

Okay I hope you’re still with me! So far we have seen that the two key ways that sex education teaches us about our bodies might put restrictive norms on us. They tell us a should story about what our bodies do which is quite narrow and restrictive but also doesn’t tell the whole story.

Now we’re going to shift into thinking into a completely different way about the body. Instead of what the body does, we’re going to think about what the body can do. To do this I’m going to ask you to think about all of the relationships that your body has to the world around it. Not just the relationships you have (eg friends, family, romance) but this much broader idea.

How do our relationships to things like age, activism, partners, family, close friends, class / wealth, social media, sexuality, media, disability, race, gender, spirituality, work / career, environment, age affect what the body can do?
What can the body do?

How do our relationships to these things affect what the body can do?

  • age,
  • activism,
  • partners,
  • family,
  • close friends,
  • class / wealth,
  • social media,
  • sexuality,
  • media,
  • disability,
  • race,
  • gender,
  • spirituality,
  • work / career,
  • environment,
  • age
  • (do add your own too)

Have a go at this for yourself. You might want to gently think about this for yourself eventually, but first of all think of a famous fictional character. Here’s an example from the worst TV show ever made, which you should never watch.

Meet Chandler

Chandler has a very high status and well paid job where he uses a very analytical part of his brain a lot. He’s in a very competitive area, so he is often stressed and his heart rate is increased and has tunnel vision. He spends most of the day looking at screens which causes tension headaches. This means he really values going to the coffee shop with his friends to talk and make stupid jokes.

Drinking so much coffee in the evening means that he doesn’t sleep a great deal. His so-called friends constantly joke that he is not masculine enough. So he is conscious of how he dresses his body, and smells, to make sure he doesn’t get teased.

As a white, straight, man means his body is mostly safe from harassment walking around the city. Although he has a sense of inequality in the world he doesn’t have the experience or knowledge of how to use his body to change it. His sex life mostly relates to watching Baywatch which causes vasocongestion in his (perfectly adequately sized) penis.

So you can see that when we broaden this out our bodies are much more capable of doing things. Rather than being fixed as bodies that all work in the same way for the same purpose, we are all different and changing all the time.

4. We’re all changing

Remember these guys?

how does the body change over time

Go back to when I asked you to write a story for each of them. Now think about how their bodies have changed over the course of their lives. You could go from 0 – death, or you could look at 5 years in the past and 5 years in the future. Or perhaps 10 years. Consider how their bodies changed and how this affected or was affected by their relations (see above).

For example: how has their wealth made a difference to how they dress? Why might someone have surgically changed their body? Has anyone taken up lifting weights? Did anyone become more disabled by society? Have the beauty standards changed?

How do any of these things affect their relations to the people and the world around them? Did their relations to the world make some changes easier, or harder?

5. Back to sex bodies

Back to the bit about sex bodies. You might now see that sex bodies are not just what ever is in our underpants. There are lots of different areas of the body where people might enjoy being touched and being touched by different body parts. For example:

The touch matrix

Eye lashes. Cheek. Hair. Nose. Lips. Ear. Tongue. Cheek. Neck. Shoulder. Chest. Tummy. Hand. Arm. Fingers. Back. Hips. Bum. Thigh. Penis. Clitoris. Vulva. Anus. Knee. Calf. Foot. Toe.

If you have a sexual or a cuddling partner, you could think about where you like to be touched on your body and by which part of their body. For example ‘I like my cheek to be touched by their eye lashes’.

Now consider how many different parts of those parts of their body there are. Then think about how many different ways they could be touched (eg stroked, spanked). Also think of non-human things someone’s body could be touched with (eg feather, spanking paddle, dildo).

Which takes us back to consent and sex of course. Sex isn’t just one thing, it’s potentially hundreds of thousands of things. It also doesn’t have to involve touch at all. In fact, touching is probably not the most important part of sex. As we can see in this next (and final) bit.

6. Sex Bodies: Assemble

I’ve massively over-simplified this (so if you’re an academic reading this, be kind okay?) but we’re going to bring all of this together now. If we add together what we know about the biology of ‘how our bodies work’ with ‘what the body can do’ we will have a better idea of how sex works.

Let’s talk about what happens when bodies have sex together. Let’s say that Ash and Jay have a kiss.

What would a purely biological description of a kiss be?

Ash’s lips – Jay’s lips

They might lead to some further biological things such as

Ash’s lips – Jay’s lips – vagus nerve – increase heart rate – oxytocin

But it doesn’t really explain why it might be sexual or why it might (or might not) be enjoyable.

Assemblage

Now think about the relations to the body involved for both people as well as the biology. What would a description of that be like?

Ash’s lips – Jay’s lips – past experiences and circumstances – social and
sexual norms – Ash and Jay’s personal attributes (e.g. looks, personality, wealth) – the environment around them (eg is it private or public) – feelings and emotions
.

The above paragraph is called an assemblage. It’s lots of things that connect with each other but also feedback on each other. One isn’t more important than the other, but they are all connected.

If, for example, Jay felt that it wasn’t private enough and that they would be experience shame if they were seen, then that is going to affect the experience for them. Or Ash’s past criticisms of them being a bad snogger has made them cautious about whether Jay is liking it. Maybe the kiss is making them feel like they are definitely on the same page and really do fancy each other.

Go back to the module where I asked you to think about a time you enjoyed something. Can you write down an assemblage of things that were going on for you? Now do the same for when you didn’t enjoy something so much. What part of the assemblage changed, or was tricky? How much of this was to do with just biology? What about it was just social relations? Was it an assemblage of various things in between?

This bit about the kissing assemblage is from this excellent academic article ‘The Sexuality-Assemblage: Desire, Affect, Anti-Humanism’, by Nick J Fox and Pam Alldred. Also I’ve relied on Nick J Fox’s ‘The Body’ writing this which is such a beautiful book.

Right that’s enough for today. Let me know if there are any other subjects you would like me to cover or if you have any questions. Pop them in the comments below (I check them all before they are published) or just contact me via Ask Bish.

© Justin Hancock, 2021.

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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. Find out more about Justin here

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