Sexual Literacy

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Sexual Literacy

In the mid-1960s, Rob and Laura Petrie, the husband and wife characters featured on The Dick Van Dyke Show, slept in separate single beds. Such were certainly not the sleeping arrangements of most American couples, but it was all that was allowed to be shown on network TV. Twenty years later, when Sexually Speaking began airing on WYNY-FM in New York, words such as penis, vagina, and orgasm were regularly featured, and not too long after making its debut in the Big Apple in 1981, the program began airing nationally on the NBC radio network, in effect signaling that the curtain the media had thrown over the topic of sex had finally begun to lift. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, with commercials for drugs to combat erectile dysfunction flashing across screens at all times of the day and night, to mention but one small example of how ubiquitous the subject of sex has become in the American home, sex has come fully out of the closet.

But just because sex has gone from back room smokers to prime time does not mean that the average person is much more sexually literate than in the days when sex was kept under wraps. If the level of sexual literacy had climbed as high as that of exposure to sexual content, then the rate of unintended pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases should have plummeted. As that is not the case in the United States, then people are either not paying attention to all the information that is now beamed into their homes, or they are selectively choosing to ignore some of that information.

Sexual literacy has many components. They include: knowledge of sexual functioning, especially with regard to enjoying sex to the highest degree; having the skill set to prevent an unintended pregnancy among sexually active people; knowing how to protect oneself from catching or transmitting a sexually transmitted disease; having the ability to distinguish sexual facts from sexual myths; being able to successfully maintain a relationship with a sexual partner; and understanding the dangers presented by the wealth of material with a high sexual content now so easily available.

The level of sexual literacy a person reaches can be affected by many factors including level of education, income level, and culture. One important factor is age. In a survey of more than 19,000 Australians done in 2001–2002, males aged sixteen to nineteen were the segment of the population least likely to have had sexual satisfaction from their last sexual encounter. For women it was also this age bracket, as well as those aged fifty to fifty-nine. Since younger people are less experienced, they are thereby less sexually literate, and the resulting lower level of sexual satisfaction gives credence to the concept that a higher level of sexual literacy leads to a better sex life. (Even the second group of women may support this conclusion, as women in this age group are undergoing the physical changes brought on by menopause, and those changes require a learning curve in order for a woman to make the proper adjustments to the changes in her body.)

Another important factor in the determining the level of sexual literacy could be gender, but this one is more difficult to ascertain. For example, in the Australian study, 68.9 percent of women reported having an orgasm as a result of their last sexual episode as opposed to 94.8 percent of men. But since the men in this same study wanted sex more often, and women are capable of satisfying their partner's sexual desire without necessarily fully participating in the act by having an orgasm, it is not possible to say that the difference in the number of women reporting orgasms had anything to do with their level of sexual literacy or was merely the result of their willingness to participate in a sexual encounter just to please their male partner. Another complication in deciding the level of a woman's sexual literacy is the fact that women are far more dependent on their partner to achieve sexual satisfaction. So a woman with a partner whose level of sexual literacy was lower than hers might still have difficulties achieving sexual satisfaction.

But while it may be difficult to compare the level of sexual knowledge between men and women, there is no doubt that women have gained considerable amount of knowledge regarding their sexual functioning in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Sadly, for far too many women over much too long a period of time, sex was once only a chore. The majority of women never derived any sexual satisfaction from sex and many thought of themselves as frigid, assuming they had any realization of the concept that it was possible for a woman to have enjoyment from sex at all. If neither their mothers had ever enjoyed sex, nor many of the other women around them, there really was no place for these women to get the information that sex could be as enjoyable for women as it was for men. (And this pertains only to Western society. In those parts of the world where female genital mutilation continues to be performed, the concept of women enjoying sex is totally alien.)

Although there are still some women who fall into the category of not receiving the ultimate enjoyment from sex, at the beginning of the twenty-first century the vast majority of women at least know that sex between two people is something that should be causing orgasms for both of them, even if not every one of them has yet figured out how to accomplish this. And where it was once the women who felt themselves pressured into having sex, many men have come to feel the pressure of having to perform with a certain level of skill in order to give their partners the sexual satisfaction they demand. And if the tables have turned, and women have become more sexually literate, it is entirely because of the information that was broadcast over the media, again and again and again.

And on the other side of the now televised king-size bed, similar changes have occurred in the knowledge men have, not only about the sexual functioning of their partners, but about themselves as well. The most visible of these is no doubt the issue of erectile dysfunction. Who would have dreamed during the administration of John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) that one day a powerful senator who once ran for the presidency would be seen on television admitting his problems with obtaining and maintaining his erections? Yes, the development of Viagra was an accident; Pfizer was trying to develop an alternative to nitroglycerin for people with angina. But had they stumbled on this type of drug twenty years earlier, it would be sure bet that few men would ever have heard of it, and fewer still would have actually had the courage to speak to their doctors about their problems. And the overall result, apart from improving the sex life of many older men, is that both men and women of all ages now are much more familiar with this particular male dysfunction, and the potential cures.

Returning to the other variations in population, it has been ascertained that both men and women in lower socioeconomic groups obtain less enjoyment from sex. Given that this population is also less educated, one can safely assume that the level of sexual literacy among this group is also lower. Although men in this population are more likely to enjoy the pleasure that comes from sex, and not just the reproductive aspects, all populations report that sex in a companionship relationship is better. Therefore if the women in the lower socioeconomic groups were able to improve their enjoyment of sex, there would be a corresponding improvement in the enjoyment of sex among the men as well.

However, much of the educational efforts aimed toward lower economic status groups has been with the goal of teaching them about contraception, so that they would not have as many children to support, as well as about how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS in particular. The concept of teaching the other aspects of sexual literacy, especially with regard to increasing the pleasure of sex, is most certainly a foreign one. And the culture of many countries with large concentrations of poor people tends not to accept the sexual gratification of women. One study that polled more than 27,000 people worldwide found that the level of sexual enjoyment throughout Asia is less than in Western countries. And in Muslim countries where the custom of performing clitorectomies on young women is practiced, making it impossible for them ever to have an orgasm, many of the concepts that form the basis of sexual literacy are irrelevant.

Another finding of this study was that lower levels of overall health lead to lower levels of sexual enjoyment. Because various diseases and ailments almost always afflict those living in poverty, this further decreases their need for sexual literacy, as other needs of these people are so much more imperative. Yet it is also known that people in good relationships tend to be healthier than those who are not in a relationship, so that improvements in sexual literacy among poor people, which would aid in their personal relationships, would have a positive effect on their overall health.

The more sexually literate a person is, the fewer sexual myths to which that person should still give credence. While some myths have been dealt severe blows, for example those having to do with masturbation, new myths have arisen that end up lowering sexual literacy. No scientific evidence has been found for the so-called G-spot, and yet many people believe that it exists, just because they have heard so much about it; that belief, in turn, can do damage to their relationship. If the female accuses her partner of being a lousy lover because he is unable to locate her G-spot, which may not exist, then their overall level of sexual satisfaction will lessen.

Of course it is difficult to talk about sexual literacy when the very definition of the word sex is somewhat up for grabs. In the 1980s a woman who used her mouth to give her partner an orgasm would universally have been considered to have had sex. Yet in the early 2000s many young people consider sex to mean only intercourse and will have oral sex much more casually than intercourse. Are they demonstrating sexual illiteracy or is this just an example of a change in the sexual mores?

Perhaps a better question would be whether teens should be given the power to make such changes. If they were fully sexually literate, they might be considered to have the competency to push society in certain directions. But the truth is that American teens have been shown not to have a good grasp of sexual functioning, based on statistics comparing them with young people in Europe. For example, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate is nearly twice as high as that of Canada and Great Britain, more than three times higher than in Sweden, nearly four times higher than France, nearly five times higher than Germany, and more than nine times higher than in the Netherlands. The teen chlamydia infection rate in the United States is nearly two times higher than in Canada and Sweden, more than five times higher than in Great Britain, nineteen times higher than in France, and eighty-eight times higher than in Belgium. And the underlying fault seems to be the state of their sexual education.

The differences in the level of sexual literacy between American teens and those in Europe are not accidental. Beginning in the 1990s, the U.S. government—prodded by conservative forces—began to coerce localities, via federal funding, to use abstinence-until-marriage curricula in their sexual education courses. The statistics cited above demonstrate that these programs have failed to raise the level of sexual literacy among the nation's teenagers, and, in fact, have had a negative impact rather than a positive one. Two specific pieces of legislation that caused this effect were the 1996 passage of the Welfare Reform Act and the creation of the Special Projects of Regional and National Significance—Community Based Abstinence Education Program (SPRANS-CBEA).

The main difference between many European sex education programs and that of the United States is that in countries like France and Sweden, the message given to teens is that it is okay to have sex within a committed relationship, and this acceptance helps encourage teens to enter such relationships rather than engage in casual sex. In the United States, teens who have no desire to get married end up having more casual sex, and as a result undergo more unintended pregnancies, abortions, and are more likely to get a sexually transmitted disease.

There is one more issue that needs to be covered when examining the state of sexual literacy, and that is the confusion that exists over the shifting sands of information that threaten to overwhelm us in so many areas of health care. One obvious case is the issue of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) for postmenopausal women. One of the benefits of HRT is that it allows women to continue to lubricate naturally when they become sexually aroused. But when HRT came under suspicion, and women found themselves torn between taking it to relieve the symptoms of menopause versus the risks that had been widely discussed, the resulting confusion left them floundering. When information that had been part of the bedrock of their sexual literacy comes into question, it naturally makes them mistrust other information that they had considered true.

On the male side of the equation, the arrival of Viagra and its competitors also changed the situation, for the men taking these drugs and for their partners. Older people, who had expected a natural decline in their sex lives, suddenly found themselves facing the possibility of an active sex life that could continue for many more years. This change in expectations requires an adjustment to the sexual habits of every couple caught in this situation. So here is a case where a couple's level of sexual literacy may dip due to a change in outside factors that suddenly make their sex lives more complicated than they were before. And that can be even truer for couples for which these drugs may not be appropriate. There are alternatives, such as surgically implanted pumps that have become quite safe and more effective, but with all the attention drawn to the pills, being able to find out about these alternatives may become more difficult. Of course, with men having to go to their doctor to get a prescription, some are given much needed information along with the prescription, thus raising their level of sexual literacy. Sadly, this is not always the case.

And then there is the area covered by those who do not consider themselves heterosexual. When homosexuals first began to come out of the closet in great numbers, their levels of sexual literacy increased as overall communication about homosexual sex exploded. But with the arrival of HIV/AIDS, along with an acceptance of the possibility that some people might be bisexual, the picture became much more complex. Many men who had shunned activities that might put them at risk began to revert back to those same activities, clearly showing that their level of sexual literacy had, if not actually dropped, at least become clouded.

There is no doubt that all the media attention given to sex has made people more aware of the complexities of a natural human function that for so long was just a part of the reproductive process and did not require much in the way of education. So to rate the sexual literacy of an individual might require two scales: one that would measure the level on an absolute basis, and another on a relative one. For the former, it is clear that people, in general, know a lot more about sexual functioning than they did before. But because of the many added variables that arose in the last few decades of the twentieth century, this increase does not mean that everyone is better able to navigate the actual universe of sexual behavior as it stands today.


Angier, Natalie. 1990. "Americans' Sex Knowledge Is Lacking, Poll Says." New York Times, September 6.

Darroch, Jacqueline E.; Jennifer J. Frost; and Susheela Singh. 2001. "Teenage Sexual and Reproductive Behavior in Developed Countries." Occasional Report No. 3, Alan Guttmacher Institute. Available from

Laumann, Edward; Anthony Paik; et al. "A Cross-National Study of Subjective Sexual Well-Being among Older Women and Men: Findings from the Global Study of Sexual Attitudes and Behavior." Archives of Sexual Behavior 35(2): 143-159.

Richters, Juliet; Richard de Visser; et al. 2006. "Sexual Practices at Last Heterosexual Encounter and Occurrence of Orgasm in a National Survey." Journal of Sex Research 43(3): 217-226. Available from

"Special Edition: Sexuality Education in the United States, A Decade of Controversy." 2002–2003. SIECUS Report 31(6).

                                        Ruth Westheimer