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Young Women on Sexual Health, Education and Relationships

Many young women described passivity in their relationships and sexual encounters for example in setting expectations about what they wanted to experience and/or their choice of partner:

“One of my female friends said ‘what do you want from a relationship?’ and I would think ‘I have no idea! I have never thought of that before’.”

“A lot of my friends talk about how they’ve been on Tinder dates and guys have flat out refused to use condoms. I’ve never had that experience but I have had friends tell me stories like that and it has alarmed me… And they have followed through anyway, either because they’ve had alcohol or because there has been this sense of embarrassment.”

“I have a friend and her boyfriend, they’d been together for a while, she forgot to take her pill a lot… [he chastised her] he got graphs up on his computer of how likely it was she would get pregnant [yet] he wouldn’t wear a condom. That’s really frustrating.”

“I think when I was younger, at uni and I was out drinking I always felt like I had to go home with someone and it was absolutely not about me getting anything out of it other than feeling like I had made myself look good enough and whatever to be able to take someone home. It wasn’t anything to do with me getting any enjoyment out of sex. I think when I look back on it I see that now but I didn’t really think that at the time.”

“I didn’t have a very good relationship with boys for my whole life up until this partner. So anything I consider now as abuse or assault I probably passed off as a joke quite a lot when I was a teenager and it’s probably a contributing factor to my mental health now… in that how I’ve let boys treat me… going from boyfriend to boyfriend, when one asked me out, thinking ‘oh my god I’ve been asked out’ and then dedicating myself to that person just because I thought I was so lucky to have been asked out and I spent all my time getting to know someone else when I should have been getting to know myself.”

“When you are a girl, especially boys are not nice, they just always expect you to always be happy and meet their needs, sort of being yourself, meeting the boys needs, you have to always agree with them you can’t voice your opinion as much.”

“I used to only be able to have sex when I was drunk or had had a few drinks. I wasn’t doing it for my own pleasure, for knowing what I liked.”

“If you get pressured [to have sex] you’re obviously not going to enjoy it ‘cause you’re just doing it because you’re scared. Sometimes you do it because you’re scared to lose someone as well. And you do it not because you want to but because you’re scared, or show them like that you love them so you do it too fast. I think it’s a problem with a lot of girls.”

“Speaking to my friends and stuff, girls always feel it’s about the guy, especially in sexual experiences when you’re younger, it’s what you can do for them not the other way round. If you speak to any girl they’ll almost definitely say the same.”

“Over the years I’ve predominantly slept with men who I don’t even know if they knew your pleasure was even factored in, and that’s probably bad choices on my part…. It’s funny, with [ex boyfriend’s] group of friends, some of them were married or in a long-term relationship and they’d be like ‘oh no I don’t do that’, and I was like ‘how funny is that? Your friends are ok to brag about being terrible in bed, I’m not satisfying my wife’.”

The age range of our participant group (16-30) was broad; some of the young women in their mid to late twenties reflected on improvements in their sexual experiences, attributing poor experiences to a lack of assertiveness, self knowledge and confidence:

“We’ve all gone through an early part of our twenties not [being assertive] growing up and [not] accepting yourself in so many ways, maybe the sexual thing comes into play and [now being older] you’re like now I’m actually able to say exactly what I need. You need to be happy in all the ways including sexual things.”

“A conversation I’ve had with a lot of friends recently is that once you get to that point in your later twenties you know your body a bit better. It’s that thing with sex isn’t it, if you can’t tell the person what makes you feel good then you’re not going to. Its not just like there’s a switch that can be flicked. You need to know yourself.”

One young woman talked about racial prejudice around the way sex is perceived:

“There was one time I got this comment and it was basically ended him saying ‘black girls are always up for it though aren’t they?’ and that was enough for me! I think that’s a hard thing to learn. That men have this perception of you based on the colour of your skin, and that was really difficult to get my head around, especially that sexual perception and that you might be kind of filling a fantasy or they are expecting something from you that they wouldn’t expect from other women because of what they perceive your body to be like because you are a black woman. I think that was difficult.”

Many referenced the social shaming of women having casual sex, expressing several variations of the comment below:

“If a boy sleeps with someone it’s like yeah they’ve pulled, but if a girl sleeps with someone she’s a slut.”

Some young women described a lack of knowledge about sex.

“I think my friends and in the media in general don’t talk about [female] masturbation. That just wasn’t something I knew was possible at all until I was twenty because it had never been discussed. It’s such a shame.”

“I think women just talking about sex is a big step, in schools you are never told you are allowed to enjoy it or like it or want to have it – it takes a certain amount of time [to discover that], for guys it’s just accepted that they will have sex and they will enjoy it whereas for women it takes a long time to take ownership of that.”

“[Sex education at school] makes me think of that quote from Mean Girls ‘don’t have sex ‘cause you’ll get pregnant and die’. That’s what mine was like.”

“[Sex education at school] I can remember just putting a condom on a banana and told not to get STIs.”

“In uni or the last years of high school, consent workshops would have been quite useful… I have a couple of friends, one in particular who may or may not have been pressured into having a couple of abortions that she probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. Workshops on indicators of what’s an abusive relationship, would be helpful for some. Or what you can or can’t expect, what your rights are as a woman, all that kind of thing, because it’s really quite sad the stories about what’s happened to my friends.”

“We have such an issue at the moment with schools freaking out about young people sexting. I’m like you have young people talking about sex… that’s amazing.”

“I’m from a small town in an area, lots of pockets of wee villages with small town mentalities, the way people think about things are not very open. At school we didn’t learn about sexual identities or anything like that. For me I must have been thirteen or something, chatting to a friend about a girl I really liked, and she was like, ‘maybe you’re bi?’ and I was like ‘what’s that?’ I didn’t know what it was.”

Young women with physical and learning disabilities described a lack of sex education and specific barriers to sexual experiences:

“For me that is a really sore point. Well not a sore point but a really negative point because the opportunities for people with disabilities aren’t quite always there because they have to rely on hoists and you have to have trust in that person to be able to do that, I cant do it myself.”

“People are too scared to bring it up [conversations about sex and sex education] because they don’t think we’re human [people with learning disabilities], and we are.”

During conversations about equality many made reference to a recent news story about the end of a trial of a contraceptive pill for men, with several comments similar to this one:

“The way [the male pill] is pitched it looks as though there is a small list of side effects that could come with it and that’s sort of a reason for it to be rejected but then when you get the pill and you’re a woman the list is about twice the length… I do know people that have had really awful things from birth control so it’s kind of like ‘why do we get the full burden?’”

During conversations about pornography a common thread was the taboo of acknowledging that young women watch, enjoy or learn from porn. Some suggested that young men’s exposure to porn at earlier ages than young women lay at the root of unrealistic expectations about sexual norms and behaviours:

“There’s a definite lack of conversations about women watching porn. I think that’s something that in a friend group other friends won’t admit to it, they feel embarrassed. Whereas I think it’s healthy as long as it’s safe and the content you’re watching is healthy then there is nothing to be embarrassed about. Whereas boys start watching it really young.”

“Guys are exposed a lot earlier through porn and things like that. ‘Cause its not a thing where women watch porn where they’re younger anyway. That’s still a guy’s thing. When you get a bit older, you start watching it and discovering stuff but that’s still, I feel that if you watch porn you are [considered] kinky. In my experience… I’ve maybe suggested something [I want to try] and it’s been like [disapproving] ‘oh you’re a bit kinky, you’re a bit dirty’ its like ‘nah I’m not, why am I dirty and you’re not?’”

“I mean I’m pretty scared for my 13 and 16 year-old sisters in terms of what stuff people are seeing and that, not that they are normal, like go and explore those things if you want to if you like those things and are genuinely interested, but don’t think that’s what sex is. That’s terrifying and… it’s skipping all the good bits.”

“Porn is just total objectification, you don’t even get to see people’s heads sometimes, you don’t see what bits are connected to other bits. It’s all done for camera angles, it’s not even the angles that feel good, it’s the angles that look good to an outside person. That’s how people are learning about sex and I don’t think that sex ed in school has caught up as quick to this as the kids have, they’ve not changed the discussion around it. Kids are getting bombarded with way too much wrong information and no responsible adults are ready to, they just say ‘don’t watch it’ rather than actually talk about anal sex. I’ve heard people go ‘oh but that [anal sex] doesn’t count as real sex, you’ve not lost your virginity’.”

In the context of discussing sexual relationships many young women shared examples and knowledge of online and social shaming. They described being exposed to unwanted images, the pressure to reciprocate and the shame and trauma of picture sharing.

Participant A: “Some people add me on Facebook and just send me a message with a dick pic and says ‘I love you’.” Researcher: “Strangers sending you dick pics?” All participants: “Yeah.”

“You’d have your webcam and there would be boys at my school who’d be like, ‘go and flash us’. We’d be like ‘no!’ You’d be being all cutesy on the webcam and they’d be like, ‘show us your tits’ and you’d be like ‘NO, go away’. There is a lot of pressure on girls to do that kind of stuff when they don’t really want to.”

“Definitely in third and fourth year I used to get shown these group chats for all the guys where they would just send round all the girls dirties that they had, naked photos and stuff… They would share all the gossip round as well, as soon as they’d kissed a girl they would put it straight in the group chat, it’s like if someone sleeps with someone the whole year will know about it, they will tell everyone.”

A few young women identified advantages of the increasing use of dating and hook up apps; some talked about the value of social media in learning about sexual identity:

“[Tinder] is good in some ways, in that it’s made casual sex much more socially acceptable, not as much as it should… it’s made this idea of women… actually might just want to go and have sex and never see the person again – it’s made it more accepted.”

“Social media is good now, there’s a lot of YouTubers, people writing about being gay, being bi or trans or whatever. If there are teenagers now feeling that way, they can’t rely on that one lesbian in the town and be like oh god do I have to be like that? There’s a broad range of people you can look at or idolise and take a bit from that person or that person. Also there’s the videos that a lot of people are making so your parents can watch it instead of asking you ‘ten questions I always get asked as a trans woman’.”