In the last year there have been lots of articles about disappointing sex education at school. I can sympathise - in the late 90s, sex and relationships education covered only the very basics, so while I could put a condom on a banana with my eyes closed, I still bought into plenty of myths about sex, gender and relationships.
naBut things are getting better. Not just in schools - as adults we're learning more too, partly thanks to the people who challenge these unthinking assumptions. I chatted to four people whose work involves doing exactly that, and asked them which myths we need to ditch, and what lessons we should be learning instead.
The myth – one day you'll find 'The One'
Dr Meg John Barker is a writer, therapist and academic. Their most recent book – The Secrets of Enduring Love, cowritten with Prof Jacqui Gabb – uses answers that real couples gave to a survey to examine some of our myths about relationships. So I asked Dr Barker - what key things are we getting wrong?
'I think there are two: the idea that people will find a partner who will be perfect for them and fulfil all of their needs, and that relationships should stay just like they are in the beginning - happily ever after - otherwise there's something wrong with them.
'These ideas are responsible for a lot of pain in people's lives. For some it means remaining forever alone and feeling like a failure because nobody ever matches up to their ideal of The One. For others it means remaining in a very unhappy relationship because they thought they'd found The One and don't want to admit they've made a mistake.'
The lesson – all relationships are valuable
So what should we do to avoid falling into this 'happy ever after' trap? Dr Barker's advice is to ditch the Disney-esque idea of a perfect 'One.'
'I've spent a lot of time studying communities which are doing relationships and sex differently. For example, polyamorous people are finding ways of having more than one love relationship, which involves recognising that it's possible to love more than one person, and to get different needs met in different places. People under the asexual umbrella help us realise that partner relationships don't have to be sexual, and our levels of sexual desire can fluctuate over time.
'I'd like to see the message that all the relationships in our lives are valuable, and that relationships inevitably shift over time - sometimes changing, sometimes ending entirely. And that's all OK.'
The myth – disability means you can't (or don't want to) have sex
Andrew Gurza is a Disability Awareness Consultant whose passion is making disability accessible to everyone. Heruns the website Deliciously Disabled, where he uses podcasts, blogs and talks to give people an insight into sex and disability.
'The idea that the mechanics of sex and disability are simply impossible tends to be what I am faced with in the work I do. That or the myth that I shouldn’t be having sex at all.' He laughs: 'If only they knew...'
'To be honest, the most common misconceptions are the ones that we all might expect; the question of how I engage in sexuality seems to be at the forefront of people’s minds. If I really think about it, I don't attempt to actively undo what people have been taught - one lecture or article by me won’t 100% alter your misconceptions about sex, disability and queerness, no matter how much I want it to. What my work will do is plant the seed in your brain around the truth.'
The lesson – empathise, don't assume
So how can we do better? As adults we may have picked up some weird assumptions around sex and disability, but we also have more experience and (hopefully) empathy. Andrew encourages us to tap into that:
'I think individuals should challenge these misconceptions by considering the question, 'how does disability feel?' 'How would it feel to have your sexuality misunderstood, denied and discredited at every turn?' 'What is the emotional toll that these misconceptions have on the disabled person?' In order to truly be an ally, and really champion sexuality and disability discourse, we need to think about that question before anything else.'
The myth – you're either pink or blue
As one of my colleagues pointed out in December, during 2015 we took a big step forward in our understanding of sex and gender. But there's still a long way to go according to H Howitt, who runs EscapeTheBinary – a website which aims to challenge society's rigid gender norms.I asked H which myth was most damaging.
'The association between our physical bodies and gender,' H explained. 'It's strong, and it takes some conscious unlearning to break it, but it is possible. It's also vital for creating a world where our gender is not defined by our body parts.'
'What's more, gendered sexual stereotypes still have a strong hold - masculinity is still often assumed active, or dominant, whilst femininity may be assumed passive or submissive. Regardless of whether or not we feel like the gender we were assigned at birth, often there are lots of things that we are taught is 'normal' for that gender that doesn't fit with who we are.'
The lesson – unpick your assumptions
Like Andrew, H thinks the answer lies in encouraging people to think more broadly, and exploring what effect our subconscious assumptions might be having.
'Avoid gendered salutations or greetings like 'excuse me, Sir' or 'this way, ladies,' and start using gender neutral language such as folks, friend, all, team. Next time you want to comment on a passing stranger, rather than marking them by an assumed gender, you could instead say 'that person's beard is rather dashing!' or 'isn't that child's dress adorable? Most people don't explicitly notice when you start removing unnecessary gender markers, but it plants a little seed.'
The myth – older people don't have sex
Joan Price is a sex and relationships expert who focuses on older people. She writes the blog Naked At Our Age, and she's recently written a book - The Ultimate Guide to Sex after 50. A lot of her work involves patiently, and humorously, explaining that young people don't have a monopoly on sex.
'The biggest misconception I come across is that older people are no longer sexy or desirable, that we have an expiration date when it comes to sexual expression.' Joan explains. 'The truth is that we're sexual beings throughout our lives. Although sex changes as we age, that doesn’t mean we have to give up - we just need to educate ourselves about sex and ageing, explore different ways of adapting to our changes, communicate honestly to our partners if we have them, and keep our sense of humour strong.'
The lesson – stop laughing, start listening
When I asked Joan for advice, she focused a lot on challenging this inherent ageism. It can be hard for people to understand issues that they feel may never affect them, but as Joan explains:
'We’ll all be in this situation sooner or later – unless we die young. I’d love to see people join me in challenging the stereotype that older people don’t, can’t, or shouldn’t express their sexuality and if they do, they’re pathetic or laughable. I'd like people to join me in refusing to laugh at the jokes that make fun of older people’s sexual desire and behaviour.'
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.