No matter your academic inclinations, sex education probably wasn’t your favourite subject in school. Maybe you endured bewildering presentations featuring anatomic charts and urgings about abstinence. Or perhaps your discussion devolved into classmates making lewd jokes and gestures, obscuring information that might have been useful. Some schools skip the sex talk entirely, leaving the tricky topic to parents. Whatever your experience, you’ve got to admit: Getting the facts about sex isn’t always easy.
We set out to discover how Europeans and Americans learn about sexual matters, either in school or elsewhere. Surveying individuals on both sides of the Atlantic, we asked them about their education in intimacy, and how well that knowledge actually prepared them for sex later in life. Our findings reveal where valuable information is dramatically lacking – and what people wish they knew before becoming sexually active. Ready to learn how your own sex education compares to everyone else’s? Keep reading to find out.
Informed About Intimacy?
While the vast majority of those surveyed felt properly informed having sex in the present, many felt differently about their first experience with intercourse. In fact, Americans most felt they were unprepared for their first sexual encounter. Europeans were more likely to say they were sufficiently educated the first time they got it on, with 62.4 percent stating they were ready. That’s 14.2 percentage points more than Americans. Interestingly, there was also about a 10 percentage point difference between men and women, with just over half of women saying they were informed enough for their first encounter, while 60.3 percent of men said the same.
Intriguing contrasts emerged among sexual preferences, with a smaller percentage of respondents identifying as gay saying they felt well-informed when they first had sex relative to those who were straight or bisexual. Gay and bisexual respondents were also the least likely to feel sufficiently prepared now – an ongoing disparity that seems to justify calls for more inclusive sex education in schools. Thankfully, access to information about sex has apparently improved over time: Our data show each successive generation felt more prepared for their first intimate experience than their predecessors, as indicated by a 19 percentage point difference between millennials and baby boomers.
Misconceptions About Making Love
Concerning the knowledge they possessed before first having sex, merely 4 percent of women and 2 percent of men knew all the facts above related to sexual matters. The least known fact was the existence of more than a single kind of orgasm – and women got this wrong more often than men. Orgasms were actually a continuing source of confusion, as more than a third of both men and women didn’t realise it’s not always easy for women to have one. Other common misconceptions related to first experiences with intercourse: Many thought all women bled when having sex for the first time, and a significant portion thought losing their virginity would be the best sex of their life.
Some other erroneous assumptions had more serious implications for unplanned pregnancies, however. One in 3 women, for instance, did not know it is possible to become pregnant by having sex during their period. Similarly, almost 1 in 5 female respondents did not know pulling out was an imperfect birth control method or that protection was important. In all of these cases, men were less likely to be mistaken, suggesting a gap in access to information between genders.
Broaching the Sex Subject
Among Europeans, the most common path to awareness of sex was in school; 28.4 percent stated they’d first been exposed to the subject in a sex education class. For Americans, however, the leading source of first exposure was pornographic content. Americans were also far more likely to first learn of sex by overhearing peers, whereas a greater percentage of Europeans received direct guidance on the subject from siblings or friends. A roughly similar percentage of respondents from each region gained sexual awareness by talking to their parents, but this group was relatively small on both continents.
Regarding how each introduction prepared respondents to actually engage in sex for the first time, sex education and a discussion with parents seemed to work best. More than two-thirds of people who learned about sex in these ways felt sufficiently informed when they lost their virginity. Interestingly, those who observed their parents being intimate felt more prepared than those who learned of sex by many other means. Those who overheard snippets of peers’ sex talk were least likely to feel they were ready for their first time.
Getting the Facts About Getting Frisky
Whether by necessity or curiosity, the majority of Americans and Europeans sought out information about sex at some point. Americans did so at a younger age, looking for answers at age 15 on average, whereas Europeans typically did so at 17 instead. On both sides of the Atlantic, excitement about sex was a common motive for this research, although in Europe, men and women cited this reason almost equally, whereas excitement was a significantly more common cause for men in the U.S. Americans of both genders were also far more likely to be prompted by sex myths than their European counterparts.
U.S. respondents reported enquiring about sex more often for troubling reasons. For example, a far greater percentage of U.S. men and women sought answers about sex because they felt they were abnormal or because they’d had a bad sexual experience. Additionally, a smaller portion of Europeans said they had fears or false expectations relating to sex compared to their American counterparts. These differences imply a challenging knowledge gap between cultures – one some educators have attributed to inferior sex education in the states.
The internet has made information more readily accessible, and the facts about sex are no exception. Both Americans and Europeans identified Google as the best source for finding accurate guidance on intimacy. Their opinions diverged, however, when it came to medical expertise; Americans ranked doctors as the second best resource, while Europeans placed these professionals fifth instead. Respondents on both continents ranked sex education in school as the third best option for sex information.
Transatlantic agreement continued with regard to the absolute worst source of sex knowledge: porn. Despite this scepticism, many scientists suggest pornography has substantially altered the way modern citizens engage in sex, even at a neurological level. Parental guidance also came in for harsh criticism as a poor source of sex information, numbering among the worst resources for both Americans and Europeans. The media earned similar scorn from our respondents in both regions as well.
Delving more deeply into sentiments about how pornography prepares us for sex (or doesn’t), our data revealed similar stances in the U.S. and Europe. In both places, more than 8 in 10 participants believed porn created false expectations about the realities of sex and intimacy. Recent research reveals pornography’s influence may be even more detrimental to young minds. One study found a correlation in men between viewing porn at a young age and a number of negative outcomes later in life, including chauvinist attitudes and sexual dissatisfaction.
Despite this widespread distrust of the expectations porn sets, men and women tended to perceive its significance as a source of sexual information differently. While about 60 percent of women dismissed it as not at all important, less than 40 percent of men said the same. As one might then assume, men were more likely than women to describe porn as “slightly,” “somewhat,” or “moderately” important as a sex information source. A slightly greater percentage of women than men said porn was “extremely important,” however, presenting an aberration from the broader trend among genders.
Sex on the Syllabus
Our data indicate European and American respondents received sex education in some form at roughly equal rates. However, a much larger percentage of Americans described their experiences as totally unmeaningful. Europeans were more likely than their U.S. counterparts to ascribe all levels of meaningfulness to their sex education experiences – with one notable exception. A larger portion of Americans said their sex education in school was extremely meaningful, suggesting a powerful impact for a minority of students.
Perhaps the content of the curriculum accounts for some Americans’ apathy: Just 8 percent of U.S. participants recalled a discussion of same-sex relationships. On the European side, that percentage was three times greater, although discussion of LGBTQ relationships was still the exception, not the rule. Americans also differed in their respect for parental input regarding sexual subjects in school: Nearly a third said kids should only be taught about sex if their parents consented.
Learning and Lovemaking
Ultimately, many respondents who expressed the most satisfaction with their sex life relied on experience rather than education. Those who said a partner was their current best source of sex information were happiest with the quality of their intimacy on average. Those who relied on information from their parents ranked second, while those who simply experimented were the third most satisfied group. Conversely, those who said the media was their primary source of sex information reported the least sex satisfaction.
When it comes to having casual sex, however, those who preferred to learn from porn were most likely to engage. More than three-quarters of those who liked to gain sex insight from the media reported having casual sex as well. Interestingly, those who said sex education in school was their favourite source of information were the least likely to have casual sex. That’s a particularly interesting finding in light of the ongoing debate about the common practice of urging abstinence in school settings: Are those who value sex education more likely to be wary of casual sex, or vice versa?
Sex Education Sentiment
In the reflections of our participants included above, some major themes seemed to recur for both Europeans and Americans. One shared thread is the demand for a more inclusive curriculum that addresses the experiences of the LGBTQ community. Another common criticism was the emphasis placed on biology, rather than intimacy. For these respondents, sex education classes described the physical aspects of intercourse adequately but failed to discuss the emotional elements of healthy relationships. As one female from North America noted, “It was all too clinical.”
But perhaps the greatest area of common ground was a simple recognition: With informed consent and in the right circumstances, sex can be a happy and healthy part of human life. While caution and care are always merited, there’s no need to see sexual intimacy in shameful terms. In the absence of this approach, repression can lead to isolation. As one participant shared, “I felt like there wasn’t anyone I could talk to at home or school.”
Information and Access – for Adults as Well
Although these findings indicate many regret not learning more about sexual health when they were younger, it’s never too late to acquire new information. Education is ultimately an ongoing process, and staying informed can help keep you and your partner healthy and happy. Similarly, communication is essential to the maintenance of any relationship. If you’ve been reluctant to talk about sex in the past, you might try a little transparency in the present. By sharing your desires and needs with the ones you love, you both might learn a powerful lesson in caring for each other.
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We surveyed 500 Americans and 500 Europeans using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and Clickworker. Respondents were disqualified if they had never had sex. 50 percent of participants were men, and 50 percent were women. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 75, with a mean of 36 and a standard deviation of 11.
The data we are presenting rely on self-reporting. There are many issues with self-reported data. These issues include but are not limited to: selective memory, telescoping, attribution, and exaggeration. No statistical testing was performed, so the claims listed above are based on means alone.
Fair Use Statement
Want to educate your own audience about our findings? Feel free to use our information and images for noncommercial purposes. Just provide a link to this page to attribute us properly and contact [email protected] with any questions – it may not be sex ed, but it’s important information nonetheless.