In the undergraduate class I teach at Northwestern University, we spend quite a bit of time discussing sex, and, year after year, I am struck by how many of my (bright and talented) students have not received a well-rounded and wholehearted education about sex. It seems that most of us have learned a whole lot of lessons about what not to do, gaining only the fuzziest of senses about what to do. That is of course, if we were offered any lessons at all! I believe we all deserve access to information and support to help us develop a clear sense of who we are sexually so that we can enjoy amazing and healthy sexual experiences. Toward that end, here are three lessons you should have learned in sex ed… but probably didn’t.
#1 Consent is sexy as hell!
When I was teaching at West Point this fall, I had the opportunity to watch Catharsis Productions’ educational performance, Sex Signals. This program is designed to end sexual assault by offering education about, among other things, consent. Their message? Consent Is Sexy As Hell! It was pretty amazing to watch them proclaim this affirming message to a room full of our nation’s best and brightest!! What ensures consent? Communication! Which also happens to be the key to great sex. Research confirms that couples who are able to openly express what they want in bed have far happier sex than those who struggle to express their wants and needs. What could be a bigger turn on than knowing that what you’re doing feels really good to the person you’re doing it to?
#2. Porn sex and real life sex are very, very different.
Let’s be honest, porn sex looks as much like wholehearted real-life sex as the cover of Martha Stewart Living looks like real-life entertaining. As a family therapist, part of my job is helping parents figure out how to have tough talks with their kids. When adults are unwilling to talk with young people about sex, there’s an entire industry waiting to fill the void. Internet porn is always ready to “answer” any young person’s questions about sex. In fact, a recent Pew Study found that teens are more likely to turn to porn than a trusted adult for information about sex.
And it’s not just young people. Pornography powerfully shapes how we think sex ought to look and feel. With porn-driven expectations and images bouncing around in our heads, we risk entering into our sexual experiences with a deep-seated fear of not measuring up. Loving in the age of high-speed 24/7 free porn requires us to be savvy consumers. In order to stay open and available for engaged and wholehearted sex, porn needs be consumed mindfully, discerningly, and moderately.
#3. Sexual desire can be spontaneous or responsive.
Sexual desire is a tricky beast– especially in a long-term sexually monogamous intimate relationship! Not all desire is created equal. In fact, sexual desire comes in two forms:
• Spontaneous Desire: You have thoughts like, “I wanna shoop, baby!” (Salt n Pepa). You are motivated for sex because you feel horny.
• Responsive Desire: You infrequently have thoughts about shooping, but once sexy stuff is going on around you, your body hops on board.
Even though our cultural narrative tends to treat spontaneous desire as “normal” and “healthy” and responsive desire as “problematic” or “deficient,” the truth is that neither is better/worse. Lack of spontaneous desire is not a problem in and of itself, and responsive desire does equate to “low desire.” For many people, especially women, desire is context-dependent even when they are in a happy relationship. As my friend and mentor, Dr. Cheryl Rampage, says, “If you’re a woman in a long term romantic relationship and your partner is a decent person who wants to have sex with you and you can’t think of a really good reason not to, get started and your body will most likely catch up.”
Armed with this knowledge, you can stop feeling badly about your lack of spontaneous desire. Or, if you are a person who experiences spontaneous desire who is partnered with a person whose desire is responsive, what a relief that you can stop taking it personally when your partner doesn’t rip your clothes off when you walk in the door! Instead of feeling badly about how you or your partner experience desire, you can devote that energy to figuring out how to create an environment that helps everyone feel sexy!
Want to read more about our messed up sexual education system and how to fix it? Here are some great articles:
Peggy Orenstein (NYT, 2016). When did porn become sex ed?
Haylee Gleeson (Vice, 2015). Why don’t we teach pleasure in sex ed?
Amie Newman (ourbodiesourselves.org, 2016). Teaching young women to say yes to sexual pleasure.