I was 10 years old at my friend’s apartment building. She had stolen her mom’s copy of Playgirl and we were hiding under the staircase looking at a picture of a very hairy, mustachioed man spread-eagle in all his nude glory.
Versions of this scenario probably stirred a lot of young people’s interest in sexuality. Your friends may have shown you some porn (on VHS or PornHub, depending on the decade) or giggled with you over a Cosmopolitan article detailing the “five wildest sex positions to spice up the most boring bedroom.”
Meanwhile, your parents may have dispensed some version of “the talk” in which they uncomfortably laid out the mechanics of heteronormative sex. Or perhaps you never got a conversation at all. In school, you might have been shown a video of a woman in labor (think, The Miracle of Birth) followed by a conversation about the importance of abstinence.
Many of us learned about sex in this dichotomous way. Abstinence-only sex education — currently being propped up by the Trump administration — has statistically failed to prevent unplanned pregnancies and the spread of STIs; on the other side of the coin, most sex positive (or seemingly sex positive) erotica is far from educational. Having an uncle that worked for Playboy, I grew up with the magazines scattered around my grandparents’ house. It made sex less of a taboo, but the brand’s objectification of women and promotion of toxic masculinity certainly left a lot to be desired.
In the chasm between the two “sex ed” methods fell many important issues. Growing up, were there conversations about sexual communication? Consent? Sexual violence prevention? Birth control? Were there lessons about what love is and the difference between love and sex? Was there discussion about pleasure or eroticism? Intimacy and connection? Were asexual and/or aromantic relationships validated? Not for many of us.
Young people should absolutely be encouraged and celebrated for their curiosity about sex; it is “normal” and natural. What isn’t normal, and what some have been socialized to believe, is that sexuality, even as children, is something to be secretive or ashamed of being curious about.
Many parents struggle with how and in what ways to talk to their kids about sex and relationships. We can start by getting more comfortable and curious about our own ever-evolving sexuality. It’s good for you, and has the power to positively affect generations.
Instead of grabbing the latest Cosmo, you might check out Esther Perel’s podcast, Where Do We Begin, or go to Planned Parenthood’s website to understand some of the subtle differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships.
Instead of Playgirl, Playboy or The Joy of Sex, you might read through Our Bodies Ourselves or explore the American Sexual Health Association’s (ASHA) website. Currently, ASHA is promoting a new series from Vice Media, Unscrewing Ourselves. A wide range of topics are covered in the series, including LGBT-inclusive sex, sexuality and chronic illness and dating. It also follows some of the young people educating their peers about sexual health, including a Ugandan woman who launched a sex education mobile app, Ask Without Shame.
Locally, you could explore the comprehensive lifespan sexuality education program, Our Whole Lives (OWL), at the Unitarian Universalist Society in Coralville. Through OWL, children and adults honestly discuss sex and relationships, build decision-making skills and develop self-acceptance and self-esteem.
Paul Joannides’ book The Guide to Getting it On or Dan Savage’s Savage Lovecast, the podcast spinoff of his popular column, can help you understand many topics ranging from kink to BDSM, while Good Vibrations and Babeland are great resources for purchasing sex toys with a feminist mission.
We can stay on top of our sexual health at any life stage with the help of Emma Goldman Clinic, Planned Parenthood, Seva Healing Arts (low-key plug — I am a therapist there), Johnson County Public Health and The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics Menopause and Sexual Health Clinic.
When we educate and empower ourselves, we pass that on to our friends, children, students or clients. It starts with a little bit of curiosity and a willingness to ask questions.
Natalie Benway-Correll LISW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Coralville. She has a certification in sexuality studies from the University of Iowa and is currently pursuing additional licensure with the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. This article was originally published in Little Village isse 238.