Compared to many of my classmates around the country, you could say I lucked out in the sex-ed department. Going to a liberal private school, I think the assumption was that we would likely end up having sex at some point before marriage; doing so safely was the top priority. But beyond teaching us the basic mechanics of intercourse, the importance of birth control and how to use it, and how to minimize our risk of getting an STD, we were pretty much on our own.
I don’t blame the school; sex ed is a divisive topic in pretty much any community you work with, and finding a middle ground that is both informative to the students and acceptable to a broad range of tuition-paying parents is no easy feat. My mom did the best she could with my at-home sex ed, but that, too, was mostly about biology and condoms. I got squirmy with every conversation and couldn’t wait for her to stop talking. The rest of my sex ed came from personal experience and independent research.
These days I am no sexual guru, but I have learned a couple things. Here are a few things I wish I’d learned back in high school. Some of them I’ve learned solid and others I’m still mulling over like koans whose meaning will only be revealed to me over time. Back in high school I didn’t even know enough to ask the questions, though, so I count it as progress.
What I Know For Sure:
1) Real-life sex isn’t like porn. Your first boyfriend might know this intellectually but not quite get how it plays out in real life. Real sex is un-choreographed, messy, and your bodies won’t bend like they do in the pictures. He might think that vaginal intercourse will make you come or that all women love having a man come in their face; he will have to be informed otherwise. Be patient and kind, and remember your worth and beauty and lovability. He’ll come around.
2) Getting good at sex takes practice. Don’t expect it to be awesome on the first go. In fact, if you can draw out the getting-to-know-you part of your physical relationship, it might help you build trust and feel really comfortable once you get around to the most intimate acts. But be advised that no matter how good you get at fucking one partner, the knowledge you gained may not apply to your next partner; each lover has unique preferences and part of the fun of getting to know them is learning about what they like.
3) It can take a while for a guy to get used to using condoms. Be patient and friendly during the trial and error phase when you’re both amped to have intercourse but he keeps losing his erection because he’s not used to the condom and he’s got performance anxiety. Erections go away sometimes. It’s not a crisis. There are other ways to have fun. Make sure your partner knows you feel this way.
4) Taking responsibility for your pleasure will make you a better sex partner and will enable you to have more fun in bed. Learn what it feels like in your body to be aroused, experiencing pleasure, close to orgasm, and climaxing, so you can articulate those sensations when you’re with a partner. Expecting someone else to know what makes you feel good without telling them is a recipe for trouble. Try masturbating in a variety of different ways, with your hands, with toys, and in different positions, so you don’t depend on one super-precise motion that a lover couldn’t replicate without years of intensive study. Masturbation is not just prep for partnered sex experiences; it will entertain, relax, enliven, and keep you in touch with your sexuality throughout the rest of your life, so why not enjoy and be grateful for it? Also, don’t be biased against the Magic Wand just because it’s giant and awkward and loud…. it will become a very, very good giant loud awkward friend.
5) Holding out to make your first sex partner a good one is worth the frustration of waiting. The “first time” can be a process rather than one hyper-charged event. It is lovely when you can remember your first sexual experiences fondly. Don’t expect a lifetime love affair to result from your first sexual relationship, but do pick someone you like and respect and have the hots for. Being with someone you feel good about will help you relax, which will help you allow yourself to be real and true, which will allow you to feel more and ultimately have more fun.
The name of the Unitarian Universalist sex ed program, Our Whole Lives, speaks volumes. It’s absurd to think that sex ed could or should be over after a few awkward conversations in health class. Indeed, if it were ongoing throughout the course of a lifetime, if there were more forums for honest discussion and inquiry, I think we’d all be better off. Here are some of the questions I think would be useful for discussing in with young people and that I’m still pondering myself:
1) How do you find a sexual M.O. that works for you? How do people figure out what they want from sex, what kind of role they want it to play in their life? Once they know, how do they go about making it a reality? How do people balance their sexual desires while abiding by their other values and priorities? If there is conflict, how to they go about resolving it? It’s not as if there’s a one-size-fits-all approach that works for everyone, and the answer to the question would most likely change several times in the course of a lifetime for each individual, if we took the time to ask ourselves. If something is not working, how do you adjust course?
2) What is a healthy and satisfying way of measuring and balancing risk and reward in terms of potential exposure to STDs and other pitfalls associated with having sex? In high school we were given a book about drugs with the slogan “Just Say Know.” It talked about the different kinds of recreational drugs out there, what the high was and what the possible negative side effects might be. Liberal high school, I know. The same kind of approach would be useful for sex ed; instead of giving a vague, menacing and generalized picture of STDs, get specific about the different things out there and what the associated risks might be. But don’t stop there; help students begin a line of personal inquiry about what level risk they might be comfortable assuming. Pleasure is important, too, and for some that’s going to involve experimentation that might expose them to risk. Help empower them to know what they’re getting into and how to best care for themselves and their partners once they’re sexually active.
3) What is a good approach to building an open and ongoing dialogue about sexuality and what you like into your intimate relationships without it being one-sided or heavy-handed? Discussion of the art of finding partners who are into this sort of thing.
One more thing I know for sure, and yet will also be pondering from here to the grave: Being open to changing my ideas about sex and sexuality and evolving over time is a good thing. What I like and prize (and what I dislike and wish to avoid) today may change over time and I’ll have a richer life if I remain open to that reality. Ask me in a few decades what I wish I’d known about sexuality as a 20-something and hopefully I’ll have some new insights to share.