Some of my memories have matured into a haze while others have been forcefully pushed into the deep recesses of my mind to collect dust. Then there are those that have remained in the forefront—the ones I often revisit with a sense of joy, curiosity, caution, or a combination of them all.
A memory I find myself returning to often as I trudge through my adult relationships is the first time I accidentally discovered a pleasure point. I can still feel the amalgamation of innocence and fear bubble in my stomach when I remember how starkly blue the sky looked that day and the sound of high-pitched giggles floating from the mouths of babes running around. I was testing my gymnastics skills during recess on the playground bars, adjusting my body so one leg was in front and the other behind the bar, when an unfamiliar jolt overtook my lower half. Taken aback by its suddenness and intensity, I quickly removed myself from the bar and ran to another activity. At the time, I shied away from further questioning what happened or later expressing my concern to my parents as a very confused 7-year-old. I just knew I shouldn’t get back on the bars moving forward, and I didn’t. It wasn’t until entering adulthood, when I began to explore intimate relationships with other people, that I realized I was still running away from that feeling—from that pleasure.
America’s sexual culture is one of deep paranoia. Decades of glazing over sex education has left generations not only ill-equipped to safely navigate the real risks of having sex—but also without the necessary tools to develop healthy relationships with their bodies and with one another. Without meaningful conversations about what positive sexuality looks like, many of us have grown up associating sex with fear, shame, and confusion.
Growing up in a small town in upstate New York as a black girl was very suffocating, but one advantage I did enjoy was being in a good public school system with a high school health requirement that included a section on sexual education. I was fortunate—sex education is not promised to every U.S. student and isn’t even mandated in New York state. According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education; 18 states require that instruction on the importance of sexual activity only be discussed in reference to married sex, just 13 states require that we have conversations around sexual attraction, and only nine states require that discussion of sexual orientation be inclusive. So, not only is the United States failing to educate the youth nationally, but comprehensive sex education is absolutely not a guarantee.
“Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of money being funneled into sexual risk avoidance, also known as abstinence-only education for young people—which the data has proved is not helpful,” explains Brittany McBride, the senior program manager of sexuality education at Advocates for Youth. When sexual education is solely focused on abstinence, young people are oftentimes denied accurate health information, particularly when it comes to contraception, which can cause adolescents to use ineffective protection when they do later have sex. Some studies have found young people who’ve only had abstinence-only education or who take virginity “pledges” are actually more likely to have sex at a younger age and have higher rates of unintended pregnancies and STIs.
But aside from all the physical health consequences of inadequate and narrow sexual education, there’s also a deeper psychological impact: a lack of body literacy, little practice or tools for successful communication, harmful expectations of what relationships should look like, and little to no understanding of what pleasurable or even just consensual sexual experiences should feel like. This is particularly important when it comes to LGBT youth who are frequently excluded from sex education, even though they experience disproportionate rates of sexual assault and see their physical and mental health suffer when their identities are ignored.
That aversion to sex innately included an aversion to my body—instead of comfortably growing into it and becoming more in sync with my physical self, I tried to create distance.
There’s not much I remember from the sex talks we had in health class that semester, except for the immense disappointment I felt when I realized we wouldn’t get to recreate the scene from Never Been Kissed where students learn to properly put condoms on bananas. However, much to my personal frustration, I do remember the sex education sound bites my parents sprinkled throughout my adolescence. As health practitioners, they stressed that my personal well-being could be threatened by practicing unsafe sex. Oral sex could lead to oral cancer, no condoms could lead to STDs that could also lead to cancer, insufficient protection could mean an unwanted pregnancy, and so on and so forth—and as a young black girl with potential, this was all doubly stressed. Society already oversexualizes the black female body from a young age with black girls as young as 5 being seen as more sexually mature than white girls within their age group, so I had to move through life with an extra layer of protection because I was born with enough “strikes.”
Communicating the positive effects of sex or delving into the degrees of sexual attraction weren’t as much of a concern, so I came to the conclusion that personal pleasure was not worth risking my future. That aversion to sex innately included an aversion to my body—instead of comfortably growing into it and becoming more in sync with my physical self, I tried to create distance. I forwarded through sex scenes in movies as a way to forward through my discomfort with conjured desires. Looking at myself naked felt too sexual, and the idea of intimacy was terrifying.
But I had enough self-awareness to softly acknowledge the parts of me that wanted to feel comfortable, to lean into my sexuality and experience the sexual freedoms that men often benefited from. When that self-awareness became loud enough for me to listen to it, the first places I turned to were Cosmopolitan magazine and Google—my first real teachers of positive sexual education.
In her work, sex educator Walker Thornton tells me she’s come across women in their 50s and 60s who don’t know how to orgasm as a result of not knowing their bodies. They don’t touch themselves, they don’t know their anatomy, and they suffer in silence instead of seeking answers from health care professionals out of embarrassment. Dr. Logan Levkoff, another expert on sexuality and relationships, agrees that language is extremely vital when educating people on sex, as well as understanding one’s own anatomy. “It should be factual, anatomically correct, and nonjudgmental,” she explains. “For example, the vagina is inside the body; the vulva is outside. It is always surprising to me how much inequity there is when we talk about gendered bodies.”
They point out a particularly huge problem for those of us with vaginas: Most people just don’t know a lot about them. As a society, we don’t talk about vaginas, we don’t really look at them, and so unfortunately, a lot of people just aren’t fully aware of their workings. This does an immense disservice to women: It’s partially why, for example, the female orgasm is still so often described as “mysterious” or “elusive,” which implies it therefore isn’t worth trying to understand. Besides being simply false, these narratives set up expectations for women in advance: that pleasure is not for them and, even if sought, will be hard to come by.
The more attention I paid to the language used when talking about sex, the more I wanted to understand it and why women were being denied the proper right to freely experience their sexuality. Another popular and frankly fallacious notion reinforced by the adults in my life growing up was that while it is unfair for men to be rewarded for sexual expression and women punished, women simply cannot act like men and still be considered ladies. Those words didn’t always feel damaging at the time, but I sense their gravity today in conversations with friends when we discuss our apprehension to increasing “body counts” or when I fight the internal itch to scrub away my “impurities” after engaging in sexual activities.
It’s those quiet moments after letting myself feel a taste of sexual freedom that all the internalized fear sweats out of my pores. We collectively like to think that culture is slowly shifting toward a more positive posture toward sexuality, but the truth is, the old, harmful, and fearmongering messages still linger just within. Although it’s not as bad as it was in my college years, when I frequently took pregnancy tests after practicing meticulously safe sex, that anxiety is still there, and I have to make a conscious effort to move through it without losing myself.
Today when I’m in a sexual encounter, I plant myself in those moments with that particular partner—literally leaning into the intimacy of it all—and try not to latch onto the negative thoughts that aren’t grounded in reality.
For people who have developed a nervousness around sex, Thornton says the first step toward healing is more education. Here are a few ways you might get started:
- Read current books on sexuality. (I recommend Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape or Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life.)
- Find workshops, classes, and retreats on sexuality you can attend through local organizations, women’s communities, or feminist sex toy shops. For example, Cycles and Sex, Touchpoint, and Tabu are a few great modern resources that host educational and informative events both online and in person.
- Look for a medical practitioner who you feel comfortable talking to about a range of sexual matters. You might even consider finding a sexual health coach or body worker if you want a personal guide into deeper exploration of your sexuality.
- Start having more open conversations with friends and family about sex. The more we talk to each other about our experiences, the more our collective knowledge increases.
In addition to our individual efforts to heal, there’s a larger systemic change that also needs to take place. McBride clarifies that it’s not so much that sex is taboo anymore—we see it everywhere these days, and clearly it sells. It’s sex education that we’re uncomfortable with. We don’t talk about sex, and when we do, it’s often in a whisper. “It’s baffling to me because as a society we are not equipping our young people with the knowledge in order to figure out how to effectively navigate these relationships that may or may not include sexual intercourse,” McBride says. “And then, at the same time, we’re expecting them to know how to do all of this.”
These conversations need to be had at a younger age, and not just once during the dreaded “talk” but throughout adolescence. A study from the Journal of Adolescent Health proves that ongoing family dialogue around sex helps adolescents feel more comfortable asking their parents questions about sex and leads them to have safer sex as adults. Moreover, a 2018 study from the International Journal of Sexual Health found that women who talk more freely about sexual behavior with friends have more sexual self-esteem when it comes to performing in bed and are more confident about protecting their sexual health.
Personally, I’ve seen both of these changes within myself the more I open up. And I’ve certainly found comfort in the practice of openly talking about sex with my friends, my sister, my therapist, and even expressing to my parents how their lessons, which came out of a need to protect rather than harm, have shaped the way I approach intimate relationships.
My earliest, most formative “talks” have already been had, and I can’t change them. But I can change the nature of the conversations I’m having now and, more importantly, the way I talk to myself about my sexual choices, my body, and the pleasure I get from seeing what it’s capable of. It’s all part of my sexual healing.