Sex and sexuality have become areas of study that highly interest me. However, the way I perceive and talk about sex currently has not always been so easy. From the way sex was taught to me growing up, to portrayals of sex in the media, to becoming comfortable with my sexuality has been a long and educational journey that I am still exploring and learning.
Growing up, I never really had the typical “birds and the bees” conversation with my parents. Not because my parents are uncomfortable with the topic, or very conservative, (in fact, they’re quite the opposite) more so it was just a topic that was never really brought up. In school, I can remember “family-life” consent forms that our parents had to sign to allow us to participate in sexual education, or, the lack thereof. Fifth grade is the earliest I can remember these ‘teachings’, where boys were put into one room and girls into the other. We had conversations about personal hygiene and puberty, and very briefly covered periods. I remember the instructor holding up a gigantic pad in front of the class, but only mentioned tampons for “older girls”. We had absolutely no conversations about sex or sexuality. We never discussed healthy ways to explore sex, or how to navigate sexuality and preferences. These classes continued into middle and high school, and included more topics around STIs and pregnancy risks. Sex was always portrayed negatively, especially if it led to pregnancy. Yet, I was still never taught about how sex can happen, the importance of consent, rape, or anything that happens at an age where adolescents are likely to begin exploring their sexuality.
If sex isn’t being taught at home, and schools do a very poor job of teaching, where do we learn about sex and sexuality? Sex is most prominent in the media, but often portrayed in a heteronormative way. Internet and television can be highly sexual in content, but that content is often tailored to the masses; the cis, straight, white masses. It was not until mid-high school that I was able to expand my knowledge regarding sexuality. The internet has a plethora of information regarding sexual health and sex positive information, but it takes some digging to find. Even in porn, the typical front page is full of straight, cisgender porn, which is great if that is what you’re in to, but it’s important to recognize that is not everyone’s preference. Personally, I feel like it can be hard to expand your knowledge around sex if you are constantly receiving the same messages about what sex is. Even when I was younger and was not necessarily being taught about sex, I naturally began to piece together what I perceived sex to be based on the images of sex that society normalizes. I had no idea about the importance of consent, because it was never taught to me. I had no idea about the different types of sex, and what constitutes sex. I never thought about the different ways people can have sex, or even that sex could happen not just between a man and a woman. I learned that sex was not something you really talked about, it was something that everyone knows about yet no one talks about. Because the world around me was so uncomfortable talking about sex, I never talked about it either.
As I have gotten older, I have had the opportunities to explore sex and sexuality, and expand my knowledge around the subjects. I have grown to be comfortable in my sexuality and in talking about it. Although I was not necessarily being taught about all of the aspects around sex, I started with doing my own research- even just in my personal relationships. My friends and I have always been close enough to be able to talk about sex, and I have always felt close enough with my partners to talk about sex, too. It also became easier over the years to distinguish good sources of information on platforms like Instagram and YouTube that actually provide sex positive information. Once I started to really get a grasp on the aspects of sex and sexuality that I was never taught, I realized that there is so much information that we are never taught unless we seek it out. I give credit to many of the classes I’ve taken at ODU. College has been one of the best sources of information regarding sex, and it has truly inspired me to continue to learn more about sex, sexuality, and the body. Gender studies has become another area of study that I am passionate about and love, but if it were left up to my middle school family life classes, I would never even know about. Having the privilege to take these classes and expand my knowledge around perceptions of sex, sexuality, gender, and bodies, has inspired me to continue to do this type of work to hopefully normalize these topics and conversations. Everyone should have the opportunities and resources to learn about sex; not only about STIs, pregnancy, and heterosexual sex, but also about the importance of consent, different types of sex, gender and sexuality, sexual preferences… the list goes on. I am so thankful for what I have learned, especially from Dr. Milligan, and I hope to continue to learn and continue these teachings as I further my knowledge and career. Most importantly, I’ve learned that sex can be for everybody and anybody, regardless of the heteronormativity and stigma surrounding it.