Making sex normal — one picture at a time

Are Americas obsessed with sex?

Indiana University sex researcher Debby Herbenick, Ph.D.

Debby Herbenick, Ph.D.

It’s always in the news, from the fast-paced national discussion about same-sex marriage (I like “marriage equality”) and hardcore political maneuvering to shut down Planned Parenthood clinics, to “news” articles about Hollywood crotch shots (really, Anne Hathaway?).

What Americans need to do, says Indiana University sex researcher Debby Herbenick, is talk about sex more – yes, more – but not just about the sexy sex we see on TV or magazine covers. Too many of us don’t know how to talk about sex and sexual health on a personal level, with partners, our children, physicians or friends. As a result, relationships and health can suffer and important information doesn’t get to the people who need it.

In a note to colleagues and friends, Herbenick wrote that “Sex is so compartmentalized that it makes it tough to talk about sex in the regular everyday way we talk about driver’s safety, hand washing, love and other issues related to health and humanity.”

Herbenick, a widely read sex columnist and author of self-help books such as “Sex Made Easy,” has launched Make Sex Normal to demonstrate how others talk about and experience sexuality in sex-positive manners. It’s the topic of her TEDxBloomington talk on Friday (March 22). Herbenick is asking people to submit pictures that show “what you’re doing to Make Sex Normal.” Each picture displayed on the site includes a caption, such as “Appreciate sex-positive, body-positive art, like this sculpture in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris,” beneath a picture of said sculpture, and “We go to campus dorms to educate new students about sex, condoms, contraception and healthy sexuality,” beneath a picture of two smiling sex educators and their “props.”

Tickets for Friday’s inspirational presentations, which include an impressive cohort of cultural, health and tech-innovators from IU, can be purchased online at TEDxBloomington and at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater, where the event will take place, with streaming video available at Livestream (free account required) and Indiana University.

Salon ran an interesting Q&A about Make Sex Normal. Herbenick, co-director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington and sex educator at The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, answered some questions below, as well.

Are there potential health and relationship ramifications if more people feel comfortable talking about sex? I knew a couple, for example, that had a strained relationship because one partner would not talk with the doctor about a sexual dysfunction.

Herbenick: Yes, absolutely. When people don’t feel comfortable talking about sex, doctors and patients don’t communicate. Some research suggests that only about 15 percent of women with sexual difficulties in the postpartum period talk with a health care provider about this. Many men don’t discuss erectile problems with their health care provider even though this can be an early sign of heart disease. Avoiding conversations about sex, due to awkwardness or discomfort or fear, can also damage people’s romantic relationships and marriages and can lead to high-risk behaviors, such as when sexual partners don’t discuss STI testing, birth control, condoms, or each other’s sexual history.

As former Surgeon General David Satcher noted in his 2001 “Call to Action to Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Sexual Behavior,” “Society’s reluctance to openly confront issues regarding sexuality results in a number of untoward effects.” In this important document, he called for individuals to start the dialogue, for communities to talk more openly about sexual health and behavior, and for media and government involvement as well.

In the About section of Make Sex Normal, you list characteristics of a sexually healthy society and your list includes such things as “professional educators are able to, and allowed to, answer students’ questions about sexuality and reproduction and refer them to appropriate resources for additional information,” and “political leaders can talk about sexuality issues from a place of comfort, knowledge, and compassion rather than a place of ignorance and/or fear of ‘the other.’ Why should sex and sexuality be discussed in such a public forum and what would it take to get to this point?

Sex is already discussed in public forums; we just need to improve the way it’s done. All too often I hear from teachers, counselors, and sexual health educators who aren’t allowed to answer sexuality-related questions from their students. Years ago, a local sex educator told me that he was not allowed to use clinical terms for genitals (e.g., penis, vagina, vulva) when teaching sex education to high school students in a neighboring county. The school actually made him use words such as “hot dog” for penis! What kind of message are we sending to young women and men when we can’t even use correct words for their genitals? Certainly that doesn’t help prepare them to talk with their doctors, nurses, or eventual sexual partners about their bodies or sexual health.

Sexuality is also already discussed by politicians but, again, not often in the ways needed to help create a sexually healthy society. Politicians regularly make critical decisions about issues related to birth control, funding for cancer treatments (that often affect sexuality), sexually transmissible infections (STI), HIV/AIDS, teenage pregnancy, abortion and sexuality education. They, too, need to be able to talk about sexuality — and to have accurate information — as do voters.

How normal is normal? Should people outside your sexuality research and education “bubble”, to quote Salon, talk about their sex life at work? When meeting friends for lunch at FARM Bloomington, should I expect to hear, “Pat and I had great sex last night — we did A and B and he/she surprised me with C”?

I’m suggesting we engage in everyday acts of “comfort” related to sex within the bounds of the law and, of course, workplace policy. Most workplaces have policies on sexual expression at work and for good reason. Sexual harassment remains a common and difficult problem. Part of making sex normal is helping people to feel comfortable enough talking about sex that they can recognize when others cross the line — and then feel comfortable reporting sexual harassment, sexual assault or rape. Too often, these problems go unreported because victims don’t know how, or can’t bear, to talk about sexuality-related issues and their aggressors take advantage of that discomfort.

Also, I certainly would never tell a person what they “should” or “should not” do. Many people already do talk about their personal relationships when they’re out, but not everyone is comfortable doing that and not everyone should do that. Then again, some people might find it freeing to have a conversation with a friend, about sex and relationships, over lunch or dinner. There is significant space for people to find ways to make sex “normal” in ways that feel comfortable for them: this can include wearing an AIDS walk or “Vagina Monologues” T-shirt to the gym; attending or walking in a Gay Pride parade; taking part in a Spencer Tunick installation (he’s famous for convening hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of people in the nude and photographing them); attending a sex-themed art exhibit, burlesque show, or research talk; or reading a book about sex.

Your new Bloomington Sex Salon sounds like it’s gotten off to a great start. Is this modeled after programs in other communities?

The Bloomington Sex Salon is unique! It was born out of my desire to foster campus-community conversations about sex research. Many men and women have questions about sex, love, desire, and relationships – and many scientists spend a great deal of time thinking, studying, and writing about these topics. Why not merge the two?

The format of the Bloomington Sex Salon is that each month I invite a sex researcher to a community space, such as the back room of a bar or café, and I interview them for 30 or 40 minutes about their work and then we turn it over to audience Q&A. We had a huge turn-out at our first Salon in February, which featured the research of Dr. Bryant Paul (an associate professor in the Department of Telecommunications). This month, on Wednesday, March 27 at 7 p.m. at The Back Door, our guest is Dr. Vanessa Schick, who will be talking about her research related to women’s perceptions of their vulva and vagina. More information about the Salon, and the event itself, is on our Facebook page.

You seem to have embraced social media. How important is it to your efforts to spread research-based, credible sexuality information? Do you have any idea how many people you reach through your blogging, Twitter,

Social media is very important to reaching large numbers of people about our work. I don’t know how many people I ultimately reach this way, but certainly many thousands of people through social media and millions of people through the work I do with various magazines, such as Men’s Health and Women’s Health, and TV shows, including Katie, Tyra and various PBS specials. Media is an important way of communicating with the world and one I’m comfortable to be a part of.

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