Posted by: Stephen Snowder
When Barnard hosts a sex talk, they don’t screw around.
Before we begin this story (a long one, so settle in), let me tell you about the first sex talk I ever got: It was in middle school. I went to gym class prepared to run laps for forty-five minutes, because I sucked at basketball. Instead, however, the class was instructed not to change into their uniforms. Boys were to report to one classroom, girls to another.
I still don’t know what the girls did in those forty-five minutes, but the boys received a lecture from our mustachioed coach about the importance of abstinence. “Keep it in your damn pants!” could have been the title of the lecture, as that was the most oft-repeated phrase of the day. We watched a video of a woman giving birth. I passed out somewhere around the time the baby’s head began to appear. For the rest of the year I was known as “that kid who passed out in health class.”
Last night I attended perhaps the third sex talk of my life. This one was…different.
If the title of my first talk was “Keep it in your damn pants,” the title of last night’s talk could have been “I like that pinky in my ass.” This phrase, or a variant of it, was used seven times throughout the evening, by both the speaker and various audience members.
But that’s not how lecture titles work. If it were, PrezBo’s free speech class would be called “I’m an occasional user of cocaine.” In fact, the talk chose a name for itself. It was sponsored by Take Back the Night, and it was called “Getting a Grip: Mastering Your Sexuality.”
The speaker was Megan Andelloux, whose website describes her as a “clinical sexologist” and a “certified sexuality educator.”
I knew things were going to be awkward for me as soon as I showed up. At the desk outside Altschul auditorium, I told the organizer “I’m here to learn about the sex stuff.” She did not laugh.
Instead of laughter, I was given a pamphlet on sexual fantasies, a packet of lubricant (“silicone-based!” one of the organizers exclaimed gleefully), and, most terrifyingly, a blank notecard. Oh god, I thought to myself. What are they going to make me write on this?
The second awkward moment was when I walked into the auditorium. There were a few men present, but we were vastly outnumbered by women. Why was this awkward? I don’t know. I’m an awkward person.
And it wasn’t just a couple of people who were present: I’d been in this auditorium before, for an astronomy class, and the place was at least as full last night as it ever had been in any of those lectures. Eventually my male co-editor showed up and sat with me.
The desk, upon which my astronomy professor had often placed free stress balls or alien-shaped erasers, was instead covered with sex toys. I mean, there were a bunch of them. Look:
I would be lying if I said I knew what even half of those things were for. The only item on that desk I felt 100% comfortable around was the water bottle, but who knew what it was doing there in this context? (It turned out she just used it to drink from).
Andelloux wasted no time in recognizing this abundance of riches. “Sometimes I forget how many sex toys I have,” she said in opening the discussion. “And whenever I’m packing them, I think ‘I didn’t bring enough!'”
She explained a little bit about her background, which included teaching sex ed to kids, working at feminist bookshops, and answering people’s questions about sex. What she noticed, she said, was that “adults were asking the same questions that kids were asking.”
Worried by this, she went on to found the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health, an institute she describes as “a magical land filled with dildos and a cat.” The organization’s actual mission statement is a little less whimsical: According to its website, CSPH “is designed to provide adults with a safe, physical space to learn about sexual pleasure, health, and advocacy issues.”
To encourage audience participation in the night’s discussion, and also just because she apparently felt like being nice, prizes were offered to random people at random intervals. The options included:
flexible coil restraints
an under-the-bed restraint system
feathered nipple clamps
a vibrator that pulses to the beat of music at a club
She gave away the first prize almost immediately, and the randomly-chosen winner selected the vibrator, to racuous applause. I did not applaud, not because I wasn’t happy for the winner, but because I was busy desperately seeking a shadowy corner of the auditorium where I might be invisible and thus ineligible for prizes. No such luck.
The two-hour event then began in earnest, with the question “What do people want from sex?” Several answers rang out from the prize-emboldened audience. “Orgasm!” shouted someone. “Release!” came another voice. “Pleasure!”
“Babies?” someone suggested, and everyone had a good laugh. “Or maybe, ‘not babies,'” Andelloux offered. Then she pulled up a Powerpoint slide which showed survey results to the same question.
The number one thing people want out of sex is “To be wanted,” according to the slide.
Andelloux highlighted problems with the way we communicate about sex: “We talk about sex the way Cosmo talks about sex, and that’s not healthy,” she said.
The biggest problem with communication, Andelloux seemed to be saying, is that it is so often shame-based. She noted that in its definition of sexual health, the American Centers for Disease Control doesn’t talk about pleasure or the ability to achieve orgasm — the World Health Organization does, and that was the definition of sexual health she used throughout the evening.
It was around this point that I became keenly aware of two things:
My feelings of awkwardness at attending this event were entirely a product of the shame-based sexual education I received growing up
This personal revelation didn’t really help anything in terms of how awkward I felt
At this point she started using the word “cock” a lot (something she had warned us would happen: “Cock is gonna be flying out of my mouth like crazy”), and so I mostly stopped taking notes and started doodling intently in my notebook while hoping that no one could see how mortified I was.
The next thing in my notes is about masturbation. Andelloux thinks we should all be doing it. “Masturbation is so good for your body,” she said.
Well let me tell you something, Megan Andelloux: If you’d been around to talk to my priest on the Saturday before my Confirmation, I might have been saying a lot fewer Hail Marys that night. (I am mildly embarrassed making that joke, but I’m doing it anyway to prove that I have learned something about communication).
Aside from its health benefits, Andelloux said, masturbation lets you figure out what you like. That, in turn, will make your sexual encounters with other people better.
“Expecting the other person to know what to do to your body is fucking mean. It’s mean. Don’t do that to them,” she said. Instead, she recommended masturbating to figure out what you like, and then guiding your partner(s) during future encounters.
Again, the reason more people don’t do this, according to Andelloux, is that people are afraid to “own” their desires.
“Sex is like eating a cupcake,” Andelloux explained. When you see a cupcake, you immediately go “I want that in my mouth. We don’t talk about sex that way,” but we should. Andelloux recommended telling your partners exactly what you want and what you don’t want.
This provided a nice segue into the issue of consent. In sex, she said, it’s important to identify what you want and verbalize it. Verbalizing those desires, she acknowledged, is often scary. “Our culture does not support us taking ownership of our sexual desires. It shames us for it.”
But it’s important to do it anyway. And if your partner says no to something you express an interest in, she said, the appropriate response is to thank him or her. Saying no is a way that your partner shows she is taking care of herself, and you should appreciate it.
“Just because your partner has a desire does not mean that you want to fulfill that desire,” she said. “Boundaries are important.”
It was at this point that someone asked a question about the utility of faking orgasms. “Please don’t fake orgasms,” Andelloux responded. “…You are teaching someone what not to do.”
The next section was about talking dirty. I went into mild catatonic shock during this part, so my notes are not very good. I did doodle a pretty decent tree surrounded by grass, however:
I was afraid the branch looked like a penis, so I drew another branch and tried to put a bird’s nest in there, but that made everything worse.
Meanwhile, Andelloux made audience members yell out “dirty” phrases. Even just remembering it now is blush-inducing. This is where the “pinky up the ass” phrase got the most usage, though it was not the phrase’s first appearance of the evening.
Andelloux showed us how to say “I like that pinky up my ass” in both a cute, sexy way and also in a commanding, sexy way. The dealbreaker, as far as I was concerned: Both ways involve actually verbalizing the words “I like that pinky up my ass.”
Also heard: “I’m deep-throating your foot right now.” I don’t know what that means, and I didn’t ask. Mercifully, neither did anyone else.
We then watched a video in which a couple argued in very explicit terms over whether or not one member of the couple should urinate on the other (Warning: Explicit language. So explicit. Very, very explicit.). This was what I imagine electroshock therapy must feel like.
The evening drew to a close with a question-and-answer session. We all had to write something down on notecards and hand them in, but if we didn’t have questions we could just write “I have no questions” three times, like some sort of magic phrase that would finally get me out of there and let me reflect on what, if anything, I had learned.
The magic trick worked. I was finally allowed to leave, and I went home and I’ve spent the last fifteen hours or so reflecting (often unwillingly, because I couldn’t get certain images and words out of my head). Here’s what I learned: I don’t like talking about sex stuff. I don’t like listening to other people talk about sex stuff.
Here’s what else I learned: I’m in the wrong on this. Andelloux’s talk was explicit and at times, for a kid who grew up in the South being screamed at by gym teachers, embarrassing. But it is also necessary. Her points about the lack of communication even between partners, and the shame-based way we talk about sex, are inarguable.
It’s really saddening to think of all the people who grow up thinking something’s wrong with them, or that they’re undesirable, or any other negative thing, just because they’re afraid to talk about sex or they haven’t been properly educated about sexuality.
Through events like last night’s, Andelloux, as well as organizations like Take Back the Night, are fixing that problem for the current generation of sex-havers. That’s a good thing, and these events are good things. Even if I don’t necessarily feel 100% comfortable attending them.