by Randall S. Frederick
Four years ago, I worked as a consultant for a non-profit, helping them with outreach in a rural community. As part of the project, I began teaching an elementary form of sexual education to teenagers and their parents. The two classes were meant to reinforce each other – age appropriate information and a more complete version for parents to answer questions that came up. This was my first real foray into explicit sexual education, and I found myself looking forward to the discussions that came out of those classes – in fact, I still look back at that time as one of the most difficult, but also most rewarding of my career.
One of the first things I noticed was the way sexuality was discussed. Talking about sex can be at times amusing, interesting, funny, or just weird. Confusing narratives, misinformation, “folk sex” tips and tricks, and the influence of religious morality can create a strange environment to discuss and practice good sex. As the weeks went on, I began to note that the majority of questions I was answering were from adults. Initially, I thought this because the teens didn’t know what to ask or were embarrassed to ask what they really wanted to know. The adults, however, became blatant about their own sex lives and asked pretty direct questions. Once a “safe place” was established, a dam broke and the focus shifted from helping the teenagers in their lives to opening up about their own sex lives. Even the ones who had “been around the block” still had something to learn – and so did I, apparently.
Adults assume that things like sex and death are things that young people will not understand. We “get it” and “know things” while younger people don’t. We’ve already been there, done that, and use our supposed maturity to reinforce ourselves as much as our insecurities. But if we’re honest, many of us are still winging it. We create the illusion of confidence and preparation – the mother who “knows” about the various methods of birth control, but still has three kids. The single college student who “knows” how to avoid an STD but still develops the signature cold sores of herpes. The guy who is convinced he has a signature move… though none of his partners are impressed by it. Or the frustrated and tired grandparent who has forgotten what it was like to be young, cuddled in the arms of someone we love. Our sexual expressions, identities, and opinions shape and morph over time and we believe our experience is the only one out there. Our emotional hurts and tenderness color the information we pass on. That boy only want one thing! — as if we did not already know this when we were their age. We want to protect the ones around us, but how are we doing with the hard work of processing our own sexual experiences (or the lack thereof)?
Perfect example: My parents were, as best I can remember, sexually active in their early thirties – the demographic I now find myself in. I say they were “sexually active” because I remember my mom saying how much she enjoyed sex. After they divorced, I remember the “massager” I found on my dad’s dresser and how he sputtered that his girlfriend at the time had “forgotten” it when she “let him borrow it” as if I did not already know what a vibrator was. I remember the revolving door of girlfriends he had, and I remember his comments about “if it moves, you should try to have sex with it” which I jokingly share with friends at parties. But today, neither one would admit these things happened or were said. Rather, they would say that their sex lives “weren’t wild” like mine. I notice the pauses getting longer each time I tell them about a girl I stopped seeing. They remind me that I should “be cautious” when I have sex – though I am keenly aware that they would rather I not have sex at all unless I am married. Even though, in those tense moments, I remind them that we are different points on the life cycle, they believe their current experience is the “norm” and that my experience is… something else.
What I found with that class four years ago, what I’ve found doing teaching and doing consulting work, and what I’ve been seeing in conversations since is the importance of talking about sex not just with teenagers, but with adults as well. It is important to help them remember that sex can be fun. It doesn’t have to be monotonous, and we can always learn something new about ourselves, our bodies, and our partners. That sounds like nice, flowery language perhaps, but it is true. We become emotionally older every day, together with our bodies. Sexual expression and desire changes over the life cycle, and it doesn’t have to be a “young person’s game.” I’ve committed myself to these kinds of conversations around sexual health with all age ranges because I believe that sexual desire is something that we need to understand better. What we learned in a high school sex-ed class was an introduction, not the whole lesson.
Sex, the ultimate expression of either love or sin, has been the battleground for many a personal and political relationship. When I tell people I am studying human sexuality, they ask what that even means and I find this telling. I find it telling that we no longer understand the importance of “sex ed” – for the young, the elderly, or anywhere in between. For me, sexual education is not just about “the ol’ in and out” as much as a way of life.
There was certainly a time when I would have rejected this expression – Sex is about a “way of life”? What does that even mean? I mean, I suppose, that we should always be learning and having fun. An “adult sex-ed” shouldn’t be an entirely foreign idea. Don’t you have questions about your hobbies, as you become more experienced with them? Don’t we encourage our employees to get more training to make them more experienced and more valuable? Shouldn’t we do the same thing for something like sex? Hard as it might be to believe, we can train ourselves to not understand, to stop exploring, to forget, to create a safe theoretical world, distanced from our bodies and ourselves. Sex becomes a “thing” talked about rather than a regular practice of our humanity, our sexuality, and our desires – our “way of life.”