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Opinion: Let’s talk about sex

Why we need to break down one of our biggest — and sexiest — social taboos.
By+demonizing+pleasure%2C+we+set+ourselves+up+for+unfulfilling+sex+lives.
Wejdan al Balushi
By demonizing pleasure, we set ourselves up for unfulfilling sex lives.

I lost my virginity last summer. After years of relying on Reddit forums and television characters to make sense of my sexuality, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I downloaded Tinder, met a guy and spent the night in his apartment.

To my dismay, I felt completely unequipped and was shaky with nerves. My body didn’t perform the way I expected and I left his apartment feeling sick to my stomach and on the brink of tears. 

While my experience was far from unique, I felt a deep sense of failure and frustration. 

In the United States, sex is an age-old taboo. Since I’m gay, I often feel more comfortable than other men talking about sex, especially around women, but it shouldn’t feel creepy or gross for anyone as long as both sides are interested. Sex is a ubiquitous part of being human and shunning curiosity harms our ability to understand ourselves and each other. 

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Kristen Mark, a sex and relationship researcher and educator at the University of Minnesota, said America’s shame-based sexual education programs have diminished our ability to feel confident in our bodies and have open conversations about sex. 

“We see sex as this thing that you should be ashamed of, instead of something that is a natural part of human development,” Mark said.

I got the short end of the stick in my sexual education classes. While lucky enough to go to a school that taught more than just abstinence, I never learned how to give or receive pleasure with someone of the same sex. 

A health teacher once described vaginal intercourse to my class as “two pieces of a puzzle.” 

How, then, could I ever feel complete?

Mark said American society has historically condemned having sex or even talking about sex before marriage, and even in that case, it should only be done for the reason of procreation.

As much as we’ve demonized sex, it remains an inevitable part of our lives. According to the Maternal and Child Health Bureau, 94% of college students in the United States are sexually active. 

Perhaps if I had received a relevant sexual education curriculum I could have had a satisfying, instead of demeaning, first experience. But even broaching the topic of losing my virginity was awkward: I danced around telling my parents why I would be spending the night at a stranger’s house.

“I think one of the barriers to comfort is actually never using the language or saying the words,” Mark said. “We’re taught silly slang words for our genitals when we’re little, for example, and that’s step one of harm. We need to be able to use accurate terminology and feel comfortable having that come out of your mouth.”

My female roommate and I have maintained an open dialogue about our sexualities while we’ve navigated relationships in college. From discussing the historically overlooked female orgasm to testing our gag reflexes with a toothbrush, we’ve created an open space to discuss sex and self-pleasure.

While we can still laugh at a good penis joke, we’ve come to rely on each other as a sounding board for our worries and misconceptions about our sexualities. We’ve not only become closer as roommates, but we’ve gained confidence in ourselves and autonomy over our preferences in the bedroom. 

Carolyn Litzell, a University grad who plans to become a sex therapist, said stigma around sex often inhibits people from establishing boundaries with their partners, especially for women who are victims of sexual abuse.

“If we all talked about sex more, we could have more fulfilling sex lives and we can also avoid those situations where we’re having unpleasant sex in lieu of having tough conversations,” Litzell said. 

Topics around sex often feel intimidating, especially with someone you barely know or at the start of a new relationship. But these conversations don’t always need to be serious or clinical to be effective.

“Maybe sometimes that conversation should have a barrier of playfulness or flirtatiousness, or even humor if that’s helpful,” Litzell said. “And then maybe you can get to a place where you can have frank discussions.”

From chatting with a friend about erectile dysfunction to talking with Health Advocates on campus about their condom selection, sex is now one of my most engaging and empowering topics of conversation. 

No matter how you experience attraction, honesty and candor are critical to living your sex (and college) life to the fullest. We aren’t alone in the struggle to understand our sexualities. By listening to each other’s stories and sharing our own experiences, we can start making up for our country’s lackluster sexual education system. 

I’m now more open-minded, resourceful and better equipped to explore my sexuality.

Just don’t ask me to find the clitoris.

This story was originally published on Minnesota Daily on March 27, 2024.