Why Is It So Hard To Have Honest Conversations About Sex?
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
We're going to spend the next eight minutes on a topic you don't hear a lot about on this program, sex - not sexual assault, not harassment, just sex and the role it plays in our lives, our relationships and society.
EMILY NAGOSKI: Sex is, first and foremost, a social behavior for humans. And how do we learn almost every other social behavior? By watching. We don't do that with sex. The closest most of us come is watching porn. And learning about sex by watching porn is like learning how to drive by watching NASCAR.
CHANG: That is Emily Nagoski. She's the author of a book on female sexuality called "Come As You Are." We talked with her and another sex educator who's focused on male sexuality about where we learn about sex and how that affects us. It's all part of a series we're doing called, Let's Talk About Sex.
And just a quick warning, this is not intended for kids. We are going to be talking about sex, which means we'll be using some words and phrases parents might not want them to hear. We started with Dominick Quartuccio, the founder of a sex education group called The Discerning Dick. He says his ideas about sex came down to three major influences.
DOMINICK QUARTUCCIO: My family, my faith and then my friends. And my family is an amazing, loving family, but we didn't talk about sex at all. It was like, when - when there was a movie on television, it was simultaneously one of the best nights and also one of the most terrifying because anytime there was, like, a sex scene that started to unfold, my parents would lunge across the couch and be like, cover your eyes.
CHANG: Oh, God, yeah.
QUARTUCCIO: And physiologically, I wanted to see that. But it felt like it was bad because of the way...
QUARTUCCIO: ...That it was handled. Yeah.
CHANG: Yeah. I like how you put it - family, faith, friends. I mean, what do you think, Emily? Do you feel like part of the process of learning about sex as an adult is actually to unlearn what we learn from our family, faith or friends - or from Hollywood, or from sex ed class back when we were 14 years old?
NAGOSKI: Oh, it's absolutely a process of unlearning. It's funny. My students, when I was teaching a college-level class - I always do the anatomy class first. And every single semester at least two students would approach me and say, wow, even just in the anatomy lecture I really learned a lot.
NAGOSKI: Like, people feel like they know a lot about sex. And they do. And almost everything they know is wrong.
CHANG: So I'm curious, Emily. What do you think the biggest misconceptions are about female sexuality?
NAGOSKI: This is not a misconception that women have about their sexuality. It's a misconception people have about sexuality.
NAGOSKI: Which is when we talk about it, we totally don't disentangle the concepts of pleasure, desire, arousal and consent. We sort of treat those four as if they were exactly the same thing.
NAGOSKI: And they're not even close to the same thing.
CHANG: Like, if I'm aroused, I'm obviously consenting.
NAGOSKI: Yeah, and that gets used against survivors of any gender and any genital configuration. Well, your body was responding, so you must've really liked it. Nope, there's actually not that strong a relationship, necessarily, between how aroused your genitals are and how turned on you as a person feel, how much you want or like.
NAGOSKI: They're different systems in our brains.
CHANG: Right. What about the same question for you but about men, Dominick? What are the biggest misconceptions you think men have about their sexuality?
QUARTUCCIO: You know, it's interesting. I've found it's not as much about misconceptions. It's just, like, this genuine lack of interest in exploring the forces that have shaped their sexuality. So what I've found is the most shocking is that this is something that's center to many men's lives, many women's lives as well. But there's so little interest or even awareness that there should be some discussion or some thought around how to unpack why they have ended up in the situation that they're in.
NAGOSKI: Oh, my God, that is so fascinating. That is the exact opposite of my experience with women, is that they cannot wait to delve deeper, find out what it is about their history...
NAGOSKI: ...And their lives that have gotten them to where they are.
NAGOSKI: They're fascinated by the ways they've been shaped by their family history and their religious messages and the porn that they've seen. They can't wait to dive deeper into all of those questions.
QUARTUCCIO: Yeah. And, Emily, there's more women at my events than there are men.
CHANG: I was going to say, is it still true that 70 percent of your attendees are women?
QUARTUCCIO: It fluctuates between 50 to 70 percent because women are...
CHANG: That is so interesting.
QUARTUCCIO: ...What they've told me is they're fascinated to hear what men are actually thinking because there's so few forums where men are opening up about this stuff. And let me give you some context for this. I was running just a regular men's group. We didn't just focus on topics of sexuality. As soon as I started turning the conversation to making it sexually related, 75 to 80 percent of the guys have not shown up again because it's like, well, why would I want to talk about that?
CHANG: Yeah. I do want to point out that so much of our conversation so far has been about cisgender people. But, you know, what about trans and nonbinary people, Emily? When you talk to them, how are those conversations about sex different?
NAGOSKI: One of the ways that they are different is with the beginning of it. When I'm talking with cisgender folks, my primary message is I want you to get to know the names of your parts. We still live in a world where people call their vulvas their vaginas, which is the equivalent of calling your face your throat.
So I want cisgender women to know what their parts are. I want them to go and look at their parts. I want them to feel a friendly, loving, compassionate relationship. I want them to enjoy their bodies. And that's not a safe ask...
NAGOSKI: ...Of transgender and nonbinary person, necessarily. So the very starting point for understanding how to access maximal sexual pleasure is entirely different when you're working with trans and nonbinary folks.
CHANG: So what is the one thing you want listeners to take away from this conversation?
NAGOSKI: Pleasure is the measure. Pleasure is the measure of sexual well-being. It's not how often you have it or who you have it with or what you do or even how many orgasms you have. It's whether or not you like the sex you are having.
QUARTUCCIO: For me, I would say get curious, and stay curious. Like I said before, most of the men that I work with have never really even thought that this conversation was worth their time, worth their energy, could provide any value to them in their sex lives. And what I've found, for anyone who's gotten curious around the subject, they have better sex. They have more sex. They feel more empowered about their sexual desires. They feel less guilt or shame around expressing them. They find more partners who are into the things that they're into. They're able to talk about it and establish connections much more quickly.
But without any level of awareness around how to talk about how to create a safe space for your partner to want to enter and talk about it with you, then all of these desires that you have, all these feelings that you want, all these experiences you want to have will elude you unless you take that first step of getting curious and asking new questions and educating yourself.
CHANG: I am going to be thinking about this conversation for months and months. And I'm going to make my boyfriend listen to this conversation again and again. (Laughter).
CHANG: And then we're going to talk about this. Thank you guys both so much.
NAGOSKI: Thank you.
QUARTUCCIO: Thank you, this was fun.
CHANG: Emily Nagoski is the author of "Come As You Are," and Dominick Quartuccio is the founder of the sex education group The Discerning Dick.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.