Tag Archives: teen sex

Kickstart Slut: A Documentary Film

The grassroots-funded documentary film, Slut, all began with middle school diary entries shared on Tumblr.

I had teachers not only laugh when I was called a “slut” or a “whore”, but also had teachers join in. I also had a teacher hit on me because of my “title.” The worst experience was when a kid would grope me every day in class, and my teacher would yell at me for yelling at him or smacking him. The teacher who hit on me has been since fired, but the rest are still teaching there. – Anonymous, The UnSlut Project (cross-posted with permission).

As we’ve discussed elsewhere, intersections of sexual education and storytelling can be powerful. Story opens the imagination. It draws connections between people and deepens understanding of ourselves and each other. The UnSlut Project shows that story can unsilence the ill-effects that certain tropes and attitudes have on us all.

The “slut” experience shared above is one of hundreds by girls and women submitted to the UnSlut Project. This collaborative space of story sharing and support (see their community advice page) all started by co-founder Emily Lindin posting on Tumblr her very personal diary entries of being sexually bullied as the middle school skank. The response has been enormous and now hundreds of girls and women have voiced their own experiences of sexual bullying that, in some cases, have led to isolation, depression, cutting, and suicide attempts. Read the stories for yourself.


Image from their Kickstarter Campaign

Image from their Kickstarter Campaign

There are many entries like the one above that testify to the extent to which slut-shaming permeates our school systems and communities. It is not simply lack of sex education in public schools (although this is a very important aspect to consider in debates about what constitutes “comprehensive” sex ed). Teachers, counselors, parents, and peers are all implicated.

It leads to a few important questions: Who in North America hasn’t been exposed to slut shame? How much does the “skanky” stereotype influence the way we censor and manage our own desires and sexuality? How are our schools (and sex education curricula) complacent and, in many cases, actively supporting sexist values and behaviors?

These are questions that Slut: A Documentary Film will explore. Emily Lindin and Jessica Caimi want to convey to a wider public how normalized sexual bullying is in our schools, communities and media, and what we can all do to eradicate it. They’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the filmmaking. During the next 11 days (as of writing) people are having an ongoing discussion about the film production and what voices should be featured in Slut.

Consider supporting this cause to raise public awareness. Maybe you have an experience with slut shaming to share, as well.



Youth-Made Announcements The Public Must Watch

The three videos presented here are like no other sexual health messages shared on prime time TV. They were made by HIV-positive youth from the Young Adult Program (YAP) at St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals’ Spencer Cox Center for Health. This video initiative, designed and facilitated by the consultancy group Connected Health Solutions Inc., has turned top-down approaches of traditional PSAs on its head.

Just “wear a condom every time”

For those of you who can’t remember, public service announcements (PSAs) from the late 80’s to ‘90s predominantly involved high profile personalities like Magic Johnson and Whoopie Goldberg telling you to “wear a condom every time”. Here’s young Whoopie (nostalgia!).

Babies with Hiv and Aids 1990s by NoHivNoAids

Some of these messages were groundbreaking for the time. Others were not so effective. In our interview with the founders of the HIV Disclosure Project, we discuss how early HIV awareness campaigns were based on fear, pushing condoms as the only option to avoid death. These messages were vague. They obscured real-life information about the different degrees of risks and how to manage those risks with options suited for the individual or relationship. You certainly didn’t see Growing Pains’ Kirk Cameron speaking about “fluid-bonded” couples, or how oral sex is risky for some STIs while less risky for others. Consequently, 30 years into the HIV pandemic, STI stigma and misconceptions about transmission are still perpetuated today.

But there is hope. The Young Adult Program (YAP) at St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals’ Spencer Cox Center for Health in partnership with Connected Health Solutions, Inc. (CHS), have changed mainstream top-down approaches of PSAs. They’ve cultivated a safe and critically reflective space for youth to produce their own public health messages. Upon contacting the project for an interview, however, I learned that their collaboration has been forced to stop due to loss of funding and state budget cuts.


Depressing as this is, some of the youth who made the videos below are in the process of organizing an Indiegogo campaign to help continue the program. And not without celebrity pizazz and support from DJ Caroline D’Amore (whose mother died from AIDS-related causes). Watch this space for updates: SpreadTheWordNotTheVirus. And follow CHS facebook page.

YAP and CHS behind the scenes film production of "It's Not Just a Guy Issue" PSA.

YAP and CHS behind the scenes film production of “It’s Not Just a Guy Issue”

A New Era of PSAs

CHS has been working with at-risk youth from YAP for a couple of years. What’s novel about their work is in the production process. They collectively produce online PSAs that address issues relevant to the participants. Kenny Shults, president of CHS, explained in an email that over a period of a few month, participants would run through a series of group exercises all geared towards thinking critically about a social issue (such as HIV stigma) and develop an effective script. “We then spend about a month working together to complete all of the pre-production activities such as casting, props, locations, etc. and fine tuning the script. Then everyone shows up to the shoot (1 day per PSA) to make a movie. It is an incredibly fun, interactive, educational, and inspiring process,” Kenny explains.

What results is a number of original and thought-provoking messages. The PSAs presented here were made by HIV positive young adults from YAP. The first video conveys the message that people living with HIV can give birth to and raise healthy children, have a healthy family and lead fulfilling lives. Kenny highlights this video in particular, stating:

…a number of the youth who made the “Happily Ever After” campaign are now taking their meds after making this piece. One young woman says: “Every time I take my pill in the morning I picture Emma’s face” (Emma is the name of the actress in that PSA). We couldn’t have asked for a better outcome.

This is precisely the point. The significance of the workshops is not the glossy quality of the final product; rather, it is the process which matters most. Making a short film by and for the very population it represents, and finding a collective voice together cultivates a transformative power from within. Participants complete the PSA with a critical, self-reflective understanding of the issue and the social structures and institutions that influence such an issue. In effect, the participants’ attitudes have positively shifted.

The second PSA, “One Condition”, tackles HIV stigma by asking the audience “What would you do?” in the situation of HIV disclosure. It’s an important PSA because not nearly enough people understand that HIV is a manageable disease. Advancements in treatment mean that risks of transmission have changed dramatically, and so too must people’s attitudes and fears.

For more about the workshop process and theories that underpins their approach, read the company’s statement and Kenny Shult’s article at The Good Man Project.

What do you think of these PSAs? Do you feel they successfully address a lack in public discourse about living with HIV? What messages would you like to see more of?

An effective condom message

I end with this last video about the importance of safer sex. Unlike the PSAs of the 1990s, this video addresses real obstacles (like embarrassment of buying condoms) and conveys real choices. It offers an alternative ending to another video about condom use and brings light to the forgotten option of female condoms. We follow a guy throughout the day as he prepares for a date, yet at each point that a condom presents itself he is too embarrassed or uncomfortable to pick one up. When the moment comes he is unprepared. Lucky for him, condom use isn’t just a guy’s responsibility.

To view more videos campaigns made with CHS by teens, LGBTQ folk, high school bullies and more, check out the My Media Life playlist by CHS.

Talking Sex With (teen) Siblings

Reflecting on their own experiences, authors Ams and Lara discuss ways to allieviate awkwardness when talking to sibilings about sex.

First of all, for anyone with a sibling, a cousin, a close friend who you wish you could speak more openly about sexual health and pleasure with, we’d like to make clear that this article isn’t restricted to only siblings. However, we will be focusing on our own sibling experiences of sex education and empowerment.

As people with siblings (Ams has a twin sister; Lara is a middle child) both authors speak from personal experience when we say that even though we talked with our siblings about sex, there were still those weird moments. Like climbing into bed with your sister one night and pulling her vibrator out from under you. Princess and the pea made incredibly uncomfortable in both the physical and mental sense. Or when you innocently ask your older sister what a blow job is and she directs you to talk to dad about that instead.

But all this shouldn’t deter siblings from talking about sex or sharing experiences and questions. There are ways to convert awkwardness into positive dialogue.

Why Siblings?

So why are we focusing on discussions between siblings in the first place? One of our readers wrote in that she wanted to be able to talk constructively with her 15 year old sister about sex but was not sure how to begin a discussion without making both her sister and herself embarrassed or sound judgmental.

We do not recommend this approach to talking to sibilings about sex and sexuality.

We do not recommend this approach to talking to sibilings about sex and sexuality.

In close relationships, particularly with people around the same age, learning from one another’s experiences and being reflective together of common issues, fears, and pleasures is sometimes much more enjoyable than the kinds of sexual education classes offered to young adults. Not only this but it includes a kind of comradery that you don’t often receive at school or often from parents who may be supportive but would rather not know too many details of their children’s sexual activity.

Furthermore, talking to siblings about safe sex practices and healthy relationships shows that you care. It’s also a way to pick up on risky behavior (“But my girlfriend said she can’t afford to get tested”).

Bonus* If you have a sibling who identifies with the opposite sex from you, speaking with them is a great way to learn more about the way gender pressures people to flirt and perform sex differently.

Respect Boundaries and Trust

Now, sibling relations are complicated and multifaceted. Shared family experience can forge strong bonds of understanding of which no other relationship can match. Alternatively, unhealthy circumstances and family politics may breed painful relations. Not every brother or sister establishes a framework of sharing and support. So if you are concerned for your sibling but do not have a sharing and trusting relationship with him or her, that’s OK. There are still ways to initiate sex talk without crossing comfort zones.

Lara can speak to this issue from her own upbringing. She and her younger sister (7 years difference) are not close in the sense of knowing each other’s secrets, social circles, or crushes. They were brought up in separate households by different guardians and went to different schools. Both were exposed to different attitudes towards sex. In some ways, they are more like strangers to each other. Despite their physical and emotional distance, there is still that unexplainable sisterly love, and being older, Lara felt a need to look out for her younger sister’s well-being.

She explains, “Our particular relationship has boundaries of trust which make it uncomfortable to discuss emotional aspects of sex and sexuality or discuss specific sexual activities in detail. Nonetheless I wanted to make sure that my 13 year old sister knew how to be sexually safe and how to access safety tools on her own. To me, the bare fundamentals of sex education are 1) Understanding consent and being self-aware of emotional risks 2) Knowing about your body and what sexual acts put you at risk of certain STIs and pregnancy 3) Knowing safer sex methods and how to access barriers and contraceptives, and 4) Knowing how to get tested for STIs.

“I knew I could not have an in depth conversation with my sister about all four points. But I could recommend resources and keep the door open for future conversations. So my approach was to be matter-of-fact. I didn’t feel that beating around the bush would alleviate any awkwardness. In fact, using vague phrases like “Have you done it with him?” can convey feelings of embarrassment or stigma around sex. So I made a point to use frank language.

Talking Point: Ask About Their Sex Education

“Luckily for me as a sexuality scholar I talk about sex A LOT, so I knew the opportunity would inevitably arrive.  I did rehearse in my mind what I would say to my little sister because I think it’s better to be thoughtful and proactive rather than reactive. “One day over the phone I explained to her that I was writing an article about public school sex education. Then I asked her about the education she’s received and what she and her peers think about it. This opened the door to discuss the importance of knowing about your body and safer sex. Furthermore it allowed my sister the freedom to share because she was not pressured to necessarily state her opinions and questions, but was sharing under the guise of what other peers think and feel about sex. I was able to respond with statements like: ‘Oh, the teacher didn’t talk about oral sex or dry sex? That’s something I think is often overlooked in sex ed., but those acts do come with different risks and there are ways to protect yourself against those risks.’

“Throughout the conversation I carefully picked my words and consciously listened and validated what my sister was saying. In the end, I learned that she had a good grasp of what STIs were most prevalent and knew how to use condoms but never heard of sex dams. She was also curious about the diveristy of sexuality and I was able to offer her some really great online readings and videos to explore in her own privacy.

The point is, even if the relationship is not close or is limited by the degree of privacy each other can share, there are ways to work respectfully around those boundaries while offering advice and showing that you care. Another thing: sex talk does not have to be THE sex talk- a crucial, once-in- a-life event.  In reality, people’s sex education is ongoing and transforms as circumstances and age call for it. Ams’ relationship with her twin sister illustrates this.

Be Open and Non-Judgmental

The other thing about sibling relationships (and human relations in general) is that they are forever changing as we grow older. It has taken many years for author Ams to have an open relationship of sexual disclosure with her fraternal twin sister.

“I was the first of the two of us to become sexually active. My sister asked me questions and was fairly non judgmental but my experience wasn’t going to be the same as hers. In many ways, our sex talks seemed pretty commonplace mirroring many of discussions I had with peers. Things became more complex in later years when from time to time one of us would call the other crying about some sort of ‘mistake’ we had made.

“For example, I found one of my high school journals the other day. What I had written about myself seemed horribly abusive. I had called myself a ‘whore’ for kissing a boy at a party when I was single, and made it out like no boy would ever want me again because of that. My sister had a similar incident a few years later. She told me she thought she had cheated on her boyfriend at the time. She gave me all the details but all that stayed in my mind was that she had cheated, and so she was at fault. I was terribly non supportive and I actually went out of my way to call my sister and apologize to her years later.

“What I should have realized then was that it is not up to me to make any moral accusations about anyone including myself, especially when those accusations are based off of a social system that hates women’s sexuality and punishes us for it. Worse though, my sister had been blackout intoxicated the night she ‘cheated’ and we both came to the conclusion that she had been sexually assaulted. In her time of need, I had dismissed her story- and I’ll always have to live with that.

“Now a day’s both my sister and I try our best to call one another on preemptive judgments. We also are very helpful with each others birth control choices, sexual safety and pursuit of pleasure. I actually ended up buying my own vibrator after uncomfortably sleeping half the night on my sister’s. Great investment. She taught me that safe casual sex is nothing to be ashamed of for womyn. I hope I’ve taught her something too.”

Not Limited to Sibling Relations

This conversation shouldn’t just be about siblings though- nor should sexual advice from a sibling necessarily replace information garnered from other sources. No one is perfect. People faulter. And in today’s system and world, creating a sex positive, pleasure-oriented education system is still very hard work. Myths, stereotypes and harmful lies (#exposeVACPCs is one example) are all around us cutting us off from safe, confident and guilt free sex. That’s why a healthy, open relationship with someone you trust is so crucial. Here’s our round-up for what to keep in mind and how to initiate sex talk with your sibling, cousin, friend or anyone you care about.

Sex Talk Summary

1) Be fact-based and frank. This is really helpful but might be difficult if you feel shy or embarassed to say words like “anal”. Your own discomfort will show and make the discussion awkward for everyone. Thus, interconnected with the matter-of-fact approach is to…

2) Check in with your own attitudes towards sexuality. Why might you feel weird about saying “vagina” with your sibling?  Read Soraya Chemaly’s piece about how family attitudes towards sex are extremely influential. Obviously,we are partial to the “responsible sex is good” advice than the “scare them shitless” camp.

3) Be respectful and non-judgmental. Youth in particular are often condescended to and told that they are “too young and immature.” Don’t do this.  Approaching sex talk in a fact-based manner will help but it’s important to be accepting and welcoming. That includes actively listening to what the person is saying and validating their feelings. Respect also includes being realistic about the extent of trust already established by your relationship. Even if your relationship does not allow for sharing private experiences there are still ways to bring up sex and safety while respecting personal boundaries.

4) Inform– Share outside sources like the ones we offer below. This will help put the pressure off you and allow your sibling (or other) to explore the information privately and possibly take up the discussion with you later about specifics.

5) Be self-reflective. This allows for more nuanced understanding of each other and how one fits within greater social structures and norms.  Use your own experiences to breach a subject, or even a book or television show. Or, try asking about their sex education and what their peers think about the curriculum. Reciprocate by sharing what your sex ed was like and what you found helpful or wish you were taught in retrospect.

6) Write a letter or text message. This might be a good option to open the conversation if, say, you are worried about a romantic relationship the person is in but are still unsure when to approach her or him about it.

7) Always remember that just like you, your sibling deserves, happiness, pleasure, safety and freedom to be a sexual being- help create that safe space for them to grow in.

Sex Talk Resources

There are loads of awesome resources out there! Here are some important places to start and follow.

Laci Green Sex+. Armed with quirky cleverness and shameless rapport, Laci Green has been a major voice for youth against fears towards sexuality, abstinence-only sex education and slut/body-shaming. From challenging notions of virginity, to answering questions about foreskin, her YouTube channel is a trove of sex positve knowledge. A must see resource!

Scarleteen. A grassroots teen sex education site with indepth, comprehensive articles about all things sex and sexuality in a way that is relevant to people’s diversity.  It runs a bully-free Q&A message board and an SMS service where teens can annonomously ask questions and get help from qualitfied sex educators- all for free! In addition to all their advice articles, the site provides legal information about personal rights, access to health care, how to talk to physicians, and also help teens find local, in-person health services, LGBTQ, shelters and other youth-focused services.

Come As You Are. The only cooperatively run sex shop in the world is in Toronto! They run in-store sex workshops. Their site offers free printable pamphletes on lubes, condom, bdsm, bondage, caning- you name it, they have it!  They also provide guides to everything from swingers clubs to emergency numbers, shelters, and sexual health resources for sex and disability, HIV/AIDS, reproductive assistance, STI testing, sex workers’ support, LGBTQ communities and more. A great place to start is their sex info guide on how to choose and use sex toys.

Advocates for Youth. If you are interested social change from a public policy perspective, this is an organization that can overwhelm you with openly available research publications and development sector jargon. They run a giganitic online hub of sex education initiatives including youth activist movers and shakers, AmplifyYourVoice.org. Their site keeps tabs on what government officials are- and are not- doing to make sexuality education in the US positive, effective and non-discriminatory.

It’s Pronounced Metrosexual. Where complex, Judith Butler-like concepts of sex, sexuality and gender are broken down into simple, easy to read articles and infographics. Watch the site founder’s entertaining TedTalk on the complexities of gender.

Queering Sexed w/ Planned Parenthood Toronto. This project is aiming to build a sexual health resource specifically for LGBTQ youth who are systematically disadvantaged by public school sex education and medical practitioners at large. Watch online videos, read infographics, and get in touch with them for social support.

The STD Project. A website aimed at dismantling STDs stigma by raising awareness, listening to people’s stories, and increasing access to information. A really great resource for everyone to make more conscientious decisions.

The Body.com. This is not teen or youth specific but it is a trusted resource by medical experts in the field of HIV/AIDS. From social support to activism, this site is a good starting point for everyone to know about HIV/AIDS-related issues.  It offers up to date information about testing, transmission, treatment, serodiscordant couples (to name a few topics) which unforunately not many people (young and old) are knowledgeable. This site also publishes critical articles addressing the pertetuation of stigma.

Our Bodies Our Selves. One of the most important girls’ and women’s health sites in North America. This site promotes evidence-based information on female reproductive health and addresses the intersection of social, economic and political conditions that impact access and quality of health care.

Answer. One of the only online sex education resources that addresses issues specific to boys and men. Though it’s not all free, they do offer webseminars, online workshops and publish a youth-run sexuality magazine, Sex, Etc.   

Do you have any advice or resources to add to this?  How do you feel about talking to siblings about sexual health?

Why the Birds & Bees Just Won’t Cut It

Hymen myth, sexist magazines, pleasure-shame: obstacles which have helped build my dream of opening a Sex+ Sex Shop. May it one day be normal to celebrate sex!

That awkward first sex talk.

Plenty of kids seem to share the same dreadful story about their parents or teachers stumbling through “the birds and the bees” speech.

Sometimes you come across a few folks who have learned the ins and outs of sexuality from peers instead. Mostly this information is collected from whispered conversations amidst giggles in bathroom stalls. Or late at night during sleepovers in which the details of how to perform perfect oral are spewed out for all the untrained friends gathered around.

I remember one of my partners and I spent hour’s Googling how to make women orgasm. He even drew me a diagram of where he figured my clitoris must be located (he made sure to describe it as ‘a little man in a boat’). I guess that means to some people that clitoral hoods look like boats?

He tried so hard to learn about sex the only way he felt comfortable. This meant turning exclusively to the internet. Needless to say, that was one lesson that would have been nice to learn from someone we trusted instead of turning to random wikihow articles. Wikihow your partner to multiple orgasms! Conversations regarding sex and sexuality ultimately mean more when they are done so face to face. This holds true despite the awkwardness which will undoubtedly ensue once you begin to imagine your parents or children wrapped up in deliciously compromising positions.

There was one time he did have a conversation with his parents about sex. This occurred when they washed his jeans and found a condom wrapper in the hamper. He summarized the gist of the conversation, with his dad issuing a stern warning about the dangers of pregnancy during premarital sex while his mom cried on the couch. Off-putting to say the least. Nor was it the least bit helpful or practical. A conversation about sexual health shouldn’t be focused on dread and fear. They need to begin to describe the creative, diverse ways that sex can be had, with whom you can have sex, and the ways in which each individual will enjoy(or not enjoy) different things.

A later partner I discovered enjoyed anal stimulation. He was so ashamed by it because when he looked it up, all accounts made out that heterosexual men did not, should not, and could not enjoy anal stimulation.

He believed blogs written by anonymous sex gurus from Maxim and of course the piles of Seventeen Magazines and Cosmopolitans his female roommate kept in their adjoined washroom. The messages he received from these sources, from his parents, from his male friends and from what little porn he did confess to watching, made any encouragement of anal play useless.

The messages these individuals took so much to heart had an adverse effect on me as well. The person that I had sex with for the first time actually dared to question my virginity after we had penetrative sex for the first time. This, because of myths he had internalized about hymens.

Immediately after the act I was basking in the glow of it all. We had oral and manual sex so often that I was eager and ready for vaginal sex. Further, I had the delight of not feeling any pain throughout my first experience. I told him that I was happy, that it hadn’t hurt. I was smiling on the couch next to him, when I glanced up and noticed the shocked look on his face. Bothered, I asked,“did it hurt you? I am so sorry if it did!” Luckily, it hadn’t. Rather, his disturbance was due to the fact that I hadn’t bled. I told him I too, was surprised and relieved. He wasn’t satisfied with this kind of a response. He thought that virginity was very important and also had some misguided beliefs about having to ‘pop the cherry’ in order for the act to be legitimate.

Fortunately my relationship with sexuality was slightly more positive than many, but mostly because I was so curious that my parents didn’t even need to sit me down. I’d just come to ask whatever was on my mind; often to their embarrassment. Speaking of which, years after my “birds & bees” chat with my own mother, I gave her a phone call to share the exciting news that I had achieved my first orgasm with a sex partner. She had never known before that I was having difficulty, and I think she was shocked that I had called her to celebrate the occasion in the same kind of manner my sister often does about a job offer or an excellent mark on a term paper.

Now I’m not saying at all that my parents were shy about sex. My mother has become quite comfortable sharing details of her life with me that I think, unfortunately are quite taboo in many other parent/child relationships. However, what my point boils down to is that unlike celebrations over achievements or a lesson well learned, there was no celebration when we discussed sex.

I want that to change for everybody!

I can completely comprehend if some people feel uncomfortable teaching their own children how to put on a condom or how to properly use a dental dam. I’m sure the majority of parents are a little unprepared for a consultation with their offspring about what size packer looks most comfortable under their slacks.

This sort of unease is one of the main reasons I want to co-own a Sex+ Store & Education Centre. Our community members need a safe space to gather in which they can learn about sex, celebrate sex and enjoy themselves while exploring healthy sexuality. If there had been a place where I could have gone as a preteen to delve into birth control options with some sort of enthusiastic advisor I would have been all over that!

Unfortunately, the sex stores near my home weren’t all that inviting. Most of them had reputations as sleazy joints with back rooms full of pornography. Needless to say anyone under 18 wasn’t welcome inside the door.

Then there is the concerning number of young women I know who claim to have ‘suffered through’ their first few attempts at intercourse. If we all felt comfortable exploring our own bodies, asking questions, communicating openly with our partners about our desires, these kinds of things wouldn’t happen quite as often. We need to stop demonizing sex, especially sex amongst our youth, our elderly and the specially abled. Sex is natural, it is beautiful and if I ever have children I want a phone call, or HELL, maybe even a party to celebrate their first orgasms! Better yet, if children were encouraged instead of shamed when caught masturbating, couples would have far less trouble achieving orgasms with one another in the first place.

Owning a Sex Positive/Queer Positive Shop is my way of giving back to the community that embraced me and helped me bloom into a colourful sexual being. It is my way of giving all of the future (and past) generations a place to come and learn without the additional weight of secrecy or taboo. Our education systems will be slow to change their policies on Health and Sex education. I attend a Catholic University as a don and one of my forbearers was fired when he decided to distribute free condoms to his residents. This kind of injustice needs a grassroots solution. What better way to overthrow a stagnant heteronormative, anti-pleasure system than by creating our own affiliation-free safe spaces to explore sex.

Hopefully the entire world can eventually be a sex positive space one day, but we’ll take it one row paddle at a time in the right direction.

Why Condoms Get a Bad Wrap: Renewing emphasis on pleasure

Is it correct to suggest that condom-bashing is more common than condom-loving?  From personal experience, when I speak with people about safer sex the following is often used to describe condoms: “It keeps my partner and me from getting close”, “It disrupts intimacy”; “…It’s unnatural”, “…a mood killer”, “I can’t feel anything with a condom on”, “it hurts”, or “I can’t get off with condoms”.  Sound familiar?  In fact, rarely do I hear positive things like, “I love using condoms!” and “Condoms make me horny!”

Some argue that male condoms simply suck. Period. Others point to social attitudes as the greater problem and that people are trained to hate condom, states Debbie Herbenick in The Daily Beast.

Can new condoms solve the Condom Problem?

Why do condoms get a bad rap?Of course, sexual pleasure and condom use warrant serious discussion. According to a 2013 survey, only 60% of teenagers claim to use condoms regularly. And condom use declines as people grow older.  Much media praise is pouring over the “Grand Challenge” pitched by the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation to develop a “next-generation condom that significantly enhances or preserves pleasure.”  Thousands have applied for the $100,000 prize grant.  It’s got people talking (again) about widespread dissatisfaction with existing condoms.

There’s been ideological backlash from condom defenders.  Reported in an article by Slate.com, the Gates’ competition is razzed by Gwaker and Salon, who have labeled condom complainers as “creeps” and “pervs” that are just “whining”. But these righteous attacks do not help.  In fact, their points only reinforce shame around sexual pleasure, thus hindering discussions about sexuality and sexual health.

Fingers are also pointing at condom researchers for overlooking the importance of pleasure and narrowly focusing on disease prevention and risk, as assistant professor Joshua G. Rosenberger told The Daily Beast. The narrative surrounding the Gates’ competition has reinvigorated the pleasure factor, but honest discussion about condoms should not end there.

Pleasure-focused condoms already exist!

What’s overlooked in this media coverage is that condom companies have focused on pleasure for decades! One need not look further than the crowded condom market to see where emphasis lay. Navigating through all the pleasure bumps, pouches, dual action lubricants, and “twisted” pleasure condoms can be a confusing (and fun!) task. This is not to deny that there are limits in male condom choice (not to mention severe limits of dams and female condoms!).  Indeed, most are latex based. Non-latex is more expensive and difficult to find off-line (see our post about buying condoms online). And all existing condoms roll on and off in the same way (although prototype Origami condom might change that).

There is more to condom use than bananas

Another aspect overlooked in discussions of condom hate is the way in which students are introduced to and informed about condoms in sex education.  Condoms talk is often devoid of any discussions regarding pleasure. But instead of limiting condoms to banana demonstrations, educators and prevention providers can play a valuable role by explaining some special condom features that already exist to suit individual needs, including allergies, lubrication, the health warnings of n-9 spermicide, flavors, and different condom shapes and sizes.

The point is that there are thousands of condom types already.  What we need is pleasure-inclusive sex education so that young people and adults access information about options, how to find the right condom, and different ways to use condoms well.  This can help increase consistent and correct use, hence reduce health risk while nurturing healthy and satisfying sexual lives.  Everyone wins!

Condom haters are in the minority

There is plenty of alternative evidence out there to suggest that the physical differences between unprotected sex and sex with a condom are minor to non-existent.  The Kinsey Institute’s annual National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (2011) found that adults who use condoms for penetrative sex tend to report the same degree of sexual pleasure as those who have sex without condoms. Another study that measured physical sensation (and only physicality- excluding other factors like perceived trust or sexual history, etc.) found that most men do feel a slight decrease of sensation with a condom.  However, if used and fitted correctly, a condom should never decrease a man’s sensitivity to the point of pain, numbness, or loss of erection. For women, it is rare to experience any dulling, which (as Scarleteen wisely points out) is not surprising, because the vagina has far less nerve sensory compared to the clitoris and frenulum, and therefore is less receptive to finer differences like skin compared to latex. Yes, there are women and men who experience physical irritation, drying, gross tastes and weird smells.  But there are ways to overcome these problems. It’s not like safe sex is a chore that one just has to deal with! 

Understanding sexual pleasure

i love youThere’s the argument that people are trained to hate condoms. Check out our post about the lack of positive representations of condoms in popular culture and entertainment. From our searches, we could not find any peer reviewed scientific studies that conclude that condoms severely detract from physical sensation.  We did find studies- including Randolph et. al. (2008), Mizuno et. al. (2007) and Boston University School of Health Our Bodies Ourselves Collective (2011)– in which more men than women reported that condoms did cause sex to feel “less good”. However, all three studies find that those who report negative feelings towards condoms are people who rarely use them. This seems like an obvious finding, but what’s more nuanced here is that those who believe this is so tend to be less-experienced with condoms (some of which have no actual experience). While many people do report that unprotected sex feels better than protected sex, in general, people who use condoms frequently and are confident about how to use them well tend to experience greater satisfaction with protected sex then those who do not use condoms.

This implies that sexual pleasure when using condoms cannot simply be reduced to basic physics of vaginal or penile sensation.  Of course, “sexual pleasure” is a fluid concept that means many different things to different people in different contexts.  There is more to consider when measuring degrees of satisfaction and pleasure than just what a condom touches, such as how we feel emotionally and intellectually about ourselves, our bodies, our relationships, and sex as an integral part of life. Many studies argue that attitudes and beliefs toward condoms greatly influence one’s experience of using them.  So, it may be fair to say that claims of “not feeling anything” have more to do with lack of experience using condoms (lack of experimenting), or not using them properly.

The catch is that when people know what type of condom they like, know how to use them correctly, consistently, and different ways to increase sensuality (i.e. experimenting with lubes, ribbed condoms, having a partner put on the condom for you), there is greater overall satisfaction.  As Heather Corinna writes, “…it’s the people who don’t use them at all that tend to complain about them the most.” Thus many people’s negative attitudes place them in a self-perpetuating cycle: If you approach condom use with pessimism, then you set yourself up for aversion.  This cycle will discourage from experimenting with different condoms and discovering what types and lubricants you like, and what methods are most comfortable and exciting; in general, it’s the mind set that is often the mood-killer.

How to make condoms sexy

The Next Generation condom is a positive competition that will hopefully lead to innovative and improved technology.  But this alone cannot solve public perceptions and negative sentiment towards condoms. In another post, we have suggested that media, from soap operas to popular how-to magazines to porn must include more positive representations of condoms for vaginal, anal, and oral sex to help normalize safe sex.  We also suggest basic condom usage techniques and ways of making condom usage a sexy part of sex, rather than a disruption. And of course, access to education and knowing which condoms suit one’s individual needs (and their sexual relationships) is vital to loving the glove.  Here is our fitting guide to help those who experience particular fitting problems.

Tell us what you think from your experience or teachings.

Where to Go for Safer Sex: Our Resource Recommendations

HaveAcondom (1)We are celebrating Valentine’s Day 2013 by acknowledging some of the most lavish, smart, and intriguing safer sex resources out there and giving them our thank yous for their hard work.

For safer sex guidelines we applaud and recommend you check out the following…

Planned Parenthood: A non-profit health organization that offers reproductive health care and advice on contraception, safe sex, and family planning.  They’ve been around since 1939 and in many cases are the only place where one can access birth control, STD/STI testing, sex education, couples counseling, etc.

The Body: A medically-based HIV/AIDS resource in the US which provides information on everything one needs to know about HIV/AIDS, including advice on prevention, HIV testing, treatment, safely navigating a mixed-status relationship, HIV/AIDS policy and activism, and the latest research on HIV/AIDS and other STDs.  This humongous site offers everything from Blogs, podcasts, bulletin boards, “Ask the Experts” forum, first-person stories and interviews, conferences and news coverage, and library resources.

SEX ETC: Who better to understand high school sex politics than the peers who are living and experiencing it themselves.  The blog, magazine, and stories on this site are written by and for teens and young adults across North America.  It provides different media to engage with sexual health info, such as videos about safe sex, forums where teens can participate and moderate discussions with other teens, a 400 words sex glossary, a state-by-state reference to info on birth control, health care access and your rights to sex education in “Sex in the States” guide, and a range of surveys and guides to sex ed activism.

Scarleteen:  A progressive sex-ed site written for teens who are female, male, genderqueer; gay, straight or somewhere in between.  It provides over 200 articles about sex, health, and relationships, covering everything from STIs to sexual orientation, body image, self-esteem, to birth control, masturbation, misogyny, sexual abuse, and technical advice from French kissing to BDSM.  The site also provides interactive question-answer-discuss services, including their new live help feature providing safe, anonymous live chats with Scarleteen’s staff and volunteers.

SEX-ED LOOP:  Another great resource for teens, based in Chicago, that gives up to date information on sexual health, rights, and identity through a range of social media channels including a weekly text messaging service and clinic finder that will identify health care services throughout Chicago.  Also provides helpful articles about gender identity and sexual orientation.

HIV InSite: A non-commercial, well-established source developed by the Center for HIV Information at the University of California San Francisco.  The site offers an extensive collection of original material including a complete textbook about the clinical management of HIV/AIDS.  It is also a great resource for global HIV/AIDS research, statistics, and policy analysis.

Our Bodies Ourselves: A global non-profit that promotes evidence-based information on girls’ and women’s health.  The information provided on the site is vast and includes excerpts from their famous book on reproductive health, as well as first-person blog stories that range from topics like body image, nutrition, menstruation, pregnancy and much more.

Well, that’s a handful of some of our favorite safer sex resources from sound sexual health organizations. Do you have any resources to share?  Please let us know in the comments below!

More Condoms In Pop: The need to popularize safer sex

condoms need to be popularizedA recent study by researchers at Stanford Medical School reveals that a large portion of young women are irresponsible in bed, meaning they ain’t protecting themselves.  The year-long study collected data from 1,194 sexually active females aged 15 to 24 who visited Planned Parenthood clinics and were beginning contraceptive pills, patches, injections, or vaginal rings for the first time.  At the beginning of the study, only 36 percent of participants consistently used the “dual method” (relying on both hormonal contraceptives and the condom), which meant that STI and STD protection was compromised.  Getting pregnant seems to be the only risk to care about.

Surprised?  To be honest, I wasn’t either as I know many friends whose first time using birth control was when they entered a relationship with someone they trust, and that trust included believing (hopefully, with medical proof) that neither person carried STIs.

However, it gets worse: The study found that over 50 percent of young women did not resume condom use after they discontinued hormonal contraceptives.  That’s right, NO protection!

Less Youth are Using Condoms

Why is this happening?  And how can prevention improve?  According to Rachel Goldstein M.D., lead author of the study, the most influential factor of condom usage is the partner’s attitude toward condoms.  When a woman did not know how her partner felt about condoms or knew that he felt they were “very important”, she was more likely to be a dual method user than when her partner thought condoms were “not at all important”.  The researchers speculate that power imbalances within the relationship impact the woman’s ability to negotiate condom use. “It appears that her partner’s feelings may be more important than her perceived risk of a sexually transmitted infection or her own beliefs about dual method use,” said Goldstein.  This is an important point of concern.  There are many factors, including levels of mutual respect, emotional maturity, and self-esteem that need to be considered when counseling youth about healthy sex (Scarleteen offers great advice on negotiating condom use).  Of course, the study concludes that more counseling is needed to accompany hormonal contraceptive treatment that emphasizes the risks of STIs and STDs.

However, I think this is only one piece in the very complicated puzzle of sexual relations.  Plus, the research does not address why young women are not resuming condom use after discontinuing hormonal medication.

In fact, condoms are not very popular among young adults in general.  According to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, the rate of STIs in people 15-24 years old is exceptionally high.  Two-thirds of all individuals who become infected with STIs in the United States are younger than 25 years old!  The reason for this is because young people simply are not using condoms and other barriers consistently or correctly to protect themselves and their partners.

Condoms Miss the Limelight

Now, most teens in North America have been exposed to sex ed and know why condoms exist, but this is obviously not the only means to ensuring healthy sex lives.  Indeed, sex pedagogy in North America is riddled with censorship (that’s a whole other post), and health counseling should accompany hormonal contraceptive use. Both these solutions, however, overlook a larger social problem.  The social stigma which has developed around STIs and diseases has produced negative attitudes and ignorance towards safer sex.  It’s fair to say that this negativity permeates in our popular culture.

Condoms and other safer sex practices have acquired an unsexy reputation from their very absence in romantic and steamy and sex positive representations.  Pornography, films, romance novels, or how-to articles in popular magazines rarely represent the condom and how it can actually increase sensuality, not dull it.  And this is something that needs to change because it limits our knowledge, attitude and imagination about what healthy sex can be.

This is not to say that viewers of media are passive recipients who are easily influenced by what is on TV.  But media can be interpreted as a cultural artifact that reflects beliefs, attitudes, prejudices of the times.  It is a matter of what sells, and unfortunately, the mainstream only works to reinforce the notion that safer sex is a chore.

One Solution: Safer Sex Porn!

There are some who have sought to exert control over the representation of safer sex through alternative media.  One honorable example is the 1990 video short, Current Flow, by Jean Carlomusto starring Annie Sprinkle and Joy Brown.  This explicit video was made in response to Cosmopolitan magazine publishing a piece which erroneously claimed that virtually no females could contract HIV.  The short is basically about a woman (Annie Sprinkle) masturbating on the couch with her vibrator. Suddenly her vibrator stops and we see a woman enter the room with a towel in one hand and a power cord in the other (not many battery-operated vibrators back then).  The woman seductively crawls over Annie and rolls out from her towel dental dams, latex gloves, condoms and lube for the dildo.  And the climax begins.

But this is not just any girl-on-girl porn, it also emphasizes “showing how”.  For example, a close-up of Annie Sprinkle getting eaten-out shows how to use a dental dam. Another shot shows Joy Brown washing the dildo before it is her turn to use it on Annie.  As Carlomusto writes,

“…in order to educate lesbians about safer sex we have to establish what it is.  Saying, ‘use a dental dam’ is not the same as saying ‘use a condom’, since many women don’t know what a dental dam is” (1992: 82).

Current Flow is the first of it’s kind. Sexy and safe lesbian porn made by and for lesbians. It was made at a particular time during the HIV/AIDS crisis when the Centers for Disease Control refused to investigate data on woman-to-woman transmission of HIV.  It was also a time when mass media and public health bureaucracies refused to produce explicit sex education or represent gay and lesbian sexuality.  While the information today is made more available and inclusive of a wider public, we still do not see safe sex represented as often as we see sex in the media.

Safer sex should be not be limited to public health messages or HIV/AIDS activism.  What would be powerful is normalization of safer sex in everyday media.  Imagine music videos- the soft porn of daytime television- including condoms in a sexy, bootylicious way…

Dull Feeling in Bed Begins with Dull Attitude

You might think that the reason there are few representations of positive condoms in popular culture is simply because condoms are genuinely unfun and decrease pleasure.  You might think that it is for this reason that younger people are using condoms less.  I would argue that this belief is grounded more in attitude than it is in actual reality.  Let me explain.

Some studies, such as “Sexual Pleasure and Condom Use” by Randolph et. al. (2007), have found that those who report sex with a condom as less pleasurable tend to be people who have not used condoms in a while or who don’t use them at all.  They found that more men than women tend to believe condom use is less pleasurable even without actual experience.  It is beliefs that influence experience with condoms and whether one wants to use them. It is true that many people reported that unprotected sex feels better than protected sex. Overall, people who are familiar with using condoms tend to report greater pleasure with protected sex than those who are likely to go without protection.   As Heather Corinna at Scarleteen writes, “The more you use them, the more they feel good, and it’s people who don’t use them at all that tend to complain about them most.”

In other words, it is the attitude that one has towards condoms that greatly affects satisfaction.  People who use condoms often do not express a decrease in overall pleasure because they learn what condoms suit them best and what ways they are most comfortable using them.

Know Your Condom

Which brings me to my next point.  Part of the process of popularizing condoms is to increase understanding of the different types and ways of using them.  Another study by Michael Reece and Debra Herbenick (2012) found that many people do not know how to use condoms properly and what can increase pleasure.  For example, putting a drop of lube inside the condom before rolling it on can improve application and increase sensitivity.  Also, the condom can be put on in sexy and tantalizing ways by you or your partner that make it a part of sex- not an interruption to it. Check out our post for some sexy tips on condom use.

Pediatrics and sex educators should know condoms too.  Reece and Herbenick suggests that prevention providers can play a valuable role in alleviating negative perceptions of condoms by recommending different condoms made for specific needs.  For example, for those men who feel condoms are too tight, a practitioner may recommend condoms which are designed with a more bulbous head or looser fit.  The point is that there are hundreds of thousands of condom types out there and there needs to be more access and understating of choice and care.

If it’s true that sexual pleasure with a condom is all in the attitude than it is all the more important that there be representations of safe sex in pop media.  How powerful would it be if Jake Gyllenhaal whipped out a condom during the famous sex scene in Broke Back Mountain!

What do you think?  Would safer sex in the media help increase positive attitudes towards safe practices?  What do you think should be done to get more youth practicing safer sex?

Source cited:  Jean Carlomusto & Gregg Bordowitz (1992).“Do It!  Safe Sex Porn for Girls and Boys Comes of Age.” A Leap in the Dark: AIDS, Arts and Contemporary Cultures.  Allan Klusacek & Ken Morrison, eds. Montreal: Vehicule Press.