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Sexual Miseducation Must Stop

It's time to teach the truth about sex.

Ana Cecilia Alvarez

Ana Cecilia Alvarez

Photo collage by Zoe Ligon

This story appears in the June issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

Spending for sexual education, along with other budget items favored by progressives, is being threatened by the Trump administration. In March, the White House released a "skinny budget" proposal that suggested $15.1 billion in cuts to Health and Human Services programs and included a $50 million cut to Obama's Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative (TPPI). The TPPI was Obama's answer to abstinence-only sexual education in school. It encourages "evidence-based" education initiatives aimed to reduce teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and risky sexual behavior among adolescents. Trump's plan would slash its budget in half.

America's appallingly defective sexual education is well documented. And even Obama's push for a sexual education that speaks to teenagers' needs remains grounded in risk and hazard. Promoting pleasure is rarely a component of sexual health education. Instead, teens often supplement their sexual miseducation with porn, which fills the knowledge gaps with sometimes impractical, and at times violent, sexual expectations. Without honest and realistic sex ed, how do we learn to have healthy, pleasurable sex? I talked to student Chelsea Lucas*; theater-maker and performance artist Nic Prior; poet, performer, critic, and curator Christine Wertheim; and director and designer Lian Walden about how they handled the sexual unlearning curve.

Ana: What are your earliest memories of learning about sex?

Chelsea: I remember so vividly when I figured out what sex was. For a while, I thought it was people kissing naked and rolling around. One day, my brother took his index finger and pushed in through a hole he made with his hand, and something in my brain clicked. I remember covering my head and feeling embarrassed and grossed out.

Ana: I stumbled into porn at a very young age. It's strange that one of the basic precepts of intercourse—penetration—is never told to you. It's a discovery.

Christine: My mother had six children in less than six years, so I do not remember not knowing what sex was or how it happened. I assume that at some point my mother told me, but I have no memory. A friend once told me of her neighbors, "Do you know that they really believe that babies are dropped by storks?" And I had no idea what she was talking about. It was the dumbest thing I ever heard! How could anyone have that kind of mythology?

Nic: I watched Rocky Horror Picture Show when I was eight. I had no idea what was going on at all. But that was my first introduction to queer sexual experience. I still, to this day, have had such few conversations with my parents about sex. If we talked about sex, we needed to talk about sexuality, and I wasn't really ready to bring up either.

Lian: I was the only girl among brothers and male cousins, and I began noticing how people treated us about not being naked around one another—at a certain point, we could until we couldn't.

Ana: There is that moment when your potential as a sexual object becomes palpable enough that you can't be naked because now you have the potential of being sexualized. Was sexual education provided in your school, or was it in the home?

Nic: My queer sexual education is completely community based. All of the sexual educations that I've received that are specific to my queerhood have been from sexual partners and friends. I had a couple of really close friends who are older than me, and everything I learned about safe sex and sexual practices and caring for your body was all from them, and they had received that from friends of theirs. It's a word-of-mouth thing.

I've had a lot of crisis moments when I didn't have the knowledge I needed to deal with a certain encounter beforehand. I'd go to a friend, and they would say, "This is what you should have done." Fantastic. I would have loved to know that yesterday. There's so much learning by trial and error.

Christine: I want to say that we did [get sex ed at home] because I knew a lot. My parents went from being Catholics to hippies, and when my sister and I were six, we lived in this colony with my parents. The adults would be running around naked on drugs. I grew up literally surrounded by people having sex in the shrubbery. In fact, I felt like the environment was too sexualized. I wanted it to calm down. I found it overwhelming.

Chelsea: My mom gave me some books, but my parents put a lot of faith in our school education, which I didn't realize completely failed me until I was older, and I started having sex. In fifth grade, they separated boys from the girls, and they brought the girls into a room, and we watched this really outdated film about a girl getting her period. I remember feeling so betrayed because I had never heard what a period was until I watched this video. They don't ever teach you about your periods. They just teach you they happen.

Lian: In health class, we got the basics— anatomy, your period, and a lot of fear around STDs. The next stop on my sexual memory lane was getting fingered for the first time, and thinking, No one told him what to do!

Ana: There's a lot of walking blindly into walls and crashing into one another. How did your education change once you actually started having sex?

Lian: The biggest thing to unlearn is that there's no right way for it to go or feel or look like or sound like.

Christine: Did you watch porn?

Lian: No, but I had enough images in my head to expect that if you're having sex and you're not having orgasms—which, who does when you start having sex?—then there's something wrong with you. Or when a guy comes too quickly or can't get hard, there's something wrong with you. Or if you don't like to do this particular thing, there's something wrong with you.

Ana: As a mostly straight woman, I really never learned anything about dicks. When I was first fucking, I was presented with this thing that was overwhelming and off-putting. And the boys I was with could hardly handle themselves well enough to teach me. It took me a while to understand how a man's body works—not to mention my own!

Christine: My first boyfriend had been in boarding school in England and was very sexually mature. He was very experienced, and he knew what he was doing, and he loved women. When we finally had sex, it was all about me. I can't imagine what it's like not to have an educated partner…

Lian: Traumatizing!

Chelsea: I got my first serious boyfriend at 13, and we dated throughout high school. It was a really abusive and messed-up relationship. I had never masturbated or touched myself or known what sex was when he started doing things to me. And he was a couple years older than me. As I got older, I was really mad that I was never taught about consent at all. Now that I look back on it, my ex-boyfriend was a porn addict and wanted to re-create things that he had seen. I thought that was normal—having sex every day at school, at his house, in his car, in the back of the bus. I have a new boyfriend now—he is great. I am learning so much now and realizing every time I am with him that something wasn't right before. I wish that somebody had warned me.

Lian: And taught you. Was there any pleasure there for you?

Chelsea: Maybe? I feel like I manufactured a lot of it in my head. At a young age, boys would talk about which girls were or weren't "good." It didn't matter how I felt during sex; what mattered was if the boy was having a good time. It was all about male pleasure.

Nic: I did watch porn, and it greatly shaped how I viewed sex and intimacy. For a long time, my idea of sex was pleasuring someone else. It was a long time until I started thinking about my own pleasure. I was meant to be—because I happened to be the more feminine—submissive, and I was going to make them feel good. I felt uncomfortable about being pleasured. It wasn't until a year or two ago that I considered pleasure for myself. Especially when it came to having penetrative sex. That's when unlearning started to happen.

Ana: I found porn way too soon and began masturbating and having orgasms from a really young age. I was sure I was making some sort of pact with the devil. And so, when I started having sex and never orgasmed, I thought it was because I had masturbated and somehow ruined myself.

Nic: One thing I noticed is so deeply ingrained from watching porn is the series of events: We make out, I suck his dick, he eats me out, we fuck—the four steps of having sex. One night, I was with a boy, but I didn't feel like it. And he said, "Oh, we can just do other stuff." Oh! Of course, I don't have to go. We can just do other stuff. It's the simple lessons that I am just now learning: I can experience pleasure; it's not a marathon you push through, and we can do other stuff.

Christine: I had sex with a lot of people I didn't really want to because I didn't know how to say no—that was the one thing I was never taught, even with a very feminist mother. But even with people I wasn't interested in I would still have orgasms. This whole thing of not having orgasms until you're 25 or 30, I find astonishing.

Lian: Sex can be traumatizing! It's stressful, painful. Surrender is still difficult. So you come with all of that baggage, and even after you learn how to communicate and find a partner who is not a douche, then knowing how to surrender to pleasure and trust is difficult. Meditating helps my sex life because it helps me stayed focused on pleasure. And the trance-like potentials of it—that's a place I'd like to get to. And unlearning obligation! Learning you can say no in the middle. Learning how not to make it about a goal. Learning ease around it.

*Name has been changed to protect the subject's identity.