Editor’s Note: This article was written with the goal of helping young cisgender women work through how patriarchy has affected their understanding of their bodies, their partners, and their sexual experiences. Oftentimes, this piece takes on a heterocentric framework as well. At Everyday Feminism, we are tirelessly dedicated to inclusive, intersectional feminism and in no way mean to imply that only cisgender, heterosexual women struggle with sexuality; rather, this piece serves as a jumping off point, starting with answering the questions that we most often find in our inbox.
Most sexuality education is terrible.
Like, beyond terrible.
And if you’ve received a formal sex education at all, it likely went a little like this:
“Sex is defined as intercourse, which involves a penis going inside of a vagina. But you probably don’t want to do that because then you’ll get pregnant and ruin your entire life and – oh hey! – here are some terrifying pictures of STI’s.”
Uhh, and we think that it’s time we change that.
Sex ed has to change.
Because if we don’t do a better job of teaching healthy sexuality, we leave it up to pornography, television, music, and movies to do our job – and none of those are accurate, comprehensive sources of sexuality education.
It’s time we teach about how to have amazing, fulfilling, consensual, and healthy sex.
It’s time to give them an accurate depiction of what sex should look and feel like.
And hell, if schools don’t want to do it, then fine. Everyday Feminism will. More specifically, the brilliant Jamie Utt and I will. Because it needs to get done.
And since I identify as a woman, I’ll finish what Jamie started yesterday by talking to the girls and women out there.
That said, let me be absolutely clear that I am a cisgender woman, and as such, many of these lessons come from a cisgender perspective and should be treated as limited in that way.
So what are some steps to take before diving into sex for the first time? What are some important facts to know? And why are they important?
Let’s take a look.
1. Get to Know Your Body
I know it sounds obvious, but hear me out.
The number of women who have approached me, as a sex educator, asking how to make sex more pleasurable without the slightest clue as to what their vulva looks like – let alone feels like – is staggering.
Their explanation of this is usually along the lines of “it’s my partner’s job to take care of me sexually, not mine.”
My counter to that is: If I was leaving my pet cat in the hands of my partner, you’d better believe he would come with a to-do list, an explanation of his idiosyncrasies, and a score of emergency contact numbers.
Your body should be no different.
Unfortunately, we’re taught in our society that our vulvas and vaginas are gross, are dirty, are forbidden. We’re taught from birth not to touch, smell, or taste them. We’re discouraged from even looking at them.
So being told all of a sudden to masturbate can be kind of scary.
I get it.
But seriously. Masturbate.
And if you’re not sure where to start, try here.
And that’s not to say that all sexual pleasure is achieved through only your genitals.
Because despite what mainstream media would have you believe (more on that next!), that isn’t true.
Maybe a foot massage or having your back kissed will work better for you. And that’s perfectly okay!
The point is: You’ll never learn if you don’t allow yourself to explore your body and the sensations that make you go ahh.
But you need to learn what makes you tick before you ever step foot into a bedroom with a partner.
And I promise that you’ll be far better equipped to talk to your partner about sexual pleasure.
2. Question Your Media Consumption
Growing up, I had a really good understanding of my body. I started masturbating at an early age, and by the time I hit puberty, I knew that this totally-awesome-wow feeling was associated with sex. I felt wise beyond my years. And excited for what was to come.
And then I noticed something.
Pretty much everything that mainstream media – from television and movies to the clips I’d sneak from the Playboy channel, back when ‘A’ and ‘B’ channels existed – told me was that I was doing it wrong.
That my body didn’t belong to me.
That the way that I derived pleasure wasn’t normal.
That I, apparently, needed to make some really contorted facial expressions and loud noises in order to communicate to my partner that I was enjoying myself.
And suddenly, I was kind of freaked out.
Sex, I thought, was nothing like how I imagined it. And I had a whole new script to learn – fast! – before I even attempted to be sexual with another person.
Because, as far as I could tell, that other person would be far less interested in what worked for me and instead would just be waiting for me to act out the expectations that they, too, had received from the media.
And it wasn’t until I was older, until I’d already had one (two, three, four, five) sexual partners that I realized that I had been right all along, and that those expectations didn’t have to apply to me or my partners.
I realized eventually that I should be looking for partners who were more concerned with my pleasure and enjoyment than with my ability to fuck like a porn star.
Because as it turns out: The media is a liar.
Penetration isn’t where women tend to derive the most pleasure. Semen doesn’t have to be splattered all over my face. I can expect my partners to perform oral sex on me for more than three minutes.
So check yourself. And understand that just because you saw it on TV (or heard it in a song) doesn’t mean that it’s true.
3. Protection and Prevention
You would think that somewhere along the line, someone would have tipped me off as to how to protect myself from these oh-God-so-terrible consequences of sex.
Sex ed (and society as a whole) spent so much of my formative years telling me that I don’t want to get pregnant and that I don’t want to contract an STI, that you’d think that at some point, I would have understood how to prevent such things.
No one let me know.
All I knew was that I could buy condoms at the local 7-11 (never mind that I didn’t know that anyone could buy them, including women, and that I didn’t need an 18+ ID in order to do so) and that there was some mysterious pill that you could go on that would help you not get pregnant.
But I had no idea how any of these products actually worked.
And I definitely had no idea that there is a myriad of amazing protection and prevention options out there.
Because protection is not one-size-fits-all. Hell, even condoms aren’t.
Luckily, Planned Parenthood has some kick-ass resources regarding birth control to help you understand what your options are and what might work best for you.
Check out this awesome chart that lays out different birth control methods – from fertility awareness to diaphragms to the pill, the shot, the ring, the patch, the implant and IUD’s – and how generally effective they are at preventing pregnancy.
And if you’re not sure where to start, Planned Parenthood’s got you covered. My Method is a super cool application that helps you figure out the best version of birth control for you, based on your lifestyle and situation.
Meanwhile, the other thing I didn’t understand?
How to get tested for STI’s.
I figured that since I was going to the “lady doctor” for my “annual exam” (what’s up with these euphemisms for preventative health care!?), then they must be testing me for STI’s, right?
I mean, they’re doing some kind of test when they’re all up in my vagina, aren’t they? So aren’t they figuring out if I have herpes or syphilis or chlamydia?
Although you pelvic exam and pap smear test are super important aspects of vaginal health, your annual visit to the gynecologist is not running the gamut of STI testing on you – unless you ask.
So make it a habit.
After every new partner is ideal, but there are plenty of good reasons why this might not be feasible for someone. So at least try to get tested every time that you visit the gyno. All it takes is a little bit of pee and a little bit of blood or saliva.
And talk to your partners about it. Find out their status. Talk to them about the importance of STI testing.
Because at the end of the day – when it comes to protection and prevention – no one’s going to do it for you.
Your body. Your rules. Your responsibility.
4. Sexual Communication
Often, adolescents come to me with questions about how to make sex better with their partners: How do they like to be touched? How do they want me to act? How do I give a killer BJ?
And my immediate response is always the same: “I don’t know. Did you ask them?”
And their response is, 9-out-of-10 times, No.
We have this idea – thanks again, media – that we’re supposed to be mind readers, that we’re supposed to understand exactly what our partners want by paying attention to the clues that they give off physically.
We get this idea that good sex isn’t about asking questions, but about magically knowing what to do.
And women are especially susceptible to these messages. Because we’re taught that men are easy to figure out, that it doesn’t take much for them to reach orgasm. We’re taught that our bodies are supposed to be complicated, that men aren’t supposed to understand them.
Well, let me tell you something: That’s bullshit.
And to further prove my point, let me tell you something else: I’ve only ever once – in my entire life – had a partner who didn’t like me to check in with him. Once. One partner out of you-don’t-have-to-know-how-many told me that asking questions “wasn’t sexy.”
And do you want to know the other thing that sets this fellow apart from my other partners?
He was a porn addict.
And it doesn’t take rocket science (hell, it doesn’t even take my coursework in Human Sexuality) to make the connection there.
Talking about what you and your partner(s) want is an integral part of having a pleasurable sexual experience.
And it doesn’t have to be awkward!
I promisepromisepromise that it doesn’t have to be awkward.
All you need to do is decide ahead of time that it isn’t awkward and dive right into it. Order a pizza, sit on your bedroom floor, pull up something like the “Yes, No, Maybe Chart,” and go to town.
What do you like? What are you interested in trying? What are your boundaries?
Enjoy learning about your partner and having your feelings taken seriously.
And then see how much more awesome and comfortable your sex is.
I have a lot of tattoos.
And as such, people who are oh-so-excited to get their first tattoo tend to ask me a lot of (the same) questions.
Your first time doing anything is kind of stressful, and it can be comforting to talk to someone who’s done it a million times before to get some kind of an idea about what to expect.
The problem is: I have no idea what your first time getting a tattoo is going to be like.
I don’t know if it’s going to hurt. I don’t know how much it’s going to cost. I don’t know if the design that you’ve conjured up is going to translate well to body art.
What I can tell you is this: The idea that you have in your head is probably nothing like what the actual experience is going to be like.
And the same goes for sex.
And the truth is, my general rules of thumb are the same for sex are they are for tattooing:
- If you’re in excruciating pain or bleeding profusely, stop.
- Make sure that you trust the person who’s working on your body and feel comfortable talking to them about what you do (and don’t) want.
- Remember that it’s your body, so only you can make decisions about it.
- You have a right to a safe, sterile environment and to demand precautions be taken to make it safer.
- And the result probably isn’t going to be perfect.
Because sex – like tattooing – isn’t perfect. So don’t expect it to be.
You can do it five, six, ten, a hundred times, and it still probably won’t be perfect.
And the thing is: That’s actually totally awesome and okay.
Because it’s real life.
It isn’t a fantasy. It isn’t a daydream. It’s an actual physical interaction between you and another human being.
And just like any other interaction with another person, your expectations should be hopeful, but realistic.
Sex can be the amazing, awesome, inspiring event that people make it out to be.
But the biggest misconception about sex is that its perfection happens naturally, magically.
The truth is: It happens, just like anything else, with hard work.
You get out what you put in.
So get to it.
Melissa A. Fabello is the Editor at Everyday Feminism. She’s a feminist blogger and vlogger, as well as an online peer sex educator, based out of Philadelphia. She is a second-year graduate student, working on an M.Ed. in Human Sexuality. She can be reached on Twitter @fyeahmfabello and Tumblr. Read her articles here and book her for speaking engagements here.