This week I’m off to the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit, and in honor of that, let’s look at what we know about what happens when people learn about sex:
In a 1976 New York Times article (paywall), a 43 year old woman recounts how she had never had an orgasm, had never even considered the idea of her own sexual pleasure, until one evening not too long ago she was babysitting for a friend… and she picked up a sex book that happened to be sitting on the shelf.
“I learned, to my infinite surprise, that females could have orgasms, too. I was pretty astonished but I thought it sounded like a terrific idea. I decided to try it the very next time around, which I did, and it worked. Now I’m multiorgasmic. And all I had to do was read about it, to learn that it was possible. Sort of like learning tennis from a manual, I guess.”
That is the potential power of knowledge alone.
Those who’ve seen Liz Canner’s remarkable documentary, Orgasm, Inc, will no doubt remember Charletta, the 50-something woman who had an experimental electronic device surgically implanted in her spine, in hopes that it would allow her to have orgasms during intercourse. The devise doesn’t work – when she turns it on, her foot vibrates.
And then, in about thirty seconds, we watch Charletta go from believing she is broken and in need of an electrode in her spine… to believing she is perfectly healthy. We hear Canner behind the camera ask her, “Can I just ask you a question? Can you achieve orgasm through other means [than penile-vaginal intercourse]?”
“Yes, I can. Yes I can,” says Charletta. “So I’m not without orgasms, but it’s just not the normal situation where two people get together and they have sexual intercourse and each has an orgasm and that’s why I say, maybe that’s not real. Maybe that’s just what the movies tell us is real.”
Canner tells her that 70% of women require direct clitoral stimulation in order to have an orgasm, which means only a small proportion of women are reliably orgasmic with penile-vaginal penetration alone. Canner then asks, “So that’s what you were hoping, that this device would allow you to have orgasms during sex?”
“Yes. During sexual intercourse, and just again, in what I think is a normal way. But you have absolutely washed that out of my mind! I no longer know what’s normal. So that’s wonderful, because that’s a brand new start.”
It’s a breathtaking moment – and heartbreaking, in a way. Remember, Charletta was enrolled in a medical experiment to test a device designed to treat “Female Sexual Dysfunction” (FSD). And what was “dysfunctional” about Charletta? Nothing. She was normal. The only reason she was struggling with her sexuality – the reason she underwent general anesthesia and had an electrical device implanted in her spine – was because she didn’t know she was normal.
What’s particularly staggering is that the medical professionals leading the study didn’t know either – or else they allowed her to participate in an experiment with unknown risks and benefits, even though she had no medical problem.
So. Can knowledge alone really impact your sexual wellbeing?
Think about how amazing that is:
Your knowledge about sex can change your experience of sex – not just your behavior, but your orgasmicity, your pleasure… your very physiology.
There is no other species on earth for whom this is true. Not even our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, can have their sexuality changed by education… whereas we humans can have our whole sexual experience revitalized by a single sentence.
Researchers call it “psychoeducation” or “biobliotherapy.“ Self-help approaches including bibliotherapy, video therapy, and computer based therapy, have all been shown to be effective, with the most evidence (that is, the largest number of studies of reasonable quality) supporting bibliotherapy. Which means reading books about sex can be as effective as seeing a sex therapist.
Sex education is powerful because it works.
And that’s what makes it dangerous.
To say that you want to improve access to sex education is literally the same as saying that you want to improve access to healthy sexuality. You want people to have autonomy and pleasure, to have control over their own bodies, their own reproduction, their own affections.
What’s more, to say you want to improve access to sex education is to say you want to do all of this… for free. Unlike medications, there is no giant corporate interest at stake, no “sex educator lobby,” pushing Congress to represent our profit margins.
(What profit margins? One of the most common questions I’m asked is, “How can I make a living as a sex educator?” and the answer is, “Do something else too, at least for a while.”)
If you’re experiencing pain, see a medical provider.
And if you’d like more support than that, try a mindfulness-based therapy for desire disorders and cognitive behavioral therapy for orgasmic disorders
If you have a trauma history that’s not completely resolved, addressing that will improve your sexual satisfaction.
If you have self-critical thoughts and feelings about your body – and who doesn’t – and you notice they’re interfering with your sexual functioning, addressing that will improve your sexual satisfaction.
If you’re feeling unsupported and/or untrusting in your relationship, that can often affect sex. Addressing the relationship will have the important side effect of improving your sexual satisfaction.
Because it works.
Because it’s powerful.
Because there are people who are terrified that you will learn how the pleasure inside your own body works.