Why Can’t We Talk About Sex?
Author: Liz Goldwyn
My first real job was as a paid intern for Planned Parenthood. I was 13 and hadn’t gone “all the way.” I was working in the office at the Santa Monica clinic in Los Angeles in the thick of STD testing with anti-abortionists picketing outside—plunged into the deep end of my “professional” sex education. I played online solitaire while fielding the phones, which often held callers threatening the safety of the clinic and our staff.
I was always fascinated by sex. The books I was given as a pre-teen hardly illuminated this mysterious word grownups talked about in hushed tones. I had an insatiable need for more information than was deemed “age appropriate”— stealing my mother’s copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves and my father’s paperback of Dr. David Rueben’s Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask.)
If I had a specific question about sexuality my parents did their best to answer me in a way that provided cultural and political context. I recall asking my mother what a sex change was when I was around nine. She told me about the tennis player Renee Richards who had transitioned from male to female and became a transgender activist after she fought to compete in the 1976 U.S. Open, paving the way for a landmark New York Supreme Court ruling in her favor. My mother was on the board of Planned Parenthood and active in supporting women’s reproductive rights. Yet she and my father—as liberated as they might have been—never sat me down to have a one-on-one “sex talk” that covered my intimate sexual questions like: When should I lose my virginity? Would it hurt?
When I was 9 I started borrowing my father’s Playboy magazines—prompted by the appearance of my then-idol, Madonna, on the cover.
I got caught lifting a copy while he was at his weekly grooming appointment. His manicurist was an older lady in her 70s who reprimanded me for looking at photos of naked ladies. I didn’t see what was wrong with studying body parts I’d soon develop myself. I orchestrated a play date with the cutest boy in my class, to look at Playboy together. I took him to my secret hiding place in our backyard, tucked away from prying eyes and pulled out a centerfold. He freaked out and I put the magazine away, embarrassed. Later, we went out for ice cream and ran into two other boys from our class. They made fun of us for being on a “date” and asked me if I’d gotten my “pee-red” yet. They were quite proud of their taunts, having just learned what menstruation was a few weeks earlier during the one day of sex education we had in middle school (clearly, an unsuccessful academic exercise). The closest I got to having real sex ed in school was a human development course in 7th grade. Our teacher, a sex positive hippie, instructed us all to go home and examine our vaginas using hand mirrors.
At Planned Parenthood, I was in the position of advising other kids about subjects I was just learning about myself. In the media library of the clinic, it was my job to organize literature and videos about sexuality and disease. Single fathers came in to check out materials (many more so than single moms) on sex education and would ask me how to talk to their teenage daughters about sex. At high school parties and during recess, other kids sought me out with questions about urinary tract infections, blowjobs and birth control. (My advice of drinking cranberry juice to clear up UTI’s had the additional effect of clearing the urine of marijuana traces. This made me popular with peers beating drug tests.) There were many times when the topics at hand were beyond my skill set. This was in the early 1990s so we didn’t have Google to look up, “how to give a great blow job” or “can you get an STD from anal sex?” Even the staff on site at Planned Parenthood weren’t prepared to answer the more personal, emotional questions my friends and I had about sex.
When I was ready to have sex, using a condom was a given. I never considered the alternative. No matter how hot and heavy the action was, I’d seen firsthand too many “accidents” and sexually transmitted diseases. I wasn’t in the majority of my peers; most were casual about condoms, usually because they were unwilling or too embarrassed to bring up protection with their partner. It wasn’t cool to discuss details with the person you were having sex with. As I’ve gotten older I realize this is still the unfortunate norm.
A couple of months before my 18th birthday, I met and fell in love with a man who was 9 years older. He was the first person I made the switch from condoms to birth control for (after we both got tested.) I ended up marrying him after six years together. For our honeymoon, I had a set of “housewife” lingerie made at Trashy Lingerie in Los Angeles, including a frilly apron open in the back to reveal ruffled panties.
I was wracked by anxiety for months before we married, worried that somehow I would lose my identity— absorbed into this cultural construct of a “married woman” who existed to cook, clean and serve her husband. In reality, I couldn’t boil an egg until after our divorce 12 years later (the first time I cooked a proper dinner for a new lover was an epiphany— I never thought pulling a perfect rosemary garlic lemon stuffed bird out of the oven would make me feel so sexually confident.)
As a young married woman, I was an anomaly amongst my friends and peers— both due to being in a monogamous relationship throughout my 20s, and as someone who researched sex as my profession. At 18, while studying photography at School of Visual Arts in New York City, I started collecting burlesque costumes at flea market sales. As part of a thesis project for school, I began photographing myself in the costumes, attempting to emulate the glamour poses of the great burlesque queens of the 1930s and 40s. I wanted to look like they did— strong women who teased yet were in control of their posturing and sexuality.
I tracked down the last surviving 20th century American burlesque queens and recorded their first-person stories, spent times at their homes, businesses and hospital rooms at the end of their lives. I learned first-hand the lost art of burlesque as they dressed me in their old costumes and taught me trademark moves. Some of the queens wanted to be in showbiz, some had been abused, some tricked for extra cash, all had a lot to tell me about men, sex and how stripping for an audience affected their psyche. In a sense, I had my first sexual awakening as a married woman via 80-year-old strippers passing down their hard-earned wisdom to me.
The queen with whom I shared the closest and most flirtatious relationship, was Zorita. Openly gay in the heavily closeted 1930s, Zorita was as notorious for her endless stream of lovers as she was for her original acts which included stripping with two 8 foot-long boa constrictors and her “bridegroom” half-man, half-woman dance. Among the carefully clipped news items and publicity photos documenting her career, Zorita had a special scrapbook she affectionately called her “dyke book” picturing hundreds of her conquests, including many well-known 1940s Hollywood actresses. The sheer volume of the stable of beauties she bedded would put Don Juan to shame.
Married five times (she had her reasons), Zorita operated on the premise that men were out to get the most they could from you, and give the least. Therefore, the tables must be turned. For example, if a man wanted to take you out to dinner, the least he could do was pony up $500.
“Well, little girls need new shoes, baby needs new shoes,” she would say.
I ended up directing a documentary about my experiences, Pretty Things (HBO 2005); and also wrote a book called Pretty Things: The Last Generation of American Burlesque Queens (HarperCollins 2006, 2010) As I was finishing up my book tour for Pretty Things, my marriage began to crumble. I realized that I still had a lot to learn about who I was and what I wanted out of life, let alone a relationship. During what might have been my “wild” 20s, I was happily playing house with a man I had a great sexual relationship with. People asked if I got bored, but our sex life didn’t lack imagination or frequency.
At 32, I was suddenly single, having had one partner for over a decade. One of the first gifts I was given after getting a divorce was a Lelo vibrator (can you believe I’d never owned one before?). The other gift was learning to meditate. Both were life changing. Bringing yourself to orgasm is an essential part of overall mind and body health, whether or not you have assistance in the form of a willing companion. Being able to quiet my mind and ground myself in the midst of a whirlwind of emotions, work and angst over the future altered me in every way. Most unexpectedly at the time, was how meditation and learning to control my breath would positively impact my sexuality and sexual experiences.
For me, the most intimate sexual act is the exchanging of bodily fluids. Beyond skin on skin contact, I believe there is a psychic imprint for every sexual act—literally taking on someone else’s energy, especially if you are the one being penetrated. It took a while before I wanted to share myself with anyone in this way. I needed to reclaim my energy for myself first. My friend Dita Von Teese told me that when I was ready to have an active sex life again, I should go and buy a huge box of condoms, even if I didn’t have someone in mind, as a way of telling the universe to send them along (it worked).
Research has always been a refuge for me— a place where I could tune out my feelings and fears, lost in piles of paper, stacks of books and my wild imagination. While exploring my personal sexuality post-divorce, I was delving into academic archives and libraries in search of information on late 19th century prostitutes, pimps and madams for a second book, Sporting Guide (Regan Arts/ Phaidon 2015) set in the world of vice and prostitution.
I think my earliest knowledge of “the oldest profession” came from watching a TV movie about the infamous Mayflower Madam story, starring Candice Bergen as “businesswoman” Sydney Biddle Barrows who profited off a high profile escort service based in Manhattan. I was ten years old and riveted by the idea of a woman who made her own rules, living outside of society’s strict code for feminine behavior.
At boarding school on the East Coast when I was 14, I daydreamed about buying the red brick colonial library across the street behind which the students smoked cigarettes and weed and turning it into a brothel. What a cover it would be! Turn right at Dewey decimal number 666. 39 and knock three times at the door marked “Librarians Only.” Just beyond would lay a secret den of vice. My fellow students as my “stable” and an eager clientele— there were plenty of sex-starved students with overflowing bank accounts set up by absentee parents, and little to spend their pocket money on in a small town. Even teachers would frequent my establishment. (My fantasy has historic precedence—parents of Yale students kept open accounts at Polly Adler’s brothel in New York in the 1940s so that their boys could have some release from the tension of schoolwork without the diversion of a steady girlfriend to distract their attentions or threaten their inheritance.)
As I studied 1840-1910 census records making notes for Sporting Guide I was also conducting my own first-person research— falling in and out of love and trying experiences on for size. I questioned my personal network of “sex-perts” and friends about how best to navigate sex and dating in my 30s. I needed as much help as I could get as I went through heartbreak, discovering myself and the loss of my charming, Playboy loving father. I was often struck by the parallels I found between the 19th century and present-day— turns out the human experience of love, grief and sex remains unchanged by time.
In 2012, my friend, adult film star and author Nina Hartley, invited me to sit in on her guest lecture for a Sex Education, Therapy & Behavior seminar class at UCLA. When I arrived, the previous lecturers— an adult film actress and producer, were finishing their presentation and handing out research materials —their pornographic films—to the students, an eager crowd of licensed and practicing sex therapists and medical residents.
The director of the Couples and Sex Training program, Walter Brackelmanns, has been teaching at UCLA for 50 years and is also President and co-founder of AACAST (American Association of Couples and Sex Therapists.) Now 84, Walter has become a grandfather figure to a network of therapists, focused in various areas— kink/fetish aware; LGBTQ+; sexual trauma; and polyamory. Meeting Walter and his co-director Wendy Cherry felt like landing in sex ed heaven. I developed an instant intellectual crush on them and have been auditing the seminar class ever since.
I’ve now spent over two decades researching and studying sexuality, both professionally and personally. Every experience in my private life, as well as via my academic and anecdotal research, has led me to believe that sexual wellness must include a holistic view of mind-body-spirit.
Sex is an intimate and participatory act.
It is different for every person and a sensitive issue for many. It is extremely difficult to communicate about sex, even in a close, monogamous relationship. In fact, there were times in my own past where it was easier for me to be vulnerable, curious and exploratory of sexuality in my work, than in my personal life. I am grateful for having finally arrived at a place where I am comfortable with my sexuality (and self-assured enough to talk to my lover about what gives me pleasure) which makes for a more fulfilling life overall. It wasn’t easy to get here.
I’ve now had the opportunity to speak about prostitution, burlesque, striptease and sexuality to audiences, peers and strangers across America and globally and am still asked the same questions I was asked as a teenager. It breaks my heart every time someone asks me whether they are normal because they are still a virgin or if their vulva/penis/breasts/ass should look a certain way or if they should do something they don’t really want to just because everyone else is.
I am lucky that I have an arsenal of accredited experts with many years of field experience (whether they are medical professionals, academics, adult entertainers, burlesque queens, doulas, spiritual leaders or sex workers) to consult when I need to be reassured that yes, it is all ok and I am indeed, “normal.”
My lifelong journey into the world of sex education is why I started thesexed.com— to be able to provide resources to others who, like me, are seeking information about their own sexual wellness. There were so many times that I wished I had had a place to get answers to questions I felt too ashamed to ask my friends-- even to interact with them and ask if they were experiencing the same things I was when I felt really alone. My hope is that The Sex Ed can provide some of the support I was seeking— and develop a community of people who are genuinely invested in empowering sexual health! After all, information (which is what we provide) is power— the power to make informed decisions, to expand your sexual repertoire, to say “no” or “yes,” to have better orgasms—even to expand your consciousness.
I think back to my time working at Planned Parenthood and playing schoolyard “sexpert” and laugh at my naiveté—the advice I gave out to my peers without understanding the complexities of sex; how the physical act is integrated with emotion and psychology. I am even more fascinated by sexuality now than I was at 13, constantly seeking out information, experience and experts. Instead of stealing my parents’ books, I now have my own library of sex titles to consult.
First person research has always held a special place in my heart —understanding the human experience through storytelling helps me better relate to the past, present and future—and to connect with the complex subject of sex. Each human has a sexual identity as unique as our thumbprint. With that in mind, we all have something to contribute to the collective education around sex, health and consciousness. This first-person series aims to start telling our diverse narratives so that we can better understand ourselves and the wondrous, multifaceted nature of human sexuality.