Full text of Making Sex Normal by Debby Herbenick at TEDxBloomington conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: MP3 – Making sex normal by Debby Herbenick @ TEDxBloomington
These days I work as a sex researcher and educator. But when I first accepted a job in 1999 at the Kinsey Institute for Research in sex, gender and reproduction, I was really nervous to tell my family that I would be working in sex research. I was particularly nervous to tell my grandmother.
Now my grandparents lived around the corner for my family and I growing up and I was really close with them, and they were loving and kind and generous people and also very Catholic and very traditional, and people who didn’t talk about sex. But when I went to Boston to visit my grandmother and I told her about the job that I was taking, she surprised me by saying that she was proud of me and that she thought it was really important work to be doing. And this was not the grandmother that I knew. But then she told me a story that helped me to understand.
This is my grandmother and my mom as a young girl. My granny told me that she and my grandfather had tried for years to become pregnant and when they finally did, it was a dream come true for them. Until she went into labor and it was only in the midst of labor that she learned for the first time that her baby would be delivered not through her stomach, which is how she thought babies left the body, but through her vagina, although she didn’t use the word vagina when she told me the story.
So this was an awful and frightening birth experience that really should have been wonderful as something that they had looked forward to for years. And in case you’re wondering how I could get to that point, because I was — her mom had died when she was a teenager and so her mom wasn’t around to tell her about birth, and I have no idea why her doctor didn’t give her that information, except maybe this was – I mean it was before Kinsey’s time, that was before the sexual revolution. These things weren’t talked about, but as a result, she thought that Kinsey’s pioneering work in sex and reproduction were so valuable. And that’s why she thought it was great that I was working there.
Now she tried to do better with her daughter, my mom, by giving her more information about pregnancy and childbirth. But still they were uncomfortable talking about sex and bodies and that was the home my mom was raised in. So that’s still how my mom felt about those things.
And when it came time for me to be in fifth grade and my class was shown a video about puberty that I’m sure many of you have seen too, she asked me in the car on the way to dance class, “Did they show you the video in school?” And I said, “Yes”. And she said, “Do you have any questions?” And I said, “No”. And that was our only conversation.
Now two years later, I got my period for the first time. And I was with my grandparents. I didn’t want to tell them. So I had to call my mom because I needed help. And so when she came home from work, she came back with a brown paper grocery store bag and handed it to me, and said, “Here I have the things you need”. And inside the bag were pads and the whole experience was so embarrassing and painful for me that months later when I ran out I needed more and I just was not going to approach that conversation with her again. But I didn’t know where to get any and I wanted to try tampons anyway because I swam all the time. And I didn’t want to talk to her about that. So I figured well I have a bike, now I wasn’t allowed to leave the neighborhood. I mean we live in the suburbs far away from any stores. I only was supposed to be driving like a block or two on my bike to my friends’ houses. We were point A at my house, the farthest I had ever ridden on my bike alone was point B one mile away to a friend’s house.
But I thought about it for a while and I figured out that there was the store in South Miami, that’s where the tampons were. And so one day when I got enough nerve and figured no one was going to miss me for a little while, I got on my bike and I pedaled where it ends up being five miles, following this route but it’s fairly straight but actually crosses a lot of busy streets. And I was really worried about getting caught. But I got the tampons, put the plastic bag on my handlebars and rode back to five miles and never told anyone ever. My mom will find out when she hears this talk.
Now, a culture in which 13-year old girls end up riding their bikes, disobeying their parents, which I hardly ever did, you know, all because this is so uncomfortable for them. It’s not the only bad outcome of a society that doesn’t talk about sex, right? And so when sex is treated as abnormal, doctors and patients don’t talk about sex. It’s not unusual for cancer patients in my line of work to tell me that they’ve had 50 or 100 or more medical appointments, including for pelvic radiation and never once had a health care provider mention the serious sexual side effects with them.