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.
When sex is treated as abnormal, we don’t talk about it or teach about it in schools. And when the CDC maps sexually transmissible infections it’s perhaps not surprising that they tend to cluster in areas of the country known for lack of sex education. Notice the dark areas for chlamydia in the US, gonorrhea in the US and HIV in the US.
When we don’t talk about sex and it’s treated as abnormal, people sometimes say inaccurate or insensitive things. The 2012 election season was particularly painful for me to hear phrases like legitimate rape, rape shutdown mechanisms, in the quote, “some girls they rape so easy”.
When sex is treated as abnormal, we don’t even know what’s true about sex because we’re not talking about it. And a few years ago, our research team found that 30% of women in the United States reported some degree of pain when they had sex. The editor of one of the most respected newspapers in the country refused to let her writer cover the story because she said, “If that was true, we would know because women would be talking about this.” But you know women don’t even talk much about sex that feels good, let alone sex that feels painful.
So I think the way that we talk about sex but also the way that we don’t talk about sex in this country is severely broken. But I also think that the way that we’re expecting it to change is broken. If we sit around waiting for politicians and school systems and parents to change this force, we’re going to be waiting for a long time because most of these people never got much training in sexuality education or comfort in their homes themselves.
So my idea is a fairly simple one but it’s going to take a commitment for a lot of us to sort of put this into practice, take a deep breath and do it typical, which is just to make sex normal.
So concrete ways you can do this: openly read sex books, not on your digital devices, on planes, on subways. I’ve been doing this for years. It’s an amazing conversation starter.
Get sex-positive books for kids and donate them to schools and libraries. Celebrate sexual diversity by going to sex positive art events, walking in or hanging out at Gay Pride parades. Going to marriage equality celebrations like the one that recently occurred on this stage in Bloomington. You can watch a movie — a movie that shows realistic views of sex, nuance views of sex documentaries like Orgasm Inc. Talk about sex with a doctor or nurse, with your kids, with your parents. If you’ve got a partner, start by saying something that you like or miss about your sex life together. Find a sex-positive video, TED actually has several, including this orgasm talk and post it on your Facebook wall. I guarantee you, you’ll get the likes you’ve always wanted.
You can also go more public. A few years ago, a colleague and I were in Vegas and she dressed as a giant homemade vulva and I walked around with her and interviewed women and men of all ages asking what they thought she was. A few gets star tracked but a lot got it right. And I know this isn’t for everybody but you can also just wear sex-positive T-shirts. These are some of the ones I have, wear them out, wear them to the gym and the grocery store. If you don’t have something like that — an ovary overachiever button or a testicle having a ball button and they will be in the lobby at the end of the day that you can pick up, I have guests for all of you.
You can also get your doctors and nurses to change the waiting room. They often say that they’re asked sex questions that they can’t answer, or don’t have the time to answer, I say add some good quality sex pics to the waiting room. Change the posters in the bathroom away from Botox and Daintree mints to a Grab Your Gonads Testicle Self Exam poster, or a poster celebrating the diversity of women’s genitals.
Make space for sex. Here I started the Bloomington Sex Salon that brings sex researchers into the community, into bars and cafes, a local restaurant sometimes gets cheeky with their menu items, including the French Tickler, that’s from farm.
Support the sex arts. From left to right is my Etsy bot uterus doll, vulva lapel pins from a local handmade market, a clay vulva man that a student named and a sperm shaped salt shaker that I picked up in Argentina. Put it on the Thanksgiving table and finally, embrace real sex and bodies. Check out Cindy Gallop’s make love, not porn website and TED talk, watch shows like Lena Dunham’s, Girls, and check out makesexnormal.tumblr.com, the new site launched this week that encourages people to send in photos showing what they do to make sex normal.
Now recently our research team asked people what they liked about sex. A man said, “It’s a very pleasant habit we started 40 years ago and makes the marriage better”.
A woman said, “Feeling completely loved like I was the only person in the world he wanted to be with”.
Another woman said, “Before my husband passed, he just made me feel good. I miss the way he would make me feel”.
And a man said, “makes you feel like your life is worth a little bit”.
So yeah, sex — it’s ups and downs, ebbs and flows and having it and not having it sometimes, all of that is part of the normal human experience of sexuality. It is a normal part of life. I just think we have to go out and make it normal.
Now I have a professional stake in this for sure because I believe that if we make it normal, if we help people to become more comfortable, that people will more easily report sexual assaults and rapes, they’ll more easily talk about STIs and STI testing. They’ll more easily talk about love and intimacy and connection with their partners.
But I also have a personal stake in this, and this is that like many of you I know the sadness and pain and frustration of relationship problems when two people can’t talk about sex. I also know the joys and the intimacy and pleasure that comes with relationships when two people can talk about sex.
The other personal stake for me is that when I think of 13 year old girls riding bikes rather than thinking of them secretly buying tampons, crossing busy streets, disobeying their parents, I wish for them a world in which they’re riding their bikes to a friend’s house feeling the freedom that comes with being young and out on your own, because for them they will be living in a world where sex and bodies in periods and puberty are totally normal because all of you and I made it normal.