How To Change Sex Negative Culture With 6 Easy Shifts, According To A Sex Educator

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In this week's Sex IDK column, Emma McGowan, certified sex educator and writer, answers your questions about changing a sex negative culture.

Q: How can we change the culture around sex so that women, including myself, feel more comfortable speaking up when issues with our sexual health arise?

Uuuuf, yes! What a great question! Discomfort around talking about sexual health is extremely common. But you know what else is extremely common? Issues with sex! Sexual health problems can range from health problems to quality of life problems; from STIs to functional problems, like having a hard time getting turned on, lubricating, or getting and maintaining an erection. But whether it’s health or quality of life, it’s all important to address! There’s no need to suffer in silence.

Unfortunately, though, we live in a culture that’s not so great about talking about sex, which means that it can be really hard to speak up when something isn’t working the way you’d like it to work. Add on the fact that there’s really no socially sanctioned place for us to go with sexual problems — do you talk to your doctor? a specialist? your therapist? what if you don’t have any of those or can’t afford health care? — and it might feel easier to keep any problems to yourself.

But my work is about helping all of you feel more comfortable in your sexuality and changing the culture so that we all can stop hiding or feeling ashamed about needing to talk about sexual health. So here are six tips on little things we call can do to change the culture around sex, so that everyone can feel more comfortable speaking up when something isn’t going right.

1. Remember: There’s No Shame In Healthy Sexuality

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First of all, repeat after me: There’s no shame in healthy sexuality. None. Nada. Zilch. It’s a good thing to periodically remind yourself, especially if you — as is the case for so many of us — have had heard sex negative messages for years.

And, to be clear, when I say “healthy sexuality,” I mean any sexual interest that doesn’t violate someone else's consent. So if your version of healthy sexuality includes masturbating to pictures of perfectly arched feet, for example, that’s perfectly healthy sexuality! But, by contrast, masturbating onto other people's shoes without their consent is not OK. Make sense?

So yeah, make it a little mantra. Set it as your intention for your yoga class or something. Do whatever you need to do to remind yourself that there is no shame in healthy sexuality.

2. Talk About Sex With Your Friends And Family

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I interviewed a sex therapist years ago who told me that the majority of her patients never talked about sex with anyone aside from her. As a person who talks about sex for a living, that was astounding to me. But it also highlighted something really important: We all could be talking about sex with our loved ones more.

Even if you can’t have dinnertime chats with your parents about your new interest in BDSM, try to find at least one friend or family member who you can talk to about sex. You don’t have to be explicit (unless you’re both comfortable with that), but try talking in generalities. Even just mentioning that you had great sex last weekend counts!

In talking about sex with our friends and family, we normalize it. Rather than something hidden and secret and shameful, it becomes just another part of life. And once you’re comfortable talking to that one person, expand to talking to more people. You’ll find it gets a lot easier.

3. Bring Up Sexual Health With Your Doctors

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If you’re having any issues with your sexual health that are impacting your life, you gotta bring it up with your doctor. Not only could a problem with sex be related to your overall health — for example, trouble maintaining an erection can be a symptom of a heart problem — but also life is too short for painful or bad sex!

But, unfortunately, you can’t count on your doctor to ask you about your sexual health — you have to take the initiative here. A survey from the University of Chicago found that while about two-thirds of OB/GYNs ask their patients about sexual activity, only 40 percent “routinely ask questions to assess for sexual problems or dysfunction,” and only 29 percent ask about sexual satisfaction. So remind yourself of your new “there’s no shame in healthy sexuality” mantra and tell your doctor if something isn’t feeling right.

4. Schedule Regular Gynecological (Or Doctor) Check-Ups

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Sometimes shame and discomfort can prevent people from getting their reproductive bits checked out by the doctor. But your sexual organs are parts of your body and, like every other part of your body, they need to be periodically assessed — around once a year works if everything seems ship shape, and of course, adding additional appointments if you have concerns. If you’re a person with a vagina, vulva, and/or uterus, make regular appointments with the gynecologist. If you’re a person with a penis, testicles, and/or a prostate, make sure they get checked out during your physical.

Those appointments are also a great time to practice #3 — talk to your doc about your sexual health, including getting tested for STIs. Be sure to ask for any tests that aren't automatically included.

5. Share Articles About Sexual Health On Social Media

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While it might feel a little bit scary to share articles about sexual health on social media, this is another time to go back to the no shame mantra. If there’s no shame to healthy sexuality, then there’s no shame in sharing knowledge about sex! And social media is a great place to do it.

Because while there used to be a clear distinction between online and ~real life~, that line has gotten increasingly blurry as technology has become more efficient and more integrated into every part of our lives. So sharing articles about sexual health on social media does just as much as — if not more than — talking to friends and family IRL about sex does to change the culture.

6. Stop Hiding Your Tampons At Work

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Unless you’re really into period sex, you might not think about your period as being part of sexual health. But, reminder: Your period happens because you didn’t get pregnant. And what makes you pregnant? Sex! So period-related stuff is absolutely sex-related.

With that in mind, you can stop hiding your tampons at work in an effort to destigmatize being open about sexual health. In fact, if someone asks how you’re doing and you’re having really bad cramps, say, “I’m having really bad cramps!” Just like they’re no shame in healthy sexuality, there’s no shame in periods — and normalizing periods is one more step toward normalizing sexual health.

Look, our culture has a long way to go before we're all super comfortable talking about sex. But cultural shifts happen when we each take little steps, like these. Want to know how to change the culture around sex? It starts with you.

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