There’s a memory from my youth that, while trivial, remains engrained in my brain, and right now it’s helping me understand why I spent weeks avoiding writing this diary entry.
When I was in middle school, “Candy Shop” was one of the hot songs. After learning what 50 Cent meant when he said “I’ll let you lick the lollipop,” I went a full year without turning the radio on in the car, for fear of that song coming on in front of my parents. I hadn’t even had my first kiss, yet I was already so worried about what it might suggest if I were caught singing along to a song about sex. Fast forward 15-ish years and I’m fighting the impulse to preface this next statement with disclaimers justifying what I personally have or have not done over those years, for fear that it might be embarrassing or controversial or inappropriate to admit that I know about, and have had, and enjoy… sex.
“Now was that so hard to write, Daphne?” Yeah, kind of. Because so much of what I learned when I was learning about sex hinged on the expectation that those conversations had to be had between friends behind closed doors, those questions had to be asked anonymously with a slip of notebook paper snuck into the health class question box, that the “birds and the bees” talk was something to dread, and that people would pass judgment and/or fetishize you no matter what you chose to say or think or feel or practice when it comes to intimacy. And while that type of “learning” may have been well-intentioned at the time, it certainly doesn’t serve me now. Sure, I felt comfortable blasting “WAP” by Cardi B in my childhood home last time I visited my family (and attempting the TikTok dance, duh). Yes, I’m well-versed in the best brands for sex and intimacy and will gladly share my favorites with anyone who asks. But I and many others my age still have so much we don’t know and are too ashamed to explore when it comes to sex and intimacy.
Seeking a safe, honest, and candid space to learn about “the fun stuff,” I reached out to Dr. Wednesday Martin with some questions. Dr. Martin is the NYT bestselling author of UNTRUE, a social scientist, a feminist cultural critic, and an unabashed advocate for knowing why you want what you want, feel what you feel, and do what you do. Her Instagram feed promotes sex positivity and encourages open dialogue about intimacy and pleasure in a way that is both laugh-out-loud hilarious and deeply empowering.
So, in the spirit of back-to-school, Dr. Martin stepped in as the health teacher I wish we all had, reminding us to put pleasure back at the top of our agendas – “Sex Ed 2.0 for Millennials” is in session!
So much of sex education in grade school is fear-based. We’re taught in detail about how unprotected sex can lead to pregnancy or STIs — my 7th grade health teacher had us play Pictionary to learn which bodily fluids transmit HIV/AIDS, and in 9th grade we took turns caring for a wailing robot baby overnight to know what it’d feel like to be a teen parent. With all that emphasis placed on trying to scare us out of having sex, no one ever taught us how to enjoy sex and intimacy safely. What’s something you wish they taught in sex ed to promote safe, pleasurable, consensual sex?
I call what you experienced punitive sex “ed.” The “education” is in quotes because it is too partial and biased to count as actual, real education. In the words of my friend and colleague Dr. Eric Sprankle, “Sex ed that only focuses on STIs and pregnancy is like a culinary school that only focuses on food poisoning!” Some historical context is helpful here: since the Reagan administration, we have been living in the shadow of abstinence only sex “ed.” In many school districts, public school funding is still contingent on teaching the bare minimum about reproduction, with an emphasis on abstaining until marriage as “the healthiest option.” We know from data that abstinence only sex “ed” is ineffective. It does not a) delay a person’s sexual initiation or b) prevent risky sexual behaviors. I believe that withholding accurate information about sexual health and pleasure from young people is a violation of their rights. And notably, ineffective sex ed especially impacts LGBTQ youth and those who have expereinced sexual abuse ( As of 2015, fewer than six percent of LGBT students reported that their health classes included positive representations of LGBT-related topics).
I’d love to see programs that balance educating adolescents with the risks of sex with the rewards. Let’s teach them about consent, the psychological and physiological benefits of emotional and sexual connection, what orgasm is, how to have one if you haven’t, and all the health benefits thereof. And if we want to delay age of initiation into sexual intercourse, let’s teach that sex toys are fun, safe, and a perfectly normal part and upside of growing up. We could learn a lot from the Dutch when it comes to sex ed. In the Netherlands, it begins at age 4, and throughout the years long sex ed curriculum, kids learn the proper words for body parts and get factual talk about sex and connection. As the Duke Center for Reprodutive Health has noted, Dutch kids learn about love, empowerment, and respect in sexuality education curriculum, rather than fear, shame, and stigma, and this makes for a healthier and happier society. On average, teens in the Netherlands do not have sex at an earlier age than those in other European countries, and they tend to have positive first sexual experiences. Dutch teens are among the top users of the birth control pill, and nine out of ten used contraceptives the first time they had sexual intercourse. The Netherlands boasts one of the lowest rates of teen pregnancy in the world, as well as low rates of HIV and other STIs. Teens often sleep at the homes of their girlfriends or boyfriends with their parents’ knowledge and consent.
Sex Ed 2.0 — let’s say it’s a course that exists and it’s all about the FUN parts of sex and pleasure. What unit are we covering first?
Self pleasure! It’s the heart of hot partnered sex, as are introducing ways of getting women the variety, novelty, and adventure we tend to need even more than men do.
I remember being taught, before I was sexually active, that penetrative sex with a condom on does not feel different than when you’re having sex without one. That is… not true. So many people my age are simply not using them for penetrative sex, even if it’s casual. Is there a brand of condom that, in your opinion, “sucks less?” And do you have any tips for making condom use sexier/more pleasurable?
This is one of the biggest shockers for those of us who came of age sexually in the late eighties. Condoms could literally be a matter of life and death for us because of HIV, and most of us took that very, very seriously. However, we, too, slipped up. When it comes to sex, I believe it’s really important to acknowledge what people actually do and want, not what they “should” do. If we tell people in your cohort who hate condoms that condoms are important to prevent the transmission of many STIs, we have to balance that with the acknowledgement that yes, condoms can be a drag. They can be awkward, inconvenient, and the sensation is not the same. However, they are your best bet for preventing STIs. And this is a gender isssue. We know from reserach that the delicate vaginal tissue is more vulnerable to STIs than the penis, that women are more vulnerable to infection from men than vice-versa. Condoms are a feminist issue. I speak to a lot of cis hetero men and women alike who report they like the FC2 “female” or internal condom. Many people seem to enjoy the sensation of this particular internal condom. It is a favorite of several sex workers I’ve interviewed, who like that they can be in control of the condom issue and also report that their clients with penises report enjoying the sensation more than an external condom. Plus: It goes inside the vagina and the outer ring the hangs outside the vulva can actually stimulate one’s clitoris. Experiment with exerior condoms as well. Try different brands until you and your partner find one that works for you. You are worth it. The pleasure of the person with a penis is not more important than your sexual health.
How do you keep sex interesting when you’re in a longterm, monogamous relationship?
This is such a great and relevant question! Female sexual boredom is possibly the biggest secret and unspoken truth about human sexuality there is. I discuss it at length in my book UNTRUE. We are taught that it’s MEN who need sexual variety, novelty, and adventure due to “biology” and that women are “wired for monogamy.” Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, newer studies clearly suggest that it’s women who bore of sex in an exclusive, long-term cohabiting relationship than men do (I provide a partial overview of those studies here). On average, women in hetero monogamous cohabiting relationships begin reporting a lack of interest in sex between years one and four. Data show this effect is present whether they have kids or not, and even when they report a high number of orgasms with their regular partner.
My book UNTRUE gets into all the reasons for this and all the research that explains it, but suffice it to say that simply acknowledging many women’s sexual ennui with monogamy after years one and four (and that it’s normal) could save many of us from thinking we’re broken. Women in long-term, committed heterosexual partnerships might think they’ve “gone off” sex, but it’s more that they’ve gone off the same sex with the same person over and over. In the words of sex researcher Marta Meana, “Women have a harder time wanting the sex they can have than men do.” This lack of desire isn’t a referendum on your partner, your relationship, or you! Nobody’s doing anything wrong. But sure, there are fixes to make things interesting again – try role play, porn, toys, anything at all that gives you a hit of novelty and variety and adventure. Some people I work with decide to open their relationships so that the woman can get the adventure we now know women are wired to want and need. But that’s not for everyone, especially during a pandemic. If you and your partner agree, you can spice it up by sexting or FaceTiming with other people to get a hit of novelty. Or just talking about it. And remember if monogamy is your jam, that’s perfectly healthy as well.
Recent studies are showing that only 6% of women are reporting that they regularly orgasm during vaginal intercourse — what the HELL is that?! Why does the orgasm gap exist between heterosexual partners and what can we be doing to bridge it?
Hah. I always say that men have more orgasms because we care about male pleasure more than we care about female pleasure. In societies where men earn more, govern more and legislate more than women do, that is where men have more power, of course we prioritize their pleasure. Because we prioritize male pleasure, we fetishize intercourse. Which is a very easy way for those with penises to orgasm, and much harder for women (a recent Kinsey study found that at most 17% of us with clits can orgasm from intercourse alone; other studies have found lower numbers). The solution is to start closing the gendered gaps in wage, income, and meaningful political representation. After we’ve had a few female presidents, we’ll see a shift toward giving a damn about female pleasure! Until then, women need to be freed up to masturbate and feel able to tell their partners what they like and what makes them come. Research shows that women who can orgasm during solo sex are more likely to do so during partnered sex. Women are not conduits for male pleasure. We are wired for our own pleasure. Culture has done its damndest to extinguish it. If we want orgasm equality, we have to stop fetishizing dicks and intercourse as “real” sex. All the things that give women orgasms, from grinding to good digital stimulation to cunnilingus to vibrators to, less reliably and less frequently, fucking – all those things are “real” sex.
I feel like, for a lot of people having “bad sex,” there’s a fear of offending or intimidating your partner by telling them what you want or what they’re doing that isn’t working for you. When beginning to engage in intimacy with a new partner, how do you open up communication right from the start about what feels good and what doesn’t? And for people who have been “faking it” with their partner(s), how do they approach that potentially sensitive conversation to change up the narrative?
First of all, I am 100% opposed to this new thing about shaming women who fake orgasms. Everyone who’s so into blaming and shaming women for faking needs to shut their mouths and put that energy into dismantling the systems that give cis hetero men more power and prioritize male pleasure. Punishing and shaming and blaming women who have been socialized to prioritize male pleasure for prioritizing male pleasure makes zero sense. Let’s instead apply pressure on men to understand what female pleasure is, how women are likely to experience it, and why it matters. If you’re faking, know that it’ll be more fun and feel better to figure out what helps you orgasm and tell your partner, “Now let’s try this.”
What’s one piece of advice you can give that will instantly improve the sex lives of everyone reading this?
Figure out what you like by masturbating, and then show/tell your partner how you orgasm.
Dr. Wednesday Martin is a panelist in Mama Glow’s next webinar, DEMYSTIFYING SEX & INTIMACY FOR MILLENNIALS, on Wednesday, September 23. Register for the free webinar here, and bring your questions!