5 Most Important Things I Learned About Sex From Teaching Human Sexuality
I have always been an openly sex positive person, so when I had the opportunity to teach human sexuality to college students I jumped at the chance. Having just completed my M.A. in Social Psychology, as a young 24 year-old, I thought I knew a lot about sex. But, as it happens, my perspective was broadened and I developed a whole new understanding of the subject. Here are the five most important things I learned in seven years of teaching the Psychology of Human Sexuality:
1. There is no such thing as sexually "normal."
One of the most common questions I get asked by students is, “Am I normal?” and my response is always, “NO!” not because there's anything wrong with them, but because there is no such thing as sexually normal! Sure there might be statistical averages, but in terms of some kind of moral, religious or ethical normality, as long as you're not doing legitimate harm to yourself or someone else, your sexual desires and behavior are perfectly acceptable and okay!
There is an immense variation in natural human sexual behavior, ranging for example, from someone who masturbates 10 times a day to someone who masturbates once in 10 years. Both are equally legitimate from a scientific perspective. Attempting to standardize or cast judgments across a species with so much variety would be profoundly unscientific. Many of my students find this to be a huge weight off their shoulders, having grown up feeling ashamed, embarrassed, or judged because of their sexuality.
2. Nearly everyone has insecurities about their gender and sexual bodies.
Part of the embarrassment and shame regarding sexuality has to do with the relentless media bombardment dictating what is and is not sexually attractive. From a young age, both men and women are given incredibly narrow confines of acceptable masculinity and femininity, paired with unrealistic and virtually impossible ideals of beauty. The end result is a culture of individuals programmed to buy products to alleviate their conditioned body insecurities and perceived sexual inadequacies.
I will never forget being approached after a class by one of the most beautiful girls I had ever seen, who was in tears about how fat and unattractive she felt. I blame the media, but I also blame parents for not taking the time to educate their children about positive self-esteem and the manipulative intent of the mainstream media.
3. Be selective with your sexual partners.
I have learned that sex can be a truly sacred act on physical, psychological, and spiritual levels. Careless choices of sexual partners can lead to a myriad of problems, ranging from sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies, to emotional problems and abusive relationships. Moreover, sex represents a spiritual merging of energy fields, which brings people together in profound and unexpected ways. For example, research shows1 that some women hold onto the DNA of their male sex partners even when they do not become pregnant.
So please enjoy sex, but remember to be safe and selective. Trust your instincts and if you can’t imagine intimately sharing your energy or space with that person, avoid sexual contact.
4. In many parts of the world, women don't have adequate rights or representation.
This is the hardest lesson to swallow, and it is something that makes it difficult for me to sleep at night. In America, 1 in 6 women will experience an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime, and according to the World Health Organization, the statistic for women worldwide is closer to 1 in 3. A woman is raped every 4 minutes in South Africa, women in Saudi Arabia are not permitted to drive, and 91% of women in Egypt experience female genital mutilation.
The list goes on, but suffice it to say, the oppression of the women of planet earth is very real and highly disturbing. Thankfully we are blessed with freedom fighters like Eve Ensler of the V-Day organization but the battle for true equality is far from over. I still maintain hope that as people continue to awaken and raise the planet’s vibration, things will change and the violence will stop. But it starts with each of us!
5. There is still a lot about sex we do not know and cannot explain.
Although there are plenty of theories around, many scientific questions about sex remain unanswered. We have minimal understanding of causes of the sexual paraphilias (understood as extreme fetishes and harmful sexual behaviors towards others), and while cures for AIDS and other viral STIs appear to be on the horizon, nothing is definite.
New information appears all the time, so what we think we know can also change. For example, until 1975 homosexuality was classified as a form of mental illness, but now we know that this is definitely not the case. Scientific breakthroughs in the field of sexology are happening every day, but researchers could always use more funding and more institutional support. Who knows what the future may teach us, but I look forward to finding out!
Kelly Neff, M.A., PhD, is a psychologist, author, founder of The Lucid Planet, and host of the AM radio talk show, Lucid Planet Radio. She has a B.A. in Psychology from Georgetown University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Claremont. She spent seven years as a psychology professor specializing in relationships, love, and sexuality.