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Opinion: Let’s talk about sex

Why we need to break down one of our biggest — and sexiest — social taboos.
Image by Wejdan al Balushi
By demonizing pleasure, we set ourselves up for unfulfilling sex lives.

I lost my virginity last summer. After years of relying on Reddit forums and television characters to make sense of my sexuality, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I downloaded Tinder, met a guy and spent the night in his apartment.

To my dismay, I felt completely unequipped and was shaky with nerves. My body didn’t perform the way I expected and I left his apartment feeling sick to my stomach and on the brink of tears. 

While my experience was far from unique, I felt a deep sense of failure and frustration. 

In the United States, sex is an age-old taboo. Since I’m gay, I often feel more comfortable than other men talking about sex, especially around women, but it shouldn’t feel creepy or gross for anyone as long as both sides are interested. Sex is a ubiquitous part of being human and shunning curiosity harms our ability to understand ourselves and each other. 

Kristen Mark, a sex and relationship researcher and educator at the University of Minnesota, said America’s shame-based sexual education programs have diminished our ability to feel confident in our bodies and have open conversations about sex. 

“We see sex as this thing that you should be ashamed of, instead of something that is a natural part of human development,” Mark said.

I got the short end of the stick in my sexual education classes. While lucky enough to go to a school that taught more than just abstinence, I never learned how to give or receive pleasure with someone of the same sex. 

A health teacher once described vaginal intercourse to my class as “two pieces of a puzzle.” 

How, then, could I ever feel complete?

Mark said American society has historically condemned having sex or even talking about sex before marriage, and even in that case, it should only be done for the reason of procreation.

As much as we’ve demonized sex, it remains an inevitable part of our lives. According to the Maternal and Child Health Bureau, 94% of college students in the United States are sexually active. 

Perhaps if I had received a relevant sexual education curriculum I could have had a satisfying, instead of demeaning, first experience. But even broaching the topic of losing my virginity was awkward: I danced around telling my parents why I would be spending the night at a stranger’s house.

“I think one of the barriers to comfort is actually never using the language or saying the words,” Mark said. “We’re taught silly slang words for our genitals when we’re little, for example, and that’s step one of harm. We need to be able to use accurate terminology and feel comfortable having that come out of your mouth.”

My female roommate and I have maintained an open dialogue about our sexualities while we’ve navigated relationships in college. From discussing the historically overlooked female orgasm to testing our gag reflexes with a toothbrush, we’ve created an open space to discuss sex and self-pleasure.

While we can still laugh at a good penis joke, we’ve come to rely on each other as a sounding board for our worries and misconceptions about our sexualities. We’ve not only become closer as roommates, but we’ve gained confidence in ourselves and autonomy over our preferences in the bedroom. 

Carolyn Litzell, a University grad who plans to become a sex therapist, said stigma around sex often inhibits people from establishing boundaries with their partners, especially for women who are victims of sexual abuse.

“If we all talked about sex more, we could have more fulfilling sex lives and we can also avoid those situations where we’re having unpleasant sex in lieu of having tough conversations,” Litzell said. 

Topics around sex often feel intimidating, especially with someone you barely know or at the start of a new relationship. But these conversations don’t always need to be serious or clinical to be effective.

“Maybe sometimes that conversation should have a barrier of playfulness or flirtatiousness, or even humor if that’s helpful,” Litzell said. “And then maybe you can get to a place where you can have frank discussions.”

From chatting with a friend about erectile dysfunction to talking with Health Advocates on campus about their condom selection, sex is now one of my most engaging and empowering topics of conversation. 

No matter how you experience attraction, honesty and candor are critical to living your sex (and college) life to the fullest. We aren’t alone in the struggle to understand our sexualities. By listening to each other’s stories and sharing our own experiences, we can start making up for our country’s lackluster sexual education system. 

I’m now more open-minded, resourceful and better equipped to explore my sexuality.

Just don’t ask me to find the clitoris.

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  • please get better
    Mar 31, 2024 at 9:15 am

    I enjoyed reading this article until the last line when this went from pretty good to really ick. Your lame joke at the end reminded me that if there is one thing gay and straight men have in common, it’s making fun of the female body. It’s never cool for men of any sexual identity to make that oh so tired comment about the clitoris. It’s not open-minded or woke or clever. It seems like it comes from a place of insecurity and/or resentment. Which is it for you? It’s also a great way to alienate half of the population from wanting to engage with you on any topic. You sound very young. Maybe you’re not aware of the history of the gay liberation movement. Even when lesbians tried to support and be allies in that movement, gay men rejected and excluded women from it, they referred to women as cows. It’s taken a lot of healing within those groups to find trust and solidarity. I hope you’ll drop that joke from your repertoire and focus on the celebration of all bodies and what they can do.

  • Mark Dougherty
    Mar 31, 2024 at 12:52 am

    I feel very sorry for you boys today. I can’t tell you how many boys I brought home from the Saloon to my room in Centennial Hall in the ‘70’s.
    All I can suggest is dive in with both feet. Do Grindr, do Adam4Adam. It won’t all be great, but some of it will. You won’t regret what you did, but what you didn’t do. Life is messy. Relax. Have fun. Get off your phone.

  • Margaret
    Mar 29, 2024 at 3:49 pm

    An excellent column as always, Mr. Huppke. I hope the world will heed your advice. I remember the first time I lost mine. I met the boy at a festival for German students. Exactly what you’d expect: sourkraut and Wiener schnitzel. He was wearing navy liederhozen and held out pints of beer in either hand. The sex was what you’d expect, too, Leonard. Temperatures high, Sinatra on blast. We did the deed in the back of his dark blue Toyota Corolla while I thought of ancient poets. The whole thing had a Teutonic quality. Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris? / Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior. His breath smelled of the kraut, my skin stuck to the leather seat. He dropped me off at the corner near my dorm and I patted the folds out of my periwinkle blouse. It all made me think of something Schopenhauer said about the cosmic urges of the human heart. I did not love him, Leonardo. There was no ardor, there was no spark. I asked myself: is that all there is to sex?

  • Ethan
    Mar 28, 2024 at 1:28 pm

    “Just don’t ask me to find the clitoris.”

    A great article that ended with bad taste. This kind of comment reinforces the (false) idea that genital configuration = gender identity. Men, cis and trans, have all kinds of bodies.

  • Zamburger
    Mar 28, 2024 at 9:42 am

    Amazing article Mr. H, thanks for being so vulnerable! This one reminds me of peaches and cream.

  • Notyah Mothah
    Mar 28, 2024 at 9:06 am

    This frank and open column about sex and sexuality is just what everyone needs not just college kids. Hopefully your openness about this topic will encourage others to feel more welcome to discuss these important topics. I love that you and your roommate have such an open and healthy rapport about this. Bravo Huppke!

  • Judith Monson
    Mar 28, 2024 at 9:01 am

    “Let’s Talk About Sex” — Leo, this a courageous and beautiful article. At 83, I still remember my loss of virginity, after attending a college-sponsored weekend seminar in Iowa on sexuality, and with one of the young men younger than me, who I never saw again. At 50, I came out as a lesbian, newly realizing why I’d had so much difficulty finding a male Saturday night date, from high school through age 49. We all need to share our stories, and I’m so grateful to you for sharing yours. It’s a big gift to our university community. Many thanks! Judith Monson, B.A. Humanities ’62

    p.s. Not to worry, I’m still trying to find my clitoris!