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Reimagined: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao
A quick warning before we continue — today's episode contains discussion of sex acts, porn and sexual assault. Please pause this episode now if you need to.

If my in-school sex education was a movie trailer, it will look something like this. Scene one: a grainy, late 80s educational video in which a girl is at a sleepover with her friends, gets her period — and then her friend's mom makes them pancakes in the shape of fallopian tubes for breakfast the next day. Cut to scene two: a middle school health classroom. The health teacher is standing in front of some anatomy diagrams and describes an orgasm as a sneeze when your nose has felt itchy for a while. Closing montage: sleepy ninth graders blowing up condoms into balloons and meeting a panel of young moms who were there to instill fear about teen pregnancy. Cue a teenager who was deathly afraid of STIs and will learn the rest of her sex ed from TV, movies and her friends.

This is Embodied. I'm Anita Rao.

Sex education in classrooms around the country today has certainly changed since I was a pubescent teen. But it is still anything but consistent and comprehensive. Sex education is not mandated in every state. And even when it is there is no standardized curriculum county to county. More states require sex education to stress abstinence than medical accuracy. So where does this patchwork approach leave young people? Well, with a lot of misconceptions, as high schooler Kyndia Motley discovered.

Kyndia Motley
The scariest misconception I've heard from students would probably be that, well, if I don't use a condom this week, but I use it next week. I won't get an STD or I won't get STI. Women in particular, with everything being so male-centered — the biggest misconception is that they can't feel pleasure or they don't have a G spot. And that is something that I want to push and spread and I want to take away those misconceptions because everyone deserves that.

Anita Rao
Luckily for her peers, Kyndia is a member of Planned Parenthood's Teen Council. When she's not busy with classes and high school life in Indiana, she works to empower and educate other young people about sexual health topics. Her passion for the work started when her parents invited Planned Parenthood to come speak at her church.

Kyndia Motley
I saw the need that needed to be taught to the students and peers — even adults. Because what you learn as a young person can shape you for life.

Anita Rao
Noticing that need is what motivated another high schooler to get involved in sexual health advocacy. Meet Linden James.

Linden James
North Carolina schools are not required to talk about queer relationships and having sex with people who have identities other than cisgender. So it's really all about a penis and a vagina. And that you lose your concept of virginity when a penis penetrates the vagina. And at first I was like: Okay, I guess anatomically this makes sense. But as I learned more about myself as a sensual being and as my identity grew, and I explored what it means to be Linden, I realized that this doesn't fit for everyone.

Anita Rao
Linden is a student in Durham, North Carolina who serves as a youth advocate through organizations including SafeBAE and iNSIDEoUT. As they went through middle and high school, they noticed big gaps in their sex education.

Linden James
I learned basically nothing about consent. I think it was in the glossary of the textbook that we read. But they didn't talk about it in class at all. It was never a word that was mentioned. I think there was maybe discussion of make sure this is something that you want to do. But there was never a way to make sure that someone really wanted to have sex with you or engage in any sort of pleasure with you. And this was definitely uncomfortable for me for a while because not knowing what consent was, not knowing who I was as a person led me to be really vulnerable. In eighth grade, there was a sexual predator on my campus that I was subject to. And I feel like, had I gotten the more comprehensive consent-based sexual education, I would have been able to learn more about my gender identity and my sexuality, and not had that horrible thing happen to me.

Anita Rao
So we are having this conversation about sex ed during an especially charged political moment. In a number of states including Texas and Florida there is ongoing debate and legislation about whether or not it's appropriate to talk about sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom. So Linden, I want to hear from you about what you think is at stake when this kind of instruction takes hold and gains momentum and these conversations are not happening in classrooms.

Linden James
Quite frankly, lives. If we're teaching people to just say yes, or to accept a shrug when we want to engage in sex with someone else, that's not okay. If we're telling people to repress the beautiful part of them that says: I am neither a boy or a girl, we're telling them to just ignore that? That's trauma. That is abuse, and that is systemic.

Anita Rao
In the absence of comprehensive sex ed, Linden and Kyndia have seen their peers turning to other sources of information, which certainly have their pitfalls. Ninety-five percent of Linden's classmates who responded to a survey said they turned to social media for sex ed information. And Kyndia has to break down assumptions students make about sex from porn, which can be harmful for Black students especially.

Kyndia Motley
A lot of people turn to porn as their sex ed. And something that is big in porn is this idea of the bigger the penis size on the Black man, which oversexualizes the Black man, or the bigger the boobs, the bigger the butt or anything like that, the bigger the thighs, and the oversexualization of Black women and Black people. And that is something that I feel like needs to be in the conversation because it kind of degrades them and takes away their value when you sexualize them and see them as a sexual predator, this sexual toy. You know, it's very degrading on the community, and it kind of really creates a disconnect between other people. So that is something I feel like needs to be in the conversation. But I understand that is something that as a Black community, who is a marginalized community and minorities — that was our way or that is a way for us to have power over, so to speak, I guess white people,

Anita Rao
Research suggests that only half of high school students receive sex ed that meets minimum national standards. So clearly, the way things are designed and implemented now is not working. So what would? Some programs around the country are starting with more media literacy, which includes open conversations about porn.

Kyndia Motley
I would like it to be a disclaimer that porn is not real. Porn is very male-centered. If that is something that gives you pleasure during your moment with yourself of masturbation or whatever you are doing in that time, that is fine. But it is important that we make it clear that the idea of sex is to be a pleasurable experience for both whoever is involved. And it is very hetero, male-centered, porn is, so it does not include everyone's pleasure. And it is not a source of information on how to understand how the body works and how to understand how to please someone else because it can be very over-exaggerating and aggressive. And that is just not the idea of what sex is supposed to be for whoever is involved.

Anita Rao
Exposure and discussion about sex doesn't start or end at school. So it's not just formal in-school educators who can support holistic sexuality education, but also parents. Linden's observed the influence of families and their work with queer youth in rural North Carolina.

Linden James
So I've actually encountered a number of queer youth in rural areas with, like, supportive families, which has been surprising to me. But I've also encountered some that don't have supportive families. The families will say: No, your sexual desires are invalid, they go against the environment I was raised in and therefore I am raising you in. And we will not respect that. And we will not give you resources to express yourself. So if a person wants a strap-on, for example, their family will not get it for them, they will monitor their email and their social media and other things to really prevent them from expressing that part of themselves that is sensual and has desire. The families that are supportive of those youth in those rural areas, they are trying to advocate to the school boards in those communities: Hey, we need more comprehensive sex education, since in North Carolina, counties have to decide how they meet the North Carolina State standards for sexual education. And that's been really empowering to hear. And I'm really grateful to the youth who are saying that being a part of these meetings with iNSIDEoUT and other organizations have inspired them to do that.

Anita Rao
Linden and Kyndia's approach to sexuality education starts with the premise that it's about so much more than the physical act. Truly comprehensive sex ed is about making sure folks of all genders and sexual orientations feel empowered to make decisions to keep them safe and healthy.

Kyndia Motley
I feel like a lot of things that we do, especially when it comes to sexuality, with that LGBTQ community being so excluded from those sex education or — those conversations, because when we think sexuality, we just think straight only — and I feel like it's important that we acknowledge their feelings and what we are feeling. I want the outcome to where they feel comfortable to express that they are having these feelings, because although they may not be able to do it at home, with them being at school, that should be a community for them, that should be a place. And I hope another outcome is that the peers around them and the students around them have a sense of what their other peers might be feeling. And it is important that we build community to where everyone understands, so the person or whoever is feeling those ways about their sexuality are safe.

Linden James
I love that point you made about feeling safe and comfortable to express themselves, learn and be youth who are sensual. And I'd like to add that in addition to being safe and comfortable, you should be encouraged and empowered to be sexual beings that we are and not discouraged from being this way. We're in schools, not institutions. We are learning, not being brainwashed. And in addition to being educated ourselves, we are educating the generations that came before us. I think that it would be very beneficial to the entire state, I think it would be beneficial to our peers, if there were youth councils, youth of all different backgrounds, and lived experiences informing counties and public school districts of what policies they should make surrounding sexual misconduct and sexual education and consent culture.

Anita Rao
I love talking to young people about this topic. And I think it is incredible how they're both working to make inclusive and comprehensive sex ed more accessible. But for all of y'all listening who are beyond your classroom years, I want to remind you that sex education does not end in high school or college.

Lynn Smith
I am a retired gynecologist, and was in private practice for over 20 years. My thinking about sex education in terms of my patients, is that sex education really shouldn't be a one time thing. I feel like education about our bodies and our sexual functioning really should be a lifelong learning process.

Nada Merghani
I want to see sex ed reimagined from a pleasure activism perspective, from the perspective of we find our feminism by understanding our bodies. You know, we become stronger versions of ourselves when we know ourselves, and part of knowing ourselves is knowing what turns us on, knowing what, you know, makes us feel good, knowing what doesn't make us feel good.

Jules Gardner
Maybe we should talk about how it could be a pre-sexual, with-a-partner activity to explore ourselves, to learn to get to know our own bodies, to self-pleasure or masturbate. And so we engage in that as something that's taught as a legitimate thing as a precursor to sex with another person.

Anita Rao
Those are the voices of Lynn Smith, Nada Merghani and Jules Gardner. There is still plenty to learn about in your 30s, 40s and beyond. But how about the earlier end of the education spectrum? Sex therapist Lexx Brown-James says yes, and yes.

Dr. Lexx Brown-James
Vulva was one of the first five words both of my children knew.

Anita Rao
Wow.

Dr. Lexx Brown-James
Yeah, so there's a running joke in my household: my partner often says that we can't go a day without saying vulva. And so far, it's true. So, we started that very early. We also started talking about bodily autonomy very early. So, do you want to kiss, a hug or a high five, and that they have ownership over their bodies. And your parents have ownership over their bodies, so they might not always want you to sit on them, or they might not want to hug or kiss right now. And sometimes rejection can be hard, but it's really a person learning to take care of themselves. And so we don't gatekeep information in my household. And as a sexuality educator and a clinical-level PhD sexologist, I find that that's really the easiest way to have open access to flow of information.

Anita Rao
In addition to her work as a sex therapist, Lexx is also the founder of the Institute for Sexuality and Intimacy. She often works with queer Black men and women looking to discuss their relationships and sexual health. She takes that education home with her and finds age-appropriate ways to get her kids thinking about consent and boundaries.

Dr. Lexx Brown-James
The proudest moment I think I had is when my oldest who is now 5, was 4 at the time, asked me to help them tell an elder to stop playing with them in a certain way. Like every time she would run or walk by, they would grab at her and she was like: Mom, I don't like that. And I'm like: Did you ask them to stop? And she goes: No, I'm scared. Can you help me ask them to stop? And so I held her hand, and she walked over with me. And, you know, asked him to stop playing that way with her. And she said: Thanks, Mom. Those are my boundaries, and ran off. And so I was just so proud of her in that moment.

Anita Rao
Well, I mean, it makes you realize that, you know, some of these things that we keep in our heads that, like, you know, exist in the realm of sex really exist in so many other realms. Obviously, consent can be how you want to play with someone on the playground. And there's a way to even talk about touch, I think, at an early age that can help kids understand how they want to be touched and articulate that. Tell me about what that would look like and maybe how a kindergarten-level kid could learn to think about touch in a way that gives them some autonomy.

Dr. Lexx Brown-James
Oh, absolutely. And I also want to throw in pleasure here too, right? Because it's the big scary p-word, where, like, we don't want kids to know that sex is pleasurable, because then they're just going to do it. And so at this age, we talk about pleasure in our bodies, right? So it feels really good to laugh, it doesn't feel really good to keep secrets. It feels really good to talk about surprises, it doesn't feel really good to hurt your friends or to be hurt by your friends. All of that is part of sexuality as well. So with my pre-kindergarteners — it's a really big deal at this age — we talk about: Hey, you went to the bathroom? Did that feel good? No, it didn't feel good? So maybe we want to have more vegetables so we can make sure when you do go to the bathroom it does feel okay. Right. And so we talked about pleasure in these ways that are ascertainable, that are still about the body, but isn't necessarily sexually explicit, talking about intercourse. And you can incorporate that all across curriculums in schools and outside. We can talk about what makes you feel good. We can talk about hugs, kisses, high fives, secrets and unsafe touch, and also safe touch, and what that means for that kid, their boundaries and our family.

Anita Rao
The way Lexx talks to her kids has so much nuance and it reminds me how much parenting strategies have evolved. I overheard a conversation between my sister and brother-in-law the other day about helping the grandparents stop using language like "good boy" or "good girl," and instead trying to talk more about the specific behavior. Thanks for being helpful, for being caring. Laying that groundwork on helping young folks express what they want. give consent and set boundaries goes a long way in setting them up for success when they leave the nest. Without it, young adults and incoming college students don't always have the best sexual experiences. That's something that Lisa Wade pays close attention to. Lisa is an associate professor at Tulane University, as well as the author of "American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus."

Dr. Lisa Wade
We talk a lot about sexual assaults on college campuses. And that's a really big problem. But I would say an equally big problem — and maybe even more prevalent — is people who actually choose to consent to sex that they don't want. And that happens all the time. All genders are experiencing this, because they simply — they learn a sexual script for how things are supposed to go, and once that script is enacted, there's almost a sense that the student themselves has no capacity to change the script or turn the script in a different direction, or get off the script. And so there's a lot of consent to unwanted sex on college campuses.

Anita Rao
We introduced you to Lisa's work a few episodes ago when we talked about hookup culture. Lisa has been studying that for a while. She's noticed that the way young folks learn about sex from teachers, parents and their peers, shapes the kind of sex they have — especially when drugs and alcohol come into play.

Dr. Lisa Wade
There is this notion that there's two kinds of sex. There's the sex you have in relationships, and the kind of sex you have in college, the hookup sex, right? And so relationship sex is the space where there's love and benevolence and mutuality and care for each other. So because college students conceptualize hookup sex as not that, there's many ways in which all of those things are off-script in hookup sex. And alcohol and drugs plays a role in this as well, in that I would listen to my students talk about quote unquote, sober sex in hushed tones. It was this special, amazing thing that some people got to do if they entered into a meaningful relationship with one another. But college sex, hookup sex was almost by definition supposed to be on some sort of chemical, whether it was a drug, but usually alcohol. And so alcohol is one way that students symbolically mark the sex that they're having as, quote, unquote, not serious. So to begin, if we really want to talk about the role of alcohol and drugs and sex on college campuses, we have to begin with the way in which we've conceptualized the right kind of sex that the students are expected to have.

Anita Rao
And Lexx I want you to follow up on that thread that Lisa was talking about, this idea of the right kind of sex and how adults that come to you for sex therapy show up with those narratives and how those live in their bodies, even after that college period.

Dr. Lexx Brown-James
We are taught that there's a right kind of way to have sex, there's a right frequency is what I get a lot from the lovers that I see. People oftentimes that think that they're only supposed to be monogamous, or they're only supposed to be straight or heterosexual. So there are a lot of myths that I get to help lovers unravel in the therapy room about being able to figure out what type of sexual interaction is going to be most pleasurable for them, and also that sex doesn't center around orgasms, nor does it center around a hard penis. And people are typically flabbergasted at those two things. And the last thing I will say that's really shocking is that you're not responsible for your partner's orgasm. And that typically blows people's minds but also gives them a lot of alleviation and relief around responsibilities they've been taught to hold.

Anita Rao
The TLDR of this show: We all need more and better sex ed. And we've got to be thinking bigger. You won't be surprised to know my opinion that sex and relationships intersect every other part of our lives. Siloing conversations about the body to one part of a curriculum or one moment in our education has not worked and isn't working. Lexx and Lisa have a few more big reframes to offer.

Dr. Lexx Brown-James
I would love to have a globalization of understanding, right? People forget that queerness is not new. Being gay is not new. Trans people are not new. They've existed pre-colonially, from the chibados of Angola, to the muxes of Mexico, to the māhūs of the Pacific, to the Two Spirit people of indigenous. So I'd love to have a recentered idealized notion of there's more to this beautiful world of existence than just these two ideas around sex and gender. And then also that pleasure is your right, right? If you're religious, I don't believe that whatever deity put you on this planet to suffer, that some people have a clitoris that is solely made by your creator for pleasure. That's the reason it exists and what a gift to have. So I think that in expanding our education and making it accessible, I would love to see people more like medicine cabinets rather than vaults, right? We're not locking away information and hiding it behind the secret code that you get when you're 18, but more so as a — hey, here's a medicine cabinet. And we have things to help you heal. We have things to help you grow. And we have things that we can keep private too. It just all depends on what you need at that moment. And giving children the voice to say: This is what I need. And this is what I want to know. Please don't gatekeep it from me, because I want to find out the actual information that's factual. And it's going to help me rather than go try and look at porn or go try and learn from these things that are built for entertainment.

Anita Rao
Lisa, what would need to change about college campuses in particular to make room for this kind of sexuality and sex that we were talking about with Lexx?

Dr. Lisa Wade
I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that sexual liberation is saying yes, to say yes to sex, to say yes to all kinds of sex, to say yes to whoever you find attractive. So that's not sexual liberation in a couple ways, right? One is, it's not necessarily freeing to say yes to sex in an uneven playing field. So when college students say yes to sex, they're often doing so in an environment that is white supremacist, that's sexist, that's ableist, and sizeist, and so on. And so what we really need is an even playing field, where all bodies and all identities are equally welcomed. And we also need the right to not just say yes to sex, but to say no, if we choose to. And often that's sort of framed as self-repressing. If you notice, on college campuses, the model of liberated sexuality is just our idea of what a stereotypical heterosexual man might want. And that's not liberation, that's just a different kind of rule.

Anita Rao
I am thrilled to meet educators like Lexx and Lisa who are committed to passing on lessons about consent and boundaries to people of all ages. If you're a parent or a teacher, or just curious about how we raise the next generation better-versed in autonomy, consent and boundaries, Lexx has some resources to recommend. You can find links to them on our website embodiedwunc.org. Lisa and Lexx have seen the profound impact of lifelong sex education on their students and clients. But also, not surprisingly, it's transformed both of their own lives.

Dr. Lisa Wade
I'm so grateful for taking that sociology of sexuality class when I was a freshman in college. I didn't tell my parents when I enrolled in that class because of the shame and stigma around sexuality. But by the end of that quarter, I had opened up with my parents about taking it because I felt so righteously that what I was learning was so valuable and important. And so it's really given me so much opportunity to shape my own sexual encounters and my sex lives in ways that I would like. And it's really sad to me that I don't see that happening for most of the college students I study.

Dr. Lexx Brown-James
I think it's helped me pick the best lover for my life that I could have ever chosen. I think that it's helped me with informing my own children and vis-a-vis their schools and their educators. So there's definitely a ripple effect. And even my almost 75-year-old grandmother now has learned more about her body and her autonomy, and goes to get HIV tested regularly, and talks about condoms openly. So the ripple effects have just reverberated actual pleasure and safety and a level of intimacy with a bunch of people that I never could have expected.

Anita Rao
Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC, a listener-supported station. Thank you for supporting and listening to this podcast. And as always, it's your stories and experiences that shape this show. We've been hearing from you about how last week's episode about purity culture hit home. Here's a note one of our listeners left in our mailbox about how purity culture shaped her own experience with sexual assault.

Listener
I'm currently listening to the podcast on purity culture. And as I'm listening to her talk about feeling ruined — that is exactly how I felt. I was sexually assaulted by a partner when I was 18. And I refused to accept for years that he raped me. And as a matter of fact, I became the sexual aggressor with him because it made me feel like I was in control. And after we broke up, I remember thinking: I am worthless. I actually ended up as an inpatient in a mental health care facility for a week, in part because I believed I was ruined. I had nothing to offer anybody, especially a husband, and that nobody would ever want me. I think purity culture is a problem. And I want to thank people like your speaker for bringing this up and bringing it to the attention of the public, because nobody needs to feel like we did. Thanks.

Anita Rao
Thanks so much to that listener for sharing their story. And if you want to share your thoughts with us about an upcoming or past episode, you can leave us a message on our SpeakPipe channel. You can find a link to it at our website embodiedwunc.org. You'll find a box with a link on the righthand side of that page.

If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org now. Incredible storytelling like you hear on Embodied is only possible because of listeners like you.

This episode was produced by Kaia Findlay and Audrey Smith. Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer and Quilla wrote our theme music.

The show is supported by Weaver Street Market, a worker- and consumer-owned cooperative selling organic and local food at four Triangle locations in North Carolina. Now featuring online shopping with next day pickup, Weaver street market.coop. If you enjoyed this show, share about it on social media and tag us. It really helps new folks find our show and it means so much.

Until next time, I'm Anita Rao, taking on the taboo with you.

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