In researching her book Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, Peggy Orenstein spoke with 70 young girls between the ages of 15 and 20, and compared the Dutch model of sex education to the American one. Orenstein found that Dutch girls reported fewer negative consequences from sex—like disease and unwanted pregnancy—than American girls, as well as more positive consequences, like enjoying sex, and feeling like they can communicate well with their partners.
The reason, maybe, is that, “the American mothers only took a harm-reduction approach,” says Orenstein in an interview with NPR. “They talked about contraception; they talked about disease; they talked about danger; they talked about risk. The Dutch mothers talked about how to balance risk and responsibility and pleasure. And they talked very frankly about girls’ entitlement to sexual pleasure and that made a huge difference in the outcomes.”
Looking back at my own middle-school sex education, it’s true: the focus centered around protection from diseases, menstruation, pregnancy—all important stuff—but the pleasure aspect of sex was as vacant as the clitoris and vulva were from the alien-like diagram of internal female parts. But it wasn’t until I found myself in the back row of “Blow Job Grad School”—a class taught by sex and relationship educator Reid Mihalko at Pure Pleasure—that I realized the true breadth of what we’re not taught.
Of course, the consequences of living in a “sex-negative” culture, as many would call ours, affect all genders—and it soon became clear that, aside from a few tips and techniques to try at home (including what Mihalko calls “the Flying Squirrel” and another, “the Slow Stir”), the real focus of the class was on empowering us with the tools to find out for ourselves.
“I want you to walk away with permission to like what you like and not like what you don’t like, and to extend that to your partners,” says Mihalko, whose teaching style is an equal balance of comedy, wit, anatomy lesson and helpful metaphor.
Mihalko, who appears as himself on the “Chelsea Does Marriage” episode of Chelsea Handler’s Netflix documentary series, has devoted himself to creating more self-esteem, self-confidence and sexual health in and out of the bedroom, as well as to get America talking in “more empowered, less fear-based ways about sex and intimacy.”
Early on in the class, the self-proclaimed “sex geek,” gave us perhaps the most useful assignment: to schedule an “R&D” night with our partners, in which we’d spend a good 45 minutes exploring their bodies. (That this was a novel idea for most of the class was duly noted.) One reason this is so helpful is that sensitivity and pleasure levels vary greatly from person to person. Also because, “We cannot read each other’s minds,” says Mihalko. The ability to talk about sex even when you’re feeling ashamed, is the number one tool that couples will take away from his workshops and online courses—that, and lube, he adds.
“A great example of ‘sex negativity’ in American society is that it’s perfectly OK to show gruesome acts of violence to children on TV and film but not OK to show two consenting adults making love and exchanging sexual pleasure,” Mihalko wrote to me later by email. “
This means that many Americans get their education, or miseducation, as it were, watching pornography—which Mihalko reminds us is largely an entertainment medium—not an educational medium. “We run the risk of developing bad habits,” says Mihalko, including, he jokes, the misguided notion that all it takes to have great sex is ordering pizza delivery.
I left the class with more knowledge of my own anatomy—including which parts correlate, more or less, with those of the “penis owner”—and an enlightened sense of the penis-owner’s topography, mechanics and sexual perceptions commonly reinforced by cultural norms.
Pure Pleasure is a vibrant hub for sexy adult ed—the only one in town—and has been since opening in 2008.
“The workshops were always a part of the vision,” says Amy Baldwin, who co-owns Pure Pleasure with her mother. “My mom and I were inspired by other sex positive pleasure shops in the Bay Area, and wanted to bring sex-positive sex ed to Santa Cruz … Our classes eradicate shame while ‘normalizing’ sexuality with the stance that all consensual sex is good sex.”
Pure Pleasure, now in an airy new location at 111 Cooper St., offers several classes a month. “We bring educators from all over the country, with everything from Rope Bondage to Tantra 101,” Baldwin says.
More information on Reid Mihalko’s “sex geekery,” including free videos, on sex10xonline.com.