A big story in this month’s edition of O. magazine starts out with a sex educator in the basement of a church teaching a room full of students how to masturbate in public. “It’s nice just to be touched at all,” says one woman. “It made me wish someone else were touching me,” says another. OK, disclaimer here: For the purpose of the exercise, the students were merely touching their own hands with their eyes closed. And everyone in the room was over the age of 18; most were over the age of 35. Still, the fascinating question provoked by this piece on adult sex education is this: What would sex ed look like if one began from the rather obvious premise that everyone in the room would have sex and that the goal is to give each person the best means to ensure they enjoy it as much as possible?
My first (admittedly unnuanced) take upon first reading this piece was to say: See what happens to people who first learn of sex in a culture of fear? Fear of teen pregnancy leads to sexless marriages, ill-advised hikes on the Appalachian Trail, and the subsequent demise of the American family!
That, of course, is the flamethrower in me talking. The adult sex-education courses described in the piece are run by the (fairly liberal) Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church in Christ in Austin, under the very unsexy sounding moniker OWL (which stands for Our Whole Lives) and deal quite specifically with some of the issues around sex that come up in mid-life, such as: “How do I enjoy my sexuality if I’ve lost a breast to cancer? How do I manage being a parent and a sexual person? Can I feel sexually satisfied if I don’t have a life partner?” These questions, says Michael Tino, a Unitarian minister who also happens to have a PhD in cell biology (yay for science-based sex ed!) don’t come up in the high school gym for the very simple reason that “Teenagers don’t have them yet. Most of what affects our sexuality happens in adulthood — long-term relationships, breakups, parenthood, illness, sheer exhaustion from managing life.”
The very things, in other words, that lead to the kind of world-weariness and relationship fatigue that cause middle-aged adults, some of them parents of vulnerable children, to decide to just call the whole thing off. But instead of guilting the adults into thinking of their sexuality as just one more thing to be martyred for the sake of family harmony — think of the children! — these classes seem to put pleasure and emotional honesty front and center. And it seemed to hit, the, ah, spot: Although the classes were originally designed for young adults, age 18-35, navigating the terrain of early partnering and perhaps parenthood, the founders were stampeded by older adults in their late 40s to mid-60s.
There’s some pretty sweet moments: One man, Larry, says of his wife of 15 years: We’re past the Kama Sutra part of life. Like the other night, my wife was singing to me, and I said, ‘Oh you’re making love to me.’” While one single woman in her 40s says she feels sexually invisible to men her own age, another woman, Elizabeth, whose handsome Spanish husband sounds like a hottie, confesses that she loves being middle-aged. “When I was young, I’d see these older women and they just seemed as if they had confidence and were wise — and more comfortable in their skin. I’m much more comfortable in my skin today than I was at 30, 25, 20, and definitely 15.”
But there’s also plenty of room for the sex-related parts of sex: Instructors use a model of a penis and demonstrate the finer intricacies of the female anatomy on something called “The Wondrous Vulva Puppet,” which I would dearly love to see. One woman, who vaguely believed viewing porn was “unhealthy” was amazed to find out that the rest of the group felt it was closer to “a safe form of fantasy.” She ended up going home and telling her husband, who showed her some porn that, to her surprise, turned her on too. “My parents had told us that smoking was bad,” she says, “So my brother came to think that people who smoked were bad. I did a similar thing with pornography.”
The unfortunate shadow side that comes out in this piece is how much of the trouble these adults have with sex goes back to things they learned as children and teens: One woman was embarrassed that her libido was stronger than that of her husband; another was ashamed that she didn’t have the “perfect progression” in her relationships from “first kiss, go steady, first love, first sex.” According to the instructor, “The question behind a question in sexuality education is, ‘Am I normal?’”
Wouldn’t it be awesome if, by middle-age, that question was already a resounding “yes”? There’s plenty of reasons to applaud sex-ed courses that get to issues that your average 15-year-old doesn’t have to deal with. But some of the basics — sex is also about pleasure; sex isn’t just for husband-hunting and baby-making; relationships get complicated; normal is what you want it to be — get lost when we spend the earliest part of our sex education years trying to make sure kids don’t have any. Is it at all surprising that plenty of people who find themselves finally — finally! — of the appropriate age and social situation to actually get permission to have sex are still loaded with hang-ups from years of hearing how sex was this thing bundled up with violence and drug abuse as the stuff most likely to wreak permanent havoc on one’s life? Much of sex talk in the culture, says Elizabeth is “silly and trivial. People — especially grown-ups — are sick of it. We want adult conversation about an adult subject.” Maybe it’s time to start that conversation a little earlier.