I vaguely remember my middle school gym teacher unrolling a condom onto a banana. I recall that the school nurse separated the girls and boys before leading a stilted discussion about periods. I know they sent us each home with a stick of deodorant. The rest of the sex-ed curriculum at my New Jersey public school? Uh … I’ve blacked it out.
Most of what I eventually learned, I learned through friends. From movies and books. From experience. This isn’t unusual, I learned at a recent workshop on rethinking sex education, held at the Northern Daughters art gallery in Vergennes. Middlebury College student Abby Chick organized the three-week series as part of her senior thesis work, billing the sessions as “frank and honest conversations about sex education.”
The workshop I attended was all about pleasure and had some 25 participants, about a quarter of them male. Special guest speakers Andrea Barrica and Kristina Johansson had flown in from California to talk about their startup, O.school. The online “shame-free pleasure platform” is designed around the belief that sex education should address more than just risks and technicalities. It should focus on pleasure.
Before starting O.school, Barrica worked as a venture capitalist and startup coach in Silicon Valley. She has also made virtual-reality feminist porn. Stylish and not the least bit shy talking about sex, Barrica wore two delicate gold bracelets connected by a chain on one wrist. Closer inspection revealed that they were handcuffs.
After graduating from Middlebury College in 2014, Johansson taught sex education for Planned Parenthood in New York City.
The Vergennes workshop drew curious college students and community members, including Mara Urban, who works at Harwood Union High School. One aspect of her job is facilitating the Coordinated School Health team and managing the Vermont Sexual Health & Education grant — which, she said, “helps us do a lot of good work in our school.”
One of her team’s goals, Urban noted, is to create a comprehensive sexual health curriculum. Harwood has always been progressive in this area, she added. Twenty years ago, for example, it passed a condom-availability policy, something few Vermont schools have even today.
“I think it’s unfortunate that so much of sexual health [education] seems to focus on fear,” Urban said. “One big thing that is lacking in our sex ed is just having enough time to teach a comprehensive curriculum. Many students only get this education twice — in our school it’s in eighth and 10th grade — and often it’s rushed, because teachers have to fit in all the other pieces of health education.”
“Who remembers sex ed mentioning the clitoris?” asked Barrica. The room was silent. It’s no wonder, she said, noting that, in the 1940s, a diagram of the clitoris was deleted from Gray’s Anatomy because it was deemed an irrelevant body part.
Workshop participants seemed to enjoy the conversation up to that point. But the first group activity Chick proposed went over like a lead balloon: Who wants to use molding clay to sculpt your genitals?
How about we draw them?
OK, should we just talk, then?
Giggles rippled through the room, and the conversation turned to how people learned about sex. Gallery co-owner Justine Jackson piped up, saying that when she was first exploring her sexuality, her mother, artist Anne Cady, used to ask, “Is it fun enough for you? Are you having fun?”
Everyone seemed impressed by Cady’s style. Chick recalled a less progressive attitude toward sex and the body. “My mom’s word was ‘the bobo,'” she said. “Everything south of the belly button was just called ‘the bobo.'”
One would think that kids nowadays could find all the answers to sex questions they need on the internet. But, as Barrica pointed out, “It’s hard to Google this stuff because you just get porn.”
That’s one of the reasons why O.school is currently an invite-only platform. “We’re testing out how to make it a safe space,” said Johansson. “We don’t want trolls.”
The list of courses at O.school is constantly growing, and it currently touts 35 professional instructors. “We’ve got queer black women from the South,” said Barrica. “We’ve got [instructors who are] disabled, asexual, trans, queer, every kind of background, every combination.”
Courses include introductions to BDSM and tantric sex. A woman named Marla uses a vulva pillow to teach “intro to squirting.” Instructors focus on empathy, consent and communication. One describes herself as an orgasm coach. Others ask, “Can you be a submissive and a feminist?” There’s even a class on “unlearning Catholic shame.”
One instructor on the site is an expert on sex and pleasure after trauma, such as sexual assault, abortion or an STD diagnosis.
O.school’s classes are playfully billed as “Slut Skills.” “One skill is saying no,” said Barrica. “Having good sex doesn’t mean you have to have lots of sex.”
Chick pointed out other great online resources for sex education: Mia Li on YouTube (think cheery, conversational, noncreepy anal-sex tips); OMGYes.com, where you can pay a $30 subscription fee to “explore techniques from the first-ever large-scale research about the specifics of women’s pleasure”; Autostraddle, the world’s most popular lesbian website. And a few good old-fashioned books, too: Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, by Emily Nagoski; She Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman, by Ian Kerner; and Make Love Not Porn: Technology’s Hardcore Impact on Human Behavior, by Cindy Gallop.
“Sex is free. Pleasure is free,” said Barrica. “If women loved and accepted their bodies, a lot of people would lose a lot of money.”
To wrap up the workshop, Chick passed around a worksheet called “What I Want to Do.” Participants filled it out in small groups, checking off all the sex activities they’d like to engage in. Some were self-explanatory, such as kissing, wrestling and dry humping. Others raised an eyebrow or two: clamps, paddles, whips and canes, using a masturbation sleeve.
By then, the participants were pretty well lubricated, so to speak, and gamely discussed their desires. Afterward, they shared what they had learned.
“I learned what a masturbation sleeve was!” offered one college student.
A twentysomething Richmond resident, who attended the workshop with her boyfriend, said, “We talked about stuff we haven’t talked about in the whole two years we’ve been together.”
A young man and woman, strangers until the workshop, completed the worksheet together. They told the group they’d really enjoyed the experience. Then they glanced at each other and blushed.