Author: has written 57 posts for this blog.

Clarisse Thorn is a Chicago-based, feminist, sex-positive activist and educator. Personal blog at clarissethorn.com; follow her on Twitter @clarissethorn; you can also buy her awesome book about pickup artists or her awesome best-of collection, The S&M Feminist.
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36 Responses

  1. Ashley
    Ashley September 22, 2011 at 10:26 am |

    This is a fantastic post. I agree with a lot of what you said. I also feel fortunate to have been brought up with healthy ideas about sex. I learned a little bit here and there but I always knew where to turn to for the facts vs myths. It seems like a lot of young teens believe a lot of myths out there. Things like, “You can’t get pregnant on your period” and “You can’t get pregnant if he pulls out” are things that so many teens completely trust and rely on and that really concerns me. It also disturbs me how so many young people think that sex can be so easy and free to you want to make it that way. “Sex can be whatever you want it to be” Well, yes and no. It’s not always easy, for the reasons you listed.

  2. Mym
    Mym September 22, 2011 at 10:33 am |

    This is an excellent post, and thank you for writing it. There are also some things that I wish I’d been told about; if I’d had a better introduction to trans* issues and terms and whatnot that would’ve helped a lot in finding myself, and I wish I’d gotten the message early on that not everyone is interested in sex and that’s okay, and not had to spend so much time and pain figuring it out for myself.

  3. Katie
    Katie September 22, 2011 at 10:36 am |

    Just shared this on facebook. EXCELLENT, Clarisse! Thank you.

  4. Rachel
    Rachel September 22, 2011 at 10:47 am |

    Thank you for writing this! I had an extremely conservative sexual education. I was homeschooled during the years that I would have been required to take sex ed in the public schools, so I didn’t actually have any kind sex edu. It’s definitely been an interesting experience figuring it out as I go.

  5. LC
    LC September 22, 2011 at 10:47 am |

    I think we were raised at about the same time regarding sex education, Clarisse.

    I also think that none of those 5 were given me by formal sex education, although I was deeply lucky in that my first lover was a very good teacher, reinforcing the idea that sex could be casual, but wasn’t trivial. So many people, after building it up as the most important thing in the world, then finding out it isn’t, overcorrect.

    I would say that my New York City sex education from the 80s didn’t really have that emphasis on “it should be lighthearted and easy” from any of my formal sex ed. That seemed more from pop culture.

    I would love, LOVE, for desire to be more integrated into the sex education we give people. A nice exploration of the idea that desire does not equal consent, and that BOTH are important, would make me very happy.

  6. Andie
    Andie September 22, 2011 at 10:57 am |

    This is a great article Clarisse.. So much of the debate over sex education seems to be on either end of the spectrum of ‘Sex is BAD’ or ‘Sex is AWESOME’ without a lot of discussion of the inbetweens.

    Different people place different value on sex, and what we really need is to stop putting values on the INDIVIDUALS who hold sex to different values. Does that make sense?

  7. Kyra
    Kyra September 22, 2011 at 12:20 pm |

    This is lovely, thank you. Especially the communication bit—the concept of what questions to ask, what needs communicating about, are not often all that intuitive, and are not often taught.

    I’ve noticed that one bit of communication that matters to me is “how do you want to be comforted, if you’re nervous/distressed/hurting/otherwise in need of comfort,” or rather, “what do you find comforting?” Personally, I’m very specific about wanting people to back off and ask if I want to be held/cuddled, which I then generally do want, but if they try to do so without asking I perceive it as a boundary violation and get even more distressed.

    Another is “do you have any trouble defending boundaries ever,” which is a bit trickier in practice because someone could conceivably use that against you (the trick is to remember you told them and view a use of such a situation as a conscious bad-faith attempt at coercion), but if somebody’s boundaries are weaker or shorted out by some other emotional response, that’s important to know and avoid.

    Any others beyond what’s already been mentioned that anybody can think of?

  8. vanessa
    vanessa September 22, 2011 at 12:23 pm |

    I teach Our Whole Lives and I am happy to say that we do an excellent job with 2, 3 and 4 and a pretty good job with 1 and 5!

  9. David
    David September 22, 2011 at 2:17 pm |

    I nominate you for the position of Surgeon General of the United States. This is simply amazing.

  10. Katie Casey
    Katie Casey September 22, 2011 at 3:23 pm |

    I took the high school Our Whole Lives class, and it did indeed include some of those things – we talked about desire and how it works, how to communicate our wants/needs with partners, and that sex is something to be careful about even though it’s a good thing. (I also don’t think the words rainbow or happy happy joy were ever used, though BDSM never came up.)

  11. llama
    llama September 22, 2011 at 4:42 pm |

    Interesting post. Twenty years to late for me though :(

  12. Bushfire
    Bushfire September 22, 2011 at 7:30 pm |

    I know I’ve just been trolling on another thread, but I promise to behave myself on this one. I’m curious about something. You said:

    And as for light-hearted, well — sure, sex can be “happy rainbows joy joy!”, but it can also be serious … or dark. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

    I’m wondering about what you mean by ‘dark’. I think that’s a really ambiguous word with a lot of meanings and I’m not sure what you mean by it.

    I also pressured a guy into stuff he wasn’t ready for when I was a teenager, because I belived that all guys wanted it all the time. I really regret it now, and I really hate the messages I was absorbing back then about sex. I did get some fairly liberal sex education, but like yours, it wasn’t perfect.

  13. Comrade Kevin
    Comrade Kevin September 22, 2011 at 7:41 pm |

    We’ve made some real progress, but we can’t talk honestly about sex. Many of the examples you cited I only learned through experiences of my own, some of which were positive and some of which were extremely negative.

  14. Lindsay
    Lindsay September 22, 2011 at 8:21 pm |

    I can’t relate to most of these, since I didn’t have “sex-positive” sex education … had very little sex education at all really, just learned a little about reproductive organs, puberty and what happens during menstruation. A little about STDs and how to prevent them, but nothing at all about sex itself.

    I guess my teachers assumed we all already knew what sex was? Or could find out on our own?

    (I do think your suggestions are good ones; I just think that, if I were going to list all the things I didn’t learn in sex education, I’d list a whole lot of other things that you probably *did* learn about in your sex education classes. The one exception to this is your point #5, about communicating with your partner – that would probably be *THE* first thing I would say I missed out on.)

    Nevertheless, I know that my knowledge of sex — especially of contraception and disease prevention — is much more than people in the abstinence-only classes are getting. So I feel lucky to have learned what I did.

  15. Bushfire
    Bushfire September 22, 2011 at 9:33 pm |

    Clarisse said:
    I think when I wrote this that when I talked about sex sometimes being “dark”, I meant that sometimes consensual sexuality can mean playing with some very complicated emotions — some negative — and that as long as the sex is consensual and everyone feels good about it afterwards, that’s okay.

    Question for everyone: what kind of negative emotions might you have during sex?

  16. kb
    kb September 22, 2011 at 9:54 pm |

    I took the high school Our Whole Lives class, and it did indeed include some of those things – we talked about desire and how it works, how to communicate our wants/needs with partners, and that sex is something to be careful about even though it’s a good thing. (I also don’t think the words rainbow or happy happy joy were ever used, though BDSM never came up.)

    My understanding from talking to someone learning to teach the course is that it’s in the adult course. Which I’m trying to decide if I’m okay with-on the one hand, yes, I do think that waiting for a bit more maturity before exploring that is probably a good plan-teenage belief that you’re invincible and the potential for serious injury is not a good combination. but like you say, that doesn’t mean teenagers and younger don’t have those desires-and believing you’re invincible isn’t limited to teenagers.
    I think discussions of polyamory are the same way-in the adult book, not before.

  17. kb
    kb September 22, 2011 at 9:55 pm |

    the first bit should be a quote. If I could get the html to work.

  18. Bushfire
    Bushfire September 22, 2011 at 11:09 pm |

    Don’t miscast what I said. What I said was that sometimes consensual sexuality can involve intense negative emotions, and that it’s okay as long as the sex is consensual and everyone feels good about it afterwards. Immediately shifting the topic into “all negative emotions that might be experienced during sex” is a blatant derail.

    I wasn’t trying to derail. This was a point you brought up.

  19. jn
    jn September 23, 2011 at 1:08 am |

    As always, thank you Clarissee! I am always inspired and find peace in your words :)

  20. sb
    sb September 23, 2011 at 8:06 am |

    kb:
    My understanding from talking to someone learning to teach the course is that it’s in the adult course. Which I’m trying to decide if I’m okay with-on the one hand, yes, I do think that waiting for a bit more maturity before exploring that is probably a good plan-teenage belief that you’re invincible and the potential for serious injury is not a good combination.but like you say, that doesn’t mean teenagers and younger don’t have those desires-and believing you’re invincible isn’t limited to teenagers.
    I think discussions of polyamory are the same way-in the adult book, not before.

    Personally, as someone who had a similar experience to Clarisse with AYS, (not exactly the same — #2 was thoroughly addressed), I think something needs to be in the youth course. It’s generally presented in a hippy-dippy UU Sunday School class, where teenage idealistic veganism and a general abhorrence of anything “oppressive” is rampant. (Note: nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all. But it makes figuring this stuff out tougher, since it can feel like this is some sort of childish reaction one should rise above, like anger and intolerance and fear of the Other — all those things that are intended as values to be cultivated in UU religious ed.)

    And it can take a while to be like …no, this is OK. Really, really, okay, as long as everyone involved is on the same page. Hurt and harm (or however you want to phrase it) aren’t the same thing.

  21. DouglasG
    DouglasG September 23, 2011 at 8:09 am |

    Regarding: “and that as long as the sex is consensual and everyone feels good about it afterwards, that’s okay” –

    Could you be more specific about feeling good about it afterwards? I’ve had a couple of experiences after which I realized that my partner was really rather nasty, or that I’d have chosen not to have followed a particular path had I known where it went, but not to the point of regretting the attempt, even when I tried something that literally made me sick.

    And it interested me that in 1 and 2 you took a line about how sex could be X but didn’t have to be and wasn’t X for everyone, but you didn’t want to judge people for whom it was X – and then in 3 you made the declarative statement, “It requires attraction and desire,” without any counter. From my experience, the presence of both attraction and desire (or quite often either) has been far more of a luxury than a necessity. I’ve often gone through with something just to be polite, and, to be honest, while it was not often a grand experience, it was almost never bad.

  22. Kaz
    Kaz September 23, 2011 at 8:32 am |

    I am bitter about sex-positive sex ed like a bitter, bitter thing because I can draw a straight line from my sex-positive sex ed in my teens to my traumatising sexual encounter slash sexual assault (I still have problems with how to describe it) a few years later.

    The sex ed I experienced was very much the “sex is awesome! sex is fun!” sort you describe, I think (this was a Protestant area in Western and Northern Germany around 2000). It made no room for needing space and time to figure things out or being confused about the issue and needing to hold off on sex until one sorts oneself out. It also made no room for asexuality, being very much of the “everyone loves sex! loving sex is an integral part of being human!” school (cropping up an unfortunate amount of time in these sorts of circumstances), which is what led to me being confused and trying to figure things out in the first place. In fact, it was pretty bad on the queer front in general – of the “queer people are fine and dandy but no one in this class could possibly be one” sort. All of this paved the road for me to just freeze in confusion when someone started doing sexual things to me I didn’t want, because what my body was telling me was in total conflict with everything I’d been taught about sex. The consequences were not pretty.

  23. Links for Saturday 24 Sept « The Lady Garden

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  24. Lindsay
    Lindsay September 23, 2011 at 1:40 pm |

    @Kaz – oh, that sucks! I’ve had similar experiences: my first sexual experience was one I did not want, with a person I did not want to be with, but I didn’t know how to say no. I didn’t know that I *COULD* say no, for no better reason than “I just don’t want to”. (I thought you had to be VERY, VERY MUCH not wanting to have sex, like, distressed at the thought of it, which I was not; I just didn’t want to. I didn’t feel traumatized, just bored and used and kind of grossed out.)

    What you say about what your body was telling you being in totaly conflict with everything you’d been taught about sex … I’ve experienced something like that, but I had blamed it on never having been taught anything about sex. Your comment made me realize that even people who are taught about sex, in a “sex is supposed to feel good” way, can have this experience.

    So I guess I’d add to my list — since it does not seem to be an automatic part of “sex-positive” sex education, as I had assumed it to be — telling kids that there are going to be things they won’t want to do, or aren’t ready to do at the same time as other people might be ready to do them, and that you don’t have to do anything sexual for any reason, ever.

  25. Thomas MacAulay Millar
    Thomas MacAulay Millar September 23, 2011 at 2:38 pm |

    Bushfire, like Clarisse, I’m a BDSMer, and like Clarisse, more bottom than top. Much of my sexuality deals with issues of fear and pain. I’m married, and I’ve basically only played with my spouse for a while now, and there are things I want to do as a bottom that turn me on, but that also really scare me. And my spouse and I talk about those things, and we talk through the technical and safety aspects of them, and the emotions they raise, and why and in what ways they’re hot for us, and then sometimes we do those things. And when we do, I find a lot of things, but especially a powerful intimacy, in that shared experience. I’d call fear a negative emotion, but in context, it is a component of powerfully positive sexual experiences. Or, for another example, my spouse and I do a fair amount of orgasm control. I’m used to orgasm daily, but sometimes I get teased regularly, but without release, for a week or so. I find that very frustrating, and I’d call frustration a negative emotion, but it’s also a highly erotic experience and a bonding experience for me.

    Other folks may have different examples of negative emotions in the context of consensual partnered sexuality. Those are mine.

  26. Daisy Kenyon
    Daisy Kenyon September 23, 2011 at 4:20 pm |

    what is sexy or erotic about pain and being degraded?

  27. Bushfire
    Bushfire September 23, 2011 at 6:24 pm |

    Thanks, Thomas. I’ve had negative feelings too, but I wondered what other people’s were. I’ve felt frustrated sometimes when I was on antidepressants and I just couldn’t climax, even though I used to easily before the meds. That’s the only negative feelings I can think of right now.

    @Kaz It’s too bad that the sex ed you recieved didn’t leave room for less than enthusiastic responses. I agree with Clarisse (and others) that good sex ed needs to address a variety of responses, good and bad.

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  31. Siobhan R. Duffey
    Siobhan R. Duffey September 29, 2011 at 2:29 pm |

    My sex ed experiences were at a Catholic school and just as right wing and shame-centered and lie-fueled as can be, to the point where the attitudes I picked up there completely overshadowed my parents’ reasonable attempts to teach me decent attitudes. It took a long time to get over that ick factor, but when I grew up and moved to a pleasantly liberal enclave, I got over those issues. So I can’t blame sex-ed, but my friends are pretty much all super sex-positive, generally kinky, frequently poly, as are artists I follow and movements and fun times I participate in. Nerds and hippies are both like that, and when you combine things, well.

    And while it doesn’t make me uncomfortable and hasn’t harmed me in any significant way, I think that’s why it took me so long to realize I’m just asexual. I figured at first that I was getting over repression and junk, and I threw myself into relationships that bored me and were deeply unpleasant for the poor souls I wound up with. It did take a good while to be comfortable with the knowledge that sex would never strike me as a sort of messy inconvenience that I had no interest in getting my head around. (Luckily I’m aromantic too and am free of the awkward pains of trying to build relationships without sex. Emotional partners on that level are also, well, a messy inconvenience I have no interest in getting my head around.)

    My favorite club had a fetish night a few months ago. I very nearly went in PJs, slippers, and a robe, but I decided not to risk making people feel like I was the sex-negative one. I have a pin that says NO HUGS that I keep around to point to when my friends are all cuddly and junk. I don’t mind sex and I’m all for everyone’s gratification, but I do get pretty tired of living in hypersexual happy liberal land sometimes.

  32. Craig Bennett Hallenstein
    Craig Bennett Hallenstein October 17, 2011 at 8:37 pm |

    I enjoyed your blog very much. I found fascinating the fact that even people who receive sex-positive educations from loving and open parents and are sexually well informed both in school and church, can still find parts of their education lacking. But then I guess no one receives the guidance needed to fully comprehend his/her sexuality in the first eighteen years of life. And would we even want that? It seems that one of the greatest thrills of sexuality is its secrecy and seductiveness, inviting us to peel back layer after layer, mining our desires in never-ending waves over the course of a lifetime. Those of us lucky enough to have had sex-positive backgrounds reach adulthood with the foundation in place and the tools in hand to begin that joyful pursuit, unfettered.

    By contrast, I’ve worked with many men and women who, having suffered sexual abuse and sexual wounding, find it difficult to move beyond an agenda of sexual healing to one of sexual growth. Often the desire is there, but crippling baggage stands in the way.

    You said your mother told you at 12 that it would be totally okay if you were gay—go Mom!—but that you wish you’d been given a broader menu of sexual options. I didn’t name the different categories either for my kids, but I did encourage them beginning when they were 12 to “someday have lots of sexual experiences—different kinds, with members of the opposite sex as well as your own—to figure out what you like and gives you satisfaction.” (As you say, “Desire simply doesn’t work the same way for everyone.”) I wanted my kids to know that whatever lifestyles they might choose, they’d have my enthusiastic support.

    As I write my blog, kidsandsexblog.com, I will continue to reflect on the pieces you found missing and address them as they arise in order to better guide parents. I also appreciate the link to Katherine Gates’ Fetish Map. I hadn’t seen that before and agree that for some young people it could be quite helpful.

    Thanks for providing an interesting perspective and for advancing this important work.

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