A while ago, I wrote an article (never published) about the private sector educating adults about sex. As research, I spoke with Debby Herbenick, a professor at Indiana University School of Public Health. She’s also a sex researcher, the founder of the Bloomington Sex Salon, and the author of 6 books (to date). Wow, what a powerhouse! Read our Q&A below.
Lynsey G: What’s the biggest thing that people with vulvas don’t know they don’t know about their sexual selves?
Debby Herbenick: Well, a lot! And I also think it’s okay to say “women and other people with vulvas” because the gendered issues are actually really important to understanding sexualities involving vulvas. That is, many challenges are a result of gendered notions that girls and women shouldn’t masturbate, that girls and women have been denied education about their bodies, and that we tend to raise girls and women to not initiate partnered sexual behaviors, and so on.
So while the term “people with vulvas” is inclusive in many ways, we also need to honor the misogyny that has shaped a lot of people’s experiences with their sexuality—and of course we also need to honor the transphobia that shapes people’s connections with their bodies and sexuality, too. So…the biggest thing? Maybe that it’s okay to explore your own vulva.
LG: Why is there such a lack of understanding around sexuality?
DH: Lack of comfort and lack of education have kept many people from understanding and exploring their own bodies and sexuality. For some of us, this comes to us from our parents and their own discomfort or ignorance of sexuality. For some, it may be shaped by sexual abuse or trauma.
LG: What is keeping us from fully understanding our sexual anatomies, particularly?
DH: Well, not everyone is interested in understanding their genitals and that’s okay too. Some people don’t have much if any interest in masturbation. Others may be interested but feel cultural or religious shame for their sexual desires or interests, or have a sense that “good girls” don’t touch their vulva (there, again, I am using the term “girls” because this is quite gendered—males are more often raised to feel it’s okay to touch their own genitals or to masturbate, though not all are).
LG: Speaking of which, where does science currently stand on the G-spot?
DH: That’s a big question with a long answer. So I’ll say this: I think most if not all of us can agree that many people with vaginas have an area along the front wall of that vagina. That, when stimulated, feels pleasurable and that it’s likely because of structures that are on the other side of the vaginal wall, such as the internal parts of the clitoris or the urethral sponge.
LG: The full structure of the clitoris is gaining understanding in scientific circles. Do you think it’s catching on elsewhere?
DH: Scientists have known about the various clitoral parts for many decades. I do think there is more public conversation about it these days though, and various projects related to “cliteracy.” (I am not a fan of that term because I think it often reduces female sexual pleasure to one part. But evidence suggests that female sexuality and vulva-related pleasures can be quite varied.)
LG: How about sexual pleasure for vulva owners? Why is it so hard for us to really understand how that works?
DH: I think it’s okay that it takes time! Most things evolve. Most of us don’t have all the same favorite food pleasures as we did when we were 6 years old or 16 years old or 26 years old. How great that our pleasures vary over time and thanks to experience and different partnered experiences, as well as life changes. It’s an evolving experience!
LG: You’ve written numerous books, hundreds of scholarly publications, and thousands of articles to educate people on sexuality. You’ve done TEDx talks, you’ve led research, you’ve started event series. After all that, what do you think is the best way to educate people on these topics?
DH: There’s no one way. That’s one reason I enjoy being creative in my reach.
I love doing research and writing about it. And I like holding my Bloomington Sex Salon series to bring conversations about sex into our local community, taking them off campus and to the Bishop (a local bar). I loved creating our “What do you like about your vulva and vagina?” art poster with local artist Erin Tobey and my research colleague Vanessa Schick. Serving as a co-producer on Hot Girls Wanted for Jill Bauer, Ronna Gradus, and Rashida Jones’ film helped me better understand how documentaries can be used to connect with and educate audiences about contemporary sexuality issues. Talking with Peggy Orenstein about adolescent and young adult women’s sexuality for her tremendous book, Girls & Sex, also helped me feel like our research could find a home with more people through her reach.
There’s no one way to do it. We just have to keep trying to talk with people about the beautiful and painful and fascinating and challenging ways that sexuality works in our lives.
LG: Do you think that private companies can contribute to filling the education gap with products and services? For instance sex toys, apps that help people learn about sex, and so on?
DH: Yes! They can and do. Companies have the power to make products that work well with our bodies, that are well suited for certain kinds of solo sex or partnered sex, that help sex to feel more comfortable or pleasurable, and that broaden the kinds of sexual expression that people might try.
I do wish that more companies paid attention to how they communicate about their products and sex in general with consumers. In my experiences, companies often initially focus on the products themselves—which is important. And then through our working relationship they often come to see that the website information and the packaging and marketing are critical to helping consumers learn how to incorporate vibrators, lubricants, apps, and/or certain condoms into their sexual lives. I’ve loved working with companies on those kinds of consumer communication. How to use products, how to talk about them with partners, and so on.
LG: Are there dangers to letting the private sector handle education?
DH: There is no one group that should handle sexuality education (and no one group that does). We need more investment in school-based sexual health education that is accurate. We need more parent trainings so that they can themselves gain accurate information as well as examine their own attitudes and biases. And we need more medical doctors and nurses to get training in human sexuality topics when they’re going through their coursework and clinical training. Human sexuality is a big issue—we need to weave it into our lives a bit better than we do now.
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