For some reason, difficult conversations flow more smoothly in the dark.
At least, that’s what organizers of tonight’s Sex in the Dark: A Glow-in-the-Dark Sexpert Panel are counting on as they turn down the lights in Jacob Sleeper Auditorium so that attendees can freely ask their most intimate sex and relationship questions. Glowing paraphernalia like sunglasses and necklaces will be given out to brighten the atmosphere and turn a sometimes embarrassing or uncomfortable conversation into a more festive one.
Wellness & Prevention Services organized the event, which features sexperts Sophie Godley (SPH’15), a School of Public Health clinical assistant professor; Teri Aronowitz, a Student Health Services (SHS) nurse practitioner, a Sargent College adjunct clinical assistant professor, and a School of Medicine assistant professor; Mark Weber, an SHS senior staff physician; and Elizabeth Boskey, a College of Arts & Sciences lecturer in psychology and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.
Godley spoke with BU Today about some common misconceptions about sex, consent, and why “the sex talk” needs a 21st-century overhaul.
BU Today: Why is Boston University hosting this event?
Godley: These types of events send the message that a lot of us are concerned about, interested in, and support healthy sexuality for our students. This is an important part of being a college student, and there are a lot of people here who want to help you navigate this.
Why did organizers decide to cut the lights?
Most of us didn’t grow up in a culture or a community where sex and sexuality were talked about at the breakfast table. It’s an acknowledgement that this might be something that people are uncomfortable about or may have some trepidation about asking honest questions.
The other thing is that it just makes it more fun. I love that about it, because so much of what’s wrong with sex education in this country is that it’s based on fear and it’s based on shame, so adding a playful element is wonderful. I’d much rather have people hearing about sex and sexuality and getting to ask their questions in an environment of enjoyment instead of an environment of fear.
What are some of students’ common misconceptions about sex?
Sadly, we do get a lot of questions indicating there’s a fair amount of sex happening that’s not terribly enjoyable, particularly for women. We haven’t done enough in our communities or in our homes to educate young people about what it is that they want to get out of their sex and sexuality, how to go about asking for that, and how to have a voice.
I blame a lot of this on the influx of pornography. People have wild misperceptions about what sex is and what it should look like. They’re pretty disappointed when the reality hits and it’s not the mind-blowing, extremely loud, ridiculous orgasm that you see on pornography, which of course is fake. So how do we get down to authentic sex and sexuality, and what does that look like and what does it feel like? Students have a lot of questions about that. And then there’s always common misperceptions, both over- and underestimation, of the risks of sex and sexuality.
Could you elaborate on that?
Students get very concerned about human papillomavirus (HPV), but we don’t talk as much about chlamydia. We should be talking a lot about chlamydia. People hear that they have an abnormal pap smear and their very next thought is that they’re going to die of cervical cancer. HPV is very prevalent. Most of the time it’s not going to lead to cervical cancer. Unfortunately, there’s so much miseducation about it that I think sometimes we terrify people. I don’t think there’s a lot of good gained from that.
Do you feel there’s a clear understanding among students about sexual consent?
I think so. One of the things we have to change culturally is that consent is too low of a bar. We should be going for enthusiasm. Consent isn’t sufficient. It shouldn’t just be, ‘Yeah, I agree.’ ‘Then good, I’m not raping you.’ That’s not enough. It should really feel worth it. There should be some enthusiasm there. We have to stop setting up young men and young women with these crazy roles that they think they’re supposed to play, and instead make room for some true sexual exploration. There just needs to be less of this expectation that all men are terrible and they’re going to try to get this from you. And there needs to be less of an anticipation that all young women should be saying, ‘No,’ and don’t really want to have sex. And that if they do, then there’s something wrong with them.
You were on a panel for a similar BU event last February. Were there any surprises or common themes that emerged in students’ questions?
The thing that broke my heart last year was just how many female students asked questions about problems with orgasming or not enjoying sex. That’s like going through your whole life saying that you don’t enjoy food. I think of having a healthy sexuality as a basic human right. What have we done wrong that people don’t know how to have that in their lives, they don’t know how to ask for it?
Then there’s the usual questions about birth control and options. Luckily the students go to such a great school, where we have phenomenal health services with very up-to-date birth control methods and professionals to help young women on campus make the right choice.
What advice do you give parents regarding “the sex talk”?
I tell parents that you would never leave any other health or safety issue entirely out of all conversations and expect that in one awkward 30-minute moment you’re going to give them every message they’ll ever need to learn. “The sex talk” needs to be banished from our vernacular. It has to be a conversation, and I think frankly it needs to start when children are born. We’re sexual beings from the time we’re born until the time we die. That sex and sexuality change enormously. What I say to my 2-year-old is totally different than what I say when they’re 12. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t say anything when they’re two. I still teach them their body parts. I still talk about private and public. I still talk about love, what feels good, and what doesn’t feel good.
The analogy I use is car seats. When two-year-olds get in the car, you put them in their car seat. When they’re five, they get to buckle themselves in. When they’re 14, you have to remind them. And when they’re 16, they’re driving. The conversation changes every year as they change, but it’s always a conversation. So don’t wait. You’ll be more awkward if you wait until they’re 15, and they’ll be more awkward. It really helps to start the conversation early and often and just keep going.
Sex in the Dark: A Glow-in-the-Dark Sexpert Panel is tonight at the College of General Studies Jacob Sleeper Auditorium, 871 Commonwealth Ave., from 7 to 8:30 p.m. The event is free and open to BU students, faculty, and staff.