Welcome all sexualities and genders, Aces, Introverts, GLBTQ and Hets, etc
Before we get started I want to take a moment to talk about triggering and how one might address it as it’s happening. Since today’s topic is sex, sexuality and sexual expression, it’s entirely possible that some of you will have occasional, unbidden, unexpected and/or startling physical or emotional responses to what you hear. You may notice something of which you have been previously unaware, signaled by a clenching of the jaw or a tightening of the throat. Perhaps you’ll tear up or feel your face flush with anger shame or sudden recognition. Your stomach may start to ache or your breathing become shallow and fast. Maybe you’ll start shaking or feeling dizzy.
If this happens, practice centering yourself. Once you notice what’s going on close your eyes, take a deep breath, offer yourself some support and acceptance, and breathe out. Repeat as needed. Let’s try it together. (do so). Good! If you need to leave in order to deal with what’s going on, thank you in advance for practicing self-care. Here’s a nice mantra I learned that has proved invaluable in this effort: “Breathing in I calm myself, breathing out I smile. By focusing on the present moment I know that it is a wonderful moment.”
Hello. My name is Nina Hartley and I’m delighted to be here today to share with you the good news about sex. We see so many headlines about how sex is bad, dangerous, addictive, harmful and scary, that the good news about sex and pleasure gets buried on page six.
The good news is that consensual pleasure, however expressed, is an unalloyed virtue in the world, full stop. That’s been my story for over thirty years and I’m sticking to it.
The good news is that each of you is entitled to autonomy over your own body, agency over how, when, why, whether and with whom to share it and the responsibility to do so in an ethical manner that positively reflects your values and beliefs. I want nothing less than for each of you to have only the sex you want with only the people want, always. However far away that seems now I assure you that such a life is within the reach of each and every one of you. Full disclosure - there is work involved, not all of it fun but all of it important to the final result: your complete comfort in your own skin and with your own desires. A question: How quickly do you look away when someone makes eye contact with you? Until well after college I couldn’t manage more than a second or two. Imagine no longer it being painfully uncomfortable to look into the eyes of another or have them look into yours.
After a lot of work that anyone can do, I can gaze into the soul of another and allow them to do the same with me, without fearing what they’re seeing. This is the essence of confidence and self-love, and these qualities can be cultivated over time. Our culture encourages us to seek other’s approval for our sense of self-worth instead of building our own, but in the end only our opinion of ourselves matters. Think about it. When someone pays you a compliment, do you deflect it? If someone disparages you, do you believe them? This is not permission to be a thoughtless jerk who takes advantage of others but we must love ourselves before anyone else’s love can find a good home with us.
Despite what you see in media portrayals of sex, good sex doesn’t “just happen,” it is co-created in real time by the people involved, every time. Hot and heavy, sweet and romantic, for-life or for-the-night, the capacity for safe, healthy, respectful, fully consensual, mind-blowing sex is based on a skill set which can be developed over time. I’m much better at sex now than I was at your age, though no less interested in it. I’ve simply collected the tools to make my dreams a reality, with plenty of mistakes made along the way. You’ll make your own mistakes. You shouldn’t have to make mine.
Learning to navigate the world of sex and negotiate safe boundaries is the task of young adulthood. Now is the time in your life to look closely at and test the lessons, values and beliefs of your familial and childhood cultures, deciding which of them to keep and which to discard as not right for you. In my case I kept my parent’s admonition to be a kind person but had to ignore their unease at the public nature of my work, as well as their preference for monogamy, in order to find my version of happiness. I won’t deny that it was stressful for everyone but it was a necessary rite of passage nonetheless. You’re creating your own sense of self as an independent sexual person. What does that look like? How does it feel? How do you envision your erotic and intimate life? How do you learn to make it real?
The first step on this long road is taking to heart my version of the Prime Directive: Do not use sex to harm self or others. It bears repeating: Do not use sex to harm self or others. Believe me, it’s far better to graduate from college a virgin than to, out of fear, ignorance, revenge, disassociation, rebellion, social pressure, inebriation or a desire to self-harm, be party to sexual assault. There is no honor in having sex with a person who is drunk or high. It’s unsporting as well as illegal. There is no dishonor in being safe over sorry, even if it gets you teased. Each of us is charged with the task to approach sex, sexuality and sexual expression in our own way, in our own time, on our own terms and for our own ends. It’s our right as well as responsibility to create the life of our dreams. If we don’t recognize, acknowledge and respect our unique needs, how can we expect anyone else to do so?
You’re all now legal adults and adults research, plan, discuss and take responsibility for their behavior. They understand their motives. They understand that actions have consequences, including unintended ones. Of all the things people can do in bed, intercourse has the biggest potential negative consequences: death and babies. Do you really want to have that in the back of your mind as you fumble with that condom? Adults know that results matter as much as, if not more than, motives. A child says, “The mittens got lost.” An adult says, “I lost the mittens.” A child says, “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” An adult says, “I’m sorry that my actions hurt you.” A child can’t consent to sex, only an adult can. It’s often the case, however, that our so-called “inner child” is running the show when it comes to sex and intimacy, leading to embarrassment and confusion at best or deep and lasting physical, emotional or legal harm at worst. Most of us don’t get age-appropriate discussions about sex, sexuality and sexual expression, leaving us all to glean from the culture at large sexual information and values. We know how damaging and unrealistic these messages can be. Some of you may even be dealing with the aftermath of them already. As overwhelmed as you may feel it’s nonetheless true that you, right now, have all the tools you need to develop a great sex life that is exactly right for you.
You’re at the age when sex can become real, no longer a fantasy that you conjure from books or online depictions, TV and movie tropes or dreams in the night. There is danger in traversing this boundary between our minds and the bodies and minds of other people. Please keep in mind that all media portrayals of sex and romance are acting, and that goes double for porn and triple for anal. In case I’ve not been clear, please note that porn is a paid professional performance of a fantasy scenario, like the driving in the “Fast and Furious” movies. Not real. Not intended to be real. Your mileage may vary. We’re professionals, so don’t try this at home. Yes, the media we consume and to which we are exposed affects our thinking about, and view of, the world and our place in it, including sexually. That’s its job. Your job is to think critically about the world in which you live and its effect on you. No matter what anyone says, all the media exposure in the world does not, for one moment, cancel out personal responsibility for one’s actions. “Porn made me do it,” “Alcohol/drugs made me do it,” is no more defensible than “The Devil made me do it.” Your parents aren’t shelling out tens of thousands of dollars a year for you to attend this college for you to be stupid. Own your actions and you won’t be sorry.
In my life I’ve had enough sex to lose my fear of it but never my respect for it. The more sex I have the more awe-some I find it. After a rocky start when I was about your age, (I hadn’t yet discovered the Prime Directive), along with any moments of fun and competence I may have had, I endured more than my share of embarrassing, scary, clumsy, ugly, awkward, sad, weird, unexpected, jarring, odd, spontaneous, protracted, fleeting, confusing, hurtful and disassociated moments in bed with other people and I can’t blame it on alcohol as I don’t drink. [Insert Teacher joke here.] All that practice paid off, big time, I’m happy to report. Now, thirty-eight years-and-counting into my sexual adventures, I never, ever have bad sex any more.
How did I manage that Herculean task?
As all difficult tasks are accomplished, I did it one step at a time. The first, fundamental one was learning how to inhabit my body, which meant learning how to breathe fully and deeply into my abdomen, while paying attention to my thoughts and feelings, the better to become self-aware. That task alone took years. More than oxygen is carried in the breath, I discovered. Feelings and emotions are, too. When we suppress our breathing in order to inhibit awareness or experience of painful or difficult feelings, positive, happy ones are suppressed in equal measure. This can lead to depression, alienation and insecurity, which in turn can lead to other undesirable situations. News flash: in order to experience any feelings, we must be willing to feel all of them. Feelings are like letters in the alphabet: we need all of them available to us in order to “write” our lives. This is why meditative/prayer practices advocate mindful breathing as the best and most effective way to bring our minds and bodies onto the same page at the same time, no drugs needed. As you’ll discover, feeling states are transitory, even very intense ones and if, rather than force them into a locked box out of fear or prejudice we give them our attention, they will pass w/out us having to do more than simply witness our humanity and accept ourselves as we are right now. This fact is summed up well by a Buddhist poem: “Thoughts come and go like clouds on a windy day. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
The smallest unit of sexuality is the individual and it behooves said individual to become completely at ease with him-, her- or themselves before bringing anyone else into his, her or their sexual orbit. This means you. Become an expert on your orgasm, your sexual response pattern, your turn-ons and –offs. What brand of condom annoys you the least? How does it feel to masturbate while wearing a condom or latex gloves? What kind of lube feels best? Do you prefer same-sex partners or are you heterosexual or bi? Do you prefer one partner at a time or does the idea of a room full of naked, happy people resonate with you? Do you like to take charge or have your partner take the lead? What birth control is best for you? Have you made friends with your butt? Yes, you’ll learn of more aspects and angles about yourself as you incorporate partners into your sex life, if you ever do, but having solid baseline awareness as a solo operator will hold you in good stead as you forge your sexual identity. A critically important step is becoming comfortable being naked when alone, to simply be in your body as it is. Take as much time with this as you must. Years, if need be. The benefits of this are life long and will positively affect all other aspects of your relationships with others, be they sexual or platonic. Secure people have a low center of gravity and are pretty immune to shaming from others, recognizing such behavior as childish and based on fear. It’s your body and you deserve to live in it comfortably so you don’t hurt it through misuse.
The next step involved paying attention to my sexual fantasies and desires, to better understand what I wanted out of sex and what I thought was its purpose The beautiful thing about this form of exploration is that there are no wrong thoughts, though it might feel so at the beginning. It took a while to not feel guilty about my fantasies, as they were deemed “un-feminist,” but it was my sex life I was building and the only person I have to satisfy is me. It’s very important that we don’t censor our thoughts and desires, though it’s vitally important that we limit our behavior to other consenting adults. By paying attention to what kind of sexual media resonated with me I developed an idea of my self as an autonomous sexual being. Useful questions to resolve: do I prefer visual porn or stories and poems? Moving pictures or static images that I can study? Drawn art or photographs? Hard core action or subtle erotic shadings? What themes are most compelling to me? Believe it or not, no matter how “out there” your fantasies may seem to you take it from me: someone out there is having the same ones, wondering, “where on earth is my partner?”
A word about consent, which you can also think of as the Second Directive: Consent is not the absence of “no.” It is a statement of shared intention. Let that sink in for a moment. “A statement of shared intention.” If one is mature enough to actually have another person in bed with them, one needs to be mature enough to ask direct questions of one’s partner, hear the answer and, if need be, recalibrate. Whether it’s as simple as, “May I kiss you?” “I need to stop for a minute,” “You’re amazing!” or “More fingers, please!” use your words. Your partner may not like to hear what you say but you need to say it, anyway, though I won’t minimize the difficulty in learning how to tolerate another’s disappointment, especially if it’s expressed as anger or in a shaming way. (Anyone who shames you for stating a boundary is not worthy to share your bed, btw.) Better to end the date and masturbate once you’re alone than to press on with an uncomfortable partner or to be that uncomfortable partner. Negotiating consent should not be burden but rather an enabler for having a joyfully active partner. If you’re not able to have a conversation about what you want to do with another person you’re simply not adult enough to have that experience. So don’t force it. A word on the new thinking about consent and the restrictions that have, in some places, been built around it: a completely legalistic approach may be effective in some situations but excessive in others. Better partner compatibility from the start is the goal and makes the conversation less freighted.
If one is taking care of one’s erotic needs on one’s own, then the time between stating mutual attraction and doing anything about it can be as long as needed. Anticipation is fun and allows for a more complete negotiation to take place. Case in point: I met Barbara Carellas (urbantantra.org), at a conference years ago. We had an instant connection, which we acknowledged at the time. Being who we are we let that be enough for the time being, feeling no need to “hurry up and make something happen.” For years we would see each other at conferences, always being warmly affectionate and happy to see each other. About six years in to this dance, at yet another conference, the Moment was right and we had an amazing sexy, friendly, healing, delightful time together, complete with delicious orgasms. Just perfect. Worth the wait to create the space for it to “just happen.” That was six years ago and we’ve not seen each other since, though we know we each hold the other in highest esteem.
If it’s the right thing to happen between the right people, it can wait for the right time, when no one is stressed, when both are free to fully engage. It’s more fun that way, anyhow.
A word on trying to date or hook up while horny: a potential partner can tell when you’re desperate and desperation repels quality partners like oil from water and attracts predatory ones like ants to honey.
How do you handle this? Before you attend a party or gathering, masturbate to a great orgasm. Not a quick toss-off while cursing your fate at not having someone, but a real self-lovemaking session. Your skin will glow, your eyes will twinkle, your step will bounce, confidence will emanate and fill your personal space. You’ll be relaxed and happy and happy people have a strong gravitational pull, bringing people into their orbit seemingly without effort. Try it. Your change in attitude when you hit that room full of people will affect whom you attract all night. People are not put here for your sexual gratification. YOU are responsible for that and the sooner you understand this the better your sex life will be.
Open and honest discussion up front lays the groundwork for an amazing time, where no one is hurt and everyone is satisfied. I know it’s hard and embarrassing to speak of these things, especially when all the lovemaking in TV and movies “just happens,” but remember, it’s a movie, not real life. In real life successful outcomes can’t be left to chance. To quote a friend who was in the service, recall the “7 P’s: Prior Proper Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance.” This goes double for sex, as it includes others beside you. “I think you’re cute but all I’m up for till I get to know you better is a make-out session.” “Man, you sure look hot! Can I get your number and get in touch when things aren’t so crazy?” It’s up to the individual to know their boundaries and to state them. If one person wants intercourse and the other isn’t ready for that, sharing that while still dressed avoids a lot of awkwardness later. The people aren’t wrong in their desires; they’re simply incompatible at that moment.
Adults make sure both people are on the same page, that there is agreement on what this encounter means to each participant. To illustrate, here’s a crass joke that hits home, while at the same time highlighting the problems with rigid gender roles and expectations: “Q: What’s the difference between fucking and making love? A: Making love is what women are doing while you’re fucking them.” This is why active consent is important. If one person wants a quick romp and the other is looking for True Love, they should stick to being friends. You’ll make plenty of mistakes purely by accident and by virtue of being new at having sex with others. Don’t compound them by taking advantage of other’s emotions for a quick thrill. Eww.
Men and women are not natural enemies. A word to the wise: when consuming media explaining the roles men and women have regarding sexual interaction, pay attention the feelings the author is trying to elicit from you. The author who incites feelings of shame, self-loathing or victimhood, or feeling powerless in the face of some Horrible Thing, is not your friend and is not on your side. The author who gives you actual tools you can use to make your life better and to increase your skills, who helps you understand what you can do to improve your experiences, is the one to heed. This is your body we’re talking about and you have agency over it.
Unexamined assumptions about the motives of others are an obstacle to getting to know each other as unique individuals. The better people know each other before they initiate physical contact, the better the outcome. Until proven otherwise, the other person’s motivations are considered to be benign. If you feel any apprehension from their words or body language, you should run, not walk, to the door. “Argh! I just realized I have a [fill in blank] due tomorrow! Gotta go. Bye.” The world outside is full of opportunity. No matter how it feels, any one encounter is NOT your only chance at love, pleasure or intimacy. Almost all of my less-than-optimal-experiences, including my first marriage, occurred when I was unable to give voice to my deepest feelings of discomfort, disinterest, fear or anger. If a “little voice” tells you to stop and leave, do so. You can figure it out later when you’re safe.
Since this is college and many women feel pressured to have sex or may be conflicted about wanting or having it for themselves, I want to say a word about that. Ladies, once you know how to give yourself pleasure reliably you can then decide what hoops a potential partner must pass through before they gain access to your sexual space. These hoops are what you need to keep yourself safe enough so you can show up fully to whatever it is that you agree upon. It doesn’t matter how many or complex they are. This is your body we’re talking about! Be clear from the beginning, as this will cull those unwilling (and therefore unworthy) to put in the effort to get to know you. Carol Queen calls this Putting the Filter Up First. It saves a lot of time, embarrassment, annoyance and hurt feelings. The kicker is that, once a potential partner has well and truly jumped through the hoops, you must then deliver whatever it was that you negotiated for. No changing rules in the middle, no going back on your word. That makes you a capricious bitch and that’s not okay.
Or you can be the Hand Job Queen, dispensing pleasure (and eyeballing the goods) while remaining fully clothed. You’ll need babywipes, a good lube and latex gloves. The gear fits into a baggie. How a partner receives pleasure is a good indicator of how they may be if/when you get naked. Not to diss men your age but a cheery offer of, “I think you’re cute but the only thing on offer tonight is a hand job while I keep my clothes on. You game?” usually will get an enthusiastic, “Yes!” Plus, it’s fun to make out while you do so. If it gets difficult, simply let him finish himself off while you watch his technique and take notes. Win-win! If it helps to have support, enlist a girlfriend, as what boy would say no to two women offering a fun, safe time? Not all porn tropes are bad, you know.
Guys, I know you all want to get laid but the measure of a man is not how many notches he has on his belt. That way of thinking is sooo last Century, when women were considered sexless maidens who had to be talked into sex, drugged into sex, manipulated into sex, or worse. To be a man that women want to be with, cultivate manly attributes. The easiest way is to simply apply Boy Scout rules to your sexual escapades. Do a search for them online and follow them. Men have control over their bodies and have developed cock control, while Boys just want to shove it in whoever will allow them to do so. Men see women as individual people, each with her own needs, value and opinions, while Boys just see tits or ass or something about which to brag to their friends. Men understand about both their own bodies as well as the bodies of women, while Boys just want to get off, regardless if she had a good time or not. Men don’t tell tales out of school, while Boys brag about what they did. Men understand that respecting women as people first and potential sexual partners next, will increase the pool of potential partners, while Boys can’t concern themselves with what’s between her ears, only between her legs. Men understand that the biggest, most important sexual organ is the mind, and seek to engage the mind of a potential partner before engaging her body, while Boys think the biggest sexual organ is their own penis. You’re transitioning from being boys to becoming men. Pay attention.
As a queer person whose hobby as well as profession is sex, I have a lot to offer heterosexual people about how to approach sex. Queers know that “sex” doesn’t automatically equal “intercourse,” the way most people assume that it does. Instead of saying, “I want to have sex with you,” I’ve learned to say, “I’d love to share sexual space with you.” It’s a more general statement of intent and I’ve promised no particular behavior or involvement of a particular body part, nor do I expect it of my partner. It allows us to make it up as we go along, once we’ve decided the parameters. It also takes off the pressure to do any particular thing. And it’s a lot more fun that way. All shared pleasure is the Real Thing and intercourse, while it’s fun, doesn’t have to occur for “sex” to have happened. If erotic pleasure and orgasms were involved, it was sex. My favorite, super-safe and super-sexy way to share sexual space with someone for the first time is trading help with orgasms. After general making out, etc., I’ll have my partner lie against me with their back to my chest with our heads close enough so we can kiss. I take care of what’s above the belt: kissing, pulling hair, biting their neck, playing with nipples (lots of men like this, too), while they take care of their own pleasure. Then we’ll switch. You can flip a coin to see who goes first.
Some resources that are very helpful: anything written or edited by Carol Queen, SexAndCulture.org, ReidAboutSex.com, “Sex at Dawn,” by Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., CharlieGlickman.com, WoodhullAlliance.org, my book, “Nina Hartley’s Guide to Total Sex,” my online vlog, “Tuesdays With Nina” (mom approved, so you can share it with her), my video series from Adam&Eve, the “Nina Hartley Guides,” “The Ethical Slut,” by Easton and Liszt, “More Than Two,” by Veaux and Rickert, “Sex and Punishment,” by Eric Berkowitz, “The Multi Orgasmic Man,” by Mantk Chia, “Mating in Captivity,” by Ester Perel. You’ll find others as you investigate on your own.
Sex is a lifelong journey and you’ll always be learning something new. Happy travels!