One day, back when I was newly divorced, I set out on a mission to have a happy, healthy, satisfying sex life. I headed into my local Good Vibrations to pick up a new bottle of the same lube I had been buying since 2002. As I went to pay, the sales associate informed me that this particular lubricant contained parabens and showed me some different options. I discovered a new favorite lube that day and was excited to have learned something as well.
19 Things I Learned On My Adult Sex Ed Journey
A few weeks later, I went back and picked out a vibrator. This time the sales person explained that because this particular vibrator was porous, I might want to consider covering it with a condom when I used it. I had never heard of using a condom with a sex toy and I wanted to learn more. (You can learn more too, in Put a Condom on It! (Your Sex Toy).)
I started hanging out at Good Vibrations a lot. I realized that in order to fully embrace my new, happy, healthy sex life, I needed education; I knew that my fears of the unknown were holding me back. I also decided to start a website where I would share the things I learned as I learned them, both to keep myself accountable and to offer helpful information to others. I started reading, attending classes, writing and ... experimenting. And so, The Redhead Bedhead was born.
Today I offer you a list of 20 things I have learned in my own personal adult sex ed journey as a writer, an educator and a student. Enjoy!
What’s In My Lube?
Lube was the very first thing I learned about at Good Vibrations, and it is now a topic I talk about regularly. I can give you a run-down of water-based, silicone, hybrid and oil-based lubes, with all their pros and cons. I can tell you my favorite brands and formulas along with detailed explanations for why I love them so much. But the most important (and first) thing I learned, was that there’s some stuff I just don’t want in my lube! Generally, I tell folks to steer clear of parabens, glycerin and propylene glycol.
Never Fear the STI Talk
I know it can be tricky sometimes, but the STI status conversation doesn’t have to be awkward. Thank you Reid Mihalko for the safer sex elevator speech. I use this all the time (in both teaching and dating!) and it is wonderfully effective.
Don’t Play Around With Toy Materials
As surprised as I was when I was advisedto put a condom on a porous toy, it was nothing compared to how I felt when I learned about the potential for toxic materials in sex toys. Now that I know my materials inside and out, I'm a fan of silicone, ABS plastic, glass, steel, ceramic and wood.
Never Settle for Bad Condoms Again
For years, I had always just used the least obtrusive and most convenient condom I could find at CVS but recently, I’ve learned about polyisoprene condoms, polyurethane condoms, FC2 condoms (aka "female condoms") and more. I’ve tried various sizes and shapes and all sorts of options, and so can you. There’s no reason to settle folks - find something you enjoy using.
Use Your Nose
When shopping for a vibrator, test the vibration strength against the tip of your nose - you’ll get a much better idea of how the toy feels than you will when holding it in your hand. (Get more tips in Buying Your First Vibrator.)
I'll be honest, two years ago it didn’t occur to me to ask people which pronoun they prefer to be referenced by. But over the years, as I became more educated and aware, I realized that not asking about pronouns is sort of like not asking someone their name. The pronouns people go by can be extremely important to their identity and sense of self. Finding out whether the person goes by "he," "she," "they" or something else is essential to showing respect for them as a person - in both writing and conversation.
There’s No Such Thing as a "Loose Woman"
I grew up believing that a woman who hasn’t had penetrative sex has a "tight" vagina and that the more times she is penetrated, the looser that vagina becomes. This (untrue and shame-inducing) concept makes the body seem like cheaply-made clothing that can't retain elasticity after being stretched. In truth, our bodies are much more flexible than that. As I learned more about anatomy I came to understand that you cannot, in fact, sex yourself loose.
How to Put a Finger on the Right Toy
To figure out the right toy size for you, think about how many fingers you can accommodate comfortably in the orifice in which you intend to use the toy. When shopping around, you can hold up your fingers to the toy, to compare.
Nothing's Hotter than Saying "Yes" - and Meaning It
Are you one of those people who thinks that pursuing consent throughout an encounter sounds clinical and un-fun? I was too. Then I learned that dirty talk and consent work beautifully together. Because what’s better: a partner who’s not saying no or a partner who’s saying "hell yeah!"?
Women Need Clitoral and G-Spot Stimulation ... Unless That’s Not What They Need
About a month after I started my site, I took a class on female orgasm taught by Reid Mihalko and we talked about the clitoris and the G-spot. I shyly raised my hand and said "I think my orgasms come from somewhere else." Reid handed me a stuffed vulva to illustrate with and then explained the perineal sponge. It was the first time I felt like I understood my orgasms and didn't feel weird about not knowing where they came from. Moral of the story? All bodies are different, so if it’s feeling good, go with it!
LUBE MAKES EVERYTHING BETTER
I used to think lube was something I needed because my body wasn’t working right. In theory, vaginas are self-lubricating - but in practice, anything from temperature to stress to diet can affect the delicate eco-system of the vagina. Another thing that can benefit from lube is ass play - butts need lube! They just do! Are you playing with a toy? Lube might make that nicer. Stroking your own penis? Lube will certainly feel good there. Seriously folks, unless your particular sexual situation is already super-slippery (and if it is, that’s normal too) lube is a must!
Yes, I DO Need Three Different Lubes By My Bed
Two years ago I thought I was being all fancy, heading to Good Vibes to buy the one lube I knew about. Now I keep three separate kinds next to my bed (we won’t talk about the ones in the drawers). Why three different ones? Well, they're all a bit different. I LOVE a creamy hybrid: it feels fantastic, wipes right off and is safe on my toys. For use with condoms and anal play I like to keep a silicone around (if it’s going to be a long night I might put down a silicone base first). Finally, I keep a thick, water-based gel nearby for the times that I want a little extra cushioning; it’s super comfy.
Silicone Lube May be the Most Useful Thing in My House
(Last time I mention lube, I promise) Multi-use products are great and silicone lube is a work horse! It’s fabulous for sex, of course, but it can also be used to style your hair, unstick a lock, keep your thighs from chafing ... the list goes on. Check out this video I made with educator Kate McCombs for more uses.
The Cervix Has a Mind of Its Own
Did you know that your cervix moves around during your menstrual cycle? It is high, moist and open at some points and low, closed and dry at others. No wonder there are nights when it seems to get bumped no matter what you do, right?
IUDs Rock ... For a Couple of Reasons
I’ve long loved IUDs. They are super-effective as a set-it-and-forget-it type birth control. But then I learned that they can also be used as emergency contraception (EC) and, what’s more, that they are the most effective EC there is (and the only EC that protects against possible future pregnancies).
Which End Is Up?
Condoms became so much simpler after Megan Andelloux taught me a simple trick for making sure the condom isn’t upside down: Take your condom out and put it on the tip of your finger - What kind of hat does it look like? If it looks like the kind of beanie you’d wear when it’s cold out (if the bottom end rolls down and in), then it’s facing the wrong way. If it looks like a sombrero (with the bottom rolling out and up), then it’s time to party! Olé!
HPV Is Not Permanent
In 90% of cases, the body clears HPV infection on its own.
Adults NEED Sex Ed
Almost as soon as I created my site I began getting messages from folks I hadn’t talked to in years. They were thrilled to have someone in their lives they could ask about the sex-related stuff that had them worried. People are starved for this information. This is why the Academy of Sex Education, a collective with branches in New York, Los Angeles and Portland is so exciting. With the simple goal of bringing sex ed to grown ups, the Academy is getting information to the people who need it.
I’M NOT BROKEN .... and Neither Are You
Before I started my quest for a happier, healthier sex life, I would often suspect that something was wrong with me when I didn't understand something sexually, or desired things I thought were weird. Whenever I experienced anything that wasn’t quite like what I read or saw in the media, I felt confused, and sometimes even broken. Now that I’m doing the teaching, I meet other people who feel the same way I used to. But through better sex education, we can all grow to understand our bodies and desires and appreciate one another for our differences. The truth is, none of us is broken. I promise.
JoEllen is a writer, speaker, researcher and mental health advocate whose work explores the impact of depression on sex and relationships. Since 2012 she has written about sex, mental health, and how none of us are broken on her award-winning site The Redhead Bedhead.
JoEllen's book The Monster Under the Bed: Sex, Depression & The Conversation We Aren’t Having is now available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook.