DID YOU SEE: NY Times Magazine on sex education

Bless Julie Metzger. The former pediatric nurse (originally from Pittsburgh, now based in Portland OR) has found a smart and effective way to educate adolescents about their sexual bodies. Bonnie Rochman’s terrific article in the New York Times Magazine March 29, “Rewriting ‘The Talk’,” describes the two-part course on puberty Metzger designed and has taken around the country. Each class lasts two hours, and there are separate classes “For Girls Only” and “For Boys Only,” attended by kids and their parents.

On a recent winter evening, Metzger stood at the door to the hospital auditorium and greeted every mother-daughter pair with animation, as if she’d known them for years, and told each girl to take an index card and a ballpoint pen with the name of her company, Great Conversations, on it. The first hour of each class amounts to an informative stand-up routine — Metzger sticks a sanitary pad on her shoulder to show that it won’t slip around — but the second hour is devoted to answering the girls’ questions. Metzger believes that having kids pose questions fosters intimacy and allows parents to hear for themselves what their children’s concerns are. In the first class, when the focus is on the physical changes caused by puberty, Metzger tends to be asked: Why do we have pubic hair? What does it feel like to have a growth spurt? How do I know when I’m getting my period?

As the girls scribbled on their index cards, some used their elbows to block an inquisitive mother’s gaze. (Bolder girls will sometimes go so far as to write things like “This is from Susan in the third row, in the red shirt.”) After intermission, during which Metzger collected the cards into a disorderly pile, she put on a pair of thick red reading glasses and began.

Can boys stick a tampon in their penis?” she read. “Absolutely not. They can try, but I wouldn’t recommend it.” She flung the card to the floor.

Do you always get a baby from having sex?” she read. “My husband and I have been married 28 years. We may have had sex over 1,000 times. I am happy to report we do not have 1,000 children. There are ways to show and share your love without having a baby.” Another card flew out of her hand.

Metzger’s company represents a distinct shift from the usual approach to sex education. She believes that adolescence and puberty should be the purview of children and their parents, not solely that of children and their teachers. “The idea that we are talking to two generations at the same time is at the core of this,” she says. Because they are voluntary, Great Conversations courses are free to be more frank than school-based sex ed; they can sidestep detractors who think kids shouldn’t be taught about masturbation, for example.

Check out the whole article online here and let me know what you think.


THE PARADOX OF PORN: the Internet as sex educator

The New York Times recently reported that a woman in Los Angeles sat down at her desk at the end of a long day and discovered that the search history on the family computer included “child porn.” A couple of days later, her 13-year-old son admitted that he had typed in that search. “He said he was looking for porn made for children,” the mother said. “He explained, embarrassed, that he just wanted to know what his body was supposed to look like at his age.”

I can relate to that. Can’t you? Kids are insatiably curious about bodies, their own and others’, especially in that time of life when their bodies are changing. And as advice columnists routinely attest, the #1 concern they field from readers boils down to “Am I normal?” The paradox of pornography is that it puts naked bodies on full display in all their voluptuous glory – a godsend to anyone who’s curious and in the dark about such things. At the same time, the kinds of bodies you see in pornography often convey a distorted picture of what constitutes “normal.” Not all the time, but a lot of the time the women’s boobs are enormous, the men’s dicks are gigantic, the crotches are shaved and hairless, and the skin is smooth, white, and waxy. And the paradox for kids is that we live in an era when any naked pictures of humans under the age of 18, even cartoon drawings, can be construed not just as pornography but as grounds for serious legal prosecution. The agony of hormonally activated adolescents starving and literally dying for lack of information about sex was the subject of Frank Wedekind’s deeply wild, long-suppressed 1891 play Spring Awakening, as well as the terrific 2006 Broadway musical based on the play. These days when kids go looking for a little bit of sex education online, they’re more likely to end up with TMI.

ken-bruiser collage

It would be great if we all grew up in body-positive households where nakedness occurred casually and appropriately from an early age, not necessarily equated with sex or something “dirty.” I was impressed to visit Iceland, where virtually everyone sits in hot tubs almost every day, and to note that the dressing rooms mandated the strictly enforced hygienic protocol that every person shower completely naked – and not in separate curtained-off cubicles but in open (sex-segregated) gang showers. Kids grow up seeing all sizes and shapes and ages of naked bodies, displayed in all their beautiful specificity yet with a community ethos of respectful modesty and mutual acceptance. Korean spas convey a similar healthy openness. It would be great to be exposed early and often to the notion that what you see in the mirror reflects exactly what you’re supposed to look like. If you don’t grow up in that kind of culture, how do you satisfy your curiosity? “Playing doctor” used to be the way kids explored seeing each other’s naked bodies. Nowadays it’s Doctor Google who holds all the answers.

You can be a lot older than 13 and still turn to online porn with the same questions: am I normal? What is my body supposed to look like? The Internet is kind of like the Bible – with enough persistent clicking around, you can find whatever you want there, to support any theory you want. Fretful parents can absolutely find scary images. Gender-queer explorers can find kindred spirits. Diversity hounds can find an XXX-rated Noah’s ark. People with crippling qualms about their own bodies can find evidence to support harsh self-judgments. “Over-exposure to porn, especially idealized body types, has led to disappointment with normal guys and a need to fantasize to achieve orgasm,” D.R. told me. “It’s also led to an unhealthy view of and disappointment in my own size and output.” (The word “output” is his modest way of voicing what I’ve heard from other men – porn can instill a sense of inferiority not just about the size of your dick but also the amount of jizz you shoot.)

Yet for every guy who feels shamed and intimidated by the invidious comparisons that online porn facilitates, someone else sees past the imperfections and experiences liberation. “Internet porn and social media is so great,” enthused S.A. “It’s making me 100% confident there are tons of guys who share my interests in various things to various degrees, some a lot more than me. I really think looking at naked guys, their genitals, butts, seeing all their curves and what used to be sort of weird-looking parts, so many variations in bodies, is very helpful to my emotional, psychological, social, and even physical health.”

It’s not easy being totally honest about sex, about bodies, about pornography, about curiosity. But I think it’s worth pursuing. What do you think?



QUOTE OF THE DAY: the birds and the bees

“Birds and Bees”

When my daughter starts asking I realize
I don’t know which, if any, birds
have penises. I can’t picture how swans

do it. I’m even confused about bees:
that fat queen and her neurotic workers,
her children grown in cells. I’m worried

by turtles and snakes: their parts hidden
in places I have never seen. How do they
undress? Long ago, awash in college

boyfriends, I knew a little about sex.
I understood the dances and calls,
the pretty plumage. Now, I am as ignorant

as a child. We have gone to the library
to find books though I know sex
is too wild for words. The desire to be

kissed is the desire to live forever
in the mouth of pleasure. My God
I can never tell my daughter the truth.

It is a secret the way spring is a secret,
buried in February’s fields. It is a secret
the way babies are a secret: hidden

by skin or egg, their bodies made of darkness.

— Faith Shearin
birds and bees

DID YOU SEE: New York Times article on sex ed before pornography

A thoughtful and sensible article by Lara Vapnyar in today’s New York Times (“Soviet-Era Sex Ed”) gives a Russian-born mother’s observations on the difference between how her generation learned about sex (in the dark, with no help from parents and schoolteachers) and how her daughter is being taught (in New York City private school, anyway). Check it out and let me know what you think.


RESOURCES: Gil Kessler teaches a master class in kinky play

For gay men who are interested in educating themselves about the skillful use of BDSM play in their sex lives, one of the best resources in New York City is Gil Kessler, who for 25 years has conducted an annual class for novices – men drawn to kinky play who have little or no experience, or players with some experience who want a refresher course. Kessler is currently enrolling students for the next class, which begins January 5 and runs through March 16.  The class consists of six four-hour sessions (every other Sunday from 3-7 pm), which he conducts at his residence in the West Village. It’s open to men who are at least 19 years old and comfortable working with other men, sometimes undressed. Everyone participates as both top and bottom in the demonstrations and workshop exercises. Among the topics covered are basic bondage, spanking and flogging, tit and genitorture, rope harnesses, things that pinch, mummification, and electricity. The cost of the class is extremely modest — $40, which covers all supplies, notes, and refreshments for the course. For more information, or to apply, contact Gil at novices2014@yahoo.com and include your name and phone number.

Gil in London - March 2006

I’ve known about Kessler by reputation for many years but only met him in person earlier this year. A retired college math professor, he is very meticulous in his teaching and practice. Underneath his unassuming exterior, he’s extremely knowledgeable not only about the mechanics of kinky play but also about the interpersonal dynamics that go into creating powerful BDSM scenes. The written handouts that he provides for each of his classes is exceptional — I’ve never seen more thorough, accessible instructions for BDSM practice.

His teaching evolved out of his membership in the Gay Men’s S&M Association (GMSMA), which met twice each month at the Gay and Lesbian Center on West 13th Street from the early 1980s until 2009, when the group disbanded. GMSMA defined itself not as a private sex club but more of an organization focused on social networking, activism, and education. From the beginning, it offered one-time workshops on specific topics (flogging, fire play, wax) and multi-session special interest groups (SIGs) that addressed larger issues (fantasies, foot fetishes, S/M literature, spirituality). An avid member, Kessler served a term as president of GMSMA and became resident archivist for the group, keeping copious notes on its workshops and activities, which eventually included a SIG for novices. (The GMSMA archives are housed at the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago.)

“I’ve been conducting a Novices SIG since 1990,” Kessler told me. “It was originally for tops only. We soon offered one for bottoms only, conducted by experienced bottoms. But after a while there was no one to reliably conduct the Bottoms SIG so I combined them. That worked wonderfully, with everyone being both top and bottom. There were times when I conducted more than one SIG during the year, and they used to include as many as 16 sessions.  As time went on, I continually condensed, finally getting down to six sessions covering the major topics.” When GMSMA shut its doors in late 2009, Kessler continued offering the class under the auspices of The Eulenspiegel Society (TES).


Recently I asked Kessler to tell me how he became the repository of such an extraordinary body of knowledge about BDSM play. Did he have important mentors? Undergo transformative initiations? Read lots of books? “I didn’t find most books to be helpful,” he said, “with the major exception of Race Bannon’s Learning the Ropes, which is brief and to the point. There aren’t particular people I consider mentors, but I attended virtually all the workshops, SIGs, and programs that GMSMA offered, so I learned bits and pieces from many people (including Peter Boots, Bob Pesce, and Andrew Harwin). I also attended Inferno and Delta [annual gatherings of gay male BDSM aficionados] for many years, watched closely, and experimented carefully. The first GMSMA chairman, Ray Matienzo, was a general influence on me when I joined the board in 1984. He had the qualities that go into making a wonderful S/M practitioner: extensive knowledge, confidence, sense of humor, consideration of his bottom, etc.

“It’s hard to judge what was in my own personality and what I picked up from other people,” Kessler said. “I certainly learned to be patient and listen to my bottoms (I was never really a bottom myself), and to try to make them happy as my major goal. How much of that came from me or from other people? I don’t know. I seemed to simply learn as I went along and as I began teaching others what I knew.”

For me, Kessler exemplifies what a community elder looks like – someone who has accumulated a wealth of knowledge and experience and has found a way to transmit this information to younger men with generosity and grace. In his retirement, of course, he enjoys spending more and more time at his country home in upstate New York, and he’s not going to be teaching Novices SIGs forever. So if you’re inclined to avail yourself of this valuable resource, don’t wait.