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Making Sex “Normal”

A new project launched to help the public get over its inhibitions.

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Not a day goes by where you don’t hear a lament in the media about our hyper-sexualized culture. Teen pregnancy rates, the decline in marriage, sexual assault — they’re erroneously linked to everything from pop music tarts to pornography. But the truth is, that despite its seeming prevalence, sex is rarely talked about with any openness or honesty.

That’s why Debby Herbenick, a research scientist at Indiana University and sexual health educator at the Kinsey Institute, just launched the site  Make Sex Normal. In an email announcing the project, she explains that it’s her response to “a pretty tough 2012 election season in which I felt depressingly and repeatedly reminded how little information and comfort there is about sexuality and reproductive health issues.” She “kept wondering what to do,” she writes. Then she realized that she and all her sex-positive colleagues “have experienced firsthand how quickly sex becomes normal and everyday when we’re in a bubble of people who talk about it, who have sex books on their bookshelves, who teach about it, and who talk about it like it’s no big deal.” She wondered, “If more people engaged in everyday acts of sex-positivity, would change happen more quickly?” With Make Sex Normal, Herbenick is betting on it.

I relate to all that. My work life is littered with promotional sex stuff. (Did I say littered? I meant blessed.) As I type, there’s a tube of bacon-flavored lube sitting on my desk, and my laptop sits atop the tome “Guide to Getting It On.” Last week I brought home a purple silk robe that read “TROJAN Lubricants.” Literally just now a package of “before & after intimate wipes” arrived at the office. Sometimes I have to watch porn at work – for work. Basically, every day I expose my co-workers to something that in any other setting would require a write-up from H.R. — and it’s awesome! The forbidden becomes prosaic, and it’s tremendously freeing. It also totally skews my perspective of what is normal.

Herbenick is hoping to warp your perspective too. She’s soliciting photos of people doing things like “teaching a sex-ed class” and “working the phone at an HIV education center.” So far, the site features snapshots of folks with vulva puppets, sex toys and even a rainbow-clad llama. I talked to Herbenick by email — as she waited for a flight at noisy LaGuardia Airport – about what it means, exactly, to “make sex normal.”

Sex is seemingly everywhere in our culture and yet, as your site points out, we rarely ever talk about it openly or honestly. What’s that about?

The kind of sex that is often openly discussed is often sensational (e.g., headlines about rape or sex scandals), political (e.g., about DOMA or same-sex marriage) or else it’s “sexy” sex, such as in music videos, swimsuit issues or porn. There’s little space for the regular, everyday aspects of sex, bodies and reproduction that I think people need to hear and talk more about. For example, issues about sex education, circumcision, vaginal health, talking to a partner about sexual pleasure, desire, orgasm, sexual boredom, monogamy and so on. We don’t talk much about sexually transmissible infections outside of headlines about their prevalence among teenagers or older people, but there’s a lot of in-between that needs discussion.

Are there any concrete things you’d like to see happen from the site? Any political changes you’d like to see it bring about?

I hope that Make Sex Normal challenges and expands people’s ideas about what normal is regarding sex and gender. When I say “make sex normal” I’m talking about making sex, bodies and gender normal, everyday parts of regular conversations. I expect that the photos people submit will cause some to think twice about what’s normal in the first place. To paraphrase a line in the movie “Kinsey,” the only thing normal about sex is variation. Sex educators, healthcare providers and therapists know this firsthand because we come face to face with diversity all the time.

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