Warning: Discussion of sexual trauma, abuse, and abortion in some of the below interviews.
Not everyone’s comfortable talking about their sex life, but knowing what goes on in other people’s bedrooms can help us all feel more inspired, curious, and validated in our own experiences. In HG’s monthly column Sex IRL, we’ll talk to real people about their sexual adventures and get as frank as possible.
How old were you when you had “the talk”? The sex talk, that is. Maybe a parent or guardian called it “the birds and the bees” or used some other euphemism to mask their own discomfort around trying to talk to you about sex.
I don’t remember exactly when my mom first had the talk with me, but I distinctly remember being told not to have sex—often. Every mention of sex boiled down to me not being able to have it. I was always warned against becoming a teen parent, and to this day the word “vagina” makes my mother uncomfortable. Conversations about sex in my family were often imbued with religious messaging, courtesy of our Christian upbringing, especially when it came to female sexuality.
As a result, I was shamed for having sex for the first time at 21. My sexual journey is ongoing, but I have unpacked a lot of learned sexual shame. Still, I wonder where I’d be if my family had had more frank and pleasure-centered sex talks with me.
The earliest messages we receive, about sex can often be laced with sex negativity, shame, and very little information, if the conversations happen at all. So we often end up learning about sex and sexuality using a piecemeal approach that includes shitty sexual experiences, watching or reading erotic content, and talking about sex with friends, all while battling against the enduring stereotype that we are hypersexual and submissive by nature.
I spoke to several other womxn of color about what their families taught them about sex, how their cultural backgrounds impacted their views on sexuality, and how they filled in the gaps in their sex ed. Here’s what they told me.
"I wish my family had taught me about personal power, boundaries, and self-ownership in the context of sex."
“I think it was around 13. I was taught that guys were only interested in sex, that women and girls who had sex with them before marriage were of less value than virgins, especially for a longterm partnership.
"My culture has very conservative views about sex, largely influenced by the fact that most of the population is religious. This is compounded for women who also face very patriarchal views about the female body and sexuality. I think my background made my family view sex as something that is sacred, only for married people (because then it would be with God's 'blessing') and predominantly for a husband's pleasure and to 'keep him.' I think it affected my views a lot because even when it is done more freely, I do believe that sex is sacred in the way that it connects people—even if that's only for a moment in time.
"I don't believe that it's only for married people, but I do believe that it is more powerful and enjoyable in the context of a love-filled connection. And I think a background that emphasized male pleasure so much has only made my defense of my own pleasure more relentless, knowing that no one else would and that I am not interested in rooting my self-worth in someone else's experience of me.
"I learned about sex everywhere else, from the media, my older cousin, school sex ed programs, friends, and music. When I was younger, music was definitely instrumental in my perceptions of what the experience of sex would be like. I wish my family had taught me about personal power, boundaries, and self-ownership in the context of sex and my body when it comes to saying yes.”
— anonymous, 27, southern Africa
"At 11 or 12 years old, it became the 'don't do it or you’ll get pregnant or get STDs' conversation."
“I feel like I had a bit of a different upbringing when it came to sex and sexuality. My mom happened to work for the city in the free health clinic doing administrative work. At 11 or 12 years old, it became the 'don't do it or you’ll get pregnant or get STDs' conversation. That remained the kinds of conversations we had about sex up until I became an adult.
"I think my culture was rooted deeply but distantly in religion, but we weren’t religious people. The 'no sex before marriage' message was always in the background of my mind. The fear of catching an STI or unintended pregnancy was used to deter me from having sex. I don’t think my mother received any talks about sex or pleasure herself.
"I wish I had been taught about pleasure! I learned about sex from other kids when I was younger and, when I was older, from the people I dated. Also online perusing and books. I used to sneak into my parents’ room and find their stash of personal adult items and it turned into a scavenger hunt for information about sex.”
— anonymous, 28, Philadelphia, PA
"I think Black families are a little less frank with young women when it comes to sex."
“I can’t remember the exact age, but I know I was a preteen. My parents didn’t speak too candidly about the topic of sex. It was more 'you’re too young to worry about that stuff' than an actual 'birds and the bees' talk. However, they were honest about their personal experiences and championed the use of contraception when they did speak about sex. I was a little sheltered growing up, so my parents (mom especially) didn’t really expose that part of life to me.
"I think Black families are a little less frank with young women when it comes to sex.
"To elaborate, it’s a badge of honor for young men to reach sexual maturity. Sure. They’re informed about the dos and don’ts, but it’s easier to accept the idea of men having sex. The idea of a young woman being sexually active is dreaded. It kind of makes you guarded but curious. Being a queer Black kid, your sexual education is gathered as opposed to taught. It’s a unique experience to navigate being queer in the Black communities. Even if your family is accepting, it’s still something you experience alone. It’s a rarity to have queer elders guiding you. I just wish my parents would’ve told me more about the emotional aspect that comes with sex.
"The outside world filled in the gaps for me. I kind of haphazardly learned about sex from listening to my peers talk about it and from music and television.”
—Keli, 31, Philadelphia, PA
"I was maybe 16 or 17, and my mom accused me of having an abortion. I didn’t even know what those were then."
“I was about 12 or 13 when my mom first told me about sex. I had just got my period for the first time, and all I remember, besides being really confused, was that we went into her room and watched a tape, a whole-ass VHS tape about puberty and menstruation and abstinence. My mom is a devout evangelical Christian, so the entirety of her 'talk' was 'these are the mechanics of sex—now don’t do it.' Once, when I had really bad cramps from a period, I had to call out of work. I was maybe 16 or 17, and my mom accused me of having an abortion. I didn’t even know what those were then.
"Every Black girl I know has been called 'fast' or knew someone who was 'fast.' Whether or not that is specific to Black culture, it influenced me in a way that I was always on my guard to not be viewed as fast. I quickly learned that there was no way around this because 'fast' was really in the eye of the beholder. And the beholder was any man gross enough to find an 11-year-old in shorts sexually distracting. I’ve learned to do away with shame and embrace my sexuality and inclusive sexuality education as a means to reduce harm in Black communities. I am a very sex-positive, pro-hoe person now.
"I wish that my family had taught me that sex can be pleasurable and not just a means to make a baby. I wish they had taught me more about bodily autonomy and boundaries. I learned the most about my sexuality through Tumblr and, later, on Instagram. I started following Black sexuality professionals on social media and reading whatever I could find. There is so much to learn out there, and I based my education around reducing harm for myself and hopefully passing what I learn on to others.”
—Sarah, 30, Chicago, IL
"As a teen, I would have wished for any kind of open conversation about sex."
“My parents never had 'the talk' with me. Our Vietnamese family simply didn't talk about sex. Once I learned that sex existed, I was afraid to ask. Anytime they gave relationship advice, it was either 'Don't get pregnant!' or 'Don't get married until you're thirty.' Talking about sex was and still is a taboo topic in my Vietnamese immigrant family. I was afraid to talk about sex or pleasure until my late teens, early twenties. I carried that shame and embarrassment with me until I met my boyfriend (now my husband).
"It feels weird to talk about sex with my family as an adult, especially since we've yet to talk about it in any meaningful way. As a teen, I would have wished for any kind of open conversation about sex. However, that's unrealistic, as I'm not sure how much my parents knew to even teach me, because I doubt they received any education from their family or in school in Vietnam.
"I learned about reproductive health in school and in classes at my Catholic church in fifth and sixth grades. There wasn't any discussion about intercourse or pleasure. I filled in the gaps by reading romance books and women's magazines in middle and high school. In the 1990s, the romance books I had access to were not as explicit as they are now. I had to guess at euphemisms for body parts, but there were enough details for my imagination.
"Today I'm on a mission to help others explore and embrace their sexuality. I wanted to close the orgasm gap for women, so I did my best to educate them at my sex toy sales shows. Now, I do this through my subscription box, Bawdy Bookworms, where I pair romance books with erotic toys so people can explore their sexuality at their own pace."
—Thien-Kim Lam, 42, Washington, DC
"I wish they’d told me that sex was not always between a woman and a man."
“When I was around 11 years old, my mom told me that when two people love each other very much, they show it by kissing and caressing in bed. Then, a year or two later, she sat me down for the talk, told me that I needed to find the right person to have sex with because it’s the most intimate thing and sometimes men will take advantage of that. She told me that it would hurt a little bit because he would need to take my virginity, and I’d probably bleed a little. The joke is on her, though, because it turns out I don’t like men in that way.
"My parents are white, so they don’t have that much cultural background. As for me, I am not connected to my African roots, but I am a Black woman in a predominantly white environment. Sex was always a little taboo in my family, and we didn’t speak of it much, which I realized made me very clueless about things as I grew up.
"I wish they had been more open to talking about sex. I wish they’d told me that everyone experiences and desires sex differently and that there isn’t one set way to have sex. Mostly, I wish they’d told me that sex was not always between a woman and a man. Even after I came out, it took me a few years to unlearn that.
"I learned a lot online, many things from trial and error and meeting the wrong people at the wrong time or not realizing what’s happening until after it’s done. I am still learning, though much more safely. I have a partner with whom it’s easy to openly talk about sex. Websites like Fetlife and Reddit are surprisingly good at being resources for safe sex, too.”
—N.J., 21, Belgium
"Black families can be notorious for putting a cone of silence around sexual abuse within the family."
“My first conversations with family about sex were complicated because they came about after I was molested by an older cousin. He introduced me to porn (Cinemax in the '80s). Beyond my mother asking me about what happened, I never had conversations with her about sex. I learned about the sexy side of sex from HBO, Cinemax, and my grandfather's porn stash (I discovered it when I was 8 or 9 years old), and I learned about my period and reproduction in school. In fifth grade, they sent home letters asking for our parents’ consent to teach us about the birds and the bees and menstruation. I was a super curious kid who was already seeking pleasure via masturbation.
"Black families can be notorious for putting a cone of silence around sexual abuse within the family. I was blamed both times when I was molested by family members. Shame, blame, and scorn were the family heirlooms passed down through my family when it came to sex. I was in trouble the moment before puberty, and I couldn't do anything right once my boobs came in. I've made it a point to see these things for what they were, and I've refused to let them inform my views on sex.
"I wish I'd been taught about good touch and bad touch. I wish I'd been made to feel safe speaking to my family about the things that were happening to me. I wish there was some kind of comfort in speaking about sex instead of it being framed as this awful unspeakable thing only bad girls did. In addition to porn, I filled in the gaps with the media, magazines like Glamour and Cosmopolitan, and drugstore smut novels. I used to entertain myself by flipping through a copy of The Joy of Sex that lived on the bookshelf of my mother’s friend. As I got older, I consumed plenty of books on sex and sexuality, and I still do.”
—Lola, 39, Brooklyn, NY