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A Body of Knowledge: Getting to Know the Skin You’re In

Girl-looking-at-herself-in-mirror
By , 19, Contributor Originally Published: August 13, 2013 Revised: August 13, 2013

“What’s an orgasm?” my nine-year-old self asked curiously, wide eyed and totally clueless as to what I had just requested my fourth grade teacher explain to me in front of the whole class.

As a kid, I read whatever I could get my hands on, and after sneaking a copy of my older sister’s Cosmopolitan magazine, I had come across this mysterious term—“orgasm”—and been dying to know what it meant. Who better to ask than a teacher?

The classroom fell dead silent. I don’t remember what my teacher’s response was, but I do remember the awkward shuffle and hushed whispers among the teachers in the room as they tried to find an honest and appropriate answer to my question. Little did I know, this incident laid the foundation for what would be a very long struggle with the slanted, confusing and sometimes downright misleading information given to me by educators in public school.

Getting to know your body isn’t just about sex. It’s about self-esteem, body image and feeling connected to who you are.

More to Sex Than STDs and Pregnancy

In high school, sex ed was all about the “bad” things that could happen to you if you had sex. Although I wore a purity ring and wasn’t sexually active as a sophomore in high school, I still wondered: why am I not being told good things that can happen as a result of sex? The consequences of unprotected sex, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and infections and unplanned pregnancy are certainly important to know, but is that all there is to sex? If not, how come it isn’t discussed in the classroom? I would try to get answers to these questions and lead the class to a more positive discussion about sex, but all of my attempts were shot down.

Luckily, I had some great people in my life outside of the classroom that steered me away from the bland, textbook definitions of sex and body image. I participated in workshops where I heard personal stories from girls who were just as confused about what they were being taught in school as I was, and as I approached junior year, I finally felt that I understood that maybe there was way more to sex ed—and even my own sexuality—than I had realized.

Taking a Closer Look at My Body

Armed with what I thought were the “correct” ideas about sex and relationships, I began my freshman year of college. One afternoon, I was in my college dorm hall, chatting with a circle of friends. Our conversation started with the usual talk about what we had or hadn’t done sexually. Some girls had only made out with guys before. Some girls had steady boyfriends that they were sexually active with, and others, like me, were single and just curious about all of the concepts and notions attached to sex. As we kept talking, I noticed that despite our differing situations, we all had one thing in common: we didn’t know our bodies or what we enjoyed enough to consistently find pleasure in sex or even masturbating. But why?

I found my answer when I thought back to a sex ed workshop I had attended a few years earlier led by a fantastic sex educator. She said that sex is natural and that we should look at our own bodies—even suggesting that we use a mirror to study our vulvas—to better understand how we function. For many of the girls who had no idea what their genitals look like beyond those generic diagrams they’d studied in bio, this advice was both shocking and comforting. On one hand, who was this person and why was she suggesting that we explore these places? Nobody else had encouraged us to do that before. On the other, she had made us think about sex in a positive, personal, new way. I didn’t know it back then, but that instructor gave good advice for every girl or guy who wants to have gratifying physical experiences in and out of the bedroom: Get to know what your body looks like and how it works!

With the knowledge I have now, backed with the experience of hearing other girls my age speak about it, I can say with certainty that looking at and researching different parts of your body helps boost your confidence and helps to ease the anxiety of exploring your sexuality with a partner. Finally, getting to know your body isn’t just about sex. It’s about self-esteem, body image and feeling connected to who you are. So, as a wise woman once said, take a mirror and look! A little extra knowledge never hurt anybody.

Niomi is a Sex, Etc. contributor from New York.

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