Beyond Sex Ed: The other side of the story

Opinion by Kane Zha
June 13, 2020, 8:16 p.m.

Each quarter, Brianna Booth, director of positive sexuality, teaches a class where students talk about sex, sexuality, intimacy and relationships by telling their own stories. Undergrads converging from all parts of campus get a glimpse beyond the narrative of hookup culture. In a word, it’s complicated. Stories reveal the reality of a hidden culture in which students care, a lot. Students contend with unexpressed feelings, silenced desires, big love, big pain and searing heartache. This series is dedicated to sharing that reality in hopes that you, the reader, feel inspired to be more honest and real in your intimate interactions — with friends, crushes, hookups, relationships and family — so that you can have the connections you long for. Together, we’ll build a more intimate world.

The most vivid memory I have of New Student Orientation (NSO) is sitting in my frosh dorm lounge playing Never Have I Ever, listening to a person that I thought was cute say that they’d never kissed anyone.

At the time, I was shocked. Neither of my parents had gone to college in the U.S. Neither of them could tell me what to expect from my first year in an American university, so the stories that I found in the world around me — from the TV I watched to the friends with older siblings and random college students’ blogs online — became my blueprint. I learned you were supposed to be used to drinking and to be good at having sex, even before you even stepped on campus. The fact that I hadn’t done either of these things made me feel like I was already behind, before I had even started. I was sure that everyone that I’d met during NSO was light years ahead of me in their sexual and romantic development, and so I was too afraid to ask them about anything they had or hadn’t done, in case I was proven right. Duck syndrome, but for relationships and sex.

So that night, when I heard my dormmate say that, the next thing I felt was overwhelming relief. I wasn’t alone, and because I wasn’t alone, that meant that where I was with my exploration of relationships and sexuality was okay. I wasn’t an inexperienced freak; I was normal.

That one comment shaped my freshman year at Stanford in a lot of ways, because it gave me permission to live the story of my life as it was happening, instead of trying to mold it to some predefined narrative. When I was conflicted about whether to approach a girl at a party because I didn’t want to come off as inexperienced, I reminded myself: Maybe she’s never kissed anyone, either. When I bailed out of a drinking game early because I was worried about how many shots I’d had, I told myself that I definitely wasn’t the only person in that room who hadn’t drank in high school. The notion that other people were also living narratives outside the norm became a very conceivable possibility.

Being able to live a story, though, isn’t the same as being able to tell it. Even during the times when I was comfortable in my sexuality and my relationships, if anyone asked about them, I found myself falling back into old scripts. Yes, I loved having sex and enjoying the pleasure that my body could experience (except that I’d only ever given handjobs and oral sex, and never received either); yes, I always talked to my partners about consent and boundaries (except that I still didn’t know how to articulate my own needs, or even identify what those needs were); yes, I wanted to date and be in a committed relationship and fall in love (except for all the times when the idea of romantic attachment felt repulsive and overrated). I was comfortable living these alternative narratives, but not sharing them out loud, out of fear that my listener would tell me that actually, there was something wrong with me after all.

When I decided I wanted to perform at Beyond Sex Ed my junior year, I did so partly because I was tired of always telling half-truths, even to the people I was closest to. I signed up for “Storycraft: Sexuality, Intimacy, & Relationships,” the class designed to prepare these stories, and made myself a promise: every week during class, I would give myself permission to tell the truth. No trying to rewrite my life so that it fit more neatly into a storyline that seemed more palatable or that I had heard before. I promised myself that I would honor the simple facts of the life I had lived, even if that meant that I’d have to admit a lot of things that I’d never said out loud to anyone.

In one of the first few classes, my partner for a class activity asked me if I ever wanted to get married. The correct answer, in my mind, was no. My friends and I always talked about how it was stupid to think that a relationship was legitimized because of a piece of paper; we all said that if you really trusted and loved your partner, you wouldn’t need to tie them down with some outdated societal institution.

“Yes,” I said — admission No. 1.

Admission No. 2: “I know it’s bad, but my parents’ relationship has sort of convinced me that I don’t know if I’ll ever trust anyone enough to trust them to stay in a relationship unless there’s some kind of consequence for leaving.”

Instead of questioning or criticizing me, all my partner said was, “Thank you for telling me that.” And for the first time, I realized that somehow, maybe this space was different. Maybe there was room for the stories that I thought no one would ever validate or think were worth hearing in this classroom.

I slowly moved up to telling harder stories — I told one partner that I had never had an orgasm with a partner before, and that I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to. I admitted to another that I might have been emotionally manipulative toward my partner in my first relationship, and that I was still too afraid to reach out and apologize for it because I was afraid that they would confirm my fears about the way I’d acted.

Each time that I told a story that I had never told before and my partner didn’t react with confusion or disbelief, but instead just sat and listened, my confidence grew. Not only was it okay for me to have experiences that were more nuanced than the narratives I’d been taught were right and wanted to believe in, but it was okay to share them out loud with other people, too.

There are so few places on campus where it’s safe to tell these sort of stories about sexuality and intimacy — where we can not only tell stories that don’t fit into mainstream white, heterosexual and cisgender narratives, but where we can also add nuance to those alternative narratives too. It’s not enough to just replace one set of restrictive narratives with another. 

If all we do is shift the standards of “normal,” we only create a new group of outsiders. The end result of that is alienation: alienation from being able to know what we really want and how we really feel, alienation from recognizing those wants as legitimate, and alienation from being able to connect deeply and honestly with those around us. 

Instead, we need to expand the kinds of stories that are told. We need to create spaces where it’s safe to tell honest stories about both what it feels like to be cheated on and what it feels like to cheat on a partner; where we hear stories about how much joy and intimacy sex can bring and about how sex can be entirely undesirable and even repulsive to think about, without one side invalidating the other. We need spaces that can hold and validate the vast multitude of conflicting, nuanced and complicated narratives we’ve all lived, instead of having to denigrate some in order to legitimize others. 

We need these spaces because at the end of the day, it’s really hard to live a story when nobody has ever told you that stories like that are allowed to exist. I clung to the narratives I had heard about what college was supposed to be like even when they weren’t true to what I knew I wanted, because the alternative of having no blueprint at all was scarier. If we can’t make the space to hear these alternative narratives in the first place, then we lose any hope for people being able to actually live as they actually are.

I returned to Storycraft as a teaching assistant this quarter because it’s one of the few places at Stanford that I’ve found has the compassion and empathy needed to cultivate all these stories and hold space for them to be told out loud. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been given the gift of being present to hear students tell stories that they’ve never spoken out loud before to a screen full of loving, supportive faces. I’ve heard stories about experiences that I’ve had, but have always been too afraid to speak out loud; I’ve heard stories about experiences that I haven’t had, but that have resonated in some deep, fundamental part of my body anyway. And over and over, I’ve heard people say to one another, “I didn’t expect to relate to your story so much. I didn’t expect you to be able to voice these feelings inside of me that I thought only I had.”

This is the start of a series in which we invite you to experience a few of these stories for yourself. As you read, we hope that you give yourself permission to hear the truth, thoughtfulness and vulnerability that serve as the foundation for these pieces, and to recognize the se experiences represent just a handful of the thousands and thousands of stories that exist on this campus and within each of us, and we hope that sharing in them awakens the stories inside of you as well.

This article has been updated to reflect the updated scheduling of the series.

Contact Kane Zha at jczha ‘at’

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