With college students returning back to campus (though in lesser numbers than in non-pandemic years), a lot of them could use some advice on how to navigate sex and relationships, especially during the time of COVID. I recently had the opportunity to speak with sex educator and relationship expert Logan Levkoff about those topics and more. As you know if you’ve read her writing for Nurx, Dr. Levkoff cares deeply about educating young people about pleasurable, consensual, and equitable sex. I was especially interested to hear her take on sex and relationships on campus, because Dr. Levkoff graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1990s, and I am currently a sophomore there.
During our conversation she provided insights on how to care for yourself and others amidst the coronavirus and much more. Want to learn how to have more pleasurable sex, why New York City endorsed glory holes, and how to be happy? Read on!
What inspired you to pursue a career as a sexuality and relationship educator?
Our passion for this field and this space actually comes from the same core, which is HIV and AIDS prevention. I grew up in Long Island with parents who were socially active and responsible. I am 44-years-old, and I was a high schooler when HIV was just being discussed as a virus that did not discriminate. It was not about race or health status or sexual orientation. If someone had it and you didn’t take precautions, then you could contract it, too. My parents became super involved in HIV/AIDS fundraising. They helped create our town’s first peer-HIV/AIDS awareness program.
I remember coming home from school one day and there were bananas and condoms at our dinner table, and my parents said: “This is how you use a condom, and next week you will be a peer educator.” Truth be told, it was not like I had ever talked about sex before, but I was raised with the privilege of being told (and believing) that I could do anything – but that I should use my voice to speak up for issues that were important. And, so I started in this world and worked as a peer HIV/AIDS educator in the North Shore University Hospital AIDS Education Program in New York.
So what was it like to be a sex educator at the age of just fifteen?
It was a really interesting time. I was really comfortable talking about a little bit of anything, whether it was anal sex, vaginal sex, or oral sex, but probably because I was not having any of it. It felt safe to talk about things in an empowered way without having to share my personal life. But, it was also a really odd time because I had friends who could not even be open about their sexuality, not even to me. Even though it seemed like a liberal town, it was still grossly homophobic, so it was hard to be in this space where you wanted to give everyone a voice, but had to tiptoe around things for the safety of others.
However, if you were comfortable being a lightning rod, it was an incredible time. I, for whatever reason, and maybe it is because I am a total narcissist, have no problem being that lightning rod. Now the field of sexual health is so diverse and exciting and far more representative of humanity, but back then there was not a lot out there.
What was your experience like during college when you were immersed in college sex culture while simultaneously beginning this work as a sex educator?
It started with HIV/AIDS education in high school, but my career as a sex educator really started at the University of Pennsylvania. My peers were very much like me: they were smart and sophisticated and intellectual, but when it came to sex, we were making the worst decisions. It was not about not using condoms —there was no equity, no pleasure, no voice, and I just thought, “This seems like this is not how it is supposed to be.” So, I started an anonymous sex advice column for the campus paper and wrote articles for the women’s paper on female masturbation — all in first person by the way!
I am known to be a little bit dramatic. I remember sending home that article that I wrote about masturbation. My dad called me and said “I love how you exaggerated for emphasis.” And I said “Oh, dad. I am not exaggerating,” and he said, “Ok, here’s your mom.” (By the way, to this day, my parents are still my biggest fans.)
I think that at Penn it was interesting to play peer-educator and figure out my own shit at the same time. Admittedly, I met someone early on and dated him for most of my freshman year. Shortly after that, I started dating the person who I have wound up being with for (now) 25 years. Back then, I was far more comfortable talking about myself and my own sexual life, but as I have gotten older and I bring other people into the picture — whether it is my husband or my kids, I make very different decisions about what I am comfortable sharing and what I am not.
I just think it is incredible to see how still college students know very little about sex and consent. It makes sense, right? Each student comes from different communities with all different Sex Ed backgrounds, so when college comes it can be a little tricky to navigate everyone’s different level of understanding. How has the topic of sex, and more specifically consent, evolved over the course of your career? What do you believe has changed on college campuses, and what hasn’t?
When I work with students, we talk about the “hook-up culture”—and it’s interesting because in particular, teen girls, or people who identify as female, have been taught to fear it—I always roll my eyes, because we act like this is a new thing that needs a title, but hooking up with someone you’re not “dating” has been going on for as long as people could figure out sex, and it was definitely happening when I was in college.
But anyway, the alcohol piece of it, which fuels so much of campus connections, deserves a lot of discussion. I want people to think about why we need to be inebriated to fuel our sex drives or lose our inhibitions. I believe it is often a justification for not feeling badly about ourselves for doing something we want to do, as opposed to saying “I did something because I really wanted to and I am taking ownership of it.”
I think that one of the things that we did a disservice to – and it has been 25 years, since I have been a freshman — but the one thing I think we did wrong, as educators, is that we did not focus on identity, gender fluidity, and the expansiveness of sexuality. It was just incredibly limited to behaviors and protection, rather than all of the facets that make our sexuality.
In the 90s, we also talked about consent with a focus on simply saying “no.” But, that is clearly not the whole story. You can’t just say “no means no.” We need to talk about how and when you evaluate the decision to say yes and what that means. It is about negotiating those feelings and experiences of rejection, which we all have. So, I think there were a lot of complexities that we probably were not talking about. Back then, we were really talking in absolutes, which in hindsight there was so much more that needed to be done, including all the double-standards with sex and gender, instead of the simple “no means no” message.
On campus, I spent a lot more time talking about condoms, and dental dams, the importance of getting tested, and where to get the best lube. I still think that even in those conversations, we all could have been more nuanced. That still applies to today.
That is so true. And, I think that is something I also learned at Penn. Were you involved in Greek life in college? I am involved in Greek life and, it is just so interesting being an openly gay young man in the frat scene because it definitely is not always a welcoming place. One of the questions I grapple with is, do you believe healthy, positive, consent-filled relationships are antithetical to Greek life on college campuses?
I think that any setting or community could set the stage for really equitable, non-judgmental, sex and social lives, if we agree right from the start that there are certain expectations that we have and systems put in place that we expect our sisterhoods/brotherhoods/siblinghoods to follow. We need to start with the idea that every person’s identity is different, how everyone chooses to express themselves is different, and whoever you are you are valid and valued. But, so much of that is shaped by the assumptions and expectations and misconceptions we bring in. So, unless we undo those first, we are just putting bandaids on larger issues. Imagine if there is a party with alcohol and all of a sudden, those things we have been shaming people for doing or not doing gives them license to do it, and then the consent issue gets complicated. So, I think by making Greek social life (and college social life in general), the setting for more sex-positive experiences requires some intentional creating of norms and expectations for everyone in the community, and of course that may feel hard for students to do — but I think is actually much less difficult than it might seem.
How would you recommend effectively broaching this subject with frat members? Where can I start?
Sometimes, believe it or not, virtual can be better. Because you don’t have the person sitting next to you screwing around or making jokes. It could be possible to, at the start of the year, have this reset with an online conversation. Like, “Hey, college is about a lot of things and, obviously, expressing your sexuality, developing relationships and partnerships, is a part of it. What if we facilitated a conversation about all of those topics that we want to talk about but don’t – those important things that would allow us and our partners to have fulfilling consensual experiences?” I think there are really good ways to facilitate those conversations.
You are right. We need to make sure that people talk about this. These issues still persist.
I think it is important every year — and maybe it is just that the Jewish High Holy days are approaching, — but I think that every year requires a reset, when you sit back and think, “Ok, that year has passed. What are our responsibilities and goals moving forward? What have we learned from the past that we need to change moving forward?” And, you can acknowledge that hooking up and having sex is part of the college experience for many, but it should be fun, pleasurable, and consensual, regardless of who it is with.
And, that is so doable.
And so much freaking better! Okay, What is something you wish you knew when you were younger or in college about sex and relationships that you now know?
The one thing that I think I did not know was how important understanding my own body was and that my body had the capacity for pleasure regardless of who I was with or regardless of my relationship status. I think that was a critical piece that was missing. I sat down with a group of my girlfriends during my junior year and said, “Okay, I want us to talk about all of our masturbation habits.” And it was fascinating because some were completely open and tried so many techniques and toys, and others were like “I would never; my own body is gross.” It still breaks my heart to have heard that. Had we all been taught how important it was to understand our own needs without a partner, it really would have changed and shaped how we saw our interactions. We wouldn’t be wasting our time with a partner who was selfish or only cared about getting off or was the one who pushes your head down. We wouldn’t have stood for that.
You really can see how the ways in which we talk about sex can illustrate how some people are full of feelings of rejection, self-hate, and embarrassment. But, when you look on the male front, it is just so much more hyper-masculine, rather than talking about pleasure it’s often just about who you got with, how many times, and if you are a “beast”—it is just so out of touch.
And the language! Think about the language. That conquest-oriented, beast, savage, all that super aggressive language. When my students talk to me about the language they use to describe sex, I tell them how it sounds from my perspective. To me, I explain that when I hear those terms it doesn’t sound like, “I am going to have fun.” It sounds sort of threatening, and aggressive, and if you really want your partner to be fully engaged in sex and have a good time, that is not the language I would use to get them to want to be with you.
It needs to be this tango. It is supposed to be a fun thing! You made me think of this TedTalk that I recently watched about the Porn Industry and what it does to our perception of sex. What influence do you think porn has, especially for men, on our sexual experiences?
Listen, I am not anti-porn or erotica. I think it serves a purpose. It has existed in some form since the beginning of our time. It is not new. But, the change is the access. When I was in college, we had to work to get porn. It was a skill, and you could find it. But, it was not like you could just flip it on – unless you paid for the Spice Channel on cable (and not all of your roommates would commit to that). And, back then, it was fairly tame in comparison to today’s standards. I think that pornography can serve a purpose, but it is not designed to educate you about how a sexual experience is going to take place because it misses all the nuance, the complexity, all the awkward moments, the negotiation, the pleasure, the diversity of bodies and abilities, shapes and sizes, there is so much missing. And that is without even getting into the objectifying, violent more extreme forms of porn. It is not designed to give you the tools to engage in a relationship.
I remember, years ago, I was teaching a group of seniors in high school and I asked them to tell me their thoughts on pornography. And, this one male student said to me “well, if I use porn, and my partner doesn’t, then I’ll know what to do and she won’t.” I said I was going to challenge that. “I am going to frame that a little differently. If anyone out there thinks their sex life will look like what they are seeing in pornography, they are going to be very disappointed.” Because, it is not. It is not what porn is designed for. Pornography is designed to elicit a reaction out of you, not teach you.
With many colleges around the country planning to bring students back on campus this fall, what is your advice for college students to be safe sexually in light of the current pandemic? Is dating as we know it even possible?
By the way, when the New York City department of health endorses glory holes, you know that you are onto something. Way to bring back a term from the 1980s! This is a pretty big step for the New York City Department of Health!
But seriously, as a broad statement, and I say this knowing I have an adolescent at home, I really feel so badly that so many young people are going to lose chances to learn what it is like to be physically intimate with someone else. That all of these little touch milestones, these physical moments, and new feelings have been (or have to be) suppressed. I think people are going to be more afraid to be emotionally, as well as physically, vulnerable. And, I feel terribly about it because these moments are so important, healthy, and fun. We are going to have to find a way to balance physical intimacy with making smart decisions. Whether that is all sorts of sex with a mask on or partners getting tested for COVID together, we can do it the same way we would have encouraged getting tested for STIs together. It is going to have to be part of our repertoire for a while, until it is not.
As many scholars and educators have studied, the way to achieve greater happiness in life is to have healthy and happy relationships, what makes a relationship healthy?
We need to recognize how broad that word relationship is. Our human interactions are really important. And, feeling like you matter and your voice is heard is so important to our fulfillment. Humans need and want connection. Even if we are asexual, it does not mean that we do not want connections with other people.
My students will always say to me “we don’t have relationships.” I explain that any human interaction is a relationship. It can be a little “r” relationship; it does not have to be a monogamous all-in-caps relationship, but interactions between you and another person is a relationship. One of the things that prevents us from having healthy relationships is that we are so afraid to admit who we are, what we want, what our expectations may be, in particular, if our expectations do not match the cultural norms of our communities. These things prevent us from having healthy, meaningful, fulfilling relationships, whether they are for a night or a lifetime. And, the challenge of not speaking up about those issues starts with the fact that we barely give ourselves the freedom to ask ourselves what it is that will fulfill us. So, start with: Who am I? Who am I attracted to? What am I open to being attracted to? What am I looking for? I mean maybe I am just looking for sex, maybe I am looking for emotional connection. But, we do not ask ourselves these questions because we wind up realizing that maybe our desires do not fit that stereotype of what we are supposed to want. And, that can be really scary. So, I say fuck the fairytale — they do not mean anything nor do they guarantee personal satisfaction.
But one skill that is really hard for college-aged students (okay, everyone actually) is how to fight fairly. We are so quick to go low when we argue and fight. Unfortunately, you learn far more about a relationship when things are in conflict, rather than when things are great. It is really hard to talk about healthy relationships without acknowledging that people argue and fight, but how they do it tells much more about the overall quality of a partnership.
Yes, communication is essential, so what are three things you do to make people feel comfortable talking about sex, sexual health, and sexuality?
First, I am a big believer in owning awkward situations. One of the things that I have seen in the last couple of years with my college-aged students is this complete emotional paralysis over being seen as awkward. How do I talk about pleasure without being awkward? How do I tell someone it is my first time doing something without being awkward? My comment is always “who on Earth told you that these things were not supposed to be awkward?!” Sex is always awkward. Bodies are funny and weird and make strange noises. So what? But it is never polished; no one ever looks perfect and that’s okay! Dealing with vulnerability is part of becoming a resilient human being. Those things have to happen. Most people can’t speak with sexual bravado that we hear in movies. We forget that awkwardness is positive and real! It is an important part of being human. We need to own the awkward!
Number two: Using humor is critical. Sex can be funny as well as fun. I talk about sex for a living and have for a really long time, but by all means, I am not perfect at having sex. Nor am I a perfect partner — I make mistakes all the time! And I’m happy to share the mistakes that I’ve made, especially the ridiculous ones. That being said, I have gotten really good about holding myself accountable, but nobody is perfect and everyone should learn how to say “I’m sorry.”
The last thing is that no matter who we are, no matter what our identities are, everyone deserves to have a sexuality on their own terms. I do not believe consenting adults need rules. Consenting grown-ups get to make their own decisions free of judgment. Who am I to tell someone how they should handle their own lives?
About the Author
David Garnick is from the Philadelphia area and is a rising sophomore planning to double major in political science and urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is also a representative on the Undergraduate Assembly and a member of its task force to promote PrEP on campus.
About Logan Levkoff
An internationally recognized expert on sexuality and relationships, Dr. Logan Levkoff is an author and educator dedicated to perpetuating healthy and positive messages about sexuality and relationships and encouraging honest conversation about sexuality and the role it plays in our culture. As a thought leader in the field of human sexuality and personal relationships, Logan frequently appears on television including Good Morning America, The Today Show, and CNN. Logan is an AASECT Certified Sex Educator and Sex Educator Supervisor and served on the AASECT Board of Directors. She received her Ph.D. in Human Sexuality, Marriage, and Family Life Education from New York University and holds an M.S. in Human Sexuality Education.
This blog provides information about telemedicine, health and related subjects. The blog content and any linked materials herein are not intended to be, and should not be construed as a substitute for, medical or healthcare advice, diagnosis or treatment. Any reader or person with a medical concern should consult with an appropriately-licensed physician or other healthcare provider. This blog is provided purely for informational purposes. The views expressed herein are not sponsored by and do not represent the opinions of Nurx™.