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The Feminist Guide to Sex Education You Didn’t Get in School

by BUST Magazine

With Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 List and a record-breaking 93 million streams in its first week, the subject of women’s desire, sexuality, and agency is a topic on everyone’s lips. Half a century after the Stonewall Rebellion and Women’s Movement changed the landscape of sexuality and gender forevermore, a new generation of sex positive youth has emerged. In 2020, conversations about body positivity, genderfluidity, and pansexuality have moved into the mainstream, creating a shared space to tap into the healing powers of sex.

The days of silence and shame around sex are becoming a thing of the past as educators and entrepreneurs like Zoë Ligon bring positive and progressive perspectives to the fore. On a mission to replace stigmas and misinformation with acceptance and insight, Ligon has partnered with photographer Elizabeth Renstrom to create the new book, Carnal Knowledge: Sex Education You Didn’t Get in School (Prestel), which offers 52 progressive tips for sexual health and personal liberation. Renstrom’s warm and witty photographs complement Ligon’s sex-positive prose to provide a feminist perspective on everything from safe sex, birth control, and consent to sex workers’ rights and affirming healthcare.

Ligon and Renstrom create a safe space for thinking about the many ways in which sex informs our sense of self and helps us to create satisfying encounters alone or with a partner. Here, the authors share their journey to create a bright, colorful book that embraces all aspects of sexuality and relationships, without minimizing or erasing the struggle we may experience on our journey to liberation.

Why do you think “WAP” was so strongly received at this time in the United States?

Zoë Ligon: As much as there was positivity and excitement surrounding the release of “WAP,” I also noticed that it drew out a lot of controversies — and not just from conservatives. Of course, there was the Ben Shapiro reaction of something is wrong with you if you get that wet, so go to a doctor, but I also saw people who loved the song using it as an opportunity to say things to the effect of, if you’re 22 and dried up and don’t have WAP, go see your doctor. As a lifelong haver of DAP, dry-ass pussy, due to my medications, I couldn’t help but think that it was much less about the song itself and more about the control and anger over of the fluids that come out of bodies assigned female at birth. 

It also reminded me that people still have a lot to learn when it comes to vulvas and their fluids. People forget that lube exists and you don’t have to be ‘old’ to use it, that everyone ejaculates regardless of their genital configuration, and that vaginal secretions and discharge are not ejaculation. People associate ‘wetness’ with vulvas and ‘hardness’ with penises, but clits get hard [or] erect and penises get wet, i.e. pre-cum. I love that wetness is celebrated in this song, but wetness is not exclusive to female sexuality, either. I’m pretty into wet-ass penis — I’m joking, but I’m not. 

As women, what have you longed to see in the conversation about sexuality, gender, and relationship that may have been otherwise misrepresented, marginalized, or erased – and how did this shape your approach to creating Carnal Knowledge? 

ZL: I have always been frustrated that most of the books I read which taught me so much were all very gendered, [like] Female Ejaculation and the G-Spot or The Multi-Orgasmic Man. I don’t feel like my womanhood shaped my approach to this book as much as my grappling with PTSD from childhood sexual abuse. I’m a straight white lady, but the anger I feel from my own sexual issues motivates me to fight for anyone who has felt erased by mainstream conversations about sex. I wanted to touch on a wide range of topics that would help people realize that there isn’t just one way of doing things, and you’re not alone in your journey. I wanted to create a book that could have comforted me in times I felt disconnected from my body and sexuality.

Elizabeth Renstrom: It’s not so much my perspective as a woman that has shaped the visuals of the book, but more an approach to sex education that Zoë introduced me to. Understanding your pleasure and not feeling like you have to be X, Y, Z for advice to apply to you influenced my approach to creating the images for the book. 

sEOC60V4 b8258“There’s No Such Thing As Normal,” taken from Carnal Knowledge, Prestel, 2020. Photo © Elizabeth Renstrom, 2020

Could you share insights into a topic you wanted to address from a vantage point that may not have been prominent in the mainstream? 

ZL: These days I get asked about what comprises losing your virginity. Because younger people are more aware of sex toys, queerness, and ways you can have non-penetrative sex, it’s becoming more obvious that defining virginity as a penis going into a vagina is not only heteronormative, it simply doesn’t make sense. Why do we even have to define it? Well, we don’t, but if you want to identify with virginity or a lack thereof, that’s entirely up to you. I think the fact that people are asking more about this is a good sign! It means that we are able to realize, hey, *I* can define this term for myself, just like every other aspect of sexual identity.

The book has a joyful, celebratory, an affirmative approach, like a big sister who knows but doesn’t judge. Could you speak about the importance of creating an upbeat mood and tone to the text, photographs, and book design, and how this aesthetic approach is an integral part of the message? 

ZL: Sometimes when I see a thick book of text, I know I’m capable of reading it, but I keep putting it off for some dedicated “reading time” that never happens. While Carnal Knowledge is a book you can read cover to cover, you can also pick it up, read a page or two, browse the pictures, set it back down — and still learn something new! Clinical books on sex are necessary, but we aren’t all drawn in by that. While I hate to draw connections to social media, it’s clear that our brains have been trained by these algorithms to steal our time and limit our attention span. This book is sympathetic to that, while still getting you away from a screen. 

ER: I wanted the images to be a disarming entry point into the topics discussed in the book. Through whimsical propping and lighthearted compositions, I felt people would be able to take in the text Zoë wrote with additional ease. 

Can you speak about a couple of the more progressive aspects of the book that go beyond the mechanics of sex and delve into areas of our relationships with our bodies and with one another that we might not immediately think about when purchasing a book on sex education? 

ZL: The conversation around sex work within the mainstream is either nonexistent or heavily misinformed. There’s an assumption that all sex work is predatory and harmful to women and children, and there’s no distinction between human trafficking (non-consensual) versus consensual sex acts between adults where resources are being exchanged. Street-based sex workers, trans sex workers, and Black sex workers are murdered by police and civilians, and it doesn’t even make it into the news because it’s commonplace. Violence towards sex workers is sexual violence, the end. The way we treat sex workers has an effect on the way we treat each other sexually. Adults are free to do what they want with their bodies, even if you disagree with it. People shame those who sell their nudes, then go watch porn. The lack of education around what sex work is (and what it isn’t) only adds to the violence and stigma towards sex as a whole.

ER: The chapter titled “A Better Future” really drives home how sexual liberation cannot be achieved if it’s only limited to one group of people. It is on us to educate ourselves and stand up for others freedoms as well. Oftentimes people don’t consider other people’s trauma and shame, even their own, when it comes to sex, and I feel like this chapter really outlines how these things are connected and what we can do to heal and get on the path to pleasure. 

Zoë, what was your favorite chapter to research and write, and Liz, what was your favorite chapter to illustrate?  

ZL: I enjoyed writing the “Saying Yes, No, and Setting Boundaries” chapter the most because this is my weak spot. I am terrible with boundaries! My friend and fellow educator Jimanekia helped me a lot with this page. All the things in that chapter are things I know, but fail to execute in life. Writing them out felt comforting, and reminded me of an area I still need to work on. This is a perfect example of how you can know a lot about sex and still struggle with it. Owning my “no” and setting boundaries is a skill I look forward to refining as I get older.

ER: They were all such a blast, but if I had to choose my favorite, it would be the section of “Relationships.” I feel like the images feel the most cohesive because the tips center on how communication is the key to maintaining relationships. Whether that’s figuring out when to have a ‘relationship check in,’ setting boundaries, or figuring out your communication style with your partner — we all have to learn how to listen and be heard. This chapter is the one I refer back to frequently to help me in my friendships, my longterm intimate relationship, and familial relationships. 

H5 BSKFs 0597c“Saying Yes, No, and Setting Boundaries,” taken from Carnal Knowledge, Prestel, 2020. Photo © Elizabeth Renstrom, 2020

Lastly, could you share the most surprising bit of information you encountered working on this book, and why this information particularly resonated with you? 

ZL: The “Jealousy” chapter was really fun to write. While it’s not something I presently struggle with, a few years ago it was something that tormented me. While the things I wrote for this page weren’t entirely new concepts, it was certainly a new perspective. I enjoy reframing concepts that exist in sexual and romantic relationships in platonic ones because that really exposes the innards of the issue at hand. We need a network of support in our lives, and as I continue to strengthen my own, I am reminded that we relate to each other differently, and no one person can satisfy our every need. 

ER: I think the most surprising information was “Discussing Shame is Radical Act.” It’s how you create a path to your own pleasure—but it’s also how you become less afraid about discussing topics sex an intimacy. I think this book can still feel “taboo” to a lot of people, and part of that can be explained by how incredibly common it is to feel shame or humiliation in association with our desires. I apply this chapter a lot in my own discussions of sexuality — I hope it helps others too. 

By Miss Rosen

Top photo: “Love, Lust, and Attraction Are Not Mutually Exclusive,” taken from Carnal Knowledge, Prestel, 2020. Photo © Elizabeth Renstrom, 2020

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