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We’re afraid to talk about sex. This UCSD professor says we shouldn’t be

Janna Dickenson is a licensed psychologist and heads UC San Diego's Sexual Wellbeing and Gender Lab
Janna Dickenson is a licensed psychologist and heads UC San Diego’s Sexual Wellbeing and Gender Lab.
(Nancee E. Lewis)

Janna Dickenson is a licensed psychologist and leads UC San Diego’s Sexual Wellbeing and Gender Lab, where her work focuses on increasing sexual literacy across people of all sexual orientations and genders, with the aim to enhance population sexual well-being

Although there are more resources and ways for people to talk about sex, Janna Dickenson knows that it can still be an uncomfortable topic overrun with far too much misinformation. In her work as a licensed clinical psychologist with a focus on sexual literacy and sexual well-being, she’s on a mission to change that.

“I envision a world — or, at least, a campus — where accessing scientific information about sexuality is easy, and that’s why I started the SWAG Lab,” she said, referring the Sexual Well-being and Gender Lab at University of California San Diego, where she’s also an assistant teaching professor in the psychology department.

“The undergraduates in the lab not only study sexuality and sexual well-being, but they also spread their knowledge as well. Ultimately, that’s the point of the lab — to increase sexual literacy on campus in effort to enhance sexual well-being.”

Part of sharing that knowledge will happen at 2 p.m. today at the Shiley Special Events Suite at the Central Library in downtown San Diego as part of the San Diego Public Library’s “Birds and the Bees: An Inclusive Sex Education Series” program.

The SWAG Lab’s “Sexual Orientation and Sexual Fluidity” presentation is intended for guests 18 and older and will include students from the lab talking about what researchers have to say about sexual orientation and fluidity, and how to apply that information to one’s own life. There won’t be a discussion of gender identity outside of its relationship to sexual orientation, Dickenson says, but the students are happy to answer questions after the program.

Dickenson, 35, lives in San Diego’s San Carlos neighborhood with her husband, their pit bull and golden retriever, and a baby is on the way. She took some time to talk about how she came to focus on sexual well-being in her psychology work and why people seem to have a hard time talking about sex in fact-based ways.

Q: Why was the lab something you wanted to participate in?

A: Sexuality has become more public as the media and Internet have begun to serve as vehicles for expressing our sexual desires, wants, needs and interests. Additionally, sexuality is being talked about more than ever and sexual stigma is slowly starting to break down. Yet, despite having a wealth of information at our disposal and our growing ability to talk about sex, sexual orientation and sexuality, most Americans have limited knowledge about sexuality. Even when we think we know a lot about sexuality, it turns out many of our intuitions are just plain wrong, according to science.

Moreover, finding accurate information about sexuality is quite challenging. When you do a Google search for sexual information, the answers you find are often partial, biased and muddied by opinions rather than science. Yet, we have the science for many of our basic questions (e.g. how can we increase pleasure? Stay in our bodies!). Of course, the answers that science gives us doesn’t always tell us a simple story, but the science is there.

Q: What led you to focus your work as a psychologist on sexual literacy and sexual well-being?

A: When I was in college, I took a research methods class in which I conducted a study about negative attitudes toward LGBTQ folks. I knew right then and there that I wanted to study sexual orientation. Then, I took a human sexuality course at the University of California Los Angeles, and I remember thinking to myself, “If I got to think about sex all day long as part of my profession, I’d be very happy.” It turns out that I was right. I also had a long-standing interest in clinical psychology, so instead of choosing clinical psychology or sexuality studies, I went to graduate school to do both.

I must say that I am extraordinarily lucky to have obtained the education I have and whose entire education was focused on sexuality. I received a rigorous graduate education in sexuality science, by attending graduate school with three sexuality researchers (Drs. Lisa Diamond, David Huebner and Don Strassberg); found a clinical internship that allowed me to specialize my clinical training in women’s and transgender health; and attended the joint clinical and research fellowship in sexual health at the Institute of Sexual and Gender Health. After my post-doc, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do and when I searched my soul, there was only one answer: spread the knowledge that I had been so fortunate to get. That’s what I’m trying to do now at UC San Diego, and I think it might be working.

Q: How would you define sexual literacy, and what does sexual well-being look like in practice?

A: Literacy just means competence or knowledge in a specific area. In the case of sexual literacy, it refers to adequate knowledge in sexuality and involves having access to information, as well as learning to enjoy and appreciate sexual identities, the body and intimate relations.

In practice, you know you have good sexual well-being if you love your sex life. I don’t just mean the act of sex, but your sexuality, or the entirety of your sexual life (your sexual personhood, your gender and sexual identities, your sexual relationships with others, your sexual relationship with yourself, etc.). Sexual well-being involves feeling good about who you are as a sexual person, feeling respected by others, and respecting yourself. It also involves feeling safe in sexual situations, showing resilience in the face of sexual stress, forgiving yourself and others for past misgivings, and having the ability to balance the need for sexual safety while maximizing pleasure. Sexual well-being is about feeling empowered to be who you are, ask for what you want and need, and pursuing pleasure (or choosing not to).

What I love about San Carlos ...

San Diego is phenomenal because we can play in the desert, the hills (some might call them mountains), and the beach all within a couple of hours of a drive. I am grateful that I wake up to the hills every morning!

Q: How are sexual literacy and sexual well-being connected?

A: Our sexual well-being depends on our sexual literacy. That is, the skills and knowledge that we have about our bodies, sexual likes and dislikes, sexual and gender identities, and how to maximize sexual pleasure (if we desire to do so), all feed into how we feel about ourselves as sexual beings. Additionally, we make decisions about our sexual health based on our sexual literacy. For example, if we want to maximize pleasure while avoiding sexually transmitted infections (STIs), we will try an array of different barrier techniques to figure out which types of barriers (outside condoms, dental dams, inside condoms, etc.) work best for us. However, we will only try out different barrier methods and brands of barriers if we know that these methods protect us from STIs and do not need to dampen our pleasure. (Contrary to the idea that condoms reduce pleasure, there’s actually research that suggests that condom use leads to more satisfying sex.) So, the knowledge about what barrier methods do, can lead to a change in behavior and how we feel about our sexual lives. In other words, sexual literacy equips someone with accurate information that can lead to making more informed decisions about a person’s sexual health. That can, ultimately, enhance their sexual well-being.

Q: In general, why do we seem to continue to have difficulty with talking about sex, particularly in ways that would lead to a more competent and fact-based level of sexual literacy?

A: Well, for one, we avoid the subject because it’s taboo. Also, sexuality is an intimate part of ourselves, so when we talk about our own sexuality, we feel vulnerable, and vulnerability is socially risky. No one wants to be rejected for our heart’s desires.

In addition, we aren’t taught about sexuality at all and only learn about sexuality in implicit ways, based on our own or our friends’ experiences, or by watching media. Since all we have is our own experience, we walk into sexuality discussions feeling like the expert, and that’s partially true because we are the expert on our own sexuality. However, we don’t really have a sense of others’ experiences because we don’t talk about it or learn about it. So, we have this huge gap in explicit knowledge about sexuality, we rely on our own experience to shape our understanding, and sexuality is vulnerable and taboo. All of these are barriers to having open and honest discussions about sex that would lead to a more competent level of sexual literacy. To gain sexual literacy, we need to throw out our ideas of what sex ought to be like and be open to what is. Similarly, we need to move away from what sex is like for “me” as an indicator of sexual literacy and learn what sex is like for the diverse range of identities, bodies and relationships that exist.

Q: What is your approach to teaching people about sex and sexual well-being? And how did you develop this approach?

A: Right now, I teach sexuality and sexual well-being mostly through classes. I favor a hands-on experience that teaches students depth in one area. For example, in my human sexuality course, I have students bust a common sexuality myth; for example, “Does gaydar exist?” In this project, they learn about science, gain sexual literacy, and become mini-experts in one small area of research. In addition to my human sexuality course that I teach annually, I also created a new course about sexual health disparities and sexual well-being. In it, students get familiar with sexual health disparities, learn to talk about sexuality and have a conversation that emphasizes sexual well-being, and apply a sexual well-being approach to sexual health disparities. It’s an undergraduate course that openly discusses sexual well-being, and my goal is to eventually disseminate the course so other universities can teach it.

Outside of teaching formally, the SWAG Lab aims to enhance sexual literacy across the UC San Diego campus and beyond. First, I have students read a lot of research on sexual well-being. We also meet once a week and students learn how to decipher “good” from “bad” science, troubleshoot questions that they have, and then they go and informally talk about what they’ve learned with their peers, friends and families. Ultimately, the goal is that SWAG Lab will create a peer-to-peer program. It’s also said that the best way to learn is to teach. So, I have students give presentations about the literature that they read and give presentations to the public about sexual well-being topics.

Q: You have a lot of information on your website about a range of sexual topics, including asexuality, sex among older populations, pleasure, sex across identity groups, and sexually transmitted infections. In your experience, what are some of the more prevalent examples of sexual misinformation you find yourself having to correct?

A: Myths I encounter frequently include: not knowing how different sexually transmitted infections are contracted, that older adults don’t enjoy sex as much, that good sex requires orgasm, masturbation is bad, that sex during pregnancy will harm the fetus, herpes is a death sentence to one’s sexual life, that a decrease in sexual activity during a relationship is a bad a sign, that kids of parents in same-gender relationships do worse, and that the hymen is a reliable signal of virginity — all of which are not true!

Q: What are some ways that people can begin to improve their sexual literacy?

A: In general, we gain sexual literacy by acquiring a wealth of information from a variety of different sources about a sexual topic. In the age of information being tailored to our likes and location, it can be challenging to find information from disparate sources. I recommend reading the scientific literature. If that’s too much, you can begin by reading the myth busters on my website (dickenson.ucsd.edu). Also, Emily Nagoski’s book, “Come as You Are,” is another great place to start if you want to gain scientific knowledge about sexuality in a consumer-friendly way.

Even before you read, the first step toward sexual literacy is to be open to learning. As Americans, we are pretty closed off to conversations about sexuality. Consider our use of language and how we often avoid sexual terminology. For example, it makes people uncomfortable to say the word vulva loudly in public. Why? And when we refer to the vulva, we use any other name besides vulva (e.g. “vag,” “private parts,” “down there”). Why not just call the vulva a vulva? By using the actual names of our genitals, by calling sex “sex” instead of “doing it,” we are communicating to our brain that sexuality is something that we can talk about in a fact-based way. Changing our language can make us more open to learning fact-based information about sexuality.

The other thing you can do that doesn’t require research or reading is to start talking about sex with your friends, family and trusted others. Ask them about their sexual experiences. Dare to tell them about yours (but be mindful about whether they are open and willing to have that discussion with you).

Finally, don’t believe that everything that you read or hear is accurate. In almost every article and every YouTube video about sexuality I have read or viewed, I find misinformation that science has disproved. That doesn’t mean the entire source is bad, it’s just a signifier of the widespread dearth of sexual literacy in America. This is why I advocate for finding multiple sources that come from different perspectives. The more angles and perspectives you can get on an issue, the closer you are to understanding the complexity of the issue.

Q: Your website mentions your belief that an increase in sexual well-being can improve treatment and prevention of sexual assault, gender-based and sexual orientation discrimination, and sexual problems and disorders. What is your understanding of how these issues are connected? How would a better sexual well-being address these things?

A: In brief, our interventions tend to focus on the undesirable outcomes of sex and ignore the positive aspects of sexuality, or sometimes ignore sexuality all together. For example, when we try to prevent non-consensual sexual interactions, we often speak about “saying yes” and power dynamics, but we don’t talk about the context in which non-consent is occurring, which is both sexual and social. From a sexual well-being approach, non-consensual sexual interactions can be understood as a failure to ensure safety, which impedes sexual pleasure and infringes on human rights of at least one party. The antidote to non-consent, therefore, is consent in sexual contexts. Consent is a social process that ensures our safety while we optimize sexual pleasure. By shifting the conversation toward one of sexual well-being, this would enable us to ask fundamentally different questions during the consent process, such as “Is this interaction good for me?,” “How willing am I,?” “Is this what I want?,” “How comfortable and satisfied am I with this interaction?,” and “What would make this interaction better?” Such questions can drive conversations about willingness, desire, and optimizing sexual pleasure via the consent process. So, a sexual well-being approach can augment the congruence between safety and pleasure by highlighting ways in which consent ensures safety and optimizes sexual pleasure. This approach has the potential to shift gender and sexual attitudes away from fear and shame and toward satisfaction, happiness, and fulfillment. My hypothesis is that if we taught people about the joys and benefits of the consent process, we’d actually do a better job at preventing non-consensual sexual interactions.

Q: What’s been challenging about your work in this field?

A: The taboo nature of sexuality makes this work both fun and challenging. I still must bring people on board about why sexuality is important and a fundamental aspect of being human. I can’t wait for the day when the importance of sexual well-being is on par with how we think about physical and mental health.

Q: What’s been rewarding about this work?

A: To watch others become empowered. When students gain sexual literacy, they not only gain a wealth of knowledge, but they also improve in their sexual well-being, and they start to act more confidently. I’m truly privileged to watch this transformation.

Q: What has this work taught you about yourself?

A: Above all, acceptance. As a same-gender loving omnisexual [someone attracted to all genders and sexes] who married a man, my sexual identity has never fallen neatly into the classic categories of sexual orientation, and I’ve always felt like I’ve had to fight to be accepted in whatever community I am in. Helping my clients find their own sexual voice, researching sexuality, and advocating for my community has given me the courage to speak my own truth. It turns out that when you accept yourself, others more readily accept you, too.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: That’s a tough question. Probably to be authentic and to be in the moment. So much of our lives as Americans are spent performing, trying to be successful, wanting to impress others or getting others to like us. In doing so, we achieve our goals for the future, but we are more likely to miss out on love, joy, and meaningful relationships that occur in the moment. Letting others see who I truly am and living in the present moment has been the two greatest gifts I can offer myself.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I’m not sure; there aren’t really any surprises here. It goes with my value of being authentic.

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: My ideal San Diego weekend would be to watch the sunrise on top of Mount Laguna, go on a morning hike, then come back home and grill some food with my loved ones!


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