I Bedazzled A Vagina For College Credit

Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
The other day, I had to ask my husband what those two girls did with that one cup, exactly. There’s just so much I don’t know about sex. Do vaginas really get stretched out? How do you know whether someone’s a top or a bottom? Who gets turned on by eating poop?

These are the kinds of questions I thought I’d get answers to in college (though technically, this was before the world was graced with that viral video, and before viral videos were even a thing). It was my junior year at the University of California, Berkeley, and I’d signed up for a student-led course on female sexuality. There was a male sexuality class too, but it got suspended after its students reportedly took Polaroids of their genitals and played "Pin The Penis On Its Owner."

There were two instructors in my class, only one of whom I remember well: She was petite, with short, dark hair, and she seemed to glow with a calm, satisfied energy. Someone asked her once how her weekend was, and she said that she’d gotten a lot done, and then smiled beatifically in a way that made me suspect she could orgasm just by thinking about all the crossed-off items on her to-do list.

Here’s a sampling of the homework she assigned us:

1. Look at your cervix with a plastic speculum (which I later used as a duck bill for my Halloween costume).

2. Color in a picture of a vagina (I used jewel tones and hot-glued a broken faux-rhinestone bracelet around the perimeter).

3. Read a book called Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, which advocated letting your menses drip on the kitchen floor, and then drawing pictures in it with your toes.

4. Use a sea sponge instead of a tampon, and announce, “Just wringing my sea sponge out, ladies!” when in public bathrooms. (I skipped that one entirely, though my roommate at the time did save her blood in a Diva Cup and use it to water the plant on her dresser, which later fell onto my bedspread, leaving an ominous dark stain.)

We explored body image, and my contribution was to trace full-body photographs of myself onto white paper, and then admit that I probably had body dysmorphia because the outlines looked like they were of a thin woman and I felt fat. The class included much crying (although I never cried). When we talked about boundaries and whether ours had ever been crossed, I passed.

I didn’t want to share with strangers, even though it was a safe space. I hardly talk about sex with my friends, and we certainly didn’t talk about it at home when I was younger. My dad wouldn’t even sign my sex-ed permission slip at first, and it was only when I begged, terrified of being singled out with the Quakers or something, that he let me attend.

But the supposedly progressive “safe space” of my female sexuality class was pretty devoid of practical knowledge. After 15 weeks, I still didn’t understand how HPV spreads or whether it’s different from herpes, what an uncircumcised penis or even a clitoris looks like, or whether squirting is real or just a little bit of pee.

The supposedly progressive 'safe space' of my female sexuality class was pretty devoid of practical knowledge.

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I took the easy way out for the final project, hastily making a board game tangentially related to sex. Another woman — who’d recently given birth but didn’t look like it because she practiced capoeira and was very strong and lithe — did a striptease in the classroom, which was incredibly brave. (She wore a short, silky kimono and did not bring her baby to class that day like she usually did.)

At the end of the semester, all the female-sexuality classes came together for a talent show, which I attended for extra credit. The university mandated that a professor oversee the student instructors, and she sat in the first row while a “boy band” made up of ladies wearing dildos sticking out of their skirts lip-synched and someone else did very acrobatic yoga, holding each pose until we clapped.

Now, 14 years later, I realize that maybe the class wasn’t supposed to make me more informed or better at sex. After all, I could Google “can erect penises break?” all by myself. I think, rather, the class was supposed to make me feel safe enough to discuss my hang-ups — and by exposing them, sap them of their power and get that much closer to sexual liberation.

It was Berkeley, after all. The Bay Area can often seem like a Gomorrah where the fire just makes everyone sexy-sweaty instead of charring them. Once I pulled off the freeway and saw a man walking another man on a leash in broad daylight. And a few months ago I went to a bachelorette party in San Francisco where the other attendees did not a) seem fazed by male strippers’ penises inches from their face, or b) think anything of asking whether we watch our own porn. (Which presupposed that we make our own porn, which was giving me entirely too much credit).

My roommate took the class, too, and her final project was to puff-paint her original poetry onto a T-shirt that she hung from the fluorescent light in the middle of our room to air-dry. One of the lines was, “hazy, hazy, it’s so crazy,” except she couldn’t spell, so it said “hazzy.” I zeroed in on that, “hazzy.” She felt free enough not only to write poetry, but to spell it wrong and wear it around — and also to casually turn off the lights with some guy in her bed and me in my own.

In that class, I didn’t learn how to "lick it like a lollipop" or use the "rhythm method." But, in retrospect, I think the class tried to teach us the right things. I just wasn’t mature enough to appreciate the lessons that seem so clear now: that women’s sexuality exists separate from men and from other women. That it’s hard to feel sexual when you’re consumed by the size of your body and how much you put into it. That when you free your mind, the classroom can become a strip club, the lecture hall a stage for gender-bending performance, and the world your scat-fetish oyster. I'm still pretty prude, but the difference now is that I try not to judge myself for my inhibitions — or other women for their lack of them. I think we can all raise a cup (poop-filled or not) to that.
The gap between what we learned in sex ed and what we're learning through sexual experience is big — way too big. So we're helping to connect those dots by talking about the realities of sex, from how it's done to how to make sure it's consensual, safe, healthy, and pleasurable all at once. Check out more here.
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