The Sex Closet

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Beyond the science and the fun -- fetuses masturbating! -- Mary Roach's TEDTalk is about ... well, our giggling, collective discomfort with the human body and its processes.

While we can publicly talk about sex in all its thrilling messiness with a little more candor than we could a few generations back, we still live most of our lives within an invisible envelope of politeness. What interested me about the video at least as much as the actual stuff I learned -- for instance, that the longest ejaculation of sperm Dr. Kinsey ever measured was 8 ft. -- was the fact that the TED audience (and I) laughed at it all. Why is this so funny? Why does explicit commentary on sexual arcana summon up the public guffaws?

My guess: because we're letting go of old, stale shame. There's a lot more of it there than even the most liberated among us realize. As I rummage through my own sex closet ... hmm, what's this? My God, it's that old brochure my mom gave me when I was, what? 13, maybe? It was called "Confidentially, Fellows." The Lutherans published it. It advised against masturbation because the act was usually accompanied, so the brochure warned, by smutty thoughts (which God didn't approve of), but guess what? Masturbation didn't make you blind! ("Can I just do it till I need glasses?" the punch line of the joke went.) I didn't think it was ruining my eyes, but in my boyhood guilt I wasn't sure. Doubt nagged my early, solo sexual career, but didn't abate it. The brochure was actually a document of liberation.

I dig a little deeper into the closet and it gets crowded with awkward, R-rated memorabilia. Actually, some of the memorabilia is G-rated. Women in bathing suits! In the late 1950s, that was about the best a boy could get. I secreted old Life magazines up to my room and tore through them looking for exposed female thighs and bellies, bedeviled by what they did to me. And once I found an actual dirty magazine out by the railroad tracks. I was so enthralled and mortified I didn't dare bring it home. I had it out in the garage for a while, then, to be on the safe side, buried it in a secret place, to be dug up only on special occasions. It didn't occur to me to wrap it in plastic and, not surprisingly, when I dug it up a week later it had turned to sodden pulp. What a waste!

The best such classes are straightforward, judgment-neutral and science-based, but my guess is that they're still as weird as they used to be, because sexuality is not judgment-neutral and science-based. - Robert Koehler

I'm ready to shut the closet door, but, wait, groan. I can't avoid leafing through this next memory: the first sex mag I actually purchased with my own allowance money. I think I was 12 and the transaction had to be illegal, right? The drugstore across Outer Drive, where we bought candy cigarettes and Lik-M-Aid and Three Musketeers bars, also sold girly magazines, right there on the rack with the Readers Digests and National Geographics. Attempting to buy one was a serious humiliation risk, but what choice did I have? I took a copy -- it was called Jem -- up to the counter. A teenager was working the register. I still remember him. He eyeballs me, shrugs, takes my 50 cents and suddenly I'm in possession of the forbidden secrets of the universe. Semi-naked women! I can even recall some of the pictures: for instance, there was an artist's model sitting demurely next to a table. The caption read: "A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou. Wow!"

OMG, enough! Little boys alone with their sexuality -- though, of course, Mom has to know something. What are those stains on the sheets? How nice to be grown and able to laugh at videos about people who get orgasms by touching their eyebrows or brushing their teeth. But I remain puzzled. What is the evolutionary point of leaving puberty-stricken preteens to figure out sexuality on their own?

Oh, yeah, we have sex ed classes. The best such classes are straightforward, judgment-neutral and science-based, but my guess is that they're still as weird as they used to be, because sexuality is not judgment-neutral and science-based. And we lack a level of societal honesty in which it would be possible to create a class for junior high students called Beginning Masturbation. That means we're stuck in a world in which kids teach themselves about sex -- or they learn it from their peers, the media or, horrifically, their abusers.

We've figured out how to use sex to sell every product imaginable. Being able to talk about it honestly, in all its complexity, still eludes us.

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