When Lisa Speidel joined the Sexual Assault Resource Agency in the early 1990s, she had no idea her work in sexual assault prevention would lead to a career in sex education. But one graduate program, one assistant professorship, and 27 years teaching women’s self-defense later, she’s become an advocate for sexual awareness as a path to agency.
“Sex is such a big part of who we are, but we’re socialized with so much shame, and not understanding that pleasure can be okay,” says Speidel, who is C-VILLE Weekly’s new sex columnist. “If we can’t talk about happy sex, how are we supposed to talk about sexual violation?”
As an assistant professor in the women, gender and sexuality department at the University of Virginia, Speidel’s background in sexual assault education lends a unique perspective to her work in the classroom.
“[At SARA], I started examining the role of masculinity and how that plays a role in violence against women in particular,” she says. “We’ve expanded in that language (now we call it gender-based violence) because it’s not just about violence against women.”
Since then, Speidel says there’s been a movement to talk about sexual assault prevention not only through reactionary measures like self-defense and bystander intervention, but also through primary prevention—promoting healthy sexuality and healthy masculinity to stop assault from happening to begin with.
“I really feel strongly that if we were able to have conversations around this more openly, a lot of damage could be avoided,” she says.
Today, Speidel teaches four courses at UVA: human sexualities, men and masculinities, gender-based violence, and gender and sexuality studies. She sees each subject as interconnected, a necessary educational offering for students who’ve been failed by traditional sex education.
“There’s no consistency for how sex education happens in this country, she says. “We don’t have a national curriculum, it’s really state-based, and a large percentage of the federal funding goes towards abstinence-only. So a lot of people aren’t getting any information at all, but then they go to college and start becoming sexually active, and it’s not a particularly great experience for a lot of people.”
Speidel hears it directly from her students. “I do a lot of reflective writing in my classes, and people are very open and honest,” she says.
Ultimately, her students were the reason she began teaching about the pleasurable side of sex. During one of her intro classes on gender and sexuality studies, she remembers a student who raised his hand after she shared the statistic that only 25 percent of women can have an orgasm with penetrative intercourse. “He asked, ‘But I don’t understand why that would happen for someone with a vagina.’ For me, that was a pivotal moment. I realized I needed to be teaching a human sexuality class.”
Speidel points out that most people are terrified of having these conversations. In a dynamic where “people feel isolated based on sexual orientations or gender identities, women feel like they don’t have a voice, [and] men feel socialized that they’re supposed to have all the answers,” our lack of safe spaces to have open conversations about sex is a real problem.
The world of academia offers a solution, she says, if educators work to create brave spaces for people to be courageous. “If you can create an environment where it’s like, ‘Okay, I have to read about this,’ and there’s research and books written about it, it’s a tool to get those conversations going. You know, the conversations we don’t do very well in our everyday lives.”
To help facilitate these conversations both in and outside the classroom, Speidel and her former student Micah Jones have co-authored a book titled The Edge of Sex: Navigating a Sexually Confusing Culture From the Margins. The anthology includes work from 37 writers, half of whom are former students of Speidel’s, as they discuss their experiences of sex and sex education in America.
The Edge of Sex appeals not only to clinicians working on issues of gender identity and sexuality, but also to casual readers who want to immerse themselves in education outside the classroom.
“It’s all about marginalized or unheard voices, and how exclusion, and exclusionary practices in sex education, really affects people’s identity and developing,” Speidel says. “If you’re going to have conversations with your own children, or if you’re having conversations with each other, there’s some skill building and understanding available.”
As Speidel has experienced firsthand in her career, exposure to a variety of voices and perspectives is the first step in creating positive change. The Edge of Sex not only sheds light for readers, it empowers them to realize they’re not alone, and community and resources exist to help them.
“I think a lot of people will find themselves in this book,” she says. “The first chapter is [by someone writing] about faking orgasms for 30 years. The next is about someone who’s trans. It’s just a huge spectrum of voices.”
Speidel says that it’s important to celebrate all the choices that people make in ways that are safe, happy, and consensual. “It’s such a cliché, but knowledge is power,” she says. “Learning how to communicate and how to decrease dynamics that make people feel shameful and bad about themselves—there’s a domino effect.”