Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Most Taboo Thing People Talk About Around Sex & How to Talk To Your Partner – a Sex Expert’s Thoughts on What’s ‘Normal’

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Welcome to Part Two of our conversation with Melody Thomas of new podcast The Good Sex Project. How could we talk to our partners about our sex lives? And how do we have ‘that talk’ with our kids?

Podcaster, journalist and mother-of-two Melody Thomas wants to normalise conversations around sex and relationships. She made three seasons of the popular, award-winning podcast BANG! – yep, its name is pretty self-explanatory.

For Part One of our conversation, click here!

CAPSULE: What do you think is the most taboo thing for people to talk about, or something people don’t want to talk about? Pornography? Premature ejaculation? Orgasms?

MELODY: It’s whatever that person is struggling with. It’s so deeply personal that it could be anything, and perhaps other people would view it as a minor thing, but to that person it’s having a huge impact. I think we definitely need to talk about pornography more, especially with young people, and as part of the sexuality-education curriculum. It needs to be made really, really clear that pornography is a performance and isn’t to be replicated within actual sex. That’s a very hard conversation to have with young people, but we can’t keep not having it – because there’s damage being inflicted as a result.

There’s more sex education in schools now, but I never even had a condom-on-a-banana class. Did you have sex-ed classes?

I’ve largely blacked it out, except I probably tormented my teacher! But yeah, the sexuality-education curriculum – and, increasingly, discussions around healthy relationships within that – has gotten better. But schools can pick and choose what they teach, and different teachers will have different comfort levels. Some parents will opt their kids out of those classes. So, you can’t really guarantee that your kid will get a good sexuality education, even though it’s more likely than it used to be.

Can you imagine talking to your kids about sex?

I do! My kids are seven and 10. We’ve talked about that stuff for a while, so it’s easy and ongoing. Once upon a time, our parents gave us ‘the talk’ but there shouldn’t be just ‘the talk’. It should be an ongoing conversation over your kids’ lives. Advice given in an episode of [previous podcast] BANG! that I implemented was largely to follow their lead, as kids will show you when they’re curious. When they ask you a question like ‘how are babies made?’, try not to get flustered and over-talk; answer as simply as you can. Then you can say ‘do you have any more questions?’. If you don’t have that talk with your kids in those first few years of school, they’ll start hearing things from friends that might not be accurate. So if they haven’t brought it up by then, you might want to gently go forth.

I thought I’d nailed the first talk with my daughter about sex, then I recorded her for BANG! and asked what she knew about the birds and the bees, and she said something about tadpoles swimming down into the woman’s belly. I was like ‘I’d better do that talk again!’ So, sex is a normal thing that sometimes comes up in our house. Periods as well: so Mum gets that sometimes, and we give her chocolate and we’re extra nice to her.

Have you told your kids about the podcasts?

They know. The Good Sex Project is very upfront about sex-related things but it’s not salacious and tittering. So I think they’re fine for their mum’s voice to be attached to this thing.

It’s hard to talk to children about sex, but also, I think some couples don’t even talk to each other about their sex life.

If you’ve gone years without talking about it, it’s much harder to bring up. If it’s an ongoing conversation, it’s just about picking up the thread. If there are things you want to change about your sex life, and you maybe haven’t spoken up as early as you would have liked, don’t let that stop you bringing it up. You deserve to enjoy sexual, emotional and intimate connection with your partner, and sex should never be something to endure. Get professional advice to help guide you if you need.

We need to talk about sex more, which normalises it, which makes it easier to talk about?

Yeah. Talking about sex doesn’t have to be any different to talking about anything else. To me, talking about sex now feels like talking about what to have for dinner. Obviously I still struggle occasionally when communicating with my own partner about things – I’m learning alongside everyone else! – but sex is definitely an area where the more you put words to it, the easier it is. Same with emotions and needs.

How many BANG! listeners were men?

About 70/30 in favour of women, but it’s hard to know for sure. The majority of feedback was from women, but there were some amazing male listeners. That was reflected at the live shows we recorded.

 What’s an example of feedback from a man?

A guy was really struggling with shame to do with premature ejaculation. He got in touch because somebody shared a story like that in the series, and he felt a real lifting of that shame, and was able to talk to his sexual partner after that.

Is that rewarding?

Emails from people saying this has made a difference in their lives are undoubtedly the best part for me.

Not everyone can afford therapy!

Therapy’s so expensive and also not all therapists are great, but in the podcasts, experts share valuable things they’ve learned.

Do you ever get called a ‘sexpert’ or similar?

Sexpert was one for a while. That’s fine. I just want people to know that I don’t have a qualification in this. I’m a journalist though, which means I know how to research and know when it’s time to call in the experts to give their advice. And I can listen, which is the most important part.

What does your partner [Paddy Fred] think about the podcast and have you run any disclosures past him?

There’s a couple of things in The Good Sex Project that I had to run past him, but I don’t want to give that away! I want people to laugh about it [when they hear it]. He’s a very good sport when I want to include an anecdote or sometimes gently poke fun at him. He’s very supportive. This definitely wasn’t the subject matter he’d feel naturally comfortable talking about, but through me talking about my work, and going to therapists for our own relationship stuff, he’s probably close to me in understanding a lot of these things. He’s also a musician and has written the score for this series.

Will there be more seasons?

I definitely want to do more series. Fingers crossed.

Your seven-part podcast series The Lake, which uncovers brutal treatment at the Lake Alice Psychiatric Facility, won a 2022 Voyager Media Award for Best Original Podcast: Narrative/Serial. And your five-part podcast series True Justice, which shares the stories of people who have been through our prisons, and advocates for a more-just justice system, won a 2023 Voyager Media Award for Best Original Podcast: Seasonal/Serial on Saturday. How did it feel to win?

It feels incredible to be awarded for hard work. Winning for those projects feels even more amazing, because the work gives voices to people and communities who have been horrifically mistreated and often silenced. So it’s a testament to their bravery and resilience. Plus, if more people will listen to these stories, they might perhaps be motivated to act when it comes to voting or pushing for more progressive policy.

You’re working on a book based on BANG!

I’ve been working on that for a long time! I was given a grant from Creative New Zealand, the Todd New Writer’s Bursary, which gave me the time and space to get started. Last year I wrote 80,000 words but I have to re-write at least 20,000 of them, I’d say. So, after this podcast wraps, I planned to get back into it and get to the publishers.

It will be cool to call yourself an author!

I hope so! I’m a Capricorn so if I don’t do it, it’ll be the first time I ever said I was going to do something and didn’t.

That’s good, right? Many people have the opposite problem.

Yeah. But it’s also burnout waiting to happen. Which is what happened at the end of BANG!

How did your burnout present?

As extreme resentment over every bit of work I was being asked to do – even when most of it was mahi I’d volunteered for – and a feeling of numbness, then the inability to work at all. Thankfully this coincided with Lockdown and financial support from the government as a result of lost work due to COVID, so I was quite lucky. I built myself up with time to rest, a book called The Artist’s Way, a lot of yoga, and intermittent meditation, and a complete rebuild of my sense of myself and my self-worth, which to that point had relied nearly entirely on my work output and external validation! 

Last question: what’s your ideal of society when it comes to sex?

I’d like us to stop thinking of sex as just penis and vagina. I’d like everyone to know more about the clitoris, and why we should pay more attention to it. I’d like fewer women to endure painful sex in order for men to feel more pleasure. I’d like every sexual interaction to start with ‘what are you into?’, so that we’re not just following this random script we think that we have to follow.  I’d like to undo the incredibly damaging effects of colonisation on indigenous sexualities.

I’d like people to understand that there’s no such thing as ‘normal’. I’d like more understanding that sex is whatever you want it to be so long as everyone is enthusiastically into it. I want queer and trans people to feel free to live and love their way. I want everyone to feel that they can live and love their own way.

Fnd The Good Sex Project podcast at https://interactives.stuff.co.nz/the-good-sex-project-podcast/ and on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and all major podcast platforms. The podcast was made with the support of NZ On Air.

*Photography by Ebony Lamb; makeup by Amy McLennan.

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