“s.e.x.”, Heather Corinna: Sex, Relationships, Sexual Health

sex-cover-heather-corinnaHeather Corinna’s s.e.x. first came to my attention thanks to sex columnist Dan Savage’s Savage Love from September 12. s.e.x.‘s absurdly long subtitle makes a strong case: “the all-you-need-to-know progressive sexuality guide to get you through high school and college”. Now, I’m through high school and largely through the Australian equivalent of college (or at least through with it). But I harboured a suspicion that I’d got through these venerable institutions without necessarily learning all I should have about sex and sexuality. So I got a copy of s.e.x..

The book is impressively definitive. This is no narrative: it is a content-rich guide to sexuality, exactly what it claims to be. I read it appreciatively, although I did learn to skip some of the chapters that might be less relevant to me. If a partner ever gets pregnant, I’ll go re-read them. Chapters that were relevant to me, chapters that I really valued, were around relationships, sex, and sexual health. Let’s read more about them, shall we?

Corinna’s s.e.x. on Relationships

I’m pretty big on relationships. They give meaning to my life. I ponder what makes them work or fail. Myself, I’m quite deliberate about relationships: I identify those I value, consider what I value about them, think about how I can invest in these relationships. I also am committed to developing relationship skills, becoming a better communicator and growing in emotional intelligence.

So I dug what s.e.x. had to say on the subject. Mainly it had some really good ideas to mull over. Corinna points out that “no relationship should take so much work to maintain that most of the time it isn’t pretty easy to just enjoy yourself and the other person or people within it”. While this is obvious in some ways, it is worth emphasising – I, at least, haven’t always nailed this.

a happy couple dancing lovingly together

Photograph by Rowan Dignam.

For example, I was once in love with someone. We’d had some amazing conversations, we had a rare connection, she was gorgeous. Yet, scarily often, I was left feeling spurned and saddened when we parted. I found this a bit tricky to come to terms with. I think my analytical self was just thinking, ignoring the emotion and rationalising about what was causing me pain, what the solution might be. My melodramatic self enjoys the drama of being in love, even with the pain – it’s satisfied because sadness is part of being in love, and being in love is wondrous. On reflection, it just wasn’t a great thing. She wasn’t able to be good to me, and I wasn’t doing enough to look out for myself. One learns.

It was great reading this chapter on relationships and thinking more about it all. Amongst a whole range of good stuff, Corinna puts it very well. We deserve to have relationships that make us feel good.

Corinna’s s.e.x. on Sex

On sex itself, s.e.x. is similarly helpful: it communicates already known ideas neatly and insightfully. The gist of a detailed and enjoyable discussion is held in two points: a rejection of “sex as a gender-specific set of directions that are a progression towards orgasm” and a reframing of partnered sex as “willingly engaging in intimate sexual contact with someone else, often including genital contact, for the purpose of deriving sexual fulfillment, achieving satisfaction, or “answering” sexual urges for both of you”. I dig each.

I really like the rejection of sex as a progression towards orgasm. Rather, we can reconceptualise sex as a process of sharing pleasure that isn’t just about the outcome itself. It’s simple, but bold. Sex isn’t about getting somewhere, or getting somebody else somewhere. This new way of thinking opens up space. I think it can enable us to derive so much more joy from sex, from our partners and our partners’ bodies.

a picture of a tropical jungle from papua new guinea. It's densely wooded.

Photograph by Rowan Dignam.

The second point is also great. I resent that penis-in-vagina (the delightfully abbreviated, “p.i.v.”) is so fixated upon as the one true sex. I think this devalues other sexual experiences, worsens sex itself, and ignores the reality that people get off in all sorts of different ways. Coming to enjoy and employ many more of the options for sexual arousal is a great journey!

(In this, gay men may have the rest of us soundly beat. A 2011 study found that gay and bi- men had “immense sexual repertoires”, with researchers documenting more than “1,300 combinations of activities.”!!!! [HuffPo article])

Corinna’s s.e.x. on Safer Sex

s.e.x.’s chapter on safer sex is also a winner. Unlike the other chapters I’ve mentioned, this one introduced me to wholly new material. Firstly, I learnt that young people generally fail at safer sex. Corinna says that “people from fifteen to twenty-five of age account for nearly half of all STI diagnoses every year”. (Presumably it’s not just because they account for 50% of all sex acts every year.) Young people are more likely to be practising unsafe sex and dealing in STIs.

I’m tempted to blame this on education – my Catholic high school certainly provided no instruction around safer sex – but I think it’s cultural. Most young people I know are more concerned with avoiding pregnancy than STIs: barrier methods are avoided where possible and I can’t picture peers of mine using barrier methods for acts other than vaginal intercourse. I’m speculating here, which is perhaps further evidence of the problem: we don’t have these conversations out loud. Too, my peers may not be representative. Regardless, we can safely say that young people are doing poorly on the STI stakes.

Luckily, Corinna outlines how we can change this. Corinna expands the meaning of “safer sex” to be broader than ‘use condoms’. She lays it down:

“Safer sex is a combination of three basic things, ALL of which need to be done to be practising safer sex:

  1. Have full STI screenings and sexual health exams, at least once a year, more often if you have new or multiple partners. [1]
  2. Limit risks during sexual activities through barrier use (condoms, dental dams, latex gloves) and other practices.
  3. Make safer lifestyle choices, like limiting the number of your sexual partners, limiting or avoiding high-risk sexual behaviours, limiting or eliminating nonsexual STI risks in general (intravenous drug use, for instance), using clean needles for body modification work, and taking care of your general health.”

I love it. Given my love for prevention over cures, prophylaxis (2) sits well with me. Holistic prevention (1,3) sit even better. It’s a proposed meaning that demands a more active commitment to safer sex, that demands a deliberate decision to look after one’s own sexual health and that of one’s partners. It’s great.


When I began reading Heather Corinna’s s.e.x. I thought it might be too entry-level for me. Yet, while the book’s effort to be definitive means it necessarily covers some well-worn ground, it is invaluable as a thorough and detailed guide to the foundations of a healthy sexual life. It’s open-minded, it’s mind-opening, it’s engaging and it’s useful. I got a lot out of its ideas around relationships, sex, and sexual health. If you take the time to read it, I’m sure you’ll get something out of it too.

[1] Find here a list of Australian Sexual Health Clinics

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  1. Past Lust | Scit Necessitas - July 1, 2014

    […] body and each moment of what was taking place between us. It was beatifically far from what Heather Corinna, author of “s.e.x.”, describes as “a gender-specific set of directions that are a progression towards […]

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