Climbing the stairs to V-Spot sex columnist Yana Tallon-Hicks’ apartment, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Would there be a lot of framed Georgia O’Keefes on the wall? A swing hanging in the bedroom? Penis-shaped drinking glasses?
I was sort of right.
There are no vagina-esque flowers on the walls. Instead the neat apartment is awash in dark blue and decorated with vivid tattoo-inspired art. However, there is a giant vibrator drying next to a stack of Tupperware in the kitchen dish rack. And while there is no sex swing set up in the bedroom, Tallon-Hicks does own one. I wasn’t offered a beverage in a phallic glass, but, upon request, Tallon-Hicks did break out her chest of sex toys and educational props. Her fiance, Patrick MacDonald, a tattoo artist at Lucky’s in Northampton, laughs when she plunks the heavy box on the coffee table. “I tripped over that last night on my way to the bathroom,” he says.
The first item she shows me is Dolores, an anatomically-correct velvet vulva puppet with a pink rose for a clitoris. Dolores does a lot of work with 30-year-old Tallon-Hicks who, for the past year has dedicated herself full-time to helping people have better sex. Last year, Tallon-Hicks quit her restaurant serving job and threw herself into holding workshops on everything from female ejaculation to polyamory, speaking at sexual awareness forums, and writing a weekly sex advice column for the Advocate (Check out this week’s column, “Oh! Oh! Oh? Where’s My Orgasm?”.) She’s also studying at Antioch University New England in Keene to become a sex therapist.
Though people have been having sex for, well, ever, Tallon-Hicks is working to place herself in the vanguard of a sexual revolution, what she describes as “pleasure-positive sex.”
This might seem redundant — isn’t all sex pleasure-positive? Far from it, Tallon-Hicks says. In the United States sexual education is a disaster, she says, that aims to scare people out of getting down by focusing on sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. Education rarely, if ever, touches on orgasms, the intended outcome of nearly all sexual encounters. Many people don’t understand their own sexual desires because they have been discouraged and shamed out of that healthy exploration, she says. For example, she marvels, people are still debating whether the G-Spot exists! When people don’t know what they want sexually, they have a hard time asking for it. Sexual communication needs serious improvement in America, Tallon-Hicks says, and pleasure-positive is all about talking with your partner(s) about what you like, about what she/he/they likes, and providing direction so that everyone gets what they want.
The idea behind the communication is to reconcile with another revolutionary sexual practice that Tallon-Hicks is promoting:
Her message of consensual relations and good orgasms for all is reaching more and more people daily as she has a large online presence and strong readership. And she’s about to go international with it. In May, Tallon-Hicks will be giving a Tedx Talk in Vienna, Austria, about how porn has become the way most Americans learn about sexual pleasure — and exploring the implications of this.
“Sex education has nothing to do with the reasons people have sex, which is usually to feel good,” Tallon-Hicks says. “But all sex education is, if there’s any at all, is if you have sex you’ll get an STI and die or get pregnant. So, people go to porn to learn what’s really the deal with sex.”
With all the excitement about sex in the air, this seemed like a good time to sit down with the woman driving the magic bus to O-Town and see what makes her tick … just tick. Patrick MacDonald, and their Chihuahua-Doxen mix Brewster joined in.
Kristin Palpini: How did you wind up landing a Ted Talk?
Yana Tallon-Hicks: I get a lot of weird emails — so when [an invitation from Tedx organizers to do a talk] arrived I was in Europe and I didn’t pay attention to it at first. Then I Googled it and saw that it’s legit. They do these sex conferences in Vienna every year. So, I wrote my Ted Talk proposal at a hostel community table and sent it in. I’ll be speaking with seven others. I’m talking about access to pornography online and how porn is providing a lot of sexual education for young people and it’s changing the way we have sex. We’re focused on what to do, now what we want to do for us.
Kristin: So, we shouldn’t be having sex like porn stars?
Yana: Not all porn is created equal and the most accessible, the most mainstream is the stuff you see on PornHub. And a lot of people are learning about sexual pleasure from porn or Google and in all that, no one is talking. It’s not real: no one falls off the bed, no one needs a break, no one’s ever too tired so nothing happens. But the biggest problem is, [the actors] don’t talk about sex, but they look like they’re having good sex.
Kristin: What does good porn look like?
Yana: When I was interning at Good Vibrations [sex shop] in San Francisco, we had to have a porn education. A big part of the education was reviewing porn so we could carry it — making sure it’s not violent toward women or racially fetishizing someone, things like that. I can watch porn with a critical eye.
My favorite porn director is Erika Lust, but there’s also the Feminist Porn Awards, which chooses some pretty good stuff. What you’re looking for is transparency. Good porn will have interviews with the actors, who will have a say in which acts they will perform.
Kristin: Any advice for people new to watching people get it on?
Yana: You need to go through all the emotions of gross, embarrassment and finally this is cool. Watching porn is private and you should feel free to experience all the emotions that come with it without being worried about what you look like.
Kristin: How did you get into this line of work?
Yana: I feel like this has been a circular journey for me. I got interested in sex education long ago when I took a youth sexual education class at Hampshire College. But most of the reason of it is because of my personal sexual experiences as a teen — they weren’t super-positive. It motivated me to say, Wait. I would see my female friends get coerced into doing things or slut-shamed for not doing things. There wasn’t any communication. There wasn’t any consent. … I didn’t see the sexual education I needed available to me or my peers, so I thought I’d figure it out.
Kristin: How did you do that?
Yana: At first that meant getting on the bus and spending half a day going to Tapestry Health [in Northampton] with my friends and loading up on free condoms — and getting ice cream. I’d go back to campus and hand them out to my peers. I became known as the condom lady, the person everyone would come to to get sexual advice.
One day someone said to me, “You should do this for a living. You could be like Dr. Ruth.” And I thought, ‘Yeah right. People don’t get to do this for a living.”
Kristin: But here you are doing it for a living.
Yana: I work my ass off. We both do. Patrick and I work 50 hours a week, easy.
Patrick Macdonald: It’s why the office is the biggest room in our house — bigger than our bedroom, bigger than our living room.
Yana: I’ve been to Bennington, Smith, Brandeis, Simmons, UMass, and Amherst high school in the last year.
Kristin: How did you land the V-Spot sex-advice column with the Advocate?
Yana: People ask me, “How did you get to do this,” and I tell them, I asked. If you don’t say what you want, you’re unlikely to get it — that’s true with sex, too. I cold called the Advocate. I sent an email to the editor about what I like to write about, all these things I could write about, and at the end I closed with “ultimately I’d love to write a sex column.”
Kristin: You do a lot of workshops. What’s it like to get up in front of an audience and start talking about lube and prostates?
Yana: I’m always nervous. I don’t like public speaking. The first three minutes are always a lot of butterflies in my stomach. Then people start talking. It can be shocking to show up in a room to talk about butt plugs and ejaculation in public with strangers, but I try to use humor and personal stories to get in with people to be like we’re all in this.
The most freeing thing I do is ask people to give themselves permission to be awkward. If I can get someone to hold a dildo or put some lube on their hands, I’ve done it. The conversation is started.
Patrick: What Yana does, almost universally with college students is to bring out a white board and ask people what they learned about sex in high school. And the answers are, you have sex you get an STD and die or get pregnant and die or whatever they’re telling kids now. At first it can be quiet, but once one person starts talking, everyone starts talking. They realize we’re all here to get an addendum to that education.
Kristin: What do you enjoy most about your job?
Yana: Working with teens. They’re at the right age where they’re curious and no one is talking to them, so they’re Googling porn to get answers. I got to do a workshop at Amherst high school for their Consent Week last year. I agreed, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to make [one of my workshops] PG.
Kristin: Hence the birth of the “consent sundae?”