Let's talk about sex: Q&A with Cindy Pierce
Cindy Pierce is a social sexuality educator who uses humorous storytelling to encourage more enjoyable, safer and healthier sex.
Pierce is a busy person. In addition to being a mother of three, she runs Pierce’s Inn in Etna, New Hampshire, gives talks on sex and has written three books, including her most recent book, “Sex, College and Social Media: A Commonsense Guide to Navigating the Hookup Culture.”
Pierce speaks to college and high school students, as well as parents and educators, using a combination of expert opinions, personal anecdotes and stories she hears from students. Her willingness to inject humor into “uncomfortable” topics helps her educate people about what healthy, satisfying sexual relationships look like.
The Dartmouth spoke to Pierce about sex in college, vibrators, Sexually Transmitted Infections and the search for maximum pleasure in relationships.
How did you become so comfortable with speaking openly and humorously about sex?
CP: Growing up with hippie siblings, I learned a lot from listening to them talk. Being around so many women talking about sex and their bodies, I learned that you have to find humor rather than shame about your body. There’s this idea that once you hit 18, you’re an adult and you’re supposed to know all this stuff about sex, so a lot of people are afraid to ask about it or talk about it.
How does hookup culture influence sexual relationships in college?
CP: Hookups seem so normal now. Everyone thinks everyone else is having great sex, and everyone feels pressure to hook up because that’s what is expected. But hookups aren’t usually good sex. I know there are women who feel the need to say, “I’m empowered, I can hook up just as much as guys can,” and they can, but that’s not necessarily satisfying for anyone. I’m all for empowerment, but when I ask them if they’re actually getting pleasure from their hookups, they get quiet really fast. When people pull me aside to talk about hookups, I rarely hear about fulfilling experiences. In rare cases, I hear about people who have had amazing hookup sex, but that usually isn’t the case. Really getting to know someone, to know what is pleasurable and to feel comfortable with them leads to really good sex.
You mentioned female pleasure. Why is it elusive for so many women?
CP: There are so many crazy dildos and vibrators for sale out there — you know, massive ones that look like chainsaws. It really should be simple; the [Dartmouth] Sexperts will tell you, a dildo is for penetration and a vibrator is for clitoral stimulation. And I’ve had women come up to me and say that they can’t have an orgasm with any of the toys they’ve bought and they can’t have an orgasm with their partner. Many assume they are incapable of having orgasms or need to try something new and crazier, like swinging from a trapeze to get off. Very few women can get off with just penetration — 75 to 80 percent of women need clitoral stimulation. And what not everyone seems to get is that penetration doesn’t touch the clitoris — it’s just not going to be stimulated by that alone — so you need to stimulate it yourself or have your partner do it.
I’ve asked groups of guys, “How long does it take the average woman to have an orgasm?” and out of a dozen guys, one raised his hand and said, “20 minutes, and I’d just like to point out that I’m the only gay guy here and I’m the only one who knew the answer.” But the thing is, straight guys do want to know this information but are afraid to ask.
There was one time, I had talked to a fraternity one day, and I went to a sorority the next. A woman pulled me aside and told me that her boyfriend had heard me speak the day before, woke her up in the middle of the night and told her that he didn’t know how to make sure she was getting pleasured, but he understood now and they could work on it together. She said she had no idea her sex life could change so much in 24 hours. So, that felt like a triumph.
Let’s talk about STIs.
CP: Chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, HPV — they’re still rolling. They’re not going away, so it’s really important to use protection — condoms, dental dams, female condoms. Female condoms are the funniest things. When I tried one, it was just so big, like hanging down to my knees. It was not super sexy, but it’s pretty hard to catch anything when you’ve got this Hefty trash bag hanging out of you.
It’s important to be safe with oral and anal sex, too. A lot of people will readily have oral or anal sex unprotected, but you do not want any of those STIs in your throat or anus. You can at least use a condom for oral — they have a bunch of flavored ones.
A lot of students will say, “Oh, of course we use condoms,” but the game-time decisions are different.
What role does alcohol play in sexual decision-making?
CP: Alcohol is the “accepted” way to lubricate social situations. You get a drink in somebody’s hand and the awkward person suddenly feels comfortable. It doesn’t matter if it’s their first or 10th drink, their body language just completely changes. As a non-drinker, even I wish certain people had a drink so they were less uncomfortable. Alcohol gets used as an excuse for doing or saying things that you normally wouldn’t. When I was in college, the only people not drinking were this guy who had been through rehab a couple times and me. Now, I feel like there are more people who are making the choice not to drink, but the ones that do drink consume a lot more. People need to practice social courage so that lubricant isn’t so necessary.
Consent is really important, with alcohol or without. This generation is really welcoming of the idea, but older people, your parents, aren’t helping you out. There are some older people who say, “If I had to get consent I would never have had sex,” but affirmative consent is a good thing. There are states where you can’t legally give consent if you have any alcohol at all in your system. It’s important to not just ask for consent once, but to keep checking in.
Any final thoughts on how college students can have healthier sexual relationships?
CP: Face-to-face time is really important. With all of social media and hookup apps, it’s really important to actually get to know people. You really just need to build your social courage. No one wants to feel awkward, but awkward situations happen and you’ve got to work through them.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.