Bloomington Sex Salon strives to take the stigma out of sex


Dr. Ruth Westheimer will appear at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater Aug. 14 as part of the Bloomington Sex Salon speaker series. She will discuss her life spent as a sex educator with Debby Herbenick, founder of the series. Courtesy Photo Buy Photos

Although sex has been a part of human existence since humans began to exist, talking about it is still considered embarrassing and awkward.

Debby Herbenick, creator of the monthly Bloomington Sex Salon speaker series, is here to change that.

On Wednesday, she will interview Dr. Ruth Westheimer on the Buskirk-Chumley Theater’s stage and discuss Westheimer’s decades of experience as a sex educator.

Westheimer began hosting her own radio show, “Sexually Speaking,” in 1980 and has since been one of the most famous faces of sex education in the country, Herbenick said.

Westheimer spoke to an unmet need when she started her career in sex education, because almost no one else was talking about sex as openly as she was at the time.

“She was one of the first popular experts who helped people understand things about their bodies and sex,” said Michael Reece, a professor at IU’s School of Public Health.

Reece co-founded the IU’s School of Public Health’s Center for Sexual Health Promotion, which sponsored the Sex Salon with Herbenick in 2006.

They saw a need for a different kind of research about sexual health in a time when public health sex researchers focused almost exclusively on sex-related diseases, Reece said.

“We thought that if we merged the best of the sciences from sex research with the best of sciences from public health research, we would get a very unbiased, progressive and positive view of human sexuality,” Reece said. “We thought that would be important to sexual health as a field.”

Westheimer is the perfect person to help celebrate the center’s 10th anniversary, Herbenick said.

The event will be in the form of an hour long conversation between the two women, with opportunities for audience questions for added interaction.

Reece said the event will reflect on Dr. Ruth’s accrued expertise and celebrity status, but it will mainly be a laid-back, entertaining activity for audience members.

“She comes at sexuality from a place of warmth and kindness, and that’s a nice approach for a lot of people,” Herbenick said. “She’s not trying to shame people, she’s not shocking people in negative ways, she’s just very honest and forthcoming about her perspectives on sex.”

Opening people up to discussing their sexuality is important because it reduces sexual stigma and makes people able to ask questions when they need to know answers about their own health or happiness, Reece said.

Westheimer does this by adding an element of humor that is somewhat unintentional.

“When she started doing this in her 50s, to many people it felt like your mom talking to you about sex,” Reece said. “She’s naturally funny because to many people, issues related to sex are still embarrassing. They make people giggle, they make people blush, and to have this woman being so candid about what she thinks brings some humor and fun.”

Herbenick said she and Westheimer will talk about everything from sexual pleasure to sexual shame, from making sex more exciting in long-term relationships to what young people should know about becoming sexually active.

“The more that we can become comfortable and confident talking about sex, it helps people bring up issues with their healthcare providers, it helps people say what they want to do differently with their own partners, it helps people feel more comfortable with their own bodies,” Herbenick said. “There are far reaching positive effects from learning about sexuality.”

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