F.Birchman / MSNBC.com
By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/28/2004 11:28:37 AM ET 2004-10-28T15:28:37

I don’t know about you, but my college course descriptions did not include Advanced Hand Job and Genital Play, The Art of Feminine Dominance, or Sex Toys 101.

But these are the names of some of the courses offered by “sex schools” — workshops, seminars and private coaching — that teach sex techniques. Think of them as your high-school driver’s ed course except with different hand motions.

The idea that you have to go to school to learn how to do what human beings have been doing for 4 million years or so might seem strange. I mean, there are a lot of people on the planet so clearly we’ve figured out the basics. But we live in an era of enormous sexual anxiety.

I am not referring to moral outrage, sexually transmitted diseases, or gossip about the sex lives of politicians and pop-culture disposables like Paris Hilton. I am referring to the anxiety we so often feel about how everyone else seems to know more about sex than we do, is having far hotter sex and having it more often.

So, in our self-improvement society, the natural thing to do is to sign up for a class — and we are increasingly willing to pay for lessons. After all, how else are the average Joe and Jane going to learn the fine art of “cock-and-ball play"?

“Our demographic is all over the map,” says Ellen Barnard, president and manager of A Woman’s Touch, a sex-toy store and educational facility in Madison, Wis. The people who attend classes there, she says, “are distinctly middle-aged, heterosexual couples. They are in long-term relationships and want to keep them alive. They want their sex lives to be fun and interesting and they are not willing to just have them fade away.”

No euphemisms allowed
And so they come for explicit how-to's. No euphemisms allowed. “We are very concrete,” Barnard says.

Classes in such schools typically begin by talking about the basics. Anatomically correct and lifelike models are used. There is discussion of what the various parts do. Teachers then might show a video to demonstrate what the action looks like in real life. For instance, Barnard uses a video called “Bend Over Boyfriend” to demonstrate anal-sex techniques to women who wish to use a “strap on” for their male lovers.

Toronto’s Laila McDaniels takes this concept one step further. In her classes, for, say, “couples erotic massage,” several couples will gather in one room. McDaniels talks them through techniques and may demonstrate on her fully-clothed self.

“Then I put each couple together in a curtained room and they can undress and practice. If they feel they need additional coaching, I am invited in and I will coach them ... The goal is to create a safe environment where they can explore sexuality without judgment.”

If being naked in a room with your wife and a sex version of Pat Riley doesn’t sound all that erotic, that’s fine with McDaniels. “Keep in mind that people are not here to have sex. The goal is not titillation, not to get somebody erect. If he does, that’s fine but his lover is not here to finish him off. You need to take that home.”

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Despite that warning, she acknowledges that the sexual tension can become thick. “I did a class on foreplay a couple of years ago and after the end of class, I was walking to my car and saw a couple in theirs. The windows were all fogged up.”

Improving communication
Merryl Sloane, a sex coach in Tucson, Ariz., who holds workshops on college campuses for groups and private clients, says the real goal of sex school is to enhance communication. If a woman has always dreamed of being tied up and spanked by her lover, but has been afraid to say so, a third party like Sloane can ease the discomfort. Her role is to give permission, to explain how to perform the act, and, importantly, to describe how to do it safely.

“I once had a couple in which the man really wanted to be dominated by his wife,” she recalls. “The wife was agreeable but thought it was silly so she did not know what to do. I coached her without him and it was miraculous for them. She was like, 'Oh my God! He responds so beautifully!'"

Lou Paget, a Los Angeles-based author and sex counselor, thinks just about everybody could use sex school, especially men. “The sources they go to are so frickin' hopeless!” she explains.

Porn has made many people — both men and women — think the wrong ways about sex. Women just don’t shout and moan the way they do in movies, they often don’t like to be touched the way actors touch women in movies, and they rarely orgasm through anal sex. In her workshops, Paget tries to dispel such myths for both men and women.

For example, "I tell men. 'Please do not use the dip test to find out if a woman is ready. You know, kiss, tweak the nipple, dip your finger in. Women are not machines.'"

Why the growing demand?
All well and good, but the idea of sex school raises a fundamental question. Why is it that Paget, who describes herself as “very Junior League and WASP-y," has an eager audience for questions about anal sex, and McDaniel has no shortage of average folks who want to learn about "fisting"?

The answer, I think, is that we are afraid. We’re afraid to think we’re not normal and we’re afraid the person we love will think we’re not normal. Instead, we’d rather pay somebody to tell us we’re OK.

And how much we’ll pay varies widely.

McDaniels charges $35 Canadian and up for her basic workshops, with elaborate workshops costing as much as $300 per couple. Paget charges $175 per person, with private sessions running $750 per hour. (She is in L.A. after all.) Sloane’s rates are $20 to $25 per person for workshops and $90 per hour for couples. And courses at A Woman’s Touch run from $15 to $30. The rope bondage class costs $40, but then you get to keep the rope.

Brian Alexander is a California-based writer who covers sex, relationships and health. He is a contributing editor at Glamour and the author of "Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion" (Basic Books, 2003).

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