Life & Love


In her new CNN digital series “This is Sex,” journalist Lisa Ling explores the taboos around sex in America and the ways in which sexuality has been stigmatized, policed and politicized. In the series, which will be available online and via CNNgo (at CNN.com/go and via CNN apps), Ling explores the state of sex education in America, birth control and dating while HIV positive. Now, she’s opening up for the first time about her own conflicted feelings about sex.

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As a journalist, I have confronted a Pakistani government official about nuclear proliferation. I’ve interrogated a leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia about drug trafficking. I’ve even stared down a member of the Taliban in Afghanistan when he told my escort that I was out of line for speaking too loudly in public.

But for some reason, whenever I’ve had to talk to someone about matters pertaining to sex, my heart begins to pulsate wildly and I start to giggle involuntary. Throughout the years, I’ve profiled swingers, people who practice polyamory, those into kink and countless sex workers. Inevitably though, when asking about specifics, I become that little girl, who at 8 years old was told by my grandmother, “never let a man see you naked — even your husband.”

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Yes, she really said that. Grannie proceeded to tell me that all of her interactions with her husband, my grandfather, happened in the dark. And that was with her own husband. Sex before marriage was a non-starter. My other grandmother, a devout Christian, had persistent, dire warnings for me: “never commit the sex sin.”

Then, in Mrs. Spect’s 5th grade class, a permission slip went out to all of the parents for consent to allow their kid to sit through a two-hour sex ed discussion. Every kid in the class came back with a parent’s signature except one: me. Incidentally, if my recollection serves me right, I believe I was the only Asian kid in the class as well. Asians as a culture aren’t exactly the most communicative bunch, especially when it comes to personal matters. I told my teacher that my dad flatly refused to sign the paper, saying, “Sex ed in 5th grade? No way!”

My inability to talk about sex has led to some risky behavior throughout my life.

Mrs. Spect felt compelled to make a personal visit to my home to talk to my father. I recall her telling me that it was the first time she ever went to a student’s house. She explained to Dad that the course was more about anatomy than sex. It was important, she said, for kids this age to be aware of their bodies in order to be able to keep themselves safe. Not to mention, she added, that I would be the only kid to have to leave the classroom and go to the library while the course was in progress. Dad reluctantly agreed, but the whole scenario left me feeling pretty ashamed.

That’s pretty much how I’ve always felt about sex — ashamed. Let’s put it this way, it took me a long time to be able to have the lights on during intimate moments.

But I don’t think I’m alone in still finding it hard to talk openly about sex. And that, as I’ve learned first-hand, can adversely affect one’s relationships and health.

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Now in my forties, I can honestly say that my inability to talk about sex has led to some risky behavior throughout my life. I haven’t always been responsible about condom or birth control use, so I’ve left myself open on numerous occasions to unwanted pregnancies and STDs, both of which are rampant in our country, the latter now more than ever.

While our teenage and unwanted pregnancy rates have declined significantly, we lag far behind many other industrialized nations, and have gaping disparities based on race/ethnicity, income and geographical location. And across the board, our STD rates have reached an all-time high. We spend an estimated $16 billion treating sexually transmitted diseases every year. $16 BILLION.

Access to affordable healthcare services is certainly an important factor, but how much of this is driven by societal stigma and taboos when it comes to having real, honest conversations about sex in America?

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As the mother of two little girls, one of whom is 4 years old and constantly asking about how Mommy and Daddy made her, I know that I don’t want to impart fear and shame onto my daughters when it comes to sex. I want them, one day, to be able to enjoy it, while knowing that not being careful and communicative can have dangerous emotional and physical consequences.

Because sex, after all, is nothing to giggle about.

The Season 4 premiere of the CNN Original Series, This is Life with Lisa Ling, airs Sunday, Oct. 1, at 10 p.m. ET/PT.



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