Prof. Noelle Sullivan challenges the spectrum of ‘normal’ sex in ‘Guide to Having Mind-Blowing Sex’ talk


Illustration by Lily Ogburn

Anthropology Prof. Noelle Sullivan participated in Northwestern Sex Week for the first time Friday. She teaches a class about sexual pleasure, and touched on major themes of her class during the talk.

Kristen Axtman, Assistant Campus Editor

Anthropology Prof. Noelle Sullivan presented her “Guide to Having Mind-Blowing Sex,” addressing misconceptions about sex and encouraging students to explore their sexual preferences. The event concluded Northwestern Sex Week, hosted by NU College Feminists. 

Sullivan, who teaches the class “Beyond Porn: Sexuality, Health, and Pleasure,” said most young people learn about sexual pleasure from porn or Hollywood movies, both of which set unrealistic expectations. She said sex education in most middle and high schools focuses on preventing STIs and pregnancy, but rarely discusses what people should do for pleasure. 

She advised students to explore what they like by masturbating, having honest conversations with their partner or partners, disregarding messaging around “normal” sex and using lube –– which can increase pleasure and reduce STIs.

“This is really the stuff that most 30-year-olds wish they would have known at the very beginning of their journey into their sexual lives,” Sullivan said. 

In movies, she said most women don’t show their sexual desires, and men are expected to know exactly what their partner would like with little communication. Most forms of porn, she said, display human anatomy that does not accurately depict the full array of vulvas and penises.

She added most men overestimate the average length of an erect penis. In reality, she said if a penis is larger than six inches, it is in the 95th percentile for size. Plus, she said only 23% of women report caring significantly about penis size. 

At the event, attendees could submit anonymous questions, which Sullivan responded to at the end. People asked about masturbation, porn, exploring new areas of sex and different feelings of orgasms.  

“Some people put in anonymous questionnaires like ‘Is there something wrong with me?’ and then (they) learn, ‘Oh, no, I’m actually sort of normal, and it turns out normal is far more vast than I thought it was,’” Sullivan said. 

Sullivan also corrected myths about the female orgasm, including that it’s harder to achieve one. But, she said it takes men and women the same amount of time, about four minutes, to achieve an orgasm while masturbating. 

But, on average in heterosexual relationships, women orgasm during 61% of sexual encounters, compared to mens’ 90-95%. Sullivan calls this the “pleasure gap.” 

She said people in lesbian relationships report orgasming less than those in gay relationships, but the margins are much smaller. Still, she added, sex can be pleasurable without achieving an orgasm. 

“The basic issue here isn’t that there is a problem with female bodies,” Sullivan said. “There is a problem with common understanding about how they operate. We don’t get good information about that.”

The lack of understanding, in part, comes from a lack of research, she said. Though magnetic resonance imaging was invented in the 1970s, she said researchers did not conduct an MRI on the clitoris, which is the part of the female anatomy with the most nerve endings, until 2005. 

Sullivan said two-thirds of the vaginal canal have no nerve endings, which means only 10-20% of women can orgasm through penetrative sex. According to Sullivan, for someone with a vulva to have good sex, foreplay should be involved in 90% of sexual interactions. 

At the end of the talk, Sullivan emphasized that masturbation is a great way to learn more about your sexual preferences. She said it is difficult to communicate with your partner if you do not know what you like while alone.  

Bienen sophomore Eliza Reimold, an event attendee, said she appreciated how Sullivan laid out the “lies” society teaches people about sex. 

“My biggest takeaway is the variety of different types of vulvas and how wide the range of ‘normal’ is,” she said. 

Weinberg sophomore Lila Shea, a Sex Week committee member, organized Friday’s event because she is currently enrolled in Sullivan’s class about sex. Shea said the talk included the class’ “greatest hits,” calling everything she learned “really applicable to real life.” 

Shea said she saw people taking notes, and was glad people had a space to ask questions about sex besides the Internet. 

“Sex Week is awesome,” she said. “Everyone should talk about sex more because it is really important.”

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Twitter: @KristenAxtman1

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