Sexologist. Neuropsychologist. TV personality. Ann-Marlene Henning is one accomplished woman. She adds a fourth string to her professional bow with the release of her first book, Sex & Lovers: the no-nonsense teen sex guide with a heart. Nusa Bartol-Bibb grabs a slot at the start of the UK book tour to talk porn and sex-positive parenting.
ER: You make the point in the introduction to Sex & Lovers that teenagers today are exposed to more representations of and allusions to sex than any generation before them has been. To what extent is Sex & Lovers a book for this specific generation?
A-MH: I think I wrote it for fifteen year olds but everyone else is reading the book, actually. Of course, if you’re an adult there are some places where you think, “Well, ok, I know this”, but there’s certainly a lot of things that people don’t know. All this about arousing, how it works, there are many things in there you might not know. Because I didn’t know them either before I became a sexologist and I talked about this all my life and I’m Danish but there is still so much I didn’t know. I see clients every day and I learn something every day that I didn’t think of talking to people at my practice.
ER: When porn is mentioned in the book it’s presented as something to be wary of, something that can give you very warped ideas. But do you think that there is any place for porn in anyone’s sex lives? Young people’s or adults’?
A-MH: Yes, definitely. Because as you see, you see in England now, people are afraid of our pictures. Of showing them. That means where can people see anything? They can see things in porn. They should just know that maybe everything’s a little too big and maybe people are capable of too much but you can get a view on things, actually, I don’t know where else. It’s not all bad, you’ve just got to know that that’s not how most people have sex.
ER: Do you think that representations of sex in the mainstream media should be more heavily vetted? Maybe not legally, but should we be publically putting adverts or music videos through some sort of test to ensure that all sex is shown to be consensual?
A-MH: Do I think we should try to control it a little more? Yeah, but I think it’s so difficult so the best way to do it actually is to make children think for themselves and that starts with the parents very early. But then the problem is they don’t know about stuff. They don’t know the videos their kids watch. So, you know, it’s a difficulty. It has to go into schools, I think, all this about the public… Facebook, MTV and everything that’s out there. Where we show almost naked women to young girls and yeah, everybody is under pressure to do so much and be capable of so much and we need to talk to them about it. Even younger people but that can be at school though different media.
ER: You recognise that for a lot of parents, talking to their children about sex can be difficult and embarrassing. How can parents and guardians encourage a healthy approach to sex without talking about it explicitly?
A-MH: Actually, I didn’t talk too much with my son about it but I thought that whenever there was a chance – you know whenever there was something on television or an article somewhere or when I was maybe kissing my husband and he just popped around the corner, then I always just acted natural about it. I don’t have to try hard because I am natural about. Even if you get red, even if a grown up person is uncomfortable, then they can just say I’m uncomfortable about it because then it’s ok. They don’t have to know more but It’s just about being natural about the whole topic because then they’ll just ask if they’re something they want to know. And then of course, if you don’t want to talk about it, then – that’s why I wrote this book – you just put it down on the table. You don’t even have to say anything: it always disappears. It always ends up in the teenagers’ room somewhere and you never see it again. But that’s just a good way in. Often they start to talk after having read the book.
ER: Some of the photographic plates in Sex & Lovers feature same-sex couples and topics of interest to young gay and bisexual people are covered in most of the sections. I think it’s interesting that these topics are slotted into chapters mostly focused on the heterosexual experience and not allocated a separate section of their own. What are the reasons behind that?
A-MH: I think you don’t have to make an extra chapter about same-sex couples because why? That [the section in the book on sexual selves and identities] is just a little side thing that ‘oh, yeah, by the way, you can also be with a man if you’re a man. But the techniques, all the things, all the love, all the touching is exactly the same. We just have to have it in there because it’s still so unusual to so many people. But making a special group, you know, why should we do that?
Ann-Marlene Henning and Tina Bremer-Olszewski with photographs from Heji Shin, Sex & Lovers: A Practical Guide, Cameron & Hollis, Paperback, 256 pages, ISBN: 978-0-906506-28-8. £18.99