When I took sex ed in middle school, our teachers put out a burning questions box, where anyone could submit questions, written anonymously on pieces of scrap paper, that our teachers promised to answer in class. To be honest, I can’t remember a single question that anyone asked, or any of the answers my teachers gave, but it was also one of my favorite parts of sex ed class because that’s where all of the juicy information came from. Or at least, this is how my brain remembers it, because now I have the power of the anonymous questions box, and I get to answer any and all questions that land inside of it. It’s my favorite part of every class that I teach.
I love answering anonymous questions because it guarantees that my kids will actually pay attention to me for ten minutes and not interrupt too much. But I love it even more because it gives me street cred. I have easy, quick answers to questions like (and these are all real questions that I’ve answered): “Is masterbating [sic] healthy?” and “How do periods work?” I can even tackle the question, “What if the condom breaks and you don’t know and you don’t have birth control?” I sit on my teacher’s stool at the front of class and go through the questions one by one. My students all stare at me, completely engrossed. Like I said: one ten-minute round of anonymous-question answering = instant street cred with all of my students.
The trick to answering questions well and accurately, it turns out, is to take them home and do your research. Some I know off the top of my head (yeah, sure, kid who wrote “What about boners,” I’ll give you a quick description of what an erection is), but some are harder. Some I just have to think about what the best answer might be (Q: “How do I make my dick bigger?” A: I hope that all of you, during the course of your lives, have partners that love and respect your body…), but some require internet research because I don’t have a clue. Which is the subject of today’s post: please, internet, help me learn more about sex!
Below, you will find real questions from real middle school students (and one from a middle school teacher) that I didn’t, until today, know the answers to. And, with the help of the internet, I will answer them to the best of my ability. But I would love, love, love it if other people would share their knowledge too, because there’s so much out there that I don’t know, but that I really wish I did.
1. How does a miscarriage happen?
I know, in general, what a miscarriage is, but I’d actually never thought very hard about it until I got this question. So I googled it, and landed on Planned Parenthood’s website; I cross-checked the information using the American Pregnancy Association’s website (and read a Wikipedia article for good measure).
Things I didn’t know: miscarriages (also called spontaneous abortions) are only termed as such during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, because that’s during the block of time when an embryo/fetus can’t survive outside of the mother’s body* (after 20 weeks, people use the term “stillbirth”). Apparently, 10% to 25% of pregnancies end in a miscarriage, about half of which are during the first month of pregnancy. When a miscarriage happens so early, it usually just looks and feels like a normal period – the person carrying the baby probably won’t ever know that they were pregnant. This type of miscarriage is called a chemical miscarriage.
Miscarriages are most commonly caused by chromosomal abnormalities – basically, the zygote/embryo has genes that can’t develop into a viable human. These abnormalities stop the fetus from developing like it should, and the body eventually ends the pregnancy naturally. These types of miscarriages usually happen during a person’s first trimester.
Other causes I read about: severe chronic illness in the person carrying the baby, uterine abnormalities (e.g. scar tissue, uterine fibroids). Someone who is underweight or overweight has a higher risk of miscarriage than other people. People who have miscarried twice before are more likely to experience another miscarriage. And, of course, smoking, drinking, and using drugs can increase the risk of a miscarriage.
When a miscarriage happens, a person usually experiences at least some cramping and some bleeding. This will vary from person to person. A lot of the time, the body expels the uterine lining and embryo/fetus on its own; sometimes a doctor needs to remove leftover tissue from the uterus. In the case of a missed abortion, the pregnancy ends but no tissue comes out and a doctor might need to remove it.
2. What happens if two sperm fertilize an egg? Could that be related to being born intersex?
This question came up when I was describing how only one sperm can fertilize an egg because said egg closes off all its other receptors after allowing one sperm inside. But, of course, the human reproduction mechanism isn’t perfect, and sometimes more than one sperm will get in. I remember from high school that this is called polyspermy – but I have no idea if polyspermy is related to a person being born intersex (with a mix of assigned-male and assigned-female genitals, or else one set of genitals with another set or non-matching set of internal reproductive organs).
Related to the previous question, all of the sources that I consulted agreed that polyspermy will never lead to a viable life form. Something about complications with mitosis. Very, very rarely a baby might be born that developed from an egg fertilized by two sperm, but they die shortly after birth.
The Intersex Society of North America suggests that some people who are intersex have different chromosomes in different cells (some cells might have XX/assigned-female chromosomes, others will have XY/assigned-male chromosomes), but didn’t mention how that might happen or why. There are also people who have abnormal karyotypes (e.g. XYY, XXY, X), but from what I can tell, these extra chromosomes are a result of abnormal chromosomal division, not polyspermy, and they lead more to developmental abnormalities than to intersex anatomy. From my limited research, I gathered that intersex conditions are more likely to be caused by a body either not responding to, or being super sensitive to, the hormone testosterone (testosterone, among other things, controls the development of the penis/testes in people with penises). For example Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), can cause a person with XY chromosomes to develop a vulva rather than a penis, because their body does not respond to testosterone. So they’ll have assigned-female external anatomy, but will have testes instead of ovaries inside their body. Sometimes a person with AIS will develop a mix of assigned-female and assigned-male genitalia, because their body will halfway respond to testosterone, but not enough for full penile-development to occur. An intersex person might also have a condition called Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH), which makes a body extra-sensitive to testosterone. So a person with XX chromosomes could develop a penis/enlarged clitoris in the womb, and might go on to develop facial hair later in life.
3. Are people who are circumcised/uncircumcised more/less likely to get erections for no apparent reason?
A teacher in one of my classes asked me this, and my gut reaction was to say no, but I figured that it was also worth looking up. After all, uncircumcised penises have more nerve endings on the glans (and thus might be stimulated more easily), but they also have the foreskin protecting all those nerves, thus possibly lowering their chances of accidental stimulation. This is assuming that what I like to call No-Apparent-Reason-Boners (NARBs) are caused by stimulation at all. The problem is, I can’t figure out what phrase to google to even begin to get an answer. Most of the first-person accounts on the internet are related to sex, not NARBs. Any and all answers to this would be much appreciated.
4. This isn’t really a question about sex, but how do you know if you’re bisexual? Cause I think I am, but I don’t know how to know for sure.
My first day, I got at least four questions like these, all wondering how a person can know their sexual orientation for sure. And I had nothing. I don’t even know how I know my sexual orientation for sure – I just kind of know. But the last thing you want to say to a group of middle schoolers is, “Don’t worry, when you know, you’ll just know.”
When I answered these questions, I stuck to four main points. First, I told my classes that it’s completely normal for a person to wonder about their sexuality. Some people wonder for a day, others for months or years, and still others for their whole lives. All of this, I said, is healthy and normal, and it’s okay to not be sure. That’s human. Second, I stressed the importance of having a trusted person to talk to. Because talking and processing thoughts/feelings is one big way that humans figure things out about themselves and about the world. Third, I advised patience. It’s okay to not be sure, and it’s important to be patient with ourselves. And finally, I told them, trust yourself. You know yourself best, and learning how to listen to yourself and your gut is a good life skill.
This is all, I think, better than saying, “You’ll know when you know,” but does anyone out there have a better answer?
5. Does pressure build up if you fart and have a butt plug in?
I have no idea – I’m just curious. Does anyone out there know? And, if you do, is it possible to fart a butt plug out of your butt? This is also a question I got from a high schooler…but I’m also genuinely curious.
For those of you who are wondering, I am still transcribing some gender interviews; I’m hoping to have the next one up sometime in June. I also finished Perv, and am working on a book review to get up on the site. While you’re waiting for those updates, consider posting a comment about questions you’ve had/heard about sex, answering any of these questions, or sending me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!