Ann-Marlene Henning is a Danish neuro-psychologist living in Hamburg. She is a sexologist, TV personality, counsellor relationship specialist. She writes blogs, has her own channel on You Tube. She is well-known in her field. But she is about to become known for something else. Her book Sex & Lovers, A Practical Guide, has just come out in the UK and there is quite a buzz about it – it is The Joy of Sex for the young generation.
Sex and Lovers is, as Henning says, “about good sex. My mission is to give young people facts, information and advice that they will not find anywhere else. It is not a guide as much as a help, something to be looked at as and when.” The book is a revelation in many ways – down to earth and yet packed full of advice on how to deal with the ‘first time’ and how to understand the difference between intimacy and porn. It also includes other areas of sexuality that many would deem more ‘deviant’ ie s and m, bondage and many other things I probably had no idea about when I was a teenager.
More than that, the book is illustrated by real life photographs of real life teenagers engaging in sexual activity. They range from rear views of teenagers holding hands in the buff to some images that are more explicit.
It is this last bit that has caused such a storm.
“I had no idea it would be so controversial,” says Henning from her home in Hamburg. “I set out to write a book that demystifies sex. Most teenagers think about sex all the time and their parents do not know how to tackle the subject. They feel embarrassed to discuss it. What they don’t know is that a thirst of UK teenagers have had sex by the age of 15 and their parents know nothing about it (these figures are from a WHO survey). So I wanted to write an honest book that everyone can read and then I realised that if that was my starting point, I couldn’t then use drawings to illustrate it. If my message is one of love and care and feelings then I wanted to show real life people in real life relationships. I thought it was important and I stand by it.”
For some people it is all to much. The book does have an open and honest earthy tone to it but Henning does not shy away from difficult issues; are my breasts normal? To what does semen taste like?
There were times that I even found myself blushing.
“Really?” says Henning sounding surprised. “But did you have a problem with the pictures?”
I tell her no, not really. Let’s put this in to context; the pictures, while revealing, are hardly pornographic. They seem pictures of love and affection and tenderness rather than full-on graphically intimate scenes. And, if you listen to Henning, they are far more innocent that what our teenagers have already seen via the internet.
“I think their access to online porn is a problem,” she says. “It’s certainly true that girls now feel they have to put on a great show because that’s what they have seen online and they think it’s what boys expect. Thisis not healthy at all. It undermines their confidence and makes them feel they have to ‘perform’.”.”
What about the boys? In a recent survey, it turned out teenage boys no longer seemed to know what a real woman’s body looks like, identifying false boobs and hairless bodies as the natural state of a woman.
“Yes they are used to pneumatic boobs and no pubic hair. That is true. Whenever you do a survey everyone rates pubic hair as a no-no but that goes in and out of fashion.”
Does this worry her? Her book does, after all, seem to be promoting sex with love and intimacy, not the random hook-up culture teenagers these days seem to live by.
“Does it worry me that teenagers are exposed to so many images? I am not sure. I think most teenagers are looking for love and intimacy. When I have been to schools and done surveys, it is exactly the thing they say they are looking for. Most teenagers want to fall in love, have partnerships, have sex that is meaningful on some level. My book helps them to find this, to hold out for this. That’s my hope.”
But who is it for? Surely, in our online culture, picking up a book will feel alien to most teenagers?
In essence, she tells me it is for 15 year-olds and above. “But I would give it to a 12 year-old,” she says. “It is a useful thing to read before you get too involved. It will give a good grounding and kids are very good at not reading what makes them feel uncomfortable. They do self-censure.”
She thinks the reason why she published it as a book – and why teenagers might read it – is because it comes with a whole host of recommendations. “I am a bona fide expert,” she says. “They can check out my credentials. I am not some person just writing anything online. No book is on the market that tackles this subject head on and I thought it was important that someone did it.”
The point of the book, I suggest, is that it means the parents don’t have to have ‘that talk’. I remember one night coming in to my room and finding a book on my pillow and that was the basics covered as far as my parents were concerned.
“Yes it is, but it is also to help teenagers understand who they are sexually-speaking. I’ve had some people complaining that I have included sexual identity in it but how can you do an honest book in this day and age without that? I cannot avoid gay sex, that’s impossible. Neither can I ignore oral sex and all the myths surrounding that.”
Interestingly enough, while she does find some cultural differences in the ways people reach to the book, she doesn’t find a sex bas in terms of gender. “The English don’t like to talk about sex especially not to their children but they do get a book like this and I think it will go down well in the UK. The Germans are the worse. They find the whole thing very embarrassing. But what I do find is that boys need the book as much as girls.”
She says she gets contacted often by younger boys who are not sure when to start a sexual relationship. “Some of them feel very pressurised by the girls in to having sex when they don’t want it. Others have intense performance anxiety.” Again she believes this is also partly due to the amount of access teenagers have via the web. “All this sex texting causes real problems on both sides. I teach boys and girls to give their own bodies a value. If they want to sleep around because they enjoy it then fine but they shouldn’t if it makes them feel uncomfortable. The thing is, boys are far slower to physically and mentally mature compared to girls. There has always been this dichotomy but now boys feel such a pressure that they turn it all back on the girls. It is communication that is needed; communication, dialogue, respect. I show sex for the beautiful and exciting thing it is. For teenagers sex is an amazing thing and this book lets them experiment with the idea of it all with warmth and humour and leads them to satisfying sex. I am demystifying it all for them. It was about time someone did that and that person is me.”
ANN-MARLENE HENNING’S TOP TIPS AND ADVICE (for teens)
1) It is important for teenagers to have another view than what is on the internet – this takes the pressure off them
2 )Finding your sexual self as a teenager is very important
3) They need to find out what they do and don’t like and they need to be supported in this
4) Young people want to live with sexual freedom and honesty
5) Girls are endlessly fed the idea of being a tough sexual being, the little boys are out-performed
6) Boys need to reclaim their masculine energy and girls need to find this soft female energy and they need encouragement on this matter
7) Most teenagers want sex with love – they are OK to have it sometimes without love for fun and kicks but most of them know the sex with love is much better
8) Teenagers yearn for something real and authentic