Vera Papisova taught me more about myself sexually than I ever learned in my mandatory sex-education classes from adolescence. She taught me two things: that I was, indeed, sexually assaulted, and that it’s okay to talk about it openly, no matter how disgruntled others may feel about it.
The former Teen Vogue Wellness Editor, current Director of Content and Education at arfa, and American Society of Magazine Editors award-nominated writer—who was also named one of the most influential writers of 2018 alongside praised journalist Ronan Farrow—has been able to use her past sexual trauma as a fuel to her enigmatic fire, educating the masses with one masturbation tip at a time. Her mission is clear: to keep our generation well-versed on the discussion of sex to prevent the tribulations that she, I, and so many other people have survived. Her vigor is reassuring the fact that during the post-Me Too era, the conversation around the still-taboo subject of sexuality is only getting started.
The trailblazing sexual wellness expert has received backlash time and time again for her forward-thinking, but here’s the best part: she’s too confident in herself to give a shit about what any of us think about her, or her work. Below, we talk to Papisova on her perspective on sex, using fashion and sex toys as a means of sexual self-expression.
COOLS: Why did you decide to dive into sex and wellness reporting?
Vera Papisova: “In college, I actually had a radio show about sex and dating. My roommate and I were co-hosts, and both of us were really comfortable talking about it. I used to go out a lot in Boston, so I would meet kids from all different colleges. There are so many schools in Boston, so I had access to many young people, so I would create surveys to get some more information and stats on sex from the people I met while I was going out. There’d be like, two thousand responses. The topics weren’t really my favorite, now that I think about it. They were on pretty general things like, ‘turn ons and turn offs,’ and then I would go to my blog — different project from my radio show — and basically respond to the answers. The ‘turn offs’ were always really stupid, and I would be like, ‘You guys, this is not how you judge people.’ But then on the radio show, it was really interesting how things went. I went to Boston University, and so did Howard Stern, and that was the first radio station to ever kick him off air when he was a student. But me and my roommate thought it was so cool that he stuck to what he wanted to do, so he basically inspired us to create our own radio show on sex and dating.”
“Also, I was sexually assaulted when I was in college. And as the years went by, I knew that if I learned more about sex before I was ever having sex, and if the person who raped me had a better education, it could’ve been prevented in some form. I mean, who knows, but if you educate people more it can help prevent a lot of sexual assault situations. I think my experiences with sex after being sexually assaulted, made it hard for me to figure out what was normal because I didn’t know. And I think part of my radio show was helping me learn more.”
COOLS: It’s true, we’re not being educated the right way. Being a sexual assault survivor, I thought submissiveness and doing whatever my partner wanted was part of the sexual experience, even if it didn’t feel right to me.
VP: “Before I even had sex, I learned that when I have sex with a guy, I’m supposed to be ‘Take me and do whatever you want with me.’ I thought that was my role, but that thought process is just completely wrong. It took me so many years to figure out how to even enjoy sex, or how to even be comfortable with my body. I realized I was having a lot of sex in college when I wasn’t comfortable enough to be having sex. I wish I was more educated because I would’ve had less sex. I would’ve realized the people I was having sex with were not people who were respecting my body, but I didn’t even know or have the education to notice that. I just thought that that’s how it was supposed to be.”
COOLS: People don’t realize that sexual assault survivors actually have sex after their trauma.
VP: “Yeah, the media is basically neutering sexual assault survivors. I feel like the conversation is still not where it should be when it comes to pleasure. And there are a lot of sexual partners I’ve had early in my sex life that definitely didn’t respect my body enough. But, I wouldn’t say it’s my fault, nor would I say that I would go back and not sleep with them if I had the chance. I would actually say that I wish that those men who didn’t respect my body had better education about what kind of bodies are normal. They were also clearly uncomfortable with their bodies, and I just feel like there needs to be more of a conscious effort for the people who are even more responsible for sexual assault and rape culture, which if we can be honest is a lot of men. I mean, I know there are a lot of men who are affected by sexual assault, or they have experienced sexual assault as well. But overall, we just need people to be more comfortable with their bodies. There’s so much body shaming, and I think it should be okay to talk about sex in ways that aren’t focused on getting the best orgasm. I think the ‘how-to’ pieces are great, everybody reads those, but it would be cool to find out how people are insecure about their bodies.”
COOLS: How has the conversation around sex evolved, and how has it impacted your perspective on sex?
VP: “What I’ve learned is that people have been doing this work for decades. The #metoo movement going viral opened the conversation to a wider audience, but no one realizes that the conversation has been opened up for decades before it. There are people working on policy, and we’re seeing little bits and pieces of conversations happening for a long time reaching the surface.”
VP: “So, I think we have such a long way to go, but there is still so much work that has already been done. I think people really ought to look back at some of the amazing content written on sex and sexuality. The conversation is obviously so uncomfortable with bodies, and people are still arguing whether a body-positive movement is even right. Some people are saying that it’s all about body neutrality, and don’t pressure people to love their bodies, and others are saying that if you can’t love yourself then no one will love you. There’s all this debate about how you’re supposed to have a relationship with your body, and it’s such a huge gap. From a pretty young age, unless you’re a guy with a penis, you’re taught that your body doesn’t belong to you. You’re not supposed to acknowledge it, and you have to shrink it and cover it up. I think the mainstream conversation we’re seeing is just a bit of what other communities have been talking about for years. A lot of black women have been leading these conversations for decades. Recy Taylor, Anita Hill, Lori S. Robinson, Aisha Shahidah Simmons, Jamilah Lemieux, and of course Tarana Burke are just a few black women who built the foundation of the conversations we’re having about sexual assault and rape culture in mainstream media. I think our society as a whole just has to progress further.”
COOLS: What are some misconceptions you believe people have on sex culture?
VP: “I used to have a column where I’d interview sex workers, and people would be like, ‘Why do you interview porn stars, are you obsessed with porn and sex?’ Or when I first started at Teen Vogue and I created a whole new section on the website called “Wellness,” the two pillars I wanted to focus on were sexual health and mental health. With sex ed, I remember, I really wanted to start with masturbation content because I think if I learned about masturbation before I was sexually assaulted, and if I knew what it should feel like and that sex should feel good, I would have known that everything that happened to me during my sexual assault felt wrong. My sexual assault was pretty violent, and the sex I had afterwards was pretty painful, so I thought that my vagina just sucked and that sex wasn’t that great. So, when I started posting masturbation content, people were like ‘Are you obsessed with masturbation?’ And then other people would tell me that if you teach kids about sex, they’re going to have more sex. That, to me, is the biggest misconception. It’s been statistically proven that the more you educate young people on sexual education, the better sexual choices they make. And funny enough, they have less sex when they’re properly educated because they choose their partners more carefully.”
COOLS: Is there a connection between how you self-express with fashion and your sex life?
VP: “I think so, yeah. Something that I learned as being a wellness editor, no matter what topic you’re covering, the root of a lot of problems and violence is insecurity. I make it my mission in whatever realm I’m working in to teach people to be confident. Whether it’s sexually confident, emotionally confident, or even how to not stress over things like someone not texting you back. I think confidence, for me, is the most important thing. That and overcoming fear. And in terms of how I dress, I would say that clothes are such an amazing form of self-expression, and however you express yourself, it’s amazing that you’re able to show the world who you are and you’re not hiding. I remember for a long time I just was not confident and would literally shrink into myself—I would have sex and not want to do certain positions because of how my body would look in them. That would be the time period when I was dressing for men, and then I stopped and started to feel a lot better about myself. My sex life is a lot better. ”
COOLS: That’s so true. Whenever I dress for a date or even a night out, I always think about whether I look “sexy” and appealing enough. It’s a toxic mindset.
VP: “Now when I get dressed, I think about whether I feel like the most badass version of myself. When I walk outside, the first person who cat-calls me becomes invisible because my confidence is blocking them out. If that’s how I feel, then cool, I’m good. And I think about whether I feel strong in my outfit. What I think about now is whether my body feels strong and healthy, and that gives me so much confidence.”
COOLS: Another problem people have is that people aren’t confident in their skin. Some people can’t even look at themselves in the mirror when they’re naked, because all they see are flaws.
VP: “For some reason, our culture is obsessed with punishing our bodies. I keep referencing my sexual assault because it was really life-changing for me, and it made me rethink a lot of things about myself and our society, like not being comfortable in yourself. You can find a million things to hate about yourself, and all of those things could be reasons to actually like yourself. It’s easier said than done, I can’t tell someone to just like their body, fuck that. You can’t just change your mindset in a second, but what you can do is, question why you feel a certain way about yourself, and you can start reframing things. Instead of punishing your body for not looking the way you or someone else want it to look, just be nice to it and take care of it.”
COOLS: What are some of your favorite sex toys or brands of the moment?
VP: “My favorite lingerie brands are anything that’s not related to Victoria’s Secret. As for sex toys, lately, Lelo makes something called the Sona, which is really good. I’m big on clitoral stimulation, so I would say that one and the Minna Life Limon are great. I’m really careful to recommend sex toys because not everyone with a vagina wants a penetrative toy. I try to focus on more clitoral recommendations.”
COOLS: Vaginas are so unique, and I feel like people try to do a “one toy for all vaginas” take.
VP: “One hundred percent. Not all sex toys are going to be amazing for everyone, especially ones that are made for penetration. Everyone is different, and everyone has different spots that are going to feel really good. I will say, to anyone who makes sex toys, please stop making realistic penises. I think masturbation is totally separate from partnered sex, so I don’t need a dick near me just because I want to have an orgasm. I also just feel like it’s weird to have this penis-shaped thing that’s not attached to a person because I’m like ‘Who is that?’
COOLS: Do you have any tips for a healthier sex life?
VP: “Something that has been really helpful for me is that I have way better sex if the person I’m having sex with knows the trauma I’ve been through. When I tell them and they react in the correct manner, I feel like I can trust them with my body. I like to start with the hardest conversation, which is ‘Hey, I just want to let you know that I’ve been raped. Here’s what happened, and here are the things that make me uncomfortable.’ It’s the hardest part, but it opens up a conversation about sex that’s not superficial. Having that trust there is huge, because after addressing that I feel like I can easily talk about what I do and don’t like.”
COOLS: What’s the one thing everyone should know about sex?
VP: “That everyone involved should always be enthusiastic about what’s going on and if that’s not the case, don’t do it. And if you can’t talk to someone about sex before having sex with them, and if you feel uncomfortable even asking for a condom or asking them not to touch a certain triggering area of your body, then don’t have sex with them. If you can’t even say what feels good and bad during sex, you are not ready to have sex with that person.”