Kristen Mark wants everybody to talk about sex — openly, honestly and without discomfort. And she's eager to help us practice as the newly named Joycelyn Elders Endowed Chair in Sexual Health Education at the University of Minnesota Medical Center. Born near Toronto, the 37-year-old Mark earned her doctorate in health behavior from Indiana University where she continues to conduct research at the Kinsey Institute. She taught sexual health promotion at the University of Kentucky and for several years directed a program in the Netherlands where sexual health outcomes are the best in the world. Her writing appears in magazines as varied as the Journal of Sexual Medicine and Psychology Today.
Q: Congratulations! How did you land this prestigious post?
A: The U's program in human sexuality has been on my radar for a long time because it's known internationally for its work regarding sexual health. I've worked hard to be well-rounded in sex and relationship research, education and therapy, and am ready for this new challenge. And being from Canada, Minnesota winters don't scare me. I'm energized by the snow and lakes.
Q: Why the need for this role?
A: It's really the only endowed program dedicated not just to risk reduction, which is common, but also to the promotion of healthy sexuality and sexual empowerment. When we think of sex ed typically, we think about preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and, while that's really important, I think the goal should be not just to say no to sex, but to feel empowered to say yes to healthy sexual relationships.
Q: Why do you think sexual pleasure remains a difficult concept?
A: There's so much shame and guilt wrapped up in sex in the United States when compared to some European countries. The Dutch model, for example, is not focused on shame and stigma and has some of the lowest pregnancy and abortion rates, and low rates of STIs. The U.S. tends to paint sex as a thing that's taboo and it doesn't have to be. That's what got me interested in the field.
Q: What are common concerns that people might bring to their doctor?
A: Impotence, lack of libido, sexual side effects of medications, sexual violence, all of these challenges possibly impacting relationships and quality of life. Physicians are often the first stop for people with sexual concerns. They don't know who else to go to.
Q: Yet, you note that many doctors are uncomfortable with these conversations. Why is that?
A: So many physicians just don't get the training. The U is nationally known for its excellent sexual health training in medical school. Our job is to prepare future doctors to be competent and confident in their approach to sexual health. Our center is a hub of free information and our clinic sees people for sex therapy (sexualhealth.umn.edu).
Q: What's a question you get a lot?
A: "Am I normal?" "Is this normal?" But there really isn't a normal. The better questions to ask: Do you feel satisfied? Does it violate your comfort level? Is there mutual consent?
Q: Consent is a big one for you.
A: I often taught my students that consent is sexy and not a buzzkill. Someone who really cares about you and wants to make sure you want to be there? That is super hot. Another myth is that men are always ready for sex. Just as much as women should feel they can say yes to sex, men should feel they can said no to sex.
Q: What about our young men and concerns that pornography may skew their ideas about what sex is supposed to look and feel like?
A: One of the places where we can make changes is porn literacy — we need to teach people how to consume porn in a healthy way. That's not happening. We are also seeing calls to parents of boys to teach them empathy. We need to raise boys in a different way for this to happen. If we can make that cultural shift, it will be beneficial not just for the dynamic between boys and girls but the whole gender spectrum of not being stuck in gender norms. Those limitations of what we're supposed to be harm everyone.
Q: You also see sex as lifelong.
A: People are sexual well into old age. Maybe you won't have the same type of sex but some form of expression can make you feel alive and connected. We need to do more work around that, especially as our population ages.
Q: How has COVID impacted sexual relationships?
A: We've been collecting data on sex and relationships since last April and have found that sexual frequency is decreasing. However, of those who continue to engage, there's more diverse sex acts; people are experimenting more. But for people with small children, sex has taken a back burner due to survival.
Q: Meaning predictions of a baby boom are greatly exaggerated?
A: I would expect a baby bust. There's so much uncertainty. I would expect people to wait and plan ahead.
Q: Where do you see yourself after serving in this position?
A: I plan to retire in this position in 30 or 40 years. It's so exciting to build my career on such a great platform.
Q: So someday you'll be advising about safe sex in space?
A: (Laughs) There are a lot of problems to solve on Earth first!