Real-life stories on illustrated site take stigma out of sex

Let’s talk about sex. Often stigmatized, poorly taught in schools, and highly glorified in the media, sex still remains taboo in many cultures.

Designer Michelle Kee experienced the negative consequences of her poor sexual education firsthand. “You become sexually active and that’s part of growing up, but I felt like society does nothing to protect you in that area,” she says. So Kee set out to collect anonymous stories about sexual encounters, which she gathered on a visually striking website that combines text with tasteful illustrations from other artists. Titled Learning by Doing It, the project makes a taboo topic more approachable and raises awareness about the importance of sexual well-being. In short? It’s everything your sex ed wasn’t.

[Photo: courtesy Learning by Doing It]

Like many of us, Kee received no formal sexual education in school. “Sex ed never existed,” she says of her high school education in Korea. “It was just anatomy.”

Kee recently graduated from the celebrated Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands. Learning by Doing It was her graduate project, and it came from a simple realization: There are a number of platforms about sexual wellness, like OMG Yes, but what was missing was a platform with honest, personal stories. “Personal stories have such a strong influence,” she says.

Fantasy With Kindness [Image: courtesy Learning by Doing It]

Today, the website features about 30 stories on a wide range of topics, from orgasms and sexual orientation to contraception, consent, and sex with strangers. (You can search by keyword, too.) Some stories were shared in writing, others came in the form of a recording, which Kee then altered to make the voice anonymous. Text-based stories are matched with striking illustrations, which Kee commissioned from a pool of illustrators. The audio confessionals come with minimal graphics and text animations that help bring the stories to life.

Incredible Sex With a Stranger [Image: courtesy Learning by Doing It]

The result is a feast for the eyes. The illustrations run the gamut from abstract to expressive, without ever falling into the graphically vulgar. Kee says she gathered the illustrations before she started designing the website, so she actually built the site around them. The landing page comes with a “not safe for work” warning, but the overall aesthetic is so elegant that few illustrations would prompt an eyebrow raise from your boss.

Less Lonely Orgasms [Image: courtesy Learning by Doing It]

Aesthetics aside, Learning By Doing It fills a gap in sexual education. In the U.S., the average age when people become sexually active is 15, and while that’s an average, almost 40% of all high school students who participated in a 2017 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported they’d had sex.

Learning to Love Your Health [Image: courtesy Learning by Doing It]

And yet, as of October 2020, only 30 states plus the District of Columbia require that public schools teach sex education. Meanwhile, the government has spent more than $2 billion on “abstinence only” sex education since 1982. At this scale, it will take many websites like Kee’s to make up for the yawning gap in sexual education in the U.S. and abroad. But Learning by Doing It is a step in the right direction.

Together as Equals [Image: courtesy Learning by Doing It]

Since graduating, Kee has started working with Wonderland, an experience design studio based in Amsterdam. Together, they are updating the website with better navigation and user experience, which will roll out early next year.

The Haunting Insecure Penis [Image: courtesy Learning by Doing It]

To preserve the look and feel of the website, funding for the illustrations will be crucial. But for the website to truly succeed, it needs a diverse array of voices, so Kee is looking for brave and vulnerable souls willing to share their own stories. “After people listen, they will understand the level of sincerity and want to submit their story for the better good,” she says. “If one person could listen to a story and it could help them in the future, then that’s all I wanted.”