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A different kind of sex ed.

E I FILMS

It was a rocky start for Sook-Yin Lee and her first love.

"I drank to the gills in order to get the confidence. I ended up falling down two flights of stairs, wobbling over to his place, getting into his apartment, standing over his bed while he was asleep, waking him up, confessing my love for him and proceeding to vomit all over him."

Against all odds the two became lovers, but not before the crush - a charismatic musician - suggested to the sexually unseasoned Ms. Lee, then about 17, that she "go out and get more experience."

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"I was in love with him and I didn't want to be with anyone else but I thought, with an overachiever's zeal, 'I am going to go out and get better, gosh darn it, and then maybe he'll love me.' "

Ms. Lee tells the story in her new film, Year of the Carnivore, released Friday in Canada. In the movie, it's Sammy Smalls who is rejected because she's bad in bed.

"People aren't natural-born lovers. It takes practice to get good at," her love, Eugene Zaslavsky, tells her.

Although no one's "born good at it," lovers are often loath to admit to one another that they might be learning the ropes.

"It's never easy for anyone to ask for directions," Ms. Lee says. "Who's going to be the one who gets out of the car and says, 'Hey, I'm lost. Do you know where the K-Mart is?' "

Sexperts see the anxiety all the time.

"It's one of the only activities in our lives that nobody teaches us, and it's the only thing we're expected to learn without ever having watched other people do," says Jessica O'Reilly, a Toronto sexologist.

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"Even though sex is a natural act, it is entirely a learned behaviour," she says, noting that that includes the sounds we make, the things we say and the way we react to stimuli.

Ms. O'Reilly helps women learn, seeing private clients as well as groups at stagettes and women's forums.

"I use carrots," she says, describing her workshops, where she often reminds clients, "If you make a mistake, it still feels good."

Ms. O'Reilly says open and early communication can take "the guesswork out of things."

"You can't read your partner's mind. You don't know what they want for dinner unless you ask. Same thing when it comes to sex."

Still, talking about their likes and dislikes is something many couples are too self-conscious to do.

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"If you don't know your own body, how can you tell somebody else to know it? This is a whole other entity, a whole other human being," says Debra Laino, a sex therapist based in Delaware, Penn.

Among others, Dr. Laino sees clients who want to expand their repertoire in the bedroom: "I usually see that with couples who got into a relationship very young or married the first person they slept with."

She gives them homework, such as massage nights that include homing in on each other's erogenous zones.

"People married 20 years say, 'Oh, I didn't know that turned you on.' "

It says something about the anxiety around these issues that it takes a stranger - such as Dr. Laino - to facilitate such intimate dialogue between long-term couples.

In a more desperate effort to get closer to her crush, Sammy, the protagonist in Year of the Carnivore, also seeks out the kindness of strangers, going on a promiscuous bender that includes a threesome with her neighbours, new parents for whom she babysits.

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"They're not actually imparting good sex tips, but she's learning something about love through the fears of all these other people," says Ms. Lee, who had a similarly "misspent youth" in Vancouver albeit with a "different set of characters."

Did it help?

"No, I was probably terrible. But I met all these interesting people who gave me insight into other things. It also felt pretty empty. I didn't need to run around like that."

For Ms. Lee, a self-described ugly duckling, the performance anxiety came partly from a lack of sex education: "All there was was a pink pamphlet that my mom picked up from the doctor's. It had a diagram of a uterus - it looked like a sea monkey. I didn't understand it. It was like a map of a fantasy land."

On the other end of the spectrum were her older sister's Cosmopolitan magazines: "They had a different kind of map."

Cosmo's blaring, instructive headlines - this month, it's "99 New Sex Facts" and "Two Spots He's Dying for You to Touch" (spoiler alert: they're in his pants) - would suggest people are gung ho to expand their skill set.

Still, Cosmo is mostly meant to be consumed alone, its lurid techniques unleashed on an unsuspecting lover later - as though you were "born with it," Ms. O'Reilly says.

This kind of messaging can put undue pressure on women, experts say, but it's also cropping up in magazines such as Men's Health.

"Men are more reluctant than women to seek knowledge. There is pressure on men to know innately how to please a woman. I certainly expected that of my first partners," says Carlyle Jansen, founder of Toronto sex shop Good For Her, where the oral sex workshops (taught to women) sell out every month.

The messaging is repeated in Hollywood films and porn, which "promote the idea that sex is easy and natural," Ms. Jansen said.

Ms. O'Reilly said that while porn - especially newer genres such as feminist porn and reality porn, which features actual couples - is "a good place to start for some creativity," most of it lacks the "real subjectivity" of sex.

"Each person's needs are unique and each person's needs change with the wind."

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