Artist Melissa Zak paints bare skate decks with cartoons of diverse body types. Emily Merten | Mustang News

Los Osos 21-year-old Melissa Zak is a self-taught artist with a mission to normalize the conversation surrounding sex. Hand-painting on recycled skate decks, Zak’s artwork depicts themes of sexuality and “playful nudity.”

Zak’s inspiration for her skate decks originates from her own experiences and thoughts about sex. She uses a cartoonist aesthetic to invite audiences to view sex through a lens of humor.

“I consider myself more on the hyper-sexual side, and I’m not afraid to talk about [it],” Zak said. “I feel like a lot of people are [afraid to talk about sex] because of how they’re raised. You’re not allowed to express yourself [through sex] even though that’s how you came into the world.”

Zak’s artwork showcases avant garde portrayals of the female body. Her images range from dramatic imitations of the reproductive anatomy to illustrations involving the menstrual cycle

Zak’s objective is to remove the suppression around the topic of sex. Zak wants to open up the conversation about sex, though her art. Her desire to open up the conversation around sex stems from her frustration with the U.S.’ current sex education and the lack of realistic narratives about sex.

“There are so many things I wish I was told and taught. It is my intention to show my sexual nature through my art and, in turn, inspire others to explore their own sexual being, sexual desires – all consensual – and have fun with it in the process,” Zak said.

Zak believes many of today’s issues with sexual harassment and misconduct stem from the limited exposure our education system places on sexual awareness.

Zak’s skate decks are intended to inspire others to explore their sexuality in healthy ways. Emily Merten | Mustang News

“Most are probably thinking, ‘Ah, my kid doesn’t need to know all this information so young!’  I do agree. This is why we need sex education to be extended from 5th grade, when most start learning, all the way till 12th. Each year can get more complex and in-depth with appropriate age,” Zak said. “Most kids don’t feel comfortable talking to their parents about sex or any questions they have because of the stigma around it, so they turn to the Internet. At times it can be helpful, but there is also a lot of harm it can do.”

Zak is part of a growing number of students and educators advocating for improved
sex education.

“I do not think sexual education is adequate in elementary or secondary school. The vast majority of public schools offer some form of sexual education curriculum, but the content varies from state to state, district to district and even from school to school within the same district,” political science professor Jean Williams said.

Williams has conducted research in the fields of gender and sex education policy. She has also published articles regarding sex education, abstinence and the politics of sex.

“Comprehensive sexuality education teaches the broadest curriculum that incorporates sexual development and physiology, reproductive health, including pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS, abstinence and other birth control methods and interpersonal relationships,” Williams said.

Zak hopes her artwork will help eliminate the negative stigma around sex. Emily Merten | Mustang News

According to Williams, even some of the best sex education in the U.S. is heteronormative and not as extensive as that in other countries.

According to a 2015 study conducted by the World Bank, European countries tend to have the lowest rates of teen pregnancy with an average of four teen births per thousand babies born. In contrast, the U.S. reported rates of 30 teen births per thousand babies born.

Experts conclude progressive education in European countries, in regards to the curriculum of sexual education, contributes to the lower birth rates in these countries. However, many parts of the U.S. are fixated on abstinence-only sex education. States with these programs often have higher rates of teen pregnancy, according to the National Institutes of Health. Additionally, this limited education can prevent teens from grasping sex-related topics beyond the standard information regarding sexually transmitted diseases and condom usage.

“I think our culture teaches children that sex is a taboo subject, something to be ashamed of and afraid to talk about,” industrial engineering junior Nick Miller said. “Schools are forced to shy away from these subjects in fear of controversy and many parents are either uncomfortable or unqualified to teach their children, so the children grow up without almost any sexual education.”

The normalization of sex-related conversation will eventually remove the forbidden nature and shame associated with sexual intercourse.

“The more educated the future generations are, the safer they can be. They are going to be experimenting/trying things when they do, so at least have them be prepared so if they choose,” Zak said. “They can be safe about it and also take others’ feelings and thoughts into consideration.“

By appealing to viewers through a visual interpretation, Zak hopes to eliminate the negative stigma surrounding sex.

“I want people to learn things about themselves and experiment – to be comfortable with their own sexual nature,” Zak said. “You find out so much about yourself through sex that you can’t find out through other things.”

Zak’s artwork is currently on display in The Neighborhood Acai & Juice Bar off Foothill Boulevard.

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