Let’s Talk About Sex Baby! (And keep talking and talking and talking…)

“Sex in America: Can the Conversation Change?” hosted by the New York Open Center and the Huffington Post

This was really just the tip of the iceberg in trying to cover the many conversations about sexuality that need to be happening. With only two hours, it was impossible to really dig deeper into the nuances. I did my best to take down direct quotes or at least summarize them with accuracy. Here’s my report-back, if others who attended would like to add to it, please do!

The chair of the forum, Esther Perel, opened with comments about why she organized the panel and introductions:

When I first imagined this evening I saw it as a townhall meeting that could look at sexuality as a serious discussion and not just obscenity or sanctimony. Social conversations, not chit-chat between two people but discourse among society.

Later during the forum she added in more of her perspective:

As a couple’s therapist for 25 years I’ve noticed that couples never talk about sex.

What about sexual knowledge for therapists? Some of the assumptions:
• Sex is a metaphor of the relationship: sex problems are always a reflection of other problems in the relationship.
• Love and desire do relate but don’t necessarily conflict. Desire needs novelty and unexpected unpredictable surprise.
• Good intimacy makes for god sex: communicate better, you want to be together more. No! Sometimes you communicate better and resent each other less but it doesn’t turn you on!
• The notion that passion fades- that it should be tame and unlasting. The only thing you’re allowed to be really passionate about in America is work.

People used to be afraid of sin, now they’re afraid of dysfunction.

Sex is not something you do, it’s a way of being in the world. People have always done it, but that doesn’t mean it’s always been good.

Since readers here have been interested in how sex work would be covered at this forum, I’ll get to that right up front: it wasn’t covered. As has been stated by many participants, including sex workers, the forum was not about sex work per se. Some topics of porn consumption did come up. A comment was made from an audience member in response to a point that Amy Sohn had made about women’s sexuality being “on display” and pornography was used as an example. Of course many of us who are both SW and feminist identified had lots to say on this and other topics, but the time constraints and diverse range of topics made it impossible.

Speaking of diversity, the strongest critique that folks at dinner had post-forum was that there was a serious lack of racial and cultural diversity. There were two male and two female presenters, however no representation of transgender people. The conversation seemed to focus pretty deeply on partnered, committed sexual relationships much more than looking at a broad spectrum of sexuality and gender.

Cory Silverberg and Leonore Tiefer’s work seem to cover these topics more deeply, but again, I think time constraints limited much of what they would have liked to add to the conversation. Three different comments were made by audience members about the intersections of sexuality and racial oppression. None of the presenters addressed the comments. There was obvious disappointment about that during discussion with participants at dinner afterward.

The idea that created the most controversy and audience obsession was Leonore’s assertion that ‘Sex is not a natural act.’ I’m still processing this concept myself and looking forward to having time to read her book on this topic. I definitely felt like this was the most challenging topic for me.
To summarize her premise, the label of “natural” has been used to say that sex is ‘good’ in the face of negative attitudes about sex. It’s also resulted in the medicalization of sexuality. Here’s some of what Leonore Tiefer had to say:

Sex is not natural. I think that is a fundamental error with enormous political consequences. The model says ‘You don’t have to worry, you don’t have to think.’ The model says ‘It only gets tricky when you abandon the basics, the basics are built in.’ I think sexuality is complex from the get go. I don’t think masturbation is normal, I don’t think not masturbation is normal. I don’t think normal has anything to do with it. Because we’re not educated to talk about the complexities of this we don’t know how to handle conflicts among us… The platform from which we need to understand sex is a societal and historical one, not a biological one.
Some educators have been seduced into believing that a medical model is attractive. I think it is threatening rather than liberating. Sex is a playful liberating act. Medicalization uses a model of ‘normalcy’.
I prefer the dancing model, it says some like it some don’t, some are good at it, some aren’t, you might be a waltz person or a ballet person. We need values and policies, not judgments and a generation of poorly educated experts.
I do think that people should know the mechanics of sexual function in the same way that they should know the mechanics of excretion. The assumption that we all have to normalize our bodies is what gets to me.

Before she began speaking, Leonore asked for a show of hands of all those in the audience who make their living in the field of sex in one way or another. About 80% of us raised our hands. (I’d estimate that about 80-100 people were in attendance.)

Cory Silverberg talked about the problem of sex being defined as an ‘individualist’ concept and how this concept frames the many existing conversations about sex:

When I was thinking about this the first thing that came to mind is that I don’t think we necessarily need to spend more time talking about sex, there are many diverse and complicated conversations happening. If I were going to change or improve the conversation I would change the way we talk about it more than what we talk about. There’s a lot of emphasis on individualism in America.
To me they’re not separate they’re very related. They’re all about how people access sexual information and how people express their sexual expectations of us and how we develop our own sexual expectations. If we want things to be different, we have to imagine how we’d want things to be. If we’re talking about foundational change on how people talk about sex in America it’s not going to happen on an individual level. Regular everyday conversations about sex are not reflected in the media or even in alternative media.

In response to comments from the audience about feminist attitudes toward sexuality and sex work (the only mention of prostitution all evening) Cory said:

I think when people hear the term ‘feminism’ they’re thinking ‘women’. We tend to draw this line around gender and the fact is it’s just not true.

He told me afterward that he was wondering if it would be inappropriate to just call me out of the audience to have me respond. He opted not to, and I’m glad.

Amy Sohn talked a lot about pop culture and seems to write from a more passive position, observing sexuality more than analyzing it. She actually said, “I feel very unqualified to be here.” She talked about her columns in New York Magazine which went from being titled “Naked City” while she was single to “Mating” after she got married and finally “Breeding” after she had a child. She said the magazine changed the title. I found it interesting that she presented herself as so passive in the way her column was published.

In response to the moderator’s initial ask of each panelist “What conversations about sex would you like to see change or see more of?” Amy said:

Some of the issues that are interesting to me are some of what’s come out of pop culture about women and dating… “chick lit”. While women’s sexuality has become on display and very public… Women’s sexuality has also become conflated with material and gold-digging…
What happens between mating and breeding? This idea that for many people there’s a focus on getting the guy or getting the ring, getting to the point of marriage, there’s not a lot to address what happens after that. How do you continue to find the person on the pillow next to you desirable even after all these years of knowing them?

There was an obvious difference in perspective between those who seemed to have an academic critique of ‘Sex in America’ and those who were communicating to people about sex in a non-academic context. Ian Kerner made this point at the end and it was a poignant statement. Some discussion had come up early in the evening about the ‘sex tips’ often found in women’s magazines. Some felt that they do more harm than good. Ian felt differently,

I do think that this is a very intellectually stimulating conversation, but I think people are looking for something more practical. The ‘tips’ are a calcified, limited format, but they are also tiny little calls to action. I just want to keep in mind that people really do want change at a very personal level.

On what he’d like to see more of or changed:

Two things come to mind: one is the lack of sex in America. I was watching CNN and there was a stat that nearly 40m Americans define themselves as being in a ‘sex rut’ defined as not having sex in weeks, months or years. I’m starting to have more insight into the lack of sex in America.
Second, the way that the conversation is being delivered interests me the most. I consider ‘She Comes First’ a book on ‘illclitoracy’ among guys’. I was touring around the country doing media to promote the book, then Janet Jackson showed a nipple at the super bowl during my book tour and nobody would have me. Then it became all about censorship.
The conversation is extremely sanitized, starts with a dire message, then a he said she said debate and then five tips.
On the web the conversation can so quickly degrade. It only takes one or two people commenting or responding in a snarky or disrespectful way and then it just unravels.

A segment of time was given to the audience for us to chat with our neighbors about what conversations we’d like to see more of or changed. Elizabeth Wood and I talked about the genderization of power through sexuality. Some of our ideas:

Change:
• Men are predators, women are providers.
• The idea that sex is all about threat. That you have to protect against it, defend yourself.
• That sex is private. It’s just not private.

More:
• All sex is exchange somehow. Why should it be taboo?
• Where’s the sex party tonight? (because if you’re nerds like us, you’re totally turned on by brainy sex conversations with geeks!!!)

Some of the audience members got to tell us what topics they want to explore further:
• Criminalization of young people
• How is sex separate from race, gender, class, nationalism, citizenship? How do we untangle sex from these many levels of oppression?
• Sex is not natural? I need to understand that. If it’s not natural what is it?
• I’d like sex ed to be integrated with emotional ed.
• There’s a distinction btw drive/urge on the one hand and desire on the other.
• ‘What do you mean women would want to look at porn? That’s ridiculous.’ Why do people think this way?

I’m very hopeful that this forum is going to lead to more events like this in different parts of the country. It would be nice if the Huffington Post would acknowledge and help bring to light more of the amazing conversations out there that are already exploring this and maybe team up with more projects such as Sex 2.0 or Sex in the Public Square, both of which have complementary aims to that of this forum. At the end it was clear that many, many more topics need to be covered. There was an informal collective decision to make a sign up sheet to keep participants in contact with each other. I don’t know where that list ended up or who will do that follow-up.

On this topic, I am always going to say that there needs to be more. We need to talk more about sex, we need to think more about the intersection of sex and politics, we need more education for young people about sex. And, really, we need to be having more sex!

13 Responses

  1. […] about Huffington Post as of February 21, 2009 Let’s Talk About Sex Baby! (And keep talking and talking and talking…) – deepthroated.wordpress.com 02/21/2009 “Sex in America: Can the Conversation Change?” hosted […]

  2. […] as of February 22, 2009 Posted by TUI in Has My Attention on 02 22nd, 2009 | no responses Let’s Talk About Sex Baby! (And keep talking and talking and talking…) – deepthroated.wordpress.com 02/21/2009 “Sex in America: Can the Conversation Change?” hosted […]

  3. What in the world was someone like Leonora Tiefer doing on a panel like that?

    Next time, bring some sex workers on the panel and keep out the religious fundamentalists-in-disguise like Ms. Tiefer.

    “Sex is not natural” and “masturbation is not normal”. Gee, what does that sound like to you?

  4. That’s not what i got from her presentation at all. She’s saying that sex is neither bad or good and the use of terms like “normal” and “natural” are used to place a value judgment on sex, also feeding into the medical model. And what she actually said is “I don’t think masturbation is normal, I don’t think NOT masturbation is normal.” I really liked her dancing analogy. Basically that some do it , some don’t, there are lots of different kinds of it, neither is ‘better’ than the other (no need to pathologize a ballerina because she’s not into tango) dancing, like sex, has a history of being forbidden is come or all forms by fundamentalists. She certainly is not in support of restricting or punishing sexual behavior.

    I’ve never read any of her work and actually had never heard of her until I attended this event. Do you get the ‘fundamentalist in disguise’ impression from other work of hers that you’ve read? I didn’t have that impression at all based on Friday’s panel.

  5. >>“Sex is not natural” and “masturbation is not normal”. Gee, what does that sound like to you?>>

    Why are we quoting my mother here?:)

  6. […] Let’s Talk About Sex Baby! […]

  7. I think Stacey gets Leonore Tiefer’s message exactly right. Her point is that there is no one “natural” kind of sex and no “natural” sexuality that is inherent in us and understandable as real and distinct from our cultural/historical influences.

    It’s an important point, really. Dr. Tiefer talked about how the use of the term “natural” as in “sex is natural” started out as a valiant attempt to challenge the characterization of sex as dirty and sinful by placing it in the realm of nature. Nature = good so this was a way to say “sex is good” without coming out and saying that.

    One problem with this is that “natural” then becomes normative. As Stacey pointed out, Leonore said “There’s nothing natural about masturbation and there’s nothing natural about not masturbating.” If we accept “masturbation is natural” then we examine masturabation habits and we find a distribution iwth a mean and that becomes “normal” and people who are too many standard deviations away from that mean come to be seen as aberrant or ill. It isn’t really helpful to have a sense of a normative sexuality that is understood as natural. It serves to support the marginalization – or worse the ‘curing’ – of “deviant” sexualities.

    Another problem, is that natural started out as a way to avoid saying “good” directly. We should say what we mean. We should not resort to “born that way” or “naturalness” as a foundation for acceptance or rights. We should assert that people deserve rights and acceptance because all people do. Period.

    Stacey, thanks for taking such detailed notes at the panel! And I’m glad I got to be your conversation partner during the discussion portion. I really enjoyed our exchange.

  8. I must have misread her statement. Sorry.

  9. Well these are complex ideas, and I think intended to be a little provocative – that is to think outside some of the boxes we have created, or have been created around us.

    The polarity of discourse on sex lends itself naturally to an immediate negative reaction to the ‘sex is not natural’ question. What we come down to is our understanding of words and their meanings and how they box our thinking in. If ‘natural’ means to us a birthright that must be defended against puritanism, then we will be instinctively defensive and reactive.

    If we think about the uses of normal, natural and pure (for instance) then we can begin to see how words have been used to box in our thinking, to define acceptability, and ultimately to ‘fixing’ the ‘un-natural’.

    One of Tiefer’s (and my) major concerns is the pharmaceutical industry-health industry need to construct these boundaries so they can justify ‘fixing’ us. These concerns apply in many spheres, perhaps the most concerning being mental health (what is a trait and what is disease, and should behaviour be controlled with drugs?), but also sexuality which has been reduced to ‘problems’ that need the creation of an expert-laity dichotomy.

    (the over use of apostrophes is deliberate, to indicate the abundance of words that will have different meanings to those approaching them from different frames)

  10. Really wish I could have made it to this forum! I’ve enjoyed reading all the wrap-up coverage (and the Twittering during), which is the next best thing.

  11. “Why are we quoting my mother here?:)”

    -snort-

    By the way, I got this as an email from an alum of the school I’m going to–dunno if any of you lot might be interested, but seemed worth posting:

    http://carnalnation.com

    “As for the type of contributors I am looking for, this is what it
    says in our recent press release:
    We think that we should be able to talk about sex like grown-ups,”
    says Editor-in-Chief Theresa Ikard. “In our society, it’s either
    presented as cheap titillation or else as this shameful thing that has
    to be kept in the closet. Our vision of sexuality is that it’s vital
    and important to our lives, and that we need to converse about it
    instead of making it something to fear and obsess over.” In pursuit of
    this vision, Ikard has already gathered a diverse collection of talent
    for the site that includes professional therapists, sex workers, and
    suburban housewives. “That’s just the beginning,” notes Ikard, who
    diligently continues to pursue sex-positive contributors who represent
    diverse and unique perspectives on sex.”

  12. Hi Rachel, I do not feel passive about my career in publishing but you must understand that the msm has always had a weird relationship with sex columnists. They need content to go with the sex ads but equate sex writing with “downmarket.” I think Caroline Miller was struggling with this when she hired me. September 11 happened a week after my first “naked city” column was published and that further confused her from an editorial standpoint. When Adam moss took over he moved me to the front of the mag and changed the name to Mating, as a way of making it more mainstream. I think the ny observer was the best example of a msm publication that did not shy away from sexuality and knew that provoctive sex and relationship writing was good for readership.
    Amy

  13. Hi Amy,

    Thanks for your comment and for clarification. Had there been time to ask, I would have wanted to know more about that process because at the presentation it seemed like you were saying that “They” kept changing the title of the column, it wasn’t clear to me how you actually felt about the change and if you had any decision at all. I do understand that writing about sex in MSM is a challenge for both writers and editors. Hopefully as the conversation continues to expand and evolve public discourse about sex will become more acceptable. Thanks for contributing to these discussions through your work.

    sincerely,
    Stacey

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