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  1. Melissa Gira Grant
    Melissa Gira Grant August 4, 2009 at 2:05 pm |

    Fuck. Yes.

    Just two ways this needing sex culture/politics to be a big turn-on always has most driven me to self-referential madness:

    * the narrow career path called “sexpert,” where being female, traditionally pretty, and sexualizing one’s expertise takes precedence over actual expertise;

    and,

    * the lack of media venues to talk about the whole picture of sex without the burden of getting anyone off.

    Or to put it in a food analogy (with a nod to Michael Pollan): Food TV is to commercial pornography as The French Chef is to What-I-Want-To-Say-About-Sex-Culture. I want people to get off the couch, stop rubbernecking at the spectacle, and start making things and making things better and feeling good about that in the process.

    Which isn’t to be a snob or an elitist about it, I don’t think. Yes, there’s plenty to learn about sex in the ‘sleaziest’ of places — sometimes far more than in classrooms. But to then to feel as if we have to frame that knowledge always as fantasy fodder, well. It’s a trap.

  2. Pega
    Pega August 4, 2009 at 2:30 pm |

    But how do you make this happen in a society where a woman breast-feeding an infant is considered a sexual act and not fit for public consumption (unintentional pun)?

  3. beth
    beth August 4, 2009 at 3:22 pm |

    oh, i like thst pega.
    i think the converse of this is that when people have tp talk about sex in a non-erotic way, such as sex ed in schools, they feel they have to take anything out of it that might sound even vaguely er, sexual. Like any lack of a discussion on sexual pleasure. Or any proper pictures of vulvas.

  4. groggette (Ali)
    groggette (Ali) August 4, 2009 at 3:37 pm |

    This means that, among other things, people who attempt to discuss sexuality in serious, non-erotic ways get mocked or dismissed or encouraged to sex it up.

    Like being shouted down because obviously anyone within earshot would be turned into a raging whore when you’re trying to talk about accurate sex ed.

  5. Pega
    Pega August 4, 2009 at 4:51 pm |

    I agree that sex ed for youth vs adult ed and sexuality are different issues. But if children are taught that not everything sexual is sensual (if you can give me better terminology, please do, but this is how I differentiate it for myself) they will grow into adults who don’t see everything couched in erotic behaviour and action.

    When my kids had sex-ed (a 3 hour seminar btw, one talk for boys only and a separate for girls only) in 7th grade, I had them bring home the literature so I could ‘critique’ it. I learned from this that even in a classroom setting, certain things could not be mentioned because it is impossible for human beings to speak about sexual matters without immediately having to find a partner (willing or not) to act on those inevitable urges. If that is what they are teaching pre-teens in school, there is little hope of fixing the attitude in adults.

    I live in a rural area in the Deep South. Sex-ed in the schools consists of mostly abstinence teaching and teh ebuhls of teh WHORISH BEHAVIOUR. So believe me, my kids got much more sex-ed from me at home than they did in school. But enough parents are still embarassed enough about their own sexuality that what the school provides is the only sex-ed a lot of kids get. And it’s not like they can go to another adult and ask questions, because then that adult gets threatened with all kinds of legal issues – child pornography, child molestation, contributing to the delinquency of a minor. I know, I answered a question once and spent six months proving that I did nothing wrong.

    The first step (imho, and we all know what that’s really worth lol) is better education in schools, so that kids grow up understanding that sex doesn’t necessarily mean sexy, or sensual, or anything other than what it is.

  6. Nentuaby
    Nentuaby August 4, 2009 at 5:00 pm |

    The same inability to draw distinctions is behind a great deal of homophobia, I think. Their cognitive process doesn’t account for the difference between having a sexual preference and immediate sexual activity, so we keep saying “I’m attracted to others of my sex” and they keep hearing “LAH LAH LAH BUTTSEX ALL THE TIME.”

    Break down the distinction between merely noting my own existence as a Queer person and erotic talk, and lo and behold, you’ve got the mindset where I’m violating your boundaries (as, certainly, talking dirty to you without your permission would) as long as you don’t get to dictate who I can have sex with. It’s a neat trick.

  7. Amber Rhea
    Amber Rhea August 4, 2009 at 7:27 pm |

    Yes, yes, yes!! Rock on, Dacia!

    I posted this comment on Tumblr but figured I’d repost here…

    Exactly!!

    This is why the stupid lines about “we live in a sex-saturated society” get me so fucking steamed. Give me a break! Yeah as long as it’s titillating and perpetually adolescent, then sure. But try having a frank discussion about anything related to sex. THAT shit will get you ostracized – while watching Sex and the City or reading about vibrators in Cosmo is cool and hip.

    Also – this is why I am determiend that Sex 2.0 will NOT become yet another event full of spanking classes and BDSM how-tos.

  8. Jha
    Jha August 4, 2009 at 7:50 pm |

    Yes!

    When I was a child, my parents occasionally walked around the room naked (still do) and while it seriously embarrassed me, I grew up to appreciate the human body without needing the attendant erotic connotations.

    Bodies in themselves are not inherently sexsexsex – we just project that on them.

  9. Allika
    Allika August 4, 2009 at 10:11 pm |

    Yes Audacia! I wish I could be in New York this summer. I’ve always found it frustratingly difficult to find an appropriate forum and an honest, healthy and shameless way to talk about sex. When people ask me what I want to do when I graduate from law school, and I say that I want to build a career that focuses on culture and sexuality, I get the strangest reactions – especially from my peers. When I mention sex worker activism and the moral and legal battles that will always accompany the sex industry, I’m usually dismissed as an oddball hussy for even mentioning it, and a parody of a law student for taking it seriously.

    The same problem plagues a lot of cultural topics that involve any kind of performance – there’s a gigantic blurring of / disrespect for the boundary between the front and back stages. To be honest, it’s something that I’m continually struggling with. I’m often asked, and I sometimes do wonder “whose side” I’m on anyway. Maybe it’s just people at my school (very stuffy northeastern university), but it seems that to be someone who acknowledges and often embraces sexualization, who also advocates for sex workers rights, and attempts to call herself a feminist, makes me confused at best and at worst, a hack.

    Okay, well maybe I am a little confused, but I’m still learning. I’m still trying to figure out for myself what is a constructive way to talk about sex, and what it is that makes it hypocritical or scorn-worthy to do that while wearing lipstick. I think that whether one believes there’s a distinct time and place for sexualization, or whether one believes it’s ever-present, there are serious forces at work behind it and resulting from it that can’t afford to be trivialized or dragged into douchebaggery.

    I.E. I’m a big fan of your work and have a lot of respect for you!

  10. BenYitzhak
    BenYitzhak August 5, 2009 at 3:12 am |

    Responding to post #6 by Pega:

    I’ve lived in California almost all my life. I took life skills twice because I didn’t care enough to pass it the first time, once in Albany (right by Berkley) and once in San Diego.

    I don’t think it was abstinence only (I don’t recall entirely), they might have talked about condoms, but didn’t demonstrate with props how to use one, and primarily focused on all the diseases you could get through sexual intercourse. This is the same class that they used to talk about all the dangers of drugs, which they definitely had an abstinence only bent on, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they had the same approach to sex.

  11. Zak Smith/Zak Sabbath
    Zak Smith/Zak Sabbath August 5, 2009 at 6:57 am |

    I would just like to note that when I read at the Sex Worker Literati series I will totally be putting out.

  12. Bakka
    Bakka August 5, 2009 at 7:09 am |

    I think part of the problem with what is taken as sexual in public discourse, is that it is pretty homoginizing, and mostly based around ‘using’ another to ‘get off’ or ‘sell products’ or ‘prove one’s status,’ rather than seeing the connections or pleasure between people. The stance taken on sex and what is sexy is often one about using people, rather than being together with people.

    I really like the article by Audre Lourde “Uses of the Erotic: Erotic as power” in Sister Outsider http://bit.ly/11gWiJ for its discussion of pleasure and sex. In this chapter, Lourde distinguishes between pornography (which includes actual acts and not just images, according to Lourde) in which people use each other “like tissues” to be thrown away. Porn, she says is “turning away from” the other.” The Erotic, in contrast, is power, she says. It is “not only a question of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing” (54). But we almost never discuss the erotic in Lourde’s sense.

    When I was in high school, I was asked to be part of a committee to redesign the sex-ed curriculum (we don’t have abstinence only education in my part of the world). I kept trying to ask that we discuss consent and pleasure in sex ed. Partly because as a teen, these issues were way more important and confusing to me than the biological mechanics. I asked that we hear not only that “girls have a right to say no, and boys have to listen” but also that girls can say yes, and that boys can say no. I was amazed, because the adults kept repeating back to me, “so you think it is important to learn that girls can say no and boys have to listen.” It was as though they could not even hear me. This exchange went back and forth for a while (at the time I lacked the tools to discuss ‘consent’ and ‘pleasure’ so it was all put in terms of saying yes or no). I don’t think this change ever made it into the new sex-ed curriculum.

  13. Bakka
    Bakka August 5, 2009 at 7:25 am |

    Just to clarify: when Lorde talks about porn and erotica, she is using a special definition of the two. She is not using them in the way most people do, but is instead relying on the 2nd wave feminist distinction (which I actually think is useful, though usually misunderstood). I am not saying that images of women are harmful per se. I am saying that views in which women lack agency (and therefore can’t consent one way or another because you need agency to give any kind of consent or dissent) are harmful.

  14. Feminists For Choice » Wednesday Click List

    [...] the Erotic Out of Sexual Culture – Feministe Interview with Dr. Susan Wicklund – Laura Flanders The Break-up of the Pro-Life Movement [...]

  15. sid1415
    sid1415 August 5, 2009 at 8:16 pm |

    Very important point. Continuing this line of thought, I want to note, first, that the relentless sexualization of discussion of these matters is actually counterproductive to the ability to imbue sex with excitement and to participate in the experience creatively; also, that the compulsive sexualization tendency often seems to reflect male embarrassment at the imagined peer response to open, vulnerable explorations of sexual feelings and information, which might reveal suppressed insecurity. I think non-sexualized openness also evokes unrecognized sexual shame in many people, and that many men evade this shame by rushing to convert their feelings into more manageable form by means of superficial expression of humor, vulgarity, and the like, here functioning as defusing mechanisms and signals male peers may pick up on and validate, rendering sexuality again a surface topic rather than an an emotional one.

  16. sid1415
    sid1415 August 5, 2009 at 9:02 pm |

    The safety this automatized sexualization provides, however, is necessarily shallow; deeper levels of it could be developed through relationships and a sexual culture characterized by trust, communication, and steady acceptance of sexual feelings, and through practicing corresponding habits in daily life. Yet because many men don’t really recognize the possibility of sexual discourse that is openly affirming without thereby becoming overwhelming or indeed collapsing into condemnation, they persist in expressing at least the quick, shallow excitement about sex that their stylized focus on immediate gratification affords them, lest their fragile sense of sexual agency be silenced altogether by their shame and insecurity. I think an affirming sex education curriculum or discussion has to provide more than information–it needs to be grounded in an understanding not only of the importance of trust, communication, and acceptance of sexuality in relationships and the culture but also of the patience needed to exhibit and model these values among people, including these obnoxious men, who haven’t learned them yet. Of course, no one except health educators (and other relevant professionals) on the job is required to exert this kind of effort to help someone that they don’t want to, much less to do so “patiently.” Still, small gestures of un-shamed, non-sexualizing relentlessly positive sexual openness can help all of us and, in the aggregate, can help change the culture.

  17. Cory
    Cory August 6, 2009 at 1:12 pm |

    Thanks for another great and thought provoking post Audacia.

    In response to Pega’s question, what can we do about it I’d say one thing we can do is acknowledge that this is one of the roles we play, whether we like it or not, when we create a public space to talk about sex. I wrote a much longer response to your post here, but basically I think that catching on to the fact that we’re being put in a position of responsibility and figuring out how we do and don’t want to take up that role in a thoughtful way is an important step in challenging the way this stuff usually plays out.

    We can also be vigilant about the ways that others expectations and impositions impact how we produce our own sexual discourse. Imagine if one day you got so sick of dealing with comments like this that you decided to stop organizing the reading nights? Or you decided to stop advertising it to the general public? Both are completely reasonable responses, but both have a huge impact on the larger discourse you’re trying to challenge.

    In the world of sex educators and academics the response has been to wipe sexual pleasure off the map, which I think is too high a price to pay.

    Finally, we can engage with these people on our own terms when we get the chance and have the energy to do so. It’s easier to write them off, and lord knows when I’m with friends and colleagues behind closed doors we do that a lot, but sometimes engaging with them pays off in surprising ways.

  18. Bacchus
    Bacchus August 8, 2009 at 12:02 pm |

    I agree with Nentuaby #7 that the problem is a sort of cognitive limitation. When I post a potentially-erotic picture on my blog, I discover that some of my audience is so confused about what is happening that they will post crude propositional comments directed at the model depicted in the photograph. After moderating away many hundreds of such comments, I’ve become convinced that these commenters are suffering a specific cognitive malfunction in which sexual material knocks their faculties into disarray; they seem genuinely unable to follow the narrative thread, in that they cannot distinguish between who is speaking (the photographer and sometimes the model), who is quoting (me, the publisher), and who is reading (the commenter and the world at large, but most often not the model).

    An alternative explanation is that they know they aren’t literally speaking to the model and object of their lust; rather, they lack language that’s coded to allow them to express lust or sexual attraction in the abstract or appropriately-directed to an audience of fellow viewers and aesthetes. So they fall back on misdirected crudely propositional language, that being all they’ve got.

  19. MJ
    MJ August 9, 2009 at 10:56 am |

    Bound, Not Gagged wrote up a great ‘How to be an Ally to Sex Workers’ post — in it is a part that I’ll always remember and will have to repeat whereever I go:

    “2) If you are a client, understand that sex industry organizing is not a forum for finding dates. Also, opposition to client/police/management violence on the part of sex workers rights activists is not a slight against you personally. Please be respectful, humble, and avoid ogling or flirting with the other activists.”

    The ogling and flirting part is key, there are many who flock to sex worker organizing events and clearly are not allies or activists and are there with the expectation that they are surrounded by highly-sexed women or women who are ‘easy’ or who will fuck them after the show (maybe even for free!!), being mindful of their presence and challenging it is key to the progress of our movement… and it is certainly difficult to do—– great post!

  20. Dr. Stephanie Buehler
    Dr. Stephanie Buehler August 9, 2009 at 8:48 pm |

    Thanks for writing this post. It makes me think of what is called the “good enough sex model,” so called by Dr. Barry McCarthy. He says that most people in long term relationships should lower their expectations to have good sex a good percent of the time, and fantastic sex and crappy sex a small percent of the time. Sounds okay, right? But if I mention the name of this model to clients, they roll their eyes and say, “I don’t want sex that’s ‘good enough.’” So I call it something else and voila, breakthrough. My point is that it is difficult to talk about sex in a way that is down-to-earth and more in line with sex-in-relationship. It’s all about titillation. But trust me, in my work we get down to the heart of things, so to speak, and it really comes down to trust, connection, love, and the need to simply be with someone that cares in a close, intimate way–not very sexy, I’m afraid.

  21. Susie Bright
    Susie Bright August 12, 2009 at 10:46 am |

    Thank you for writing this… and all the comments. I feel like throwing in the towel at times. Don’t know why I change my mind.

  22. Jamey
    Jamey August 12, 2009 at 1:32 pm |

    I completely believe that the whole issue is getting better, due in no small part, to people like you (all of you here). Reading Susie Bright (and Sallie Tisdale to plug another one of my favorites) as a young male, undoubtedly changed my life. Having a forum (in the form of books) in which actual women and men, discussed actual sex, and all the things they thought and felt about it, warded off a growing tide of masculine resentment. Just knowing I wasn’t alone, and others wanted to find a better way to live with sexual desire was the fuel I needed.

    All men are not always wolves, and all women are not always sheep. But it is still the predominant societal view that they are such. Feeling differently is confusing. Being young and filled with desire, and having that desire unfulfilled, is confusing to us all. Some people go looking for someone to blame for having their desire unfulfilled. I went looking for compatriots. Others who felt like me. Having alternative views expressed in public is invaluable.

  23. Trixie
    Trixie August 13, 2009 at 6:47 pm |

    Such good points/distinctions to make, and something that I wish friends and family would understand, too: it IS possible for us to talk about aspects of my work as an internet pornographer/webwhore (both the sexual and, especially the NONsexual aspects of it) without it turning into a encounter with each other. At least, I *think* it is, but lots of people seem to think going into any sort of detail, or even just mentioning words that refer to my work (ex. “customer”, “my site”, “I can’t on Friday because we have webcam shows scheduled”), is crossing some boundary.

  24. maymay
    maymay August 14, 2009 at 2:10 pm |

    You have resounding agreement from me on this, as well. This post of yours reminded of another post of yours citing your “top 3 reasons for coming to KinkForAll New York City”, one of which was, and I quote:

    [KinkForAll] is the perfect event to go to if you’ve always wanted to check out a sex/kink related conference but are afraid that you’ll be swarmed by naked people who are not aesthetically to your liking. It’s the perfect event to go to if you’ve always wanted to check out a sex/kink event but think you don’t know anything or won’t be part of the in crowd. It’s the perfect event to go to if you are in the [local] area but have no money and are curious about this kind of event. There are lots of reasons I’m going, but the clothes-on, free, open reasons are my main ones.

    (Emphasis mine.)

    The whole notion that sex and sexuality permeates everyday living is so often hijacked by sensationalism that we forget how fundamental our gender and sex life are to everything that we do. I strongly believe that the only way to bring more sex-positive professionals into the everyday world is to create more spaces where sexuality is not erotic but pragmatic. KinkForAll and the Sex Worker Literati are but two of these—not nearly enough.

    Thank you so much for everything that you do, Audacia. You’re one of my heros.

  25. Anthony Kennerson
    Anthony Kennerson August 15, 2009 at 7:23 pm |

    I just discvered this discussion, and I am so duly impressed with both Dacia’s principal argument and that of the commentators included.

    Being both a political sex radical and a fan of erotica/porn, I too find it difficult sometimes to get people to distinguish between the erotic, sexual realm and the more intellectual, more inflective realm of sexual discussion. It is often way to easy for someone who fits the stereotype of an openly sexual woman to not be taken seriously for her intellect when she goes outside of her “role”…just as it’s often just as difficult for someone known for his/her intellect to be upfront and honest about his/her sexuality and the ways in which it affects our culture and politics without the usual sensationalization and commodification.

    Plus…being a generally typical man who tends to support and in some cases worship overtly sexual AND intellectual women, I make it my duty as a sex radical to point out that these ladies (and men) are far more than the sum of their lingerie or measurments or sex toys, but are in fact human beings capable of independent thoughts and feelings on issues outside of sexuality. I understand that it sometimes does become difficult sometimes to seperate the person from the fantasy that they sell in their profession…but the only way that we will be able to completely respect and give support to their full right to humanity is to give them that space and that respect to be more than just the sum of our deepest fantasies…regardless of how much pleasure we may get from such.

    This isn’t to say that we should do away with spaces where people can safely and consensually ogle, flirt, and even talk dirty and enjoy shared fantasies with each other; it is to say that there MUST be just as many spaces available where we can discuss sexuality free from such distractions, and where there is no pressure to act out or “put out”.

    By the same token, however, we cannot avoid the basic fact that there are still reactionary elements of our culture that will interpret even the most muted attempt at destigmatification of erotic shaming to the least common denominator and inflect and impose the worst form of humiliation via the typical channels of vulgar resentiment. As easy it may be to decry the prevalence of overtly sexual imagery and discourse, I’d much rather an oversexed society than one that is sexually restricted, truncated, and fundamentally neutered.

    Just my nickel’s worth.

    Anthony

  26. Deerskin « Life Under A Rock
    Deerskin « Life Under A Rock September 1, 2009 at 6:05 am |

    [...] the book, I noticed this because it was so at odds with my memory, and it made me think of this post from Feministe.  In particular this passage: [. . .] thinking about sexuality on a daily, hourly, [...]

  27. Melissa Gira Grant » Under the umbrella of sex: or, Foucault’s wet dream

    [...] or development, or health, or human rights, this isn’t abstract. We can say from experience, we are not usually turned on when gathered around those tables together. Even at St. James Infirmary, which is a pretty sexy place to work, the exam rooms adorned with [...]

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