"Are you a ho or do you just want to be?"
Ever since I became a sex columnist for alternative weekly The Village Voice in the fall of 2004, this is the kind of email I occasionally receive, though I'm thankful that the vast majority of my feedback is positive. It fascinates me how we've automatically made sex so titillating and taboo at the same time that anyone who dares to write about it or incorporate it into their job description, whether as an intrepid observer or as a sex worker (a category that can include strippers, dominatrices, phone sex operators, nude models, and the like), is automatically up for ridicule. As much as I know that sex pushes people's buttons (and not always in a good way), I'm rarely prepared when strangers take it upon themselves to tell me how to live.
And yet the greatest satisfaction that I get is from sharing stories about sex, a topic that everyone seems to want to talk about. I'm even more of a voyeur than an exhibitionists, and am profoundly touched when readers see fit to share their own personal stories with me, even though I rarely have advice to offer. Often, I've found that bonding over a shared sexual experience is enough to let someone know they're normal; chances are, if you've thought about it or done it, someone else out there has too!
I've used my column as a platform to talk about my own sexual adventures, but also to explore issues related to sexual identity, gender politics, chastity, privacy and reproductive freedom. Sexuality is not something that should only be talked about in whispers, but something that intimately affects us and colors our views on many topics. This is not to say that we should all walk around naked or conduct graphic sexual discussions on the job, but that it's wrong to assume that sex is purely a "private" topic. In reality, it's both private, in that most of us conduct our sex lives away from prying eyes, and public, in that sex is a topic we learn about from our families, schools, the media, and by having conversations and asking questions.
It's especially interesting to watch as our culture's often conflicting attitudes toward sex collide, such as the way we've now made "Paris Hilton" some kind of code for "dirty filthy slut" while simultaneously catapulting her to fame (and making the Red Light video porn video release 1 Night in Paris so popular it won the Adult Video New Award for "Best Selling Title of the Year" for 2005). It seems like we'd prefer to keep our dirty girls, the ones who make a living off their bodies, in one corner, while the rest of American womanhood should be content to pretend that sex only happens (or gets thought about) behind closed doors. Jenna Jameson, porn star extraordinaire, crossover queen, and author How To Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale, is treated with similar disdain while her pockets get lined by eager fans.
Those of us who attempt to have an intelligent, outspoken, professional life while also publicly claiming our sexuality without apology subvert that false dichotomy. I consider other women who've been caught in the web of American prudery my allies─women like USC Professor Diana Blaine (http://www.dianablaine.com), who was castigated for three topless photos in her personal Flickr account — two an homage to a painting she found by 19th century artist Ingres in which she mimics the very sedate style of the photos.
There's little room in our culture for individual women to express our often conflicted and complex feelings about our own sexuality and how it's presented without immediately being accused of speaking for all women. As just one example, I was told by a Yale student that I'm not a feminist because I reported that the vast majority of women I interviewed for a column would prefer their male dates treat them, rather than going Dutch or her picking up the tab. Exploring my sexuality in print, in both fiction and reporting, has opened up many new worlds to me and shown me that there are countless ways of expressing one's desires, and countless ways our lust can manifest itself. It's forced me to be fearless in probing my own varied desires and pursuing them, whether they're popular or not, while recognizing that what I'm into today may not be what yanks my chain next year, next month, or even next week.
Until we allow women and men to talk freely and openly about our sexuality, not just in culturally approved formats like the now-hip experimentation with strippers and threesomes, but about the places sexuality can take us that may not be perfect or pretty, we will not have true sexual freedom. It's not just about women, either; bisexual men and submissive men are two groups who are highly underrepresented in popular culture, and men who are curious about exploring either topic have little means of support. J.L. King's important book On The Down Low explores men who weave their way between heterosexuality and homosexuality in the African-American community, compassionately portraying men who feel they have nowhere else to go and no way to be open about their desires. It's too simplistic to say either "they're straight" or "they're gay" (the same goes for many people not on the "down low"), but until we acknowledge that people don't fit into labels as easily as we may like, our mass sexual confusion will continue.
I don't have an agenda regarding other people's sex lives other than opening up space for more people to talk about and consider their sexual options without shame or judgment. This doesn't mean that everyone should be going to orgies every night (not that there's anything wrong with sex parties!), but nor should we have to live with the collective weight of guilt, judgment and confusion we've saddled ourselves with. I'm heartened to see books like Heidi Raykeil's Confessions of a Naughty Mommy and Stephen Elliott's My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up, ones which take our cultural roles (mother/pure, male/dominant) and turn them on their heads. In a country where some states see fit to ban the sale of sex toys (because we all know how dangerous those are), we need to make sure we have ways to explore and expand our sexual options, not shrink or denigrate them.