I wasn't surprised to read that newly hired and newly resigned New York Press sex columnist, former child actor Claudia Lonow, had plagiarized her writing from popular sex advice columnist Dan Savage. (Savage has no official comment at present.) When I read the incest question she answered on Jezebel, and David Blum's flippant response that these are perfectly reasonable topics to discuss right off the bat, I had to wonder why they chose to go that route. Sex is a topic that people are always interested in, and always will be, yet instead of addressing it in a straightforward way, all too many media outlets choose to try to make sex "sexier" rather than giving readers enough credit to think logically and critically about the topic.
Sex doesn't need to be packaged as the "most outrageous" anything, as New York Press tried to do, to attract readers. For example, Brian Alexander's MSNBC column "Sexplorations" tackles everything from sex toys to talking dirty, geared toward a mainstream audience. He doesn't try to position himself as an expert, but rather an open-minded observer, willing to admit when he doesn't know something or is weirded out by something, and bringing in others with more expertise to flesh out his responses to readers (an approach he also takes in his book America Unzipped.)
During my tenure as the Lusty Lady sex columnist for The Village Voice, I found that almost anything related to sex was enough to get people talking, debating, and responding, and it wasn't always the most "racy" topics, but often the more common subjects, that garnered reactions. Sex is something that everyone, whether they're doing it or not, is curious about. I tried to ground my column in my everyday experiences as well as exploring sexual issues in the news, pop culture, and the lives of people I know ─ and at no point has anyone, a stranger or friend, asked me about incest. This doesn't mean people aren't talking about it, just that for an initial foray into sex advising, it's clearly designed for maximum shock value.
Blum gave this answer to Jezebel's Moe Tkacik when she asked whether Lonow's initial column was a little too out-there for mainstream consumption:
OF COURSE incest isn't standard. nor does claudia condone it. she VEHEMENTLY opposes it in categorical terms. but as much as we might not like to admit it, incest does exist as a subject (in books, movies, as well as in sex columns) and is a legitimate topic for a sex columnist to address.
One need only look at the cover running with the column, along with Blum's response, to see that instead of actually trying to help people with real sex advice questions, the paper was simply trying to capitalize on sex, teasing us with its own "outrageousness" by posing a query that is far from common. This reminds me of New York magazine's 2003 anti-porn cover story by Naomi Wolf, illustrated with a photo of Jenna Jameson.
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Violet Blue asked:
What is it with these TV women writers thinking no one will notice: perhaps because it's sex they feel it doesn't need to be dealt with in any honest or professional fashion whatsoever?
She is exactly right. While splashing the word "outrageous" on their cover may seem like the in thing, in reality, looking at sex from an honest, open point of view is one of the best things any sex writer can do. I recently edited Best Sex Writing 2008, (you can read more about it at the book's blog) a collection of journalism and essays by writers such as Michael Musto, Gael Greene, Scott Poulson-Bryant, Kevin Keck, Ariel Levy, and Tristan Taormino, among others, and one thing I learned from the process is that we all have more to learn, and that "sex" is much broader than simply intercourse. The book tackles everything from fantasies about twins to a eunuch who performs surgery on himself, in ways that I hope are compassionate and thoughtful, provoking discussion.
Sexuality permeates our everyday lives, and should give any sex columnist endless fodder for material, whether from their own experiences or a quick query of their social circle (or Craigslist, an ongoing hotbed of sexual variety). One has to wonder not only why Lonow chose America's most popular sex columnist to steal questions from, but why New York Press keeps kicking out their sex columnist du jour to make way for the splashiest versions of sex it can find (even while getting rid of phone sex ads in the back of the paper).
Everyone has questions about sex (yes, even me), and I say, the more sex columns out there, the better, but not at the expense of accuracy or simply as a way to look "cool." Sex can be written about in ways that are funny, real, and relatable without resorting to clichés, sensationalism, or plagiarism. Otherwise, what's the point?