Note: This blog post contains sexually explicit content.
Anytime I have a book come out, I sit down with my publisher and publicists to figure out the best way to market the thing. My books all deal with the nature of relationships and communication in a modern world that's constantly changing technologically and socially. They're mostly written from a decidedly male point of view, and they're sexually frank to a degree that some people think borders on pornography. As a result, I've had trouble finding many mainstream media outlets that will cover the things I write.
With my fourth book, The Average American Marriage (a sequel to my first book, The Average American Male), I was surprised to find that more than a few mainstream websites and media outlets were interested in having me contribute an article or two. One of these was a popular women's website that wanted me to write a thousand words on what a man really wants from a woman in the bedroom.
My first question for the editor was: "How honest do you want this to be?" She told me to make the article 100 percent honest -- no punches pulled, no holds barred. I could be as vulgar as necessary in order to get down to the real dirty details.
With those marching orders, I sat down and cranked out an article that outlined what I think most people already know. Guys are filthy. We like really dirty things -- far beyond anal sex, swallowing, and threesomes with our significant others' best friends, although those were all certainly included in the laundry list of "what guys really want in the bedroom." The point of the article was, essentially, that guys want a sexual partner who is open to anything and enthusiastic about everything. The language was vulgar -- because sex is vulgar. I've never had sex that isn't. The things you see, smell, touch, taste, hear and feel when you're having sex are all pornographic. So it seemed obvious to me that an article describing the things guys enjoy seeing, smelling, touching, tasting, hearing and feeling should be just as vulgar, just as pornographic, if it's intended to reflect the way guys actually think about these things.
So I turned in the article, feeling confident that I delivered exactly what they asked for and excited to see the reaction -- because, in tone and content, there was nothing like it on their site.
A week passed. Then I got an email from the editor who was reviewing what I had written. The email contained an edited version of my article and a writer's agreement that needed to be signed in order for the piece to be posted on their website. I assumed the edit would be toned down a little, but not too much, based on the editor's assurances that the site wanted a piece that was honest.
My assumption was incorrect.
Every instance of vulgar language was removed from my article. Any reference to a sexual act beyond missionary, doggy style, or girl-on-top was removed. Any reference to anal sex--whether it was a vulgar phrase or literally the phrase "anal sex" -- was changed to "the back door." Beyond the removal of the vulgarity, and other content that I can only assume was deemed too sexually explicit for the site, there was another component to the edit that astonished me. Someone had gone into my article and inserted new writing -- including puns like "Arma-get-it-on" -- were sprinkled throughout the text.
Once again: "Arma-get-it-on."
Needless to say, I wrote the editor back thanking her for her time and respectfully declining to sign the writer's agreement on the grounds that the article in its edited form was not only stylistically incongruent with anything I would ever write before suffering from a stroke or undergoing a lobotomy, but also because its content was so dishonest. In fact, it had become the exact opposite of what was asked of me in the first place.
The article never ran on their site.
I asked myself why this happened. Why would a woman's website ask a guy like me, who's known for writing sexually graphic and honest novels, to write something sexually graphic and honest -- only to edit it into something without a single sexually graphic phrase or a sentence of honesty? Is it that people (or at least the readers of that specific site) don't actually want the truth when it comes to sex? I can't imagine that's it. Is it that women don't want the truth when it comes to sex? That's definitely not it. I think it's that the media outlets who circulate these things, by their very nature, can't deliver the truth when it comes to sex.
We live in a time when information can flow freely, without censorship. But we also still live in a time when giant media companies are beholden to their sponsors, and they have to uphold whatever standards those sponsors dictate, which creates an interesting scenario. Anyone can sit down at their computer and watch hardcore porn in one window while watching Martha Stewart in another. But this fact isn't really recognized by mainstream media. Porn isn't something that's openly talked about; if it is, it's usually with condescension or at least a wink and a nod, even though it's a part of daily life for most men and has certainly begun to alter what is "normal" in an average sexual relationship.
Today, for the first time ever, we have an entire generation of boys and girls who aren't discovering sex by finding their dad's Playboys in the garage or reading Cosmo when they first become sexually curious. They're watching hardcore porn. They're watching it to satisfy their curiosity, to satisfy their natural sexual impulses, and to learn how to have sex. Once that generation moves into the world as an adult consumer demographic, it's going to be difficult for mainstream media to keep being dishonest about sexuality.
Shows like The Bachelor (which is a guilty pleasure, but also an example of everything that's wrong with how mainstream media deals with relationships and sexuality) will have to update or die. Email wardrobe warnings -- like the one CBS sent out to artists before the Grammy Awards this year, to make sure they didn't wear anything that might be too revealing -- are already treated as a joke. And eventually TV commercials like the abhorrent KIA Sorento ad, in which a father is so terrified of telling his son the truth when he's asked where babies come from that he concocts a lie about a planet in outer space delivering children on a rocket ship -- will stop being cute. They'll be ridiculous.
Think what you will about 50 Shades of Grey, but it's an important piece of writing, if for no other reason than it really serves to mark an important time in our treatment of sexuality as a culture. The 50 Shades books are sexually graphic, widely regarded as poorly written, and acknowledged by their author as derivative fan fiction of the Twilight novels, another series of books that were devoid of sexual honesty and any even mildly graphic sexual content. They were originally self-published outside the mainstream media, and they've reached a level of success that's unfathomable. Why? Because not only can society handle the truth -- it wants the truth. The novels' success eventually had to be recognized by mainstream media. This was no more apparent than when the eternally politically correct, intellectually stunted by religion, and sexually abstinent until marriage (even though she already had a child) Sherri Shepherd included the books and a pair of fuzzy handcuffs among her "favorite things" on The View. And it's a good sign when shows like Girls, which is possibly the most honest show on television -- certainly about sex, and also about a wide variety of other things -- wins Golden Globes.
In the next 20 years, it's likely that a majority of people who regularly use the Internet will have at least one naked picture of themselves floating around. The Anthony Weiners of the world will stop being news, because nudity and sexual interaction through cell phones and Internet apps won't be seen as a mistake, it'll be seen as a rite of passage. For some reason, we're slow as a society to understand a very simple fact: we can't stop social or technological progress. It's the confluence of these things that is currently moving us into a time when mainstream media is going to have to be more honest about not only sex but everything else, too, because technologically there simply won't be a way to be dishonest that's still palatable to the people who matter most to the companies that produce mainstream media -- consumers.
I see this trend in action whenever I have a new book come out. I always get an increased amount of social media traffic, a steady flow of Facebook messages and tweets from people letting me know what they think of my latest offering. In the past, those messages have mostly been about how funny people find my books, how much one of my more deplorable characters reminds them of someone they know, or how people hope they never end up leading the lives of the characters in my books. But so far, with The Average American Marriage, I've been getting far more messages from people telling me that they appreciate the honesty about sex and relationships in what I'm writing.
In trying to figure out why that's happening, I came to a conclusion. I don't think this book is any more honest than any of my others. But I think honesty, always rare in the media, is a trend that's becoming more and more valuable to consumers of all kinds.