Helen is a middle-aged, self-proclaimed sex expert.
Simply put, she has a lot of sex -- and she didn't start until she was in her 40s. Before blossoming into a promiscuous risk-taker, she was an obese, unhappily married house-frau who eked out a marginal living doing odd jobs for some of Hollywood's rich and lazy. She disliked sex with her schlub of a husband and openly joked about how infrequently she'd "put out" for her under-endowed spouse. From the ashes of their divorce papers, however, rose a woman whose sexual awakening found her in bed with dissatisfied married men, on barroom floors with restaurant staff and in parking lots groping lonely online hookups. Her early disinterest in bedroom sports evolved into a penchant for dangerous sex that gave wings to a self-labeled "specialist."
Gliding into the new year, my resolution is to be more discerning about the people from whom I accept advice and counsel. I love to hear from folks who have had extraordinary experiences or who have lived through situations that pique my interest -- and I respectfully listen to their thoughts on a variety of television and radio shows each week. More than once in 2014, though, I took dating tips from good looking relationship gurus on TV who gave extremely general advice that wasn't tailored to my temperament or sensibility. Needless to say, I mistakenly let a couple of good guys get away.
I will no longer be so easily influenced by the "experts" who flood the media with the answers to everything. I will cut through the noise and rely more on my own thoughts than the ocean of other opinions that surround me. Yes, there are certainly bona fide professionals out there whose knowledge and experience should not be discounted, but I endeavor to be a "self specialist" -- someone who knows me better than any disconnected flapping gums on the tube.
As a marketing executive with more than 20 years of experience in the entertainment industry, I myself have made appearances on various broadcast programs to comment on issues related directly to my profession. Both my communications degree and my two decades of on-the-job training qualified me to offer theoretical and practical points of view. However, when I was asked to talk about subjects covered in my first book, a memoir, I was careful to make clear that I could not be credited as an expert on sexuality, coming out, bullying or dating. Sure, I could offer experiential and anecdotal material that would entertain and inform, but my decision to share personal details in my book did not uniquely qualify me to advise others on similar matters. Could someone learn from my triumphs and mistakes? Absolutely. Might my stories provide value to people with similar struggles? Without question. But, am I an "expert" because I chose to be forthcoming about my life? Hardly.
Helen began curating online pornography sites, writing blogs and positioning herself as a sex and relationship pundit. Nobody questioned her credentials; in fact, she was featured on a number of podcasts, radio shows and even one national morning show as an "educator" and "love coach." Publishers of erotica, sex toy manufacturers and lubricant companies began sending sample products to her Philadelphia apartment in hopes that she would test drive them and publicly extol their attributes.
"Everybody says I would be good at this," she answered when I inquired about the 14,000-pound, terrestrial animal with a swinging trunk that was standing in the room with us.
"That's great," I said, "but what about the qualifications necessary to be dispensing advice and recommending personal health products to the public?"
"Eh, who cares? Look at all of these people on television. Do you think they are clinically trained or formally educated?"
Helen had a point. In the "scream culture" of contemporary television -- marked by an endless parade of shrieking "authorities" appearing daily on national and cable news outlets -- everyone is an expert. There are so many talking heads throwing insights our way that even a certain horseman from Sleepy Hollow could land a guest spot on "chat TV."
But, while Helen made a very small amount of sense, would I hire a "get-rich-quick" infomercial pitchman to manage my finances? Or a car salesman to map out my road trips?
Did Helen hold a doctorate in human sexuality? Nope. A masters in psychology? Unh-unh. An undergraduate degree in, um, anything? That's a negative.
Helen's confidence in her "qualifications" came largely from the fact that so many friends encouraged her to turn her new passion (ahem) into the money that had eluded her throughout adulthood. While the people around us, for the most part, are encouraging, they are not usually objective in their enthusiasm and good wishes. They often say things that make us believe that what they find appealing or unique about us is marketable to the public at large. If I had a nickel for every time that every friend told me that my sensibility belonged on every television show, in every bookstore and on every radio network, I'd be sipping tea and eating every croissant in the south of France while living a life of leisure on my bottomless bank account.
With all due respect to Helen, I jumped out of a swing once, but I still haven't signed a contract with Cirque du Soleil.