where the rubber hits the road: a closeted prude listens to modern sex advice
by nikki meredith
I have a new secret pleasure. It’s not actually secret — I’ve mentioned it to a few people – and, though it involves sex, it’s not exactly pleasurable for reasons I’m about to explain. Come to think of it, it’s not even very new.
Every Tuesday, for the past six months, I put a leash on my dog, ear buds in my ears and head out the door to my local gym and on the way to that gym I listen to the Savage Lovecast, billed as love and sex advice from America’s sweetheart, Dan Savage. I kind of love Dan Savage. I say kind of because a while back he would occasionally go on fat people rants that I found offensive and not consistent with his generally compassionate approach to people. He doesn’t do it any more but I haven’t quite forgiven him. He is, however, an ardent advocate for LGBT rights…actually for lots of rights, gay and straight and, with the fat exception, I agree with him about 99 percent of the time when he’s not talking about sex. When he’s giving advice about sex, I agree with him about 97 percent of the time. Maybe it’s actually 95 percent or possibly 90. Sometimes it’s closer to 50 percent of the time or 20 percent. Perhaps, it isn’t his advice I disagree with. It’s the whole premise of the show.
I’m pretty sure I blush as I walk or I would if anyone was looking at me. (Do the blood vessels that produce a blush on your face dilate if there’s no one there to see it?) Because I find my embarrassment humiliating, I try hard, as I walk along, to parse the reasons I blush. The first is obvious. Talking about sex makes a lot of people blush and this is lots of talk about lots of sex. Apparently, while I wasn’t looking, a whole sexual culture evolved and dipping into that culture often makes me feel as though I’m encountering a community of bonobos – you know, those chimps for whom sexual contact is the be all and the end all of everything. In the bonobo world, there is no situation that isn’t improved by sexual contact and a whole lot of it.
Why am I humiliated by my embarrassment? While I’ve never considered myself hip when it comes to sex, I have considered myself informed, certainly broad-mindedish. When I listen to the Lovecast, I’m hounded by the notion that I am not only out-of-step, I’m a fuddy duddy in a class with the likes of Mike Huckabee and the Family Research Council.
In no particular order here is a list of my issues with the Lovecast:
When it comes to sex, in my antiquated book, three is a crowd and when you increase that number to four, five, six or more, it’s an orgy. If one should find oneself participating in an orgy, unless one is a bononbo, one should not broadcast it. To the Lovecast community, it’s a wholesome, fun get together — the more the merrier – so why wouldn’t you talk about it?
Part of my fuddyduddyness has to do with the old-fashioned notion that links sex and romance or sex and passion or sex and, yes, love. I’m partial to dyads, whether we’re talking about sex between a man and a woman or between two men or two women or, I don’t know, two swans. (There’s a reason humans are charmed by examples of animals who mate for life.) Call me a hopeless romantic but I believe there’s a marginally better chance of some kind of emotional connection if there are only two of you in the sack and, in my Mike Huckabee book, that’s a good thing. When the numbers in a sexual connection increase, my imagination takes me to a place that looks something like a recent article in the New York Times. What you see here are hundreds of red-sided garter snakes who have recently awakened from an eight-month nap in their subterranean lairs and are copulating or looking for someone with whom to copulate. Every year this reptilian orgy takes place in a remote hamlet of Narcisse in Manitoba, Canada. It ain’t pretty. Shouldn’t sex be a little pretty?
The more I think about it, the more I realize that aesthetics have a lot to do with my problem with kink. Let’s talk about costumes. Unless you’re engaging in the very outdated vanilla variety (and if you are, you probably aren’t calling the Lovecast) naked sex may be on it’s way out. As far as I know, which admittedly isn’t much, the most elaborate costumes are worn by devotees of S & M, and along with those costumes is a multitude of accouterments. If we’re talking aesthetics, and increasingly I seem to be, I find these get-ups disturbing. When it comes to S & M the only person who’s lookin’ good in these sessions is the dominatrix. The majority of women can pull off the look — fishnet stockings, garter belts, lace or leather bustier – made complete with the addition of a black leather whip. The “M” part of the equation suffers by comparison. Few people, men or women, can be bound with leather straps and not have fat bulging on either sides and even worse are the quivering masochists with hairy backs in diapers, crawling on all fours. Does anyone find those guys sexy? Did you watch Billions? Every time Paul Giamatti needed an “adjustment” his psychologist wife donned her dominatrix outfit and, with the skill of a chiropractor, realigned his inner wimp. I don’t think he was wearing diapers when they were going at it, but in my mind’s eye he was.
(I’m increasingly uncertain that S & M qualifies as kink. It is now so ubiquitous in mainstream culture I wouldn’t be surprised if they haven’t started teaching safe words in kindergarten.)
And speaking of accouterments and visual appeal or lack thereof: I’m not sure I’m ever going to get over the image of the actress in Orange is the New Black donning a dildo. I don’t know what I thought a woman about to pounce on her girlfriend with a giant strap-on would look like but I didn’t think it would look like that. It was terrifying. I’m not saying it triggered PTSD but I have had a flashback or two since then.
The issue of what’s “pretty” rears its ugly head again when I consider the group that makes up a considerable portion of the kink community — exhibitionists. This is as good a place as any to confess my prejudice in this regard. In a past life I worked as a therapist in a mental health clinic and the one diagnostic category I couldn’t abide were exhibitionists. I had no problem treating, or trying to treat, all manner of other pathologies, even child molesters, but I had difficulty working up empathy for men – and all of them were men– who risked marriages, children, careers, their place in the community, in other words, everything — for the shock they’d see on women’s faces when they unzipped.
I know precisely the moment when this antipathy started: I was with three other women in my Saab station wagon on I-5 driving to Sacramento where we were attending graduate school. A man in a gleaming black Cadillac, driving in the next lane, started honking at us…he was so insistent and persistent we thought we’d hit someone and were possibly dragging the body from the back of the car. The minute all of our heads were turned his way, he arched his back high enough so we could see that he had unzipped his pants and exposed his penis. Picture it: a guy in a business suit and a tie, one hand on the steering wheel, the other on his penis. His back was arched so high, he must have been a yogi or maybe a gymnast. Did I mention he had a big shit-eating grin on his face?
I hasten to add that my prejudice against exhibitionists does not usually extend to women. It’s a double standard, I know. Once again, it boils down to aesthetics. Women, for the most part, simply look better when they expose themselves. Most male exhibitionists I have known don’t have bodies like Michelangelo’s David…besides, they seem intent on exposing the one part of their anatomy most women I know don’t want to see out of context. As a result, from cam girls to strippers, there are a lot more acceptable outlets for women who share this particular inclination. It’s not fair, it just is.
If I’m embarrassed and humiliated about being embarrassed, why do I keep listening? I listen because for 50 minutes once a week I am completely surprised and that doesn’t happen any other time in my life. And I do learn things. Did you know that it’s a thing to get turned on while overhearing a telephone conversation between, say, a Southwest ticket agent and your husband about changing his routing from Wichita to Pittsburgh? One woman caller discovered her inner kink while listening to her boyfriend talk to Verizon technical support. She was calling the Lovecast to ask Dan if it was unethical to use the unknowing Verizon tech guy as a vehicle for getting off. I can’t remember now whether Dan thought that it was okay or not okay but I do remember there were other callers who announced that they had similar proclivities. If it weren’t for the Savage Lovecast I might have lived my whole life completely unaware of the possibility of rapture lurking at technical support.
My vocabulary has definitely increased in the past six months. There are too many new terms for me to list them all here but a few stand out:
Cismale: When I heard male callers identify themselves as cismale I thought it was spelled sismale and for the longest time I thought that it meant a feminine man and/or a man, gay or straight, who liked one or more of his orifices penetrated. I couldn’t help be astonished at the number of male callers who self-identified thusly. Could there really be that many men who viewed their penchant for penetration as their primary identity? “Hi I’m a 25-year-old sismale living in Seattle.” Finally I looked it up. A cismale is a man whose gender identity matches what’s on his birth certificate. It has its origin in the latin-derived prefix “cis-”meaning “on this side of,” which is an antonym for trans-, meaning “across from” or “on the other side of.”
Polyamorous: I used the term at a dinner party thinking it would demonstrate that I’m a bit ahead of the curve since my dinner companions were my age. No. The divorce lawyer sitting across from me knew all about it because it had been an issue in the context of a divorce. The meaning is obvious I suppose — though it was not immediately obvious to me when I first heard it on the Lovecast. It seems to be a version of what we called open marriage in the ‘60s. Not a single couple I knew who practiced it stayed married but then hardly anyone stayed married in the ‘60s regardless of how open or closed their marriages were or how many people constituted the poly in their amorous relationships.
Sex Positive: I probably should have started with this term because it explains everything. The Savage Lovecast isn’t just a podcast, it’s part of a movement that promotes and embraces sexuality with few limits beyond an emphasis on safe sex and the importance of consent. According to Wikipedia sex positivity is “an attitude towards human sexuality that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable, and encourages sexual pleasure and experimentation.”
I don’t know if it’s all youngish people (most of the callers range from early 20s to mid-30s) or just the ones who call in but these people seem to be immune to either guilt or shame. Judging from the calls, I’d say religious elders are falling down on their jobs. Are the products of a Catholic upbringing completely extinct? The word most often used to describe kink events is fun. A 20-something woman called because she recently discovered her penchant for having sex with more than one guy at a time. “It was so much fun,” she said, and giggled. Another woman called to say she and her husband had sex with his best friend and that was so much fun too. Maybe it’s the fun I object to. Maybe I don’t want people to have fun unless there’s a roller coaster involved.
If it’s fun, you might ask, why are they calling an advice show? It isn’t always fun. Occasionally there is a call from a gay or lesbian young person whose family is rejecting him or her. These are universally heartbreaking and Dan is at his very best when he’s offering support and guidance. The caller community also shines in these cases, sometimes offering places to stay and resources to kids whose parents have kicked them out.
There are, of course the usual questions you expect from a love and sex advice show such as the etiquette of break-ups and differentials in sex drive and/or sex practices. And then there are the practical, ethical issues that come up in the everyday world of kink. Is it, for example, okay to use the same sex toys with your new partner that you used with your old one? After all, high quality sex toys are expensive. (Consensus varied on that one.)
I’d say that the majority of calls are about clashes with the judgmental sex-negative outside world. Here’s a sampling of those situations:
— Happy endings with a not so happy ending: A young woman, who, for years, struggled with her career path finally found her bliss when she learned to be a massage therapist. She liked doing it and she was good at it. Her bliss was increased ten-fold when she discovered that if she delivered happy endings, she could charge more. Win-win! Yes? No. She wanted to share her joy so she told her landlord about it and he got all judgmental on her. She was crestfallen. It had never occurred to her than anyone would have a problem with it. While Dan, always a sex positive dude, does not generally condone judgmental behavior, he thought the landlord had a right to protest. It was, after all, his apartment building and she was, after all, providing sexual favors for which she collected money.
How does a woman reach the age of maturity and not have any idea that there are people in the world, landlords for example, who might take issue with happy endings massages? I’m wondering if, perhaps, the sex ed in the schools she attended should take another look at their curriculum. (This may further confirm Peggy Ornstein’s conclusion that girls are increasingly learning about sex from porn.
— Canines and kink. A man is part of a kink community in his town and the group has a party once a month. Coming up is his turn to host the party. He has heard that a couple of guys in the group who are into dogs. The problem: our host has a pug and he doesn’t want his pug to participate. He’s calling to ask Dan if it’s unreasonable to request that the guests not enlist his pug to join the party. Dan does not think such a request is unreasonable. The issue of the morality of including a dog in kink was not, at first, raised by the caller but subsequently a caller weighed-in with a sensible guideline. It would be immoral under any circumstances because a dog can’t give consent. (I have admit to being pretty judgy about human sex with dogs but I have to say that I suspect that most male dogs I have known probably would give their consent if they could….but it’s just a guess.)
Some of the advice on offer concerns what is healthy. A woman calls to say that she and her husband have decided they want to open up their marriage and explore other unconventional sexual practices but they live in a small town and his job would be jeopardized if it was discovered. Dan’s first advice is that they move to a big city or change jobs or even careers because if one suppresses these urges, who knows what bad things might happen. I know there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that repressed sexuality can have disastrous consequences (Catholic priests, for example) but I have a hard time believing that having to limit one’s sexual activity to one’s spouse could be so dangerous to one’s health and well being that it necessitates a change of cities, jobs, careers. Clearly I fail to grasp the compelling gravitational pull of kink.
A woman, married with young children, is in a polyamorus relationship. Both she and her husband are openly in love with the same woman and everything is hunky dory or it would be except for her old fashioned mother-in-law who worries about her grandchildren being raised in this situation. They, the couple, want their polyamorus love celebrated, not hidden. Dan urges the couple to be patient with Mom, to a point. Give her one year to adjust and, if, after one year, she continues being all judgy about it, they would be within their rights to cut her off. I admit to feeling a tiny bit of sympathy for this mother-in-law who has one year to adjust to the fact that her son is married to two women. But isn’t this progress? Isn’t this better than the days when a men and women hid their paramours from the family thus relegating them to second-class citizenship?
I pondered this question as I walked on the Tuesday morning the polyamorous woman laid out her problem. Suddenly, I stopped walking and shouted “no” so forcefully, I startled the dog who looked at me to see what she’d done wrong. “No,” I repeated, “I don’t think it’s better.” It was at this point in my parsing when I realized that my biggest problem isn’t aesthetics or even my need to link sex and love. It’s all this fucking honesty.
Transparency, that’s my problem. I don’t mind what people do as much as I mind that they talk about it so openly. I doubt that there’s much new in the way of sex practices and people’s fantasies have always included kink. In fact, according to the Journal of Sexual Medicine having sex with multiple partners at once and watching people undress without their knowledge are just two of the totally normal sexual fantasies uncovered by recent research. The overarching takeaway from a survey of 1500 Canadian adults is that sexual kink is incredibly common. AND THESE ARE CANADIANS! But they are talking about fantasies. If you believe the callers on the Lovecast, and I do, they are parading those fantasies straight out of their psyches and into real life.
It’s taken me six months to realize it but I have concluded that the very thing the show promotes — complete honesty (theme song: “There is nothing you can’t ask on the Savage Lovecast.”) is one of the things that bothers me the most and what makes me feel so much like an outlier.
People, go ahead and have your affairs, your open marriages, your S & M sessions, just like some of your forebears undoubtedly did…but can’t you leave your poor mother-in-law out of it? Would it be such a crime to let her live her ostensibly conventional life without forcing her to introduce Aunt Alice to the lover of both her son and daughter-in-law at Thanksgiving? Is it fair to make her choose between that or having a relationship with her grandchildren?
When all is said and done, however, I’m not really asking you to stop talking about it because if you do, who will surprise me on Tuesday mornings?