sex story openerBy Kate Hefford

This is a good brand,” says sex blogger Erika Szabo, motioning toward a pair of $50 underwear. They’re silky smooth, dusty blue boxer briefs with an exaggerated bulge. We glance over electrosex gear, sex toys that apply electric stimulation to the genitals. We’re in Priape, a sex shop and gay haven in Toronto’s Church and Wellesley Village. We discuss natural lube (“You should try Sliquid!”), kegels, and BDSM—she says bondage tape is great for first-timers.

Szabo often finds herself in stores like this doing research for her blog, xoxoamoreLike sex columns worldwide, it features sex tips, toy reviews, and date ideas. She also often interjects her personal experiences in her sex toy reviews. Of the Evolved Duo Obsessions Lavish vibrator, she writes that“flipping the toy onto its side and using the textured shaft for clitoral stimulation proved better, but was awkward.” Szabo tells me, “What is so interesting is you have to put yourself out there and try to make it informative.”

Szabo works as a copywriter at the head office of Seduction, a three-storey sex shop that claims to be “North America’s largest adult department store.” She founded her blog in August 2011 with her boss. For Szabo, blogging is a more personal form of journalism, at a time when the mainstream coverage of all things hot and heavy in Canada isn’t exactly turning her on. “Sometimes I think sex journalism can be misguided,” she says. “A lot of it is biased and stereotypical. It’s not aiming for the right hole.”

She’s right: the way magazines cover sex can leave something to be desired. Publications like Best Health, Canadian Living,and Chatelaine are attempting to improve Canadian women’s sex lives, one article at a time. They offer solid information, but they’re so scared of rubbing people the wrong way, they’ve turned sex into sex ed. It’s time for Canadian media to stop being such prudes around anything kinky.

There’s no argument we’ve made progress. Journalists were reminded of how far we’d come last August with the death of Helen Gurley Brown,Cosmopolitan’s eminent editor for 32 years until 1997. Before she took over Cosmo in 1965, it was a literary magazine. She brought sex, “the subject that every woman wanted to know about but nobody talked about, to life, literally, in Cosmo’s pages,” said David Carey, president of Hearst Magazines, in reaction to her death. When Brown was hired, she pledged to give how sex was written about a makeover. Her philosophy was: “So you’re single. You can still have sex. You can have a great life. And if you marry…don’t use men to get what you want in life, get it for yourself.”

Journalists today—and Cosmo in particular—are still following her blazing-hot path. Current Cosmo coverlines include “100% Hotter Sex,” “Dirty Sexy Sex,” “His #1 Sex Fantasy,” “Best. Sex. Ever.,” and “What Guys Crave…(Besides Beer and Pizza).” There are still taboo topics, though, in almost all magazines. Body abnormalities, kinks, disabilities, and even mainstream LGBT sex seem not to exist in their glossy pages.

The exception is the weeklies. We can thank the explicit example set by Savage Love. The sex advice column by Dan Savage that appears in a number of Canadian alt-weeklies is syndicated by Seattle’s The Stranger, in which it has been published since 1991. Savage gained popularity when he launched the It Gets Better Project in 2010 after several high-profile teen suicides. More recently, he’s been the star of the MTV showSavage U, on which he visits American universities and answers students’ sex questions with wit and honesty. And he isn’t shy. In the November 1, 2012, column, reader “Completely Utterly Mortified” asks about salining one’s balls. Savage responds with directions: Saline can be injected into the ball sack with a needle to make testicles appear larger. He elaborates that “the inflation process takes about an hour, the effect lasts a day or two, and the sack gradually returns to normal size as the saline is absorbed into the body.” Education, one; judgement, zilch.

Occupying the same real estate in Toronto’s The Grid is a column called Dating Diaries, which gives the real estate back to the readers. Gay, straight, or whatever readers offer their “diaries” of a date they’ve been on recently—and a rating. Nothing is off limits, from tales of blowjobs to one-night stands. On these dates, men say insensitive things like “You failed,” women have filthy apartments, and guys meet up after spotting each other on gay dating sites. “What I love the most is anything that is either unexpected and there’s a crazy twist,” says Kate Carraway, a columnist for The GridVice, and TheGlobe and Mail, who compiles the tales. “[Or] something that is universally wonderful or terrible.” A favourite column of hers involves someone who accidentally made a date with someone she met online but didn’t like, then had a great in-person date. “That to me is perfect,” Carraway says, “because it definitely shows something about dating that is common [which] is something we understand about the randomness of it.”

In February of last year, she wrote an article outlining what we can learn from Dating Diaries, and it’s clear that it subtly provides sex and relationship advice. Where to pick up, what not to say, when to invite your date upstairs…it’s all in there. Weeklies don’t hold back on dirty details. They have the kinky content that their magazine counterparts are lacking. So where do the magazines fit in?

American publications like ElleGlamour, InStyle, and Cosmo hit Canadian newsstands every month. But the climate is way different up here. While the U.S. mostly spills its sex secrets in fashion magazines, in Canada, it’s often the health and lifestyle titles that are giving “the talk.”

“We’re the trusted resource for if you’re wondering about the G spot, or sexual health, female reproductive health and fertility, those kinds of things,” says Bonnie Munday, editor-in-chief of Best Healtha magazine published by Reader’s Digest Canada aimed at women in their 30s to 50s. “It’s about the whole woman, it’s about all aspects of health, including mental health, sexual health, looking great, feeling great,” says Munday. The magazine often includes readers’ questions for B.C.-based sex and relationship therapist Cheryl Fraser. It also features a column called Girlfriend’s Guide, where women can ask embarrassing body questions. It’s proven so popular that Best Health has compiled it into a book. The magazine doesn’t, however, touch taboo content like fetishes. “We’re kind of driven by what our readers are asking for information about,” says Munday. “We’re covering topics that we think our readers want to hear about from Best Health.”

Sex—as health? Hugh Hefner must be rolling over in his, um, bed. He launched sex into the mainstream when Playboy hit the stands in 1953. But amid the nude centrefolds and photos of Playboy-Bunny-suit-clad women, and despite the fact that the magazine’s noteworthy features showed it was clearly capable of doing great journalism, articles about sex itself weren’t common. Its competition, Penthouse magazine, which launched in the U.S. in 1969, did sometimes feature sex tips, hidden among nude pictorials. But by then, Cosmo had already set the precedent.

In the early 1980s, the lack of accurate coverage was deadly. When mainstream publications ignored the facts about the AIDS epidemic, the harmful stigma arose that it only existed in the gay community. In journalist Randy Shilts’s book And the Band Played On, he reports that “the mass media did not like covering stories about homosexuals and was especially skittish about stories that involved gay sexuality.” The publications considered it a “dirty little joke.” Nowadays, most mainstream publications are solidly on the side of equality—running coverage of bullying and gay celebrities, for example—although many are still heteronormative, which is most obvious in their sex coverage.

Magazines aren’t the only way the public is getting information on how to get off. Who could forget the Sunday Night Sex Show, with sex educator Sue Johanson, which took live call-ins about all aspects of sex until 2005? Certified sex and relationship therapist Rebecca Rosenblat has assumed the mantle, answering viewers’ questions and interviewing experts on her show Sex @ 11 with Rebecca. Since she moved to Canada from India, she’s realized that sex is a taboo subject here.

Rosenblat has noticed a few hot topics in Canadian magazines right now: sexting, cheating, and sex addiction—although sex addiction is being written about inaccurately, as if it were alcoholism, she says. “Then some of the stuff is the same old same old, but people are able to talk about it more openly…like how women are every bit as sexual as men. Which makes my job easier.”

Rosenblat says magazines can be dry about sex, and they get it wrong sometimes. She blames writers using unqualified sources, pointing out that relying on the so-called expertise of other people can lead to inaccuracies. She says that “you go into any kind of a therapist forum [online], and everyone is saying how they were cringing that some person could have given such wrong advice.” One example of bad advice that Rosenblat sees repeatedly online is that men who suffer from erectile dysfunction should drink wine to loosen up. “That’s so irresponsible, because as soon as he has that, circulation will be impacted and chances of getting a boner are close to nil.” She also bristles at the term “sexpert.” “Like, what is that? It could be someone working in a sex shop, or who has decided to write a column. I need to know, what are their credentials?”

Part of the problem is an inconsistency in the quality of publications, says New York-based journalist Liza Featherstone. “I don’t think much effort is made to let the readers know that some of the articles are rigorously fact checked while others are totally made up, and there is no real reason that readers would figure out there was a difference,” she says in an email. Reader stories are sometimes even written by the magazines themselves. In a Columbia Journalism Review article titled “Faking it: Sex, Lies, and Women’s Magazines,” Featherstone reports that relationship and advice stories in magazines are almost always completely fabricated. She then poses the question: Does any of this matter? When I ask her this now, she says, “Yes, because sex itself matters and honest journalism matters.”

Following in Hef’s footsteps, modern men’s magazines rarely talk about sex. Publications like SharpGQ, and Esquire include pictures of sexy women in place of articles about sex. The exception is Toro, an online magazine that has both. Letters to Levenson is an advice column for men with questions about their wives and girlfriends, or, in Noah Levenson’s words, “people who are so confused and hurt that they reach out to a stranger for advice.” What is lacking in advice columns is what it’s really like to be a sexual man, he says in an email. “Men are either portrayed as whimpering, hyper-sensitive eunuchs or dinosaur-brained guidos. Of course, the reality is that we’re all somewhere in the middle.”

Levenson doubts articles about sex even deserve to be classified as journalism. “I actually find sex advice columns to be so hilariously deranged and aggressively inhuman that they’re basically the lowest-hanging fruit,” he says. He also questions whether the advisors are really journalists. “[They] tend to be pandering, demagoguing schmucks. All apologies to Oprah.” Blogs have always been in the is-it-journalism category, so it’s ironic that many sex columnists are gaining their credibility by blogging now.

But Szabo, the xoxoamore blogger, believes the genre may be heading in the right direction. “I like to think it’s becoming more and more open.” She stresses that the ultimate purpose of sex journalism is to teach the readers something they didn’t know before. “A lot of sex columns are not always educational, or aren’t sex education that people can understand.”

“If you’re coming to us for information, we owe it to you to be accurate,” says Kaitlyn Kochany, a freelance journalist and fellow blogger on xoxoamore. To her, getting it right allows it to be legitimate, and the internet makes this information accessible to readers. She cites from the rules of the internet, as created by the online-culture-based wiki Encyclopedia Dramatica: “If it exists, someone has made a porno about it.” In this way, sex blogs have leveled the playing field, and anything that readers aren’t getting from magazines may be found online.

University and college students have access to another format for accessing sex tips: the school paper. Kaite Welsh, author of “Sex and Blogs and Shock-‘n’-Tell Journalism” in Times Higher Education, says that students are taking this trend personally. She found that prospective journalists in western universities are using their schools’ papers to discuss sexuality issues, and that the papers can be more explicit than mainstream magazines. “Whether it is pictures of scantily clad models or sex-obsessed bloggers, the modern student press is increasingly X-rated,” writes Welsh. School papers are, even now, producing future Carrie Bradshaws.

So why is sex covered by every form of media? “There’s an old adage, and it’s not just for magazines: sex sells,” says Scott Bullock, a magazine circulation expert in Canada and the U.S. “What I tend to focus on is just how covers influence people’s buying decisions.” He’s compiled data on magazine sales and compared them with what’s on covers. This reveals interesting information about how we relate to sex in magazines: the sexier the cover star, the better they sell, usually.

“Why magazines cover sex is probably because their readership likes it. These things are studied pretty carefully,” says Bullock. Anyone who has worked at a magazine would probably agree. Readership polls are conducted. If the response to sexual content in media outlets wasn’t favourable, it wouldn’t be there. And the opposite is true: content that makes the reader squeamish is also cut. If readers are seeking a more open conversation about sex, they’re going to have to want it first.

Photograph of Erika Szabo by E. Wynne Neilly

Illustration by Kathryn MacNaughton