Q:After dating this woman for a couple of months, I began to suspect that she was a bed wetter. Is adult bed-wetting more common than one would imagine? Would it be morally shallow of me not to want to sleep with her again?
A: Would it be morally shallow not to sleep with the woman again? Yes, I think so. You liked this woman well enough to sleep with her before you found out she had a medical problem; if you drop her cold now you’ll not only contribute to her feelings of shame (something bed wetters suffer from, according to mybladder.com), but you’ll wrack up some serious bad karma….Instead of dumping this woman, try to help her…..If she denies she has a problem, or refuses to get help, you can either dump her or invest in plastic sheets.
-Dan Savage, “Savage Love”
Q:Can a young male make a lot of money acting in straight, gay, or bi[sexual] porn movies? Where can males find such work in Montreal or Canada? Do requirements for gay and straight porn differ?
A: There is very little activity in Canada and most porn is shot in Los Angeles (the San Fernando Valley, to be more specific, according to one source). This same source says guys approach him all the time about doing adult films and he refers them to the World Modeling Talent Agency in L.A. Gay pays more than straight, so much, he says, that ?gay for pay? is a common saying in the industry….In straight porn, you basically have to be able to keep it up and come on cue….In gay porn you have to do all that and be gorgeous.
-Josey Vogels, “My Messy Bedroom”
Take one part advice, one part personal journalism, one part research, one part pop culture commentary, and you have the essence of the modern sex column. The hybrid form initially emerged in North America in the 1980s, when American writers began exploring the profound confusion surrounding roles and relationships following the sexual revolution of the previous two decades. In the last 10 years, sex columns have edged their way from the pages of alternative weeklies into prominent positions in American mainstream print and online publications such as the Chicago Sun-Times (Rhona Raskin?s “Ask Rhona”), abcnews.com (Dan Savage?s “Dear Dan”), and New York magazine, where, last fall, Amy Sohn began writing a self-absorbed saga each month about her sex life. The column serves as a springboard to explore the fluidity and uncertainty of sexuality among young urban professionals. Then there’s “Savage Love”-the most syndicated sex column in North America-which sprang from the same pen as “Dear Dan” but is more like its evil twin, providing a fascinating forum for the author to touch on sexual, social, and political issues.
Sex columns have also arrived in Canada-occupying a place of honour in the back sections of virtually every alternative paper in major cities across the country, and cropping up with greater frequency in mainstream markets. Hundreds of thousands of devoted readers read them to demystify ever more complicated questions of sexual etiquette. With good reason. A cultural barometer of constantly shifting sexual mores in an increasingly disconnected culture, the sex column not only brings the health class home, it provides readers with a comforting sense that they are not alone. It quells fear and embarrassment about matters of the heart, and opens lines of communication about stuff down there. Perhaps most significantly, it helps to normalize behaviour that would have been unthinkable to read about even 10 years ago.
Sex column aficionados, for instance, still chuckle over the “bob versus peg” debate, which raged for weeks last spring in “Savage Love.” The argument erupted over what to name the act when a woman had anal sex with a male partner using a strap-on. “Peg” grew from a highly misinformed reader suggestion (the man apparently thought that young male prostitutes used pegs to keep their nether orifices flexible). Even after Savage put this myth to rest (he argued that it was illogical, as loose orifices are a detriment rather than advantage when it comes to anal sex), the term’s popularity gave “bob” (which stands for “bend over boyfriend”) some real competition. “Peg” eventually took the prize, with 5,216 votes, while “bob” attracted a mere 2,721. And so “pegging”-a new word for a previously in-the-closet sex act-was born. This level of interactivity is typical of sex columns.
Columnists field questions ranging from the benign to the bizarre. Readers ask anything from the best way to hit on a waiter to the exact definition of “clit pumping.” The columnist, in turn, acts as collective group therapist. Or, as Dan Savage puts it, “Troubled/ bemused/perplexed person submits deeply personal/embarrassingly revealing/totally humiliating question, and wise/tolerant/benevolent advice columnist writes remarkably insightful/slyly amusing/completely unambiguous answer for all to read/apprec-iate/marvel at.” Generally, columnists won’t judge the reader, and there’s a comforting assurance that no matter how weird his or her question, someone else will always write in with a more bizarre problem. Indeed, half the fun of reading a sex column is the voyeuristic thrill of finding out what kind of kinky inclinations your next-door neighbour is into.
In the post-’60s era, when the borders of “conventional” sexuality were continually expanding, agony aunts like Ann Landers and Dear Abby were simply no longer relevant. A new generation no longer worried whether it was acceptable to wear white after Labour Day; they wanted answers to more pressing issues, like how to negotiate casual sex with an ex, how to shop for a vibrator, or how to feel less alone during a sexual dry spell. People were starting to talk about sex in a take-no-prisoners way; advice columnists and mainstream journalists simply weren’t speaking their language.
In 1980, 52-year-old sexual therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer changed all that when she brought Sexually Speaking to New York City radio and became a North American celebrity by talking about sex in a smart and sassy way. Dr. Ruth set the stage for the modern sex column, but the younger generation still clamoured for someone who could empathize with their trials and tribulations. She offered a voice less intimidating than their gynecologist or family doctor, but more authoritative than their best friend.
Enter Cynthia Heimel, a hip, divorced, 30-something single mom, Playboy columnist and author of Sex Tips for Girls, a hilariously cheeky guide for women attempting to negotiate the minefield of sexual relationships in the ’80s. Readers were drawn to her raunchy tone, hysterical humour, brazen honesty, and, above all, earthily human approach to topics like “Zen and the art of diaphragm insertion.” By addressing readers as if she were talking with girlfriends about sexual exploits and dilemmas, Heimel trailblazed a new way of discussing sex in a public forum. Moreover, through her irresistible character Dr. Eva Rosa Anna von Sex Tips, the author created the template for a column about sexual etiquette that relied heavily on humour, a device which remains a keystone for sex columns today. Heimel also paved the way for the sharply observed social anthropology of Candace Bushnell’s 1990 “Sex and the City” column in The New York Observer, which sparked a hit HBO television series.
While Heimel was mining the culture at a grassroots level by probing the always confusing, often hilarious dilemmas of sexual etiquette, and Dr. Ruth was dispensing her no-nonsense advice on the radio, over at The Village Voice, Richard Goldstein, the voice of gay America, was reporting at a more macrocosmic level. Goldstein trenchantly probed the relationship between sex and pop culture at a time when gay culture was increasingly gaining acceptance in the straight world, AIDS was decimating the male homosexual population, and homophobia was on the rise again. Throughout that manic-depressive period for gay men, Goldstein viewed and interpreted significant cultural events through the filter of sexuality. By 1992, the trend was showing itself in Canada, too, with Wendy Dennis writing the best-seller Hot and Bothered: Men and Women, Sex and Love in the ’90s. Together, these voices gave eloquent expression to an important and emerging new form of journalism.
Against this backdrop, in 1994, Josey Vogels was asked to write a column about women’s issues for Hour, one of Montreal’s alternative weeklies. She decided that writing strictly about women would be too limiting, “too ’80s.” By broadening her focus to sex and relationships, she could more effectively tap into the zeitgeist. Thus, Canada’s first sex column, “My Messy Bedroom,” was born-a place, says Vogels, “where contradiction sits on the dresser right there with the tube of lipstick and the jar of cellulite cream.”
Today, her wildly popular “My Messy Bedroom” is syndicated in 10 alternative papers across the country. In addition, Vogels writes “Dating Girl,” a Q&A column she conceived partly to deal with the flood of letters she receives seeking advice on a broad range of topics. Until March, she hosted My Messy Bedroom TV on WTN, a television show where she and her girlfriends engaged in animated girl talk about breasts, blow jobs and bubble baths. She is also a frequent guest on TalkTV, publishes additional material on her website, mymessybedroom.com-which receives over 1,000 hits daily, a huge following for a Canadian sex columnist-and has just finished writing her fourth book. In the rarefied world of Canadian sex columnists, Vogels is a star.
Vogels, who graduated from Concordia University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and communications, thinks of sex in our time as a “nice mix of openness, repression, confusion, pierced body parts, and Guess jean ads.” She credits feminism, ’60s free love, Hollywood, therapy, self-help and how-to books, radical primitivism, and a renewed conservatism with creating contemporary attitudes toward sexuality.
Vogels often melds a reporter’s research skills with a personal approach. In a column on the drastic reduction in male fertility, she cited one study showing that long-term prisoners were “regular sperm factories” thanks to their highly regulated and relatively stress-free environment. “Of course, if testosterone and subsequent sperm production keeps dropping in men,” she wrote, “violent crime will go down and prisons will no longer be necessary. Come to think of it, more feminized men could mean less rape, war, and more legroom when you sit next to them on the metro.” Recently, when investigating the etiquette of the orgy, Vogels talked to Kristine M., a premiere sex party planner who doesn’t allow booze at her sex parties. “Well, if I found myself in a roomful of people I was expected to have sex with,” the columnist wrote, “I think I’d be wanting at least one cocktail to calm the old nerves.” That comment is classic Vogels. While some other writers jab more harshly, she diffuses awkward subjects with gentle self-mockery.
As well, she often offers intimate glimpses into her own sex and fantasy life. In one column, about the death of a friend from AIDS, she wrote, “It hit me like a ton of latex [but] fear does not necessarily curb promiscuity. Let’s get real here: if casual sex is a vice, anxiety will only send you seeking more of it….For me to sit here and say that I still always practise entirely safe sex would be like me saying I’ve never faked an orgasm.” When a writer exposes herself so intimately in print year after year, a bond of trust develops with her readers. She has similar experiences to yours, understands your problems, and though initially as perplexed as you are, is more likely to come up with some explanation for why the world of sexual interaction is so damn confusing. She explores the brain and the body with equal aplomb. “I’m bored with my sex life. Not the one that happens in my bed, or whatever other convenient location presents itself, but the one that happens in my head,” Vogels writes of her mental sexual health. “I don’t think it’s any coincidence that common fantasy lists for women involve some form of exhibitionism, while men’s lists usually include some sort of voyeuristic Peeping Tom-themed scenario. After all, if you look at sexuality as it’s often depicted in our culture, women are watched and men do the watching.”
Although sex columnists play a significant role in identifying trends and informing public opinion on many aspects of modern sexuality, writing about sex and relationships is still considered a “soft” subject in journalism. Often sex writing is viewed as self-indulgent, irrelevant, or silly. Vogels says that she’s used to confronting this prejudice. She’s often asked if she worries about becoming pigeonholed as a sex writer. “They wouldn’t ask me that if I were a political columnist,” she says, “but writing about sex is viewed as frivolous.” And yet, why should it be? What other subject goes straight to the heart and soul of who we are as human beings? What else so intimately affects our thoughts and emotions? There’s no subject in or out of mainstream media that so clearly connects us to each other on all levels. What’s more, it’s clear that audiences are rabid for information about relationships and sexuality. Sex guru Sue Johanson’s Sunday Night Sex Show is WTN’s highest rated show. The Sunday Night Sex Show is just one of the five information-based television shows devoted to all things sexual, like Sextv on Citytv, The Sex Files on CTV, and Eros on Life Network, all of which air in Canada. According to Robert Fulford, a National Post columnist and one of the country’s most distinguished journalists, “Anything that conveys ideas and information is journalism. Sex is as much entitled to its place in journalism as gardening, sports, interior decoration, or politics. More, probably.”
Part of the reason that sex columns don’t garner the respect they deserve is because sexuality is such a messy area for writers to explore, and many are afraid of intensely personal journalism. Exposing one’s sex life in print requires courage and an utter lack of inhibition. Still, not all sex columns do qualify as journalism-particularly in the under-30s market. Some are more brash reminiscences, playing on shock value to entertain rather than inform. That type of writing, drawing readers seeking a quick laugh, has a definite appeal, although it lacks the necessary underlying substance to function as an anchor.
For seven years, Sasha Van Bon Bon has been shocking the otherwise unshockable young, hip urbanites who read “Love Bites” in Montreal’s Mirror and Toronto’s eye. Among the cooler-than-thou in the downtown alternative crowd, Sasha’s column has a certain cachet. Still, “Love Bites” reads like a caricature of a sex column. It’s often less informed journalism than an aggressively juvenile rant. While using graphic language to communicate and entertain is standard practice for sex columnists, Sasha, whose credentials for writing a sex column include stripping and writing pornographic comics, often goes overboard, occasionally to the point of cruelty. When a reader, worried about his girlfriend’s greater sexual experience, judged the woman for her past choices, Sasha attacked him with an equal measure of judgement and scorn: “Won’t you be a marvel of understanding toward her when you come-and you’ll be lucky if you last this long-in under five seconds?”
While other sex columnists rely on research and professional medical advice, Sasha more often seeks answers from unreliable Internet sources, uninformed sex store employees, and porn stars like Nina Hartley-further reducing her credibility. Moreover, she often brags about her ignorance, almost demanding readers keep their expectations low. When a reader who was dissastisfied with her advice wrote to complain, Sasha told a story about one of her best friends whom she put on the pill when she was 15. (She’d obtained the prescription from her own doctor.) “She now has chest hair, which she blames on me. Just keep that in mind when you ask me medical questions.” Still, Sasha does have a loyal readership, for whom she reliably provides cheap laughs, a seedier perspective, and a peep show in print.
Although her sex-diva persona can become tiresome, she is an entertaining writer. When a man asked how to cope with a girlfriend who’d had more sexual partners at one time than he’d had in his whole life (male insecurity due to inexperience is a common theme), Sasha retorted that he was face-to-face with an all-too-common sexual malady: the World-Weary Demi-Mondaine. “She’s been mauled in Marrakesh, pissed on in Peru and had orgies from one end of the Orient to the other, darling-she has seen it all….How do I know? Who the hell do you think you’re talking to? I’ve now parlayed the WWDM into a fucking job! Sometimes I think the only reason I’ll have kids is so they can have kids and then my grandkids can go around telling everyone that their grandmother was a scandalous woman.”
At 61, with style and grace to spare, Valerie Gibson speaks to a rather different demographic. When she beckons you into her office at The Toronto Sun, she’s instantly recognizable from the headshot above her column, frequent appearances on the society pages, and regular sexpert appearances on local television. Her cultured British accent, cheeky grin, and coiffed mop of red hair are practically trademarked. Gibson began her career at 16 years of age as a copy girl at The Southern Evening Echo in Southampton, England. After working her way up from covering dog shows, she came to Canada in 1974 and worked as a fashion editor at the Sun prior to assuming the mantle of sex columnist at the newspaper in 1997. In Gibson’s “Intimacies,” her thrice-weekly column, the writer, whose fans range from teenagers to senior citizens, not only talks openly about her five failed marriages, her fondness for young men, and her beloved cats, she brings her idiosyncratic point of view to bear on timely topics: badly botched blind dates, hopelessly horny husbands, and steamy romances with younger men.
On that last topic, Gibson is particularly expert. She spent the last few months of 2001 promoting her latest book, Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men. It’s her second on the joys of sex and relationships with men half her age. In her books, Gibson is freer to playfully explore the lighter side of sex than in her columns, where she advises on the more mundane aspects of relationships. However, her distinctive tone-an easy authority tempered with perspective-resonates in both.
“Intimacies” is much less graphic in tone than most other sex columns and offers more balanced discussion of relationships. The reason is twofold: she writes for a mainstream daily, and she simply has more relationship experience than other sex columnists. She’s gone through (at least) five falling-in-loves, five engagements, five weddings, five honeymoon periods, five falling-out-of-loves, and five divorces. And now she can laugh. That’s experience and wisdom. In a recent column about a cheating spouse, the reader who’s going through hell can take comfort knowing that Gibson has clearly been there: “I’ve done the deny, deny, deny bit. It works for a while, but once a partner’s suspicions are aroused, they rarely disappear. It’s inevitable, however, that those suspicions will be confirmed as the unfaithful person usually makes a bad slip at some point,” she writes. “Sometimes it’s just carelessness or overconfidence, sometimes it’s unconsciously deliberate as, deep down, they want to be found out and get it all out into the open. Ah, yes. There speaks the voice of experience….” This tone is typical of Gibson: not enough bizzaro sexual highjinks to make her a grande dame of World-Weary Demi-Mondaines, but enough mileage to give her perspective.
Gibson’s gentle authority comes from age, but there are other ways to achieve that kind of sensitivity and understanding. Rebecca Rosenblat’s background in psychiatry, for instance, has enriched her viewpoint. Rosenblat, whose “Ask Dr. Date” column graces the pages of the Canadian version of Hustler, spent six years working with schizophrenics at Toronto’s Clarke Institute of Psychiatry before turning to sex writing. After publishing three erotic novels, each of which sold more than 10,000 copies in North America, she became a sex columnist for Touch magazine, a now defunct sex monthly. In 2001 she vastly expanded her audience, taking on the role of Dr. Date at both Canadian Hustler and Toronto’s Mojo radio. On the radio, Dr. Date was wildly popular: a sexpert with a husky voice as suited to phone sex as commercial radio. Her midnight time slot made her popular with truckers, and she managed to talk the “manly” men into a more sweetly sensitive style of lovemaking with their wives and girlfriends. Through the gig at Mojo, a station marketed as “Talk Radio for Guys” with billboard ads announcing “It’s okay to be a man again,” featuring lingerie-clad women holding power tools, Rosenblat proved she could crack male bravado, break through to the squishy emotions underneath, and handle some tricky situations in between. At the same time, she was gaining notoriety outside the GTA through her monthly column in Hustler. In the Christmas 2001 issue, her double-page column is sandwiched between “Carnal Carnaval”-a raunchy memoir of boinking prostitutes in Quebec-and a photo spread of a m?nage ? trois. In it, Dr. Date dispenses advice about easing into group sex (“Spark it up with some threesome porn”), woman-friendly porn (“Feminists have fought for…freedom of expression. It is our right to view it”), and bathtub sex safety (“No pumping in the tub”). But she also stresses that communication is the number one aphrodisiac and encourages men to treat their partners with respect. She’s clearly having an impact. To her surprise, much of Rosenblat’s fan mail comes from women, who say that they use her column as a forum for discussion with their mates. A further surprise: her blurb announces that “Hustler is proud to present author and sex therapist Rebecca Rosenblat, who will answer your questions about love, sex and intimacy.” Who knew that Hustler‘s editors had even heard of intimacy, let alone the idea that sex had anything to do with love?
Rosenblat had an opportunity to speak directly to her middle-aged fan base at Toronto’s “Everything to Do with Sex Show” last fall. The couples who flock to hear Dr. Date’s marriage-saving wisdom packed the curtained-off seminar area where she was giving explicit instruction on “How to talk dirty” and “How to drive your partner wild with pleasure.” Five minutes into her lecture, the only spot left to sit was a small patch of concrete behind a 50-something couple who couldn’t keep their hands off each other, obviously affected by Rosenblat’s talk of “fuzzy, sweet peaches” and “steely hard cocks.” Her fans didn’t seem to mind the standing-room-only conditions as they crowded in behind the hundred or so plastic chairs the more punctual couples had snagged. They listened, completely rapt throughout the half-hour speech, and lined up afterward to buy copies of her instructional booklets. Dr. Date chatted amiably with her fans, shifting easily, like many of her colleagues, between sex goddess and sex therapist.
It’s characteristic of her craft for Rosenblat to consider her work as a sex columnist an essential public service, as valid as her earlier work with the mentally ill, though much more fun. Her individual brand of do-it-yourself sexual healing has an informal tone that belies the seriousness of the information she’s providing. As with her colleagues, years of probing the eccentricities of human sexuality haven’t affected her passion for her work. They all simply love sex, and writing about sex.
In one column, Josey Vogels sends up our culture’s obsession with sex by offering her readers a multiple choice quiz. “What’s become more popular than having sex?” she asks. “A) talking about it, b) writing about it, or c) responding to questions about it.” As the Oprah-inspired compulsion to talk about everything, all the time, with anyone who’ll listen takes an ever firmer hold on the mass unconscious, sex columns provide a much desired fix for pop culture junkies. Of course, sex columns also formalize our neuroses about sex and sexuality into a neat and tidy package, providing answers for the great unanswerable: why do we do the things we do?
Sex columns name our sexual neuroses, literally and figuratively. They create the capacity for discussions where before there was none. They help create the language that enables us to talk about our sexuality in an entirely new (and ideally improved) way. They shine a light on the dark corners of the human sexual experience, providing readers with a forum for exploring those dark places, without seeming freakish. The research, the advice, the humour, the personal tone, and the cultural commentary have all combined to create what is now an essential function for the legions of adherents.Sex columns self-perpetuate their cycle of popularity; the more people read about sex, the more they wonder about it, and the more comfortable they feel going beyond the conventions that dictate sexual relationships.
The sex column is a reflection of modern attitudes about sex and sexuality. It is not a passing fad with a definite shelf life. Instead, it’s a trend that is helping to change the tone of modern media, and is gaining greater acceptance among writers, readers, and editors of all ages and disciplines.
About the author
Aileen Corr was the Associate Editor for the Summer 2002 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.