To be completly morbid about a really positive event: had Hurricane Sandy catacylsmically materialized in the Marriot Marquis Club Room on Saturday, half of the Bay Area's sex nerd population would have been wiped out, and a good portion of the national sex educator community would be in mourning. The Good Vibrations Sex Summit was taking place, and health professionals, sex educators, TV personalities, surrogate parents, and laypeople interested in where sexuality stands in our society today were assembled for a day of panels and lectures.
Much-needed, sex-positive analysis of current events abounded. Schism, perhaps, was inevitable. All in all, it was a day of real talk.
We were present for the second half of the summit -- the previous night's erotic short film festival at the Castro Theatre left us a little early-morning averse. We managed to catch two panels, "Pill, Profits, and Pleasure: Sexual Health and Pharmaceuticals" and "Sexual Stargazing: Sex and Pop Culture," and a closing keynote address by host of MSNBC's six-part series on American sexuality, America Unzipped, Brian Alexander.
SEX AND PILLS
Chatting "Pill, Profits, and Pleasure," Yoseñio Lewis, an SF-based transgender advocate who works with the Center of Excellence for Transgender Health, made the obvious connection between the health industry and sexuality for the trans community. He talked about the endless rounds of "permission slips" that are necessary for those undergoing hormone and other kinds of treatment. "High school never ends for us," he said. "The permission is always there - the permission for it can all be taken away at a moment's notice."
For Debby Herbenick, director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University and sex educator at the Kinsey Insitute, the medical industry influences our sex through a variety of ways -- the way libido-enhancers are developed and promoted, for example. She discussed concern over a general lack of knowledge of sexual health among doctors, causing an audible gasp from the audience when she mentioned that medical doctors only recieve 10 hours of instruction on the topic in med school.
Other panelists included Heather Corrina, executive director of online sex guide for teens Scarleteen and Liz Canner, whose film Orgasm, Inc. focused on the marketing campaigns based around sexual desire pharmeceuticals, and their place in the medical industry.
SEX IN THE MAINSTREAM
If there was one thing on which the panelists of the Sex Summit's final discussion on sex and pop culture agreed, it was that there should be more of themselves. Emily Morse from Bravo's Miss Advised show on sexperts told a story of a young woman who wanted to be a sex educator, but couldn't find anything to say that hadn't been said already. "Be the pop culture you want to see in the world," quipped panel moderator Reid Milhalko to this call for more sex-positive voices in mainstream media.
It can be a double-edged sword, this getting famous in the sex world. Panelist Abiola Abrams was an indie adult film director (her release 2007 Afrodite Superstar, which explored sexual constructs in the hip-hop industry was nominated for seven AVN Awards) before she made the switch to become a writer. Now she blogs for Yahoo on sexuality topics -- but also on celebrity news, which pays her bills. "Be very clear with yourself going forward on what your mission is," Abrams counseled budding sex writers. "Make sure you have your own media." You can always control the message your blog puts out, after all, regardless of how editors and producers change your pieces done for larger media sources.
Tellingly, all the panelists -- which also included Las Vegas Weekly columnist-University of Las Vegas faculty Lynn Comella and Salon writer Tracy Clark-Flory -- on the pop culture panel could pinpoint some of their earliest lessons on sex as having come from mass media. Dear Abby's lessons on masturbation, 1990s AOL chat rooms, Judy Blume, Emmanuelle, Robin Byrd, were all cited. So can you change the perception of sexuality by working in mainstream media? The answer here was a resounding yes.
WE WON -- NOW, MAKE FRIENDS
"While all of [our speakers] might identify as sex-positive -- representing sexuality from a pleasure-inclusive, non-shame-based, and pro-information point onf view -- their perspectives and the topics on which they focus are diverse," wrote Good Vibes staff sexologist Carol Queen in her intro to the program for the event.
Receiving slightly less than a resounding yes was the day's last speaker, Brian Alexander, who Good Vibrations might have known would stir up some healthy debate for the day-end cocktail hour that followed his talk.
Starting premise of Alexander's lecture: "Sex as a cultural issue is no longer relevant."
The journalist offered up incredibly amusing stories from his traipse through the heartland for his MSNBC series on American sexuality. King Arthur, a Bill O'Reilly and bondage enthusiast Alexander interviewed at a Tampa kink convention, figured prominently.
"Middle America is no longer as sexually repressed as we think," Alexander concluded from his voyages into Missouri sex toy parties. And so, this culture war over sexual liberties, reproductive health? A political construct, he suggested, created to distract us from the fear that breaking the social construct has created.
"What will you do with the victory?" was his question to the room of sex educators before him. His suggestion was to "make friends." He said King Arthur was down with sexual freedom, just not with Pride parades marching down his block. "People are generally happy to let people create their own sexual stories. You can enjoy sexual freedom, and do it ethically, but still be responsible. Freedom requires more self discipline, not less." The line was echoed around Twitter.
But not everyone resonated with his assertion that sex-positivity now rules the day.
"To tell those of us who are on the front lines of supporting and educating the most vulnerable populations, [the assertion] that we've won because privileged people are kinky too fell a little flat," commented Oakland sex-positive parenting educator Airial Clark, who attended the summit as an observer, in an email to the Guardian.
"We live in a culture where sex is used as a weapon in myriad ways," she continued. "Faux outrage isn't my concern. Girls getting sexually harassed in school and taking their own lives is a far more effective measurement of where we stand as culture in regards to human sexuality than anything Mr. Alexander suggested in his keynote."
A hearty congratulations to our local sex toy kingpins. The summit's first go-round was exciting, and fractious, and heartwarming, and informative, pretty much everything you'd expect of a gathering of professionals in a field as rapidly developing and under attack as sexuality studies. Plus, it provided a well-appreciated chance for local and not-so-local sex educators to build their networks. More sex in hotel conference rooms!