5 min

Charlie Glickman wants us to get comfortable, get informed & get off

Interview with San Francisco sex guru

GURU. Catch The Physiology of Pleasure and other talkswith Charlie Glickman in Ottawa the week of May 25. Credit: Courtesy of Charlie Glickman

“For some people, love validates sex, or a relationship validates sex, but there’s still this idea that we need something to validate it.

Charlie Glickman is a San Francisco-based sex educator. After working at Good Vibrations, a local sex shop, Glickman went on to do his doctoral work in the area of adult sexual education.

He’s now a teacher of teachers – helping sex educators to become more effective. But he’s got lessons for us all when it comes to reforming popular attitudes toward sex. We reached him in his home in California.

Capital Xtra: I wanted to talk to you about sex positivity. To start with, how did you come by it?

Charlie Glickman: Well, [laughs] how much time do you have? 

I had come out as bisexual and I was doing outreach to other students, as many campus groups do. I graduated in 1992, so I entered college right at the height of the AIDS hysteria when we didn’t have any effective medical treatment for it. There was lot more fear at the time, even more than there is now.

It was pretty much impossible to be a queer man doing outreach without people asking about safer sex. So I started having to learn about safer sex, to answer people’s questions. Once you start looking at safer sex issues, you start getting into negotiation and communication issues, and then you start getting into sexual practices, and the next thing I knew, I kept peeling away layers of the onion and eventually I found that at the core of it is the idea of sex positivity.

CX: It’s interesting that you’d say that. 1992 was also the height of identity politics.

CG: It was, too. I started working at Good Vibrations in 1996 and that was when sex positivity really coalesced for me.

In many ways, sex positivity is in a certain amount of tension with identity politics, because sex positivity is about how we feel, not how we think. And identity politics often centres on how we think.

CX: I know that, in this country, a lot of the activism has been focused on formal, legal equality which fits into the former camp, rather than on sexual freedom issues.

CG: Well, it’s a much easier battle to fight in some ways, because it’s a tangible goal, with marriage equality – for example – as we’re seeing in the United States and in other countries as well. It gives you a tangible goal you can work for.

CX: Well, so does repealing the prostitution laws.

CG: Absolutely. When we’re talking about sex negativity, what we’re talking about is the idea that sex is dangerous and that it needs to be controlled or contained. Or that it needs something to validate it. In the old days, 100 years ago, the only thing that validated it was heterosexual marriage for the purpose of procreation.

We have started seeing shifts. Now we’re in this place where, for some people, love validates sex, or a relationship validates sex, but there’s still this idea that we need something to validate it because we still have this fear about it.

But sex positivity doesn’t mean that there’s no control, or there’s no boundaries. Sex negativity is about utterly rigid boundaries, so the mistake that people make is thinking that there are no boundaries. In fact, the people who I know who try to live in a sex positive way have some of the most firm boundaries I know.

CX: Now, this is personal boundaries.

CG: Personal boundaries. But that’s what it comes down to – each person’s boundaries are unique to them. So sex positivity might look totally different to me than it does to you. And because of that, it becomes especially challenging, because the people who are scared about sex often don’t want to trust people to make their own decisions because they’re afraid of what might happen.

CX: Sex positivity at the individual level is about setting your own rules. So, then, sex positivity at a more collective level would have to involve letting other people set their own.

CG: Exactly. So, for me, that is looking at the consent and well-being of everyone involved. And when I say everyone involved, I mean everyone who’s affected by it. So if someone has an incredible fantasy about being an exhibitionist, they still don’t get to walk down the street flashing everybody, because they still haven’t gotten the consent of the people on the receiving end.

So when we’re talking about consent, we’re really talking about everyone’s consent.

CX: That’s interesting, because police and legislators use that argument in talking about sex in the johns or park sex, which is usually semi-private.

CG: So then you get into some very interesting questions around private space and public space.

On the other end of that is the requirement that people take responsibility for their own emotional reaction to things. If I’m offended by seeing someone engaged in a public display of affection, at what point do I need to take responsibility for my own reactions rather than trying to control them so that I don’t feel offended?

CX: In Ottawa, we’ve spent some time trying to educate people about the fact that there isn’t a legal right not to be offended.

CG: Yeah. It shows up more when we’re talking about sex than almost anything else, because people have such deep, deep shame that gets triggered. We start learning shame before we’re verbal.

What so often happens is that our sexual shames are so deep that we don’t know how to process them. What we tend to believe is that the only way to keep safe is to control external forces.

It doesn’t even need to be a pre-verbal shame. If someone grows up being shamed about not being a real man, and the homophobia and sexism that goes into that, that’s a huge weight to unpack. In the moment, it seems easier to try to control the behavior of the two men walking down the street holding hands who are channeling that shame. That’s one of the ways that sexual shame becomes a self-perpetuating machine.

CX: It seems that the dominant attitude toward sex is paradoxical or hypocritical.

CG: Sol Gordon, a longtime sex educator who died a couple of years ago, had this great line. “Sex is dirty and disgusting, so save it for someone you love.”

CX: That really lays it bare. Let’s change gears for a minute, because you’ve spent a long time studying sex education. Sex education in the modern sense doesn’t seem to be a very old discipline.

CG: Sex education started in the United States — I can’t speak to other countries as directly, but my understanding is that it mostly started in the United States — it actually started in World War One. All of these soldiers were going off to Europe and coming back with what they then called venereal disease — syphilis, gonorrhea and whatnot — and so all of a sudden there was this understanding that the army needed to do something to keep its soldiers able to fight. Bear in mind, this is before penicillin. There were no treatments, or no effective treatments. And so, ironically in many ways, the United States army was the start of sex education.

At the same time, Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood were trying to educate women about their bodies in order to take control of their reproductive health. So what we’re really talking about is less than a century old, in a formal classroom setting.

CX: And, on the other hand, people have been talking about sex forever.

CG: Absolutely. People have been sharing their wisdom, their experiences, on a personal level, or on a family level, almost ever since there have been people. But if we’re talking about sitting people down in a classroom and having people lecture them about it, that’s a century or so.