6 min

The new sex experts

They don't know much about biology - and that's a good thing

KNOW HOW. Mariko Tamaki says you need a big Rolodex. Credit: Joshua Meles

On HBO’s hit, Sex And The City, writer Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) gives advice based on the sex lives of her friends. What I can’t help but notice, however, is that the advice isn’t great.

Carrie’s friends are amazing dressers, but they constantly fuck up their sex lives. A lot of people say that for these reasons, people like Carrie shouldn’t be writing sex advice columns.

I’m not so sure.

These days self-professed sex experts are almost as common as hair-dressers. Trying to find the clitoris used to be like looking for a needle in a haystack; now it’s a multi-media event. Check out Savage Love in Now, Love Bites in Eye, Carnal Queeries in this paper, Sex Television on City TV, The Sex Files on the Discovery Channel and tons of sex columns on the Internet. The list goes on and on.

Just about anyone can give advice about sex. There are people qualified because of their sexual orientation, people qualified because they’re curious or slutty. There are people qualified because of their nice smile.

“I came to this job through journalism,” says Sasha, author of the advice column Love Bites, which appears in Eye, the Montreal Mirror and Vue. “And I will now concede that working as a stripper gave me some insight into the world of desires, fetish, etc…. Others are nurses, others go to school, others are just naturally gifted. We all seem to be equally unqualified. Really, who the fuck do we think we are?”

Can we trust graduates from the school of hard knocks, especially when they’re giving advice on such understudied topics as mammoth dildo use and peeing on yourself? Shouldn’t we be turning instead to sex educators with degrees in health, education or nursing?

The truth is, motivation is more important than education. The new generation of self-professed experts might not have degrees. While some – radio and TV talk show host Dr Laura Schlessinger comes to mind – use their lack of scientific background to foster fear, many use their skills to encourage experimentation and exploration.

The first time I ever saw Dr Ducky Doolittle, the woman behind, was in a calendar photo that showed her grinning wickedly in a sexy version of full mad scientist gear. As sex experts tend to do around questions of sexual orientation, Doolittle describes herself as “simply sexual,” a mad sexologist who just happens to think smarts are more important than gender.

A younger Dr Ruth with a closet full of toys and costumes, Doolittle has gained fame and fans for being open, honest and a little bit twisted.

“I used to write erotica,” says Doolittle, who is based New York, “After publishing a number of pieces and developing my website, I had more and more people coming to me for advice. It was a natural progression.”

Her predecessor may be Dr Ruth Westheimer, the still-thriving US sex therapist who earned a doctor of education from Columbia University Teachers’ College and later studied with sex therapist Helen Singer Kaplan at Cornell University. But Doolittle’s expertise comes only from her field research.

She’s studied the chemical composition of semen. For her article, The Amazing Items Removed From Human Rectums, reprinted in the fetish book Deviant Desires, Doolittle poured over hundreds of actual medical case records, as well as talking with medical staff.

“I always ask people, ‘Do you want the advice of some guy who read about sex in a book, or the woman who went out and screwed that thing to get your answer?'”

Here in Toronto, Josey Vogels, mother of the syndicated column My Messy Bedroom and two similarly-named books, cites her own adventurous background as the foundation for her career as a sex and relationship advice columnist. Her public persona is straight, though she’s called herself a “typical pervert.”

“If you can have sex in the back seat of an Acadian hatchback, you’re pretty much qualified,” she says.

The combination of Catholic school and an upbringing in small town Ontario is the inspiration for Vogels’s current pursuit. A degree in journalism from Concordia was also helpful. Vogels says curiosity, rather than time spent studying health and psychology, provide her qualifications.

“Writing about sex,” Vogels says, “was a natural extension of my curiosity about [sex], which started when I used to make my Barbies have lesbian sex and discovered my brother’s porn stash.”

Not too long ago sex experts kept a distance from the adventure-girl antics of today’s writers and broadcasters. It’s hard to imagine Dr Ruth talking to fetishists about the most popular position for humping a balloon.

Sex therapist and nurse Sue Johanson, best known for her television show Talking Sex With Sue, now on WTN, began her career by opening the first birth control clinic in a North American high school in Don Mills in 1970, the year after contraception was legalized in Canada.

Indeed, the information provided by old-school experts Dr Ruth and Sue Johanson is what you might expect to receive in high school. The emphasis of sexual education is definitely on education. It’s the who, what and where approach, in which body parts are identified and explained with reference as to how this equipment can be used: “This is a clitoris. You can put your finger here.”

They tend to work on a heterosexual model, a suburban heterosexual model at that, so the variety of uses for this equipment are simple and limited: “Move your finger from side to side or up and down.”

There is something to be said for the generalized, sex-doesn’t have-to-be-merely-a-duty approach. Especially for the shockingly large number of men and women who don’t know where the clitoris is, and who think the G-Spot is a new rap artist.

Except there is the power to take things a step further. To stop easing our worries about which sex is “right” and to start easing our worries about sexual experimentation – which sex is new, or, at least, new to us.

Some of us, frankly, know where the clitoris is, and know about the anus, and this information has only whetted our appetites for more.

Dykes who used to look to Dr Ruth to tell them that being gay is okay, are no longer satisfied knowing they’re not going to hell. Now they want to know where they can hook up with some good lesbo porn. Who are they going to call, then?

If you want to get a variety of perspectives on sex, logic suggests you need to talk to a variety of people. Possibly this is why so many sexperts of today cite experience as their qualification.

Dan Savage has a unique perspective as a homo giving tips to breeders, which has paved the way for books like Dan Anderson’s 1997 book, Sex Tips For Straight Women From Gay Men. Bi writers like Sasha have no qualms about giving advice on homo sex.

The sexperts I talk to have the best Rolodexes in town. One women I met has a little black book I would kill for, with the numbers of almost every sex toy manufacturer, obstetrician-gynecologist and masseuse in the US. Beat that.

These connections have helped them develop open and unflinching attitudes. Most have few reservations, or total turn-offs.

“Bar none,” Sasha says, citing a rare peeve, “I flip out on the paedophile thing. In six years I think I’ve only gotten two letters [on it] and I’m very cautious.”

It’s the openness, the willingness to listen to others that sets my favourite sex talkers apart from the likes of US radio and television host Dr Laura Schlessinger, who considers the fact that she’s a mom good qualification to tell us how to conduct our sex lives.

Unlike Dr Ruth, Dr Laura’s degree is in physiology. She also has a certificate in marriage, family, and child counselling. (Though, in an article on the website in June, Johanson went after Dr Laura, saying, “I suspect she flunked the course called non-directive counselling.”)

But while sex-positive experts use their lack of formal training as a jumping off point to look at all the possibilities, Dr Laura uses hers as a stopping point. And uses her lack of information to set moral standards for a nation, for example, by calling homosexuals “biological errors” and “deviants.”

While Dr Laura pretends to be better informed than her adventurous counterparts, she doesn’t come close.

There are drawbacks to listening to fellow adventurers.

Dan Savage might be able to give in-depth answers to questions of non-monogamy in gay relationships, but he has less than enlightening things to say about bisexuality. There are points where perspective fails because it is, indeed, perspective.

While Doolittle and Vogels are fabulous writers, they are, in fact, writers. They’re not registered nurses or doctors who can dole out medical advice. For them, a question on defecation is an interesting column, rather than good health science.

In fact, my favourite experts are less experts than people who can gather other people’s experiences and pass them on.

“One of the most interesting things I learned as the result of putting up my website,” Doolittle tells me, “is that everybody wants to be a sex expert. Everybody wants to share what they know. Knowing that has really changed how I approach things.”

We’re actually turning to our own hands-on approach to expertise. This doesn’t necessarily mean donning a lab coat and speculum and heading down to the bathhouse, but taking advantage of our own experiences and the experiences of others.

As Doolittle says, her research is usually accurate because, “if I say something wrong, my audience will call me on it.”