Calgary journalist reflects on the sex beat
Sex Sells — or so they say — and I should know as I've been pushing it for free for almost a year and a half. In addition to being a senior editor with The Calgary Journal community news organization, I am also an arts editor, journalist and sex columnist for the complimentary student paper, The Reflector, at Mount Royal University.
From the first article I have focused on topics that most people crinkle their noses at, but in doing research on these topics I often find compelling stories and facts that have made these columns not only interesting but often pretty entertaining.
Twenty-some issues in and I still enjoy not only covering this important subject area for this sexually active demographic, but also making students choke on their Tim Horton's or leer at me curiously as I happen by. At least I'm assuming that's the reason for the leering... is there something on my face?
A little about me
Admittedly, I may be a little different than many of my student body contemporaries at MRU. Let's put it this way: I was born the same year as MTV, which in and of itself sounds kinda cool, but only because I don't watch, or understand, the vapid, bizarre 2011 version of MTV that now features teen moms instead of "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
I think that the years I have on my audience gives me a little insight into what 20-year-olds might like to know about and what it's like to be at that age when you discover you may not know everything and, as a result of being a teenager, may not know how to ask.
I grew up in a single parent household and, although we didn't attend church on any kind of regular basis, our Irish Catholic roots often shimmied there way into everyday life.
My mother was fairly liberal in raising my brother and myself, as may often be the case when the time it takes to be a disciplinary taskmaster isn't a luxury that a single parent has. So when sex came up it was with a catholic-guilt-driven moral compass that these conversations were often guided.
I recall hearing that good girls don't swear and being relieved by the notion that I didn't really want to be a good girl. Catholic school rebellion: I guess there's a reason for the cliché.
In all honesty I have never really been an avid sex column follower, but in delving into the recesses of my memory I do recall staying up late Sunday nights to listen to a call-in radio show called "Sunday Night Sex Show" with Sue Johanson. I remember her kind but gravelly voice often espousing frank and even sarcastic responses to callers' questions, which, when I was 12, seemed to be the most outrageous questions ever. It was like having a direct line to a world I wasn't supposed to know anything about.
While I probably did glean some real knowledge from Johanson's sex talks, at this point I think I was listening to have something to talk about with my friends at lunch because we all listened and if you didn't you'd look like a "prude." In a way I think about mine as being a new generation of girls who would stay up and listen to a sex show instead of our mothers who listened to that devil rock-n-roll music when they were young.
For some reason one particular call has stubbornly burned itself into my grey matter. A man called in and was complaining that his penis was too large and was hurting his girlfriend during intercourse. Sue offered some solutions but he was having none of it. He wanted surgery to reduce his size and the radio host told him that she wasn't aware of any such surgery. The man then got very angry and shouted at her, at which time she responded with something like, "Some of us have bigger problems than others I suppose." I think I giggled (quietly for fear of getting caught still up) until I was in tears. Weird what you think is hysterical when you're 12, right?
In retrospect, this is likely where I adopted some of my approach to my column.
Getting into this sex column business
A few years ago, I recall reading the student newspaper's first sex columnists' pieces with interest. Although I was amused by their musings on dating and awkward dorm encounters, I couldn't help but imagine taking a different approach to a topic that seemed to beg for a more in depth approach.
I felt that simply chronicling one's own experience, although entertaining and easy to relate to, was missing an element of research that could answer some questions instead of creating more.
Because I have been trained in research as a journalist that was my natural next step. I didn't think about how I was going to go about it. I just started looking up everything I could find on a particular topic and deciding what the most important elements were and how best to relate to those to readers.
In a way my column is question and answer. A question presents itself, whether through a person I know or met, or something I read or is in the news, and I begin to try to further understand what the issues surrounding it may be, with particular consideration to my audience's demographic.
In writing about a particular topic, like say female ejaculation, I try to take into account the studies I have read, the general view on it I had found and the supposed myths surrounding the idea and what might make my readers uncomfortable about it. When I know where the discomfort lies I can then have some fun with it and in this way I have tried to make these often weighty subjects a little lighter and easier to comprehend. I try to extend my sense of humour to invite people into my head and become involved in my experience in discovering where I am led in my research.
It seems to me that every person thinks they have stupid questions about sex while every other person must have things completely figured out, so if the first asked the sage second they would look doubly clueless —either that or people just don't like talking about their downstairs.
While this seems to be as likely an explanation as any for the attitudes toward what's known as taboo, when I began writing about sex perhaps I harkened back to Sue and her sense of humour. It could have been precisely the fact that she had made people uncomfortable that also put people at ease for knowing that everyone else listening was too.
Another sex columnist's perspective
Josey Vogels has been a sex and relationships columnist since '95, is a well-respected Canadian author, and is followed by half-a-million people coast-to-coast; she is often referred to as "the Canadian Carrie Bradshaw." She got her start writing about women's issues at her school paper and when she got a job as an arts editor in the real world she had the gumption and foresight to see that sexuality was often overlooked and "an honest, fun, frank column on the subject was due," said Vogels.
"Sex is and always will be a mystery and a fascination, no matter how much we know about it intellectually or scientifically we'll never truly understand it emotionally, and every generation has to go through the pains and joys of figuring it out," Vogels said.
"We look for guidance, insight and someone to tell us we're "normal" or that someone else is going through or has gone through the same things. It's also still kind of naughty and taboo as a topic. It's human nature to be drawn to the things we're not supposed to be though, like a kid and a hot stove."
I can relate quite tangibly to Vogel's views on the mystery and weight that the topic carries. Across nations and within belief systems people's values and ideals are closely interwoven with sex and intimacy. It is the most natural urge beyond breathing and eating, and perhaps this is why it has always been so closely scrutinized.
For these varied reasons a person may be hesitant to write on the subject and yet for me it was the main reason to do so. I realize that it comes with judgments but for this same reason I was motivated to delve into the column, I'm apparently alright with these potential judgments, and it really is the subject that never runs dry.
Basically, I am expecting the reader to be an adult and as such be interested in these very adult topics. Creating a reaction to your writing is a great way to attract an audience but you have to be ready to defend the editorial choices you make as well. My approach and reasoning has always been that if I write poignantly without pulling any punches, while also with accuracy and integrity, I will engage my audience while entertaining them, and I certainly get attention from my audience.
I believe the first time that I actually began noticing people ogling me as I passed in the hallways of MRU was after a piece I had written entitled "Taking the train to brown town," in which I addressed the topic of anal sex. Someone had brought it to my attention that more and more people were engaging in this type of sex and I felt it was worth doing some research to chronicle the safest way of doing so. In doing said research I found that people, in particular young people, were not doing their homework and just going for it. In some cases this had catastrophic consequences, and so I wrote the dos and don'ts.
My friends and fellow students offered the usual chuckled compliments, which I gladly drank in; they also mentioned they had actually heard random students talking about it. Well, this was exactly the reaction I had hoped for but then I realized that writing about this backdoor business had probably caused readers to suspect that I was happily engaging in the act because I comfortably wrote about it.
I was suddenly the girl who probably took it in the bum.
I think it took me about as long to get over this as it did to realize it, and I guess that's the catch. I can't write about things people don't even want to talk about and say "eeeeew!"
My aim is to enlighten people and, ideally, make them a little more comfortable with how they feel about their most human curiosities and urges, and I'm certain this can't be accomplished by detailing my opinions regarding what I prefer and what I don't in the bedroom. The column is about what happens, not what I prefer.
At one point I was taking an advanced writing class and my professor was very supportive of my writing, saying that all good writing pushes boundaries and makes people uncomfortable. One day he told us his colleague felt that an article I had written about felacio was "inappropriate," presumably because of the explicit detail that was included. My professor's declaring that I would be happy to explain what the reasoning was behind my bold writing was incredibly satisfying, as my style within my column had been discussed in class and had been well received by students and professor alike.
I have been addressed in the hall by a shouted, "Hey, sex columnist." This particular reader wanted to know why I didn't write more explanatory columns, to which I replied that he clearly hadn't read much of my writing but that I would try to take that into account. Another person visited the Reflector's office because he wanted to express his disappointment in my lack of dating advice.
I am thrilled to know that people are either disgruntled or enthusiastic about this column because, although I can't make everyone happy, if I can elicit a reaction I know that people are paying attention to the ways that sexuality is perceived and how the subsequent writing is delivered. My column just happens to be my particular flavour and there are plenty more out there to choose from.
The value of this column and the difference it has made becomes clearer to me as people express their appreciation to me in person. They might recognize me and say, "I really like your article on..." Although I've never had anyone tell me I've changed their life forever, that's not my intention. My goal is to inform and entertain and the tangible evidence of this is these comments and the occasional conversations that result.
A student once told me that as a result of my article about female ejaculation she and her boyfriend had been able to have a conversation about the article that led to another about their sex life. She explained that they realized some things that they may not have been willing to discuss before hand and they now felt more comfortable with their sexual practices. This has been the ultimate reward for me.
Writing about sex has taught me about human beings and thereby being one. We all crave belonging and in so doing may ignore the most natural questions about ourselves in the interest of following suit. The word taboo has become taboo for me, and I hope that as my column evolves maybe some reader's notions about sexuality may too.
- By VANESSA GILLARD