Academics, authors, researchers, journalists and content creators, pop-culture commentators, and activists — oh my! All came together on October 27 for one information-packed day at the GV Sex Summit, painting a vivid picture of the USA’s state of the sexual union. Good Vibrations invited sexuality experts and analysts from around the country, with four tracks — censorship and politics, the media, health and pharmaceuticals, and popular culture — each explored by a panel, plus three notable keynote speakers. Politics, pleasure, and the varying ways we learn about sexuality were on the table to be discussed, and insights and quotable quotes flew all day long and into the evening at the best-view-in-town lounge at the Marriott, where we all went to keep on talking.
I welcomed and hosted the gathering, reminding attendees in my opening remarks that “coming together” wasn’t really a requirement…! And in fact, though there was a lot of agreement onstage, not everyone’s take on the topics at hand matched everyone else’s. And most pressingly, since the Summit was, on purpose, scheduled close to the November 6th elections, I wanted to contextualize for everyone what enormous repercussions they hold for those interested in sexuality-related issues: sex education, women’s right to choose whether or not (and when) they bear children, marriage equality, censorship, and much more. Wearing my favorite new accessory, a “slut-kerchief” (a hand-made neckerchief printed with the OED definition of “slut” — Slutkerchiefproject.com), I reminded the assembled participants that pejorative sexual naming has long been associated with class and economic privilege as well as intolerance of diversity and women’s sexual agency. These are the issues we’ll confront at the voting booth this year; they are not just part of our history, but of current social challenges.
Keynoting the Sex Summit were three writers whose work, in substantially different ways, explores social elements of sexuality.
Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., M.P.H., opening keynote speaker, is Research Scientist and Associate Director at The Center for Sexual Health Promotion and sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University (website: mysexprofessor.com). I was so excited to bring her to San Francisco — I’ve been following her work for some time. She is the author of Because It Feels Good: A Woman’s Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction and Sex Made Easy: Your Awkward Questions Answered for Better, Smarter, Amazing Sex. Herbenick wove discussion of new, research-derived insights into women’s sexuality into the larger picture of this election cycle’s politicized discourse about women’s bodies and reproductive rights, emphasizing how much information we still need. “We’re a long way from having a complete picture of the truth about sex in America,” she said, and talked too about how academic and research-focused learning and teaching are only part of the story of communicating to people about sexuality; she also makes vulva crafts and encourages students at her university to convey sexual secrets via iusecrets.tumblr.com, inspired by the PostSecrets Project.
Midday keynoter Dr. Marty Klein disagreed that Election Day particularly highlights women’s issues; calling it a “war on women” is a mistake, Klein said — “It’s a war on sex.” He warned that sexuality education, especially for youth, and sexual rights can be put at risk by a public and politicians prone to “dangerism”: the notion that sexuality is fundamentally dangerous and needs to be controlled. Two very-much-alive issues that fall into this category are the misrepresentation of sex work as slavery and the porn-and-sex-addiction belief system that Klein has done a great deal to counter. Klein (website: martyklein.com), a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and Certified Sex Therapist for 31 years, has focused his “entire career toward a single set of goals: telling the truth about sexuality, helping people feel sexually adequate and powerful, and supporting the healthy sexual expression and exploration of women and men.”
Brian Alexander, closing keynote speaker (website: BrianRAlexander.com), is an award-winning jounalist and author who has been a contributing editor at Wired and Glamour magazines, and has written for The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Outside, and many others. He is the author of America Unzipped: The Search for Sex and Satisfaction. His new book, written with neuroscientist Larry Young and published in September, is The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction. Alexander’s perspective is that sex as a culture-war issue is in fact now largely irrelevant, or is rapidly becoming so; “most smart conservatives know we’ve won the battle” over sex-inflected social issues, he said, and the reason they still seem to loom so large has to do with how hard it is to grapple with issues having to do with economic change and displacement that are truly distressing us now.
A series of panels, each with four panelists and a moderator, delved more deeply into four key issues affecting the public’s understanding and perceptions regarding sexuality.
Regulating Pleasure: Sex, Politics & Censorship featured Dr. Marty Klein, sex worker and HIV activist Maggie Mayhem, journalist and Harmful to Minors author Judith Levine, and community intellectual and LGBT activist Carmen Vázquez, moderated by my colleague Dr. Charlie Glickman. Censorship and excoriation about controversial sexual content — from within one’s own community or by the state, by the press or from financial institutions — had been part of each panelist’s experience, shutting down debate and making varying cultural perspectives about sexuality harder to access.
Outspoken/Unsaid: Sex & Media, with Brian Alexander, UC Santa Barbara Feminist Studies professor Dr. Mireille Miller-Young, sociologist, USC Visting Scholar and Porn Valley Vantage blogger Chauntelle Anne Tibbals, Ph.D, and writer and founder/Executive Director of Women, Action & the Media Jaclyn Friedman, was moderated by filmmaker and correspondent Abiola Abrams. The discussion ranged from our expectations of media sources to tell diverse stories of sexuality (and, sometimes, their failure to do so) to the great range of media available now, from mainstream to online, from porn to popular, and how sex educators and activists can best access it.
Pills, Profits and Pleasures: Sexual Health & Pharmaceuticals featured Dr. Debby Herbenick, Scarleteen.com founder/Executive Director and RH Reality Check columnist Heather Corinna, Orgasm, Inc. director and Dartmouth Visionary Award winner Liz Canner, and health educator and transgender activist Yoseñio V. Lewis and was moderated by Dr. Carol Queen. From the medicalized, “permission slip”-circumscribed life of transsexuals needing hormones or reassignment surgery to the so-far-fruitless search for a women’s version of Viagra to the changing world of AIDS treatment and medications, pharmaceutical companies and doctors play a significant role in many peoples’ sexual experiences.
The final panel, Sexual Stargazing: Sex & Pop Culture, included Salon.com sex columnist Tracy Clark-Flory, University of Nevada Women’s Studies professor and Las vegas Weekly columnist Dr. Lynn Comella, Abiola Abrams, and Sex With Emily and reality TV personality Emily Morse, moderated by sex and relationship expert Reid Mihalko. Talk ranged from the ways stars and pop media outlets shape sexual perceptions to the popular culture that influenced the panelists as they grew up, since — like many young people today — they mostly had greater access to TV, movies and magazines than to actual sex education sources.
The Sex Summit was made possible by co-presenter We-Vibe and sponsored by Aneros, Glyde Condoms, Trojan Vibrations, Blossom Organics, Vibratex, and the Museum of Sex, and supported by the Center for Sex & Culture.
More bio information about Sex Summit presenters, as well as press mentions as they are received, can be found at http://goodvibessexsummit.com/. Sex Summit participants are welcomed to offer feedback to conference organizers via the webform at http://goodvibessexsummit.com/feedback-form/.