Sexy Sex, Newsy News: Year-End Roundup for 2015

In the waning hours of each year I start sifting through my accumulation of links to news articles I grabbed and saved throughout the past 12 months, looking for patterns, recurrent stories, and big, significant cultural upheavals. That’s what I use to lay out my year-end roundup, and this year was a doozy.

Yes, that’s right. I hoard sex URLs. What do you collect?

Here’s what jumped out at me for 2015. I can’t keep it to ten items this year––it’s been too sexy and newsy by far. I had the opportunity last week to run some of these by Scott Timberg from Salon, but––in no particular order, since each of these is a #1 story for somebody––this is the Full Monty as I look back on this VERY busy year.

I’m old enough to remember a time when this year’s news about HIV/AIDS was a distant dream—infections are (mostly) down, gay and bisexual men can (sort of) donate blood again, and there are significant treatments for HIV disease on the horizon… AND on hand. Truvada, the medication also signified by the acronym PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), has been shown to very significantly protect the sex partners of HIV-positive people, which is truly radical—and hopeful—news. Not quite so groundbreaking is the blood donor policy change, which still requires men who have sex with men to be celibate for a year before they donate. The dip in infections is great news, except for those demographics for whom infection isn’t lessening: African-American and Latino gay and bi guys, especially young men. (Could the fact that the CDC announced that sex education is terrible in the US have anything to do with that last group? Y’think?) And the New York Times asked earlier this month, “Why Are So Many Black Women Dying of AIDS?” Clearly a corner hasn’t been turned, at least not for everyone. Also in HIV news this year, Charlie Sheen revealed that he carries the virus, eliciting the kind of excited discourse about AIDS that pretty much only a very famous person can call forth. Let’s hope the tabloid fans learned a few health facts as they read!

A truly striking––and controversial––story this year saw global social justice heavyweight Amnesty International recommend the decriminalization of prostitution. Sex work was in the news in a multitude of ways, just as you’d expect from this old and ubiquitous profession—there was even a brothel angle to the Lamar Odom overdose tragedy, and a sex work element to the Daniel Holzclaw “rapist cop” conviction in Oklahoma. (If you weren’t keeping tabs on this extraordinary story, Holzclaw was a police officer accused of raping particularly vulnerable Black women, ones who—because of drug use, a history of prostitution, or other factors––would be less likely to report such a crime or be believed. Partly because of Black Lives Matter-fueled awareness, he was convicted, and coverage addressed not only race, but also the question, as the Christian Science Monitor put it, of “How Common Is Sexual Assault by Police?”) Though the media continued its conflation of trafficking and prostitution all year (see 11/23, Reason) and Los Angeles discussed sending privacy-shredding “Dear John” letters to the homes of men seen trolling street prostitution zones, we also saw fierce and thoughtful analysis––the Rentboy bust encouraged a gender-aware discussion that was especially interesting. Margaret Cho came out via Twitter as having done sex work (“Sex work is simply work. For me it was honest work. I was a sex worker when I was young. It was hard but well paid. There’s no shame in it”), and the New York Times came calling to get the details.

Perhaps the year’s biggest story was gender––from transgender to gender-fluid––with many media outlets, colleges and universities, and other public entities (the Girl Scouts!) grappling with or changing policies about inclusion, pronouns, restroom access, and other quotidian but super-important elements of a trans person’s life. Backlash included the Houston equal rights ordinance and other bathroom scares. Obama spoke the word “transgender” in his 2015 State of the Union address, a first; the US military studied questions surrounding trans troops; trans prisoner’s treatment and rights got some ink (including federal prisoner Chelsea Manning, in trouble for having Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair issue). Cait may not even have been the most significant trans celebrity this year, though there is no doubt that her fame, her TV show, her Kardashian links, that VF cover, and maybe even her Republican politics left her poised to be an educator and influencer whether or not she set out to be. Really, though, the biggest change is policy change about, and media presence of, trans kids (like teen Jazz Jennings, who has her own reality show and who was tapped for Johnson & Johnson’s Clean and Clear #SeeTheRealMe campaign this year). A trans prom queen elected in Utah? The times really must be a-changin’––and Miley Cyrus is doing her bit to help with her Happy Hippie Foundation, “rallying young people to fight injustice facing homeless youth, LGBTQ youth, and other vulnerable populations”––not to mention coming out as pansexual and upping the mainstream media’s discussion of gender fluidity. Finally, TV sensation TransParent’s success certainly owes much to this trans-aware historical moment––and is clearly also contributing to it, representing, as it does, Jill Soloway’s own journey with a transgender parent.

While many Americans may not think the Ashley Madison hack was a super-significant story (except, of course, the Duggars––already reeling from son Josh’s molestation scandal––and all the other people who were outed by the adultery-positive website’s angry or at least snarky hackers), plenty of people found spouses or employees on its publicly-revealed members list. Big news story for them! AdultFriendFinder, too, was hacked this year, and the real significance of these stories has something in common with the recent Hello Kitty hack––it has to do with privacy and security in the Internet age, an issue that, as a Quartz year-end recap of security issues in the Internet of Things makes clear, isn’t going away any time soon. (Hacker convention DefCon has been making it a point to check these web-enabled items lately––I haven’t heard them talk about sex toys yet, but someone over there will find toys more interesting than thermostats, I bet.)

If I’d written this recap last week I’d have missed mentioning one of the biggest stories related to rape awareness and rape culture in 2015: the Cosby perp walk. This story has been a moving target all year; every month has seen new accusers and more honorary degrees rescinded. The July New York Magazine cover, showing 35 of the women accusing Cosby of drugging and raping them, was a kind of turning point for awareness, but the issue stayed in the news all year, only temporarily eclipsed by stories about porn star James Deen, the rape trial and guilty verdict at New Hampshire’s tony St Paul’s School, the ongoing uproar over Rolling Stone’s late-2014 UVA rape story, the Daniel Holzclaw verdict, and the anonymously-penned essay in med journal Annals of Internal Medicine about sexual abuse in the OR. Margaret Cho’s #12DaysOfRage campaign used hashtags #TellYourStory and #ISurvivedAndThrive to raise awareness; AlJazeera’s article about it captures many screenshots of the tweets Cho received from rape survivors. Lady Gaga came out all over again as a rape survivor with her song “Til It Happens To You,” campus sexual assault research and new programs developed apace, cops either complained that they had no money to process rape kits or vowed anew do do a better job of it (including in San Francisco), and the issue of rape in war––revealed in stories this year about Boko Haram and ISIL––took a very weird turn at year’s end when ISIL’s rules about treatment of captive sex slaves were revealed.

Mr. Science brought us lots of sex-related presents this year: penis transplants are scheduled to help wounded veterans but may eventually be relevant for trans men who aren’t happy with the current state of phalloplasty; we learned the frightening news that Ebola can be sexually transmitted; and ladies finally got their first Viagra analog, Flibanserin (a.k.a. Addyi), though it doesn’t work like Viagra (it more resembles an anti-depressant, and like these meds must be taken daily), and many argued it doesn’t work well enough to have been approved by the FDA. Fascinating research done on male/female brain distinctions found much less difference than Westerners always assume must be there, while new research on sleep health and sex reminds us that some nice shut-eye is important in all sorts of ways.

Speaking of science, the cooked-up Planned Parenthood scandal (thanks to the ironically-named anti-abortion activists Center for Medical Progress’s cagey video sting) misrepresented not only PP’s alleged activities in dealing with fetal tissue for research, but also the tissue and the research. The immediate backwash––numerous states seeking to close or at least slash the funding for PP, Republican presidential candidates weighing in––was predicable, the horrific Colorado Springs clinic mass shooting perhaps only a little less so. Like the other huge news item this year, the Supreme Court’s Marriage Equality decision, it had “culture wars backlash” written all over it. That made Rowan County, Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis a right-wing star after refusing to marry same-sex couples; Unicoi County, TN became the most recent governmental entity to pass a resolution opposing same-sex marriage. Back-and-forth on LGBT rights this year has emerged from courts (most recently, the case of the Christian bakers who did not want to bake two lesbians a cake) and in states and municipalities. The most notable of the latter was Indiana’s anti-gay “religious freedom restoration” bill which evoked heavy business backlash from the likes of Apple––gay CEO Tim Cook blasted Gov. Mike Pence’s decision to sign the bill that would allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers––as well as Angie’s List, which halted a planned expansion in the state, sports teams, Yelp and Salesforce, among many others. Finally, LGBT backlash is global, not just local: Slovenia, Brazil, and Russia were among the countries that saw upticks in anti-queer violence, anti-LGBT law or public policy, or both in 2015.

Last year’s big story, trolling and the treatment of women on the Internet, has continued to be a significant one. The Gamergate backwash continues; it led more or less directly to Ellen Pao’s departure from Reddit and likely affected Twitter’s new anti-abuse rules and maybe even the prosecution of revenge porn. Arthur Chu’s essay “The Plight of the Bitter Nerd” on Salon looked at the question of “why so many awkward, shy guys end up hating feminism.” And Mercer University academic Whitney Phillips published This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture (MIT Press) this year; her recent piece in Quartz ably sums up her arguments and the big-picture issues.

Notable one-off stories this year included the end of the era of nude Playboy pictorials––the Kardashians have evidently cornered the market on these; the Denny Hastert blackmail story, which also serves to out Hastert as (some variant of) gay; and the rock-star Pope, continuing to address sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, this time via a bishops’ tribunal. And the year ended with a big international story as Japan finally offered over $8 million in compensation to the surviving Korean “Comfort Women”––conscripted women forced to provide sexual services to Japanese troops during the Second World War.

My personal fave stories: Cocks Not Glocks; Amy Shumer’s nude photo in the Pirelli calendar; the #MyNameIs Facebook protests that sought to convince the giant social media network that accounts under people’s stage names or other assumed monikers could be valid; the (dignified) return of Monica Lewinsky; and Mike Huckabee’s creepy bout of foot-in-mouth disease discussing Beyoncé’s relationship with Jay-Z. Overall, I’ve been most interested in the many takes on campus free speech/trigger warning issues, including cultural critic Laura Kipnis’s February essay about her own experience with academic “sexual paranoia” published in Chronicles of Higher Education.

Finally, 2015 saw many notable deaths relevant to sexuality, from artists to entrepreneurs. Candida Royalle and Honey Lee Cottrell were both pioneers of women’s erotic media: Royalle primarily as a maker and producer of movies (Femme and Femme Chocolat), Cottrell as a groundbreaking lesbian photographer whose work was often featured in On Our Backs. Burlesque sensations Blaze Starr and Carol Doda died this year; each brought brains, savvy, and, yes (especially in Doda’s case) breasts to their work in the entertainment world. Lesley Gore, whose proto-feminist anthem “You Don’t Own Me” holds up even after 50 years, passed away this year, leaving her history as a gay woman navigating the closet versus the bright light of fame. Sardonic and brilliant San Francisco poet and writer Justin Chin died just last week. Another Northern California luminary we lost was Deborah Taj Anapol, notable for her work on polyamory and Tantra. And the death that comes closest to home for Good Vibrations may be that of feminist sex toy pioneer Dell Williams, whose New York Store Eve’s Garden was the very first woman-owned shop in the US; our own founder Joani Blank held down the West Coast, while Dell held down the East.

DellWilliams

Her story about starting the boutique, intended very specifically for women, sheds light on sexual politics then and now: After learning about vibrators from a Betty Dodson Bodysex workshop, she went to Macy’s to buy a Hitachi Magic Wand––only to have the store clerk suggestively ask her what she was planning to do with it. This episode of sexual harassment changed the world, because once women had a safe and comfortable place to buy their own pleasure products, the era of “marital aids” was over and the material conditions necessary for what would later be called “sex-positive feminism” had been established. Surely someone would have eventually opened such a store in the US––Beate Uhse had already done it in Germany, though without such a feminist underpinning––but the woman who did do it was Dell Williams. Rest in peace, Dell, and thanks for the pleasure!

To learn more about significant people we lost in 2015, read Cory Silverberg’s memorial post from his About.com site on sexuality.

Wishing everyone a sexy and newsy 2016––I’ll be back with more commentary soon!

Dr. Carol Queen

Carol Queen has a PhD in sexology; she calls herself a "cultural sexologist" because her earlier academic degree is in sociology: while she addresses individual issues and couple's sexual concerns, her overarching interest is in cultural issues (gender, shame, access to education, etc.). Queen has worked at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sexuality company based in San Francisco that turned 35 years old in 2012, since 1990. Her current position is Staff Sexologist and Good Vibrations Historian; her roles include representing the company to the press and the public; overseeing educational programming for staff and others; and scripting/hosting a line of sex education videos, the Pleasure-Ed series, for GV’s sister company Good Releasing. She also curates the company's Antique Vibrator Museum. She is also the founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, a non-profit sex ed and arts center San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, and community-based organizations. Her dozen books include a Lambda Literary Award winner, PoMoSexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, which are used as texts in some college classes. She blogs at the Good Vibes Magazine and at SFGate's City Brights bloggers page and contributes to the Boston Dig. For more about her at carolqueen.com.

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