A Sexual Revolution in the Heartland
Last month my partner Robert and I went to Ohio to visit his family. They live out in the middle of many thousands of acres of corn and soybeans in Clyde, a town no one outside of Ohio has ever heard of (in fact, few Ohioans we talked to knew where it was). This little town was the model for Sherwood Anderson’s once-notorious book Winesburg, Ohio, which my gay English teacher gave me to read in high school. It featured Peyton Place-like stories of the goings-on happening under the small town’s prim surface, including one about a gay man — I always thought my teacher had grown up something like that fearful fellow, long before the phrase “gay rights” meant anything to anyone. Now the good folks of Clyde are proud to have been featured in a book — no one there seems to know the book was a scathing expose of small-town hypocrisy and moral double standards. But that’s so often the small-town American way; it’s ironic that Robert’s family moved there, of all places, but many towns all across the land are much the same, full of sexual secrets and moral judgments too. I grew up in such a place myself, a continent away in Oregon but also fraught with the same kind of secrets.
So it was a relief to get out of there and down to the big city of Columbus. We had a date to meet with some people we barely knew, but by the time we had been with them for two hours it seemed like we’d known them all our lives. They are the fine folks who run a nearly unique organization called Sexline Information, and they’re changing the lives of people in Ohio one phone call at a time.
The founders of Sexline Information met at their job, a city-run social services hotline. People could call in and ask where to apply for food stamps, how to get health care, the number of the suicide hotline, and that sort of thing. But the place had an interesting policy: the hotline staffers couldn’t answer sex-related questions, even if they knew the answers. They received such questions all the time, but aside for giving the number for Planned Parenthood to the caller, there was little they could do. And PP, as great and useful an organization as it is, isn’t set up for most sex-related calls. You wouldn’t call there and expect help, for instance, if you were a mother of a teenaged son whose father was abusing him for being too effeminate. You wouldn’t expect them to refer you to Columbus’s BDSM organization. An awful lot of sex has nothing to do with contraception and/or reproduction.
So these two women resolved to start a hotline of their own, one that could answer such questions. They looked around Columbus for more volunteers. Columbus has a big university, and it’s hip by Ohio standards; by now, a year and a half after Sexline Information launched, they have almost two dozen volunteers. The phone is in a private home, where an office has been set aside for it, the volunteer staffers, and the organization’s small library. They got their 501(c)(3) status so they can take tax-deductible contributions. They’re rolling along — not long after the hotline got off the ground they made a trip to San Francisco and talked to Robert and me, and we gave them what help and moral support we could. Robert and I had been trainers at San Francisco Sex Information, from which Sexline Information takes much inspiration, and we knew the sorts of special needs the switchboard and the trainings would have.
Though, quite frankly, we couldn’t imagine such an organization thriving in Ohio! This group in Columbus is literally the only one of its kind outside a major US coastal city. Besides San Francisco’s there have been sex info hotlines in New York and Los Angeles; for a brief while there was one in northern California, a spinoff of the SF group. But no one, in the twenty-five-plus years these hotlines have been operating, has gotten one running in the Midwest.
It turns out, though, that Ohio’s conservatism is part of Sexline Information’s success. Ohio, they told us, is the only US state to have refused to take a Centers for Disease Control block grant for health education that included a relatively small amount of money earmarked for AIDS and safe sex education. The grant money had to be used for HIV awareness, and the Ohio legislature apparently just said no, even though about 93% of the money was earmarked for non-controversial things like dental health. So Sexline Information showed up at a time when Ohioans’ need for sex information was both acute and obvious, and it has perhaps received more support than they would otherwise have gotten from a public that didn’t understand the need for the work they do. Today, thanks to the Legislature, that need is self-evident.
Not that they’re getting enough to do more than keep the phone bill paid. Sexline Information is run by committed, intrepid volunteers, and that’s what keep the phones ringing. They need donations, like any small nonprofit. Send them some dough and ask them to send you a copy of their spunky, sexy newsletter, Throwing Heat. You can contact Sexline Information at PO Box 82540, Columbus, OH 43202, or e-mail them at email@example.com. Remember, all donations are tax-deductible.
Sex information organizations are important wherever they’re found, but none are more precious, embattled, and necessary than the ones that exist in unlikely places. Here’s hoping that the wonderful gang in Columbus inspires many more of its kind — and helps old Winesburg, Ohio, and all the surrounding towns deal with their many sexual secrets.