Sex Educator Profiles: Dr. Carol Queen
What led you to become a Sex Educator?
One, my own family and sex history. I’m the daughter of a sexual abuse survivor, although I did not know this until I was in my late 20’s. Still, learning it explained a lot: the fraught energy around sexuality but also the uncomfortable silences in my home as I grew up, plus my own instinct that sex was deeply important and my parents weren’t the people who could guide me with information. By the time I was in my mid-teens I was identifying as bisexual and learning about sex wherever I could: mostly sneaking into books when babysitting, and in the back seats of cars.
I reached out to the Gay People’s Alliance in college (that’s what we called it then, they hadn’t discovered lesbians or anybody else), and was one of the founders of a gay youth group in my town — in 1975, it was one of the first in the nation. But the big issue for me then was biphobia, and I got very little support for a bi identity that whole time. I identified as a lesbian for close to the whole decade — it seemed like a prerequisite to finding a girlfriend — but never stopped being attracted to men too.
Then HIV entered our world, and that was really the match that lit the fire for me re: a realization that I could and should pursue my interest in sexuality professionally — all of a sudden, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there was a “there” there. So I moved to San Francisco (I already had a degree in sociology) and applied to the doctoral program at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality.
What kinds of sex education do you offer?
All kinds, from academic and professional to community-based and hands-on. I’m very fond of speaking to academic groups — can stretch my brain muscles there, which is great — but I like doing unusual venues as well. I answer questions from the press, and from the public at the Good Vibes Magazine and at BUST. Plus I serve as commentator and consultant for TV and indie documentaries — I was honored to be able to take part in Orgasm, Inc., for instance — and have appeared in sex ed movies. I write about sexuality too, which may be the element for which I’m best known.
Plus lately I have been doing some of these things in the service of the Antique Vibrator Museum, which I love representing and supporting.
How did you start giving sex advice?
I think everyone who’s ever been “out” as anything, sexually speaking, has had people ask them questions. I got that all the time, in high school even and certainly from my first year in college onward. Once I was involved with the LGBT community, I joined panel discussions for classes, gave interviews, and continued to talk to people who were curious; once I got involved with HIV education I was doing safer sex and AIDS 101 talks wherever I could, most notably at the county jail in Eugene (where the inmates were supervised by a tough old nun who’d heard everything… every time a guy asked an explicit question he’d add “Sorry, Sister”!).
Where did you get your education?
From books, experience (I’d say “the streets,” but where I grew up we really only had roads), other people, college classes (very often the info there was problematic, like in my Soc “Deviance” class–I was kind of disruptive there, I think), and finally from the sexuality communities in San Francisco and from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. If I had to call out the most informative experience of all, I’d have to say sex work — it’s the lab course most sexologists never have.
What do you love about giving sex advice?
I love being able to open up the topic of sexuality beyond the point most people learn about from school and mainstream culture. When you address sex truly diversely, it gives people so very much space to just be themselves.
What is your most common question?
It definitely used to be one or the other variant on “Am I normal?” Over time, though, I think I might have heard more “How do I get my partner to do [fill-in-the-blank]?”
What is the most difficult or hard-to-answer question you’ve ever received?
Well, answering people who want their partners to do stuff the partners themselves don’t desire is always hard. But the most challenging ever (also the most rewarding, I think), was a series of phone calls from a rape survivor who didn’t think she could go through with her wedding because she realized once she was married to her fiance, she’d be expected to fuck. I went from that first intense phone calls through a series of communications from her — including one when she was on her honeymoon in San Francisco! She came from a conservative small town and had such a hard time talking about sex, either about the traumatizing aspects of the rape but also about sex as pleasure. She had shame around this to begin with. She could barely believe that I chose to talk about sex all the time; she just couldn’t fathom that being comfortable, which of course made her own situation all the harder.
What is your favorite sex toy and why?
I love the Magic Wand Vibrator because it has brought me plenty of happiness and relaxation — plus it’s the most important single item in the history of Good Vibrations and the women’s sex toy movement, I think.
Where do you teach? If you travel, what is it like? Where was your favorite place to teach? Most unusual panel or experience?
I speak all over the place, mostly, these days, for collage audiences. Sometimes I still teach at Good Vibes or the Center for Sex & Culture (which I co-founded with my partner Robert Morgan Lawrence). But my role at those places has shifted and I do much more administration than I used to. Really my most substantial teaching forums are via books and video now, because those contexts can reach so many people, as can the results of relationships I have with the media — when they get it right. I have more control over my own written and spoken output in books and video, whereas press contacts always involve editing and others’ (sometimes biased or quite uninformed) interpretations of what I want to get across. Online connection can be powerful, too, and I enjoy doing Good Vibrations House Call Q&As and occasional Twittersphere questions.
Travel — no thanks to the airlines (except Virgin and those few others where I can plug in my laptop at 30,000 feet!), I love traveling, and it is always a pleasure –and an education– to go see people where they are. I really think traveling especially to more supposedly conservative parts of the US has been a vital part of the way I teach and learn. I know it’s not just on the coasts and in the cities that people want good sex and explore different erotic opportunities and practices.
Sex-positive communities in conservative places are true communities — like in Salt Lake City, where most of the people in the kink-positive group were raised Mormon and really watch each others’ backs. And the heartland folks are so happy when people come visit them from afar. I should say here, too, that the first part of my sex ed teaching career I did many of my workshops with my partner Robert, before he became disabled. We particularly specialized in teaching fisting, back in the ’90s, and did so not only in SLC but all over, including on a pool table in a leather bar in Columbus, Ohio. (Don’t worry, pool-players–we put a tarp down. I believe that might count as the most unusual teaching gig, too.)
It’s really hard to say what my favorite venue has been. People have been so fabulous to Robert and me wherever we go. I love the Salt Lake gang, and visiting A Woman’s Touch in Madison, and Toronto is a huge favorite for me. I’ve also had extremely awesome times lecturing at Smith College and at Yale’s Sex Week (though that year, they weren’t supposed to call it that! It was like “Sex-Week-That-Just-Happened-to-Be-on-the-Yale-Campus”). I very much like speaking to student audiences — my next trip will include MIT and Simmons; in the last year-plus I’ve been to Boston University, Yale, Harvard, Smith, Hampshire, Stanford, U Mass Amherst, and a number of other place.
I love speaking to professionals when I can; I appeared on a panel for a med student group at their national conference a while back, for instance. It’s an honor –and very necessary– to teach professionals who will be called upon throughout their careers to address sex questions; not all doctors get good sex information, especially that which is pleasure-based, yet their patients turn to them all the time assuming they will have the last word in sexual functioning.
I also adore small conferences like The Feminist Porn Conference, Momentum and, especially, CatalystCon, where I was recently honored to speak with Robert; we served as their closing plenary, looking back on over a generation of “renegade sex ed adventure.”
Another really notable gig I’ve had was joining a group of sexologists and other professionals at a confab sponsored by a pharmaceutical company, not allowed to say which one, but it was an extremely informative look at the way ideas and research can be shaped behind the scenes.
And the biggest honor of all was being asked to debate at the Oxford Union (“This house believes that promiscuity is a virtue, not a vice”), which I wrote about.
How do you think your practice is different from others out there?
There aren’t loads of others who teach with their partners; that’s one element. I think the others are that I speak to very, very diverse crowds on very diverse subjects, and that, between my community affiliations and my PhD, I’ve delved quite deeply into many aspects of sexuality and the sex-inflected communities. This is very important to me, actually — I brought LGBT politics with me into sex work, brought the insights from sex work into thinking about hidden diversity, and it goes on and on… I hope all these topics will help me think deeply into the next topic I learn about.
What was the most interesting thing you learned in your exploration of sex?
Generally, I am fascinated by the specificity of each person’s sexual profile. Most of the men who paraded past me when I worked at the Lusty Lady were heterosexual — but they were all so different from one another! Our culture’s sex ed and pop culture info does not do this kind of diversity justice, even when it tries to adequately cover the gay-straight-bi thing.
Factoid-wise: learning from and with Robert about the neurology of erotic response is probably the most interesting stuff. Our workshop “The Anatomy of Pleasure,” which we still occasionally do, explores this, and when we really get into it, it can be a two-day workshop. There are way more than five senses, for starters, and any sense can be eroticized. (People who might be interested in taking this class next time we offer it should email me at email@example.com to let me know.)
When did you first hear about Good Vibrations?
I don’t even recall! It must have been before I moved to San Francisco in the 1980s — I came to the store pretty much right away, once I got here — years before I began working at GV, which I did in 1990. Probably it was in a magazine like On Our Backs.
What made Good Vibrations so special?
That there were sexuality resources sold so openly, free of the usual overlay of shame and tackiness — certainly the women-focused element meant so much to me when I first visited GV.
How has what you’ve done or found at Good Vibrations helped you?
First, teaching and working at Good Vibrations has given me a platform to talk to so many people about their own sexual interests and issues. No other form of information has the power –and diversity– of hearing from lots and lots of people.
Second, it’s given me access to all the sex toys I could ever want, and toys are a fabulous way that anyone can explore sexual possibility, solo or with others.
Third, my solo career is supported by Good Vibrations, and I can support GV through my own outside work. This has been true for the entire time I’ve been with the company — almost 23 years now. The Education Department at Good Vibes was born at a retreat the year I started working here, to bring into GV my connections and information from the sexology graduate program I was then involved with.
And two of my best-known projects were conceived from talking to customers at Good Vibrations: Exhibitionism for the Shy was inspired by a woman who felt she was too introverted to really enjoy sex, and Bend Over Boyfriend,
the video featuring me and Robert, “the adventurous couple’s guide to male anal pleasure,” was born when filmmakers Shar Rednour, Jackie Strano, and I were all on the floor at GV talking to male/female couples about strap-ons. Jackie is now back helping to helm the company, and it’s so great to have this long history of culture-changing sex education!
What would be your number one piece of advice for someone interested in a career of sex education?
Never, never assume your experience is automatically relevant to the desires, preferences, and experiences of others. Way too many “sexperts” teach based on what they know. That’s fine as far as it goes; but it does not go far enough. And always stay alert for signs of bias or too-narrow thinking in the sex education and research available to you. I wrote about that in Sexperts Experts and Sexologists Oh My.
Much important sex research is problematic in some way, and you must learn to read between the lines when you consider how knowledge has been sourced and derived. For instance: I once did a talk at a major sexuality grad program; a pair of students had been told they couldn’t do a project based on study of a street outreach safer sex organization. My reaction: Where the hell do these ivory tower folks think knowledge actually comes from?
Fifty years from now, if the world still exists, our academics will not give a damn whether the information they cite in their dissertations came from a university or the street — it will all be knowledge then, and it is now! You simply need to learn how to contextualize and hence understand it. Another good example of this dilemma: sex research performed by pharmaceutical companies. Is it real research? Often. Is it shaped by the context within which it is done? Also, yes, often!
Finally — I talked about this last year in a keynote at their Sexuality Studies program’s Careers Conference at Widener University — there are more young people all the time wanting to go into sex ed as a profession. There are way fewer already-established jobs in this world than many people think, however, so people must be creative and entrepreneurial. I don’t think people should quit their day jobs — I haven’t! — and I actually don’t necessarily think people should dump other programs to major in sexuality studies. Sex is so multidisciplinary that it’s good to have doctors, lawyers, researchers, social workers, therapists, even business majors who have minored in sexuality studies, inflecting their degrees (and professions) with much more in-depth knowledge.
What’s the best thing you’ve learned or best advice you’ve received?
I love my late colleague Steven Brown’s notion of the “style conflict,” which helps me in every area of my life and which I regularly talk about to couples who each want something different. I go into it, and Steven, at some length here.
This idea is that people’s compatibility (or lack thereof) doesn’t need to be understood via oppositional ideas like right and wrong or normal and abnormal — they are often simply personal styles, expressions of the sexual individuality I referenced above, and it’s good for us to understand that we can both choose mates and communities with styles compatible to our own, but that others have a right to their own styles and preferences. (Steven also saw to what degree so many people’s sexual activities are really driven by a desire for touch and contact, which I think is a very useful insight.)
Steven’s notion of the “style conflict” is a subset of the most important notion in my entire lifetime of learning about sex: the concept of “sex-positivity.” I learned this phrase in 1987 at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality and immediately began using it in my writing and teaching. It is not only highly useful as a sex education tool, specifically — it’s also profound when looked at through the lens of my first academic love, sociology, because it helps us understand cultural influences on our individual experience. We are not sex-positive (or sex-negative) in a vacuum.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about sex?
That there is any specific “norm” that most people meet and that we should try to achieve. That’s like painting over the splendid and interesting diversity that our sexuality represents: it is inflected by our history, culture, gender, orientation, preferences, partner choice, specific neurology, the first way we learn to masturbate… SO many things.
It’s like each of us is a mosaic: maybe looking generally similar from a distance, but close up, you see all the different, disparate elements that make up the individual, and no two are just alike. It does us all such a huge disservice to think that we are alike, or all women are alike, men are alike… it goes on and on, and our culture is so prone to thinking this way.
Which is your favorite project that you’ve worked on?
The Center for Sex & Culture. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask people to support it because it’s only through our programming and people’s generosity that we can keep the doors open. We’re in San Francisco, though we have big plans to be a stronger Internet presence in the not-too-distant future. We’re a sexuality library, archive, and events center offering classes, salons, art-making and cultural things like readings, theater, burlesque, and more. We try to provide relevant programming for pretty much every adult, regardless of sexual style, though of course it is challenging to truly keep up with sexual diversity. Still, we do what we can to draw in the wisdom and focus of many different erotic communities, and make space for many teachers with styles that range from the didactic to the experiential. You won’t find the same mix anywhere else. We also are the home of awesome fundraisers like the live Masturbate-a-Thon and Nude Aid, which we developed with Annie Sprinkle. People who want to be on our twice-a-month email list should let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org, plus we have a Facebook group too, and tweet at @CentrSexCulture.
What is your best piece of sex advice for women?
Your sexuality is yours, and you get to explore it in ways you feel comfortable with: consensually, ideally safely and at your own pace. You deserve good sex information, and if no one is providing it to you, you are encouraged to go look for it.
(This, by the way, is also the sex advice I would offer men, and everybody else.)
What projects are you working on now?
I have a few books in the planning stages, probably not ready to be talked about too much yet except for one or two. I have a memoir in the works, not of my adult life, but basically I’m exploring the “how did I grow up to be this way?” question. And I am dying to do an anthology of personal essays about the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I just asked Peaches Christ to edit this with me! I hope s/he says yes!
And of course I’ve been doing Pleasure-Ed, the sex education video series by Good Vibes’ sister company Good Releasing. I write the scripts and am the talking head for most of them, and people come speak up about their stories and techniques –the Community Voices sections– plus the explicit informational (and inspirational!) parts are done by real couples, frisky exhibitionists, and professionals performing with their own partners or people they choose because their chemistry is so good. I coined a term for this kind of movie: Ex-Ed, or explicit education, and it is really useful for many to be able to see the techniques in action.
I make collages, solo and with my partner Robert. One of them will be in the Center for Sex & Culture’s group show in July and August 2013. I’d love to make a book of them one day.
And, of course, aside from my Good Vibrations work, the Center for Sex & Culture is my other big project.
Where can people find out more about you?
I’m Staff Sexologist at Good Vibrations
Founding Director of the Center for Sex & Culture
My website — carolqueen.com — is getting re-vamped this summer — hopefully it will be all up-to-date and prettified by this fall!
Blogs or regular columns here (some of these are non-current now, but should all still live on the Interwebs somewhere:
And I tweet at @carolqueen!