Sex in the News! Week of August 28-September 3, 2013 Our Staff Sexologist Reports and Comments on Some of the Issues of the Day Miley Cyrus, Cory Booker, 50 Shades


Oh MY, Miley!

I’d like to think that if we were not on a 24-hour, blogosphere-influenced and tweetable news cycle (or do I really mean “news” cycle?), we would not have heard quite as much about the very public coming-of-age of The Artist Formerly Known as Hannah Montana. I’m not going to comment here on twerking as cultural appropriation, though that is a worthy line of discourse that not every article has covered; I liked the pieces I saw on Salon and in the Guardian about those issues. But boy howdy, she did get a lot of peoples’ attention, which is exactly, today, what she said she was trying to do.

Today, also, I replied to a reporter seeking to place Miley’s VMA performance in the context of “teachable moments” for parents and teens. Now we’re talking! Here’s what I said:

This is a teachable moment not just having to do with sexuality and sexually-charged performance, but also regarding media literacy. Not every student in the US is getting media analysis as part of their schooling, or, for that matter, in home discussions. But it’s wise to point out that the situation was a performance (and Miley a performer, not just any woman), and that the point of the performance was to cause a splash, sell music, and get ratings. Every piece of media is made for a reason and within a context: films, commercials, the news, romantic comedies, porn, “reality” TV, and awards shows. Teaching your kids to be media literate involves helping them think about what the purpose of a show is – who crafted it and why? Who benefits and what’s the message sent? This may help young people separate their reaction to it from the pop-star glamour that is part of the attention-grabbing quality of such a performance. (By this I mean to point out that even if it hadn’t been so sexual, many viewers – maybe especially young women who’ve grown up with Miley – would approach her performance as fans first.)

So another point is that this is (among other things) a function of Miley’s very publicly visible growing-up process. It’s one thing to feel like you were a kid who’s now maturing, and you want to make sure people know it. It’s something else again to have been a famous child trying to transition into a famous adult. The opportunities for showing off that process are enormous, obviously, and as we saw today with her most recent comments, she feels she got the kind of (show business) attention she wanted. But this is a very different job description than that of being an ordinary teen, growing up.

Finally, discussing safety and the effects of a sexualized image is hard to do, but necessary: We don’t want to blame young women for their sexuality, or insult culture that is meaningful to them, but neither do we want them to send messages of sexual availability that they don’t mean to send, and we want them to understand that sexualized images of them taken by others (twitpics, FB images, etc.) are not in their control and can affect their lives in ways they don’t intend. Privacy and boundaries are an important part of this conversation, as is understanding that Miley on a stage is sending a message that may be received differently, and have different real-life consequences, than anything one might do at a party, bar or dance: Miley, for all her exhibitionism, is better-protected than most of us.

This, by the way, feels so relevant to me to the UnSlut Project, which I discussed here earlier today. Some of the media response is hella-slut-shamey, including that purporting to be by/for/about parents. Let’s hope the journalist I communicated with about this will not go there.

Is It More Interesting that Cory Booker Thinks It’s Cool You Think He’s Gay than Whether He Really Is?

Of course it may well be that (Newark Mayor and NJ senate candidate) Cory Booker is neither gay nor straight – or that he’s both. (Helloooo, bisexual visibility!) And press statements (as well as his own) that this isn’t the business of the voters – or more precisely, that he doesn’t want you to vote for him just ‘cause you think he’s straight – are a big, big improvement over denial or the notion that we might want to avoid voting for a gay candidate.

But I really like the pomo, or at least metrosexual, perspective that Booker brings – not allowing himself to be at all gay-baited – compared to the old-school dumb machismo of his Republican rival, Steve Lonegan. “I like being a man,” Lonegan declares, as though a gay man isn’t masculine… what is this, an outtake from The Boys in the Band?

I have news for him: Nobody’s happier to be a man than a gay man in the middle of a big pile of men.

Tippi Hedren’s Granddaughter? Really?
That is just fabulous. Somehow, that makes me a lot more interested in this movie. Also the fact that Dakota Johnson (just cast as Anastasia in the 50 Shades flick) is also Melanie Griffith’s daughter, and that Ms. Griffith is stoked that Dakota has the role – I just kinda love this “Hollywood royalty gets on the sex train” angle.

I am not terribly interested in the controversy about the movie’s casting, frankly, though I like knowing that the two stars (Johnson and Charlie Hunnam) were vetted to see whether their chemistry was good. It’s bad enough watching a vanilla sex scene when the partners are just phoning it in. This happens in mainstream flicks and in porn, where, you know, you’d think there’d be some professional pride. But slouching, bored or distanced, through your steps in the Red Room of Pain? Unthinkable. And while I’m commenting on the movie, note to screenwriter: Leave that fucking Inner Goddess nonsense on the cutting-room floor.

No, more interesting to me is the recent research concluding that 50 Shades promotes abuse. (Conducted by Amy Bonomi of Michigan State University, this was published last month in the Journal of Women’s Health.)

I had a couple of immediate responses: As an academic, it seems problematic to base research on a three-book series and ignore the second and third volumes, as it is my impression the researchers did. Most of the character development and relationship development in 50 Shades of Grey, including Ana’s increasing appreciation of Christian’s kinky sexual dynamics and his opening up to negotiation with her about what she wants, come in the second two books. Everything that would tend to mitigate the things that made the researchers uncomfortable was conveniently left out of the discussion! Oh, THAT’S good methodology!

I think it really is valuable to include a critical discussion about this set of issues in the press and elsewhere, but certainly not in a one-sided or biased way; and additionally – something the research to my knowledge didn’t address – it’s useful to talk about the fact that this isn’t a how-to manual for kinky sex: it’s a fictional erotic romance, and as a BDSM exemplar, author EL James gets many things wrong. But most of us don’t read fiction as a means to learn fact, and there are things we can call out as right about the book: notably, It has helped women and couples talk about fantasy and desire; it has helped people get frisky; it has brought new respect to erotic fiction (and will bring even more respect to this genre when people explore more of it for themselves – 50 Shades is hardly the best-written or the most intense book out there (Sasha Grey has a new erotic novel! It’s on order! Wheeee!), so there is so much more for newly-turned-on readers to explore.

We know that people are exploring; every sex toy store I know of, and certainly we at Good Vibrations, have seen a big jump in sales of BDSM products, Kegel balls, and erotic literature since 50 Shades hit the big time. Every so often we are reminded how much women hunger for food for their erotic imaginations – that, to me, is really the BIG lesson to be learned about the remarkable success of these books.

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

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