Sexual Social Skills

I’ve been writing an advice column, “Queen of Hearts,” for the past three years. It appears regularly in the East Bay Express, one of the Bay Area’s free weeklies, and soon it will begin appearing on my own web site, www.carolqueen.com. Though the site is still in the construction stages and will gradually feature more excerpts, links, and other material, there’s finally a bit of there there, as Gertrude Stein might have said.

Answering people’s questions in the column is a bit like answering them at Good Vibrations — except I have longer to think of a suitable answer! And here’s another substantial difference: at Good Vibes, the questions tend more toward sexual functioning and toy use; in the column, they focus more on the sometimes slippery qualities that make for successful interpersonal relating.

For this reason, among others, I’ve begun thinking a lot about sexual social skills. The other reasons include my own life’s path: as anyone who’s read my book Exhibitionism for the Shy knows, I wasn’t exactly skilled in meeting, mating and relating in my younger years: I was painfully shy, all but unable to communicate with people I found attractive. At the same time I had plenty of run-ins with oafs who thought consent was fairly won by pressure, or who hadn’t learned about consent at all — men (and women) who came on so strong that it was hard to say no, but then weren’t anything to write home about, as my mother used to say.

I was struck working in the sex industry (this phase of my life came well past the shy stage, by the way) that some peep show customers were great at communication and others were just as bad as those stampeding frat boys in my past. I saw that at sex parties some people acted like bulls in the china shop and others pleasant enough to take home to Grandmother. In the S/M scene, in spite of the overwhelming emphasis on communication and negotiation, I found some participants who just didn’t seem to get it and who came off as overbearing or passive/aggressive.

And I began to wonder what qualities and specific skills separated those with good sexual social skills from the others — the people whose attempts at picking people up or initiating erotic relationships always seemed to fail, those who couldn’t tell a “yes” from “no” or who thought that a “yes” gotten through manipulation was just as good as one freely given. I also began to wonder whether these skills could be taught.

So I began to develop a workshop called “Lover’s Luck? Sexual Social Skills.” The title refers to the fact that love (or successfully consummated lust, for that matter) isn’t just a roll of the dice. Some people have much more developed abilities to meet and relate than others. Attractiveness isn’t simply about looks, and lasting relationships come to those who know how to build them.

This may sound like a string of platitudes, but if you’ve ever been *un*lucky in love (or lust), you know what a big deal it can be — and how it always feels personal, and usually nothing you have the power to change. But just as executives take seminars to learn the fine points of shaking hands to seal a business deal, this kind of luck can be learned. We can all take stock of how we present ourselves: even if we pay attention to hygiene and grooming (and surprisingly many people don’t bother), we might not be aware that our body language sends the exact opposite signal than the one we hope to send. We may project jitteriness, untrustworthiness, low self-esteem, even hostility, all in the way we say hello or shake hands. When potential partners (for a night or a lifetime) tune in, they may head the other way.

Then there’s the kind of desires we have, nurtured in fantasies that fill our solitary hours. It’s possible to yearn so for Ms. or Mr. Right — the idealized and unavailable partner my sweetheart calls “Miss March” (after a Playboy fantasy woman who made a big impression on him about three decades ago) — that we ignore the eroticism and loving spirits of the people right next to us. It’s not just Playboy bunnies — romance novels are full of idealized prototypes too, and it’s easy to get so turned on to a movie star or other public figure that real people just don’t measure up. But real people are where the action is, and Ms./Mr. Right might already be in your life.

Some of us have poor sexual social skills because we have exaggerated notions of gender roles; when the world doesn’t conform to our beliefs about maleness and femaleness, we risk losing potential playmates because we don’t seem to be taking them — as individuals — seriously.

Others have trouble because we’ve been raised in such a sex-negative environment that we’re burdened by shame. Others haven’t learned to date because we were busy learning calculus. There’s no one profile or explanation for inadequate sexual social skills, but their lack leads to frustration and loneliness — and sometimes worse.

That’s why I try to tease out, and then teach, the baby steps of learning to be an erotically and emotionally healthy person. It’s all well and good to buy sex toys and learn all the tricks of solo sex — I definitely recommend it, in fact. But when the time comes to share the toys, folks will want some interpersonal skills at their disposal. Learning how to meet people, communicate, have realistic expectations, treat each other right — unless you’re a hermit, all these things make for more optimal erotic lives. They’re like the batteries that power the vibrator. Here’s wishing you all the luck in the world.

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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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