From my cover story in this week's Ventura County Reporter:
Since the genetic basis of our species, Homo Sapiens, stabilized approximately 100,000 years ago, the reproductive nature of the human body has not substantially changed. But in the last few years, human sexual experience has substantially changed, especially among the adventurous.
For Valentine’s Day, and especially for “vanilla” people interested in benefiting from the experience of those on the edges of the spectrum, here’s a report from the front lines of sex in Ventura County.
At California Lutheran University (CLU), sociologist Adina Nack, who teaches courses on sexuality, confirms the widespread reports that young people today no longer date in the conventional sense — they “hook up.” But she adds a twist.
“The norm has shifted from dating and relationships to the hook-up culture,” Nack said. “But one of the things [my students] say they like about that phrase is the ambiguity of it. As a sociologist, this is something I have to work to wrap my head around. I am not of that millennial generation, and to me it’s strange for friends to prefer it to be vague. ‘Hooking up’ can mean anything from kissing to going all the way.”
Nack adds that, although both sexes will report their hook-ups on social media, she’s not sure this represents a step forward. Her students still describe a sexual double standard, in which women are judged more harshly for having sex than men.
The lessons to be learned from the BDSM community
One of the most popular of guest speakers in Nack’s sex ed class is a positive sex advocate, Emily Prior, a doctoral student researching sexual experience in the BDSM (Bondage/Discipline Sado/Masochism) community. Nack said that her students were enthralled with Prior, even though in class they laughed nervously at her presentation.
For Prior, who has always believed in openness in sex, the necessity for safety in sex in the BDSM community has, over time, brought a new and admirable sexual etiquette into being.
“Imagine that you are a single woman and you are going out with a man or a group of men, knowing that no one is allowed to touch you without your permission,” she said. “It seems like that should be the norm, but it really isn’t. In local [ BDSM] dungeons, no one is allowed to touch anyone without permission, not even to give a hug or hold a person’s hand. It’s a much safer space for a woman than dating.”
At CLU, Nack points out that because of the wide range of sexual possibilities in the BDSM community, communication and negotiation between parties is expected and understood, where it’s often difficult for heterosexual couples. Prior puts it more bluntly.
“The question in the BDSM community is typically: What do you do? Which means: Do you like to be tied up? Do you like spanking? Are you a top or a bottom? You know immediately whether or not you can be compatible sexually,” she said. “Instead of waiting days or months or years or decades to find out, for example, that your partner won’t actually give you head, you talk about it up front.”
Prior also argues that the BDSM community has a lower rate of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) than the heterosexual population, although she admitted that hasn’t been proved.
“We only have anecdotal evidence for a lower rate of STD transmission, but it makes sense,” she said. “Most people use protection even if they know their partners, and people are very diligent about disclosure as well as protection. It’s definitely a point of pride in the culture.”
It’s not just the negotiation and communication that is underestimated, according to Roylin Downs, the owner/operator of the Kama Sutra Closet lingerie and sex shop in downtown Ventura. It’s the nature of sexual pleasure itself.
Downs points to 50 Shades of Grey, the book by E.L. James about a kinky relationship between an elegant older billionaire and a beautiful young woman, as an example. Despite being reviled by critics for its prose, 50 Shades became the fastest-selling paperback of all time, with 65 million copies in print. It’s still second on the national best-seller list, two years after being published.
“Our society is suppressive about sexuality,” she said. “My customer is a more vanilla woman, usually, and 70 percent of American women don’t have orgasms during love-making. What 50 Shades of Grey does is show you a woman in her 20s who has an orgasm every time she makes love. Everybody assumes this book is fantasy. But a lot of women are looking at it and thinking: ‘Wait a minute, if she can write about how this woman has this experience in every encounter, why isn’t it possible for me?’ It creates an opening, an opportunity for conversation.”
Downs explained that her most popular single item is the “Kegel balls,” or silver balls that were the first item used by the young woman character in James’ book. They’re used in a playful way by the couple in the book, but have been sold to women in Asia for generations as “ben wa” balls.
“In terms of health benefits, after 40, or after childbirth, women often need to tighten their pelvic floor,” Downs said. “Instead of being told by the gynecologist to do exercises, such as sitting forward in your car and tightening, tightening, tightening, which 98 percent of women don’t do because it’s too challenging, you insert these metals balls, and the weight naturally pulls them down, and the muscles naturally tighten. So the Kegel balls have a health benefit, but they also tighten the vagina, so you can have more control during love-making.”
Downs stresses that her upstairs shop, which is open mostly by appointment, is designed to be the sort of shop where a shy woman such as herself or her mother could go without embarrassment, and that she herself doesn’t want anything to do with heavy bondage gear or vulgar sex toys.
“You always start at wherever the most uncomfortable person in the relationship is,” she said. “It’s about creating intimacy. A vibrator might not be the right tool. Maybe it’s about a tickler, or a book, or a massage oil. It’s about creating that sense of touch.”
When Downs opened her business four years ago, she set out to distinguish her store from other stores offering adult products, partly by stressing the female-friendly aspects of the store, with no products that looked like body parts, and partly by bringing in experts. Her first speaker was Joan Price, from Northern California, who became an expert in “senior sex,” more or less by accident.
After publishing an exercise manual in 2003, the mature Price had a chance to publicize the book with an appearance on a television talk show in New York. Her agent asked her for a hook — something to make her sound interesting. Price offered that some of her exercises were good for sex, and mentioned, by the way, that she was having “the best sex of her life.” The agent passed this on. Price was booked on to the show.
“I discovered that no one cared about my exercise book,” she wrote about the appearance. “The major question of the evening was: So, Joan, is it true that you’re having the best sex of your life at age 59?”
She explained that, yes, she was, in part because she was in a new relationship with an older man, whom she later married, though he passed away in 2008. And the sex was good. Price argues that, in fact, senior sex can be better than youthful sex for everyone.
“At our age, we’re not so goal-driven,” she said. “The men have slowed down and like the extra touching, and the women have slowed down, too. If you have a good connection, the sex can be better than ever, because we can bring a wealth of wisdom and experience to it. We can communicate in a way we never could before.”
As a young woman, she said, she was never taught anything about the nature of a woman’s sexual pleasure, and she thinks that’s still all too true.
“Too often, young women are still sort of left to the mercy of their partner,” she said. “Sex is whatever the boy thinks it should be.” The good news, she said, is that good information is more available than ever, in forums such as scarletteen.com, and that solutions to most sexual issues are readily available. Her first sex book — Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk About Sex After Sixty — featured her own story, but had many chapters, written by a wide variety of experts, on psychological and sexual topics.
“I was in an extremely satisfying and exhilarating relationship when I wrote that book,” she said. “I was 61 and my lover was 68. People were telling me that it’s great that you’re having great sex, but they were asking me questions about their own issues. Is vaginal pain normal? No, it’s not. Is there anything that can be done about erectile dysfunction? Yes, there is — e.d. is not a diagnosis, it’s a symptom of something else that’s going on. The problem so often, with my generation, is that we don’t know where to go for good information.”
Price adds that just because she found satisfaction in a committed relationship doesn’t mean that’s best for all older people. In her new book, Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud About Senior Sex, she said many reviewers were startled to read about the range of unconventional relationships she found among older people, including polyamorous couples, as well as older women who liked phone sex, casual sex and/or rough sex.
“We see a friendly gray-haired smiling grandmother and we think we know all about her,” she said. “Actually, we have no idea what she’s doing in bed.”
For John Wilner, the chairman of Ventura County’s [LGBT] Pride committee, Valentine’s Day is less about sex and more about love and acceptance. Although currently single, he longs for the day when he can celebrate Valentine’s Day like any other couple.
“At the end of the day, love is love and a couple is a couple,” he said. “Whether it’s two men, two women, or a man and a woman. There’s even a joke in Portlandia, about a couple made of a transgendered man and a transgendered woman. Whatever the case, the celebration is the same. I’m really heartened when I’m able to see that I can be open and honest with my affection. If you can hold your wife’s hand in public, why can’t I hold my boyfriend’s hand?”
In recent years, the Pride coalition has staged a Valentine’s Day protest at the county government center, with same-sex couples filing petitions to marry, even though they knew that would be rejected. This year — with the issue hanging in the balance at the Supreme Court — Wilner said they called it off.
“I think people are realizing that marriage is about love and family,” he said. “Times are changing and younger voters are coming on line. I’m really hopeful that this session, we’ll see a court decision restoring our right to marry, and so this year we decided to give the clerk at the government center a break and not put her through all that.”
Kit Stolz has been reporting on culture and climate in Ventura County for over a decade — for more, see www.achangeinthewind.com.
Joan Price (senior sex author/expert)
Scarletteen (sex ed for the real world)
Pegging Paradise (Ruby Ryder)
VC Pride (John Wilner)
Kama Sutra Closet (Roylin Downs)