Zora Burden: What do you feel is the single most important issue regarding sexuality that needs to be addressed in this country? What would be the best way to deal with this subject matter on a day to day basis, within the community and politically?
Carol Queen: To me, the most important issue is the lack of a thorough and realistic, yet pleasure based, sex education for everyone. This is number one for me because I feel everything else around sexuality, including sexual problems, is linked to it. Poor sex education leaves people open to problems and reinforces narrow ideas about what is sexually "normal". This in turn is associated with low self-esteem, homophobia, difficulty with communication or even believing it's possible to find a compatible partner, all sorts of things that do not appear to be, on the surface, about information. What to do about it? The answer involves people speaking up on behalf of good, diverse sex education. Politicians need to understand that people expect it and will vote based on this priority. And underlying this, of course, would have to be a cultural change, a lessening of erotophobia.
ZB: To be a sexologist or receive a doctorate in sexology, what types of courses must one take? What are the academic requirements?
CQ: Sexology is a multi-disciplinary field, and aside from people who've been through an actual sexology program (like I did), many people identify professionally as sexologists primarily because they specialize in sex within their own discipline: MDs, anthropologists, psychologists, and on and on. Anyone wanting to focus on sexuality as a specialty should take all sex related courses they can, including anything in sociology and cultural studies. They should look for the instructors available to them who are most savvy about sex, because sometimes this involves doing more non traditional independent study, and it really helps to have a sex positive or -aware faculty adviser. I would also recommend anatomy and chemistry, even if they don't get into sexual issues in those classes. Too many sexologists have very little hard science and having it really expands what you can understand and do as a sexologist. In my own program we studied erotology (erotic materials like video and film), communications issues (including taking a sex history), a class on body image issues, diverse sexual behaviors, safer sex issues, and more. My school is especially focused on allowing its graduates to communicate with anyone about sex and to recognize and hopefully control their own biases both very helpful for those who are going to be clinical sexologists, which is much like sex therapy.
ZB: What is your attitude about masturbation in regards to the healthy body and mind?
CQ: Masturbation is healthy for the body: it helps keep the genitals well-fed with blood and exercises the pubococcygeus muscles. It helps people know what their own erotic response is like. It allows us to arouse, comfort, and please ourselves, regardless of our relationship status and situation. And that can lead to a sense of self sufficiency which, I would argue, is emotionally healthy too.
ZB: Do you find that women are more in touch with their bodies than men? Or do they need more guidance because of this culture we live in which denies them that curiosity?
CQ: No, I think people of all genders have been pretty badly served by this culture in tems of body image and being comfortable with their own bodies. The thing that is especially notable for women is that so many clearly believe their erotic worth is tied up in their physical attractiveness. This of course, is a message our culture sends to women. But I bet if we asked, a lot of men would have these sorts of body image issues too.
ZB: Is there one particular type of sexual activity you advocate more than others in regards to women?
CQ: Clits: know them, love them! But more than any specific act, for women I recommend having enough time to get fully aroused. So many women have sex when they're not completely turned on. So the magic ingredient is often time and of course having a partner who will gladly take that time with you.
ZB: You travel across the country giving lectures on sexuality and sexual identity. Can you talk about what you discuss during these and what ideas are you trying to convey?
CQ: Often with my partner Robert, I lecture about sexual anatomy, orgasm, erotic communication, exhibitionism, anal play, and several other topics. Most importantly I want people to take their own sexuality and sexual identification seriously, to accept that they like what they do or learn what they do like, if they're not sure. And it's important to learn any safety factors that might be part of their erotic desires, such as condoms and lube with anal sex and important to learn to communicate about it so they find compatible partners.
Common questions really have so much to do with either getting a partner to participate in various erotic activities (swinging, exhibitionism, anal play, etc) or worries about what's "normal". Even if we could conclusively know, that isn't a useful question. People are different. If "normal" is relevant, it's what's normal for you..
ZB: Can you give an example of what sexuality in an ideal society would be like?
CQ: We'd learn about sexuality in age-appropriate and non-judgmental ways. There'd be plenty of accessible information about pleasure and sexual communication and everything. It would be correct information! People would be raised in ways that allowed them a high degree of self acceptance and emotional/mental health. The society would accept many versions of partnering and sexual expression. Sex laws would be off the books. Stigma against sex workers would be gone. At the same time, it would be easier to find partners who want to do the things people used to go to sex workers for because their partners wouldn't do them! Kind of like San Francisco is now, only even better.
ZB: Do you have any advice you'd like to give teenagers or adults to maintain a healthy attitude about sex and themselves?
CQ: Teens: Check out positive resources like scarleteen.com and count the days until you're 18! This culture is very unwilling to give youth useful sex information, so for each teen , it's a research project to get information. It was the same in the 70s when I was a teenager. Adults: Don't treat sex like something secret and different from all the rest of reality. Learn about it, talk about it and when appropriate, think about its cultural implications. There's a list of good sex books on my website to read and discuss with your friends and lovers.
ZB: Historically what is some of the best literature ever written about the subject of human sexuality?
CQ: Oh that question is just too hard! I'll tell you who I think the smartest, bravest, most thoughtful writer is, though: Pat (now Patrick) Califia. He is certainly my greatest inspiration in that realm though there are so many great writers who have set pen to paper about sex.
ZB: How do we go about the legalization of prostitution and decriminalizing sex work? What is your opinion of prostitution in general?
CQ: I am pro-decriminalization rather than legalization because the latter involves ongoing state control, registration, etc. I think prostitution laws serve mainly vice squads, not society and certainly not the women (or prostitutes of both genders) who are being controlled "for their own good". I believe prostitution should be an informed choice open to any adult who wants to make it, but ideally wouldn't be chosen primarily because people have no better way to make a living. When people feel forced into it, economically or any other way, it is rarely an optimal situation.
ZB: What are some of the most unhealthy sexual attitudes or practices that also still need to be addressed in this country?
CQ: Of courses non-consent is number one. But I feel it's unhealthy to feel ashamed about sexual practices, one's body or one's fantasies. It's pretty unhealthy to judge others, also!
It's not great to be unable or unwilling to realize the difference between fantasy and reality, especially if you're in a relationship, when you are dealing with an individual who may or may not match your fantasies in every particular way. Worrying about whether you're normal isn't terribly healthy and being unwilling to communicate about your sexuality and learn new information isn't so good either. And of course using barriers are good if you might have or come in contact with someone with an STD.
ZB: What would you consider is the most important ingredient for healthy sex between two partners?
CQ: Mutual attraction, some degree of mutual interest. I mean that they want to do at least some of the same things erotically and the ability to communicate comfortably.
ZB: How do we address the issue of the moralistic or classist stigma that sexual pleasure and gratification is a luxury for the upper classes to indulge in, whereas the working classes or poor have their sexuality abused, exploited or regarded as base? How can we advocate the concept that sexuality as solely an act of pleasure should be natural and acceptable for everyone. It seems, based on the sex laws of this country, the poor man's crime is the rich man's fetish.
CQ: Well that's a pretty horrible situation when folks want those who are poverty stricken to forgo what pleasure life might bring them until economic realities have been addressed. My feeling is that this sentiment comes from the mouths of people who have some personal discomfort about sexuality. It's also often out and out homophobic: the left's longstanding example of a "manifestation of bourgeois decadence" is homosexuality. Now I'm not recommending that we prioritize sex toys and internet porn over food, clean water, and health care. But sexuality is universal and diverse, and it is offensive to disallow people access to their sexual desires, even theoretically because they're too poor. Remember, one of the reasons poverty is so entrench is because of colonialism, and a strong element of control within colonialism was the use of missionaries to pacify and Christianize populations, which oftentimes involved allowing them far less access to sexual pleasure than they had before the missionaries came. I really don't like when I see leftists, of whom I count myself as one, recapitulate what missionaries did.
ZB: What was the most unusual question you've been asked in regards to your sex advice column? Is there a particular question you've been asked frequently?
CQ: Some questions are more difficult and unusual than others, of course, so this is hard to answer. One repeat letter writer was convinced his male doctor was being inappropriate and so wouldn't get his testicular nodules checked out. I did my best to defuse his idea that any man who saw him naked would want him, since it'd be a hell of a thing to lose a young man to testicular cancer because he's homophobic. Most frequent question is probably "How do I get my wife to... [fill in the blank]?" And it's almost always my "wife" though once in a while someone wants to get a male partner or spouse to do something he's not inclined to do. People like this sometimes want to get their partner to do something against their will but lots of times it comes down to not knowing how to communicate an idea and make it sound sexy and non threatening.
ZB: Can you give some examples of the types of performance art you've done? Is there any one that's particularly memorable to you?
CQ: I've done lots of public readings, both theory and erotica, sometimes I add slides or props of various kinds into that experience. In the early 90s I was doing a piece called Knife which sometimes involved my clothes being cut off from me while I read. I've done some erotic dance body based performance too. But I also do spoken word, notable my solo piece Peep Show, which is a 2 hour extemporaneous show based on my time working at the Lusty Lady Theater here in San Francisco. I've done this show all over. It's my favorite in many ways because it's such a high to do what is essentially a form of improvisation. I always know what I'm going to say onstage but am not always sure how I'm going to say it.
ZB: Will you talk about being one of the founding members of Good Vibrations? How do you keep this retail store feeling so safe and comfortable for customers?
CQ: I am one of the founding members of the Good Vibrations co-op yes, although we had already been around for 15 years prior to becoming a co-op. The business was founded by a single owner -Joani Blank in the late 1970s. She had worked with what we then called pre-orgasmic women's groups headed by sex therapists, which helped women learn more about their bodies and responses. The reason most of these women were not orgasmic had to with unclear or incorrect ideas about sexual response. They mostly didn't need therapy, they needed sex education. The safe and comfortable feeling of Good Vibrations stores involves how we set them up, the toys are right out to touch but we also decorate and make the space nice. How the store staff appears to customers, we hire a diverse staff and they're trained in sex information, we do not emphasize hard selling but rather information on the selection about their choices more than anything, treating sexuality and sexual products like things any person might naturally want. There is no sense of shame, and customers are often amazed to find themselves more comfortable talking to us about sex than talking to anyone else.
ZB: Will you talk about what types of merchandise you sell in your stores for those who haven't been and what classes you offer within Good Vibrations?
CQ: Vibrators of course, are an item we are well known for. We have dozens of types, from the noted Hitachi Magic Wand (Betty Dodson's favorite!) to battery operated styles ranging widely in size and shape. We also have one of the best anywhere collection of silicone dildos. Silicone is a really good quality material to make toys out of, better than all the novelty quality toys made by the adult industry. We carry lots of sex books, a collection of staff-selected videos and products for men, women and everybody else! When we choose a product, we evaluate it for quality and look at how it works with the other things we sell. [Classes focus on everything from healthy sexuality, sexual techniques to safe BD/SM]
ZB: I love reading the disclaimers or warranties of sex toys, some are so absurd they're humorous. But even more hilarious are the US sex laws like in Wisconsin it's illegal to fire off a gun while the female partner is having an orgasm or that in prison they can't serve spicy food because it acts as an aphrodisiac that could result in a riot. In Alabama it's legal for women to pay of debts with sex. Or in many states it's legal for women to "peep" on males while undressing but illegal for men. Do you know of any laws you find particularly humorous or absurd?
CQ: What a great sampling of laws! Where are you finding all these? Mostly I am aghast that we have laws that purport to control people's private lives. In my view, sex laws are only relevant when they focus on the issue of consent. Real consent, not the "Women can't really consent to sell their bodies for money" type. For the record, sex workers sell their TIME. And they certainly can consent to do this, although it would be better if there were many more economic alternatives available to some sex workers who would rather not be engaging in sex for money. Beyond that, these are great to make fun of. I doubt most Americans know just how much their legal sex lives are circumscribed and I doubt most would appreciate it. Good Vibes was involved in helping get media attention during the Alabama sex toy case, when the state made toys illegal just a few years ago and our colleague Sherri Williams who ran erotic stores in Alabama decided to fight it with the help of the ACLU. Time after time reporters were like, "This is a joke right?" People can't believe we pay our politicians to go into statehouses and think up nonsense like this. The aforementioned Dildo Diaries is about the sex toy laws in Texas and really goes into all the political and social elements of that situation that's both outraged and ready to see the irony.
ZB: Once a friend and I purchased a couple small riding crops from one of your stores and after being distracted, left them in the bag on the underground metro. We took the next train to the same destination hoping to track them down, and got off at the end of the line. I could not locate them, so we went to the station agent to report the lost bag. The male agents asked what was in the bag and could not understand why it would contain whips. I finally had to explain my friend was an equestrian. They got on the intercom and announced throughout the station, "Lost whips in brown bag left on train, please return to station agents if found." We could not stop laughing. Do you have any awkward public sex or sex toys stories you can tell me about?
CQ: Great story! My most comparable time was taking a flight somewhere with lots of porn videos in my carry on. Nothing illegal about it but I figured I'd let the bag-checker know, in case she was going to be offended by the pictures on the boxes. Gotta be consensual! At first she was like, "Why are you telling me that you have porn in your bag?" Then when she saw how many I had, at least a dozen, she called her colleague over and started looking through them! What was embarrassing was not that they looked, exactly, but that the line was held up because of what I was carrying around, which brought more attention to it.
ZB: On the subject of BD/SM, what is your opinion of it? I worked in a business that focused on this for almost a decade and I noticed there were some who engaged in it, had very unhealthy motives or attitudes about this , especially the sadomasochism, which bordered on dangerous behavior. Some consider BD/SM as a result of sexual abuse from a person's childhood or formative years? How do you view these issues ?
CQ: No, I don't see S & M as wrong, ever. But I do think there may be people practicing it for the wrong reasons, which I suspect is what you're getting at with that question. I have definitely had that responses to some players and situations. But that's not to say that with some growth, therapy, or whatever, these same situations might not be just as erotic to the people involved, but they would have the skill and emotional clarity to do the same things in a more positive way. I really think we don't understand the roots of S & M desires and responses, and in a world that was more truly tolerant of erotic diversity, we'd have done much better research about it.
ZB: During my time working in the fetish business, I formed a theory about fetish development, in that they associate their sexual fetish to a person, object or experience they had during their first orgasm or heightened pleasure at the time of sexual development. That this one memory stays with them as a trigger throughout their lives. How do you think sexual fetishes develop in a person?
CQ: Well, I don't disagree with your theory, although I think there is way more research to be done about fetishes. I suspect we we'll learn more about erotically connected body chemistry eventually that will shed extra light on this issue. It does seem that more true fetishists are men, although that's partly dependent on how we define what a fetish is and thereby possibly limit what we see.
ZB: What is your overall opinion of pornography? Being that women are less visually stimulated sexually and are usually more intellectual or emotionally stimulated to achieve arousal, how do you feel women can enjoy pornography as males do? Especially if so much porn is created with the male audience in mind.
CQ: I love porn, at least the idea of it. Not all porn meets my standards but then I am sure that could be said of almost everyone, since part of sexuality is that we all have diverse responses. I actually don't know how true it is that men in general are visual while women are not. That has been an article of faith for so long and social circumstances have changed so much in the interim, that I think it's worth wondering who we are not seeing when we draw attention to this gendered divide in experience. But of course I acknowledge how frequently this is the case, too. As I said before, I think there are biochemical issues here, with testosterone being part (but only part) of the answer. Plus social conditioning could play a role. Porn is more or less accepted for men to watch but not so much for women, there is a lot less porn made for women's tastes. So when women say, "I'm not interested in porn," they may be saying, "I've never seen any that appealed to me." Of course, many women have not seen a lot of porn at all.
ZB: How do you feel about males using pornography as an excuse for violent hyper-sexualized behavior that manifests in sex crimes?
CQ: Porn as an excuse for hyper-sexuality: actually, porn watching can be a result of hyper-sexuality but doesn't cause it. If it did, we would have vastly more hypersexual people in our society. Porn as an excuse for rape: nonsense. It makes as much sense as seriously trying to argue that the Bible inspired one to be a serial killer or that Twinkies made you kill the mayor. If a person is violent, or a sociopath, we need to either require him to take responsibility, or learn much more deeply what does trigger these things. Child abuse and head trauma currently seem to be pretty high on the researcher's lists. And rape isn't primarily about rage, it is much more complex than that. Any attempt to simplify invariably means we don't clearly understand the issue we're looking at and this is a really great example.
ZB: Would you mind getting personal and discussing what the most outrageous or most fulfilling sexual activity you were involved in?
CQ: At the risk of sounding old fashioned, I've never found anything that is more fulfilling to me than fucking a partner I cared about and desired and who clearly cared about and desired me. Having all day to do it is a total plus too! Outrageous? Such a hard question. Let me tell you the most amazing instead. I was working in the peep show when a guy who practiced Tantra came in and basically talked me through orgasms produced by touching ordinarily non-erotic parts of my body, like my ankle. It was all through talking, since I was in a separate booth, and Tantra techniques like breath and eye contact. It was really extraordinary.
ZB: What type of work have you done with HIV/AIDS programs and patients? If someone wanted to get involved supporting AIDS research and they didn't have much time or money to give, what would be the best way to help?
CQ: I haven't done a lot with patients specifically, although many times in my safer sex workshops I have had HIV positive people. Mostly my work has been in the safer sex ed realm, although in the late 1980s I was the director of education for a small AIDS association in Oregon. People without much time or money to commit would do well to at least know which organizations they like, and to maximize efforts with charity based giving would be to send a holiday or New Year's letter encouraging people who can, to donate to one or more groups you like. You could do this around your birthday too. I'll probably be doing that this year!
ZB: With the terrifying direction this country is headed regarding censorship, sexuality and women's rights, what is the best way to advocate and protect our rights?
CQ: I urge people to stay involved in the political process and make sex-positive and pro-feminist positions a priority when communicating with politicians. Get support from other sex-positive people and organizations, even if it's only online. Support pro-sex and anti-censorship organizations with money and volunteer time, when you can.