Carol Queen: Moralizers Are Sexually Aroused When They Rail Against Sex and Porn

“It’s a weird time for sex,” Carol Queen recently told me, and there are few intellectuals more suited to sort out the weirdness than Queen herself. Carol Queen is an author, educator, sociologist, and sexologist who currently serves on staff at Good Vibrations, a San Francisco sex toy retailer. She is also the founder and director of the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco. 


She is the author of erotica and essays, the latter of which is most available in all of Queen’s brilliance, wit, and erudition in the collection, Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex Positive Culture

I recently conducted an interview with Queen; we discussed sex positive feminism, how gay marriage makes America more liberal and conservative, affirmative consent, and her theory of absexuality. It's the fascinating idea that people who routinely condemn sexual behavior they view as “immoral” are actually experiencing arousal as they do so. 

Her new book, The Sex & Pleasure Book: Good Vibrations Guide to Great Sex for Everyone, will soon be available everywhere.

David Masciotra: How did you develop into a "sex positive feminist"?

Carol Queen: I knew the term feminist before I heard the phrase sex-positive, but at the different times I encountered them, both of these descriptors immediately felt like they fit. I come from a small town in the Pacific Northwest, and I’m pretty sure I was the only 13-year-old my tiny town had ever seen running around with a copy of Sisterhood Is Powerful under my arm. Sisterhood hasn’t always been problem-free, though, of course; as I grew into a decidedly queer sexuality, much of the mainstream feminism of that decade had real difficulties around sex, particularly that which was non-normative. It pissed me off to hear the things I was drawn to termed “male-identified,” and there was a period when I got way more support for my sexual identities from gay men than from feminism. All that time, though, there were feminists who were drawn to (or emerged from) sexuality-related issues and communities, and I finally began to learn about and later meet them: Betty Dodson, Carole Vance, Susie Bright, Nina Hartley, and many others. I learned about the sex-positive perspective at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality when I enrolled in their graduate program; contrary to the way this phrase is often perceived today, it isn’t just an excitable “Hey! Sex is awesome!” kind of expression. If you think of its flip side––sex-negative––you get better insight into it. [BTW, I wrote up some reflections on this topic last year.

So those two appellations put together immediately changed the way I related to the larger world, helped me re-embrace feminism (about which I’d gotten a little cranky—those were the Andrea Dworkin years), and gave me a community of people who saw issues in the culture similarly. If you will, it gave me a peer group. 

DM: Do you believe that contemporary feminism in America could be more sex positive?

CQ: I do, but it’s quite a lot more sex-positive than it was in the 1980s. The right wing actually seems to think that all of feminism is sex-positive, which is a real switch! (And decidedly untrue, but they’re not the clearest-eyed analysts of either sex OR feminism.)

DM: Have you followed any of the debate regarding affirmative consent laws on college campuses? If so, what is your belief about them? Do you have any concerns, as many critics have expressed, that these laws are Puritanism in a new form - demonizing sex and infantilizing women? Or do you see those worries as overblown?

CQ: I go both ways on this question. There’s a lot of terrible and sometimes abusive sex that goes down on college campuses and other places. To have young people exploring sexuality having crappy experiences is really as much a win for the Puritans as anything else, I feel. My biggest issue is that for the most part, people who are powering these new regulations were never all that sex-positive to begin with. We could have had terrific, diverse, groundbreaking sex education in everybody’s first year at college that would have made a difference, and when students DO get those kinds of classes, they are very meaningful. But many academic administrators haven’t promoted this kind of education, and I frankly feel that many people are getting involved with this movement now (if that’s what it is) to avoid liability. So to the degree that I’m sympathetic to the concerns you express, it’s because I don’t think college administrators are carrying any sort of sex-positive banner. 

On the other hand—a culture in which many people seriously think that drinking a lot equals consent could USE a dose of affirmative consent advocacy! True affirmative consent isn’t puritanical—it’s a way of emphasizing desire, so really it’s the converse of Puritanism.

DM: Progressives in America universally celebrated the Supreme Court's recent decision on same sex marriage. It seems there is no logical or moral argument against gay marriage, and it indeed is a step forward for fairness and equality. However, there were a few gay writers who lamented the demise of more radical and socially subversive gay culture and identity. Do you believe that this victory will actually make America more conservative, as it sublimates more sexual identities and impulses into the domestic, traditional, family structure?

CQ: Yep. In fact, as I was flashing past headlines on web news this morning, I saw one stating that a couple of large corporations have said they’d withdraw partner benefits from any same-sex couples who don’t get married. Marriage equality is hugely important, of course, but marriage does not equal radical sexuality. Marriage seeks to build a container for sexuality, and the more pressure that’s put on us to contain our sexual behavior within marriage, the fewer obvious alternatives we’re likely to be offered. Not everyone is the marryin’ kind, and there needs to be as bedrock an acknowledgement of this fact as there is support for anyone who wants to marry.

DM: There are, of course, still moralists and Puritans who object to anything outside the narrow, heterosexual, monogamous mainstream of sexual life in America. In your work, you've developed the idea of absexuality. Could you describe absexuality for the readers? Do you believe many of the right wing finger wavers are absexualists?

CQ: Absexuality––an idea I developed with my partner Robert Morgan Lawrence––is the notion that some of the people who rail against porn or sodomy (or any of the other controversial items on the sexual smorgasbord) are actually turned on by the thing they decry. They may not know it consciously, but being anti-whatever actually gives one a grand excuse for being immersed in whatever. It’s not the simple “I’m afraid I’m really gay, so I’ll say homophobic shit all the time. That’ll throw ‘ em off the track!” That does happen, of course. Absexuality goes a little deeper—it’s associated with real turn-on, not just discomfort, and I believe many absexuals don’t truly understand what a strong erotic response they’re actually having.

I do think many of the finger-wavers are absexual, but I’ll say that not all of them are—some are garden-variety panderers, bigots, or even simple hypocrites (Josh Duggar/AshleyMadison, anyone?). Clue to an absexual: They just can’t seem to shut up about it. And they get really worked up—I believe they go into the sexual response cycle when they begin to pontificate about the things they hate so much.

DM: Surveys show that most Americans are dissatisfied with their sex lives, and a recent report in the NY Times described how more and more teens and twenty-somethings are settling for screen interaction rather than what they call IRL (in real life). I'm 30, and I teach college courses. I see a lot of this with my peers and students. What do you believe is preventing sexual health and vitality in America? Why are people so afraid of it? What work are you doing to try to help people open up, relax, and enjoy the mutual pleasure of sexuality?

CQ: It’s a weird time for sex, there’s no doubt about it. In certain ways, amazing and progressive changes have been made. There are, in many cities in the US, vibrant sexual subcultures, if you know where to look. I hear from young people all the time who want to be “sexperts” or sex ed teachers; there are many more of them than there are jobs doing this, so I talk to them about the need to be entrepreneurial, and many are, blogging and creating YouTube channels, writing books, developing workshops. (A few of them have worked up a good side business teaching PR and biz skills to the others!) 

At the same time, it sure isn’t the 90s any more. The conservatism of the Bush years, and the red/blue political split, increasingly seem to me to situate around sexual issues, which is hardly a surprise. But this IS a huge turn-off for many young people, I think. On the one hand, all the sex in the world is online. Porn serves an educational role because most of the country still won’t insist on real sex education for young people (and then the same people who block real education decry all the porn, not seeming to understand the connection). Porn is not supposed to be sex ed, but what the hell do people expect? And then on the other hand, sexual maturation can happen online instead of “IRL”—and real life is hard. It involves physical skills beyond eye-hand coordination and emotional skills that you can’t just log off from. On the surface, it looks like this generation’s split is, on the one hand, toward marriage and family, and on the other, toward sex apps.

But this is simplistic, I think. There will always be some people who really want to dig in to the many possibilities of sexuality: people who want to study it, learn from it, build lives that are about sexual exploration. I’m about to go to Catalyst West, a twice-a-year convention for sex activists, academics, and sex-positive folk in general [catalystcon.com]—the people there make up a community that put the lie to what we’ve just written. So really, both things are going on at once, and I think they mostly always have. Lots of people don’t seem to have skin in the game. Others are building this generation’s version of the sexuality communities that have sustained me for the past forty years.

I will say one thing about the Internet, though—it is extraordinarily broad, but not deep. If you want to look up things that happened before about 1999, it can be like digging in the desert for papyri. I am constantly shocked by how little history of sex (communities, activist projects, etc.) many young people know, including the ones who are the sex activists of today. I just invented a hashtag about it, in fact: "#RespectHistory (& the people who made it)". We’re in a pretty conservative moment right now, and I think it’s important for people to learn how this fluctuates, and the people and activist projects that help the pendulum swing.

As to what work I’m doing: As I’m sure you know, I work at Good Vibrations, where I’m Staff Sexologist, helping train our staff and representing the company to the public and the press. Our new book, The Sex & Pleasure Book: Good Vibrations Guide to Great Sex for Everyone (which I co-wrote with my old friend Shar Rednour), seeks to set out broadly relevant and diversity-inclusive sex information about all sort of things: identity, communication, sex toys and solo pleasure, partner sex and positions, porn and fantasy, sex tech and sex through the lifespan, health and disability issues, finding partners, and more. Hopefully it helps fill in the gaps of knowledge that plague so many people, and gives lots of supportive options so that people can find their own sexual truths. 

AND I continue to direct the Center for Sex & Culture [sexandculture,org], which I co-founded with my partner Robert; it is a nonprofit that focuses on collecting our sexual history and cultural materials (library, archive, gallery) and which serves as a classroom, theatre, and meeting space. The changes San Francisco is undergoing are putting it at a degree of risk, but we’re trying to keep our heads above water to make sure that we can continue to help people understand where we came from, sexually speaking, as we continue to grapple with the question of where we’re going. 

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