Appearing 3 p.m. Mar. 7 in Room S238 of MTSU’s Business & Aerospace Bldg.; 5:30 p.m. Mar. 7 at Halcyon Books; 9 p.m. Mar. 7 at Springwater; 8:15 a.m. Mar. 9 in MTSU’s James Union Bldg.
A movement is afoot. Generally termed “sex positive,” this ground swell, assisted in no small part by the video medium and the Web, emphasizes the natural role of sex in the human adult. We are, after all, sexual creatures, says the sex-positive crowd, and our sexuality is as much a part of our lives as eating and breathing. And because sex is fundamental to who we are, repressing or demonizing sexual expression cripples us.
At the forefront of this new frontier resides Carol Queen, a doctor of sexology, sex-industry advocate and worker, and pornographer extraordinaire who is in Middle Tennessee this week for a series of appearances and workshops. Her message is simple: We cannot fully realize our potential as humans until we all feel free to explore the possibilities of our nature, including our sexuality. When we allow ourselves to look beyond society’s definitions of what it means to be a man or a woman, we realize gender is much more fluid; we have the freedom to define ourselvesand to refine those definitions over time. In her own life and work, Queen cuts closer to the edge than most, but that’s the point: She exemplifies empowerment.
A marvelous essayist, Queen has also penned one of the finest works of “new” eroticism since Pat Califia’s ground-breaking Macho Sluts in 1989. The Leather Daddy and the Femme takes erotica in a whole new direction, ignoring both the labels typically used to identify human sexuality and the often rigorous top and bottom designations in sexual power play. One of the most mind-blowingly erotic works of the last decade, Queen’s first novel shatters conventionsfor instance, that a lesbian’s erotic identity must be limited to women.
In the last several decades, restrictions on sexual expression have come from unlikely sources. Puritan culture that we are, most of us are used to the negative view of the body advanced by many religions. But in the last quarter-century or so, such restrictions have also originated from feminists such as Andrea Dworkin, who preaches that any sexual penetration is fundamentally rape, and Catharine MacKinnon, the author of anti-pornography legislation in Canada that is used most often to curtail feminist-authored texts.
Another group that has had difficulty dealing with unfettered sexual expression is the gay and lesbian movement, which in an effort to establish identity during the 1970s and 1980s often circumscribed sex according to gender-specific categories, in the process demonizing bisexuality.
Queen comes from both traditions, feminism and gay pride, but has long been one of the few voices in either camp speaking from the sex-positive perspective. Her focus is education. After all, she says, “in this culture, people don’t often get really good sex education, and when the time comes to learn or explore, they don’t always know their resources.... In a country where MDs may get no more than about 12 hours of sex ed during medical training, someone has to pick up the slack.”
One organization that does so is Good Vibrations, a sex shop based in San Francisco. Through its e-business site www.goodvibes.com, Good Vibrations offers one of the largest collections of sex-positive links on the Web. Aside from being a retail establishment, the company is, Queen explains, devoted to an educational mission.
Queen, who holds a doctorate of education in human sexuality and a bachelor’s degree in sociology, has helped develop that mission through her role as director of continuing education for the company. In this capacity, she oversees Good Vibrations’ outreach programs, its teaching workshops, and the training of GV staffers, who learn about “sexuality issues in a more broad sense: How does penile erection work physiologically, or female orgasm? What happens when a transsexual gets genital surgery?”
It is Queen’s focus on education that brings her, for the first time, to Tennessee and the South. She’s in town this week to speak as part of MTSU’s Women and Power Conference, where she’ll discuss the sex-positive movement in the context of feminism and women’s issues. While she sees “the rise of sex-positive feminismthe notion that some women want the space to work in the sex industry, to write/make/consume porn, to be empowered and outgoing sexual beings” as a significant development in the last 20 years, she notes that within the last five years there has been “a certain amount of complacency. There’s so much more sex in pop-culture and media contexts.”
At a time when doctoral candidates are writing dissertations on pornography and a president’s blow jobs have made national news, are we in danger of legitimizing pornography to the point that it loses its erotic power? Queen hopes not. “I hate to think that intellectual discourse is wilting people’s erections and drying up their wet-ons, but that is probably sometimes true. The trade-off: that we better understand ourselves, our culture, and the sexual messages influencing both.... When sex was just dirty, it was easier to keep it in its place. Now it’s much harder to keep sexual discourse ghettoized.”
The mainstreaming of erotica has caused us to shed some traditional taboos, but the idea of the forbidden remains powerful, Queen says. “Taboo topics feed fantasy.... I’m not talking about nonconsensual experiences here at all, but garden-variety taboosthe thrill felt by the recovering Catholic or [fundamentalist] Christian. Look at the way sexual variation is laid out on the Internet.... I get sex spam every day, and lots of it tries to titillate me with the promise of taboo-breaking dirty smut. Since the notion of taboo can still be used to advertise, it must still hold some water, culturallyat least as a sex toy.”
Therein lies the irony of anti-porn movements, according to Queen. “This is the part that right-wingers will never wrap their minds around: The more they fulminate, the more press they give perverse and ‘unacceptable’ sex.”
While organized religion typically imposes proscriptions on sexual activity, Queen has described today’s sex workers as descendants of the keepers of pagan temples, their clients equivalent to worshippers in our pagan past. By extension, she suggests that there is a relationship between the erotic and the divine: “[The] dissolution of ego into something bigger, even if that bigger thing is just the brief transformation of arousal and orgasm. Also, eroticism is experiential, imminent; it’s not a ‘head’ thing. In fact, being too in your head can prevent you from both having an orgasm and knowing god/dess.”
When it comes to sexual expression, say sex-positive adherents, there should be no limitations (save for anything that involves harming other human beings). Fantasy is how we explore who we are, and it is perhaps the most vital freedom we have: Ultimately, it is impossible to safeguard the imagination. Attempts to do so cripple us, making us fear our own thoughts and fantasies. “Eroticism and spiritual experience are both fluid,” Queen says, but “most people feel frightened of fluidity and boundary-free experience.”
Carol Queen most assuredly does not.
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