The 10 best lessons I learned as a sex writer

After nearly five years writing about sex, I've learned a thing or two about this taboo topic

By Tracy Clark-Flory

Published July 6, 2015 10:59PM (EDT)

   (<a href=''>LI CHAOSHU</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(LI CHAOSHU via Shutterstock/Salon)

More than four years ago, I officially took up the sex beat at Salon. My reporting has taken me all sorts of places -- from elaborate porn sets to the woods of the Santa Cruz mountains for a kinky fox hunt. I've witnessed orgasmic meditation and sexual healing (the latter of which resulted in having a woman ejaculate on my shoe). I've reported on a huge range of human experiences around sex -- just consider my coverage of men's relationships to their junk: I've written about a man who ejaculates uncontrollably, a man with the world's biggest penis, a man with a micro-penis, a man with two dicks and man with no dick. I've been nothing if not thorough. I've tried out antique vibrators from the turn of the century -- on my hand, but still -- and newfangled sex robots alike. I've watched more celebrity sex tapes than I care to recount. I was even subpoenaed for a federal obscenity trail against a poo-porn producer.

It's been a wild and fascinating time. Now I'm moving along to a new gig and it seems appropriate to look back at what I've learned from these many years covering that never-boring topic of sex.

There is no one-size-fits-all for relationships

Any preconceptions I previously had about what a healthy, happy relationship looks like were promptly shattered once I became a sex writer. Monogamy works great for some, while a great many people function happily in a rainbow's array of non-monogamous arrangements. Polyamory! Swinging! Monogamish-ness! I met a couple that happily escorts together. Plenty of porn stars are completely monogamous outside of their work. Different things work for different people.

The same is true for finding love

In my early 20s, I spent a lot of time defending the positives of hookup culture. As my 30s neared and I went on my first real date, I extolled the virtues of traditional courtship. Thing is, both approaches and experiences are legitimate. This is a true statement: People need different things at different times. So is this: Different things work for different people. Most important: There is no one path to love -- but luck is almost always involved.

Check your assumptions, always

Just because a man is currently with a female partner does not mean he is straight. Just because a couple is married doesn't mean they are monogamous. You just cannot safely make assumptions about a person's sexual identity, so don't even try.

Rule 34 is pretty real

Rule 34 of the Internet states, “If it exists there IS porn of it.” For a long while, I figured that there must be a great many exceptions to this rule. I mean, there must be, right? There isn’t porn relating to hair clips, “Full House,” My Little Pony or toenail clipping, for example, is there? Well, yes, actually, there is. And while there might exist some real loopholes -- ones that I have not been able to find -- the truth is that Rule 34 is pretty darn real. I have seen enough tampon, dentures and fish porn to become a true believer it.

Men are super concerned about their penises

Here’s a great example: Recently, I received a total of 14 emails from a man with concerns that he had a micro-penis. He wanted to show me a photo of it to get my opinion. I told him I was not an expert on such matters and referred him to the medical definition of a mico-penis. He asked again -- five times -- if I would look at a photo of his penis and render my verdict and I finally responded that it wasn’t appropriate and that he should talk to a doctor if he was concerned. He sent the photos anyway.

My points being: Ugh, dudes on the Internet, but also, damn, guys are concerned about their junk. In my sex writer capacity, I‘ve encountered some men who want to show me their junk, but mostly they want to ask me if what they’re working with is normal.

Everyone thinks they’re abnormal

For a while, I did an advice column on Salon called “Am I Normal?” It’s the most common question that I’ve encountered as a sex writer, and I’ve heard many sex educators and researchers report the same. Eventually, the column ended because the answer was always: Yes, you’re normal. That was true even for those whose experiences were not typical -- because normal, when it comes to sex and sexuality, is huge variance and individuality. We might have a better inkling of this if people actually talked openly about sex.

We're all just sweet little softies

There is so much posturing around sex -- about how good we are at it, how often we have it, how totally and completely fine we are about that one-night-stand who never fuckin' called. Underneath all of that artifice, most of us are just delicate sweethearts fearing rejection and desperately craving acceptance.

The grass is always greener

A lot of people are convinced that sex would be better if only they could orgasm easier, lasted longer during the act, had perkier breasts, and so on. But even people with those lusted-after qualities have plenty to worry about. I suppose interviewing the man with the world’s biggest penis helped drive home this lesson. He boasts a 13.5 inch member and yet it’s difficult for him to get fully erect and impossible for him to penetrate partners. He isn’t dating and sex isn’t a priority in his life.

People are desperate for an outlet to talk about sex

Again and again, I’ve been amazed at people's willingness to talk to me, a complete stranger with a tape recorder, about the most intimate aspects of their lives. I can’t tell you how many times an interviewee has told me something and followed it up with, “I’ve never told anyone that before.” Why give me the honor? I’d love to credit my disarming charm or sophisticated interview technique, but I think it’s something else entirely: Most people don’t have a comfortable outlet to talk candidly about sex. In most circumstances, sex talk is decidedly inappropriate and off-limits. All the usual rules change, though, when confronted with a sex reporter -- and, my god, do people react to it with relief.

My family is down -- and yours might be too

When I started this sex writer thing, I tried to issue disclaimers on Facebook about relatives not reading certain articles. After all, I’ve written about porn, fetishes and my own sex life -- but you know what? Thanksgiving isn’t weird. My aunts happily share my articles. My dad read a piece I wrote from Cosmo about deep-throating -- and he thought it was hilarious. My Mormon cousin engages enthusiastically with my work all the time on Facebook.

I am certain that not all families would react in this way, and count myself lucky that mine has, but I didn't know how they would react until I tried it. This applies not only to being a sex writer, but to being a sexual person in the world. It's possible to broach the topic of sex with family without your entire world crashing down around you. In fact, sometimes it actually makes your world bigger and richer.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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