Carol Queen is a Ph.D-wielding sexologist and, since 1990, an employee at Good Vibrations, the San Francisco sex shop. A longtime educator, anthology editor, and author (her books include “Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture”), she’s also a kind of evangelist for pleasure and tolerance.
Queen has just released, with Shar Rednour, “The Sex & Pleasure Book: Good Vibrations Guide to Great Sex for Everyone,” which is both a how-to book about positions, dating, and erotica, as well as an argument for a healthy and tolerant sexual culture.
Salon spoke to Queen from San Francisco; the interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Let’s start with your new “The Sex & Pleasure Book: Good Vibrations Guide to Great Sex For Everyone.” There’ve been sex guides since the “Joy of Sex” books in the ‘70s. How is your book different from what’s come before? What does yours pay attention to that we haven’t gotten in similar books?
To start out, we really tried to live up to the [subtitle] and make it as comprehensive as we could: In a lot of past books, there were readers who felt left out: That was certainly true of “The Joy of Sex.” And we wanted to make this relevant to people of pretty much any gender identity, sexual orientation, sex style, set of sexual interests, time of life… And that’s something we hope we’ve done better than anybody so far.
It goes into sex toys, I think, more deeply than other books have done. And what I hope I’ve brought to it that’s really different is a focus on identity, real diversity. Like, no two people are identical sexually: We use the phrase “blizzard of sexy snowflakes,” which makes some people go, Oh God! But some people will not have been exposed to this idea, that there is no normal male or normal female sexuality, who think that generally that all the equipment works the same on everybody, whether they have a penis or a clitoris and a vulva. That’s not true!
And we really wanted to emphasize that everyone has a responsibility – and a privilege, an exciting one -- to figure out their own operating manual. And this is a book that hopefully will help as people delve into their experience to figure out what they most want.
Early in the book you talk about a term a lot of people think they understand but may not: Sex-positive. What does it mean, what does it not mean?
A colleague at Good Vibrations, Andy Duran, and I were doing a training for our staff the other day, and he made a differentiation: “Sex-positive” versus “positive about sex.” So what people mainly think these days when they hear the phrase “sex-positive” is “Whee! I love sex! Sex is great!”
How could I possibly ever think that’s a bad thing? But I’ve heard the phrase used as, “If you were really sex-positive you’d open our relationship.” Or, “If you were really sex-positive you’d do anal.” That is about as far from the actual definition as you could get.
The real way sex-positive is useful to us is as a social critique. What kind of culture and sexuality would we have to create for everyone to feel good about their sexual options? To get the information they need to be optimal sexual creatures, whoever they are? To get the knowledge they need to find appropriate partners for themselves – because if everyone’s a little different sexually, you can’t just match comparables up and assume they’ll be compatible. And the sexual health issue is huge – that takes us into issues of sexual justice.
You want to live your life, you little snowflake, without discrimination, bias and hatred – what kind of society makes that possible, not just for the people we tend to see as sex symbols – a Kardashian – but everybody else. Old people, people who haven’t had sex yet, asexuals… Where do we put everyone on this spectrum and respect that kind of diversity?
How has the coverage of sexuality in the media – newspapers, magazines, television news – and in pop culture changed in the quarter century since you started working at Good Vibrations?
The sheer volume of discourse, especially mainstream media-driven and pop culture, is a little stunning, even to me. Once in a while I get growly when someone is [prudish] and I think of my grandmother when we told her that someone had landed on the moon. They must be kind of overwhelmed; there are days when I’m overwhelmed.
I didn’t even say the word Internet, but that’s a significant part of the equation, as far as driving access to all kinds of other media, but also making access to explicit information… I mean porn, actually.
Yeah there was a time when picking up something like “The Joy of Sex” or Playboy was like uncovering this secret knowledge. Sex was so far from the surface of the culture.
Yeah! It’s probably pretty hard for people to grasp that. And Playboy announcing they were going to go no-nude. Wow! Somebody thinks the battle is won now, but I’m pretty sure it’s not. Whatever the battle is.
Also, especially when we step into the question of the Internet, the support networks are extraordinary. But not all the information is correct. Not all of it is free of trolls or attitudes. But there are ways for people to find like-mindeds in a way that didn’t exist back in the day. And I think that’s changed all kinds of sexual communities.
I think the Internet played a role in marriage equality. People act like we just started to plan on this a few years ago. But when I came out, it was 1974, and we were already talking about it. So this was a 40- or 50-year civil rights issue.
So all of this is great. And the degree to which people can anoint themselves sexperts is great… But the real problem is that if you think you understand sexuality because you understand your own, you miss the whole snowflake business I started the book with. That’s the thing I worry the most about. I’m of the generation of anti-censorship people who believes that a rising tide of discourse evens all that stuff out. So I’m not super worried. But I think people believe we have achieved something we haven’t achieved yet.
What do you make of the new wave of female comedians – Amy Schumer, for instance? How does this mark a change from a decade or two or three ago?
I think there is a space made when there is some sex-positive discourse, some frisky, positive-about-sex discourse, and some feminism. Most feminism these days is dosed with sex positivity. When you put that stuff together, you get some women who will bob to the top with something both cheeky and thoughtful to say.
There’s been this argument about feminists all along, that we just want to be like men. Actually, we want to be able to do whatever men can do as part of their patrimony, without anyone telling us, “You’re a girl, you can’t do that.” We’ve got some representation of that in this generation of women comics.
Can you give us an example of what you mean?
Well, this isn’t a perfect example. But the whole Amy Schumer standing up and going, “Yeah, I’m f*ckable…” That level of not “I’ve made myself so sexy that men cannot resist me” but “I’m standing up here with a level of swagger that people expect from a fellow when he’s out on the town.”
I think back to the fierce women comics of the ‘60s, when I was tuning in and paying attention. They could have most of that. But they couldn’t have the sexuality very openly and it always had to be a little self-deprecating. You could see Phyllis Diller kind of doing that. But it would have had a whole slab of irony on that top that I don’t think Schumer’s bringing. I think Schumer’s saying what she’s saying.
[Until recently], the culture wasn’t ready for it to happen.
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