Episode 12: Sex Work Through History Part 2

Welcome, fans! After delays caused by a hard drive crash and COVID, we’re back (at last!) with the second of the two-part look at sex work through history.

In this episode, we chat about the Winchester Geese, a group of sex workers managed by the Bishop of Winchester, and muse about several historical sex worker philanthropists who seemed a lot more in tune with Christian charity than most Christians of the day.

We also detour into the philosophies of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and chat about official state-sanctioned brothels in France. Check it out!

Here’s the transcript:

Franklin: Hello! Welcome to a new episode of Skeptical Perverts, the podcast where we look at human sexuality through an evidence-based, skeptical lens! I’m your host, part-time mad scientist, and token cishet guy, Franklin!

Joreth: Hi! I’m your co-host and kinky, sopo, ace, chicana, feminst Renaissance cat, Joreth! My gender identity is “tomboy”, and my pronouns are she/her but “you guys” is cool.

Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, grey-ace, poly woman, bringing my genteel East Asian British viewpoint and all the tea. I do mean that literally, by the way, I’m drinking tea right now. Anyway, this is the second of our two-parter on the history of sex work, which is part of our mini-series on sex work. Yes, I know it’s a sub-mini-series in the middle of an already ridiculously long mini-series, don’t @ me. We just kept finding too much interesting stuff to talk about, ok? 

Franklin: I think this is a maxi-series at this point. This bit is about sex work in the “modern era”, by which we mean in the era since the spread of Christianity through the Indo-European world, which is kind of modern, I suppose. The appearance of Christianity and, later, Islam on the world stage changed the Face of sex work, not always in ways you might think.

Drawing the line with the advent of Christianity does tend to lead to an Anglocentric view of history.

Joreth:  Yep, we’re aware that this particular peek into history is Anglocentric, and we’re going to attempt to address some of that in yet another part of this multi-part series where we look at sex work in different cultures.  But the influence of Christianity on sex work was HUGE, and, as we were talking during the writing of this episode, could even be argued was *responsible* for creating the industry as we know it today, turning it from a rather common market into a giant black market.

Eunice: Turns out that when lots of people get very repressed about sex, suddenly it becomes way more appealling. Surprise! Who knew? Other than anyone who has ever met humans, I guess.

Franklin:  When I say the spread of Christianity changed sex work but not always in ways you might think, we generally assume Christian approaches to sex, rooted in a Pauline abhorrence of sex, was a disaster for sex workers. By and large, it was, but history is weird, and people are good at justifying all manner of things that maybe don’t align perfectly with their stated religious beliefs.

Eunice: Hypocrisy: the evergreen vice.

Franklin: Indeed. Take Renaissance Venice, for example. There’s a really cool article on the NY Times about sex work in Renaissance Venice, that talks about how sex work was openly tolerated:

In the 16th century, Venice, with a population of 150,000, had some 20,000 prostitutes. They were openly tolerated as a means of avoiding seduction or attacks against “honest women,” and because the taxes generated by the sex industry were enough to run a dozen warships. Courtesans were the top end of this market, recognized as the city’s greatest luxury item. Their apartments were decorated in the latest fashions and became the subject of many travelers’ tales. […]

Cross-dressing was popular with men and women, especially during the free-for-all of carnival, and prostitutes sometimes dressed as nuns to enjoy greater mobility of movement through the city. More generally, their dress was so ostentatious that they could be mistaken for noblewomen—and vice versa. An official complaint of 1578 even mentions prostitutes dressed as men, touring in gondolas and luring males into “floating paradises of Venus.”

So it’s not necessarily always true that Christianity meant no open tolerance of sex work. The reality is more nuanced than that.

Joreth:  The popular show Adam Ruins Everything even did a segment on the complexity of sex work.  Take this clip, for instance:  [insert Adam Ruins Everything clips about women in the old west https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X2kJM9yQs9k&ab_channel=CollegeHumor]

Joreth: So this is kind of my area of interest, having grown up in California and worked as a tour guide for a historical house. Granted, prostitution had nothing at all to do with the house I worked in, but the history of the house and its owner was inextricably tied up with the American Old West so I learned a little bit about the adjacent subject of sex work in mining towns just by virtue of growing up and working where I did.

Eunice: As you can imagine, when you’re providing sexual services in a heavily male-dominated sex-starved area, that can create some very powerful, wealthy women in the American Old West (which is not to say that the majority of sex workers were wealthy and powerful, of course). A small town girl called Mattie Silks opened her first brothel at just 19. Whilst it was fairly typical for sex workers to be young, usually starting between 15 to 20 years old, this made her the youngest madam in America. She invested her profits back into the business, as well as growing her income and holdings by buying real estate and land. She also paid her staff a salary that made them some of the highest paid women in the country, which, good for her is all I can say.

And following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Diamond Jessie Hayman opened her brothel doors to feed, clothe and shelter anyone that needed help. And Diamond Jessie was far from alone amongst madams!

Franklin: So basically, sex workers are often better at expressing Christian traits than Christian churches are. And legendary nineteenth-century Seattle madame Lou Graham donated money to build Seattle’s schools and also saved countless businesses and banks from bankruptcy during a depression. Omaha’s first emergency hospital started out as madame Anna Wilson’s mansion; she gave it to the city in her will. And former slave turned brothel owner Mary Ellen “Mammy” Pleasant, campaigned to de-segregate San Francisco’s streetcars. If you think about it, it kinda makes sense that sex workers would be on the forefront of civil rights. They’re a demographic that’s quite familiar with social stigma and condemnation, so they have a front-row seat to the three-ring circus of Prejudice Sucks. 

Joreth: This is all starting to sound a little like the plot to Paint Your Wagon, which is a fantastic musical that was turned into a wonderfully terrible movie starring Clint Eastwood about a tiny little mining town that has a shortage of women and gets built up into a booming gold rush city. It’s a poly movie too! Unfortunately, all the good times come to an end when the Christians move into town. Christianity has some weird contradictions when it comes to sex work. Like, it’s totally opposed to it, except when it isn’t, like, except when it benefits the Church.

Eunice: Yeah, like the Winchester Geese in medieval London, who worked in an area called Southwark. They were directly licensed and taxed as prostitutes, and it was the Bishop of Winchester who regulated those licenses, hence ‘Winchester Geese’. To be ‘bitten by a Winchester goose’ meant to catch an STI from a Southwark prostitute. Isn’t that a great term? Why don’t we have anything that fun these days? Anyway, apparently the Bishop of Winchester was first given the power to license prostitutes and brothels in Southwark in 1161, although there’s some debate about that. If that’s true though (and I would love it if it were, cos that’s a great story) and considering the brothels weren’t officially closed until the seventeenth century, that’s 500 years of official prostitution, licensed by the Church! Not only that, but one of those Bishops, Henry Cardinal Beaufort, actually owned a really popular brothel, called The Cardinal’s Cap. Not just licensed, he owned it personally and profited from it directly.

Franklin: I want to say I was completely unfamiliar with the Winchester Geese, but man, what a cool story. And I’m not the least bit surprised that a prominent, highly-placed member of the clergy would manage a group of sex workers. That seems frighteningly on-brand for organized religion.

Joreth:  Yeah, I hadn’t heard about them until researching this episode either!  There are all kinds of wacky stories about religion and/or the government sanctioning prostitution!  Let’s start with Nell Gwyn from the late 1600s… what a fascinating character!  Almost the entirety of her early life has to be prefaced with “it is said that…” or “she may have…” or “according to one dubious source, she…” and what statements didn’t start with one of those qualifiers usually had to end with something to the effect of “but this cannot be confirmed”.

Eunice: Yeah, we don’t even know exactly when she was actually born! Mind you, that’s not unusual for women in history. There’s also three different cities that claim to be Nell Gwyn’s birthplace, and I’m absolutely certain that no matter how famous she later became, her mother could not have traveled around England quite that fast, whilst in labor.  

Joreth:  Nell Gwyn was considered a celebrity during the Restoration era, which is the late 1600s.  Yes, I said “celebrity”.  She was one of the first actresses allowed on the stage and her comedic performances were well-praised, although her experiments to pass as a man led to the creation of a character that was termed a “hilarious character interpretation”, which she then performed as a man on stage.  However, she was best known for being the mistress of King Charles II.  She was essentially the embodiment of the Cinderella story, making her kind of a folk hero for her rags-to-riches rise to fame and wealth.

Eunice: In case you’re not familiar with the Restoration Era, it was well known for being a time of absolutely filthy entertainment. People were really bored of being boring, you might say. So much stuff written at this time was such filthy, bawdy, sexual stuff that my English teacher wasn’t even allowed to show us the poems by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, when we were studying the Restoration. This was a time of unabashedly risque works, and the fact that she was a comedic actress means that these were the parts she excelled at. And yet, she and several other actresses were able to openly be the mistresses of aristocracy, including the king. Can you imagine that happening now?

Joreth:  Look at the shit that Meghan Markle got for dating and then marrying Prince Harry, and she is, by most accounts, a fairly respectable person.  She would never have been allowed that close to the Royal Family had she been … say … Ali Wong, or some other super crass comedianne.

Franklin: I do find it interesting that one of the first of her many accomplishments mentioned in Wikipedia is “she became best known for being a long-time mistress of King Charles II of England and Scotland.” Like, being known as the companion of a man is the first thing people mention about her.

Joreth:  I mean, isn’t that essentially how some people are famous today?  Merely by virtue of who they’re related to, or fucking?

Franklin: More with women than with men, it seems. Just sayin’.

Eunice: I mean, when you get to the point of having the 2nd Duke of Buckingham as your pimp—or, as wikipedia very delicately puts it, the “unofficial manager for Gwyn’s love affairs”—I think you’ve definitely hit “famous for fucking” status. Even though that really was only a tiny part of who she was.

Joreth:  Her mom was a madam herself, and she was possibly a child prostitute in her mom’s brothel, although she seems to have denied that.

Eunice: She clearly had no hesitation in describing herself as a whore later in life, though—according to multiple stories, she referred to herself with that actual word. There’s a story of her being mistaken for her main rival whilst riding in her coach, and leaning out the window to say “Good people, you are mistaken, I am the Protestant whore”. Plus another story of her breaking up a fight between her coachman and someone else who accused her of being a whore by saying “I am a whore. Find something else to fight about.” When I grow up, I would like to be as quick witted and bold as she was, please.

Joreth:  Yeah, so, about her rivals and how she got to be the King’s Protestant Whore… apparently her pimp, er, the Duke of Buckingham, wanted to remove his cousin from the King’s bed and install someone else, and being the man who procured the King’s favorite toy would have brought him favor with the King.  But, according to legend, Nell didn’t quite take to his plan and she demanded too much money.  So the Duke instead set up a rival actress to meet with the King.  Well, Nell couldn’t have her biggest rival catching the King’s attention, not when she had first dibs or something, so she apparently spiked this woman’s food with a laxative on the day she was supposed to hook up with the King so that she could take her place, and her position in history was assured.

Franklin: That’s kind of a petty trick, actually. 

Joreth:  I mean, when you live in an era where your entire livelihood literally depends on the men you associate with, one might be tempted to “petty tricks” to improve one’s lot.

Franklin: You’re not wrong, though the fact that’s the way the world works is unfortunate. So it’s hard to say if she was an actress who used her fame to connect with rich and powerful men, which happens often enough it’s almost a trope, or she used her connection with rich and powerful men to launch her acting career, which is less common.

Joreth:  She did seem pretty skilled in getting what she wanted.  If I had known how to bully a king into giving me a whole house, my life would look very different today.  I mean, he set her up in a house in a rich district of London, but not owning that house outright wasn’t good enough for her, so she refused to accept it unless he gave it to her, so he did. She was later given a house in Windsor, a summer house on King’s Cross Road, and she procured an earlship for her eldest son and a lordship for her youngest by King Charles II.

Eunice: Thing is, none of that would have been possible if she weren’t also smart, witty, beautiful, and very, very bold. Considering that she died when she was relatively young, by our modern day standards, I’m actually feeling exceedingly unaccomplished right now.

Franklin: It’s all about setting your sights on a goal and then going for it, I suppose. Like Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, who decided she wanted to become the king’s mistress, so when he went hunting near her estate she drove past his procession in a pink carriage wearing a blue dress, then the next day in a blue carriage in a pink dress, which apparently is how you auditioned for the position of official court mistress back in the day before Tinder. And it worked! A year later, she was installed as the official court mistress, which was, yes, apparently a thing back then.

Eunice: Well, when you think about it, ‘court mistress’ really isn’t any more of an odd position than, say, ‘court jester’ or ‘Gentlemen of the Bedchamber’, which, btw, sounds way filthier than court mistress, but it was actually an incredibly powerful position of trust, given only to peers and gentlemen. It’s only because of our weird approach to sex in the West that having an Offical Court Mistress is considered unusual. Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, or rather Madame de Pompadour, was far more than ‘just’ someone that the King had sex with, just like a Groom of the Stool was more than just a lowly servant who wiped the king’s backside. These were people of wealth and education.

Joreth:  Her background is a stark contrast to Nell Gwyn, who was a poor orange girl who just happened to be “discovered” by royalty because of the intersection of low-class entertainers and high class nobility, vs. a woman who was wealthy enough to own two different colored carriages and dresses to match, and who was groomed specifically to be a king’s mistress with education and social graces training and artistic training, etc. 

Franklin: I suspect most folks likely wouldn’t think of Madame de Pompadour as a sex worker in the traditional sense of the word, but there’s unquestionably an expectation of sex to the position of “court mistress,” I reckon. 

Eunice: Sex has historically been one of the few, if not sometimes the only, consistent avenue to power for many women, so I can understand why they would make use of it. It was just another tool, after all. Mistress was probably a fairly precarious position for many women, but often these high class court mistresses were married off to men of high status, if they weren’t already married, so that presumably became their reward or security. Remember, at this time marriage was generally just a business transactions for people with wealth, you didn’t typically get to marry the person you fell in love with—although it seems that Jeanne Antoinette’s husband fell passionately in love with her once they were married, so she was clearly someone who was extremely charismatic.

Joreth:  And what’s really fascinating is that she used sex to leverage her way into power, and then used the power she acquired to take the sex out.  It seems as though she may have even been on the ace spectrum, with public records of a low enough libido to be problematic and attempts to increase it with aphrodisiac foods.  So when political pressure was put on the king to drop his mistresses, she just reinvented her role as “friend to the king” doing a huge amount of emotional labor to console a moody royal (which was probably both a difficult as well as dangerous job) and also taking on political duties like unofficial “prime minister” becoming responsible for appointing advancements, favors and dismissals, and contributing in domestic and foreign politics.  

So, while it’s not the stereotype that modern Westerners have of sex workers being like street prostitutes or brothel workers, Court Mistress is a woman trading sex for power, wealth, and prestige so that she can use that power, wealth, and prestige to do the things she really wants to do in the same way that a brothel girl has sex for money so she can hopefully earn enough money to do the things she really wants to do, like gaining voting rights for women in her gold rush town before the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote.

Eunice: She might not have been the typical sex worker—Court mistress is really closer to what most people would think of as a courtesan, I guess—but it’s not like France hasn’t had a long history of exactly the type of sex workers we think of these days. You know, the type people sometimes called prostitutes, or ladies of the night, or whores, or call girls, or whatever. My favorite term was, I believe, a Terry Prattchetism—ladies of negotiable affection. Isn’t that a great term?

Franklin: The fortunes of the more conventional sort of sex worker—you know, the kind without a personal connection to the King—were more on-again, off-again through French history. France did this thing where they kept going back and forth between “sex work is okay” and “we must save ourselves from licentious women!!!”

In the 1300s, John II decided sex work was a “necessary evil,” and echoing arguments from religious figures like St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, ruled that rather than trying to ban sex work, it ought to be regulated. In modern terms, he favored what we would call a harm-reduction approach.

King Louis IX decreed that state-sanctioned brothels had to light a red lantern during business hours, which apparently is where “red-light district” comes from. In the early 1800s, a bloke by the name of Napoleon decided sex workers should be regularly inspected and brothels should be licensed. I personally find it fascinating that Paris had official, state-sanctioned brothels all the way up to just after WWII. There’s something about the idea of a ‘state-sanctioned brothel’ that just seems really “Winchester Geese, but for a secular society” to me. 

Eunice: Well, to be fair, being in the church was just another form of political power, in many times and places. Hence why younger sons of gentlemen who weren’t suited to the Army and wouldn’t inherit might sometimes end up there. 

Franklin: I also think it’s interesting that, by law, they had to be owned and operated by women…which is kinda cool, actually.

Joreth:  The workers were also only allowed to leave their brothels on certain days and only if accompanied by their madame.  By 1810 Paris alone had 180 officially approved brothels.  By the time they were outlawed in 1946, there were 1,500 across the country.  Part of the reason they got outlawed was because apparently brothel prostitutes make good German collaborators.  22 brothels were commandeered by German troops and one brothel in particular became part of the underground railroad getting German POWs and shot-down airmen out of the country.

There were all kinds of different brothels for different clientele, different sexual interests, all kinds of things!  The luxury brothels, for instance, catered to the royals, nobles, heads of state, and later prominent celebrities.  They often had themed rooms, one of which actually won a design prize at the 1900 World Fair in Paris.

Eunice: It all sounds very fancy and lovely, but let’s not forget that brothels that catered to the masses also existed, which were often significantly less appealing—in fact, they were often so notorious for treating their workers badly that they were nicknamed maisons d’abattage or ‘slaughterhouses’. And they were well named, at that, because the sex workers were at risk of abuse from the brothels, the clients, and the police force responsible for catching procurers. The more things change, right? And I wholeheartedly apologize to any French speakers for my utterly dire accent earlier.

Franklin: One Parisian slaughterhouse, “Le Moulin Galant,” catered exclusively to homeless patrons. Which is fascinating for a number of reasons, one of which is it suggests people who lacked the basic necessities of life were spending what little money they had to obtain sex.

Eunice: It’s basically the same urge that leads some homeless people to spend their limited money on alcohol, or drugs, or cigarettes or whatever, right? Can’t blame them for needing something to lift the unrelenting misery of being alive sometimes, we all do that.

Joreth:  And then there were a wide range of “specialist brothels”.  Everything from gay brothels (often raided for “employing” underage boys) to kink clubs to Asian fetish clubs to a peep house to a brothel just for clergy with all the heavy-handed Christian symbology you might expect.

Franklin: Because of course members of the clergy had their own brothel. If you’re a priest looking for the services of a lady of negotiable affection, you wouldn’t want to mix with the common rabble. What’s the use of having a position of wealth and prestige if it doesn’t give you a few sexual perks along the way, right? By now we’re all past the point of expecting members of the church hierarchy to live by the rules they set for others, right?

Joreth:  I mean, the poly kinky secular church I plan to build to host poly meetings, secular services, ballroom dancing, and kinky orgies is pretty heavily based on Catholic symbolism, so there is clearly a connection between Christianity and kinky sex.

Franklin: Many of the kinkiest people I’ve ever known have been Catholic. If you want your daughter to grow up sexually adventurous, send her to Catholic boarding school!

Joreth:  [raises hand]

Eunice: Catholics do love their ritual. Can’t say I blame them, I remember Franklin and I also getting a little heated by visiting some old churches. Not sure that was the intended purpose of being in a church, but hey, you take your wins where you can get them! Seems only reasonable that some of the clergy got heated under the collar too. If a somewhat different type of collar than the kinksters wear. Usually.

Franklin: I remember that! That was pretty hot, wasn’t it? I have fond memories of sexting in an old church, too.

Joreth:  If I haven’t told you about all the times in high school I gave blow jobs to a kid at church during choir practice out behind the chapel and in the sacristy, remind me to tell you sometime.

Eunice: Ok, I think that needs to go into a Patreon outtake. 

Franklin: That’s about all we have for this episode—not because we’re out of things to talk about but because we’re out of time!

Joreth: it should be noted that we really only covered a surface dive into prostitution in Western cultures. This is just such a huge topic that some people spend their entire careers studying it. And not just studying historical prostitution in general, you could build a career out of picking just one region and one era to study!

Eunice: We haven’t even mentioned Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, which was an annual directory of prostitutes in the Covent Garden area of London that was published for something like 40 years in the Georgian era! That’s a lifetime’s work, or maybe a PhD, just in that alone.

Franklin: I think you did just mention it.

Joreth:  So basically, the takeaway here is, sex work is way more complicated than most folks think it is, it has always been more complicated and more diverse than people think it is, and that complexity tends to get buried beneath easy, simplistic cultural notions of sex and sex work.

Eunice: And this isn’t even the tiniest minute fragment of a particle of the history of sex work in Western culture. It’s not a historical overview, just a little sampling of some of the more well known titbits—yes I say titbits, I’m British—of sex work through the ages, and some famous courtesans that we found particularly fascinating or interesting or just plain cool. We really need a whole separate podcast to do this topic justice.

Joreth:  If there was a podcast where every episode was an in-depth look at famous sex workers or sex scandals throughout history, I would totally sign up to listen to that podcast!  So, y’know, any historians out there that specialize in historical sex work … you have at least one listener waiting in the wings!

Eunice: Yes, ditto, so if anyone wants to make that…please please please make that so we don’t end up doing it ourselves. Please.

Franklin: Next month, if all goes well, we’ll look at sex work in non-Western cultures, because we haven’t even scratched the surface of the kind of diversity that exists in sex work worldwide.

We’d love to hear from you! Send comments or suggestions for future episodes to contact@skepticalpervert.com. If you know someone else who might enjoy this podcast, why not share the love, by giving us a review on iTunes or Spotify or wherever you listen to us. You can find our Web site at www.skepticalpervert.com, where you’ll find show notes and transcripts. And don’t forget to join our Patreon, which is linked on the website!

Joreth:  And remember, if it’s sex you want, just put a church nearby!

Franklin: When people talked about being a “bride of Christ,” I didn’t realize they meant a bride of negotiable affection.

Eunice: Being slutty for Jesus; a career path for the ages! Mind you, dude hung around with 12 men all the time, we don’t even know if he was interested in women.

Episode 11: Sex Work Through History

Sex work: Mankind’s oldest profession, right?

Today we continue our series on sex work by looking at sex work (and some of the common myths and misperceptions about sex work) throughout recorded history.

The history of sex as a profession is complex, and many of the things you might believe about it turn out not to have much of a historical basis. (It doesn’t help, of course, that much of the language around sex, even in ancient times, is full of innuendo and nudge-nudge-wink-wink humor intended for an audience familiar with understated references, which doesn’t age well.)

We also suggest that sex work may in fact be older than homo sapiens as a species, and meander into historical accounts of adulterous Popes and people being thrown through windows.

Transcript Below:

Franklin: Hello! Welcome to a new episode of Skeptical Perverts, the podcast where we look at human sexuality through an evidence-based, skeptical lens! I’m your host, part-time mad scientist, and token cishet guy, Franklin!

Joreth: Hi! I’m your co-host and Renaissance cat, Joreth! I’m kinky, solo polyamorous, on the ace spectrum, chicana, feminist, my gender identity is “tomboy”, and my pronouns are she/her but I use masculine titles.

Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, demisexual, grey-ace cis woman, bringing my genteel East Asian British viewpoint and a good strong pot of tea. For the next two episodes in our sex work mini-series, we’re discussing the history of sex work!

Franklin: And I don’t have any tea. First, let me say we aren’t historians or scholars, so this overview will necessarily be fast and high-level. If we get anything wrong, please drop us a line.

Eunice: I should also mention here that we three hosts do not read most of the languages of the world, which means that the various things people in many many countries have written throughout history about sex work are either going to be things we’ve only read through translation, haven’t even come across, or will be struggling painfully through via the help of friends or Google Translate. So we’re relying on mainly English texts, yes including Wikipedia, for the most part, and that necessarily limits the amount of information from non-English-speaking areas of the world that we can include. If you have any good resources that we might find useful however, please do throw them our way!

Joreth: The definition of sex work has changed over time, and throughout different cultures, and we’ll be covering different cultural attitudes about sex work in another episode. Superficially, though, sex work is generally considered to be “the world’s oldest profession”. That may or may not be true, but recorded history does include some form of sex work from pretty early on. Just not, as we discovered, quite the way we *thought* it did.

Franklin: This will probably not be a surprise, but sex work has a very long history. References to sex work run deep in historical and religious texts from all over the world. Wikipedia has this to say:

Sumerian records dating back to ca. 2400 BCE are the earliest recorded mention of prostitution as an occupation. These describe a temple-brothel operated by Sumerian priests in the city of Uruk. This kakum or temple was dedicated to the goddess Ishtar and was the home to three grades of women. The first grade of women were only permitted to perform sexual rituals in the temple, the second group had access to the grounds and catered to visitors, and the third and lowest class lived on the temple grounds. The third class was also free to find customers in the streets. […]

In later years sacred prostitution and similar classifications for females were known to have existed in Greece, Rome, India, China, and Japan. Such practices came to an end when the emperor Constantine in the 320’s AD destroyed the goddess temples and replaced the religious practices with Christianity.

Eunice: So a question that came to mind when we started researching is whether the earliest forms of sex work was actually that tightly bound to religious worship, or whether it was fairly ubiquitous throughout society but the only place it happened to be noted and written about was in the religious context. As it turns out…that wasn’t even the right question to be asking. 

Franklin: The common mythology is that early recordings of sex work tend to be coupled with religion…but it turns out that maybe isn’t quite true. The idea of ‘sacred sexuality’ and temple sex work has deep roots in the public consciousness, but the reality is a lot more messy and complicated, and a lot of the writings on the subject are perhaps not saying what people originally said they said.

So let’s dive in, and along the way, we’ll talk about the reasons this idea of temple prostitution became so entrenched in the modern cultural narrative, and why a lot of historians are now saying that it probably didn’t happen the way we thought it happened.

Joreth: We had a lot of misconceptions going into this episode that we just totally took for granted as true. Like, we just assumed that “sacred prostitution” was a thing. It’s such an embedded part of our cultural zeitgeist that, of course there was prostitution in ancient times and of course most of that was in the context of pagan religious rites. Like, everyone knows that, right? I don’t know where I learned that from, but I must have learned it in school, because we all just know this to be true. Was that a common idea that y’all had?

Franklin: It definitely was for me. And I can’t even tell you exactly where I got it from. Cultural osmosis, I suppose. It seems like one of those things that people just sort of know without knowing how they know, you know? So where did these cultural ideas about sacred sexuality come from, anyway?

Eunice: So, we dug through a bunch of books to figure out this exact question, and there were some fascinating bits of information that came out! One book I took a look at, “The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity” by Stephanie Lynn Budin, had quite a lot to say about the origin of the term “sacred prostitution”. As it turns out, the short answer seems to be that “sacred prostitution” was basically a mistranslation that just kept getting replicated throughout time. She writes:

[M]any of the words identified as “sacred prostitute” in the ancient Near Eastern languages (Sumerian, Akkadian, Ugaritic, and Hebrew) are actually of uncertain definition. Thus, the study of sacred prostitution in these areas mainly boils down to a study of terminology. […] There are no words for “sacred prostitute” in the ancient Near Eastern vocabularies, thus removing any indigenous evidence for this practice from the Near East. p. 5, The Myth Of Sacred Prostitution In Antiquity

Franklin: Even modern-day language is tricky this way. People love to play with language. Contemporary English speakers will recognize the difference between “bless me, Father, for I have sinned” and “forgive me, Daddy, I’ve been naughty,” but anthropologists and linguists two thousand years from now might have a rough time of it.

Joreth: And then, just by coincidence while we were researching this episode, I happen to find a meme shared online that says “The gulf of meaning between the terms “horse play” and “pony play” illustrates why expecting your culture’s translation of another’s ancient texts to be 100% true to their original intent is dangerous and probably not a good idea.” The earliest online source we could find of that quote was a Facebook share on December 26, 2021 by Matt Norris.

Franklin: Matt, if that was you: well said, sir, well said.

Eunice: And then there’s the difference between “butt dial” and “booty call,”, which I never ever want to have to explain to my mother ever again. Or there’s “cottage in the forest” vs “cabin in the woods,” (take note, people who live in horror movies, don’t mix up the two!) or, well, “water sports” and “water sports.” I’m not even going to touch that one. If you understood it, you understood it, I’m not explaining further.

Joreth: The same book, Myth of Sacred Prostitution, points out that a lot of the translators really just looked at any word that referred to “profit”, particularly the word “quaestus”, and if it was attached to a woman making money, they just assumed she earned it on her back. 

Franklin: According to the book, Bible scholars and early anthropologists struggled to understand the idea that women could have a role in a religious body that didn’t involve being sexually available, so they tended to translate the texts they found in ways that played up the sex-cult interpretation. Which, I mean, hey, if that’s your jam, you do you, but it’s maybe not historically supportable.

The book flat-out disputes the “sacred prostitution” interpretation favored by Biblical scholars.

Joreth: The book also goes on at great length to explain that, at least since the Akkadian Empire, which was more than 2,000 years BCE, there was a word “Entu” that was probably “high priestess” and reserved for only the highest levels of society, like the king’s sister or daughter, and anyone having any kind of sex with the king’s sister was considered a sin of the highest order, in the same category as assault and murder. Her role was completely chaste. The idea is that this role, male or female, was “married” to their deity, so no mere mortal could profane the deity by fucking their spouse. It’s the ancient cult version of the Catholic Nun, even having a marriage ceremony with their god. 

Eunice: Prostitution, as we think of the concept now, just didn’t seem to exist. All the terms that were translated to “prostitute” in a religious setting seem to mean other things if you look closer at the context — companion, female religious leader, entertainer, even woman who owns her own business and has financial independence. For example, one term that got mistranslated early on is “harimtu”, which we now think referred to any single woman not under the authority of a father. As you can imagine, this led to all sorts of issues later. This hasn’t really changed, of course—just think about our assumptions around the term “working girl”, which used to mean what we now use the term “business woman” to mean. Plus in some documented cases, it seems to have been a word used to describe women who just wanted to have lots of sex with men that either weren’t their husbands or weren’t considered the ‘appropriate’ social class for them. Which means your likelihood of being labeled with the term was significantly influenced by political ideology, class, wealth, or social expectations, naturally. The more things stay the same, right?

Franklin: None of this is to say that prostitution didn’t exist in the ancient world. Far from it—there’s a reason it’s called ‘the oldest profession,’ though I’d argue it’s more likely the second oldest profession, after clergyman. But I digress.

Eunice: I’d dispute that — depending on your definition of ‘profession’, I’d suggest ‘gatherer’, as in people who collected food, as an earlier profession. Hard to trade food for sex if you have nothing to trade with!

Joreth: Well, I mean, chimps will trade fruit for sex, although surprisingly oranges, pineapples and maize are among the most sought after crops, with bananas proving far less popular! So perhaps prostitution is older even than homo sapiens!

Eunice: Well, bonobos will trade anything for sex.

Joreth: I think bonobos will trade sex for sex, so…

Franklin: Anyway, there is documentation of sex work in antiquity, but it’s not quite as clear-cut as people think.

Some of the earliest work about ancient Athenian statesman Solon regards the creation of state-sanction brothels, populated by slaves, in the sixth-century BCE. This is documented in the book Greek Prostitutes in the Ancient Mediterranean, 800 BCE-200 CE by Allison Glazebrook and Madeleine Henry, which is a fascinating read.

The women provided for this purpose in Solon’s days were slaves, not working women; they didn’t have a choice to be there, and in fact the book says Solon differentiated between “women who could be prostituted and women who could not be.”

This book defines prostitution as sex work done by people “slave or freed, but they must work for pay (that they either keep for themselves or that is given either to a pimp or slave owner) rather than for their own pleasure.”

Joreth: Another book, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity by Sarah Pomeroy, discusses the “whorearchy” that still exists today, with former slaves and free non-citizens being registered and paying a special tax, and some of them being higher on the social ladder with intellectual training and artistic talents and being called “hetairai” or “companions” to men.

One such famous hetairai was named Lais. She was a young girl living in a Sicilian city when Athenians ransacked it, kidnapped her, and sold her into slavery. She started out as a lowly prostitute but eventually worked her way up to the class of “hetairai” and became one of the most famous sex workers of the ancient world. She was able to challenge the famous playwright, Euripides, to a battle of wits (no Iocane powder was used, as far as I know), and she was apparently a near-constant companion to the philosopher Aristippus of Cyrene (please excuse my terrible accent, I am very American). 

There are some fragments of writing that are attributed to Lais, but it’s now thought that she didn’t write them, someone else just used her name. Which means that she was both famous enough and well-respected enough that somebody thought “hey, if I use her name, people will want to read what I wrote!” So here’s an interesting example of upward mobility within the “whorearchy”, from slave to lowly prostitute, to “companion”.

Franklin: Sex work in ancient Greece still isn’t all that well understood. In Greek traditions, sex work in purpose-built brothels seemed to be rare; while Roman cities had dedicated brothel spaces, and one well-preserved example exists in Pompeii, the cities from ancient Greece don’t seem to, which suggests that the history of sex work was likely complex and those employed or enslaved as sex workers likely did other jobs as well.

Eunice: Pompeii is really interesting, because it was a fairly wealthy town, but not really at the level of like Rome, or Carthage, right? It’s not a capital city. So probably whatever is happening in Pompeii is going to be pretty typical of other Roman settlements. And what they had…was graffiti on the walls of brothels. Some of it, as you can imagine, was the male clients giving reviews about the pornai they had just visited—a real Yelp of its day, you might say—but some of it, and I’m really loving this, was reviews by the prostitutes about the men who came to visit them! This guy was bad at sex, that guy doesn’t pay well, don’t bother with that guy he’s a bit of a dick…sounds like some of the info shared by sex workers nowadays. Some things never change. 

Joreth: Yeah, I love some of the graffiti that was found: “Here many girls poked”, “Lucky guy, you fuck well”, “Mola is a fucktress”.

Franklin: “Fucktress.” Now that is a lovely word. That word needs to make a comeback. It just sounds so…direct. “Excuse me, miss, your eyes are like the moon over still water, so I just have to ask: Will you be my fucktress?”

Joreth: Are we going to see that word in one of your books?

Eunice: I’m trying very, very hard to find a way to squeeze that in somehow—maybe we’ll put it in the sex worker witches coven urban fantasy novels we’re planning. A fucktress sounds like the sex magic equivalent of an enchantress to me!

Joreth: Yes, definitely! That’s exactly what I was thinking! In one particular brothel in Pompeii, there is graffiti that reads, Fortunata fellat (or “Fortunata sucks”) Scholars think that this graffiti was actually written by a woman as she describes the active position of sucking, because it *doesn’t* use the word irrumare, which translates to “to mouth-fuck.” That’s the word that would have been used by male clients to refer to the activity of being fellated.

Eunice: I’m really sad that I didn’t get to see this graffiti in person, but since I went as part of a school visit…I’m pretty sure our teachers just didn’t want to have to explain brothels and prostitution to us. Hah, jokes on them, we could probably have told them more than they told us—kids always know more about sex than you think!

Joreth: And, as usual, early scholars let their morals get in the way of rigorous study of the ancient city. The late 19th century historian, Wolfgang Helbig, said “an analysis of individual paintings [from the brothel] is unnecessary and inadmissible.” It was not until the 20th century that scholars began taking excavations of ancient brothels seriously. 

Franklin: Meanwhile, back in Ancient Greece… Even when dealing with surviving formal writing like law, there’s a tendency amongst historians to assume things are about sex and sex work when perhaps maybe they aren’t. Like historian A. J. Graham saying Athenian regulations on windows facing out onto the street was intended to prevent sex workers from hanging out the windows advertising their wares, but the book Greek Prostitutes in the Ancient Mediterranean points out:

He uses these Thasian regulations on prostitutes and brothels to suggest that an Athenian restriction on windows opening onto roads was intended “to prevent the use of windows for purposes of prostitution” and not to bar “outward-opening window-shutters, which if not secured, might fall down into the street” But without a direct reference to a brothel, as in the Thasian inscription, and given the immediate context of building, balcony, and canal restrictions designed to ensure the safety, cleanliness, and the width of the road, Peter Rhodes’s conclusion is the more convincing one: the regulation is simply about windows and their shutters.

What is it with classical historians seeing sex and sex work everywhere, even in legal regulations about windows and shutters?

Eunice: Perhaps they just didn’t get much of it? Or at least, not as much as they presumably thought they deserve for their super braininess. 

Joreth: Back in the Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves book, the author goes on to talk about how prostitutes in Ancient Athens were not necessarily the lowest rung on the ladder, more like … to the side. A man could have a long-term relationship with a concubine, for instance, that was functionally treated the same as a wife, except for some legal distinctions like her children would not be considered citizens. 

He then talks about prostitutes as being “mercenary” because they were the only women who had independent control over their money, which was then used in extraordinary ways. The author talks about one possibly discredited story of funding the building of a pyramid with prostitution money, but even if this isn’t true, it’s not surprising. 

A lot of the American Old West was funded and run by prostitutes and their money. There were a lot of brothels! But we’ll get a little bit into relatively “modern times” in the second part of this … part?

Eunice: Yeah, brothels and more…formalised structures for prostitution seemed to have been more typical in the more modern era — and by ‘modern’, I am of course referring to ‘the last two thousand years’, which I suspect most people would not consider modern! Certainly not my two American co-hosts over there. So, according to Thomas Mcginn in “Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World”:

As far as I am able to discover, a policy aiming at the segregation of venal sex from respectable elements of the population has every appearance of being a phenomenon that postdated the rise of Christianity.

Joreth: Hold up just a minute here, are you telling me that it was only after Christianity came along that we now think of sex as dirty and keep it segregated from “polite society”?! That can’t be right! I’m shocked, shocked I tell you!

Franklin: No you aren’t. That is not your shocked face.

Eunice: Oh for the naivety to still be shocked by this. Is there anybody that could be shocked by this?

Joreth: Christianity does some weird shit when it comes to sex, which we’re going to cover in a little more depth in part 2 of the History of Sex Work, after the Christian church is formed and starts sticking its nose in everyone’s business. Basically, the takeaway here is, sex work is way more complicated than most folks think it is, it has always been more complicated and more diverse than people think it is, and that complexity tends to get buried beneath easy, simplistic cultural notions of sex and sex work.

Eunice: Though I do wonder why Jesus refers to prostitutes and tax collectors in the same breath—as in, dining with both. I bet there’s something Freudian going on there! 

Franklin: The early church was freaky. I mean like Twilight Zone freaky. One of the early famous Christian preachers, dude named John Chrysostom, was kidnapped, taken to Constantinople, and forcibly consecrated against his will as archbishop. 

Eunice: Wait, hang on, what do you mean kidnapped and forcibly consecrated as an archbishop? How can you make someone an archbishop if they don’t want to be? How often did this sort of thing happen? 

Franklin: Seriously. He was an early champion of the fire-and-brimstone school—one of his early famous sermons said:

“Long after the theater is closed and everyone is gone away, those images of “shameful women” still float before your soul, their words, their conduct, their glances, their walk, their positions, their excitation, their unchaste limbs […] And there within you she kindles the Babylonian furnace in which the peace of your home, the purity of your heart, the happiness of your marriage will be burnt up!”

Not gonna lie, he had me at “unchaste limbs.”

Eunice: Um, he seems to be rather obsessed with the topic. Those limbs are clearly on his mind rather a lot…

Franklin: And which Pope was it who died of a stroke while committing adultery in a specially designed sex chair? Though apparently according to the Internet there’s some historical debate about what happened, with the official account being he died of a stroke but some contemporaneous accounts saying the husband of the woman he was shagging caught him and threw him through a window, which is what killed him.

Eunice: OK, firstly, the fact that there are multiple popes I can think of that this story could apply to says a lot about that era of popes. And secondly, whether he died of a stroke, a heart attack, defenestration, or by getting his head lopped off by the guy he was cuckolding, the stories all seem to agree that he really was doing the not-popely activities, right? 

Franklin: I love that English has a word for “thrown out of a window.”

Joreth: So, speaking of defenestration (from the Latin, meaning literally “down from window”) … apparently there were 3 separate and official Defenestrations of Prague that all have to do with conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, the first and third of which started major wars, and the second one … brokered 30 years of peace?

Eunice: Well, technically there’s a bit of a debate about whether that counts as two or three official Defenestrations of Prague. I mean, if it doesn’t kick off a war are you even trying, right?

Joreth: But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. There’s still some history between the Ancient World and the weird and arbitrary schisms of the cult of Jesus, in addition to the WHOLE WEIRDNESS that is prostitution in Christianity in the modern world itself.

Franklin: Next month, we’ll look at sex work in the “modern era”, and follow that up with a peek at historical sex work in non-Western cultures, because we haven’t even scratched the surface of the kind of diversity that exists in sex work worldwide.

We’d love to hear from you! Send comments or suggestions for future episodes to contact@skepticalpervert.com. If you know someone else who might enjoy this podcast, why not share the love, by giving us a review on iTunes or Spotify or wherever it is you listen to us. You can find our Web site at www.skepticalpervert.com, where you’ll find show notes and transcripts. And don’t forget to join our Patreon, which is linked to on the website! Patreon subscribers will eventually be able to hear our extensive outtakes about defenestration.

Eunice:  And speaking of Patreon, a big thank you to DM Spektor, our first Patron on Patreon!

Joreth:  And remember, if you don’t yeet your pervertism through a window, it’s not a proper skeptifenestration!

Eunice: Wait, how do you yeet a pervertism? I can see yeeting a pervert—with consent, please, we’re not advocating non-consensual yeeting here—but can you even yeet a concept? A lifestyle? A personality trait? I’m not even quite sure what to call it here…

Joreth:  But isn’t skepticism all about yeeting concepts?

Eunice: Ok, good point, well made. Yeet away!

Episode 10: What Counts as Sex Work?

What “counts” as sex work? When you hear the words “sex work,” what image does that bring up in your mind?

In this episode, we discuss forms of sex work that most people don’t think about when they think “sex work,” and we talk to “Andrew,” a former male sex worker. Andrew (not his real name) has some insights to offer about the differences between sex work as it’s experienced by male and female sex workers.

Transcript below.

Franklin: Hello! Welcome to a new episode of Skeptical Perverts, the podcast where we look at human sexuality through an evidence-based, skeptical lens! I’m your host, part-time mad scientist, and token cishet guy, Franklin!

Joreth: Hi! I’m your co-host and Renaissance cat, Joreth! I’m kinky, solo polyamorous, on the ace spectrum, chicana, feminist, my gender identity is “tomboy,” and my pronouns are she/her but I use masculine titles.

Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, demisexual, grey-ace cis woman, bringing my genteel East Asian British viewpoint and a good strong pot of tea. We’re still on our sex work mini-series and this episode, we’re discussing “what even is sex work anyhow?” 

Joreth: Yeah, so … we started out thinking this would be one episode, and now it’s morphed into, what, like 4 episodes? And we’re going to take one very huge chunk of that topic and try to distill it down to a single introduction. We are attempting to break some of this down into their own episodes throughout this series, but today is the broad overview on what sex work is and what “counts” as sex work, and to whom.

Eunice: Just as a warning, this is going to be a long one, so buckle in and maybe get some refreshments cos we’re gonna be here for a while. Tea is good, I recommend tea.

Franklin: Sex work! It’s like quantum mechanics or pornography: everyone thinks they know what it is, but talk to two different people who aren’t physicists or legal scholars and you’ll get three different definitions. So let’s talk about what we mean when we say ‘sex work.’

I mean, hell, a lot of people struggle to say what “sex” is. It all depends on what your definition of “is” is, right? If you can’t recognize sex when you see it, recognizing sex work might be a bridge too far.

Our last episode about sex work mentioned the Sex Worker Outreach Project’s definition:

“Sex work is any type of labor where the explicit goal is to produce a sexual or erotic response in the client. Sex work includes prostitution, but it also includes a bunch of other things like erotic dancing, pro-dom/pro-sub work, webcam work, sensual massage, adult film, phone sex, being a sugar baby, etc.”

Other organizations use similar definitions. Open Society defines sex work this way:

Sex workers are adults who receive money or goods in exchange for consensual sexual services or erotic performances, either regularly or occasionally.

Eunice: Do ‘goods’ include dinner, by any chance? I mean, I’ve had some really expensive dinners where we split the bill, are you telling me I should have gotten that for free? Wait, hang on, maybe that counted as mutual sex work instead!

Joreth: So when he makes me breakfast the next morning, does that mean I just engaged in sex work? I mean, my last boyfriend was a really good cook. I’d be willing to say that was a fair value comparison.

Eunice: Mouthgasms are named that for a reason, right?

Franklin: You people and your food! Things get a little stranger when you look at definitions of sex work offered by conservative groups, especially conservative religious groups. Many conservative religious organizations struggle to tell the difference between sex work and sex trafficking. A-21, a religious organization founded to fight sex trafficking, says this about sex work:

A commercial sex act occurs when the sex act is exchanged for anything of value.

Joreth: Um … exchanged for ANYTHING of value?

Eunice: Like … say, a wedding ring?

Joreth: I don’t think they really thought out the logical progression here.

Eunice: I’ll be honest, I’ve been in relationships where an additional few hours of peace to read my book would have been a fair exchange.

Joreth: I mean … getting them to go off and do something in particular or just be elsewhere isn’t a bad trade. I’ve sat through hours of basketball games in exchange for them doing something specific for me. That was certainly more tedious than offering, say, a blow job for something of equal “value”.

Eunice: I sat through 4 hours of the film Gettysburg, I think I damn well deserved my reward sex after that!

Franklin: I agree. The Family Research Council says:

There are many organizations that push for legitimizing sexual exploitation as “sex work.” Sexual exploitation is nobody’s job. Sexual exploitation is a horrendous violation of people’s physical and psychological health and safety. The elements of sexual exploitation which is often paraded as “sex work” include: “routine verbal degradation; threat of physical assault and a wide array of physical injury; extreme risk of sexual assault and rape; being groped, pinched, licked, bitten and breathed upon by people who pay to use you; serial utilization of one’s orifices as a receptacle for male genitalia and other objects; likely acquisition of drug/alcohol addiction; likely acquisition of post-traumatic stress disorder; likely acquisition of any number of (potentially incurable) STDs; and possible premature death as the result of homicide.” Sexual exploitation is abuse and should not be raised to the level of “work.”

Joreth: “The libberals say that sex work includes physical assault!” Um, yeah no, pretty sure nobody is saying that. Nice straw man you got there buddy. The way some of these conservatives get really really detailed in their descriptions of things. “Serial utilization of one’s orifices as a receptacle for male genitalia and other objects”? You are spending an awful lot of time thinking about this, sir.

Eunice: Thing is, they are so, so close to a reasonable point here. None of their examples of exploitation are acceptable behaviour. We should seek to prevent that from happening. What they’re missing, that sex workers are telling us from direct experience, is that exploitation is far more likely when you criminalise sex work. Consensual sex work doesn’t, and shouldn’t, include any of that abuse. And yes, a lot of that behaviour is abusive. You know what makes clients feel able to do that stuff without fear? Making it so risky to legally do sex work that sex workers are terrified to report abusive behaviour to the authorities for fear of being arrested themselves. Or being raped by the police, and then arrested. According to the study “Associations between sex work laws and sex workers’ health: A systematic review and meta-analysis of quantitative and qualitative studies” which looked at data from 1990 to 2018:

“Repressive policing of sex workers was associated with increased risk of sexual/physical violence from clients or other parties, HIV/STIs, and condomless sex. The qualitative synthesis identified diverse forms of police violence and abuses of power, including arbitrary arrest, bribery and extortion, physical and sexual violence, failure to provide access to justice, and forced HIV testing.”

Joreth: Sooo… criminalizing sex work leads to … more dirty cops?

Eunice: Surprise. I know no one can see this, but I have on my “very much not surprised” face right now. Another quote from further in that same study says:

“Evidence from decriminalised settings suggests that sex workers in these settings have greater negotiating power with clients and better access to justice.” 

Also not a surprise. And I should point out, some of the abusive behaviour they mention as part of sex work? That exists in ongoing heterosexual monogamous relationships, including marriage, too. Marital rape is a thing, and it’s not even actually illegal everywhere.

Joreth: What?! How could that possibly have happened in a culture that makes sex transactiona… oh, wait.

Franklin: And finally, Concerned Women for America says “we’ll see your bonkers sex-work-negative hyperbole and raise you this:”

[Stormy] Daniels was a “successful” star in pornography and is continuing her run next week with a cover shot on Penthouse along with a nude photoshoot. This is the kind of modern day feminism Planned Parenthood loves, where women shed their dignity and damage their souls in exchange for money and power.

The connection between the porn industry, sex traffickers, and Planned Parenthood is well documented. Porn is often used to groom sex trafficking victims so they can learn what they are expected to do. When sex trafficked victims become pregnant as a result of their abuse, they are often coerced into having abortions. Planned Parenthood has been caught on film helping pimps obtain abortions for their victims, including minors.

Joreth: Oh the connection between sex trafficking, porn and Planned Parenthood is well documented, is it? I would like to see that documentation please.

Franklin: Someone needs to make a browser plugin that lets you tag Web sites with a Wikipedia-style [Citation Needed]

Eunice: Could I get that for real life too? Like, just pasted over people’s face when you’re talking to them? But yeah, there are so many tall leaps to conclusions here, I’m getting vertigo.

Joreth: You know the last time I heard about videos “catching” Planned Parenthood, those videos both did not show them doing anything wrong and were also fraudulently edited to suggest that they were so … I’m gonna reserve my blind acceptance on the statement that PP has been “caught on film helping pimps obtain abortions”.

So, in addition to there being a classification of things that do and do not “count”, there’s also a hierarchy of sex work from less respectable to … well, not “respectable” exactly, but less offensive?

Eunice: Or maybe, easier to hide? Less risky and stigmatised? Better paying? More likely to be undertaken by higher income cis white women? All of the above?

Joreth: OK, so, a hierarchy of sex work from risky with no social capital or power, to less risky with some social capital or power. What do we have then?

Franklin: Belle Knox wrote an article about the “whorearchy” in Jezebel. She says:

The whorearchy is arranged according to intimacy of contact with clients and police. The closer to both you are, the closer you are to the bottom. That puts “outdoor” workers, ie street-walking prostitutes, at the foundation. They are disdained by “indoor” prostitutes, who find clients online or via other third parties. They are disdained by the strippers and escorts who perform sex acts for clients, who are disdained by those who don’t. At the top sit sex workers who have no direct contact with cops or clients, such as cam girls and phone-sex operators.

Even within porn there is stratification. Women who engage in specifically interracial or edgier scenes are viewed as somehow “lower” by other performers. I was marginalized within the industry for my work on a rough sex website. I’ve witnessed colleagues receive racist epithets for their work on interracial productions. Gay or trans performers are particularly ostracized by the mainstream due to the AIDS stigma attached to their work.

Eunice: This is a really important point here, that not all sex work is treated equally, even by sex workers. So we ran a little poll to see how people think about sex work —- not scientific at all, just to kind of gauge the wind, as it were — and we asked the question “How would you rank sex work from most definitely “counts” as sex work to “counts least” or “doesn’t count” as sex work?”. Then we asked people to order them from “definitely counts” at the top to “counts less” down to “doesn’t count” at the bottom. We didn’t get very many responses, so take this with a grain of salt, but what we did get matched what we expected. You can find the link to the full data set at the show notes.

Joreth: Yeah, we all seem to have a very similar set of ideas on what our culture tells us “counts” as sex work, and the poll reflected that. As expected, people felt that their backgrounds taught them that “street prostitutes” and “brothel workers” counted the most as sex work while the various forms of dancers and erotic writers counted the least.

Franklin: Yet unquestionably erotic writers are paid for creating a sexual experience for the reader. By the first definition we read, erotic writers count.

Eunice: Yeah, but there’s a long history of classic erotic writing, which has left it with some classist overtones—Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or Fanny Hill, or the Marquis de Sade, anyone? 

Joreth:  Song of Solomon in the bible?

Eunice: And we already know that the higher up that privilege ladder you are, the less likely it is that the things you do will be stigmatised. We’ve had whole discussions on the difference between ‘porn’ novels and ‘erotica’ novels, when really it’s all a matter of personal opinion and taste.

Joreth: Erotic writers are just *writing*, they’re not actually performing or interacting sexually with anyone, so that’s not, like, “real sex work”, right?

Franklin: I wonder if some of those conservative Evangelical Christian groups we mentioned would see it that way.

Joreth: I bet some of those conservative Evangelical Christians *write porn* under pseudonyms.

Franklin: I bet you’re right, and I further wager it isn’t very good.

Joreth:  *cough*50 Shades*cough* (fucking Mormon Twilight fanfic) oops, did I say that out loud?  Excuse me.  Anyway, our little poll reflected what Belle Knox said in her article.  It seemed consistent with her rule of thumb that the closer one is to both cops and clients, the lower on the whorearchy the job sits.

So, what does that mean for sex workers? What does this tell us about sex workers and how our culture treats sex workers?

Franklin: Human beings are social and hierarchical animals. We evolved that way, so it’s not surprising we would impose a hierarchy in pretty much every kind of social interaction we do. If you have a hierarchy, you have someone on the bottom, and as they say, shit rolls downhill. Part of the function of a hierarchy is to tell you who it’s okay to be mean to.

Given how many societies think of sex as something dirty and yucky to begin with, surrounded by walls that clearly specify what kind of sex is permitted and what kind isn’t, it’s not surprising that so many societies see commercial sex as transgressive and taboo.

Eunice: And given that’s the case, it’s no wonder it’s often done by some of the most marginalised people in a society. Our poll didn’t separate out gender, orientation or race among sex workers, but I don’t think anyone would be surprised to find out that if you are gay or trans or a person of colour, that will also affect your position on the whorearchy, relative to straight, cis, white counterparts. In many ways, it’s a just microcosm of the way that many privileges function in mainstream, wider society.

Joreth: Right? Like, I bet it wouldn’t be all that hard for our listeners to re-take that poll but then imagine what if the various sex worker category was for a *trans* person doing it, and if they’re answering based on what they feel that person’s place is in society (not their own personal feelings about the sex worker), I’m pretty sure most people would rank gay or trans or POC sex work as “definitely counts as sex work” much higher than if a straight white cis person was doing. it.

So, like, if I said “does escort ‘count’ as sex work”, and y’all put it wherever you put it on the scale of society thinks “definitely” to “nope, society doesn’t count it”, and then I said “what about a GAY escort?” or “what about a TRANS escort”, I’d be willing to bet that a lot more people would say it “counts” a lot more as “sex work” in the culture of their upbringing.

Franklin: In the Jezebel article, Belle Knox does say that part of what she calls the “whorearchy” is about the people doing it as much as what’s being done, which sounds about like what we’d expect from, you know, people.

Eunice: And another group who often don’t really jump to mind when it comes to sex work, but who are definitely part of the whorearchy, is male sex workers. 

Joreth: Men and sexism in the sex industry is weird. Like, if we ask Westerners to imagine a porn performer, or a sex worker, or an escort, they almost always immediately think of women. Well, if they think of porn, they might think of 2 men: the first is Ron Jeremy, and the second name will basically tell you how old they are based on who they come up with. But otherwise, the image of the industry revolves around women.

Eunice: Yeah, whenever you think about sex work, whether it’s porn, erotic dance, full service sex work, whatever, it’s usually an image of a woman, right? The woman is the one you want to see or, well, whatever. And that’s reflected in the pay too. According to the US Census in 2016, there are very few jobs — including special-education teachers, counselors, and TSA screeners — where women earn more than men. That list should also include porn stars, although as you can imagine the US census doesn’t like to mention that.

Joreth: From an article on Refinery 29:

“Men are paid a fixed rate per scene based on their reputation (gay male porn has a separate pay scale that, for sake of brevity, isn’t explored in this story), while women earn different wages based on their star power and the sex act. … data journalist Jon Millward conducted the largest study of porn actors thus far by using a sample of 10,000 performers listed on the Internet Adult Film Database. He found that 70% of performers were women and the average career span of a porn actress was between six and 18 months. He also found that 96% of the most prolific performers were male.”

Franklin: We wanted to talk to someone who doesn’t fit the stereotypical idea of what a sex worker looks like, so we’ve interviewed a male performer and cam model. We wanted to get a new perspective that’s a bit outside what most of us think of as what a sex worker looks like.

Joreth: We had the opportunity in the previous episode on OnlyFans to have a text exchange with one sex worker and an audio interview with another, but both of them are perceived as women, which is what most people think of when they hear the term “sex worker”.

We wanted to talk to someone with a different sort of experience, so we asked Andrew, who identifies as a straight man, if he would be willing to tell us about his experience in the sex work industry.

Eunice: Hi! So we have Andrew with us who was a sex worker. And Andrew, ould you like to introduce some of the stuff you did? What were you doing and how did you get into it? 

Andrew: Well, I kind of fell into it because I was out of work and looking for a way to make money. Actually I had a young family at the time and I needed a way to make money quick and I had the right assets for porn work. And so it was just something that I kind of fell into because I needed work. And I ended up doing porn work for about six months to fill in the gap between having another full time employment. 

Eunice: Cool! So was it just porn or were there other types of sex work you were doing as well? 

Andrew: Well, it started with just porn. I think like most people that dream of being a porn star. The first thing they think of is, you know, starring in their own feature length film. So I started with that, but I found that there was very little of it being filmed in Florida at the time. 

So after making several trips to South Florida and then to Tampa, and still finding work pretty scarce, I ended up learning more about doing Webcam shows, which were very popular at the time, so I found that I could make a lot of money just doing cam shows. 

So I turned to that and did that, like I said, for most of six months. And while doing the cam shows, I ended up, like I think many people do once they get into sex work, doing other things on the side. You know, doing meets with fans for money. So I would have adoring fans that would be willing to pay me several hundred dollars just to go down on me, and I would go and meet them. And I did that a few times until one such meet went horribly south, and at that point I broke it off and didn’t do it again. 

And around that time I found another job, so it worked out pretty well. 

Joreth: That’s like everybody dream when they think about it as getting a feature length film. 

Eunice: Impressive that that’s what you start with . 

Andrew: Now that’s that’s the dream, and so that’s what everyone wants to start out doing. But what I quickly discovered was that the only way for that to work, practically speaking, was to move to California. At the time, there just weren’t enough films being shot in Florida, so I ended up going into webcam shows and then as a way to extra money, oing live meets with people until an experience went horrible with somebody that I met agreed to meet with and I was all but kidnapped. And around that time, luckily I found another job because it scared me and I got out of the business. 

Eunice: Yeah, that sounds incredibly tough and unsurprising that you chose to leave after that. 

Andrew: Yeah, it was a very very bad experience. I don’t necessarily want to start with that. It’s something I haven’t really thought about a lot since it happened. But, you know, I was so desperate for money at the time that instead of fleeing a bad situation, which I should have done, I stuck around, allowed myself to be basically held captive all night, hoping the person would actually pay me. And finally they did pay me some money and I left, and then the next morning they contacted me on Facebook because I had managed to let slip my name while I was there, and they declared that I was closeted homosexual and that I needed to come out of the closet. And he was going to help me do that by contacting all of my contacts on Facebook and letting them know that I was secretly gay, and that way he and I could fulfill our love affair that we were destined to have. And I immediately blocked him and luckily never heard from him again. 

So I think I managed to block him before he was able to contact anyone on Facebook. Or that could have just been a threat to try to, you know, coerce me into meeting him again, which is what he wanted. 

Franklin: Wow. Wow.

Eunice: That sounds terrifying. 

Joreth: Yeah. You say you were doing porn. You were doing gay porn but you don’t identify as gay, is that correct? 

Andrew: Yes. I mean it’s a little more complicated than that. I started out doing straight porn, and the feature-length films that I did were straight porn, but I ended up being offered money to do a gay film and I did it. And so yeah it was interesting as a straight man to have my first homosexual experience be behind the camera.

But I don’t think it’s actually that unusual. Once I was in the industry, I found that you really didn’t know the orientation of a sex worker or an actor based upon the type of film it was. They literally contact you ahead of time and ask you what kind of—how should I put it—stimulation materials you need to get ready to go onstage. So they’ll ask you your orientation. They’ll never assume based on what kind of film it is, what your sexual orientation is. 

Franklin: How many people who do gay male porn would you say, in your experiences, don’t identify as gay?

Andrew: Based on my experience, and again I well I didn’t do that many feature length films, but I would say about 1/4, let’s say about 25%. 

Franklin: Huh, interesting.

Andrew: But that’s just one little anecdote. 

Joreth: And you said you did about three straight films before. 

Andrew: I did. I did three straight films, and then I did the one gay film, and then I did some sex toy modeling for a website so they would do little intro clips introducing their sex toys. That was a place out of Tampa, so I had sex with different cock rings and with fake vaginas, Fleshlight and the like. 

Franklin: Yeah, it’s interesting that you say that because that’s something that I think a lot of people probably wouldn’t call “sex work.” And yet, if you think about it, it really is. You know, by the definitions that we’ve been using on the podcast that totally qualifies as sex work. 

Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. I would agree. And then that was the point which I discovered the webcam website and started doing webcam shows. 

Joreth: So the webcam stuff, this was before Onlyfans was a thing, wasn’t it? 

Andrew: Oh, I would certainly think so. I didn’t hear about it at the time. This was about…wow, how many years ago was this? 13, 14 years ago. 2008? 

Joreth: So pretty early for getting into the webcam stuff. That was a fledgling section of the industry. 

Franklin: When you were doing webcam work, did you have any way to track the demographics of your audience? Were your audience primarily, men, primarily, women, primarily couples or anything? You know, do you have any of that information? 

Andrew: There was—obviously there’s no way to know for sure, but I learned very quickly that my audience  was primarily gay men. I think that my body type just seemed to work for that. I have what they would call swimmer’s build—very thin, muscular build—and with a large cock that’s very disproportionate to my size. 

So my audience was primarily identifying as male on the webcam sites, and so I took them at their word that they were primary male. 

Eunice: So did you know, like, many other male sex workers? Was there a community or was that kind of isolated? 

Andrew: I think there was a little bit of a community. I did make a few connections, a few friendships, but I mostly avoided that just because I was a family man. Married with kids with a very conservative extended family. So I was very much trying to keep this separated from my private life. 

Eunice: Got you. 

Joreth: Now, how did your spouse feel about this? 

Andrew: Well, I was out of work with a mortgage and children and so, you know, she wanted to be able to pay the mortgage. So I think that due to very practical motivations that she was supportive at the time. 

In fact, she even came to the films that I shot in South Florida. And after the first one, which was a complete nightmare for me, she served as my own personal fluffer and then by the third shoot she was fluffing half the men in the building. So she was…I would come off of a set and she’d be in the hallway with literally penis in her mouth and one in each arm, one at each hand I should say, fluffing the other members of the cast. So she definitely got into it by the third film. 

Eunice: And her own, like, it kind of became a bit of a family business. 

Franklin: Yeah, that’s interesting because that’s the first actual, like, documented occurrence of a fluffer I’ve ever heard of, because all the time that I’ve ever been on set watching porn being filmed, there was never anybody to do that. 

Franklin: But of course this was always post-Viagra, and so I’ve always sort of thought that fluffers were kind of an urban legend. And I guess maybe that’s not the case. 

Andrew: Yes, well, there there was Viagra at the time, but I gotta say that at that time Viagra was harder to get ahold of, and very expensive. So there wasn’t the generic Viagra that you see now, which is very easy to get ahold of. So it definitely was around. But it was harder to get your hands on. And nothing beats a live person outside of a set. 

Joreth: So then, with your wife being so accepting of this, can we assume that you had some form of a nonmonogamous marriage before you went into porn? Or was this the introduction to it? 

Andrew: Yes, absolutely. We we were non-monogamous, we were swingers. I didn’t know what polyamory was at the time, but we had been swingers for a couple of years before this happened. So I do think that helped a lot with the transition to this kind of work and with the acceptance of my life and. 

Andrew: And yes, she wasn’t just, you know, a  one-man woman that had had no experience with group sex suddenly thrust on the on a set serving as a fluffer for three practically random strangers. That wasn’t the case. No, we had done a little bit of swinging, it so it wasn’t that new to her. But she was much appreciated by the cast, I mean that sincerely. 

Joreth: So did you have a chance to have many conversations with any other sex workers and maybe to discuss the differences between what it was like as a man in the industry versus the women in the industry? 

Joreth: Or did you have any observations? You know, did it seem any different being a man in the industry?

Andrew: Well, I felt like it was very different right from the start. For, you know, the first set that I ever showed up on. The woman was in makeup for about two hours after I arrived. And it was a gangbang scene and there were, I think, five of us men waiting around for…it was at least two hours, and that was after I arrived. And I heard she had already been there. So she was getting her makeup and hair and everything done for several hours while we were sitting around waiting for her. She was paid approximately 10 times as much as each of us was paid. 

So I I definitely felt like that in porn, the women were the stars of the show and we were just extras. Now, part of that was obviously because of the type of shoot it was, being a gangbang scene, but I definitely felt that way. 

Joreth: How did it feel when you switch to the gay film? What were some of the differences being on set for that when there were no women around? 

Andrew: Oh, it’s a lot different. It’s like night and day. And I do think that that’s one of the reasons that porn actors, whether gay or straight, male actors I mean, will transition to that. Because it’s different when there isn’t a prima donna having her makeup done for two hours while you wait around like extras. It’s definitely a different world. 

You know, it’s interesting since we’re we’re talking about  my first shoot, it was a very shocking experience, but going to my first video shoot I thought that they would be simple and easy and I thought that I would just go in there and just blow everyone away with my sexual prowess and my giant penis. And being on that set the first time was completely different than I expected. 

For one thing, getting erect on a set where you have, you know, someone with a camera, someone holding up lighting and other men there…it was very difficult to get aroused. It was very difficult to get an erection. And even when I got an erection and I I started to  getting into the scene and having sex, it was as if there were no nerve endings in my penis. I literally felt like it might as well been skin on my arm and not my penis, but I I literally couldn’t feel sensation. So I don’t know if that’s nerves or or what, but I literally lost sensation in my penis. And so so yeah, I was completely shocked by how difficult it was. Nothing like what I imagined going into it. 

Eunice: With it being, like, so different than people imagine, and actually so much tougher than people imagine, do you think, like, what’s the turnover rate? Did you see lots of new faces? Or did you, you know, see sort of the same people consistently each time? Did people leave and, you know, new people enter frequently? 

Andrew: Absolutely, for the a low budget film like that that I was shooting doing a gangbang scenes with a theme. They were themed gangbang scenes where you had, it was interracial, where you had multiple male or white men with one black woman. That was the theme of the of the video.

And for those scenes, they would literally hire two or three extra men than they needed for the scene, under the assumption that about a third of the men were not going to be able to get erect and perform on set. 

Joreth: Oh wow.

Andrew: So absolutely the rate of failure is very high, and they build that in to the men that they bring on set. They absolutely expect beginners like that to fail at a high percentage. 

Joreth: Did they have any backup women? 

Andrew: *Laughs* No, absolutely not. Again, the woman was the star. She was paid about ten times as much as we were, and I mean that literally. I think she got 3000 for the scene and we got 300 for each scene. 

Joreth: Wow

Andrew: So like yeah I know there was only one woman. And yeah it seemed like a gangbang scene is the kind of scene that they bring beginners in for. They assume there’s going to be a high failure rate. 

Joreth: That’s interesting. Did you continue to do gang bangs or did you do different types of shoots as you went along? 

Andrew: I didn’t do a lot of films. So I did three films in South Florida, and yeah, that was, you know, the beginner kind of work you could get. So yes, I did a lot of that. And then did the the gay film with someone who was an established actor that was looking for people. You know, new talent, ’cause he branched out. Going on his own. He started his own website, which I guess was the thing back about ten years ago. People were just starting to try to do that. There was no OnlyFans. But they were trying to start their own websites to get a higher percentage of the profits.

So there was someone that I met who had been a one of the cameramen from one of the other films I did. I made contact with him, I guess old fashioned networking. And he contacted me and said that there was a gay film for someone that was, you know, starting his own site, and would I be willing to do that? And the money was a lot better and I I don’t honestly remember what the money was anymore, but it was a lot better than what I was making doing the straight porn. So I gave it a shot and actually did quite well. 

I think that it was, a lot of ways, easier, because it was a smaller set with only a few people there instead of the films in South Florida where there were a dozen people, probably, on set. 

Joreth: So it sounds like you got in like right around the cusp of when porn stopped being a big studio market, and people started branching out on their own and maybe even the amateur started to rise. 

Andrew: Yes, I actually think that is what was going on at this time. About 12 to 14 years ago. I do think that’s what was going on. 

Andrew: I think I was seeing the beginnings of that. Porn actors starting to say, “why are we letting the studios make all the money?” It’s not that hard to have your own website and start their own sites. And it was a great experience doing a film with an established actor. 

Franklin: You said that you were making a lot more money doing the gay porn than with straight porn. How did that compare with how much money you were making when you were doing webcams? 

Andrew: Well, doing webcam work is an entirely different scenario. It’s more like a nine to five job, and the work is a lot steadier. So it’s difficult to compare, but it’s a lot more steady income. I mean, it’s really hours you put in is going to be the amount of money you make, and I was very good at it. I was able to make a lot of money by putting in a lot of hours. I was actually with a large website. One of the, there’s two or three that dominated the industry, and I was with one of the larger ones. And I was able to be the, you know, webcam guy of the week, I think my second or third week there, meaning I made more than any other male actor for the site. But it’s a different kind of money. It’s nice, steady money, hours and hours out. 

Andrew: Of course, it had its own problems. I had some serious problems doing the webcam work. It’s not easy work either. 

Joreth: What kind of problems? 

Andrew: Well, the problem with doing webcam work is staying erect. The hours you put into it is going to determine how much money you make. But we’re talking about hours being erect in front of the camera masturbating.

So in order to stay erect for hours and hours and hours, I started turning to Viagra. I started trying to find something better than Viagra, and in that case, in my case, it was the shots. I don’t know if you’re familiar with they have shots that you can inject directly into your penis to create an erection, so I was able to find a couple people that had prescriptions for that. And to begin with, after that the one week, actually the week that I was the webcam performer of the week, I had to take three days off because my penis was purple. It was literally purple and swollen and I didn’t know what I had done to it. 

Joreth: Oh no!

Andrew: I’d never seen anything like that. It was terrifying, but after about three days it it was fine. And then a few weeks later I ended up injecting too much of the chemical erectile dysfunction drug, and I had to go to the hospital because the erection wouldn’t go away. So I had an erection I don’t even remember anymore, but it was probably 3 hours, I think before I went to the hospital.

Joreth: Wow. 

Eunice: Oof, that sounds uncomfortable. 

Franklin: Yes, yes it does. 

Eunice: Right?

Franklin: Oh man, that makes the eyes water. 

Andrew: It was actually so much worse than uncomfortable, you can’t imagine. When you have an erection that long, and there’s no circulation, the pain becomes absolutely unbelievable.

Joreth: Oh no. 

Andrew: It feels like someone is crushing your testicles. That’s what it feels like. And it’s constant. It becomes constant after about two to three hours. This constant sensation of having your testicles crushed. That’s what it feels like. And I was told that what I was experienced is the blood literally starting to rot and you can get gangrene and lose your penis if they don’t do something about it. Which is why you have to go to the hospital. 

Joreth: And now every listener of ours who has a penis right now is crossing their legs, wincing. 

Franklin: Yep, I’m crossing mine. 

Andrew: Yes, I I definitely don’t recommend it at all. I think it’s called a priapism. It’s been so long I may be saying that or remembering that wrong, but there is a word for it. And I’ve managed to get rid of the erection after about four hours at the hospital and lived happily ever after. Still have a fully functioning penis with no side effects, but yeah, that was absolutely terrifying. Even worse than when my penis was purple and swollen for three days.

Franklin: Yikes. 

Joreth: So there are some risks to doing this dream job. 

Andrew: Yeah, it’s definitely not a dream job. That’s the funny thing. Yeah, anyone that glorifies the idea of doing sex work is not understanding what it’s really like. There’s definitely drawbacks with every part of it. And in this case, doing webcam shows, if you want to make the money, you’ve got to masturbate over and over and over again, and I don’t think our penises are really designed for the amount of work that someone like an ambitious webcammer like myself, was putting it through. I don’t think they’re designed to for eight to 10 hours of masturbation a day.

Joreth: Constant stimulation. 

Franklin: And it’s kind of ironic if you think about it that women get paid more than men for sex work, and yet it’s actually physiologically easier work for women than for men. 

Joreth: Yeah, as long as we have Lube we can keep going. 

Andrew: Yes, I would agree. 

Franklin: I’m looking at Eunice as we’re recording this on the video and she looks horrified. 

Andrew: Yes, I I’m sure there are many other ways in which the psychological effects are similar or the same. But when it comes to the anatomy, there’s definitely an advantage for women. 

Joreth: Yeah, I mean we can’t keep going indefinitely. There’s muscles involved and, you know, it gets sore after a while. But if we have lube, we can go longer than the interest is there, if necessary. But people with penises, I think, have a little bit harder in that area. 

Franklin: I see what you did there. “A little bit harder.” Yuck yuck, yuck. 

Joreth: Pun intended. 

Eunice: Do you think it’s likely that any of that will have changed in the sort of decade decade and a half since you were working in the industry? Or would you say that you know on the ground for like any individual porn actor, it’s fairly similar. 

Andrew: I think that the industry economically has probably changed a lot. I think that the actors are getting probably a larger share of the pie now because of the changes that were already beginning to happen 14 years ago when I was in the industry. But I think that some of the  physical challenges, like with a man doing webcam work, have probably not changed. I can imagine trying to put in eight hours of masturbation in front of the camera is still about the same as it was then. 

Joreth: You’ve mentioned some risk before, and part of the risk is that sex work is not really seen as a legitimate form of work, so, you know, if there’s any danger that happens… You know, like, if my coworker harasses me at work, I can go to HR and have this taken care of, right? But you don’t necessarily have that option doing really any part of sex work, either from porn all the way down to street prostitution. 

So how do you think that manifested, for instance, as a man, like what recourse might you have had? Or do you feel like maybe you didn’t even have any recourse if things had gone wrong, if you had never gotten any money? And do you think there are any differences between the genders in when there’s risk involved? 

Andrew: I think that’s that’s a great question, and I think that there’s obviously less risk for a man. For example, if he goes out like I did on several occasions to meet with fans to make extra money like I’m thinking, it’s absolutely easy money, right? Go meet with a fan. He plays with your penis a little while and you make a whole bunch of money. And I’m taking the risks are almost nothing, and they’re not, they’re not almost nothing, there’s definite risks there, but the risks for me are mostly social risk. Like in the case where  that went south for me, the risk of him trying to contact my family, trying to out me as a sex worker, or in this case as being homosexual, even though I really wasn’t, and these are the risks for me. I’m not as concerned about my physical safety. I’m very good at defending myself, but the social risks I think are pretty much the same.

But physically, I think it’s definitely more dangerous for women. For me that the biggest danger is destruction of my family life. For a woman, there’s more danger than it’s a destruction of her actual life being, you know, raped or killed by someone. 

And it’s not to say that that danger isn’t there, wasn’t there for me as well, and isn’t there for men as well, but I do think that there is more risk to their personal safety for women than for men. 

Joreth: Yeah, and then, if anything were to happen, of course there’s not a whole lot you can do about it, right? I mean, maybe you could go to the police if you were doing something legitimate like porn. But you know, maybe you can’t, right? If, for instance, if you hadn’t gotten any of your money on a shoot or something, like, what is there that could be done about that? 

Andrew: Yeah, I I agree, I never felt like there was recourse from the authorities from the police or from the courts for anything in porn, because by doing that, I would be outing myself. And again the real danger for me was having a very conservative extended family, and not wanting to risk my family and social life. 

Joreth: It just seems like it’s a much riskier type of job than most other jobs because of the under the table nature of it, right? There’s not a whole lot you can do if things go wrong. 

Eunice: And the stigma from everyone outside of the industry itself. 

Andrew: Yes, I would never have dared to go to the police or to the courts to try to get recourse. And that’s why I felt on the one occasion, the last time I did any sex work, what I felt like I was being kidnapped by someone who refused to pay me unless I spent the night, it was my own poverty, was my own need for money, mt that point, my own need to make a mortgage payment, or at that point it was probably a rent payment. I think I’d already lost my house. At that point, my own poverty was holding me captive. I felt I had to do what he asked because at that point I was so desperate to make that payment. That’s why I met with him. I didn’t want to leave without the money, so he was able to hold me captive by holding out the money. 

So yeah, I’m sure that’s the same danger that any male or female has sex worker who who is desperate for money the same position they’re in. 

Joreth: Right, ’cause like I’m a freelancer and you know I’m constantly having to chase down employers for my paychecks. Because as a freelancer, they conveniently forget to pay us. In fact, I have a client right now who is now about 45 days out from a job who still hasn’t paid me. So I’m chasing that down. But you know, eventually I could take him to court over this, because this is in above-the-board type of job, and we had, you know I have a text message agreement for the money and that’s not something that your industry really has. 

Andrew: Yes, correct and even if it did I would be afraid of outing myself. I wouldn’t even access it if it was there. I would be too afraid of my family or friends finding out that I was doing sex work. 

Franklin: Thank you so much for being on the show. That is absolutely awesome. And I really appreciate the fact that you know most people when they think “sex work,”” the first thing they think, of course, is female sex workers, and so it’s particularly nice to get an opportunity to talk to a male sex worker, because it sounds like your experiences with the industry are quite different from the experiences that women have, you know, doing porn. 

Joreth: Did you have any other points that you wanted to make sure that we got out that weren’t addressed Andrew? 

Andrew: I think that the main message that I would want to convey is that it’s real work.  Just having the right equipment, in other words, a large penis, is not enough. You have to think about the real challenges involved and those are maintaining an erection for long periods of time. And yeah, it’s it’s real work, it’s doing this. Having sex in front of a bunch of people, it’s not as easy as it sounds. 

Joreth: And a lot of time involved too, right? It’s not like, you know, if you’re having sex with your partner, you could just have a quickie, but you don’t get to do that on camera, right? 

Andrew: No, no. 

Eunice: Yeah, really physically demanding, time consuming work. 

Andrew: Yes, absolutely. It’s it’s very physically demanding, and that’s the part that I don’t think most people think about when they think of going into sex work. 

Franklin: All right, thank you so much for being here! This has been awesome. 

Joreth: Yeah.

Eunice: Yeah, really interesting. Yeah, thank you so much Andrew. And for sharing so much information with us as well. 

Andrew: You’re welcome. 

Franklin: I was struck by the fact that when Andrew did gang bang porn, the male performers didn’t do AIM testing.

Eunice: I mean, it makes sense when you think about it. They’re already expecting a certain number of the male newbie performers to just not be able to get it up once in front of the camera. So, if a bunch of them aren’t even going to get near being, well, in their female co-performer, financially there’s just no point in doing AIM testing for all of them, really. Budgets are tight enough as it is on a porn shoot. Every dollar saved is a dollar they can spend elsewhere!

Franklin: Condoms are pretty effective against HIV, but I would still feel a lot more comfortable with testing if I were one of the people there.

Eunice: Oh for sure, me too. Mind you, it’s been a very long time since I’ve been involved in group sex, for obvious reasons. 

Joreth: Well, I mean, condoms are what the porn community used before AIM. And if *she’s* been tested, and everyone else she’s having sex with is using condoms, and everyone else she’s having sex with has a penis, and STDs typically have a harder time going from vagina to penis, and all those penises are in condoms … 

Franklin: I mean, sure, as long as none of them breaks!

Joreth: True.

Eunice: And I’m glad that we got to talk about how difficult and challenging a job it actually is. Sometimes that aspect of it does get de-emphasised, when people who are SWer positive are thinking about the industry, right? We talk about people who are doing it because they do love their job, or at least find it a lot less effort for significantly more money, than other types of work like retail or being a carer, but the underlying pressure to make enough money to survive is still the same. There’s exploitation in all industries, but this is one of the ones where it’s particularly hard to protect yourself. Like we mentioned before, the stigma makes it easier for those in authority to continue the exploitation with very little complaint from the general public.

Joreth: Right, we want to de-villify the industry so that we can legitimize it in our culture, but *because* it’s still not considered legitimate, there are still some risks, even for buff, hunky male sex workers. It’s a gamble, financially, emotionally, and physically. I mean, lots of jobs are, but that’s the point, isn’t it? That it’s still a *job*, even if a lot more people than one might expect enjoy it.

Franklin: A big thank-you to Andrew for appearing in this episode. That was an awesome interview.

Joreth: Yeah, I really enjoyed that one, and Andrew has LOTS of stories from his short career. I bet we could get him back on here to tell more tales, perhaps as some Patreon content?

Eunice: Ooh, yeah, I’d be up for that! Trust us, some of his stories are just comedy gold. Let us know if you’d like that, folks!

Joreth: Yeah, we’re all rolling over here when he told us some of them!

Franklin: So that’s what we’ve got for this episode! In our next episode, we’ll talk about some of the history of sex work in various ancient cultures. And as always, if you have any ideas, comments, or suggestions for future episodes send them to contact@skepticalpervert.com. Know someone else who might enjoy this podcast? Give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

You can also visit www.skepticalpervert.com for show notes and links to the transcript. And don’t forget to become a patron of the show by joining our patreon, which is linked on the website. The Skeptical Pervert is copyrighted and produced by Franklin Veaux, Eunice Hung, and Joreth Innkeeper, edited by Joreth Innkeeper, and the website and show notes are maintained by Franklin Veaux.

Joreth: Don’t forget to tip your Sex Workers, folks!

Eunice: Obligatory note to remind people that tipping culture is a scam, but yeah, tip your workers and entertainers! I mean, including us if you fancy. Does it even count as a tip when you’re not paying anything else? Hmm, I think that might be a philosophical question now… 

Joreth: The Skeptical Pervert … will work for tips. Just the tip.

Eunice: Nah, I’m looking for the whole shaft. Ooh, did I say that out loud? Whoops!

Franklin: Everything I can think of to say here is unspeakably crude.

Eunice: Hang on, isn’t that our brand at this point?

Joreth: That wouldn’t have stopped me.

Episode 9: Online Sex Work and OnlyFans with Mistress Ivy

In this episode, we talk about online sex work, the weird OnlyFans bump in the road where they threatened to ban sex workers and then backed down, and we interview Mistress Ivy, one of the top OnlyFans earners, about online sex work.

Along the way, we talk about everything from NFTs to the unexpected effects of laws that try to “protect” sex workers but only make their lives worse.

Mistress Ivy is a London-based Dominatrix, fetish model, and online performer. You can find her on Twitter and on the Web here

Transcript below.

Franklin: Hello! And welcome to Skeptical Perverts, the podcast where we look at human sexuality through an evidence-based, skeptical lens! I’m one of your hosts and part-time mad scientist, Franklin Veaux.

Joreth: Hi! I’m your co-host and Renaissance cat, Joreth! I’m kinky, solo polyamorous, on the ace spectrum, chicana, feminist, my gender identity is “tomboy”, and my pronouns are she/her but I use masculine titles.

Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, demisexual, grey-ace cis woman, bringing my East Asian British viewpoint and a penchant for genteel understatement. In this mini-series, we’re talking about sex work! I have a little experience of this, as I also do a bit of pro-domming on the side. Yes, demisexual grey-ace people can be sex workers too!

Franklin: Okay, so in this episode…OnlyFans!

Eunice: Before we start, we should explain what OnlyFans is! Imagine…a video streaming site like TikTok or Youtube, mashed up with Patreon. I don’t actually have personal experience of online sex work cos all mine was in person, so I’m actually really excited to learn more about this topic.

Joreth: Yeah, so individuals put up videos of … whatever – aerobics instructors put up videos of workout routines, bakers put up recipe videos – and some content is for free but a lot of content is available only to paid subscribers. But more than just paying for static videos, subscribers can have some measure of interaction with the providers, like requesting specific content, and the providers create new things based on fan interaction.

Eunice: It’s become particularly well known to the general public for the sexual content on the platform, which is why we’re talking about it here. In fact, a lot of people don’t even know there’s non-sexual content on OnlyFans.

Joreth: Like my housemate!  I suggested he use it for his cosplay stuff and he was like “but it’s not nude!” and I was all “not everything on OnlyFans is sex work, y’know”, and no, he did not know!

Franklin: I keep thinking about setting up an OnlyFans for my tiny white cat. 

Eunice: You want other people to be catslaves like you, Franklin? I guess they always need more squishy food!

Franklin: The world is a better place with cats in charge. Change My Mind! Anyway, a short while back, OnlyFans banned sexually explicit content, then unbanned it again before the ban went into effect. Good lord, it sucks to be a self-employed sex worker trying to make a living.

So let’s talk about this wibbly-wobbly, sexy-wexy stuff going on. First, the ban: OnlyFans announced in August 2021 that

“In order to ensure the long-term sustainability of the platform, and to continue to host an inclusive community of creators and fans, we must evolve our content guidelines. Creators will continue to be allowed to post content containing nudity as long as it is consistent with our Acceptable Use Policy.

These changes are to comply with the requests of our banking partners and payout providers.” 

A few weeks later, Tim Stokely, founder and CEO of OnlyFans, told the Financial Times that Bank of New York Mellon, Metro Bank, and JPMorgan Chase were the banking partners that forced the initial decision.

Then before anyone had a chance to react, they announced an un-ban of the ban. So let’s talk about this.

Eunice: Hold up, what do we even mean by ‘sex work’ anyway? How are we defining sex work?

Joreth: That’s a tricky question, isn’t it? No matter what definition we use, some group of people out there is going to be unhappy with it. Very broadly speaking, we could say that sex work is any kind of financial transaction for labor of a sexual nature. But then we have to discuss what “labor of a sexual nature” is, don’t we?

Franklin: SWOP, the Sex Worker Outreach Project, defines sex work as “Sex work is any type of labor where the explicit goal is to produce a sexual or erotic response in the client. Sex work includes prostitution, but it also includes a bunch of other things like erotic dancing, pro-dom/pro-sub work, webcam work, sensual massage, adult film, phone sex, being a sugar baby, etc.” As a side note, my background is in print design and prepress, so I can’t see SWOP without thinking Society of Web Offset Publications. “I need to separate this image to CMYK using a SWOP Coated profile!”

Joreth: Ah, yes, switching between industry acronyms is fun!

Eunice: This is the point at which I need to mention that being a kinky therapist with a partner who owns a motorbike makes the CBT acronym very confusing. Anyway, for this episode we’re specifically looking at the online versions of sex work — webcamming, adult film, that sort of thing, and especially through OnlyFans, which is the website that most people are currently talking about, now that PornHub seems to have died a death? Not that it makes a huge difference — the same company owns most of the video porn websites anyway, right?

Franklin: So enough about trying to define sex work, let’s talk to some people who do it.

Joreth: We talked to a couple of people who have content on OnlyFans, one on Twitter and one in an audio interview. @goldplatedpussy, as she goes on Twitter, responded to my query for sex workers on Twitter. So she has been doing sex work for 4 years now, all online. 

Eunice: She says “when I started, I was camming out of a studio. Camming is like live streaming but NSFW. My OF is mainly erotic photos and solo videos. My fanbase is mainly submissive, so I tend to cater to that.”

Joreth: I asked her how she would describe her work pre-pandemic vs. post pandemic. She told us that it was amazing before the pandemic because there was little competition and way less censorship across it and other sites, calling it the best job she ever had in those pre-covid days and she was making great money.

Eunice: Then she goes on to suggest that OnlyFans is now dying, with the hardest part for the creators being the censorship. She says that includes both creative censorship as well as censorship on other platforms that they use for advertising their OnlyFans accounts. And also that the industry has become incredibly over-saturated.

Joreth: Yeah, I’m not surprised that it’s oversaturated, what with so many people needing to find some kind of income from home. She then said that Covid hit and so many people realized that they could be making so much money on OnlyFans and it became almost trendy.

Eunice: We shouldn’t forget as well that the popularity of OnlyFans did make it possible for some people who previously hadn’t been able to do sex work because of accessibility issues like certain disabilities to suddenly be able to make some money doing online sex work from home. 

Franklin: COVID has been a huge boon to the gig industry, though that doesn’t necessarily mean a boon to gig workers. Welcome to capitalism, eh? The US linked health insurance to employment, then gave the middle finger to people without conventional jobs. Kind of a problem in, oh, say, a global pandemic… I bet the folks writing articles for Forbes and Business Insider didn’t consider that gig industry jobs could include sex work too! The street really does find its own uses for things.

Joreth: I then asked her what she thought was the most significant obstacle to continuing to work with OnlyFans.

Eunice: Her response was, “The biggest obstacle in continuing to work with OnlyFans is knowing that they don’t have their content creators in mind. I don’t trust them. The sex worker community that I talk with daily all agree that we feel used – used to build up their platform, used for the glamour, and for the money. It’s been a long time coming though I saw the beginning of the end when the Bella Thorne incident happened. In that moment they chose to fuck over all their creators instead of holding her accountable for what she did and remove the problem.”

Franklin: I don’t really understand the Bella Thorne thing, but from what I gather, she joined OnlyFans, quickly made millions of dollars, uploaded a photo she billed as a nude for people to see at $200 a pop, and it turned out not to be a nude at all. Enough people requested refunds that OnlyFans apparently changed their payout policies because of it, and that screwed over a lot of sex workers.

Joreth: When I asked her what her impressions were about what the market is doing and how she feels about OnlyFans now, she said “Personally I hope OnlyFans does flop after this. It will be a lesson for any platform that uses sex workers to start themselves off only to cut them out when they get established.” And that’s something I’ve heard echoed from other people who use the platform.

Franklin: So, in a world where people can get almost unlimited quantities of porn for free, how do people even make money on OnlyFans? Why would someone pay for OnlyFans? A lot of what you pay for with OnlyFans isn’t pictures of naked people or people having sex, it’s the interaction—the ability to communicate with the person you’re patronizing and get a response. Fundamentally, OnlyFans and sites like it are not selling naked pictures, they’re selling interaction.

Joreth: Yeah, this is sort of … porn meets social media, in a sense. And people are willing to pay for that social experience.

The internet is the “great equalizer” and this is the era of the entrepreneur hustler. Individual people are finding a lot of freedom and power in choosing their own niches and building their own fan bases. So along come the capitalists with all the resources that the sex workers are using who build up their own financial institutions and megacorps on the backs of these laborers and content providers, only to pull the rug out from under them when they get big enough to go mainstream. And it’s the sex workers who end up falling.

Franklin: It seems that large banks and payment providers are of two minds about this: they want a slice of that revenue, but they don’t want their names associated with eww, dirty sex. They’re willing to take the money as long as it’s at arm’s length, but don’t want to get too close to the dirty dirty sex stuff.

Does anyone else find it weird that in the US, a handful of banks and two credit card companies have almost unlimited power to shut down entire legal industries?

Eunice: Welcome to capitalism?

Franklin: I guess? And it’s not just payment providers. Instagram recently started banning accounts of OnlyFans performers: Effective in December 2020, under the Sexual Solicitations section of its parent company Facebook’s Community Standards, Instagram’s rules state that users cannot offer or ask for pornographic materials “including, but not limited to, sharing of links to external pornographic websites.” A Facebook spokesperson explains: “We want Instagram to be a safe environment for everyone, and have strict rules against nudity, sexual activity, and sexual solicitation. Under these rules, we don’t allow people to share links to porn websites on Instagram. While OnlyFans isn’t a porn website, we know it can be used in that way, so we take action on accounts that share OnlyFans links when paired with other sexually suggestive content.”

It’s a moral panic. People and businesses are terrified of being accused of promoting porn or “human trafficking,” which in many ways is today’s version of the Satanic panic of the 1980s.

Eunice: So many people use the terms “sex work” and “human trafficking” interchangably, like they’re identical, when they’re really two entirely different topics.

The United Nations defines human trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud, or coercion) for an improper purpose including forced labor or sexual exploitation. 

 No one wants to be trafficked, whether it’s for forced sex or, more commonly, for manual farm labour or domestic service, but there are many people who chose to do sex work because it suits them, they enjoy it, the money is better than many other jobs — and, for that matter, the working conditions — or there’s just no other available jobs that will allow them to survive or otherwise do what they love. You know that quote about doing what you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life? That applies to sex just as much as it applies to coding or cooking or interior design. Some sex workers really love what they do, and some think of it on about the same level of tedium as, say, working admin in an office or as a server, but better paid. That doesn’t apply to every sex worker, of course, but then that doesn’t apply to every worker in any job or industry.

Franklin: One study on sex trafficking I’ve seen defined the word “trafficking” to mean any crossing of state or national boundaries for sex work. If a woman voluntarily travels for sex work, they count that as “trafficking”—according to the definition used in the study, she trafficked herself.

Joreth: There’s also a hierarchy of sex work and “what counts” as sex work, isn’t there? We tend to rank different forms of sex work as more or less “acceptable” and also more or less “real sex work”. That allows some of these categories to get dismissed entirely so that they can basically pull a No True Scotsman fallacy or a tautology – trafficking = sex work and only these forms of sex work “count”, therefore it’s all trafficking, Q.E.D. And, naturally, none of these people bother to get actual sex worker’s opinions on the subject, because if they listened to actual sex workers, they’d have to revise their positions.

Franklin: That is an incredibly important point. All too often, people want to speak for people they have never spoken to.

Joreth: We’ll get more into “what counts” in an upcoming episode. 

Eunice: We also talked to Mistress Ivy, and she brought up a lot of the same experiences. Mistress Ivy is a London-based Dominatrix, fetish model, and online performer. So Mistress Ivy, what’s been your experience with OnlyFans and with online sex work in general?

Mistress Ivy: So I guess with OnlyFans it was something I was doing a little bit before lockdown, but then with lockdown it became my only source of income, so it’s something I became a lot more focused on. 

It’s very different to real time sort of sex work, which is primarily what I do. But it’s been…it was kind of really helpful. And actually I just really enjoyed it during lockdown. It gave me something to do.

Joreth: So you do different kinds of sex work. You do both real life and OnlyFans work. 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, like it was mainly all real time.  I did little bits online like webcam sessions and I’ve had an OnlyFans for a few years now, but it was something that I never really made a huge amount of money on. It was kind of more of a a way of promoting myself and quite a nice way for clients to kind of get to know me before booking me to meet in person as well. So it’s kind of worked quite well in that way. 

Joreth: How long have you been doing sex work, any kind? 

Mistress Ivy: About 15 years, I think?

Joreth: Wow. 

Mistress Ivy: A long time. 15, 16 years or something. 

Eunice: Has the industry changed over that time? I guess it’s had to. How has it changed? 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, like the kinds of clients I get are completely different now. I mean, I mainly work in like fetish, BDSM type sex work and sadly most of my clients are kind of dying out. I used to have mainly the older public school boys that like to be tamed and things like that, and I found that like a lot of them have died, sadly, and now I’m getting all these really young guys. They’re much more into sort of Sissy type stuff and things like that, and they’re all sort of between 18 and 25. I found it shifted from guys 60 plus to mainly like younger people now, and I think maybe that due to the influence of the Internet and things like that. But it’s yeah it’s changed loads.

Eunice: Interesting.

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, mainly guys in their sort of early 20s and things that have very different interests. And I think a lot of fetishes and kinks often come from childhood, and I think that’s maybe why it’s so different. Because different generations going through different things in life. Like the older clients I used to have were all into corporal punishment and caning, and now that doesn’t happen in schools. I found it’s it’s very different kinds of clientele. 

Franklin: How are they finding you now? Are they more finding you on the Internet first and then booking rail-life sessions? 

Mistress Ivy: It’s mainly all through Twitter. And OnlyFans is linked to Twitter as well. So, I mean, I do have other websites that I advertise on, but I think Twitter is like the main one that I kind of promote myself on and post on pretty regularly because it links to OnlyFans. That’s kind of how you get new subscribers and things. 

Franklin: So essentially then, the demographics are kind of following the demographics of Twitter.

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, yes, I guess maybe that’s why it’s younger clients as well. Maybe the older ones aren’t as familiar with Twitter and technology and things. 

Joreth: So some people are probably familiar, like they have the idea in their head, that sex work is basically prostitution, you know, like they have the image that they see on TV: somebody on the street corner or a high end escort being the two common most common things. And they might not understand how, first of all, what other forms of sex work there are, but also how sex work works on a strictly online platform. Like what is it that you do on OnlyFans, for example? 

Mistress Ivy: So on OnlyFans I post photo sets, a mix of sort of latex and naked pictures. I make videos sometimes, including other people. Sometimes it’s just spanking or fetish things. Sometimes it might be a little bit more sexual. Like, I’ve got a girlfriend that I kind of do more sort of sexy things with. I personally don’t do anything really explicit, it’s kind of more just nudity rather than sort of full on sex is what I post.

I think sex work, it takes so many different forms. It’s just such a huge subject, and there’s so many different ways of doing sex work. I guess I’ve done loads of different types over the years, because I like exploring different  ways of doing things and kind of trying everything. 

Mistress Ivy: There’s a lot of audio stuff I do, like erotic hypnosis and things, so sometimes I just post audio tracks of my voice. 

And the other thing with OnlyFans is people can ask for customized things. They can tip you if you kind of post the things they like. So there’s other ways that are kind of more personal as well for OnlyFans.

Joreth: Is that kind of what sets OnlyFans apart from other forms of media-based sex work? You know, if I wanted to go to, say, PornHub, I can download any video that I wanted to, but with OnlyFans, I guess they get more personal interaction from you. 

Mistress Ivy: I don’t really know much about PornHub. I’ve not really used it. I’m not sure, I’m not sure if they can interact personally with people. I think there is a thing on PornHub where you can do that now as well, because I think nowadays a lot of people that watch porn want to kind of get to know the people that are in it and see them as people. 

And so sometimes the stuff I post on on OnlyFans is just like me doing my morning workouts naked, which is what I do anyway. And I think they just like bringing, you know, the realness of it, of me in my house kind of just doing what I do. 

And I think it is about kind of wanting a connection with the person you’re seeing as well to some extent. And I think with OnlyFans, it is is personal. And I think what’s nice about it as well is you know that the money you’re paying is going to that person, and if you tip it’s going to them.

So I think for sex workers OnlyFans, although they do take quite a big percent, it’s a really good way of doing sex work, actually, using these online platforms where you know it’s just you and the client.

Franklin: So what happened when OnlyFans decided that they were going to ban adult content? Like, they did this thing where they were like “oh, we’re not going to do adult content anymore,” and then they reversed track a couple of weeks later and said “Oh yes, we will.”

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, I mean, it really affected a lot of people I know. Not all of my income is from OnlyFans, so I tried not to overthink it and get too upset about it. But I have got friends that all of their money is through OnlyFans, so it’s completely, like, destroying their income. You know they make good money from it, and it just would have destroyed everything. So yeah, a lot of people were very upset about that. 

I did set up a profile on…there’s another one called AVN, that’s kind of organized by sex workers. And there’s a few others that I’ve kind of set up, but I found I’ve just not got as many followers on there, and I think it’s because OnlyFans is so well known. It’s the only way I’ve really been able to build up enough followers to make it worthwhile doing. 

Joreth: Sounds like the adult version of Facebook really. We can’t seem to escape Facebook just because it’s the first one and the biggest one, even though everyone hates it. There’s a couple of dozen other platforms, but nobody else is on them, so why bother? 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, and I think because there’s so many of them everyone’s on different one. And it’s it’s a lot of work to upload your content as well. It takes time, and if you’re having to do it to multiple different platforms, it’s just too much effort for me to be honest. 

So I did make these other ones, but the only one I’ve really stuck with is OnlyFans because it seems to be the only one really getting the followers. 

Franklin: Yeah, it seems like there’s a huge first mover advantage for really any kind of social media. And it’s the same thing with Twitter, right? People have tried to do short form blogging platforms that have failed. So it’s it’s kind of interesting that what has happened is that Twitter, which is the 900 pound gorilla in its genre, has become a funnel to funnel people into OnlyFans, which is the 900 pound gorilla in its niche. 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, although I think they’re cracking down on sex work on Twitter as well, which is a shame because at the moment I look through my Twitter feed and it’s just all porn. I’ve noticed they’ve been closing down a lot of sex workers accounts and things. Not entirely sure why, but I think a lot of these places are just trying to get rid of the sex workers, which is a shame. 

Franklin: Yeah, Instagram did something like that too where they started closing down the accounts of anybody who was an OnlyFans sex worker on Instagram. 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, yeah. And the other thing with Instagram that’s really bad is I’ve noticed a lot of people have taken my content from OnlyFans and Twitter and have been making fake Instagram profiles to try and extort money out of people using my photos. 

That’s literally about 15 to 20 fake Mistress Ivys at the moment. It’s it’s very frustrating. That’s the only downside to this stuff. As soon as your stuff out there and online, people will steal it. And I think I’ve just had to kind of accept that that happens rather than try and chase every single person. 

And also Instagram are pretty useless about doing anything about it. 

Franklin: They steal the content, not to try to sell it, but to try to extort people? 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, to try and pretend to be me and extort money out of people or sell it as well. It’s both. And they’ve stolen things from OnlyFans and Twitter. 

Joreth: So like any content creator, especially small independent content creator, you’re having to constantly chase down, and, you know, your work, other people are stealing for their own nefarious purposes. It can get overwhelming for anyone who’s creating any kind of art, basically. 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, it’s upsetting and I think if you really take the time to watermark everything you can kind of get out of that. But honestly, I’m just not that great at editing, and  I’m just a bit lazy. I’ve just posted all my stuff and now it’s kind of out there getting stolen, and I’ve noticed when I try to watermark things I just don’t post as much, because it just adds on so much more time to do things. 

So yeah, that’s the downside. Things like definitely get stolen. 

Eunice: I was just curious about the proportion of work that is online versus in person. I know obviously with the pandemic and stuff that changed for a while, but in your ideal world, what sort of proportion would there be of online work versus in person work? 

Mistress Ivy: So I definitely prefer in person work due to the style that I work in because I like to kind of physically sort of touch people and be with the person. That’s why what I really enjoy doing, and at the moment I’d say probably more than 90% of my work is in person with the money I make.

I find with online work, it’s very hard to make money from it because there’s so many people doing it. Like so many people. And especially during lockdown, it just became such a competitive industry. And obviously that was my whole source of income during lockdown. But I think with just so many people are doing it, it’s just incredibly hard to make money online, really.

You have to really, really try hard, and it’s a lot harder. I’m constantly editing videos, constantly having to promote myself. I find it a lot harder to make money online, actually.

Eunice: So what would you say is like the most significant obstacle that makes it hard to carry on working with OnlyFans or doing online sex work or similar?

Mistress Ivy: Especially recently, there’s been all these new weird things, like getting all these model release forms, and having to get proof of age of every single person that’s in your films. Which, I understand why they’re doing it. It’s a good thing, but it’s also kind of hard when I’ve got people I’ve worked with years ago, and I’m having to chase them up to get all these forms and things. 

Also, they’re very restrictive of the kind of content you can post, and because mainly what I do is fetish, a lot of stuff gets taken down, or they close down your account, because they don’t want to see certain kinds of things. 

There’s lots of language you can’t use, and that makes it hard because just everything takes time like I type in a word like “caning.” But you have to change it to something else, because you can’t use that language. 

And I found the fact they’ve got so restrictive on words and language and what you can say makes it really hard, because I’ll try and write something down to sell a film and it’ll be like, “You can’t say that. You can’t say that.” And sometimes they’ll just delete it because you’ve said the wrong thing.

However, the way my brain works, I just want to type what’s happened. But there’s all these weird rules nowadays, and I think that is the hardest thing about online work, really. Just all the weird rules and things in place. 

Franklin: Does the UK still have those restrictions? I know they had for a while, a porn law that was like, you know, this extreme porn thing where you can’t do fisting, you can’t do all of these different things. Are those still in effect? 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, I think that’s changed now actually. But the problem is OnlyFans specifically has a lot of strange rules around what you can and can’t post, and it’s similar to the UK porn laws, so it makes it kind of hard to know what you can post. And so I’ll post some things and think, “will I get my account deleted?” And they brought in a load more rules fairly recently. 

But on my OnlyFans I’ve got about 600 videos and about 10,000 photos or something already on there, which I just leave on there for people to log in and see. And for me to go back through everything and delete things that might not be allowed on there. 

Or you know, my friend’s in my picture with me, but I now need to get either delete her or find a model release and things like that. I have to go through everything, and it’s just honestly too much work for me to do that. It’s just far too much work. It would take me forever, and I don’t make enough money on it to be be bothered to do that.

And so I’m kind of at a point now where I probably have things on there that I shouldn’t, and I’m just hoping I don’t get deleted because I just can’t be bothered to go through 10,000 photos. 

Joreth: Yeah, that’s a lot of work. 

Franklin: I kind of wonder if some of those rules aren’t just based around the individual squicks that like the CEO of the company has. 

Mistress Ivy: They change them all the time as well. Like one minute, something’s fine, and then something isn’t. And the fact that it’s constantly changing and the language you’re allowed to use is changing, it just makes it very hard to keep up with.

Eunice: What would you say the weirdest rule that you’ve come across? That they’ve hit you with, as it were. 

Mistress Ivy: Do you know what? I’m honestly really lazy, and don’t really pay attention to the rules very much. I guess if I get deleted, I just try not to stay too attached to it. 

I think the one that disappoints me the most is I think you’re not allowed female ejaculation or watersports or anything like that. For me, I just think water sports is  something I really like doing, and something I do a lot, and I’ve got loads of videos of it and it feels quite good. I can’t just post that.

I just see it as, like, you know, you can have like really full on face fucking and anal sex and all of that stuff. But I can’t have like an innocent little video of me taking a wee. Like, it’s just… (Laughs)

To me, that’s what I find strange. 

Joreth: Very arbitrary. 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, I just find it strange that I can’t just post a video of me taking a piss when there’s all this much more,  I’d consider  much more extreme stuff. 

Joreth: Yeah, it sounds like if they can’t get you off directly then they’re just going to make this labyrinth of rules to discourage it, just to make it difficult for people to start it, you know, without outright saying “We don’t want you here.” 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, it’s quite frustrating, actually. I should play more by rules, but because they’re constantly changing and things like that, I honestly don’t know what the latest rules are. 

Joreth: Yeah, why bother learning? 

Joreth: They’re just going to change again, right? 

Mistress Ivy: And I’ve heard of a lot of sex workers…it’s quite horrible actually, and actually Adultwork did this to me, but on OnlyFans have heard of sex workers having their account shut down for some rule that they didn’t really know about. And then all of their money just getting kept by OnlyFans, which is awful. I try and make sure I take my money out fairly regularly for this reason, but they just literally steal all the money and closed down their account.

I had Adultwork do that to me, and when I complained about it, they just told me to fuck off basically. There was over a grand in there, so I was really upset about it. 

Joreth: Oh my gosh, yeah.

Mistress Ivy: That’s the thing with online sex work, I think. They can just do things like that. And because it’s based in America, I think, it’s not a UK company, there’s no real way of getting your money back. If they suddenly decide that they don’t want you, they’ll just close down your account and keep everything that you’ve made for them, everything. 

That’s really soul destroying. And I think that’s why I try not to have too much of an attachment with online work, because I know that that can just happen. Like, I know there’s a good chance. I can really build up a following, and then all of a sudden they can just, you know, for whatever reason, decide they don’t want you and then you lose everything. 

So I think that’s probably why I try not to invest myself too much into it. 

Joreth: Well, that seems to make sense that, you know, when when OnlyFans made their announcement that they were getting rid of sex work, basically, and then changed their mind afterwards. 

Joreth: And now with all of these arbitrary rules, and they can steal your money, you know a lot of people are saying that they don’t trust OnlyFans, and some of the other online platforms. How do you feel about all of these online corporations, since you don’t feel safe with them, you just said that, right? 

Mistress Ivy: Now even  PayPal, you know if they think you’re doing any sort of sex work, they can just keep all your money. And I think all of these online things, as soon as you do sex work, it’s true they can just keep it all and just, you know, shut you down. So I don’t really trust any of them, really. 

Maybe the ones designed for sex workers are a bit more reliable, but then it’s harder to get the followers on there. And so I find myself posting a lot, taking a lot of time to do it, and making less than $5 a month. it’s just not really worth it. 

Mistress Ivy: You know, and so yeah, I think it would be really good if there was something that was more, I don’t know, more looking out for the sex workers and the people that are making the money for these companies because right now it feels like…probably because we are disposable, really. There’s so many people doing this work now, you know, they just don’t really care. Like, they just don’t. There’s always someone else. 

Eunice: Yeah, and sex workers have never been protected anywhere at any time really. 

Mistress Ivy: No, no they’re not. 

Franklin: OnlyFans kind of pointed the finger at their upstream financial providers when they decided that they were going to ban sex work. And then they said that they renegotiated with their financial providers when they reversed that ban. And so it makes me wonder if, you know, you can have an OnlyFans that was set up and run by sex workers, and maybe would be a little bit more friendly to sex workers. But if they’re being held hostage by the same upstream providers, then they’ve potentially got the same problem. 

It seems like what you’d actually need is an entire vertical industry where the website is sex worker friendly and the credit card merchant account is sex worker friendly and the merchant processor is sex worker friendly. You know, if even one part of that chain isn’t sex worker friendly, they can really ruin everybody’s day. 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, yeah, that’s true.

Joreth: So what are your impressions about the industry in general? Like, where do you see this going? Sex work has always been, you know, in danger. Sex workers have never been cared for. You’ve never really had any protections.

But it seemed that everybody rallied around the sex workers when it looked like OnlyFans was going to cut you all off and then they came back with it.  Do you see any changes in the industry? Do you see getting any more protections? Any less? How do you see the industry changing? Or is it? 

Mistress Ivy: So I think it’s sex work is becoming much more socially accepted, and I think that probably is due to the Internet. I think a lot of people during lockdown ended up getting an OnlyFans and it has become a much more acceptable way of making money socially, which is good. 

But then there’s still a lot of other people trying to make rules for the sex workers thinking it’s gonna help the sex workers, but not really asking for sex workers’ opinions. 

So for example, the Nordic model that they’re trying to bring into the UK is meant to help the sex workers, but actually it’s terrifying. None of the sex workers want it. Nobody is listening to the sex workers. It’s just them doing what they think will help the sex workers. That will basically mean that they can prosecute clients coming to see us. 

Joreth: Oh gosh. 

Mistress Ivy: So they think they’re helping the sex worker.  But the reality is, by doing that, sex workers are still going to do sex work. It’s pushing our work underground and it’s going to mean that the only people, the only clients we can get, are ones willing to break the law. So it kind of, you know, it just messes things up for everyone.

Things like that, I find quite scary and worrying. I think sex work is definitely becoming more accepted, but I think there’s things like the Nordic model and all these ideas that people have, I think they need to be speaking to the sex workers.

And there’s a lot of sex worker charities as well, but again, they’re coming from this perspective of sex workers need to be saved and find a new job and get out of sex work. And there’s very few that are kind of supportive of happy sex workers doing what they do.

Like for me, it’s like, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. I love it and I feel empowered and happy that I just get to work for myself and do what I want. And I think most sex workers I know are kind of really happy with the work they do. 

Eunice: There is this sort of association in many people’s minds between sex work and human trafficking, which is ridiculous, ‘cause then they ignore all of the you know domestic laborers or manual laborers or whatever that are actually human  trafficked and instead focus on sex work because, you know, “Oh no sex work scares me” or “sex work icky” or something. 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah.

Eunice: And I guess you’ve seen a lot of those kinds of rules, kind of impacting on your work as well. 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, which is, you know, just such a shame because it’s a completely different thing. There’s people being trafficked for all sorts of things. Not just sex work. And there’s a huge difference between, you know, trafficked people and people doing the job out of choice. They’re completely different things. And so trying to mix them up together just isn’t really helpful at all for anyone. 

Joreth: Yeah, a bunch of years ago, like between 10, 15 years ago, in the porn industry in Hollywood, CA here we had a similar thing. They come in trying to save everybody, without any understanding of how the industry works.

And so we had a foundation. It was called the AIM Foundation. It was a medical foundation created by a very well known porn star that did STI testing and treatment and all of that sort of thing. And they sort of put into place this voluntary program where all of the performers would get rapid HIV tested, and they would have to bring a negative test result in order to work each day. 

Joreth: So it was a rapid HIV test and the test window was very short. So it was pretty safe, and this was a voluntary program. You know, any studio could opt into it and there was no penalty if they didn’t, but you got, you know, bonus points like “yay, this is a responsible studio to work for.”

And in all the time that they were running this program I think they had only seven individual cases of any of the performers getting HIV, and they all got it from not other performers. It it caught it before they passed it on to any other performers.

And then California decided they wanted to start covering the porn industry under our OSHA, which is our national worker safety organization. They wanted to cover it under those laws, which makes it illegal for the employer to demand medical records. 

So like in every other industry, that’s a protection for the workers, but in the porn industry was the exact opposite, and so it ended up passing in spite of, you know, years of protesting from the porn performers. And so now AIM was out of business and they can no longer require test results from the performers, and the HIV rate spiked among performers in California because that’s what happens. 

So it sounds like you all are going through the same thing no matter which form of sex work you do or where you live, it’s somebody coming in trying to rescue you and actually making things worse

Mistress Ivy: It does, yeah. 

Franklin: What is the saying? “Never speak for somebody you have never spoken to.”

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, exactly. 

Eunice: If you had  an ideal platform that was sex worker friendly and you could feel safe on, what would it look like? 

Mistress Ivy: So OnlyFans is pretty good to be honest, it is good. It’s easy to use, it’s easy to upload content. I think the things that I would like to be different would be not having as many stupid rules. Although I do understand why the stupid stupid rules are in place to some extent. You know, I do kind of get it, but  feel like they definitely judge fetish and alternative sexuality, and it’s very kind of straight and vanilla. And so I guess something a lot more fetish friendly, a bit more open. 

For me, that’s what I would like. And maybe them taking less of a big cut as well. 

Eunice: Something you said just there was really interesting. You mentioned it being kind of very vanilla and very straight, so even OnlyFans? 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah. Very.  

Eunice: OK.

Mistress Ivy: I’ve really had to limit my stuff. When I first started OnlyFans it was nearly all fetish stuff because that’s what I love and that’s what I do. And then when all the rules came into place, I had to change my content. And so now what I do is mainly glamour, even though most of the people are following me on there wanting fetish. So they’ll message me with specific requests for, you know, something kinky, and I’ll say “I’m really sorry I can’t do that because of OnlyFans rules.”

And so I feel very limited, like I want to just be able to post what I want to post. I guess for me it’s a creative process, like, I am really kinky, and I want to share this stuff and make cool kinky videos, and I feel currently just really restricted and limited to what I can post. 

And so I guess a platform that’s more fetish friendly really would be great. 

Joreth: So is there anything that you would like to make sure gets mentioned about the online sex work industry that we haven’t covered? 

Mistress Ivy: The one thing I will say about it is it’s an incredibly hard way to make money. Like, incredibly hard. I’ve been on there for a few years, and I can’t remember what percentage I’m in. I think I ‘m in the top 2% of earners on OnlyFans. But I’m still only making like between $100 and $200 a month, and that’s like one of the top 2%. 

Joreth: Wow.

Mistress Ivy: It’s so hard to make it there because it’s just so competitive, I think. There’s so many people on there. And also they they don’t pay a particularly high price. I put a lot of work into it. I post every single day, sometimes twice a day, but it is definitely not an easy way to make money.

For me, OnlyFans has been something I’ve kind of done during lockdown for my own sanity, to kind of keep my presence out there and do things. 

There’s a couple of girls I know that dou make thousands of pounds a month on there, but it’s really rare. Like really, really rare. So I guess for anyone who wants to start doing online sex work, I’d say it’s it’s not easy. It’s really hard. Really, really hard. 

Joreth: Like everything else, that’s the labor of love. You do it because you can’t not do it, but maybe have another form of income too. 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, I think I think it’s a bit like being famous, you know, like very few people are gonna get enough followers to really make decent money on it. Very few. It’s not easy.

And  you have to invest that into it as well. Like kind of you know with photo shoots and makeup and all of this stuff ,like you kind of need to invest a lot of stuff into it to to create good content. And then, you know, decent camera and all of that stuff. And it’s it’s still  just so hard to make money on there. 

There’s times during lockdown when I was making, you know, like couple of dollars for a video and I was thinking it’s worse than minimum wage, really. You always think of sex workers as being well paid, but it’s it’s hard. It’s really hard to make good money on it. 

Franklin: I wonder if there’s kind of a first mover advantage there too, like I don’t think anybody has hit on this idea yet, but what’s going to happen the first time somebody starts doing kinky NFTs? Eunice and I were talking earlier today about this whole idea of NFTS, which is, yeah… 

Eunice: I have opinions about NFTS. 

Franklin: Yes you do. 

Mistress Ivy: What’s an NFT ?

Franklin: A NFT is what happens when a JPEG meets the blockchain. And what you can do is you can actually, you can actually buy like exclusive ownership of a JPEG and put it on the Ethereum blockchain and this becomes a thing. 

Eunice: It is an artificial scarcity scam that ruins the world. And environmental dam—sorry, I have opinions. Moving on. 

Franklin: Like people will pay tens of thousands of dollars to be the first one to buy, you know, a Nyan cat JPEG.

So here’s the question.  The first person who starts doing kinky porn JPEGs and selling them as NFTs…are they going to make five cents or are they going to become millionaires?

Eunice: NFTs make the world worse. 

Joreth: Possible future job opportunity there. 

Franklin: Yeah, but I mean honestly, I’m really curious about that. Like, is it going to be in the future that the way you succeed at this is to be the person who is chasing the new technologies? 

Eunice: Because porn has always pushed the latest technology. It’s  made technology better, faster, along with the video gaming industry. 

Franklin: And I think that there is going to be a time, and it’s probably going to be fairly soon, but it doesn’t seem to have happened yet, where porn does meet the blockchain, and I wonder if that’s going to make somebody a millionaire. 

Eunice: Anyway, I know that we’re running short on time, so where can people find you? 

Mistress Ivy: So my name is Mistress Ivy, and so I’m on Twitter as ivy_miss. Or I’ve got a website which is mistressivy.co.uk. I also have another website which is more about therapeutic BDSM and that’s called bdsmhealing.co.uk. 

Joreth: Well, thank you so much for your time, Mistress Ivy, this has been fantastic. 

Mistress Ivy: Thank you, it’s nice to chat to you. 

Franklin: It sounds like the problem she’s dealing with is a lack of stability in the rules about what’s permitted and what isn’t, and I wonder how much of that is driven by OnlyFans and how much from their payment processors. You can’t run an online business if you don’t even know whether something you’ve posted today will still be permitted six months or a year from now.

Eunice: I think this is a consistent thread we see again and again in spaces where sex workers are operating though, whether online or in the flesh, so to speak. There’s no space or opportunity for sex workers to make their voices heard about how any of these repeated changes to the rules affects them.

Joreth: We’d like to thank Mistress Ivy and @goldplatedpussy for their time and lending us their perspective on this topic. Although we each have some related experiences with adjacent or parallel industries, it was really good to hear from people who were directly affected by the changes made at OnlyFans.

Franklin: So that’s our episode for today! Next time, we’ll continue our examination of the world of sex work and what counts as sex work.

We’d love to hear from you! Send links to studies, feedback, comments or suggestions for future episodes to contact@skepticalpervert.com. If you know someone else who might enjoy this podcast, why not share the love, by giving us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or your podcatcher of choice. You can find our Web site at www.skepticalpervert.com, where you can check out the show notes for links to the transcript and the studies we’re drawing from. And don’t forget to join our patreon, which is linked on the website.

Eunice: And remember, if you too are skeptical about any nude being worth $200, send that money to us and we’ll confirm your belief it’s a way better way to spend that money!

Joreth: Maybe we’ll use it to pervert more of Franklin’s nightmares for you!

Eunice: Can confirm, great use of the money, 10 out of 10 would horrify Franklin again!

Franklin: You two are terrible! Don’t listen to them, they know not what they say.

Episode 8: Sex Ed with Ms. Ashley Part 2

This episode brings you the second of the two-part interview with sex educator and activist Ms. Ashley about evidence-based, factual sex education.

In this far-ranging conversation, we talk about sexual health, being the person your kids feel safe talking to, myths about sex, how to handle questions about sex, and values-based vs. evidence-based education.

Ms. Ashley is a sex educator who teaches an adaptation of the Our Whole Lives curriculum. You can find her on Facebook herehere, and here, and on Instagram here.

Transcript of the episode below. You can find Ms. Ashley’s bio, a list of places to find her on the internet, and the studies she cites at the very end.

Franklin: Hello! Welcome back to Skeptical Perverts, the podcast where we examine human sexuality through an evidence-based, skeptical lens! I’m your host, part-time mad scientist, and token cishet guy, Franklin!

Joreth: Hi! I’m your co-host and Renaissance cat, Joreth! I’m kinky, sopo, ace, chicana, feminist, my gender identity is “tomboy”, and my pronouns are she/her but you may call me sir. 

Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, ace-spec, bisexual, solopoly British Chinese woman. In lieu of giving me a title, you may gift me tea instead. Loose leaf, of course, cos I’m predictable like that.

Franklin: Today’s episode brings you the second half of our chat with Ms. Ashley, a sex educator who does a lot of work with evidence-based sex ed.

Eunice: Yeah, when we listened back over the interview, it had so much good stuff in there we just didn’t want to miss any of it. If you haven’t heard the first part, please go back and listen to episode 7—you don’t want to miss it, trust me!

Franklin: A quick reminder – today’s episode is US-centered because so much about US-based sex ed is wrapped up in politics, so keep in mind we’re talking about US policies, politics, and attitudes. Of course, sex ed everywhere is political, but in the US it’s especially bad. Here we go!

Ms. Ashley: So currently in the US, roughly one third of high schools teach condom use. One third.

Joreth: One third.

Franklin: Wow, that’s disappointing. 

Ms. Ashley: It is. It is very disappointing, especially considering that is our front line of defence against all the STI’s, and I do not have this statistic right now, but the number of youth that experience an STI is rising, because they’re uninformed about what the warning signs are that they might have something, or that they might be carrying something. And so then they don’t know what their body is telling them in order to go seek medical advice.

So those that idea of “hey, a condom could have prevented this, had they known about it” or “how to use it” is something I would love for parents to be specifically asking within their their children’s sex ed programs. Like, “does this include condoms?” Because it’s really hard to find out this information.

I’m doing this right now with my own child program in their own school, and I had to talk to the director of the program to get this information. It wasn’t anywhere online.

So if that’s an another action item that families might want to go with, it’s just, can you get to the bottom of whether or not your high schools in your area include this very important information.

Joreth: And it sounds like it’s also really important to start including sex ed way before it comes to intercourse sex, and just start talking about what the body is. Because if you don’t know how to listen to your body, you won’t recognize these signs later that something is wrong, whether it’s sexually transmitted or not, whether it’s something else.

I have endometriosis and my mom had it also. Hers was bad enough that I don’t know how many miscarriages, maybe just one, but she had at least one and ended up having a full hysterectomy because of it. 

So I’m adopted. And I had no idea that what I was going through was not normal, that it was probably endo, until, I think, my 30s.

My mom had this and we did not have this conversation. When I had really bad cramps and had to go home from school, the talk was not, “I had a similar problem, let’s get you checked out,” the talk was, “you know you’ll never find a boss who will let you come home every month. You need to suck it up.’ 

This is this is from a mom who is not abusive. I love my mom. We have a very good relationship. But she was raised Catholic, so this is the level of discourse that we have about it.

And you know, we’re not even talking about intercourse here. We need to start these conversations way earlier, just about what does your body, both physical and emotions, what does your body do and what is it supposed to do?

Eunice: The thing about that as well  is that if you teach your kids that they just have to suck it up if something bad is happening or something painful is happening to them, that also means that they will suck it up when somebody is being abusive to them. 

Because they don’t know the difference. 

Joreth: And you can’t trust your body signals. It’s a form of gaslighting. You cannot trust what your own body is telling you, because you’ve learned to block it out your whole life when everybody says, suck it up. And this is one of the big problems that boys have, especially, ’cause they get this “suck it up” way earlier and way harder. 

Ms. Ashley: Absolutely, and this is another place where I can say adults should be answering children’s questions factually. If they don’t know the answer, they shouldn’t be faking it. If they don’t know the answer, they should look it up and research it, because kids don’t come with a guidebook. When you have a child, you don’t really know what you’re doing. And so they’re going to ask you questions that push you out of your comfort zone, and they’re going to ask you things you don’t know.

And it’s a great way for you to immediately start being a human with your child and saying where your shortcomings are and being willing to work together to find answers. Because them asking questions to you says “I trust you,” says “I’m curious,” says “you’re my person,” says “this is my safe place to ask these questions.”

It’s not any failure on your part if they’re asking lewd or quote unquote inappropriate questions or saying words you don’t want them to say. You’ve done nothing wrong as a parent if that happens. 

That means you’re doing it right, because you are the person they came to with that bad word, or that inappropriate question, or whatever it is. And they’re not seeking that advice and that information from unsafe sources. 

Joreth: That’s an excellent point.

Eunice: Yeah, much better to be the parent that they will go to if they think something’s wrong then to hide it because they’re afraid you punish them. 

Joreth: Exactly.

Ms. Ashley: Exactly so. That is what I have to share about what the research has shown me. It’s just one small article and it’s kind of streamlined and basic, which is start early, have very short conversations. Use all those opportunities for fact-based conversations, so that if you don’t know the answers you’re looking them up in good places. Keeping in mind that the more information that you share with your child more frequently, the more information they have in order to make better informed decisions. 

There is no evidence that says comprehensive sex ed makes them start doing anything earlier. 

Joreth: So I have a question. You teach the adults. Have you also taught the younger groups? You taught all ages, right? 

Ms. Ashley: I’m I am a facilitator for K through 12, so I have not used the curriculum beyond that. 

Joreth: OK, So what parts of the comprehensive sex ed do you see that most people find objectionable? Is it the sexual diversity part of it? Is it relationship orientation? What aspect of it do you see that people object to the most often?

Ms. Ashley: So within the curriculum we use the circles of sexuality as our primary resource, which is a six-circle Venn diagram which includes sexual health and reproduction, which is what most people think of when they think of sex ed. But our model, the circles of sexuality also includes sexualization and intimacy, sensuality, and identity. 

And then the values is the other one. Values touches all of them and helps us make choices for how we utilize the information in those circles.

The one that I see the most pushback for is definitely within identity. That’s where we have this idea that it’s a choice to be who you are, and that is not at all true, and that genders are binary, which is not at all true. 

And so within this circle is where I get a lot of pushback, because I am not willing to separate along the gender binary for my classes, and that is a very controversial subject where I am. And even when I say to people, your boy, may be someone husband some day and maybe with someone with a vulva and vagina. And they need to know what’s going on for this person, so they can be empathetic and supportive and loving. More information makes them a better partner. 

Even when I say that that’s still like, “no, we need to have mystery,” and “we need to have seduction,” and like and I’m just like, “no, that’s not how this works.” That just means that you have a dude who’s on board with the needs of the person, because they don’t understand what’s happening. 

So that’s where we get a lot of the pushback, within the identity, the identity bubble. 

Joreth: So what’s the wildest wrong thing myth maybe that you’ve heard in some of the courses you’ve taught? Like, has anybody come due with information that they’ve had before the class that you had to correct? 

Ms. Ashley: One kid said they were going to go blind if they masturbated. 

Franklin: People still believe that?

Ms. Ashley: I was like, “oh boy.” That one was I was just a shocker. 

They didn’t say it, though. We do this activity where they get to write things around the room. And so I didn’t know who it was, because there were different papers on the wall, and they were adding their ideas in different categories. 

So one is like, “what’s a message that you’ve received from the media, what’s a message that you’ve received from your family, and what’s a message that you’ve received from your peers?” So those were the three categories, and then within that exercise of sexual messages, it came up from the media. I don’t know what show that was in, but that was one of the messages the media had taught them about sex.

Joreth: That that’s a great idea, having the papers they can write basically anonymous questions. 

Ms. Ashley: So within this curriculum we use the question box. At the end of every session, every person gets a blank notecard and a pencil, and every person has to put a card into the box. They all have to write on the card. So they can draw me a poop emoji or whatever they want to do, but they have to write on the card and they have to put it in the box so that it’s totally anonymous. 

And then I research all the questions and then the next class come back with all their answers.

There’s a lot of that anonymity that is worked into this curriculum, understanding that we have kids who are introverts and that this topic makes more kids introverted. It’s pretty great how it’s designed to make this content accessible. That’s fantastic.

Eunice: That’s what my school did when we had our sex ed stuff. We had the same question box. You put a question in, and and then the teacher would open up the box and just be answering all the questions. And I do know for certain that some of the kids, I’m pretty sure that they were the boys, would specifically try to find the most. 

Ms. Ashley: Like ostentatious?

Eunice: Yeah, out there question, because of course the teacher had to read the question out first, right? 

Joreth: Yes, let’s make the teacher uncomfortable. 

Eunice: Yep, which you know, kudos to the teacher. They just read it out and answer the question because that’s what you have to do to show that it’s not something to be ashamed of. 

Ms. Ashley: Absolutely. Within the facilitation training, we learned that there’s different kinds of questions that kids and youth ask. And it’s always kind of fun to share this little fact with parents, Especially that you can assess the question you’re asked your child asking according to these three categories.

The first category is is information seeking. Like, they really want to know how this works, and so they’re asking for the information. 

The second is connection seeking. This would be like some of the questions I get like, “well, what does fish sex sound like?” You know, they’re just being silly and they’re  being a clown. And instead of thinking of it as silly and clowning, we think of this as like, “I need connection. I want to be seen.” And so, just by taking that question seriously and saying, “probably bloop bloop!”, it validates that whatever that kid wrote down, I’m not going to be like, “well, this question is probably not worth my time.” No, that question is a child seeking connection.

And then the third version of questions is seeking validation for their normalcy. So if they’re saying something like, “why do my balls itch so much?” They’re trying to find out, is this a normal part of puberty? And for me to answer that question and say, “so, these are some of the other places that might itch also, as your hair grows in,” and expounding upon it, it allows them to see this is normal, and people are going to experience this in lots of places and in lots of ways for lots of time, because everyone experiences puberty at different times and in different lengths and in different places. 

So those are the three types of questions we usually see. “I need information,” “I need connection,” or “I need validation.”

Joreth: So we’ve established now that program that you work with goes through all these ages. What about physical or mental disabilities? Do you have anything special for that, or is it just integrated in the whole curricula?

Ms. Ashley: There is a workshop for each age level specifically about sexuality and disabilities, so it’s present in the curriculum. The participants are part of our group. I mean, I haven’t ever been asked to teach a specific group of kids with disabilities because that’s not the way our education system is here. Everyone mainstreamed in part of the community. 

And I’m a special ed teacher. That’s actually what I went to school for. And so I am trained to understand how we scaffold information, which is like how you break it down into smaller, digestible parts, how you consider lesson planning so that you’re allowing for movement and allowing for change and allowing for diverse attention spans and all that sort of stuff. So that’s sort of one of my, I guess, special strengths in all of this. Assuming neurodiversity in all of my groups, yeah?

Joreth: It’s fantastic. 

Franklin: That actually leads right into what I was going to ask, which is how did you get into this. 

Ms. Ashley: Well, obviously I already said that my growing up didn’t suit me well with purity culture not teaching you what I needed to know. And then I’m a Unitarian Universalist, which is a religion here in the United States that invites and welcomes all sorts of people and their beliefs. Within the UU church, the youth go through the Our Whole Life curriculum as part of their experience of church. 

And at the end of their senior year of high school, they have a coming of age ceremony where we pushed them out into the world. Most of them go away for college. So we celebrate them, and they each read a statement of belief or lack of belief. And within this statement they say, like, “this is, these are the things that I think resonate with me about mysticism,” and “these are the things that I don’t believe in.” And they spend a lot of time working on this statement. 

And absolutely every child…every, not child, every almost-adult said Our Whole Lives was the most transformative experience of church for them. 

Franklin: Nice.

Ms. Ashley: And I sat there as just a regular church member, like “What is this thing?” Like, the first kid talked about it, the second kid talked about it, the third kid talked about it. We’re on kid seven and they’re all like, “Our Whole Lives changed my life.”

So I was like, “I’m going to get trained. I don’t know what this is, but I’m going to find out!” So it was a three-day training opportunity where you go away and get to be fully immersed in the curriculum and the process, and how to be a facilitator, and how to assess your own bias and leave your bias out of it, and it was transformative for me. 

Ms. Ashley: So then I was like, “I’m gonna do this now with all the UU churches in my area.” And now I do it separately. I do it privately because the UU church has a lot of wonderful and correct opinions and perspectives about this curriculum, how they want it to be disseminated, but it’s not very accessible for the public.

I feel like there’s this amazing information that nobody could get to, so I’m trying to get it out there, even just to get the name of it out there so that people can talk to their church and say, ”I’ve heard about this thing. Can we look into it?” Talk to their preschool or you know, like any other parent group, their= friends, whatever it is. 

Because it’s supposed to be facilitated in completion. You’re supposed to do all of the workshops from one all the way to the end, and many people cannot commit to that kind of thing. They already have all their extracurriculars. They have work and school. And so I’m just like, “You know, the world would be a better place if they just took two workshops.” 

Ms. Ashley: Like, it would be okay if they didn’t do all twelve. And so I’m trying to adapt the curriculum to make it more accessible, just so that it’s available for the public. 

Joreth: Something is better than nothing. 

Ms. Ashley: That’s how I feel. 

Joreth: Yeah, but I would love to see more of those programs exist everywhere because my church had it set up. They had a youth group. They had a sex ed course available, just not as well designed as yours. 

Ms. Ashley: So this curriculum is entirely secular, but there is an add-on that you can purchase to add spirituality to it, and so there’s this whole book that can give you Bible passages that you can add to whatever workshop, and it goes together. There’s hymns you can sing that go along with the topics of whatever it is we’re discussing. So it can be entirely secular, or a church can add this spirituality piece to it, and it can be more than that. But it’s amazing and it is comprehensive. There’s no question about that. So I would just love it if more people were advocating for this comprehensive approach. 

Franklin: Would that add on appeal to evangelicals, for example?

Ms. Ashley: Probably not, because the base of the curriculum is affirming to all. The base of the curriculum is saying whatever your relationship style is, you are valid. Whatever your pronouns are, they are valid. Whatever your gender identity is, it is valid. You know, so that’s like the baseline is affirming to all. And you have to get on board with that before you can even use the curriculum. 

Joreth: So it would work in in my progressive Catholic upbringing, but probably not in a fundamentalist church.

Ms. Ashley: No.

Joreth: But still, I mean, people when they progressive Catholic background are still not getting the proper sex ed. So this would be a huge dent in that. 

Ms. Ashley: And I love the way that we encourage participants to think for themselves. So the only real information that we’re sharing in the curriculum is vocabulary and details about the information of STI’s and the usefulness of condoms, like how effective they are and that sort of thing. The rest of it is all thinking exercises, it’s all values questioning. 

It’s created so that they should know nothing about their facilitator when they are done with the whole curriculum. They should know tons about themselves and where they stand. So it’s taking out my own values, my own biases, and instead going through the activities specifically to ask the questions and facilitate whatever activity we’re doing for the participant to check themselves and consider for themselves. 

So it’s not a values based curriculum, which is really rare to find. 

Joreth: Yeah. That sounds amazing, and I hope every one of our listeners now goes to their local school board or their church group or, you know, their “mommy and me daycare” or whatever. 

Ms. Ashley: Yeah exactly. 

Joreth: And says hey, we need to get started on this right away. And don’t worry about whatever your beliefs are. This program will still work.

Ms. Ashley: Absolutely. 

Franklin: If you go on the Internets nowadays, one of the things you see just about everywhere, and it’s been popularized on Reddit, and it’s been popularized in school curricula that are sponsored by the Mormon Church in particular, is this idea of sex addiction and masturbation addiction and “you shouldn’t wank because you’ll get addicted to it.” And, you know, you look at the actual medical data and peer reviewed papers, and they don’t support the idea that—

Joreth: That’s not a thing!

Franklin: That these are even—yeah! That you can even get addicted to things like sex or porn or masturbation. But you see the Fight the New Drug curriculum, for example, which is, you know, pushing heavily into schools now, is actually distorting real research about sexuality and health, and pushing this idea of sex addiction and porn addiction. Is this an issue that the curriculum that you teach addresses at all? 

Ms. Ashley: The most updated version of the…mmm, is it middle school or high school? Does. But the others that are not most recently updated, no. So facilitators have been told to like pull information from the most updated version, if you’re going to add that information to your workshops.

I will say this idea of behaviorism is valid, where if you repeat a behavior enough times then your brain starts to myelinate those pathways in the mind to then have the same sort of reaction each time. And so if we’re just talking about behaviorism, then OK, we can have a bit of a conversation about, yYou know patterns of behavior.

but what’s happening with those curriculums, and with that push, is a values-based conversation. It’s not an evidence-based conversation. 

Franklin: But it’s masquerading as evidence-based, because it pretends to be scientific, and it even uses scientific language. And it claims to reference studies, which of course now neurobiologists are saying, “hey, you’re distorting what I said. I didn’t actually say that at all.” 

Ms. Ashley: Yes, so it’s good to give it that name and say, like, “this is values-based.” So then if a parent is trying to gain information about whatever is in their child’s school, they can ask, “is this a values based curriculum?” Because they would have to say, “yes.” They would have to say “yeah, no, I’m teaching what is morally right, which is a value.” 

Joreth: That’s good to know, so any parents who want to evaluate what their kids are doing? Here’s a list of keywords you should ask about or listen for. How are they describing the programs that your children are going through. 

Ms. Ashley: Absolutely. So is there any language surrounding “out of wedlock?” Because that is a values-based curriculum and there are lots of programs that that’s one of the key things. “Out of wedlock.”

Is there any discussion of the curriculum centering monogamous relationships, because that is a value-based search engine. Is there any mention that drug and alcohol use correlate with early sexual activity? Because that is not really a thing. Those are all three separate things that are studied really separately. 

So if we’re looking for anything surrounding a context of marriage, that is a values-based curriculum. And a values-based curriculum is going to tell participants what to do or not to do based on predetermined guidelines. 

Which is the opposite of what we want children and youth to do. We want them to be thinking for themselves and creating their own guidelines, because then they have ownership of those guidelines. And then when they reach those developmental milestones of pushing back against parents and rebelling and trying to find their own footing in this world, which is normal and they should be doing that, they’re more likely to do all the things you told them not to do ’cause they have no ownership in the guidelines. 

Joreth: Yeah, if the the stronger of a hold you have on who you are and the stronger your critical thinking skills are—because that’s really what it sounds like you’re teaching, critical thinking—if they face a situation that they haven’t been given a road map for, do they have the tools to evaluate it and take a healthy path for themselves? Or do they only have a list of instructions, and this situation is not covered, so what do you do? 

Ms. Ashley: Beautiful way to say it. 

Franklin: And that’s something that comes up too, if you have just a sort of a top down, “you have to follow all these rules” kind of approach to sex and sexuality. 

I don’t have the study in front of me right now. Maybe I should look it up and see if we can link through it when we put the show online. I do remember seeing a study that said that kids who were given abstinence only and rules-based approaches to sex education, when they broke the rules and had sex, were more likely to have risky sex, unprotected sex, less likely to use condoms, because, “hey, we’re already breaking the rules, so we’re already bad.”

Ms. Ashley: Yeah, go big or go home. 

Franklin: Well, we’ll break the rules about condoms too, because we’re we’re already bad. We’ve already done the bad thing. 

Ms. Ashley: And that’s so dangerous. I mean, like what parent wants that, right? Instead, get out of their way and help them think things through, and talk less but say more by listening and asking good questions. 

Eunice: Actually, I did have one additional question. I was actually wondering if you’ve seen, what sort of changes have you seen in sex ed over, say, the last decade? Because obviously in that time we’ve gone from  the Obama administration, which I know increased funding for comprehensive sex ed. And then we had the Trump administration, which obviously pulled all that funding and then went to abstinence-only. And then you know, now we’re moving into the Biden administration. Does that sort of signal return to kind of more evidence-based sex ed, do you think? Is that a hope that we can have? 

Ms. Ashley: I can’t answer this completely, but I can tell you what I found. Under the Obama administration, there was a notable shift in abstinence-education funding towards more evidence-based sex ed initiatives,The current landscape of federal sex ed programs is including newer programs such as the Personal Responsibility Education program, also known as PREP, and this is the first federal funding stream to provide grants to states in support of evidence-based sex ed that teach about both abstinence and contraception. So that is new.

Eunice: Nice!

Ms. Ashley: But the Trump administration, yeah, kind of undid it a little bit. 

OK, so honestly I don’t have a complete picture or a great answer for that. And I’ve only been doing this like 2 years privately, so I’m still kind of new. I can mostly just say like what are the challenges here for me in Indiana? Sorry I can’t answer that. 

Eunice: No problem.

Joreth: Well, you’ve certainly given us a lot to chew on and we’ve got some links to the studies that you were referencing that we’ll be able to share with our readers so that they can read what we’ve been talking about, too, for themselves. 

Joreth: So yeah, I think this has been a great conversation to have, and we’ve covered a lot of ground. 

Ms. Ashley: I appreciate sharing the action items with people. Because I just really feel like if more parents start saying “This is what we need we need. We need comprehensive sex ed. We need our youth to know about condoms and we need non-values-based options for our youth.” If more parents are speaking about it, it’s more likely that something will change. 

Thank you very much for sharing your platform with me. 

Eunice: If you could give three big take-away points that you want, even if they don’t remember any of the details, the three big take-away points you want them to remember and take away at the end, what would those be? 

Ms. Ashley: Number one: more information does not cause your child or youth to engage in earlier or more often sex. It’s not true. And so if there’s any bit of fear inside of you for educating your child, know that the research has said, that’s not going to happen.

Number two: be the safe space for your kid to ask questions. So do any of the self work that you need to do in order to be unashamed or unembarrassed as much as you possibly can, so that you can be a place where your kid can be safe and ask you questions.

And if you don’t have a kid, be the aunt or the uncle, or the babysitter, or the neighbor that isn’t going to be weirded out when the kid goes “do you have a penis or a vulva?” Be the person that that kid can notice is OK answering those questions. Because it is not wrong for them to ask those questions.

And three would be use simple language, because the more we talk at youth and children, the less they hear. So if we can simplify to a very quick message, and then know that there’s going to be another opportunity, and another opportunity, and another opportunity, and just capitalize on each of those opportunities in a simple way, your kid will want to come back to you. But if you do this big speech the first time and the second time, and the third time, it’s gonna be like, oh, if I ask this, it’s gonna be a big ordeal. So no, keep it simple. Use simple language with the kiddo. 

Eunice: Nice, those are fantastic take away points and especially the second two basically just fit all sorts of situations. 

Ms. Ashley: Yes, absolutely. And I mean, really, that’s what comprehensive sex ed is about. It’s like they’re a whole person, Yep. 

Franklin: So where can people find you? 

Ms. Ashley: Thank you for asking! I’m on Instagram as MsAshley Robertson. And I curate content for a group on Facebook called Let’s Talk About Sex Ed with Ms Ashley. And I try to share interesting things where people can think about this topic and learn about this topic about five times a week. 

Joreth: Cool awesome, this is amazing. So thank you very much for joining us. 

Ms. Ashley: Thank you for the opportunity. 

Eunice: Thank you for the time. 

Eunice: One of the things that I came across after we talked with Ashley was an article on Mashable discussing the way that social media platforms like TikTok seem to be removing any sex ed that includes medically or scientifically accurate information. That includes topics like pelvic health or pain when having intercourse or sex toy safety. We’ll link to the article in the show notes so you can check it out for yourself.

Franklin: The narrative on the American right is “waah, waah, social media censors conservatives,” but in fact social media companies tend to get weirdly sex-negative and prudish when you get right down to it.

Eunice: All of which makes the work of Ashley and others like her even more important. There’s a PubMed article, Sex Education on TikTok: A Content Analysis of Themes, that talks about how Tiktok “offers a novel opportunity to make up for shortcomings in sex education and convey sexual health information to adolescents.” and that’s absolutely true—assuming it’s correct information. And that’s the problem we’re looking at here, right? As the great Sir Terry Pratchett said, lies can run around the world before truth has even gotten its boots on.

Joreth: “Cancel culture” is, as always, only what the “other guys” are doing to “us”, right? Because a lot of them are getting “censored” by misuse of the “report” feature, where people who just don’t like queer people, sex workers, or sex educators just mass-report their TikToks, whether it violates any rules or not, and the ‘bots just take them down because that’s how it works. And it’s totes cool to take down sex workers, sex educators, and queers, but complain about actual lies on social media and it’s all “they’re taking mah freedumbs!”

Eunice: And it disproportionately affects LGBTQ+ youth, because somehow queer sexuality is automatically an adult and/or controversial topic. Which brings us onto another topic that came up at the end of February, as we were working on editing these last couple of episodes. One that every Disney-loving queer person will be incredibly disappointed by. Assuming you know nothing about the history of the Disney corporation or Florida that is.

Joreth:  Yeah, I don’t understand why people are so surprised at the conservatism here in Florida, but then I was raised near San Francisco, so to me, this entire state is just one very large small town with delusions of grandeur.  Anyway, so one of our state senators, Dennis Baxley, sponsored House Bill 1557 the “Parental Rights In Education” bill, which is being called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.  It’s fairly long and arduous, but the very very short version is that the bill prohibits educators from mentioning queer labels and topics in schools.  According to our local paper, the Orlando Sentinel, Disney has donated to literally every single one of the co-sponsors of the bill.

Eunice: I’m still amazed that anyone is surprised when Disney turns out to support profits above everything else. Insofar as a corporation as large as Disney can even have a single affiliation, it’s not liberal or conservative, it’s just capitalist, and that’s what capitalism is—political power through profit. 

Franklin: According to Disney News Today, “The Senate sponsor, Ocala Republican Dennis Baxley, has backed anti-gay legislation for years — including laws to prevent gay couples from adopting kids who otherwise wouldn’t have a family at all.” Baxley once compared kids who live with same-sex parents to kids raised by alcoholics and abusers and later said: “I’m not phobic, but I simply can’t affirm homosexuality.” The very next year Disney cut Baxley a campaign check. And another after that. And then another one last year. Shame on you, Disney.

Eunice: The thing I noted about the bill is that it doesn’t actually benefit kids’ education at all, it just prevents the kids learning about LGBTQ+ issues in any form of structured way in school. The language they use is so vague, it could be used to apply to any form of any mention of queerness at all. 

Franklin:  The article goes on to say, “The bill itself, House Bill 1557, is a trainwreck. Not just based on anyone’s personal values, but based on pure linguistics and legal flaws. It uses nebulous and subjective phrases like “reasonably prudent person” to set standards and bans classroom discussions on “sexual orientation or gender identity” in “certain grade levels” without clearly defining what those levels are.” 

Joreth:  It also uses the phrase “age appropriate” specifically and then fails to define what “age appropriate” is.

Eunice: I’m getting real vibes of the UK’s Section 28 all over again.

Joreth:  Yeah, in fact, to bring us back to something we discussed in the interview, we mentioned not understanding why it was so hard to get information on the content of the sex ed program, and I suggested that I could understand an educator being a bit cagey if what they’re used to is conservatives sticking their ignorant noses into the lesson plan … well, that’s exactly what this bill intends to do – give parents more control over what is and isn’t allowed to be “taught” in class (with no real definition on what the word “instruction” in the bill means).  Because what we really need is for people with no training on how education works to be mucking about and getting in the way of educators doing the job they’re trained for.

Eunice: Right. Anyway, let’s long story short this. Given the amount of editing that each of these episodes requires, our listeners can probably guess that this is coming at you all from the past. So with that caveat, as of the date that we’re recording this episode, what’s the current state of play with this bill, given it seems to be changing hourly?

Franklin:  Dismal. The current state of play is dismal. Disney put out a letter to their employees apologizing for funding the politicians responsible for this bill, which caused Governor Satan or DeathSentence or whatever the hell his name is to start yapping on Twitter about Disney staying in its lane, though I can’t help notice he hasn’t volunteered to give their money back. They may be pink but their money is green, hey, Darth Senseless?

Joreth:  This kind of spending, especially at the level of the Disney Corporation, is deliberate, if not intentional.  This isn’t like a marketing department releasing a commercial and not realizing they said something accidentally dirty or insensitive – like, every marketing department needs to have a woman of color, a trans person, and a 12 year old boy on it to make sure they don’t say something accidentally funny or inappropriate, right?  No, with the amount of money involved and the high profile of fucking *Disney*, several important and financially *trained* somebodies thought “y’know who we should fund and attach our name to?  These politicians, that’s who!”  Corporations this big don’t just hand out cash, they *choose* who and what to donate to.

Eunice: Yeah, seriously guys, this isn’t a situation of “whoops it was an accident I just fell on his bank account.” Please don’t treat us like we’re stupid, Disney. But moving on, to once again haul us back to the original point of this episode: we’re aware that listening to this interview over several weeks makes it pretty hard to remember all the great action points that Ashley laid out, so here’s the TLDR:

Ms. Ashley’s Action Items:

  1. Parents and non-parents to rally behind comprehensive sex ed
  2. Find out if your school’s program includes mentions of condoms
  3. Advocate against “values-based” education and for “evidence-based” education

Franklin:  We really recommend checking out the show notes for this episode. You’ll find a list there of the takeaway points, the links to the sites and articles she mentioned, and contact information for Ms. Ashley. I mean, we’d love you to check out the show notes regularly anyway, but if you generally don’t, this might be the episode where you start. 

Joreth: This was a fun interview and I’m so glad that Ms. Ashley agreed to talk with us about comprehensive sex-ed and shared some resources with us. I, for one, plan to mention to everyone I can, every time the subject comes up, that Ms. Ashley is doing private sex ed courses using this OWL curriculum so everyone can contact her about getting her or someone like her into your area. And, remember, this program covers all ages. 

Franklin: So that’s the interview! The Skeptical Pervert is copyrighted by Franklin Veaux, Eunice Hung, and Joreth Innkeeper. Editing is done by Joreth, show notes and transcription by Franklin. You can find a transcript at skepticalpervert.com. Comments or ideas? Email contact@skepticalpervert.com. If you like the show, review us on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or wherever you found us.

Eunice: And don’t forget to join our Patreon, which you’ll find linked on the website. We’ve got some additional anecdotes that got cut from the interview there, plus we’ll be adding lots of our background chat there so you can listen in as we work on these episodes.

Joreth:  And remember, if you don’t skeptically educate your children, they might grow up to be Republican politicians!

Eunice: The phrase “grow up” is doing a whole lot of heavy lifting right there, just sayin’.

Roundup of Ms Ashley’s useful information

Ms. Ashley’s Action Items:

  1. Parents and non-parents to rally behind comprehensive sex ed
  2. Find out if your school’s program includes mentions of condoms
  3. Advocate against “values-based” education and for “evidence-based” education

Ms. Ashley’s 3 Takeaway Points:

  1. More information does not cause your child or youth to engage in earlier or more often sex.
  2. Be the safe space for your kid to ask questions. And if you don’t have a kid, be the “aunt” or the “uncle” or the “babysitter” or the “neighbor” that isn’t going to be weirded out.
  3. Use simple language.

Ms. Ashley Recommends:

Ms. Ashley’s Citations:

How To Find Ms. Ashley Robertson:

Episode 7: Sex Ed with Ms. Ashley Part 1

Today we bring you the first part of a two-part interview with sex educator and sex-positive activist Ms. Ashley, as we talk about the value of evidence-based, scientifically accurate sexual education.

Ms. Ashley is a sex educator who teaches an adaptation of the Our Whole Lives curriculum. In part 1 of our interview, we discuss the various types of sex education, what the evidence shows about the effects of fact-based sex ed, and how continuing sex education can help not just students but everyone.

You can find Ms. Ashley on Facebook here, here, and here, and on Instagram here.

Transcript of the episode below.

Franklin: Hello! Welcome to a new episode of Skeptical Perverts, the podcast where we examine human sexuality through an evidence-based, skeptical lens! I’m your host, part-time mad scientist, and token cishet dude, Franklin!

Joreth: Hi! I’m your co-host and Renaissance cat, Joreth! I’m kinky, sopo, on the ace spectrum, chicana, feminist, my gender identity is “tomboy”, and my pronouns are she/her but I use masculine titles.

Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, ace-spec, bisexual, solopoly British Chinese woman, bringing my usual touch of genteel filth and depravity.

Franklin: Today we’re chatting with Ms. Ashley, a sex educator who does a lot of work with evidence-based sex ed. A quick note – today’s episode is US-centered because a lot of sex ed is wrapped up in politics and policies, so keep in mind we’re talking about US policies, politics, and attitudes.

Eunice: Well, mostly – I can’t help being British, folks!

Franklin: Wait, you’re British? Why wasn’t I informed?

Eunice: I know, shocking how I kept all the tea related paraphernalia hidden so well over, lo, these many years. How long have we known each other now, Franklin?

Franklin: We met at an orgy in 2010, so…about twelve years?

Eunice: Clearly I’m an amazing actor. (Note for the listeners, I am not an amazing actor.)

Joreth: So, back to the episode … We came across this amazing advocate for evidence-based sex ed that we really wanted to bring on the show. And we wanted to do something a little bit different than a standard interview. We thought it would be fun to invite her to talk about whatever she felt most passionate about, which was the struggle between abstinence only sexual education vs. what she called “comprehensive sex ed”.

Eunice: Yeah, one thing to notice is that there is no version of sex ed that doesn’t include abstinance-based sex ed, only versions which don’t include evidence-based sex ed. Which I think is an interesting…decision, let’s call it a decision, hmm?

Franklin: The United States still has a strongly Puritan attitude toward sex. The Puritans came to this continent a long time ago and didn’t stick around for all that long, but their ideas, especially about morality, have left a lasting mark on the American social fabric. Our weird, toxic ideas about sex trace directly back to Puritanism, which shows you just how stubbornly cultural values can persist. So it’s not really that surprising that all US sex ed includes abstinence.

Eunice: More than includes abstinence, Franklin, it requires abstinence. In contrast, when I was having a look at the UK National Curriculum for Relationships and Sex education for comparision, I only realised after we talked that as far as I can tell, abstinence-based education isn’t included as a requirement. I don’t think it’s even mentioned. Those Puritans really took some wild ideas with them when they abandoned British shores in a huff because they couldn’t persecute others, and I for one can only be grateful they didn’t stick around, honestly.

Joreth: I’ve been trying to finish uploading my pictures from my road trip to New England last summer, and just did a section of Puritan gravestones, which had some interesting rules on what could be put on a gravestone and what couldn’t because of their morality and some of that stuff persists to graves today, so it’s really fascinating to me how long-lasting the Puritans’ mark on our culture really is. (We will have a lot more to say about Puritanism in our Patreon out-takes, so sign up on Patreon to hear that conversation!)

Eunice: We’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent here, let’s haul ourselves back to topic. I’m aware that this is a losing battle, but let’s at least try to focus! We had a fantastic chat that we’re really excited to share with you, so Joreth, do you want to introduce the wonderful Ms Ashley to kick us off?

Joreth: Ashley Robertson identifies as a feminine, ethically non-monogamous, doll. With over a decade of experience in the BDSM scene, she isn’t shy of perverse topics. She is a liberated educator who wishes to share with others the freedom of sexuality without shame. With three teaching degrees, she’s fed up with the idea that learning comes from a constrictive set of standards. She facilitates adaptations of the Our Whole Lives curriculum adapting the workshops to fit diverse audiences. This non-coercive, comprehensive approach to sex ed is what we all wished we had in high school.

Franklin: Ms. Ashley had quite a lot to say, so let’s jump right into the interview. We had a few technical issues with our recording, so just a heads up that the quality might not be as good as usual.

Joreth: So this is going to be fairly standard. We’ll have a bunch of questions to ask you. Mainly we wanted to have a conversation where you had the opportunity to talk about what you wanted to talk about.

You know, I’ve done my share as a podcast guest myself, and it’s usually the podcast has an agenda. They have a story they want to tell and you sort of fit into it. So then they ask the guest to talk about whatever the podcast wants to hear

But we wanted to give you an opportunity to talk about what you wanted as a researcher.

Joreth: So, science based, especially evidence based, sex ed…we are all so behind that.

Ms. Ashley: It’s very generous of you to share your platform, thank you. I appreciate that.

Eunice: We’re also just really excited to hear what you’re going to say.

Ms. Ashley: I have a couple of articles I’d love to share, and I have like some personal anecdotes about how this work goes, that kind of goes along with these articles. So I thought that was the content I’d like to share with you and your listeners today.

A little back story about me. I wasn’t planning to be a sex educator. That wasn’t what I went to school for. I’m learning this as an in the field researcher and in the field doing it.

I was trained to facilitate one particular curriculum called the our Whole Lives Curriculum. And what I found here in Indiana is that it’s hard to find opportunities for this kind of work, because the curriculum that I learned about, and that I am able to facilitate, is comprehensive. It’s not as much of a friendly place for that kind of learning here in Indiana.

I guess the main story I’d love to share is for all of your listeners to be advocates and allies for comprehensive sex education opportunities. I feel like if there’s any action item I could ask for for people with kids and without kids, it’s to rally behind this idea that more information earlier and often is better than the alternative.

Some of the research that I have to share this evening comes specifically from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Because I feel like, hey, that’s a reliable source. These are the people that we turn to when we are parents and trying to understand best practice and safest ways to do things. And so I was like, hey, I think this is a good. Source and also not that much of a controversial source, right?

Like if I was pulling from Planned Parenthood, or, you know, any other faith-based source, there could be conversation about like oh, this is very biased. But I felt like this is a real, rooted-in-science resource, so I wanted to start with that.

And I guess I’m curious from all of you, if you know what the two types of sex ed are that are available in the United States?

Joreth: Well, I’m assuming that one is going to be abstinence-based, which is probably rooted in in religion and faith, whether it says so upfront or not.

And then the other, I’m hoping is a more evidence based curriculum.That that’s what I would guess are the two main ones.

Franklin: Yeah, well, definitely abstinence-only sex education is all over the news pretty much all of the time. Which is a little scary when you look at the data and see just how much it doesn’t work. I would hope that the other one would be evidence based, but you know, considering the times we live in right now, I am not going to make that bet.

I mean, you know you say that pediatricians are an evidence based source that nobody would ever question, and, you know, obviously completely neutral, but we live in a world where people think that the Centers for Disease Control are part of some kind of conspiracy, so I’m not sure that’s necessarily true.

Eunice: I mean, I’ll be honest abstinence-only, at least I understand what that is. It is interesting, in the sense of how much it doesn’t include.

But when it comes to evidence based, I don’t know where the evidence comes from. I don’t know what evidence they pick to refer to when they talk about evidence-based. So that’s something that I’m interested in. What do they mean by evidence based? I mean, I’m assuming that there’s not one single source that all of the curricula that use evidence based sex ed will be looking to.

I’m assuming that different sources will potentially come up, and I’d be interested to know what’s the difference between them.

Ms. Ashley: I will do my best to answer some of those questions. I don’t know if I have all the answers. The two main types of curriculum available in the United States are abstinence only, which is known as a “sexual risk avoidance program. This means that they teach that abstinence from sex is the only morally acceptable option for you.

Or the second option, which is comprehensive. Comprehensive sex ed means it’s medically accurate, evidence based information about both contraception and abstinence. So the abstinence only curriculums will not talk about contraception.

Franklin: That’s really scary.

Eunice: Oh, right, Yikes, exactly.

Ms. Ashley: So then, within comprehensive there’s actually two other branches. Within comprehensive programs there’s an abstinence plus program, which means they are still teaching that sex abstinence is the only morally acceptable option for youth, but the plus means that they share about condoms.

And then with the full, expansive, comprehensive programs, this includes all conversations about medically accurate, evidence based information, contraception, abstinence being the safest form of risk avoidance, including also conversations about safer sex in lots of different varieties of sex, and healthy relationships. So that’s the whole shebang. This is an interpersonal conversation. This is not just about our bodies and our reproductive organs.

So there’s kind of 2 main branches of sex ed programs and then off of the comprehensive there’s two main branches. One is more palatable for a lot of school systems because it’s still abstinence based, but it adds this idea of condoms. And then our full shebang is the one I’m advocating for as a sexual educator.

So one of the coolest things I found as I was going through this information from the American Academy of Pediatrics is that they identify comprehensive sex education as preventative health care. I love this idea. No one talks about this and there’s so much validity in this idea of preventative health care when children are young and even for adulthood because it reduces the burden on our society fnancially, if we’re being preventative with our bodies. And so that just made me so happy. It’s like the pediatricians of our country are saying comprehensive sex ed is preventative health care.

Joreth: I mean, it makes sense, right? It is! Everything about sex ed is preventing bad stuff from happening.

Ms. Ashley: Yes, and they also made a very clear point to say sexuality education can be disseminated through three separate learning domains: cognitive, which is about teaching information; affective, which is about teaching about feelings, values and attitudes; and behavioral, which is about communication, decision making and other skills. So I loved this idea that our pediatricians are saying to the whole country, “when you talk about sex, with any age, with any kids, it should be all three parts. It should be, what information do they need to know, how can we identify their social emotional skills, and how can we empower them to make decisions with their bodies and communicate with others for healthy relationships?””

So yay! Instead of it just being this like weird and awkward, shame-based conversation about genitals, it’s supposed to be the whole thing that creates an awareness of a person’s whole self.

So I’m curious from you all. Since this is the podcast that people want to hear stories: of those three domains, cognitive, affective, and behavioral, what was your experience of sex ed growing up?

Franklin: Oh God. My experience of sex ed growing up was basically a 5 minute conversation in high school health class and a “don’t do it.” That was pretty much it.

But then I went to high school in Florida, which is not exactly a shining beacon for fact and evidence based progressive ideas about science and reality. And they certainly would not be swayed by any kind of approach that said, “look, we’re trying to do harm reduction or risk management,” because, I’ll be honest, what Florida is all about is, “well, if you break the rules you should suffer.”

Eunice: Uh, the interesting thing is that I’m based in the UK and the UK has a national curriculum that legally has to have evidence based relationships and sex education, right? So in primary school, that’s up to about the age of ten or eleven, it is mandatory to have relationships education. And in secondary school, which is up to 16 or 18 depending on the school, it is mandatory to have relationships and sex education. And this is just what is it.

And it should cover relationships. But also contraception and intimate relationships. Healthy relationships of all types, you know.

Looking at the National curriculum now for the sorts of sex ed that is expected in the UK, it is based on evidence. Whether or not the actual schools are any good at teaching it is a slightly different matter, but legally it is expected that you have evidence based teaching in a range of topics.

However, when I was growing up, I grew up under the auspices of Section 28, which specified that it was illegal to teach that homosexual relationships were acceptable, so I grew up in that era. And I think that law was only repealed in 2003 as I remember.

Joreth: That’s pretty recent.

Eunice: So yeah, yeah, that was like 80 something to 2003 I believe is when that law went into effect. God bless Maggie Thatcher.

And that meant that it was illegal to teach kids about homosexuality in a way that suggested that it was healthy or reasonable or normal or acceptable, And therefore they just basically didn’t teach anything that wasn’t heterosexual monogomous relationships.

So yeah, there’s two parts to this, right? They’re kind of contradictory, because I came out as bisexual when I was in my teens in high school.

Joreth: Right in the middle of that?

Eunice: Yeah, like that was that was smack bang in the middle of it. I did not get any sex ed that related to anything other than heterosexual monogamous relationships.

Ms. Ashley: I hear that a lot and I’m sorry for that, because it invalidates you as who you are or you become invisible. And that’s not how it should be. You are absolutely wonderful and valid, exactly as you are.

Eunice: I’m so glad that is no longer in place, and that they specifically require you to teach about LGBTQ issues now in the national curriculum.

Ms. Ashley: Yeah, in the UK that is not happening in the US

Eunice Yes, in the UK.

Franklin: I don’t see that happening in the US anytime soon. To be honest, I mean the US is still struggling with the idea that anybody who is not a cishet white dude is actually a person.

Joreth: Yeah, we we have a terrible track record with evidence based anything, really.

Now, my experience is contradictory in a lot of ways, because I went to public school up through age 12/13, which is junior high, and I went to a private Catholic school for high school. The contradictory part is that I had an amazing sex ed through high school, but only for the medical stuff.

We covered a little bit of the relationship, only so much as I had a a marriage section in one of my classes, where we had the we had to plan our wedding. We had to have a household budget. We had to carry around the flower sack baby. So it’s all very heteronormative, but it wasn’t a whole lot of of a relationship communication work. It was just, “eventually you’re going to get married and have kids. So this is how you do a budget and this is what it’s like to walk around, carrying five pounds on your arm every day.””

Franklin: Seriously, wow.

Joreth: Oh yeah, I should show you pictures. My flower baby was named Jacob.

Franklin: Oh man. That’s a good biblical name.

Eunice: There was actually a book I read about this, like a fiction book. I read fiction books about this thing and I didn’t realize it was a real thing that happened.

Joreth: Yes, it’s a real thing. And part of my project was I had to have pictures, so I walked around town as a teenager, pushing a baby carriage.

Franklin: Good Lord.

Joreth: And people thought I was a teenage mother. So that one of the things that I was reporting on, the societal response to me as what they thought was a teenage mother. My teacher was not expecting that as part of my report.

But for the biology part of it, I had fantastic sex ed. We had some form of sex ed every single year in my 4 years of high school, although one of the semesters was not so much sex ed as it was a self defense course because we were an all girls school.

So our priest, our schools priest, was a black belt in some martial art. One of our health classes, the entire semester was all self defense. So I learned how to flip people over my shoulder and break grips.

Franklin: Oh my God.

Joreth: Explains a few things about me! But then, I was also a sociology major. We didn’t really have majors like in college, but we could get started early on college prep courses. So in high school I was already planning to go from my marriage and family counseling degree and I had planned to specialize in problem teenagers.

So through my psychology courses, I got a lot of the relationship and the communication stuff through that, all through my private Catholic school.

So I had a really strange, contradictory sort of experience with sex ed growing up.

Ms. Ashley: Quite a variety of experiences represented here in this in this group. Mine was very much the sexual risk avoidance model. I was part of the evangelical purity culture.

Franklin: Oh God.

Ms. Ashley: We got most of our sex head through through church, and there was this big ceremony of, like, professing that you will wait until marriage, and your parent came up and gave you a purity ring and put it on your wedding ring finger and like this whole thing.

Franklin: Oh my God. You actually did the purity ring thing.

Ms. Ashley: I did! That was very serious. And my personal experience led me to find out later that having some autonomy of your body and ownership of your body and experience of some kind actually helps you find a better mate or understand your needs to communicate what you desire and how you act.

Joreth: Imagine that. Surprise!

Ms. Ashley: So it didn’t serve me either. And interestingly, in 2012 there was a national campaign to prevent teen and unplanned pregnancy, where they surveyed 1200 high school seniors. Many of them were girls, some of them were boys and they had mixed feelings about their first time that they had had sex. Also called “sexual debut.” That’s one of the nice ways of saying that.

Joreth: Oh, I have feelings about that.

Ms. Ashley: Yeah, “sexual debut.”” More than 3/4 responded that they would change the way that their first sexual experience occurred. So there we have it, more than 3/4 of them said “I would have liked this to go differently,” and I feel like the only way that that could go differently is with more information, right?

That’s how we don’t drop our children into the deep end of a pool having never had any swimming lessons.

Franklin: Well, some people do…

Ms. Ashley: Yep, without an instructor there?

Franklin: Yes, Yep.

Ms. Ashley: Wait! Okay, I’m gonna need this story.

Franklin: That’s a thing! That’s a thing that happens. You know, it’s the whole sink or swim right? That’s literally what that means.

Joreth: I was just talking with with a friend. It’s certain areas more than others, but I was just talking with a friend who that was how she learned. Her father just dropped her in the water and said, you know, learn to swim, make it to shore.

Ms. Ashley: I feel like that’s probably not the recommended practice, right? The same thing with a knife. Most people wouldn’t give their children a knife at the age of 16, having never had any experience with a knife before.

Eunice: Well…

I remember coming home once and just like making sandwiches and cooking, turning around with a knife in my hand and my friend who’d come back to my place afterwards looking down and was like, “your parents let you use those knives?” And I just looked down, like “yes. My family is Chinese. I see my parents regularly holding bigger knives than this. This is a bread knife. I am not going to be able to stab anyone with this.”

Ms. Ashley: So, there! You had more information than your peer, because your parents had exposed you to information. Your peer probably didn’t even know there was a name, “bread knife” as opposed to “steak knife” as opposed to “chef’s knife.”

Joreth: You know, you’re probably less likely to stab someone unintentionally than your friend.

Ms. Ashley: Yeah, because you’d already had some experience with the knife, and so that’s a good explanation for exactly what we are talking about here, which is giving youth and children more information earlier on, in a comprehensive way.

One thing that the American Academy of Pediatrics also highlights is this idea that families and primary caregivers are the main source of potential information for their children and the children in their care. What they find is that conversations that a pediatrician can have with a family early on can help any parents that potentially feel awkward or discomfort or shame or embarrassment surrounding some of these topics.

And so they’re also advocating for parent education and caregiver education, which is saying things like, “it’s absolutely normal for children and youth to desire self stimulation and safe touch. This is part of them being sexual being,s and it allows them to later explore them their own bodies in safer ways.

So teaching parents that like it’s normal for your 2 year old to masturbate, you don’t need to pathologize that. That’s absolutely part of natural curiosity and the way that our bodies work.

So any parent who’s listening who feels like squicked out or a little uncomfortable or unable to access doing this with their child in a way that’s useful and calm and cool and collected, there are lots and lots of resources out there for you to use as a parent to educate yourself and to feel more informed and more capable of having these conversations.

One of the resources that I love to share is sexetc.org. There you can find crazy vocabulary lists for things in case like your teenager comes home and says a word and you don’t know what it is, organized by alphabet. So sexetc.org.

Weknowship.org is an organization out of Maine. They do virtual workshops three to four times a year. Some of them are specifically for parents. They have presenters that come in. So weknowship.org. It’s all sorts of things. It’s like, how has the pandemic affected my child and what can I do to reverse some of its effects? Or pornography and my teenager, or shame-free potty training. You know, there’s like all sorts of things like that.

I also like to recommend amaze.org, which is a site full of videos, and these videos are organized by topic so you can look one up and watch it before you share it with your child. It gives you some of the words to say to your child, like a like a script. So if a topic comes up, you can research and see if there’s a video there that could help you navigate the words yourself.

There’s also Sex Positive Parenting, which is full of blog posts and resources.

But the American Academy of Pediatrics is absolutely saying the parents and caregivers are the best place for this information to come from, not necessarily schools, so don’t rely on your child’s school for this information. Take every opportunity that you have for it to layer upon itself and build, so that your child has access to a more complete understanding of these topics.

Franklin: All of that kind of assumes that you have parents who are active and involved and engaged with their kids, and who want their kids to have factual information, and who are not themselves surrounding sex with layers of shame and guilt. I’ll be honest, in the US, that kind of seems like a big ask.

Ms. Ashley: I feel that way too and so if we can get this conversation out more to more people and one parent says to another parent, you know, even if they’re like, out having drinks or if they’re texting about a situation they’re dealing with with their kid., if one parent says to another parent, “I heard that being sex positive and body positive is probably a better way, instead of like punishing your child for pooping in their pants again.” Even just that one little thing from one parent to another could spark that curiosity in that parent to say, “wait, what is this ‘sex positive?’ Does that mean I want my kid to have sex?” And then that other person who was like, “Well, I don’t really know a whole lot about it, but from what I understand, it means I’m saying there’s nothing wrong with their body because they have genitals.” It’s not dirty, it’s not gross. It’s just like a nose or an ear. It just happens to be an area that we say is private.

If one parent can say a tiny thing that they learn to another parent, which sparks curiosity, and then if there’s pushback, then that parent that said the thing might go back and do a little more research, and then it sort of snowballs. I would love for that to be more of a thing.

Joreth: It sounds like we also could use a strong curriculum for sex ed for adults.

Ms. Ashley: Which is exactly what the one I teach is. The Our Whole Lives curriculum spans the lifespan of a human, which is really amazing. It starts in kindergarten and there’s a curriculum for the younger elementaries. Then there’s a curriculum for the mid elementaries. Then there’s a curriculum for the middle school, which is very puberty heavy content. There’s a high school curriculum. There’s a younger adults curriculum. There’s an adult curriculum and an older adults curriculum.

It actually grows with people, and so we’re not ignoring this idea of menopause. And we’re not ignoring this idea of death of spouses and having to redefine our lives independently once we’re older. It grows with us, which is one of the reasons why if anyone can get access to an Our Whole Lives facilitator, get ’em. Do it. It’s great stuff.

Eunice: Yeah, I love that idea of the older adults, because I practically never see any sort of relationship or sex ed that’s directed at somebody who, you know, maybe they’ve been married before. They’re starting to approach menopause, or their their post0menopause or whatever. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that out there.

Joreth: I’ve been talking lately that we basically have The Golden Girls and Grace and Frankie and that is pretty much all of the information. Both educational and in media, we have those two sources for anybody who is in the menopausal or after range. While it’s entertaining, and while I’m glad to see this in popular media, that cannot be the only exposure we have to what it’s like for seniors to have sex.

Franklin: Oh man.

Eunice: How old are the Sex and the City actors now? Like, Sex and the City is getting older, and I guess they just carry on going.

Joreth: Yeah, they’re in their 50s now, ’cause they’ve got the new show out. That’s right, that just came out. And because now it’s the comparison that the actors from Sex and the City are now the same age as the characters from The Golden Girls. So what is that? That’s the 50s.

Yeah, three shows now that even broach the subject of what sex is like for people who are a little bit older. And we need so many more avenues to discuss those topics, because if all the fortunes are in our favor, we are all going to be in that position someday. So this is a subject we need to have more information on.

Ms. Ashley: I have a question. Have you ever seen a condom used in either of those shows, or discussion of a condom used in either of those shows?

Joreth: Yes, Sex in the City definitely covers condom use. They have several episodes about it.

Ms. Ashley: Oh, I meant Golden Girls or Grace and Frankie.

Joreth: Grace and Frankie. I want to say that they did discuss it, that they did mention it.

Ms. Ashley: My only remembering about that, was that they were trying to develop and market easy-open condoms for arthritic hands.

Joreth: That might have been the context that I saw them. ’Cause most of what it is, you know, two senior women who are trying to enjoy pleasure and, you know, being physically hampered by it. So that’s why they create the female masturbation device for older women with arthritic hands, which I think is a fabulous idea.

Ms. Ashley: I don’t feel like there’s a whole lot of discussion there, and that’s one of the demographics where we’re having the higher rates of STI’s because there’s no real discussion, and that wasn’t part of how they grew up in negotiating sex.

Joreth: Yeah, I mean wasn’t that entire generation basically married during the AIDS crisis, so why would they? They wouldn’t have needed to have known that.

Eunice: Right, I was actually quite bemused when I realized that old people homes are apparently the location for the fastest transmission of STI’s.

Joreth: Yes, in fact The Villages here in Florida is particularly notorious for that. And it’s also in a red area. They’re highly conservative. They’re all Trump voters, and among the senior living facilities, they have one of the highest rates.

Ms. Ashley: So this is furthering this idea that comprehensive education with more information about how to communicate your desire for someone to wear a barrier and use a barrier is going to be healthier.

Yes, one of the things this article says is that if comprehensive sex ed programs are offered in schools, positive outcomes can occur, including delay in the initiation and reduction in the frequency of sexual intercourse. A reduction in the number of sexual partners and an increase in condom use.

So wow, those are like 3 massive things we would love to have for all of our children and youth: reducing how many partners they have, increasing their use of condoms ’cause hey they know how to use them, and waiting.

So that’s one of the biggest things that I hear from people is, like, well, if you want to do comprehensive sex ed and if you want to be advocating for this idea of sex positivity and family cultures, all you’re doing is giving kids permission to do it earlier. I hear that so, so much and I just want to be very clear that is not the case.

Joreth: Yeah, I like to laugh every time that comes up. I’m like, how long has it been since you were a teenager? Because I remember being a teenager. Like, not having a lot knowledge didn’t stop anyone. My cohort was all about having sex at the time. So you know they don’t need to have this information to have sex, but having the information having that information is going to make it safer.

That’s a huge argument that Florida had, though, when the HPV vaccine came out and Florida actually tried to prevent people from getting it because they’re like, “o”h yeah, this is the vaccine.””

Joreth: Oh yes.

Franklin: What did they call it? There was an editorial in the paper that I read. They called it the “slut vaccine,” because, you know, you give people this vaccine and now all of a sudden they’re going to run around and be promiscuous because there’s no penalties. This comes from a mindset that says the way you prevent people from doing things that we consider bad is to punish them if they do.

Franklin: And STI prevention and harm reduction, they actually act against that philosophy.

Joreth: That’s the punishment.

Franklin: If you can prevent people from getting sick, if you can prevent people from having babies, you make them more immoral. That’s the mindset. And I don’t know how you counter that mindset.

Eunice: I don’t know. The guidance in the UK for the national curriculum specifically states outright that effective relationship and sex education does not encourage early sexual experimentation. They put it out there in those words and they’re just like moving on. Let’s just, let’s just ignore it, just moving on.

Ms. Ashley: I literally have this highlighted in this in this article. It says we know that abstinence is 100% effective at preventing pregnancy and STI’s, right? However, research has conclusively demonstrated that programs promoting abstinence only until heterosexual marriage occurs are ineffective. It doesn’t work.

Joreth: Like I said if that’s what I always tell, ’cause I work with so many conservative people ’cause I live in Florida. And every time this comes up, well, you know it’s just giving them permission. If there aren’t any punishments attached, then it’s just giving you permission. Like honey, you were a kid too and it didn’t stop you. So we know that not having the information does not stop them. We know this. We don’t need the studies. I’m glad we have them, but we don’t need them. We all know that not having the information doesn’t stop it.

Franklin: But I think that the fact that it doesn’t work is actually OK with a lot of people, particularly religious people who oppose sex ed, because they’re like, “we would rather see 20 wrongdoers punished ththan 18 wrongdoers not suffer harm for what they’re doing wrong. Like the fact that it does not prevent people from having sex or having kids or whatever, that’s fine. Because where they’re coming from is: yes, people will do this anyway. They need to suffer. They need to be punished.

Joreth: Right, but the point is that with the education they won’t be doing the wrongdoing.

Franklin: You can’t get them to believe that though. This is a fundamental identity sort of belief, and my mother always used to say when I was growing up, “information by itself almost never changes attitudes.” If you believe that sex ed gives people permission to have sex and that sex ed will cause promiscuity, no study, no table, no chart is going to change that, because that’s fundamentally a belief that comes from religious identity, not from fact.

Joreth: You can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into.

Franklin: Yes.

Eunice: And original sin. You’re already a Sinner. Is it such a surprise if you then go and sin?

Ms. Ashley: So none of that is rooted in evidence.

Franklin: Nope.

Ms. Ashley: It’s all rooted in myth. They are very preciously held myths from stories that people have chosen to put on a pedestal, and, you know, believe as fact. And so it’s important for us to say like that’s not real, that didn’t actually happen, but they’re great stories. If they’re important to you, I’m happy to respect that they’re important to you.

But what we actually know is that considerable evidence shows that sexual education programs can be effective in delaying sexual initiation among teens and increasing their use of contraception, especially condoms.

One study in 2007 found that there was no difference in the mean age of a first sexual encounter or the number of sexual partners between two groups when they looked at one group that had abstinence only education and another group that had abstinence plus education, meaning they had they learned about contraception as well.

So no effect. There was nothing positive in the abstinence only group. There was no difference in mean age of starting. So giving them more information about contraception did not make them go out and be crazy right?

Currently in the US, roughly 1/3 of high schools teach condom use. 1/3.

Joreth: 1/3

Franklin: Wow, that’s disappointing.

Ms. Ashley: It is. It is very disappointing, especially considering that is our front line of defense against all the STI’s. And I do not have this statistic right now, but the number of youth that experience an STI is rising, because they’re like uninformed about what the warning signs are that they might have something, or that they might be carrying something. And so then they don’t know what their body is telling them in order to go seek medical advice. So those that idea of like, hey, a condom could have prevented this had they have known about it or how to use it, is something I would love for parents to be specifically asking within their their children’s sex ed programs. Like, “Does this include condoms?”

Because it’s really hard to find out this information. I’m doing this right now with my own child program in their own school, and I had to like talk to the director of the program to get this information. It wasn’t anywhere online.

So if that’s another action item that families might want to go with, is just can you get to the bottom of whether or not your high schools in your area include this very important information?

Franklin: We had a lot to say, way more than we could fit in this episode, so we’ll be back next month with part 2 of this interview. And does it bother anyone but me that it takes so much work to find out what’s in the high school sex ed courses your kids might be taking?

Eunice: Yeah, it’s such a great point that she makes, and I don’t understand why there isn’t a clearly laid out curriculum for people to be able to look at? I mean, so many parents are getting so het up about what their kids are learning in sex ed, and it turns out most of them don’t even know?

Joreth: I can kinda understand if you think of it from the point of view that most of the super nosy busybodies wanting to check up on their kid’s sex-ed course are the conservatives who might get pissy at any accurate information included, that I could see a sex-ed provider being a little bit cagey about what’s in their course.

Eunice: Oh yeah, that’s a fair point.

Joreth: But that’s why we really need a robust, national, standard sex ed curriculum – so it can be transparent but also not subject to pressures from non-evidence-based, values-laden complaints, which we’ll also get to in the second half of the interview.

Franklin: So that’s this month’s episode! As before, you can find show notes and a transcript on skepticalpervert.com. Next month, we’ll also include all the links Ms. Ashley referenced during the interview in the show notes. Comments or ideas? Drop an email to contact@skepticalpervert.com. If you like the show, give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or wherever you found us. And don’t forget to join our patreon, which is linked on the website.

Eunice: And remember: be skeptical about your abstinence, not absent with your skepticism!

Joreth: I can’t turn that into a dirty joke or a way to torture Franklin, it’s just kind of an important message.

Franklin: That doesn’t sound like you.

Eunice: Don’t get used to it!

Joreth: We have plenty of other ways to torture you.

Episode 6: Libido, Accelerators, and Brakes!

This episode has been plagued with problems and technical glitches, but fear not, in the end we triumphed!

In this episide, the three of us talk about Emily Nagoski’s book Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life, which attempts to take a rigorous look at how libido works. (Spoiler: It’s complicated, and no, men aren’t always horny.)

Nagoski talks about “accelerators,” social and situational factors that drive us toward sexual engagement, and “brakes,” social and situational factors that hold back our libido. The book offers a quiz to help you understand how your libido works, though as we discuss in the episode, there are some problems with it (Nagoski seems to be coming from looking at libido from a narrow perspective of one-on-one monogamous encounters without factors like kink or fetishes).

Here’s the transcript:

Franklin: Hello, and welcome to Skeptical Perverts, the podcast where we look at human sexuality through an evidence-based, skeptical lens! I’m one of your hosts and part-time mad scientist, Franklin Veaux.

Joreth: Hi! I’m your co-host and Renaissance cat, Joreth! I have a background in human sexuality and relationship communication, I’m kinky, solo polyamorous, on the ace spectrum, chicana, feminist, my gender identity is “tomboy”, and my pronouns are she/her but I use masculine titles.

Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, grey-ace demisexual. I’m an East Asian cis woman, hailing from the British side of the pond, with a large pot of tea and a correspondingly sizeable dose of genteel snark. This week: libido! More specifically, spontaneous versus responsive libidos. We’ll also be talking about the excitatory and inhibitory sexual systems. A lot of what we’ll be discussing came from the book Come as You Are: the bestselling guide to the new science that will transform your sex life by Dr Emily Nagoski, specifically the revised and updated edition that came out in March 2021. 

Franklin: This book is really interesting, and I highly recommend it for a number of reasons. We took a look at it and some other sources for this episode (check out the show notes online), so let’s get started: Joreth and Eunice, you really wanted to talk about this topic, so what are spontaneous libido and responsive libido?

Joreth: Spontaneous Libido or Spontaneous Desire is what we think of as just “libido” – a person feels sexual arousal, and thinks “hey, I’m aroused, I should find something to have sex with!” This thought process is largely subconscious and nearly instantaneous, and if the person already has a regular sexual partner, then the question is answered for them without any conscious questioning of it. They feel arousal first, they go looking for their partner. 

Franklin: I like how you said “something to have sex with,” not “someone to have sex with.” 

Joreth:  That was deliberate!

Franklin:  That’s basically how I work! I’ll be walking down the street minding my own business and then Wham! Hey, I’m horny! It comes out of the blue, without necessarily being attached to any triggering sight or sound or anything. When I tried bremelanotide like we talked about in the first episode, I felt that same thing but a thousand times stronger.

Joreth: Hah, yeah, that has maybe only happened to me a handful of times in my entire life, and usually under very specific contexts, which we’ll get into later. A Responsive Libido or Responsive Desire is when the body has sexual things happening to it and then the brain goes “oh, right, we like this! OK, fire up the engines everyone, it’s time to have sex!”

Eunice: In many ways it’s hard to even really talk about this clearly — we barely have suitable words to describe the experience of responsive libidos, because we live in a world where spontaneous libidos are considered ‘the norm’ or ‘the ideal’ or even ‘what sexual desire looks like’. In that situation, how do you talk about having a responsive libido in a way that doesn’t sound like you’re saying “my unusual way of feeling sexual desire”? But having a responsive libido is not only entirely normal and usual, but Dr Nagoski suggests that everyone basically has it. It’s just that some people have the spontaneous version as well. 

Joreth: Yeah, it’s so frustrating because society 1) assumes that Spontaneous Desire is the default form of libido, making any other form of libido “deviant” automatically and then 2) assumes that Spontaneous Libido is the MALE default, which then if you follow that to its logical conclusion, means that women all have the same sex drive and that it’s deviant while all men have the same sex drive and that it’s the “normal” version.

Franklin: Assuming that spontaneous libido is ‘male’ and responsive libido is ‘female’ seems to fit what we see in a lot of romantic comedies, but I have to say I’ve known men with responsive libidos and I’ve dated women with spontaneous libidos, so calling them ‘male’ and ‘female’ libidos seems a little farfetched.

Joreth: Seems to fit romantic comedies and, like, every dudebro on the internet who swear that women don’t like sex but use it to dupe men into giving them money. And, yeah, I’ve dated quite a few men with responsive libidos. It’s convenient for them to have someone like me as a partner because they won’t get pressured by their partner into sex when they’re not feeling it or have their masculinity challenged when I’m also not feeling it. 

On the downside, though, we might both be open to sex if sexy stuff starts happening, but with neither of us starting it, I’ve been in several relationships where the sex just didn’t happen for months, even years at a time because it didn’t occur to either one of us to start it spontaneously.

Eunice: Oh goodness, yes that sounds familiar, have you been making notes on my relationships?? Before we go any further, one of the things I want to note here is that a lot of the research was done by researchers with assumptions about binary gender, so when we’re referring to studies we have to use the language they used in their write ups. It’s not that we, or Dr Nagoski, think that there are only cis females and cis males, it’s that the scientists who did the research started from that assumption, and often only studied cis people, so we’re having to discuss these studies in that light. And that is something we need to remember throughout. Scientists are also people, who are impacted by the media around them, and their societal conditioning. Which might also explain why it was so much easier to find studies referring to low libidos in women as normal, and only ever as something to ‘fix’ in men.

Franklin: We saw that when we did the episode on aphrodisiacs. Aphrodisiacs are generally prescribed to women, for “hypoactive sexual desire disorder,” and drugs like Addyi and Vyleesi are usually approved and prescribed for women. It’s that societal assumption Eunice was talking about: men are horndogs and women are frigid.

Joreth: So this brings up the issue of low libido vs. responsive libido, which are very much not the same thing. For my entire life, I thought I had a low libido because I didn’t seem to get aroused spontaneously, and I could go for long periods of time not having sex and not even noticing that I hadn’t had sex in a while.

But that didn’t quite match up with what was going on in my brain. See, also from a very young age, I have been preoccupied with thoughts of sex A LOT. I think about sex and relationships all the freaking time. So, for someone who thinks about sex all the time, I’m remarkably uninterested in it. Or, rather, I’m lacking arousal, which is not necessarily the same thing, as we’re about to discuss.

Eunice: Yeah, I have a low libido and I noticed that I can also go long periods of time without having sex and not noticing or missing it. But I can still talk about sex, and sexual ideas, without feeling aroused or actively desiring sex in that moment. That’s basically the state I was in when I wrote most of the sc-ifi erotica books with Franklin! Plus arousal and desire are not the same thing. It’s the difference between being mentally interested in sex and being physically ready to have it.

Joreth: Exactly. Once someone told me about the phrase “responsive desire” and I looked into it, everything seemed to click into place for me. I can talk about sex and think about it, but my body is not physically, sexually aroused. And then I can clinically talk about sex as an academic topic, and even as a fun and flirty topic, and still not be interested in having it. 

However, when I’m mentally receptive to sexyfuntimes happening, and then someone I want to have sexyfuntimes with starts doing sexyfuntime stuff to me, THAT’S when my body starts responding with lubrication, blood flow, nerve sensitivity, etc. And in the context of a regular partner, that can happen frequently, always in response to the sexyfuntimes, though.  Only very rarely, and in very specific circumstances, will I feel arousal with no deliberate trigger, like right after a breakup, which is something we can talk about later if there’s time.

Eunice: Yeah, there’s a difference between being aroused and desiring sex, and desiring sex with an actual person. There really are times when I just can’t be bothered with having another human around, you know? 

Franklin: Whereas my sexual experience is quite different. I’m capable of having sex when I don’t feel desire—I have an agreement with one of my partners where under certain circumstances she’s allowed to demand sex from me regardless of how I’m feeling and I’m not allowed to say no—but for most of the time my sex drive is a “touch to start” kind of thing. It goes from zero to 60 faster than a Tesla Model S Plaid.

Eunice: Oh, there have been a number of times when I told partners “hey, I’m not currently aroused but how about you get started without me and I’ll join in when the old arousal systems kick in?” because I really, really need a good long run up at the thing. It’s a pretty consistent pattern and timeframe, but I can’t just jumpkick the startup phase, y’know, I have to take the long, slow steady route. 

Franklin: And if we get distracted in the middle of the startup phase by talking about ideas for a novel, well…

Eunice: Next thing you know, we have a Google Doc with a bunch of ideas, and a bed full of unused condoms and lube and kinky sex toys. Eh, writers. 

Joreth: Right, I didn’t say I *couldn’t* have sex when I don’t feel desire. And in fact, I would say that the majority of my sex was that way, either we started first and the desire came along later, or I made a conscious decision to have sex for non-desire-related reasons so we had sex and the desire never [heh] arose. 

Now that I understand that my arousal can kick in later, I am much more able to consider “am I in a mental state where I COULD get turned on, or am I just not?” and if I am, then I can allow a partner to just start with me and I’ll catch up as long as they do the groundwork, aka foreplay. Of course, technically I can have sex when I don’t feel desire at any point during the process. I mean, I have innie parts, so all I really need is some lube, which can be store-bought. But that’s a whole other kink.

Franklin: Or set of kinks, really.

Joreth: Yes, several of which I have. 

Franklin: Oh, I did not know that about you! I just learned something new about you!

Joreth: One of the pros of a long distance relationship? We can go this many years together and still be learning new things about each other sexually? Point is, I’m very glad to have learned this phrase some years back, because it’s really opened up my sex drive. Now, instead of just saying “sorry, honey, not tonight, I’m not interested”, I can say “hmm, I’m not currently aroused, but if you do X, I could probably get revved up” or “I’m not aroused at the moment and not likely to get it up, but I’d be happy to do this act for you!”

Eunice: I don’t know whether it was a function of age, experience, or more knowledge, but being able to say to a partner “I’m not interested in having an orgasm right now, but I’d be up for helping you to one” really made a huge difference for how willing I would be to get up to sexyfuntimes.

Franklin: Or “I’m not interested in having an orgasm but I’d be up for helping keep you from having one,” as I recall.

Eunice: Only with people who like that sort of thing, of course! And you do keep coming back for it, so…

Joreth: 15 years together, Franklin…

Franklin: You are both terrible people! 

Eunice: You really seem to have a type, huh? 

Franklin: On advice of counsel, I have no comment on that at this time.

Eunice: Communication, it works a treat! That one sexy trick that they didn’t teach you in all the magazines!

Franklin: That is a really good point, though. A lot of the stuff that’s missing from pop sex advice seems to revolve around learning how your libido works and then communicating that to your partner. Magazines are so fixated on whipped cream and fuzzy handcuffs, they miss the basics: the neurobiology of sexual response.

Eunice: The problem is that they want that magic silver bullet. That one guaranteed, quick, easy solution that will 100% work every single time. And that just doesn’t exist. Unless you include an actual bullet vibe, I guess…

Franklin: Trufact: I once ordered an entire case of bullet vibes. A case of bullet vibes is more bullet vibes than you think. One of the reasons I love Come As You Are is it introduces the idea of competing excitatory and inhibitory neural circuitry that regulate sexual arousal, which Dr. Nagoski describes as an “accelerator” and “brakes.” The excitatory circuitry increases arousal, while the inhibitory circuitry decreases it. These systems are both active all the time, to a greater or lesser degree, and together they determine if you’re turned on or not.

Joreth: Which brings us back to our first episode on Aphrodisiacs. First of all, there’s no distinguishing between “low libido” or hypoactive sexual desire, and “responsive desire” in the general culture. Second, there’s the whole cultural bias about spontaneous desire being the “default” setting. So anyone who has anything that deviates from that category is looking for or is told they need that magic silver bullet to transform their sex drive into one that more closely resembles a spontaneous libido.

Franklin: Thinking about the difference between responsive and spontaneous libido, and our very different reactions to PT-141, I wonder if there’s a connection between the efficacy of melanocortin agonist aphrodisiacs and libido style. I don’t want to lean too heavily on anecdotal results with a sample size of two, but wouldn’t it be ironic if bremelanotide works better on people with spontaneous libidos than on people with responsive libidos? And I wonder how that ties into the excitatory and inhibitory circuits? If I ever get a huge pile of money, I’m going to put so many people under an fMRI machine while they have sex!

Eunice: Yeah, we’re giving you this one for free, sex researchers, just get us some usable data back!

Joreth: I would love to see a study where they screen people for responsive vs. spontaneous libidos, then double-blind give them either a placebo or PT141 and see if there are any significant differences between the 4 groups. If that did turn out to be the case, it would be incredibly frustrating, given that the whole reason why I would be interested in something like this is to make it more like a spontaneous libido, only to find out that it couldn’t work on me because I don’t already have one?

Eunice: I wonder if the pathways that PT-141 works on to kickstart the arousal are the same parts that spontaneous libidos are already using? Which would explain why that happens, if indeed it is happening. Jamming your proverbial finger on the accelerator button won’t do much good if you’ve also got your foot flooring the brake, I reckon..

Franklin: Come As You Are has a couple of quizzes designed to assess whether or not your inhibitory or excitatory systems are more active. It’s quite a simple test, but we thought it might be interesting to take the quiz and see what happens. The questions are all ranked from 0, “this is not me at all,” to 4, “this is totally me.” 

The quiz has 10 questions total and the score is out of 20 points(?) on each half – the excitors and the inhibitors.  We’re going to include our final scores and a bit of commentary here.  The entire conversation where we all took the quiz together is about an hour and a half long, so we broke that up into a recording on the excitor questions and a recording on the inhibitor questions, and both of those recordings will be made available to our Patreons.  So if you want to hear the whole, unscripted conversation, become a patron on Patreon!  Here’s the summary with our scores:

Franklin: So the scores go from zero to 20. My score on the inhibitor section is a one. So I guess that means I—

Joreth: You have no inhibitors.

Franklin: And my sexual brakes as she calls them.

Eunice: You are not inhibited at all.

Franklin: She refers to sexual brakes and sexual accelerators.

Joreth: You have no brakes on your libido.

Franklin: And the purpose of this question. I have few brakes on my libido. I do have brakes on my libido, but my brakes are not the things that she thinks they are. Brakes tend to center on: is my partner engaged as my partner active is my partner having a good time here? Do I feel safe with this partner? Have we negotiated what’s happening? Is this a context that I feel I have given informed consent to and my partner has given informed consent to? Are we all fully on board, but the things that she thinks about as brakes? Or not, the things that inhibit my libido. So what did you guys score?

Joreth: Actually, I think I scored fairly low. I expected to score higher. I got a 12 out of 20 on this. I expected to have much more sensitive brakes and I think part of the problem is, like you, Franklin, I do have quite a few inhibitors in my own brain. I just don’t think she touched him.

Eunice: Interestingly, I got 10 and that actually totally tracks with what I thought I had, which is I have medium level brakes. Brakes are not my issue, like they’re not the worst thing, but they’re also not like this means that they’re just kind of about average. My problem is that I don’t have many exciters like I have. We haven’t done the questions for the exciters yet, but my prediction for myself is that I will have a lot lower score for the exciters. I just am not getting like I’m not hitting that accelerator as much is what I predict is what I think.

Franklin: So how did we do on the expanded section? I think I scored a zero on the question about smells and I still ended up with a 14, which I guess is probably above average. I don’t know. We don’t know what the norms are for these and I got a 14 which is fairly high for the exciters and a one which is very low for the inhibitors.

Joreth: Oh, that’s true.

Eunice: I got 8/8 out of 20 for exciters, yeah.

Joreth: I got nine, so nine out of 20.

Eunice: That’s like fairly consistent for people who have a responsive libido. You know responsive libidos because quite frankly, these questions are not maybe focused in areas that would be nuanced enough for me to dig down any deeper into this. But like it for me at least, it feels pretty accurate to me that my inhibitors are kind of about like middling, but my exciters are kind of on the lower level ’cause it’s not that anything is super sensitive, it’s that it’s insensitive.

So what did we learn?

Franklin: Looking at the list of exciters, a lot of my personal exciters don’t appear there. I’m also confused about some of the inhibitors.

My takeaway from the quiz is first of all, it’s highly vanilla and mononormative. Second, I self-identify as someone with a spontaneous libido and I match the description of someone with a spontaneous libido pretty well, but I absolutely don’t see myself reflected in those questions. I think the idea of accelerators and brakes is good, but the questions in the quiz absolutely don’t fit me, and don’t describe the way my accelerators and brakes work. You can’t look at this quiz and get a good understanding of my libido.

Joreth: I’m with you, Franklin, when I read a description of Responsive Desire, I think I fit quite squarely in the description, but the questions made assumptions about sex and how we might like or not like stuff doesn’t line up. She has a very romance-novel view of sex where sex, and specifically women’s bodies, are beautiful and she wants very much for all of us to agree that this is all beautiful and that somehow sex is only going to be good once we all agree, and there is this one type of transcendent, soul-stirring sex that we should all be reaching for, and I just don’t agree. 

Biology, and humans specifically, are just gross, and ridiculous and totally inefficient, and that should be OK. There are a lot of different kinds of sex and different kinds of sensations that are not always transcendent but that doesn’t mean they’re “lesser”. There is absolutely nothing that is “beautiful” about your kazoo ball gag, Franklin – it’s silly and absurd and messy and it shouldn’t have to be “beautiful” to still have value.

Eunice: I mean, that kazoo ball gag was also hilarious. And the humiliation is a kink some people would definitely enjoy. But yeah. Her view of ‘good’ sex was…sweet, and charming, and always focused on mutual pleasure and connection. Sometimes we just want brain melting intensity and the ability to rub sweaty gross human fleshy bits together and that’s ok, you know? Or, in my case, I occasionally quite enjoy the kind of sex that isn’t intended to lead to orgasms for me, but will lead to many, many, probably way more than they wanted, orgasms for my sex partner. *cough*Franklin*cough*.

Franklin: The thing about forced orgasms is they’re the closest thing in the real world we have to ‘Blessings’ in our science fiction novels, drugs that let you change your feelings or responses to sex at will. Forced orgasms sound hot when you’re aroused, but once you’re done, you’re done, you don’t want them, and they aren’t hot any more. Which is what makes them hot.

Eunice: And that’s what makes the difference between a person who goes “I didn’t like that” and your response of “I didn’t like that, when can we do it again?” So…you’re welcome?

But back to the quiz! The fact that in a 10 question quiz there were multiple times where we debated what the question was actually trying to ask, and came up with multiple interpretations that would give different responses did not lead me to feeling confident about the answers I gave. I don’t even know if they were answering the actual questions as she meant them to be asked. She mentions:

Don’t mistake this for actual science! It’s a Cosmo quiz adaptation of the science, intended to guide you in your understanding of how your internal sexual response mechanism may influence your response to sexual stimulation, but it is just an approximation.

Now, in the footnotes she says that hers was adapted from Milhausen et al., “Validation of the Sexual Excitation/Sexual Inhibition Inventory” and Janssen et al., “The Sexual Inhibition/Sexual Excitation Scales—Short Form.” The originals are a little longer and more specific, but not by much! And some of the questions are exactly the same, or in some cases a few questions smashed together. This quick version she offers is very accurately described as a “Cosmo quiz adaptation” though — with many of the same fundamental issues and unconscious biases you often get in Cosmo magazine.

Franklin: Yeah, Cosmo tends to be mononormative and vanilla too. The problem, I think, is the idea about what sex looks like. We all carry templates around in our heads about what things are, and it’s easy to grow up in a monogamous, sex-negative society so that when you hear the word “sex,” you think “a man and a woman on a bed surrounded by candlelight engaging in missionary-position intercourse.” And if that’s the image you have, the questions you ask about sex will unconsciously lean that way.

So you end up asking questions like “If it is possible someone might see or hear us having sex, it is more difficult(?) for me to get aroused.” This really assumes that sex is private and done in couples; many people don’t have either of those ideas. And “Sometimes I feel so “shy” or self-conscious during sex that I cannot become fully aroused” is quite different for exhibitionists, where self-consciousness of the right kind can be a turn-on! There are many different varieties of self-consciousness, and some people find some of them hot. 

The quiz in the book borrows from the Sexual Excitation/Sexual Inhibition Inventory for Women, but some of the questions, like “Seeing a partner do something that shows their talent or intelligence, or watching them interacting well with others can make me very sexually aroused,” squish multiple questions together.

Eunice: Which explains why sometimes it was hard to answer her version. You’re effectively trying to answer two or three questions in one numerical response, when you might have different answers for each bit. I wonder, looking at the questions she picked and the ones she left out, whether she just selected the ones that spoke to her, and ignored the ones that she didn’t quite connect with. There’s a section titled ‘Sexual Power Dynamics’, for example, that includes questions like “Feeling overpowered in a sexual situation by someone I trust increases my arousal.” That directly speaks to a kink mindset! Like, that’s a major part of many people’s submissive preferences. And she just totally misses that entire bit of the quiz out. 

Plus there’s another bit that’s titled ‘Setting (Unusual or Unconcealed)’, with four questions in there. Those four questions are basically balanced half and half between “being caught, or being in a non-private setting is a turn on” and “being caught, or being in a non-private setting is a turn off”. That’s a typical way to try and get more accurate responses by pairing questions and comparing the answers you get to see if they’re consistent. The author has selected one of those four questions as a stand-in for that entire topic, which is fine except that she really needs to have selected one of the other questions! Because having the question “If it is possible someone might see or hear us having sex, it is more difficult for me to get aroused.” in the excitor section means that giving higher points to it is indicating the opposite of what she meant to indicate! A high score is not saying that “I get excited at the possibility of getting caught”, that’s saying “I am inhibited by the possibility of getting caught”. 

Franklin: I found that confusing, for sure. And for me, there’s a difference between “someone I trust seeing or hearing me in a consensual context,” which is neither a turn on nor a turnoff, vs “some stranger seeing or hearing me non-consensually,” which is a turnoff.

Joreth: So, there’s this other quote in the book that I liked: “It is normal to not want sex you don’t like.” Although there is more diversity among men and among women than between men vs. women, still more have women reported having a responsive libido and more men have reported having a spontaneous libido. That may be connected to the fact that heterosexual sex from the woman’s perspective is generally mediocre to bad, and if the libido is responsive anyway and not likely to start arousal first and then drive the person to finding a partner, the person would naturally not desire sex if all their sex is not good. 

I’ve had to explain to partners before that sex for women is more *expensive* in terms of risks, consequences, and even time and effort in exchange for quality, and sometimes even if I have a spontaneous desire, that desire gets ignored or suppressed because finding or initiating sex is just *not worth it*. Spend enough years like that, and that could condition someone into not having a spontaneous libido anymore, or not recognizing it. As she then says, “[P]erhaps much of what is currently diagnosed as sexual desire disorders can be best understood as a healthy response to dismal and disappointing sex.”

Eunice: And oh man, is it easy and common as a woman to have dismal and disappointing sex with cishet guys…

Franklin: Here again, though, I have a kind of “yes, but…” response. I often have sex I don’t enjoy in the moment, but I do enjoy in the memory. I think when she says “sex you don’t like,” she’s talking about something very specific, and not thinking about those of us who engage in kinks that we might not necessarily enjoy in the moment, but we still see value in anyway.

I’m not a masochist. I don’t enjoy pain. I have several partners who are sexual sadists, and I let them (or should I say let you?) do things to me I don’t like…because getting my partner hot is really nice. I particularly hate needle play, but I have a lover who really digs it, and seeing it get her hot is worth it to me, even though I don’t like it.

Eunice: And yet you keep coming back for more…

Franklin: Exactly! Sometimes I want sex I don’t like. I bet my experience isn’t unique here, and a lot of kinky people who read this book may feel like it doesn’t speak to their experiences.

Joreth: Yes, there is a difference here between “I did not actively receive pleasure from that activity, but I got a payout from it in another form such as a good memory” vs. “I actively disliked everything about this activity.” Like, I “like” flogging even though it hurts, but I DISlike, say, electrical play even though it doesn’t really hurt. I like rape PLAY but I don’t like RAPE. And it’s that kind of expense that I’m talking about.

Sex for people with innie parts in this culture can be expensive, with higher risk of STDs, higher risk of pregnancy, social stigma, and then tack on a responsive libido where there is *effort* that has to be made to get ramped up, and THEN add on typically male partners who don’t know how to make that kind of effort, and yeah, the sex isn’t going to be that great and it’s totally normal to not desire something you don’t like.

Franklin: True. I think it’s easy to conflate those two types of “I don’t like this,” especially when your mental image of what sex looks like is highly vanilla.

Eunice: I mean, even the sex I have that looks vanilla isn’t always actually vanilla. 

Joreth: No, kind of related to vanilla vs. kinky labels but also not, there is another concept I talk about a lot – personality types and boxes. In the book, the author makes a case for *everyone* having a responsive libido, just that some people also have a spontaneous libido in addition. She then says “Research suggests about half of women might be categorized as one or the other, spontaneous or responsive. Most people’s desire style is probably – drumroll, please – context dependent.”

Franklin: I also wonder how much of it is something people can control. I’m the poster child for spontaneous libido, but I make a point to be that way. I deliberately spend time keeping a relatively high baseline level of arousal, and intentionally cultivate a mindset where I think about sex. I do think that makes a difference.

Eunice: I’m not sure it’s as controllable as she implies? Like, if sexual orientation was a choice, surely straight women wouldn’t exist anymore! And I like men, as a rule. But oh boy, I am so glad I have a choice on the matter. Similarly, if I could choose to have a spontaneous libido, I would. That’s what the aphrodisiac experiment was about. And that’s one of the things that was so alluring about the scifi erotica world we built — that idea of being able to control my own libido with such precision. I think about and talk about and write about sex a lot, but it’s not something I’m applying to me. It’s mental, it’s not grounded in my body. I’m just not aroused most of the time.  

However, the premise of this book is that it can be controlled, by changing the context. And…I don’t know if I fully agree with that, for everyone.

Joreth:  The idea of the Desire classification being context-dependent vs. distinct categories reminds me of the most common and erroneous criticism of personality type systems. People see the systems as being mutually exclusive, self-contained categories so they either dismiss the type system outright as being “bullshit” or they make up these “both” categories that negate the usefulness of the category system. 

I am right-handed, yet I use my left hand, Quite frequently too. I don’t say that I’m “context-dependent-handed”. Yes, I get that “ambidextrous” is a category that exists, but that’s not the same thing – that means that the person can do pretty much everything equally well with both hands, not that which hand they use is “context dependent”. 

Literally everyone who has two hands uses both of them depending on context, to a greater or lesser degree. But we have a *dominant* hand that we use more often, that is stronger, more dexterous, or that can do tasks more easily than the other *even though* sometimes the other hand is better at something. Like, if I’m carrying something in my right hand, the context might make me choose to open the door with my left. That’s not the same as being ambidextrous, and I wouldn’t say that makes me “context-dependent-handed”. I’m still right handed.

These are two independent, parallel scales – one for how much you use your right hand and how easy tasks are, and another scale for your left hand. And if one scale is higher on frequency, ease of use, dexterity, etc., than the other, than we say we are that-handed *even though* the scale for the other hand also has a value.

So the fact that, on occasion, the context allows me to feel desire in a way that might be described as “spontaneous”, I don’t think that prevents me from falling into the category of “responsive libido” because creating those contexts is *work* for me – it’s something I have to deliberately go out of my way to create (or it’s an extreme situation, like a breakup, that doesn’t happen, thankfully, often). So, Franklin, your brain chemistry allows those contexts to exist more or less effortlessly and I have to build them consciously and deliberately. Like being a lefty and taking the time to teach myself how to write with my right hand.

Eunice: Yeah, this is work. Sometimes my partners think I had a period of spontaneous desire, but they just didn’t see the huge amount of preparation that I did. I’m starting anywhere from an hour to several days beforehand so that I can be ramped up enough to match their level of arousal by the time we meet. That’s still responsive, but I’m just deliberately creating my own triggers for that response. 

Franklin: So the tl;dr of our takeaways from this book are:

  • Spontaneous and responsive libido are a thing, even if they’re not necessarily two separate boxes that hold two different kinds of people.
  • Different people have different accelerator triggers and brakes that combine to give them either a spontaneous or responsive libido
  • It’s okay to say “I want to have sex but I’m not aroused yet, so you go ahead and get started and I’ll catch up.” You don’t have to match your partner perfectly in all stages of arousal.
  • Physical arousal is not the same thing as sexual interest or desire.
  • Nobody is broken just because the way or the amount that you respond to sexual triggers is different to someone else.
  • The current research on spontaneous and responsive libidos needs to be more aware that some people aren’t monogamous and some people are kinky, and these differences change the assumptions researchers make about what sex looks like.

Franklin: So that’s what we’ve got. How about you all? Send ideas, comments, or suggestions for future episodes to contact@skepticalpervert.com. And if you know someone else who might enjoy this podcast, why not share the love, by giving us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or your podcatcher of choice.  You can visit www.skepticalpervert.com to check out the show notes for the transcript. And don’t forget to become a patron on Patreon, which is linked on the website. Patrons can hear the full version of the quiz we took, where we elaborated on our responses and griped about the questions.

The Skeptical Pervert is copyrighted and produced by Franklin Veaux, Eunice Hung, and Joreth Innkeeper, edited by Joreth Innkeeper, and the website and show notes are maintained by Franklin Veaux.

Eunice:  And remember, if you’re having trouble getting aroused, you could always force someone else to have orgasms instead!

Franklin:  Right! If the other person is more aroused than you, you could try to catch up, or you could force them to have orgasms until they’re not aroused any more!

Eunice:  And if you get aroused in the process, well…

Joreth:  Give them even more orgasms!

Franklin:  What’s the safeword again?

Episode 5: Diversity in the Age of a Pandemic

In this episode, part of our mini-series of sex during a global plague, we take a skeptical look at a paper published in the journal Leisure Sciences called “Less Sex, but More Sexual Diversity: Changes in Sexual Behavior during the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic.”

Along the way, we talk about the null hypothesis, the scientific method, and evaluating a research paper.

Transcript below.

Franklin: Hello, and welcome to Skeptical Perverts, the podcast where we look at human sexuality through an evidence-based, skeptical lens! I’m one of your hosts and part-time mad scientist, Franklin Veaux.

Joreth: Hi! I’m your co-host and Renaissance cat, Joreth! I have a background in human sexuality and relationship communication, I’m kinky, solo polyamorous, on the ace spectrum, chicana, feminist, my gender identity is “tomboy”, and my pronouns are she/her but I use masculine titles.

Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, solopoly, demisexual, East Asian Brit, ready with my pot of tea and a healthy dose of genteel snark!

Franklin: Today we’re returning to a topic that’s seriously affected all of us: sex in the time of an international plague. We, your hosts, are all part of a globe-spanning extended romantic network, so when this globe-spanning pandemic got going, it hit pretty close to home.

Eunice: Oh, and this is part 3 of our Sex in the Time of Pandemic mini series: Sexual Diversity! If you haven’t listened to parts 1 and 2, you’ll probably want to go back and check them out too, but you don’t need to listen to them in order.

Franklin: Today we’re looking at an interesting study, Less Sex, but More Sexual Diversity: Changes in Sexual Behavior during the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic. The researchers were looking into the hypothesis that the pandemic may be responsible for a surge in people experimenting with new kinds of sex, especially folks without a live-in partner or people in long-distance relationships. 

Given how hard it is to get research money for anything related to sex, the fact that this research exists is a bit surprising. I guess people have to die before funding frees up for sex research.

Eunice: Not sure that’s entirely true. 1980s, anyone? That’s the last time we had a global pandemic that affected people’s sexual behaviour, anyway. And research on that took a long time to get funded.

Franklin: Ouch. Okay, fair point.

Eunice: It’s definitely true that this study came out remarkably fast though. So what does the study actually say?

Franklin: Before we talk about the study’s conclusions, I think we need to take a look at that hypothesis, the demographics of the survey participants who volunteered for the study, and how they used the data they collected. And be aware, this podcast might be all over the place, because the study we’ll be talking about is a bit all over the place.

Eunice: Well that’s an understatement and a half. It’s so understated it’s almost British.

Joreth:  This study is so unfocused that it couldn’t find its ass with both hands and a map!

Eunice: Isn’t that Franklin? Oh wait, I think that might be me too. Hang on, are you the only one of us who has any sense of direction??

Franklin: I know precisely where my ass is, thank you very much. It’s everything else I can’t find. I still get lost in my own neighborhood.

Joreth:  Hah, yeah, I think I am the only one here with any sense of direction!  OK, so this study is so unfocused, my old director just called me from across the country to yell at me about checking the focus on the screen.  (I may have been watching too much Mrs. Maisel lately. Thank you and goodnight!)

Franklin: Anyway, back to the study! It’s called “Less Sex, but More Sexual Diversity: Changes in Sexual Behavior during the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic,” which might make you think it was a study about the differences in sexual behavior during the pandemic and before the pandemic. The first issue I have reading the study is they talk a lot about the way people are having sex during the pandemic, and then talk about how many people changed their sexual behavior during the pandemic, but they don’t talk about how those changes compare pre- and post-pandemic. In other words, they’ll say thus and such many people tried something new during the pandemic, but how does that compare to how many people tried something new before the pandemic? Did the rate of trying new things increase, decrease, or stay the same? We don’t know; the researchers didn’t gather those data.

Eunice: I don’t know how they intended to answer any of those questions without getting baselines. Plus, getting those data is really important, but also really important is who you ask for that data!

Joreth: Yeah I think another major point here is that the demographics are not at all representative of North American or world averages, in so many different ways! Like, in contrary directions, they manage to not be representative.

First of all, 71.1% of the 1,559 respondents were “female”. 71 PERCENT! While 23.4% were “male” and 4.5% were “nonbinary”. Next we have 84.1% of respondents being white with the remaining 16% being a mix of other races. Neither of which matches the general US population which tend around 50% each. Meaning that the population is assigned “male” and “female” at very close to 50/50, and while white people continue to outnumber each other individual racial demographic, added all together, white people are very quickly approaching the 50% mark, with projections estimating that they will become an ethnic minority in the near future (assuming you add all the other ethnicities together). So these demographics don’t match the general population.

In addition, the income stats are WAY not representative. The largest majority (and not by a huge margin) at 24.8% is people with a median income of $20-55,000, which is pretty solidly middle class, and I’m under the impression that this income group is steadily declining.

Eunice: Oh yeah, and the next biggest group, at 24.6%, is $100,001 to a quarter of a million dollars. That’s wild. The two groups in the middle contain less than 15% of participants each! How does that gap even happen?! I’d also like to point out here that your three fabulous hosts are really not people who have any idea what $100,001 to quarter of a million dollars annual incomes would even look like, so, you know. Anyone wanna change that, get in touch!

Joreth: I would love to test the hypothesis that there is a cap to the amount of money that brings happiness, just sayin’. 

Franklin: The study says participants were recruited via Internet-based snowball sampling. Snowball sampling is a technique where you get participants to recruit other participants, like a multilevel marketing scheme for science. The problem is demographic clustering; people tend to socialize with other people who are like themselves. So if you seed your study with a particular kind of participant and rely on snowball sampling, that’s the kind of participant you’ll continue to get.

Joreth:  So that basically skews the demographics in a pretty non-liberal way – white, middle class to wealthy, women. But then we look at orientation stats, and we see only 52.7% heterosexual with everyone else fitting under the queer umbrella. Which skews the data in a decidedly *liberal* direction, seeing as how the US population is somewhere around 95-ish% straight.

Franklin: Looking at these demographics, it really seems like they reached two demographic clusters: Middle American suburbs, and urban San Francisco. That explains the weird peaks in the income distribution and the rather strange distribution of respondents who self-identify as straight vs. queer. It’s like they took these two groups and said “on average they’re a fair distribution,” which is a bit like putting one foot in hot water and one foot in ice water and saying “on average, I’m comfortable.”

Eunice: Mean, median, mode, folks—pay attention to which form of average you’re using!

Franklin: “My comfort has a bimodal distribution.” You know, sometimes when I’m around the two of you, my comfort DOES have a bimodal distribution.

Eunice: So on average, you love it? Anyway, one of the reasons we keep comparing to the US population is that the majority—73.4%—of respondents are from the US. For a survey that attempts to extrapolate to all Western populations, it doesn’t really take into account that from everything I’ve seen, the US is something of an outlier in its attitudes towards sex compared to the other Western countries.

Franklin: In general, I’m not convinced the study data really supports the study’s conclusions, demographic weirdness aside.

Eunice: Real talk here: I’m not entirely sure that they waited until the data came in before writing those conclusions. Oh wait, is that libelous? I probably shouldn’t say that, huh. But seriously, looking at the tables of data in this study…I mean, I know I’m bad at statistics, but I really don’t think I’m as bad at statistics as these tables are implying to my brain. My brain actively hurts trying to read these.

Joreth:  To be fair, I think everyone is bad at statistics, because our brains (generally speaking) are just not made for statistics, but holy fuck is this an unreadable set of tables!  I mean, it shouldn’t have taken me as long as it did just to figure out WHAT THE FUCK ARE THEY REFERENCING IN THIS TABLE?!

Franklin: So let’s dive into some problems with this study. But first, let’s talk about p-values.

Joreth:  Because with this study, you really need to understand p-values to understand just how bad this study is.

Eunice: So what are p-values, exactly?

Franklin: When you read a study, you should see p-values listed next to conclusions. Put simply, and handwaving over some nuance, the p-value is the statistical chance that the null hypothesis is correct; that is, the chance that the data might just be random, and the data don’t support a connection between the things you’re asserting are connected.

High p-values mean the conclusion is not well supported, or to put it more properly, that the null hypothesis is better supported or can better account for the data you’re seeing. Low p-values mean it’s less likely the null hypothesis is correct. So if you say two things are correlated, and you say the p-value is .001, that means you’re saying there’s a 0.1% chance that your data are just random and the two things aren’t correlated. On the other hand, a p-value of 0.8 means about an 80% chance the null hypothesis is correct and these things aren’t really correlated.

Joreth:  So, is this what you’re saying?  A study starts with a hypothesis, which is a statement of what the researchers are investigating.  Then they set about trying to disprove that statement, and if they can’t disprove it, then the statement is likely to be correct.  If something in the study has a p value of, say, .05, then it means that there is only a 5% chance that their statement is wrong, therefore they are 95% confident they’re onto something?

Franklin: Basically yes, and then we get to what the null hypothesis is.

Eunice:  OK, so what is a null hypothesis?

Franklin:  Generally speaking, the “null hypothesis” is usually “there is no relationship between these things” or “there is no difference between these two groups.” So if you say “men are better singers than women,” the null hypothesis is “there’s no meaningful difference in the singing skills of men and women.”

If your p-value is .05, that means there’s a 5% chance that your data might show what they show if the null hypothesis were true. If it’s .8, there’s an 80% chance your data might show what they show if the null hypothesis were true.

This is simplified, of course, so if you’re a statistician and you’re cringing right now, that’s why.

Joreth:  OK, so if your p-value is .8 and your hypothesis is that men are better singers than women, then that means there is an 80% chance that men are not, in fact, statistically better singers than women according to your data, because your hypothesis is that there IS a relationship between men and women – that men are better, while the null hypothesis states that there is NO difference between the two groups, right?

Eunice: That makes sense. And I know the usual p-value that’s typically used in a lot of studies is .05, meaning that it needs to be at least 95% likely to be true for the researcher to be confident about their conclusion. So what hypothesis are they actually trying to disprove in this study, and why are they using the p-values they chose? Because it feels like it should not have taken this much effort to work it out.

Franklin: So let’s circle back and see how that plays out in this study. In this particular study, the researchers started out examining whether men or women were more likely to make a new addition to their sex lives. The data have a p-value of .833 which means the null hypothesis, that there’s no difference between men and women adding new things to their sex life, is most strongly supported.

Joreth:  OK, so they started *out* looking at whether men or women were likely to make new additions (and we’ll get back to that point), but then they used the results of a survey with a whopping 71% self-identified women?  Can you really compare, at that point, between those two genders when their representation is so imbalanced?

Eunice: So I know it sounds like we’re putting a lot of effort into ripping apart this study, and all this talk of stats and p-values and such is probably sounding a bit dry right about now, but this study is a really great example of what not to do, and we’d love to talk about what we’d prefer to see in sex research instead.

Joreth: In order to understand why we want to see what we want to see, we feel that we need to dig in to why this study was so bad, so let’s get into that for a bit before we discuss what we’d rather see in sex research. In this study, they found something interesting. They found that, basically, the frequency or *amount* of sex people were having went down, but the *quality* of their sex life did not.

“Many participants (43.5%) reported a decline in the quality of their sex life, with the remainder reporting that it either stayed the same (42.8%) or improved (13.6%). Average frequency of solo and partnered sexual behaviors significantly decreased compared to past year frequencies. Thus, during this period of widespread restrictions on movement and social contact, frequency of sexual behavior—an activity often pursued for pleasure and leisure purposes—decreased on average.”

So if you look at those numbers, decline in quality and no change in quality is very nearly identical – 43.5% vs. 42.8%, but when you include in improvement at 13.6%, decent quality of sex was actually the majority, then they jump to talking about a decline in frequency as if it’s related.

Eunice: See, this is one of the reasons I found this study so hard to understand. It jumps from a conclusion about quality to talking about quantity in the very next sentence without actually explaining why. It just puts two different conclusions side by side, implying that they’re connected. In fact, it’s practically encouraging you to draw the unconscious link between the two!

Joreth:  Yeah, I feel like this quote here is guiding me to the conclusion that “pandemic sex sucks” by linking a decrease in frequency with nearly equal levels of quality in sex.

Franklin: One of the things that really worries me is the table labeled “Frequency of new additions to participants’ sex lives during the pandemic.” This table contains such extreme and far-out new activities as “Tried a new sexual position,” “Shared sexual fantasies with a partner,” and “Took a shower/bath with a partner.” If these are new activities people are exploring, I weep for humanity. And what’s even more frightening are the raw numbers. This is a study with thousands of respondents, and the number of people who say they tried a new sexual position? 49. Shared sexual fantasies? 41. I mean, not everyone writes science fiction novels based on shared sexual fantasies, but still.

Eunice: OK, but looking at those numbers, and bearing in mind this group probably skews more liberal given they answered an online survey about sex, it might just be that they’ve already tried this stuff before, so it wouldn’t count as ‘new’ behaviour. So yeah, maybe only 49 out of 1559 participants reported having tried a new sexual position during the pandemic, but they all presumably tried a new sexual position for the first time at some point in their sexual experiences, right? They didn’t exactly come out of the womb having tried erotic lotus with upside down cowgirl and one-eyed banana, surely? (FYI I totally just made that up so I have no idea what that position would look like, write in with your suggestions!)

Joreth: Right, I mean, just looking at physics and biology, considering the amount of sex I’ve had over my lifetime, I have literally tried every sexual position that’s even possible for my body to get into, so “tries new sexual position” is probably never going to happen to me (for the first time) again. And as I age, sexual positions will only drop off my repertoire, not get added. Hell, at this age, with my hips and knees, just regular old cowgirl is challenging!

Franklin: There goes my plans for trying the Monkey with Lotus Blossom and Chainsaw with you.

Joreth: Well, we still have my penchant for taboo places!

Eunice: The beach is on my taboo list, mainly because I never want sand in those places ever again.

Joreth: Fair point.

Franklin: I have a story about that. The sand…yeah, not a pleasant memory. Back to the study’s demographics. Young people as a demographic are also more likely to try new things in any given year simply because they haven’t had as much experience generally. When you’ve only been having sex for a year or two, many things you try are new to you.

Which is not to say there’s not still plenty of new things to try even as we get more experienced. You could live for centuries, doing something different in bed every night without ever repeating the same thing twice, and still not have time to do it all. That said, I’ll wager most people in their 20s try new things more often than people in their 50s, COVID notwithstanding. Separating the “I tried new things” from “I tried new things because of COVID” is a significant challenge, and it doesn’t really look like the study’s authors did that.

Eunice: Good point. I know it’s probably hard to retroactively find a control group, but it’s like they didn’t even try

Joreth: The study’s summary also says:

“Those who lived with a partner reported higher rates of partnered behaviors than those living alone, such as trying new sexual positions and acting on sexual fantasies; by contrast, living alone was linked to higher rates of virtual and technology-based behaviors compared to those with a live-in partner, such as sexting and sending nude photos.”

Joreth: Ya think?

Franklin: In other shocking news, water is wet.

Eunice: Is it, though? Water gets things wet, but is it actually wet itself?

Franklin: That’s a philosophical question, which might be outside the scope of this podcast. 

Eunice: Spoilsport!

Joreth: Then there’s this quote:

“Several psychological variables were linked to new additions; however, some associations differed across gender. Bivariate correlates of new additions are presented in Table 5. For men and women, reporting more sexual desire in the past two weeks was linked to new additions. For men only, loneliness was associated with new additions; for women only, desire for sex with one’s partner in the past two weeks, stress, and loneliness during the pandemic were associated with new additions.”

Franklin: If trying new things is statistically correlated with loneliness and stress, and unhappiness with your sex life is correlated with loneliness and stress, then you can’t make any inferences about whether trying new things is or is not likely to increase your sexual satisfaction, because both these things are linked to loneliness and stress. Loneliness and stress is a confounding factor that prevents you from establishing a causative relationship between trying new things and sexual satisfaction.

There’s something else I’m really curious about too. The study says

“Approximately one in five participants (20.3%) reported making a new addition to their sex life since the pandemic began. Most (62.7%) reported making one new addition, with 18.4% making two, 7% making three, and 12% making four or more.”

I’m really curious, though, how many people in any given year would report making an addition like this to their sex life WITHOUT a pandemic. Is that more than usual? Less than usual? Statistically normal? How are “new additions” counted? Is trying two new positions a single addition or two additions? What about two new sex toys?

Eunice: I think there’s an entirely reasonable desire here to tell a ‘Just So’ story, saying that of course when you’re bored and isolated as a result of the pandemic, then sex is a thing you would do more of. And if you have all that extra time, then you’d of course try new things. It feels logical. But without the baseline, how can anyone even tell? It’s just a story, not a hypothesis, and there’s no way to falsify it. It’s not even an entirely good story — I could come up with just as logical an explanation for the opposite claim. Also, here’s another interesting quote I spotted:

“Generally, only partnered activities were linked to improvements, with few technology-based activities showing any association.”

Now, according to this, only adding new partnered sexual activities showed any statistical likelihood of increased sexual satisfaction. Additional novel solo activities didn’t. Have they considered that it might be not the additional sexual activities in themselves, but the act of exploring new activities with your partner? Did they control for people who started new, non-sex-based, hobbies together and whether they had increased life satisfaction?

Franklin: Relationship satisfaction is about more than just sex.

Joreth:  Yeah, something that I think a lot of people have a lot of trouble understanding, judging by the number of Quora questions I get asking why anyone would keep dating a person in particular if they can get sex elsewhere, is that it’s not the sex that’s the important part of a relationship, it’s all the other things and the sex is usually a barometer for all the other important things.  So to relate it to the context of this study, what if it’s not the act of new sex stuff that made people express satisfaction with their relationship, but the act of new STUFF, period?  Because what if the very nature of adding new things to a relationship is the result, not the cause, of a relationship between two people who are actively engaged in their relationship together?

Something this study doesn’t even question is the direction of the causal relationship.  Like, what if the reason why those who did NOT try new things didn’t try it because they got stuck together with someone they never should have been spending that much time together with, and now that they’re stuck together, they don’t even want to have any sex, let alone new and creative sex, which requires a trusting, intimate, vulnerable setting to even bring up the subject.

Franklin: So the takeaway here is looking at relationship satisfaction through the lens of sex misses the fact that both relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction may correlate with other factors, like trust, vulnerability, basic compatibility, and openness.

I feel that way reading this whole study. I’m glad to see people are putting time and attention into sex research, and I think research on how the pandemic has affected sexual relationships is potentially valuable. I am not convinced this study is particularly illuminating, though.

Eunice: I’ll be honest, this study had me so turned around I’m questioning my reading abilities, at this point. I feel like I was constantly trying to pin down an extremely slippery eel. If it feels to our listeners like we were all over the place, imagine what it was like from this side of the mic! Because that confusion was an extremely accurate representation of what it felt like to try and parse this study.

Franklin: It worries me a bit that you know what it feels like to pin down slippery eels.

Eunice: I make no guarantees as to how slippery any eels I may or may not have encountered in my past were.

Franklin: Now I want sushi. 

Joreth:  This study was so difficult to follow that, even rereading our own notes explaining this study had me rubbing my eyes and questioning my own ability to follow scientific studies.  Like, I swear I had much less trouble following this shit in school!

Franklin:  Back to the topic, the biggest issues I see with this study are wildly nonrepresentative demographics and a tendency to draw a straight line between hypothesis and conclusion without accounting for possible related or confounding factors.

Eunice: Talking about confounding factors, the study also states that: 

“The fact that those without a live-in partner tried more new activities is not entirely surprising because these circumstances likely necessitated more creativity with respect to pursuing sex for leisure. This likely partially explains why sexual minorities, racial minorities, and younger adults had increased odds of making new additions: all of these groups had significantly elevated rates of living alone.” 

Did the researchers also consider that they’re the same groups that are more likely to overlap with key pandemic workers? Did they not wonder if the additional stress, physical risk, financial insecurity, etc etc etc, might have had an impact on their sex life? Did they even try to account for how much of the increased likelihood of “more creativity” was a result of living alone, versus those other factors? “Likely partially explains” is doing a huge amount of heavy lifting in that sentence, is all I’m saying.

Franklin: All of these are hard problems in any sociological research, but they seem particularly profound here.

Joreth:  So, basically, what we’re all getting from this research paper is that it attempted to generalize sexual behaviours from wildly, improbably outlier statistical groups, it then had such a mass of scattered p-values that it feels like the researchers rolled a D20 die and randomly assigned percentage points based on very excited rolls, and THEN took all of that and made sweeping causal statements without doing even the basic Freshman 101 exercise of considering for confounding factors.  Would you both say that’s an accurate assessment?

Franklin: I think the study isn’t doing a good job of supporting its conclusions. A better designed study would be one that makes an effort to reach a more representative population and does a better job of isolating changes in behavior pre and post pandemic. Those are big asks, and make the research far more difficult, but I think the results would be more useful.

Eunice: Can I also put in a request for significantly better laid out tables of data? And graphs? Any graphs at all, please?

Joreth:  Dear gourd, those tables!  Please don’t make me try to read those tables again!  My eyeballs hurt.

Eunice: You ever try to read your own handwritten notes that you wrote at 4am on no sleep with a significant amount of caffeine and sugar in your system, for a class that you just realised during the lecture was maybe a step or two beyond your comprehension? Cos that’s what reading this study felt like to me sometimes. 

Joreth:  Yes, or like trying to decipher a bit of drunken, blindfolded automatic writing? (Go look up automatic writing sometime – it’s wild!)

Eunice: Can we never break down a study by these people again? Please?

Joreth:  OK, so, if we were designing a study on the question of sex, perhaps how the pandemic affected people’s sex lives, what would we be looking for, at a minimum?

  • Better demographics in the study participants
  • A better baseline of pre-pandemic sexual behavior to compare to pandemic behavior
  • Better control of possible confounding factors
  • Clearly laid out analyses and summaries
  • Examination of whether the factors you’re measuring are connected or not
  • Less eagerness to assume casual relationships that might not be supported by the data
  • More legible tables
  • Graphs! Not necessary, but really really helpful

Franklin: So that’s what we’ve got for this episode! What do you think? Send ideas, comments, new things you’ve tried during a pandemic, or suggestions for future episodes to contact@skepticalpervert.com. And if you know someone else who might enjoy this podcast, why not share the love, by giving us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or your podcatcher of choice. You can also visit www.skepticalpervert.com for show notes, links to the transcript, and the studies we’re drawing from. And don’t forget to become a patron of the show by joining our patreon, which is linked on the website. The Skeptical Pervert is copyrighted and produced by Franklin Veaux, Eunice Hung, and Joreth Innkeeper, edited by Joreth Innkeeper, and the website and show notes are maintained by Franklin Veaux.

Eunice: The skeptical pervert: putting the ‘why?’ into sexy

Franklin: Why don’t I have any sushi?

Eunice: Are you looking to put eel into your facehole, Franklin?

Franklin: On advice of counsel, I decline to answer that question.

Episode 4: Sex in the Age of Pandemic: Sex Tech

In part 2 of our miniseries on sex in an era of a global plague, we look at how technology intersects with sex. When you’re social distancing, how does new technology change human connection? Can it help with long-distance relationships when you can’t travel to see your lover?

Episode transcript below.

Franklin: Hello! And welcome to Skeptical Perverts, the podcast where we look at human sexuality through an evidence-based, skeptical lens! I’m one of your hosts and part-time mad scientist, Franklin Veaux.

Joreth: Hi! I’m your co-host and Renaissance cat, Joreth! I have a background in human sexuality and relationship communication, I’m kinky, solo polyamorous, on the ace spectrum, chicana, feminist, my gender identity is “tomboy”, and my pronouns are she/her but I use masculine titles.

Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, solopoly, demisexual, East Asian Brit, fully armed and ready with a cup of tea and a touch of genteel snark!

As you’ve probably guessed, this is the second part of our ‘Sex in the time of pandemic’ mini series: Sextech! Or to give it the fancier name: teledildonics.

Franklin: In this episode, we’re going to talk about something near and dear to my heart: the combination of sex and technology.

I love sex tech. I’ve always loved sex tech. I invented one of the world’s first internet controlled sex toys back in the late 1990s, a remote-controlled vibrator you could connect to your computer through the headphone jack, that used sounds to send commands to the controller.

Joreth: I still have one of those from you! It might even still work, I’m not sure, I haven’t used it in years!

Franklin: Since then I’ve connected a vibrator to a compact EEG to create a sex toy you can learn to operate by thinking about it. I’ve also built a wearable vibrator connected to ultrasonic distance sensors that will start the vibrator running when anything approaches within about four feet of you, and runs faster the closer things get–the idea behind this being you could wear a blindfold and learn to navigate just by sexual stimulation. 

Joreth: Didn’t they make, like, a belt that vibrates towards North that teaches the wearer to become sensitive to North even without the belt or something? I always wanted to try that! Franklin, you could really use something like that!

Franklin: I really could. My sense of direction sucks. I’ve also built a myoelectric-controlled sex toy, and I hold a patent on a strapon equipped with touch sensors and a signal generator so that the wearer can feel touch on the dildo.

Joreth: And I am SO anxious to try this out and see if I’m one of the people who is able to feel this! It works on the brain much the way any prosthetic works – and there’s some really fascinating studies on this! The too-long-didn’t-read tl;dr is that your brain has sort of a model of “you” in it – a 3 dimensional wireframe so to speak of your body and where you are in space. It’s called the Body Schema. Once someone wears a prosthetic for enough time, the brain learns to incorporate that prosthetic into its model, so it knows the space that the prosthetic takes up, even if it’s just a regular old, non-sensory prosthetic, but especially if the prosthetic interacts with the body in some way. 

It’s like the reverse of the phantom limb pain thing, or where you think your phone is vibrating on your hip when you’re not even wearing it. Instead of your brain thinking something is still there when it’s no longer there, your brain now starts to think that this new thing is a part of you even though it didn’t used to be. 

Eunice: Ooh, that brings up some fascinating possibilities… 

Franklin: Most definitely. Hence the Bionic Dildo project!

Joreth: We can even learn to control prosthetics that have no human analog and that the individual *never* had to begin with, like a prehensile tail! Neuroplasticity is amazing!

The really fascinating part of that research, for me, was when I learned that, in partner dancers – people who dance with a partner regularly or for a long time – their brains learn to incorporate the space that *their partner* takes up, so when it does its calculations for moving on the dance floor, it accommodates how and where the partner will be. They call this “interpersonal joint body schema”. This is the basis for my own workshop on using partner dance exercises for improving relationship communication (shameless self-plug).

Eunice: Oh that’s fascinating – I wonder if that’s why you can dance with your eyes closed with some people and have no trouble at all figuring out what they’re indicating, or where they’ll be?

Joreth: Yeah, it’s complicated but more or less! So, yeah, the strapon equipped with sensors basically manipulates the brain’s plasticity into re-mapping its model of “you” – your “body schema” – to incorporate this dildo as part of yourself so the wearer feels what’s happening to it as if it was a legitimate part of the body, right Franklin?

Franklin: Yep!

Eunice: I really want to be second on that list of beta testers, by the way!

Franklin: The age of COVID has opened up more interest in ways to use technology, and particularly internet-enabled technology, to reach out and touch someone without spreading the plague. Back when I was growing up, everyone thought the future would be flying cars. Turns out it’s a globe-spanning instant telecommunication network that lets you give the gift of orgasm to people all across the world. I love living in the future!

Eunice: So there’s an interesting study, Less Sex, but More Sexual Diversity: Changes in Sexual Behavior during the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic which we’ll be breaking down in more detail in our part three of this mini-series – and oh my, you have no idea how much we have to say about it – and it includes this quote:

“While media reports suggest that the rise of SexTech is ubiquitous, it is likely that some people’s sex lives are changing more than others. For example, people living alone may be more likely to use SexTech due to limited opportunities for in-person contact. In addition, feeling more sexual desire, loneliness, and stress could potentially prompt more sexual adaptations to fulfill psychological needs or relieve negative mood states.”

“As coronavirus-related restrictions became more widespread, the popular media began reporting on putative shifts in sexual behavior, pointing to a rise in online pornography searches, sex toy sales, dating app downloads, and erotic posts on social media. This pattern, consistent with the overall integration of the internet and digital platforms into people’s sexual lives, suggests that when opportunities for the pursuit of in-person, partnered sex are limited, online and solo activities may be used to fill the void.”

Um, you think?

Franklin: Hello, Captain Obvious!

Joreth: Hmm, let’s throw in national rules that say you’re not allowed to see anyone and the existential threat of dying … I wonder what might happen?

Franklin: With the level of tech we have now, I think the COVID rules are a lot more bearable than they were when I started with sex tech. When I designed that first Internet-controlled sex toy, the Internet wasn’t really ready for that technology back then–the thing I designed was so primitive, you hooked it to the sound card on your computer and it played sounds to a DTMF decoder to control the device–so it didn’t really succeed. The Internet today is a lot more mature, so of course it’s been used to make all kinds of sex toys that are coming in really handy during this age of Great Global Plague. The internet facilitates connection of all sorts, and when you’re not allowed to see people in person, well, technology to the rescue, right? In fact, the company MysteryVibe, which makes all sorts of cool high-tech sex toys, had a 250% increase in sales thanks to lockdown.

Eunice: Cue a world where ‘virus’ now has at least three different meanings when it comes to thinking about safer sex. Do security checks on your Internet Of Things sex toys, folks! I mean, you should do security checks on all your Internet Of Things items anyway. Just cos your genitals are involved, doesn’t make it more vital. It just feels that way.

Franklin: We live in a miraculous age of vast world-spanning computer networks and miraculous sex technology, where you can buy a toy for $40 that your lover halfway across the world can use with you…but the first thing you have to do when you get it home is a security audit.

Joreth: You mean like the chastity cage dude should have done?

Franklin: Chastity cage dude is the poster child for what happens if you don’t audit your sex toy software.

Joreth: So, for those who haven’t heard about this, some poor guy was either wearing or just owned an internet-based remote controlled chastity cage, which is a metal frame that goes around a penis, in his case, that prevents the wearer from getting an erection and/or doing anything about their arousal. So he has this thing for his penis that won’t let him get a hardon, and he gets a message saying his cage is locked and it won’t be unlocked unless he ponies up a shit ton of bitcoin, because of course a sex toy hacker wants bitcoin.

Eunice: I nearly died laughing when I heard, but still, oh man, poor guy. That’s all anyone is ever going to remember him for.

Franklin: The source code for the software that hacks Internet-controlled chastity cages is up on Github.

Eunice: Cos of course it is. Welcome to the internet age.

Joreth: Hey, didn’t y’all have your own personal experience with some security issues with a sex toy?

Eunice: Oh yeah, we decided to get a toy so that I could, um, do interesting vibratory things to Franklin from all the way across the pond at 4am, as you do. I mean, 4am Franklin’s time, of course, I need my sleep! And then we tested it out when I happened to be wearing my Bluetooth headphones and…

Franklin: Yep. A security audit showed that it announced itself in Bluetooth promiscuous mode—yes, that’s actually what it’s called—so it would pair with anything. It also transmitted information unencrypted over Bluetooth. Folks, if you’re designing Bluetooth sex toys at home, remember, start with security. Like my mom always told me, she said, “Franklin, encrypt everything and never trust any user-supplied data. You can’t bolt security on after the fact.”

Eunice: Why exactly were you talking to your mother about your remote control vibrators? Actually, you know what, don’t tell me. Never tell me. So that was the last time we used that toy! Apparently they’ve patched that security hole now though, after Franklin had a conversation with the manufacturers, but I’m not trying that one again…

Joreth: Wow. Whodathunk you’d need to be concerned about internet hijacking when you’re just trying to have an orgasm?

Franklin: *raises hand*

Joreth: I mean who among normal people?

Franklin: Like anyone involved in this conversation is a normal person.

Eunice: Wait, do we even know any normal people? Aside from our parents, some of them, but again, let’s not go there kthnxbye.

Joreth: Oh, my dear mother and naively buying us Menage a Trois wine for our wedding reception. But yeah, point conceded.

Franklin: That does bring up a point: We think about tech sex and Internet sex as risk-free, but it really isn’t. You won’t get pregnant or get an STI, but you can get trapped in your chastity cage. Or have your toy try to access other devices via bluetooth which can be hijacked by others. Or have explicit images leaked. A lot of folks exchange naughty pics (according to a study in Australia, more than 37% of people interviewed have exchanged nude or sexually explicit photos or videos with a lover), and having those images leaked is a real risk. In fact, apparently it has a legal name now: ‘image-based sexual abuse.’

Joreth: That sounds like it could be a whole topic on its own! Hey, if any listeners really want us to do a deeper dive on digital sex abuse, let us know and we’ll add it to the list of upcoming episode topics!

Eunice: So to drag us back to the topic at hand: let’s talk a little bit about the history of sex and technology. I mean, using the latest technology to get your rocks off isn’t anything new. There are some remarkably filthy letters out there in historical collections – check out James Joyce’s letters to his wife Nora, if you don’t believe me. People have been writing that stuff for as long as writing existed.

Joreth: You’re right. Sex from a distance is nothing new, this is just a new way to do something humans have always done.

Eunice: So let’s go allll the way back. Paleolithic people, like modern people, wanted to get their rocks off, and guess what! Turns out some types of rock makes for really good dildos! I mean, not all types – as that infamous tumblr post mentions, “Malachite is a poisonous mineral. Please do not fuck the malachite stalactite”. 

Franklin: And of course, there were all sorts of materials used for dildos – bone, ivory, wood, you name it, they used it. Later societies explored a wider range of materials for sex toys. According to the book In Bed With The Ancient Greeks: Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Greece, by Paul Chrystal, the ancient Greeks baked loaves of bread to use as dildos, and lubricated them with olive oil. 

Joreth: Ewww! I mean, I don’t want to yuck anyone’s food-based yum, but as someone with a vagina, I have to cringe at the idea of an oil-covered, dildo-shaped breadstick for penetration.

Eunice: Yeasty things! In places where yeast is definitely not welcome! Nooo, bad, nope, nuh uh!

Joreth: Yeasty, covered in oil so that it sticks! AND CRUMBLES! AND MOLDS! NO! Folks! Don’t put yeasty, oily, crumbly things in your lower orifices! Especially your vaginas!

Franklin: The history of sex tech is filled with dubious ideas.

Eunice: Presumably they figured that they wouldn’t know until they tried…?

Joreth: I have some limitations to how far I’m willing to experiment. The health of my vagina is one of them.

Franklin: When they switched to making dildos out of stuffed leather, that was at last a bit more body-safe. Then in 1869, an enterprising inventor named George Taylor had invented a steam-powered vibrator called the Manipulator, which had rather poor ergonomics: the business end was built into a table, with the steam engine that drove it in a different room. Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville invented the first electrically-powered vibrator very shortly after.

Joreth: Contrary to popular myth, vibrators weren’t originally invented to treat female hysteria by inducing orgasms. This myth, like the idea the human brain only uses 10% of its capacity, refuses to die. I mean, I repeated that myth myself up until basically researching for this episode – the hysteria myth, not the 10% of your brain myth – I never fell for that clearly ridiculous claim. There’s an excellent article, and research paper, by Hallie Lieberman who is a sex historian, who details not only why this is a narrative and not true history, but also why it’s a harmful myth to perpetuate.

Eunice: It’s just such a compelling myth, though. Even though it makes no sense when you start to think about it just the tiniest bit deeper.

Franklin: There’s an interesting thing about human psychology here: we tend to believe things that have good narrative value. We are a storytelling species, so a good story is believed over evidence or plausibility. And honestly, it’s seriously implausible to think a bunch of doctors were giving a bunch of women orgasms but neither of them knew what was going on.

Joreth: Being unlikely that so many people couldn’t see the implausibility of the narrative doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. This narrative draws on the underlying belief that women don’t understand their own sexuality, that we’re ignorant, passive, and easily duped and therefore we shouldn’t control our own sexuality, and that men are so completely unaware of female pleasure that the entire medical industry basically pimped itself out as gigolos without even realizing it. There’s something in that narrative for everyone and their agendas!

But the truth is that the vibrator was invented by a doctor to treat pain, spinal disease, and, of all things, deafness (don’t even get me started on the use of hokum quackery originally dreamed up to cure deafness and later turned into multi-billion dollar pseudo-medical industries that have nothing to do with deafness!). When the vibrator began being sold as a snake oil cure-all, more or less, it was for everyone – men, women, and children, to treat everything from wrinkles to tuberculosis. It was women who covertly figured out the sexual use for it.

Eunice: To be fair, historically the medical establishment really wasn’t that interested in the anatomy of the clit. However, women have been, for a long long time, and you bet many of them knew exactly what an orgasm felt like! You know what, we should talk about orgasms and such in another episode. But in the meantime, let’s jump our history forward to…modern times. Electronics! The internet! Smartphones!

Franklin: This is the Renaissance age of sex tech. Back when I tried to make Symphony, the market wasn’t really ready for internet controlled sex toys. USB wasn’t a thing, and there were no standard interfaces in common between Macs and PCs, which is why the device I developed was controlled through sound.

The advent of USB, Bluetooth, and the rise of the smartphone changed all that. Suddenly wireless chips were cheap as well, and everyone carried powerful internet-connected pocket computers that could also talk to other devices. So what happened next had a certain inevitability to it. Where the tech infrastructure exists, sex is never far behind.

Eunice: Isn’t that why VHS won out over Betamax? Because they were filming porn on VHS? 

Joreth: Yes, and they show this in the movie Boogie Nights – a cult classic really, if you haven’t seen it, I recommend it. VHS was a much lower quality of recording, but so much cheaper and also held more footage – up to 3 hours compared to Betamax’s 60 minutes, so the porn industry jumped on it. They could film in far more locations, with much lower expense, and more of their viewers could afford to buy a player and the tapes. The idea of watching porn in your own home, versus a public theater, is really appealing. 

So when Sony, who made Betamax, decided to not allow their product to be used by the porn industry, that basically signed its death warrant. By the end of the 1970s, more than HALF of all VHS sales in the US were for erotic films even though a VCR cost $800 *in 1970s dollars*. 

Eunice: Holy crap, that’s a lot of money! Isn’t that like five and a half grand these days?

Joreth: The internet says $800 in 1978 is the equivalent of $3,218.40. In 1975 it was roughly $3,900. Don’t worry about Sony for losing out on Betamax, though; they made up for it by backing Blu-Ray 30 years later.

As a former film student and someone who works in the film and television and video industries, let’s just say I still harbor some resentment over losing that particular consumer war. But the porn industry has really been a huge driver in a lot of vanilla tech, actually. The drive for better and better sex entertainment has led to better video game graphics, better online video streaming, better online credit card processing, and even to the jumps we’ve taken in VR technology (that’s Virtual Reality – wearing those goggles that makes you see and feel like you’re in a virtual space). 

The next big step for VR is combining it with sex robots! 

Eunice: Wow, imagine if *that* tech had been designed in time for the pandemic. I bet being solopoly could have been really different if we could have robotic sex dolls that looked like our lovers and were controlled via virtual reality. Sex with your partners over the internet whilst still maintaining proper social distancing! Across oceans even! Or, if you’re me, more massages and cuddles. All the cuddles! Huh, I wonder how that would have changed OnlyFans.

Joreth: Just one step closer to the future predicted in Demolition Man! But we’ll be talking about sex robots specifically in an upcoming episode.

Porn drove the film industry from its inception, with the first known porn film being dated to 1896. Netflix wouldn’t exist today if it weren’t for the porn industry and their advances in e-commerce and bandwidth allocation.

Franklin: When I toured the Kink dot com Armory building, the only thing they wouldn’t let me see was their server room. Kink put a lot of work into developing their server infrastructure. It’s both their secret sauce and the heart of their business, so they don’t let outsiders in. 

Eunice: And sex probably helped pushed video conferencing technology to its current levels, I’ll bet, what with camming. Which we are, no doubt, all grateful for during this time of lockdown. It certainly wasn’t the Fortune 500 companies with their business meetings driving it! The very first desktop video conferencing platform with both visual and audio capacity was released in 1995, and by 1996 we get the very first solo camming site, JennyCam. And OnlyFans has, of course, gotten massive in these days of pandemic, even without the sex robots.

Franklin: Apparently those Fortune 500 companies know as little about security as the tiny sex toy companies. Microsoft got caught bungling Skype security last year when it made recordings of people’s Skype sessions available internally with no security or safeguards. Imagine the potential for abuse if an employee saw a celebrity getting jiggy with it on Skype, or if your jealous ex worked for Microsoft.

Man, you know, between poor IoT security, revenge porn, and huge megacorps eavesdropping on your video chat, maybe remote sex isn’t as safe as I thought.

Joreth: I mean, sex in general isn’t as safe as people think, but there are simple, if rarely used, safeguards that can reduce the risk potential. As we discussed in the last episode, kissing is a high risk activity, but nobody ever thinks of it like that, until now that we have a virus that can kill us for it. Wearing masks and distancing are simple and ridiculously effective tools, and look how we, as a culture, couldn’t even be arsed to maintain those simple safety protocols!

Eunice: Let’s be honest, if you’re not famous enough for people to sell your sex tapes and you, like us, have no shame…that takes out a bunch of the risks already.

Franklin: You can’t be blackmailed if you don’t care whether people find out.

Joreth: My celebrity partner told me a story on our first date about being blackmailed once, and he laughed because he had no problem with whatever it was being made public so he immediately went to the FBI, who tried to talk him out of pursuing it because they couldn’t keep it from getting out if he did, and he was like “I don’t care if it gets out, this fucker is breaking the law! Go get him and nail his ass to the wall!” 

Eunice: I guess the other alternative is the suggestion from that Shaggy song: “It wasn’t me”? That doesn’t seem very practical though.

Joreth: Like every politician now claiming his Twitter account was hacked? It’s true that the lack of shame removes a lot of risk, but we are still left open for identity theft and data hacking, like with your bluetooth vibrator.

Eunice: That’s definitely a good point – and of course, this also assumes you’re not in a place where you can be severely punished, maybe even killed, for this sort of stuff coming out. We’re lucky enough to live in fairly liberal Western urban spaces, so that’s where we’re coming from, but context matters, as always.

Franklin: But aside from that, it’s a great time to be alive.

Eunice: In some places.

Joreth: For some people.

Eunice: Assuming you don’t get your data or identity stolen. Or end up on Reddit. Everything ends up on Reddit.

Joreth: But, y’know, other than that!

Franklin: I realized about a year ago I’ve officially reached the point in my life where I’m more likely to buy a sex toy to tear it apart and use the gubbins for some other home-brew sex toy than I am to buy a sex toy and just use it. So there’s that.

Eunice: That is so very you.

Joreth: I mean, most of my gadgets and gizmos are also for the purpose of disemboweling and repurposing, but that’s for costuming stuff, not sex toys!

Franklin: I do see high potential for machine learning and sex. It might be interesting, for example, to train a vibrator on what gets them off, then push a button and get a custom-tailored experience. This is something someone is currently working on, apparently, a sensor-equipped vibrator that learns what gets you going.

Of course, like most of the current cutting-edge sex tech, this seems the sort of thing that works better on folks with internal genitalia than external.

Eunice: I’d be up for testing that…

Joreth: Ditto! As someone who has sex exclusively with people with external genitalia, and the associated cultural programming that seems to go along with it, I have a feeling it might be easier to train a toy how to reliably get me off than a person!

Franklin: Machine learning isn’t good at general-purpose abstract reasoning, but in its limited domains, it’s a lot better than the human sort. Computers already play chess and go far better than a person who’s done a lifetime of study, so why wouldn’t they be better at getting people off?

Joreth: Plus a vibrator can, y’know, vibrate and do things that the human body can’t do anyway.

Franklin: I have high hopes for advanced biomedical nanotech, though… But seriously, the idea of using machine learning to figure out how to give you an efficient orgasm is fascinating. I’d love to see data from large-scale trials. My suspicion is that no two people would be exactly the same, but we might see clusters of people with similar responses and similar triggers to orgasm. I’m picturing a scatter graph with a lot of clumps and relatively few points outside those clumps.

Joreth:  Oooh, scatter graphs!  Cuz I’m a nerd.

I did an experiment a while back to try to do the opposite. I wanted to make a vibrator guaranteed to get you aroused but not get you off, by connecting the vibrator to an EEG and a small computer that would figure out from your brain activity when you were about to come and shut the vibrator off, then turn it on again when you cooled down. I got a bunch of friends together, put them under an EEG, and had them give themselves orgasms whilst I recorded their brainwaves. It didn’t work, because it turns out the structures in the brain that mediate arousal and orgasm are too deeply buried to pick up with a surface electrode, but that was the plan, because I’m evil.

Joreth: Hey, I remember that! I was one of your test subjects! In fact, I think I helped you obtain the EEG!

Eunice: You know, I wonder if there might be a good alternative for people with external genitalia, where you measure the blood flow into the penis…because that’s probably way easier than measuring brain activity… Franklin, you have external genitalia, I have an idea for you! 

Franklin: You have many ideas for me, some of them pretty uncomfortable. But I do have to admit, that would be a fascinating experiment. Anyone got a color Doppler ultrasound machine I can borrow?

Joreth: SquiggleCon 3?

Eunice: Done! Franklin, get working. So to drag it back to the actual point of this episode: where do we think remote sex tech is going in the future? This isn’t going to go away after the pandemic, we’re all just getting steadily more connected, with lovers scattered all over the world. Whether it’s because we connected over the internet in the first place, or because people move away sometimes. So, what do we think all this stuff going to look like in, say, 3 years? 5 years? 10 years? 

Joreth: Well, I see incremental advances over stuff that we can do now – remote controlled-at-a-distance toys, video sex, hopefully some decent and easily accessible VR. There was also some talk about combining those realistic sex dolls with some remote-controlled robotics so you can have basically sex with a robotic surrogate with your lover – each of you controlling the other’s sex doll from across distance. Now THAT could be interesting! I’ve always wanted to watch a partner have sex with a Real Doll that looked just like me.

Eunice: I feel like this would be really…odd for someone with anxiety and perfectionist tendencies… Score out of ten?

Joreth: That’s probably true.

Franklin: My partner Zaiah has long said she would love to watch me have sex with a realistic doll. It sounds vaguely uncomfortable to me, treating an inanimate thing like a lover. I’m a little glad they’re so expensive, so that fantasy is unlikely to be realized.

Eunice: Ah, mass manufacture, makes everything more attainable. Even when that might not be your idea of a great evening. Give it time!

Joreth: Yep, they’re getting cheaper. Kind of the opposite of an objectification fetish. I think I have a new long-term financial goal to strive for. Maybe I’ll team up with Zaiah on this one.

Eunice: Do we need to crowdfund this?

Franklin: Aaaaaaaagh! The uncanny valley is fucking creepy! And I’m going to safeword that crowdfunding.

Joreth: We’re about to make you have sex with a mass killing, ovipositor alien, but the uncanny valley is where you draw the line? OK.

Eunice: For now, anyway.

Franklin: Sex tech. Making life better since the late neolithic.

Eunice: Well, it’s making life better for your partners, right?

Franklin: You are all terrible people. 

Eunice: Hah, why thank you!

Joreth: But back to the point (we are so good at derailing!), I think we may be on the verge of some really interesting things that we might not even be able to predict, sort of a mini sexual singularity. Obligatory Demolition Man reference here.

Eunice: So, quick fire last question: snapshot prediction of sex tech in the next decade, go.

Franklin: I see great things for sex tech in the next 5-10 years. A bunch of companies are making tiny, Internet-capable, easy to program microcontrollers—I have a bunch of them on my workbench. 3D printers make it easy to print molds for casting silicone. I see an explosion both of mass-produced sex tech and underground maker-community sex tech, and I really think it’s going to take off over the next ten years. We’re going to start seeing people doing really really cool stuff with sensors and microcontrollers and embedded systems and hand-poured silicone.

Joreth: I’m hoping this brings not only new tech, but a new acceptance of tech and the internet and of alternative relationship structures. I’m old enough to remember the days when it was embarrassing to tell people you met your partner “online” and people would come up with elaborate backstories for how they met to tell their family. Thanks to the pandemic keeping *everyone* apart, I’d really like to see more widespread acceptance of long distance relationships, of alternative ways of meeting, and of being more open about using tech as a part of one’s sexual expression.

Eunice: So the experience of the last year has certainly had an impact on the sex lives of a whole bunch of people, and my prediction is that a lot of that sex tech is going to be about increasing connection, or at least the illusion of it. If you look at the whole thing with OnlyFans, it’s clear that the reason that took off is because it was all about the interactivity. You can watch all the porn you like, but what people pay for is connection, and for their favourite performers to notice them as individuals. When you merge that desire for connection with realistic sex robots, and remote control over VR….I bet you’re going to get a whole new genre of porn.

Franklin: That I probably won’t watch because I rarely watch porn.

Eunice: But the whole point is that you’d be involved! Right?

Franklin: So to wrap up: If you’re looking at sex toys right now, here’s issues that might come up, that we’d like to see people pay more attention to:

  1. Materials. You need to be choosing body-safe materials like medical grade silicone. Check the packaging—beware silicone “blends” or things with a strong smell when you open the package, they might contain volatile solvents. And don’t use silicone lubes with silicone toys.
  2. Security. Most people won’t know enough about infosec, or have the right gear, to be able to do a proper security audit on their new bluetooth remote vibrator. Look for reviews that suggest the manufacturer is good with security, or not.
  3. Acceptance. Lots and lots and lots of people are using more and more sex tech, especially with enforced isolation such as during a pandemic, and it’s way past time we got over our collective fear and shaming of it.
  4. Usage. Using the proper toys and tools for their intended, or at least not actively unsafe, use. Use waterproof toys for the shower or bath, items with flared bases for anal play, etc etc. I mean, pervertibles are a thing. We’re not suggesting…alternative uses for objects are verboten, just make sure they’re *safe* uses for those objects. Cos nurses will laugh at you if you come into A&E with something stuck where it shouldn’t be. If you’re polite, they’ll even wait until you’re out of sight first.

Franklin: So that’s what we’ve got. How about you guys? Send ideas, comments, ways you connect during a pandemic, or suggestions for future episodes to contact@skepticalpervert.com. And if you know someone else who might enjoy this podcast, why not share the love, by giving us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or your podcatcher of choice. You can also visit www.skepticalpervert.com, where you can check out the show notes for links to the transcript and the studies we’re drawing from. And don’t forget to become a patron of the show by joining our patreon, which is linked on the website. The Skeptical Pervert is copyrighted and produced by Franklin Veaux, Eunice Hung, and Joreth Innkeeper, edited by Joreth Innkeeper, and the website and show notes are maintained by Franklin Veaux.

Joreth: And remember to have lots of kinky VR robot sex!

Franklin: The uncanny valley makes me sad.

Eunice: And you’ll make kinky VR sex mistress sad if you don’t play. You don’t want to make her sad, do you? Mwahaha.

Episode 3: Sex in the Age of a Pandemic

So you may have noticed there’s a global plague happening right now. In the first part of a series on sex in the time of a pandemic, we look at how the age of COVID can affect people’s sex lives.

Transcript below:

Franklin: Welcome to Skeptical Perverts, a podcast where we talk about two of our favorite things – sex and reason! These don’t normally go together, especially in our society that’s hostile to sex (and, frankly, to logic and reason and science as well), so we want to do something about that. I’m your host and part-time mad scientist, Franklin Veaux.

Joreth: Hi! I’m your co-host and Renaissance cat, Joreth! I have a background in human sexuality and relationship communication, I’m kinky, solo polyamorous, on the ace spectrum, chicana, feminist, my gender identity is “tomboy”, and my pronouns are she/her but I use masculine titles.

Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, solopoly greysexual, bringing the East Asian British viewpoint and a touch of the genteel snark!

Franklin: We’ve been in the grip of a global pandemic for a year, and man, it’s been rough on a lot of people’s sex lives. So this is going to be a multi-parter on ‘Sex in the time of pandemic’. Starting us off today we’re going to talk about the mechanics of keeping yourself safe from COVID-19 whilst doing the naked mambo.

So, what does sex look like in an age of social distancing?

Joreth:  HAHAHA what sex?  I literally have not had sex since the first lockdown last March.  

Eunice: I think I vaguely remember what sex looks like.

Joreth:  On the one hand, having the low libido that is normally so problematic for my relationships because my partners get all upset that I’m not spontaneously aroused and initiating sex, has made the fact that I can’t have sex with anyone much, much easier.

On the other hand, I had finally gotten a couple of local-ish partners and was working on a couple more, and every single one of those got back-burnered thanks to this fucking pandemic and the country’s fucking response to it.

Eunice: In terms of different relationship styles, solo poly people are especially hard hit, I reckon. I mean, I might be biased, being solopoly myself, but having partners and knowing you still can’t actually see them in-person sucks. It’s practically taunting at that point. And no, nesting together would not make things better, assuming I even wanted to pick only one, because then I have to deal with the increased stress from having a partner around all the time! I don’t want romantic partners around all the time, that’s why I’m solo poly in the first place!

Joreth:  Yeah, not only do I live physically alone, but almost all of my partners are long distance, so I couldn’t even couple-up with any of them temporarily even if I wanted to, which I don’t.  I was prohibited from traveling at all, and if I wanted to violate the travel bans under the excuse that we’re quarantining together, it would have been a life-uprooting *move* across the country … during a pandemic.  

It’s one thing if you live in the same city and decide to temporarily nest up together, because your house or apartment or whatever is still there and you can leave most of your things behind and take your necessaries and then just visit your house when you need to.  But if you try to move in with a long-distance partner “temporarily”, that’s not a temporary move, that’s a real move.  

And it would be a very foolish decision to decide to move in with someone for a minimum of a year (as it turns out) when you previously only spent the occasional weekend together.

Eunice: I’ll be honest, I could handle maybe a week living with my partners, and then there’s gonna be a murder. Justifiable homicide, in my mind, but they’re still very messy so let’s avoid that. It’s hell on the soft furnishings, doncha know.

Franklin: Even those of us who have live-in lovers have suffered. I think it’s easy to forget it’s not just physical risk and social distancing that clobbers sex, but stress too. COVID has hit a lot of people, even people in traditional live-together monogamous relationships, very hard indeed. It’s difficult to feel sexy when you’re worried about money or family or losing your job.

There’s a study that talks about the impact stress has on sex. The tl;dr:

Research has shown that stressors and experienced stress are negatively correlated with sexual activity (i.e., behavior and satisfaction) within couples.

So stress makes people have less sex and enjoy the sex they have less, which is kind of fucked up because sex is a great stress reliever.

And of course this is a bad time to be single. It’s almost impossible to go on dates right now, and shelter in place guidelines make meeting people in traditional dating venues almost impossible.

Eunice: I’ll be honest, I’ve gotten more propositions than ever since lockdown started. Or maybe that might more accurately be described as noticed more propositions. Turns out being flirt-blind doesn’t matter quite so much when you have to be really blunt in text to be understood anyway! In terms of sex itself, though, what’s some of the official advice we’ve seen about how to safely do the horizontal tango in these desperate times?

Joreth:  Really, I haven’t seen much out there, officially, that wasn’t already standard safety advice, which is very frustrating.  I spend a lot of time yelling at my monogamous social circles who seem confused as to how to have safer sex, that poly people already have those guidelines in place.  Not that we’re all that great at *following* that advice, to be honest.

Eunice: True, consensually non-monogamous people are often already pretty au fait with sexual health advice, which has helped for sure. Open communication, frequent testing, and use of appropriate protection. What’s so hard to understand?

Franklin: We’ve looked at the official recommendations from health care providers, and for the most part, they’re about what you’d expect. Unsurprisingly, they’re largely focused on monogamous people’s sex, and their advice to folks who are single is largely absent. 

There are a few surprises in there, though, like when the CDC and the British Columbia Center for Disease Control suggesting gloryholes as a way to have sex in the age of plague.

Joreth: Yes, they literally suggested glory holes, not even paraphrasing.  Here’s the exact quote on British Columbia’s Centre for Disease Control’s website, from the second to last bullet point on their list of Steps To Protect Yourself During Sex:

“Use barriers, like walls (e.g., glory holes), that allow for sexual contact but prevent close face-to-face contact.”

Eunice: My jaw is literally on the floor right now. And not even in the appropriate way to take advantage of this advice. What? This came from actual, official governmental recommendations?  

Franklin: It would be interesting to learn that glory holes became all but extinct because of the HIV pandemic, then came back because of the COVID pandemic.

Joreth:  There’s this article on Slate here, which is not anything remotely like a peer reviewed study, so take this with a grain of salt, but that talks about a resurgence in glory holes as a business because of the pandemic.  According to Slate, people are using Grindr (naturally) and other unnamed “online directories” to find places that offer literally a hole in a wall for a penis to penetrate someone on the other side of the wall with no contact.

One man has been operating a glory hole business for apparently 20 years and says that his business has seen an “uptick” thanks to the recommendations from BC’s CDC and the New York City paper recommending glory holes.  He also says that he’s been talking with other people on Twitter who have installed glory holes because of the pandemic, so he thinks it’s definitely growing.

Eunice: Other than our return to the, heh, glory days of the 70s, a lot of the advice earlier in the pandemic really reminded me of the abstinence-only sex ed programs, and we have numerous studies talking about how successful those were on preventing sexual activity. Which is to say, not at all. 

Franklin: Yes. Human beings are sexually motivated, which means useful advice needs to account for that. “Just don’t” isn’t useful advice. Useful advice is about harm reduction, not moralizing or shaming.

Eunice: Fortunately, they seem to be doing a bit better in some of the examples we found! I really liked the San Francisco Department of Public Health guidance that they put out in September 2020. They have a nice little scale, for one thing, that goes from lower risk to higher risk activities without stigmatising or making assumptions about your relationship styles. And it mentions some things that I haven’t really seen in the other documents, like, quote:

People are not positive or negative. Tests are. We know from other pandemics that it is important not to stigmatize people who are infected, or who test positive.” 

Stigmatising people doesn’t help, and might just make it more likely they’ll hide symptoms. Admittedly, that’s not as likely with this pandemic as it was historically with others. So anyway, the activities they listed, in order of lower risk to higher risk are:

  • Virtual sex, masturbation, sex talk, porn while alone or with someone in your household  

Franklin: This one seems like a gimme to me. The only kind of virus you can even possibly transmit this way is the computer kind. A lot of folks worry, of course, about their pictures being spread out of their control, and that is a real risk, so some folks might not want to do this online. I do think that probably happens less often than a lot of folks think, though. A lot of people exchange sexy photos with each other! Maybe we should talk about this in a future episode.

Eunice: Yeah, watch this space! This next one is also obvious

  • Sex with household members only, indoors or out  

Although I do like that they mention outdoor sex! It seems like a lot of the advice assumes that you’ll always have your sex indoors, maybe in a nice comfy bed, since you’re living together anyway, which isn’t necessarily going to be the case for everyone. Getting caught for public indecency – or at least the risk of it – is one way to spice up your sex life, I guess! 

Joreth:  I like these next couple of bullet points because it doesn’t assume monogamy, or even cohabitation, unlike most of the other advice I’ve heard.  

  • Sex with a small, stable group of partners outdoors, or indoors with windows open and increased ventilation, touched surfaces and shared objects are wiped down  
  • Sex with a small stable group of partners indoors with little or no ventilation, all shared objects and shared touched surfaces are wiped down  

These are both very similar except for minor differences, mostly having to do with ventilation.  So let’s talk about that.  There are a billion other podcasts and articles and websites elaborating on what we know of the novel Coronavirus known as COVID-19, but basically it’s a respiratory infection that is passed via water droplets that we spit all over people when we talk, sneeze, and just breathe.

The important part here, much like with “toxins”, is that dose matters.  How concentrated your exposure is directly affects your risk level of getting a high enough viral load that your body can’t fight off, leading to you getting sick.

This is why outdoors is being recommended for any socializing that people absolutely must engage in – all the germy breath we keep breathing at people gets diluted with the massive amounts of air just generally outside hanging around the planet, so even if someone walks through a cloud of your lung vapor that you just expelled outdoors, it could get spread out so thin that the viral load isn’t high enough to “stick” in your body.

So, while you’re having sex, if you do it like it’s the First of May every day, you decrease your transmission risk.  But if you’re indoors in a closed room with all that heavy breathing in each other’s faces, you’re basically drowning in each other’s germs.  

Honestly, as someone with a chronic respiratory health issue, people’s willingness to casually kiss and get in each other’s face socially has always disturbed me more than high numbers of sexual partners.  Barriers make activities like penetration a lot less life-threatening than, say, strangers invading my personal space and talking at me.

I might be an introvert.

Eunice: God knows I’m an introvert. And honestly, kissing in a respiratory pandemic is high risk, but then it always has been! We’ve just never treated it that way. And they pretty explicitly mention it in this last, highest risk, point too:

  • Sex with more people, less distance, more time indoors with small and/or poorly ventilated spaces, close sharing of breath, lips, mouth, eyes, unprotected anal play, and all objects shared without wiping down

Franklin: This seems like it ought to be filed under “Should Be Obvious” to me. You’re concentrating virus-laden droplets in a small space and then locking lips with a bunch of other folks. I mean, c’mon, you’re almost trying to spread coronavirus!

Eunice: I’m bewildered that ‘unprotected anal play’ and ‘objects shared without wiping down’ even need to be included there. Like, who does that?

Franklin: Clearly, someone must be. Okay, if you’re listening to this podcast: Wipe down your sex toys before you hand them off to the next person if you aren’t fluid-bonded.

Joreth:  I mean, warning labels exist because someone did that shit first, right?  Also, even if you are fluid-bonded, you should be wiping off your sex toys before handing them to the next person, particularly if the next person is going to be inserting that toy into their vagina.  Vaginas are notoriously finicky and will get yeast infections at the slightest provocation.  Also, change your condoms between partners.

Eunice: I feel like saying “that doesn’t need to be said!” but thinking about people, it probably does. Condoms are single use only, folks. I’m pretty sure they come with an instructional leaflet that mentions that. Although it reminds me of those packets of nuts with the warning label “may contain nuts”. I mean, I certainly hope so, since I just bought a packet of nuts!

Franklin: Or shirts with the warning label “remove shirt before ironing.”

Joreth:  OK, look, I tried to build a dance bubble using, basically, fluid-bonding guidelines.  Like, we all agree not to dance with anyone other than us, right?  So this worked for a while, and then my dance partner announced that he got cast in a play.  A live play that was going to be performed live for a live audience right in the middle of the pandemic.  

And that they won’t be wearing masks on stage.  Because I guess you can’t act with masks on?  So I pointed out the danger there of being on stage and acting in close contact with people without masks, and he says that they all wear their masks the whole time in rehearsal except for the part where they’re on stage.

Uh, dude, damage is done.  You just spent an hour projecting into someone else’s face.  That mask while you’re sitting in the seats on a break isn’t doing anyone any good anymore.  And guess what?  Half that cast ended up getting COVID.  Someone’s grandfather got it, passed it to them, who promptly infected the cast.

So, yeah, I don’t have a dance bubble anymore.  My point is that, yes, we apparently do have to tell people shit like “close sharing of breath” is high fucking risk during a respiratory pandemic.

Eunice: Did you see that image of the number of people who would get infected if you had a choir singing together? It’s not just the people directly around the infected person because guess what, air circulates and you’re puffing and blowing away up there! According to the CDC, there was a case of a choir in Skagit County, Washington, where one member had Covid-19. 87% of the group caught it! And most of them were probably not even facing each other directly, the way you might during a play!

Franklin: So what do you do if you’re at home, especially if you’re single, and you haven’t gone out or had sex in a year? I kinda feel the existing advice is largely “stay abstinent” and that’s not helpful. What do you do?

Eunice: Become asexual? I mean, it feels like that was my solution. ‘Solution’ may be too strong a word there, admittedly. In all seriousness, though…

Joreth:  Yeah, I wish I had better advice, because all my partners were higher risk than I was comfortable with, like being a teacher in a state that opened up schools last Fall or too long distance and would require air travel to see, so I basically chose to be celibate all year.  But being on the ace spectrum, I *could* do that.  Although I think that even I am finding a limit to that about now.

Eunice: My biggest issue isn’t the lack of sex, it’s the lack of touch. Touch starvation is a real problem and I’m really missing cuddles.

Joreth:  It totally is a thing!  Right before the pandemic, I had been suffering from massive touch starvation because of how my previous relationship a couple of years ago ended, and I was posting about it.  A friend who was suffering similarly propositioned me for a relationship I had never considered before – a cuddle partner.  We negotiated it just like a regular romantic-sexual relationship, but with cuddling being our goal.  And now, thanks to the pandemic, I can’t even get that much.  But that’s also why I tried making a dance bubble – because I get some amount of intimate touch from partner dancing, but that also fell apart with other people’s unsafe socialization practices.

Eunice: Yeah, I went from doing partnered dancing and hosting meetups multiple times a week in 2019 to not being in the same physical space as anyone for most of 2020. So what to do?

Joreth:  One solution is cuddle pillows!  One of my partners and I, in the Before Times, used to exchange pillows when we visited each other – we’d sleep with the other person’s pillow during the visit, and then when we went back home, we’d take our respective pillows home that now smelled like the other person and we could cuddle … or, er, whatever, the pillow.

Eunice: And you can do the same thing with just wearing a t-shirt to bed for a while, and then posting them to each other. Put that t-shirt over a pillow you already own, and boom, your pillow now smells of your partner.

Franklin: Part of my solution has been writing far-future, post-scarcity erotic science fiction novels with Eunice. My sex life hasn’t been so great since COVID, but I’ve never been so creatively productive in my entire life. So maybe sublimation is a solution for some people?

Joreth:  Maybe if anything good can come out of this, the pandemic can teach us to reexamine some of our unspoken assumptions about what our relationships can or should look like?  Like, maybe Lucy and Desi from I Love Lucy weren’t completely prudish for having separate beds? I kinda think that practice ought to be making a comeback.  I mean, share bed space when you want to, but does it have to be a default?  And maybe some times ought to be deliberately slept apart.  And designing our living space to accommodate that should be a little more common.

Eunice: I’ve been quite disappointed with the way that a lot of the polyamorous communities have gone rather mono-normative in response to this pandemic, even if I understand why. You’d think if anyone, it would be the communities that already have a wide diversity of relationship styles that would lead the way on how to think about and make space for safely interacting outside of nuclear households?

Franklin: I mean, it kinda makes sense, if the norm you grew up with is monogamy and you’re faced with a situation where you think meeting other people is inherently dangerous.

Still, there has to be a better way. If you don’t want to say “revert back to monogamy,” how do you have sex and keep it reasonably safe from the plague? Besides “gloryholes,” I mean. Not that I’m knocking gloryholes, but they’re not everyone’s hole in the wall, if you take my drift.

Eunice: So if we’re not saying “everyone should just use gloryholes”, what are we suggesting?

Franklin: One possibility is quarantining with more than one person, though that’s not available to everyone. Not all non-monogamous people are independently wealthy, after all! Of course, there’s always text sex and online cam sex, which is fun even though it doesn’t really give you that physical connection. Done creatively, it’s a blast, though it isn’t a substitute for human contact. And something that can be a lot of fun is reading erotica together…or hey, writing erotica together.

Eunice: Well, not everyone is us, but I can definitely confirm it can be great fun. 10 out of 10, would cause massive sexual frustration and wet dreams for a partner again! 

Franklin: That’s because you’re terrible. Also, 10/10, can confirm.

Eunice: Well, thank you. Also phone apps to control remote sex toys, say by waking your lover up at 4am with a vibrator, are a thing. Which we’ll be talking more about in a future episode!

Joreth:  I am a big fan of the remote controlled vibrator!  I feel that it brings a sense of togetherness from a distance.

Eunice: Just, um, don’t forget to replace the batteries in the remote as well, if that’s important. You know, not that I’ve accidentally been sat in a Parisian restaurant going “Well where are we going to get Double A batteries at 9.30 at night in Paris??” or anything.

Joreth:  LOL, yeah, my last partner that controlled my vibe ended up killing his phone while he was out and no chance to charge it, because he controlled it through his phone.  And in one of my RC vibes, when the remote loses connection, the vibe just resets itself to STEADY ON and if you’re in a restaurant, it can be … inconvenient to reach down and turn it off manually.  Fresh batteries!

Franklin: You heard it here, folks. Practice safe tech sex.

Eunice: Anyway, here’s a list of the basics from the Mayo Clinic, most of which are probably already obvious to you or we’ve already mentioned earlier in the episode:

  • Minimize the number of sexual partners you have.
  • Avoid sex partners who have symptoms of COVID-19.
  • Avoid kissing.
  • Avoid sexual behaviors that have a risk of fecal-oral transmission or that involve semen or urine.
  • Use condoms and dental dams during oral and anal sex.
  • Wear a mask during sexual activity.
  • Wash your hands and shower before and after sexual activity.
  • Wash sex toys before and after using them.
  • Use soap or alcohol wipes to clean the area where you have sexual activity.

Joreth: And here is our list of extra ideas for the fun stuff, to add onto that!

  1. Have sex doggie style with cohabiting partners. Or whatever position keeps your faces away from each other. Reverse cowgirl?
  2. Modify a “fluid bond” group into a “covid bond” group – a small number of partners who agree to a similar level of approved self-quarantining and only have sex with those people.
  3. Have sex outdoors. Fresh air is good for you!
  4. Date virtually for now. Have you tried having family porn nights? Polyfamily, obviously, not biofamily.
  5. Masturbation! Especially if you’re watching each other at the time.
  6. Especially if you’re putting each other on a strict wank schedule.
  7. Cuddle pillows! 
  8. Remote control sex toys.

Joreth:  Try not to fall into mononormative defaults by coupling up with few or no barriers and leaving your other partners to face the pandemic alone simply because they happened to be the partners you didn’t meet first and sign a mortgage with.

Franklin: So that’s what we’ve got. How about you guys? Send ideas, comments, ways you connect during a pandemic, or suggestions for future episodes to contact@skepticalpervert.com. And if you know someone else who might enjoy this podcast, why not share the love, by giving us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or your podcatcher of choice.  You can also visit www.skepticalpervert.com, where you can check out the show notes for links to the transcript and the studies we’re drawing from.  And don’t forget to become a patron of the show by joining our patreon, which is linked on the website.  The Skeptical Pervert is copyrighted and produced by Franklin Veaux, Eunice Hung, and Joreth Innkeeper, edited by Joreth Innkeeper, and the website and show notes are maintained by Franklin Veaux.

Eunice:  And remember, have safer pandemic sex!  Try not to breathe!

Franklin: Remember, we all have two minutes to live, but every time you breathe the clock is reset.