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Bay Area Reporter
First Sex Summit takes political positions
<p>Heather Cassell</p>
November 1, 2012

Sexual advocates at the inaugural Sex Summit in San Francisco on October 27 were hot and heavy about this year's political campaigns and how politics affects what's going on in Americans' bedrooms.

The one-day summit, held at the San Francisco Marriott Marquis, brought experts from a range of industries – from media and pop culture to health and medicine to politics – together to discuss the impact when sexuality is corporately and politically under siege.

Sexologist Carol Queen, Ed.D., resident sexpert of Good Vibrations, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary and produced the conference, kicked off the summit by asking the estimated 200 attendees to call their friends in swing states to urge them to vote.

The issues presented at the summit and discussed among the panelists affect, "the ground all of us walk and in some ways in the bed in which all of us fuck," said Queen.

Keynote speaker Debby Herbenick, Ph.D, MPH, uncovered some of the raw facts, with research only five days old, about Americans' sex lives from the most recent National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior and expanded upon politics and sex.

Herbenick is a research scientist and associate director at the Center for Sexual Health Promotion. She is also a sexual health educator at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University, but perhaps she is best known for her vulva puppeteering.

Under attack

Herbenick quickly turned her discussion and the survey to politics and what is often unspoken about sex. She began to list all of the ways sex, sexual health, and women were under attack during this political season.

Two examples she pointed to were right-wing talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh calling Sarah Fluke a "slut" because she demanded access to birth control, and Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin (R) claiming there is such a thing as "legitimate rape" and going on to state, falsely, during a radio interview, that women's bodies can block pregnancies by shutting down while they are being raped.

"The political mess is what it is and it really is a mess," said Herbenick, but politics and politicians' "willful ignorance" about reproductive and sexual health, especially among women, reflects "an untold narrative about women's sexual experiences that I'm seeing more and more of in our data and lack of data."

Herbenick's research delved deeper into new areas not explored before. She exposed a deep divide between women and men's emotional intimacy and sexual communication, experiences of sexual arousal, and physical pain during sex.

Much of the conference was focused on women's sexuality, particularly bisexual and heterosexual women. Audience members criticized the information, attempting to ask questions about queer sex lives, but the summit was set up in a way that there wasn't a dialogue between attendees and experts.

Panelists of every field echoed Herbenick, describing a cultural and political war zone more than progressive advances in understanding sexuality, suggesting a flashback to the sexual wars of 20 or 30 years ago.

"We are facing a huge sex education crisis, actually a public health crisis," said Mireille Miller-Young, Ph.D., a queer woman who is an assistant professor of feminist studies at UC Santa Barbara.

Out butch lesbian Carmen Vazquez, who is the coordinator of the LGBT health and human services unit for the NYS AIDS Institute, expressed frustration with current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention policies regarding HIV/AIDS prevention and sex education. Current policies threaten the loss of funding of programs that teach sex education. Instead, testing and treating is the new prevention model, she said.

"Twenty-five years of doing incredible work on hot and safe sex down the drain," said Vazquez, who called the new policies "close to genocide."

Media experts pointed out that it's a conflict of interest for corporations to teach sexuality.

"We cannot continue to leave sexual education up to corporations," said Jaclyn Friedman, a sexuality author. "Their interest is not aligned with the interest of sexual health."

As long as people allow corporations to co-opt sex education, "We will have this dysfunctional sexual culture. That's why we need to create a much stronger and more active and effective movement for real pleasure-based sex education in public schools," continued Friedman.

Brian Alexander, an award-winning journalist who writes about sexual health issues for mainstream media outlets, agreed.

"Corporations aren't in the sex ed business. That's not their job. Their job is to entertain people. Sex education belongs in families and schools," he said.

Experts pointed to one recent development of corporate and government misuse of sexual entertainment called sexual poll taxes, taxes on services that allegedly contribute to adult entertainment directly or indirectly. People don't protest due to shame involved around sex or the potential backlash for speaking out, panelists said.

Judith Levine, an author, activist, and journalist who is the director of the National Center for Reason and Justice, described the current state of sex in America as a "bizarrely schizophrenic era about sex."

To reverse the situation, sex advocates echoed Herbenick's call at the beginning of the conference for everyone to speak openly, honestly, and publicly about sex.

Maggie Mayhem called upon conference attendees to be "civically minded perverts" and to get political locally, not just during federal and state election years.

"We need to go to city hall, we need to go to school boards," said Mayhem. "They are talking about all kinds of things that have huge ramifications. This is the whole future of sexuality."