Sex columnists seem to have something in common.
That was a thought that came to my mind last January, while talking at the beginning of 2009 to friend who wrote a sex column for his college newspaper. None of my existing freelance contacts seemed all that interested in the topic, so I went shopping for someone who was.
When it came in, my editor balked, the economy worsened, advertising declined and freelance budgets were continually slashed, and so the story has sat ever since. Today, I share it here: a profile of the mindset of someone who just might be a sex columnist.
What does a sex columnist look like?
Timaree Schmit went through 12 years of Catholic school and came out the other side a sex columnist.
The 26-year-old graduate student at Widener University outside Philadelphia writes Sex with Timaree, a popular sex column featured weekly on the Barbershop Notebooks, a blog maintained by Temple University [now Columbia University] hip-hop professor and Fox News contributor Marc Lamont Hill. Schmit, raised in Western Nebraska, describes herself as liberal and sexually experienced, yet says her column often gives men the impression she’s more flippant about sexual encounters than she really is.
In other words, she just might be the prototype of a successful sex columnist, according to research by Dr. Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington, author of a host of related books including Everything You Know About Love and Sex is Wrong, and a former sex columnist for Glamour.
“You’d be amazed at the level of ignorance and the level of isolation out there,” Schwartz says. “Sex columnists serve a big role.”
But what does your friendly neighborhood sex columnist who is filling that role look like? Like many professions, it seems a certain set of characteristics are often shared by those drawn to the allure of writing about the most intimate details of their lives and others.
“It’s definitely important to understand who you’re getting information from,” Schwartz says. So why not put a mirror up to your favorite tawdry advice columnist?
Often, they’re liberal and personable and self-identify as being sexually experienced, like you might guess. But also, Schwartz says, their columns may be a vehicle to normalize their own taboo behaviors, yet they are likely a lot less confident than their writing may suggest.
Your average sex columnist was likely raised in a family that was either extremely sexually repressive or expressive, Schwartz says, and it also turns out that many are a lot less promiscuous or even adventurous than their writing may suggest.
“I don’t know one thing about sex,” says E. Jean Carroll, the venerable advice columnist for Elle whose content often gets intimate. “That’s the same for all columnists. We are not necessarily the people we seem to be in print.”
Carrol, whose column has run in Elle since 1993, is currently working on a book about college sex – “because it’s the juiciest time in the history of the world” – but along the way took an interest in campus sex columnists. Last year, Carroll mined the country’s best and posted their work on her Web site, AskEJean.com. She saw commonalities even among those aspiring for the craft.
“They are there to be stars,” says Carrol. “The young ones love to share their personal experiences, you know, like leaving their underwear at the fraternity house or waking up next to someone you can’t quite remember. It’s a social move, a way to get dates and get attention on a crowded campus.”
In many of their columns, Carrol agrees, there is a tendency to promote as common the sexual misadventures of their friends and themselves, a trend that may run through the heart of many writing in the form professionally.
“I know sex workers and kinksters and freaks,” says Dan Savage, who writes Savage Love, the syndicated column often heralded as the pantheon of sexual-advice today. “So, perhaps I subconsciously strive to normalize behaviors that others regard as taboo out of a devotion to my freaky friends.”
Below Savage speaks about the ‘strangest’ letters he’s received.
Savage, who is openly gay, is known for flying in the face of the religious right, like lambasting former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum for telling the Associated Press in April 2003 that he had “a problem with homosexual acts.”
Santorum was born in the small city of Winchester, Virginia, seemingly a world away from Savage’s Seattle – a coastal urban metropolis like many sex columnists call home. Carrol lives in upstate New York and isn’t unaware of the big city beneath her. Though a native of Nebraska, Schmit says her friends were always liberal and now lives outside of and frequents Philadelphia.
Even Carrol’s college columnists from Midwest campuses were largely liberal and seemed to identify or aspire to big cities, Caroll says, particularly in the northeast and west coast but elsewhere as well.
Krystal Baugher, who wrote a column for the University Leader of Fort Hays State University, left Kansas for graduate school in Chicago. Carrie Pierce, who authored a column in The Maroon Weekly at Texas A&M University, said she has aspirations of a European metropolis in her future. Others had their eyes, unsurprisingly, on the glossy fashion magazines of New York City.
“There are those who say ‘I really like Sex in the City so I’m going to be Carrie Bradshaw and write like her’, which might be the bane of my existence,” Schmit, of Sex with Timaree, says with a laugh. She exemplifies well another standard sex-columnist trait, disarming intimate subject matter with humor.
“It’s definitely best that columnists be funny, so long as that they’re accurate,” Schmit says. “So most are.”
In a recent column, Schmit responded to a reader who wanted advice on dealing with a new girlfriend’s former lover who was still hanging around.
Schmit told her reader to first give it time.
“Things will be hilariously awkward for a bit, but they’ll settle down eventually,” Schmit wrote. “Kind of like the seconds following a queef.”
Voices range, but some sense of levity is perhaps the most common sex-columnist trait of all, perhaps the prime example being Savage.
Savage responded: “I would tell people to refrain from fucking Sue Johanson in the ass…”
Of course not everything is funny.
Like the subject matter they encounter, the more intimate suppositions Schwartz intimates about the average sex columnists are, of course, hard to broach and even harder to gauge, like family background.
Schwartz says many sex columnists might find their path by either rebelling against a strict childhood or incorporating one that allowed for sexual exploration.
“My parents were good liberal Catholics in the 70s, and they understood that good liberals were open about sex, were sexually liberal when it came to sex education — the willingness to talk about sex with their kids — but they were raised in very sexually repressed environments, and try as they might, they weren’t very good at creating a sexually liberal environment,” Savage says. “I guess it depends on what your definition of liberal is. My parents strongly felt that sex went with marriage and vice-versa.”
Schmit says she was raised by a “generally reasonable couple of professional educators” but admits to rebelling against her Catholic schooling. Aside from being “almost puppy-like in [her] extroversion,” Schmit says her childhood was otherwise very normal, another element Schwartz says is likely common among sex columnists.
Even with a “missionary purpose,” Schwartz says childhood abuses would make personal, particularly sexual, content uncomfortable.
“So I bet most sex columnists are more likely to have a more traditional childhood in that way,” Schwartz said.
Like those experiences, Elle columnist Carroll says many of her colleagues are often average in their writing, too.
“They just need to get their ideas across,” Caroll says. “I think it attracts people that want to be stars. It’s like watching American Idol during audition week. Sex columnists can be splashy. It’s a social move, so you probably won’t get Leo Tolstoy.”
You will get a curious cohort, though, Schwartz says. The sociology professor with expertise in sexuality is perhaps herself an example that the best in people who want to give advice on sex may be an interest to learn more. Even now as an academic, Schwartz serves as a sex columnist of sorts, writing online for Mens Health and serving as the relationship expert for perfectmatch.com, seeking questions and finding answers.
“Sex columnists, I think, are an interested bunch,” Schwartz says.
Much like Schmit, who first found she was more comfortable talking sex than others. That only made her want to study the scholarship of sex more. A psychology degree and nearly a doctorate in sexuality later, Schmit relishes being able to offer real research-based advice to people in the need of honest, forthright help.
“People need a reliable source, one whom they trust, because sexuality isn’t something people feel comfortable just asking anyone about. Even doctors, their training in sexuality is usually quite abysmal,” Schmit says. “It’s incredible to feel that I can offer something. It [is] changing the world in the way I was best suited to do.”
While Caroll agrees that many do tend to feel they’re doing a real service – “and many of them are right” – it’s important, Caroll says, not to over-complicate a portrayal of the average sex columnist.
“Remember: basically, you’re dealing with people who are show-offs,” Caroll says. “I think in the end, sex columnists just want to get laid.”
- “It’s definitely an attention-seeking behavior. You can write about anything but choose sex. You’re going to get attention for that, good or bad.”
- Psychology degree at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln
- Widener, the only nationally accredited graduate degree in sexuality
- She lives in Chester but frequents Philly.”Sex columnists, it’s a newish phenomenon in its current incarnation and is just now being fleshed out.”
- “It’s definitely best that they be funny, but definitely important that they’re accurate.”
- Schmitt, who gives a laugh after calling her column-style “edutainment”
- Sexual advice columns, Schmit says, often fall into one of two categories: the entertaining – “like Dan Savage” – or the straightforward – “like when you ask medical doctors why it’s red and seeping things, but the answer isn’t terribly interesting to read.”
College sex is one time in the history of the world when you can do whatyou want. I’m sorry I missed out…Most sex columnists, I say, just want to get a date,” Caroll says