This is a conversation with the host of the Sex Communication Podcast, someone who is actually working to normalize open and honest conversations about sex. The Unspeakable Vice Podcast talks about why it is important, but she is actually doing it.
We discuss some of the things that makes sex a difficult topic, the pros and cons of being open about it, what good sex ed might look like, and some of her upcoming projects.
As I was recently made aware, last week was National Coming Out Week, culminating Sunday with National Coming Out Day. This tradition, of celebrating people within the LGBTQ community coming out of the closet—making sure that people know that they exist—is a wonderful example of positive sex communication in action.
Why Come Out
Coming out is an act of pride in one’s sexual identity. It is also a political action that seeks to normalize alternative sexualities. The more people come out, the more people will see that it’s a pretty regular thing that some people are not heterosexual, or gender-binary, or straight in whatever way the word has meaning to you.
Why Not Come Out
There’s another side of the story, though. To celebrate coming out, to normalize coming out, even to make it a rite of passage into the LGBTQ community (as some do), is also to legitimize the idea that alternate sexualities are deviant. If they were normal, there would be no closet to come out of. Think about it: when was the last time you heard someone come out as straight? It doesn’t happen because that’s a normal identity. When someone doesn’t rock the heteronormative boat, their identities are unremarkable. There is no need for them to declare their identities, because we all have already made assumptions about who they are.
For more information about why straight people don’t come out, read Adrienne Rich (1980), “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” If you want another perspective on coming out reinforcing heteronormativity, read this Washington Post op ed from a few years ago, “It’s time to end National Coming Out Day.”
Finally, if you are wondering about coming out personally, The Trevor Project created a great little booklet to help you think through the issues and difficulties associated with coming out.
The only time someone needs to come out is when those assumptions are wrong, when their identity deviates from heteronormalcy. Thus, the act of coming out feeds heteronormativity. Standing up and saying “Yes! I’m different!” is cathartic, empowering, and a boost of self-confidence as you become a card-carrying, asking-and-telling member of a wonderful community. But it also says you’re different.
I’m not saying don’t come out. I’m just dreaming of a world where coming out is boring. If you get on the rooftops and shout out who you are, and you feel great about it, wonderful. But in my dream world, people around you will look at you like you just declared your favorite pizza toppings. Because we can all appreciate pizza in different ways. And even if your favorites are not mine, it’s really not that big of a deal.
Sex Communication Podcasts
Anyway, this episode isn’t about coming out. It’s actually a conversation with another podcast host. She’s been something of an inspiration to me, because she’s been walking the walk I’ve been talking about. In more ways than one, she’s made a mission of normalizing talking about sex.
Hi, my name is Brianne. I am also a host of a sex podcast my podcast is called Sex Communication. But I am also the founder of GRAPHICPAINT, which is an umbrella brand that also produces Sex Communication. And the focus of the brand is to champion sex positive projects.
We’re really centered around a website that’s currently in development that’s going to be an online community for people to share multimedia without sexual censorship, connect with others, be able to sell their own digital content, you know, the only requirement being authenticity and certain very specific things that our merchant provider won’t allow content wise.
Yeah, I’m just really looking to change the narrative around sex, but also the experience of interacting with sexual content, especially when it comes to the online world, which is where we all live 24 hours a day.Brianne
Barriers to Communication
Okay, great. Um, so I guess you and I have a common mission of normalizing talking about sex. And as you know, there are many social pressures that make sex taboo, such as religion and morality laws and that sort of thing. And there’s also internal pressures, right, fear and shame, things like that. So what do you see as the biggest barriers to being open about talking about sex today?Kenneth
Well, I mean, again, I’m tackling this problem with the solution being online media. And I actually think the reason for that is because I think this is the biggest reinforcer of the stigma. You know, media is something that we access constantly. It’s something that we internalize, and it takes ideas that you know may have originated in religion. They may have originated in, you know, family etiquette, or just tradition, or with government practice.
When you see the way media handles sex, you know, the way that sex is kind of segregated from all other types of content, like that just reinforces an otherness, and otherness is just inherently negative. You know, anything that’s segregated, we start to see the thing that’s separated is like that’s a bad thing. And that’s why it’s separated.
So it’s, you know, part of why I’m hoping to change how sex is presented, you know, it’s not just having the conversation, but really thinking about, like, this is, you know meeting people where they are. We’re carrying around phones we have access to the Internet, all the time. And, you know, media, whether it’s through advertising, whether it’s through blogs or new sites or you know even films, it’s like it’s all reinforcing this idea that sex is something that you talk about somewhere else, but not in normal daily life.Brianne
I’ve sometimes imagined that that this ideal world of talking about sex openly, it might look like the way that we talk about food. I don’t know if you think that’s a good comparison or not. But, you know, recipe books and and maybe a sex network on television, you know, that kind of thing. Casual conversations about the best place to eat.
Do you think this is a reasonable idea? Or are there things about sex that make it special, make it unique, and where we should, even being open, should be more careful or reserved about the way that we talked about it?Kenneth
No, I mean, I agree with what you’re saying. I mean, I think. You know this stigma, it’s not just about getting people to be more open about sex as far as, you know, talking about what their sex life is. But it’s like, how does that play out into all of the other things that we struggle with, right?
You know. Conversations about consent. Conversations about trauma. And you know like the negative stuff. People don’t talk about the negative stuff as much as they don’t talk about the positive stuff.
So I just think, you know, like the benefits are just way beyond just normalizing and destigmatizing the topic. It’s an opportunity for people to be more comfortable just sharing what has happened to them, whether it’s good or bad, you know.
So I do think normalizing it so that it’s to the point where it’s just another topic, like you said, like food. I mean, that’s part of what my vision for the site is is like, it’s not just sex. It’s sex that’s treated at the same level of importance and priority as we deal with every other topic, you know, news and reviews and culture stuff and you know whatever. It’s all just life stuff. So why do we have to treat one part of life is a totally separate animal?Brianne
The Good and The Bad
Right. Um, so you mentioned consent. And I think that’s an important topic I’d like to get in a little more.
When people think about not being open about sex they might develop incorrect assumptions about, what’s normal and what’s not. People might miss out on pleasurable opportunities if they’re not comfortable asking, but, as you mentioned, consent is a part of it too. They might struggle to navigate that. Could you talk about that in a little more detail—why there’s this complexity about the the good and the bad is both—
I guess what I’m getting at is when people want to suppress sex or sex communication, a lot of times the rationale is that they don’t want to be putting these ideas into people’s heads. If we don’t talk about it, then it won’t exist, or something like that. Can you talk about why that’s not the case?Kenneth
Well, when we’re uncomfortable about things, we don’t want to talk about them, and when you don’t have those conversations you can get into very dangerous situations. I mean, my perspective is very well informed living as a cis woman and having been sexually assaulted multiple times throughout my life, as an adult, as a child, everywhere in between. And it’s still difficult for me to have those conversations.
Like even with doing the show, you know, recording all these interviews, talking about it, writing about it. It’s uncomfortable. There’s like this fear of—I don’t even know what it is, it doesn’t—it’s just like baseless fear, this feeling attached to these conversations because they’re so—like it’s just so uncommon. You don’t, I don’t know, I’ve never been advised on how to have the conversation.
It’s not something that’s dealt with in school or at least it wasn’t in my experience, it is from what I can tell, with even sex ed programs. Now it’s still not something that’s tackled.
So it’s like where to start? And then you know hesitation and discomfort with something like that. I mean, it carries over to, like, “Well, do I feel comfortable asking for what I want in bed?” It’s all the same conversation. But just like different angles of it. Um, you know, and not being able to talk about consent.
It’s, you know, akin to not being able to stick up for yourself and allowing a situation to progress where you’re not comfortable, you have not given consent and yet something is happening to you and your then dealing with the consequences of that. You know, giving somebody else power giving somebody the entire control of the situation, what happens, how it’s dealt with, you know, because you’re the one not speaking up. And I think people don’t speak up, because they don’t know any better, most of the time, and other times they know full well better but they’re not acting on it because it’s so uncomfortable to have these conversations.
You know, especially as a woman there’s like a fear of what kind of violent reaction might befall me if I bring this up. If I say no. If you know we’ve done x y and z, but I’m like, nope, not going to do this other thing. You know, that’s a very reasonable fear. It’s a very reasonable fear, and it’s just it’s unfortunate that it is sexual assault, especially with women is as common as it is. It’s, you know, it’s plenty common with men as well. But it’s become like a cultural norm to dominate women, especially in the US. And I know in other places it’s even worse, and in some places it’s better. But you know, I live in the states and it’s been my experience.
And it doesn’t seem to have changed all that much, even for a sex positive as it’s, you know, become so trendy to be lately. It still doesn’t mitigate those those risks.Brianne
Telling Your Own Story
Yeah. You say from your personal experience that it’s still difficult to talk about and I can certainly relate to that as well. Um, I’ve had several years of telling my story and it still can be very difficult at times. Do you think, do you see from your own experience that it gets easier or that there’s some healing from talking about it?Kenneth
Yeah, certainly. I mean, another thing that I’ve been very open about is the fact that I’m sober, and you know I stay sober by participating in a 12 step recovery program. And the at the heart of that program is sharing one’s story right and sharing honestly. Taking an honest inventory, just being fearless about like whatever your truth is, and knowing that, you know, if you’ve done something wrong, it doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you, you know, sick or, you know, like we’re not necessarily—even like we can be defined by our actions, obviously—but it’s like you know, the possibility of forgiveness of change. And that it all comes from kind of acknowledgement and and being very willing to accept responsibility for something by looking at it in a very honest, brutally honest way.
So just given all of that, like I’ve shared about my own sexual assaults. Many times, you know both privately with people that I’m working with one on one, but also in the context of groups. And even still, like, I still will, you know, share it at a meeting and have somebody tell me that it’s inappropriate that I talked about a certain part of my story. But it’s my fucking story. If I want to talk about it, I’m going to talk about it. I mean it’s—definitely all those experiences have shaped who I am and why I am where I am and why I do what I do.
And it’s, it’s so important for other people to hear it and identify. And I have so many more people coming up to me—men and women and and everything in between—saying, you know, nobody ever talks about that and I really appreciate that you shared about this particular topic because, you know, this happened to me too.
Which is another part with the site, of being so open about these things. Like, that’s another way that we normalize things right. It’s not just seeing examples of it, but seeing and hearing very personal account because then you know this isn’t just something that a company created, right. It’s not just a construct, you know, that’s been developed so that you you perform a certain action. It’s somebody honestly sharing their story so you can know that you are not alone. And you have that opportunity to identify which in turn just leads to, you know, acceptance and feeling more connected and a whole host of other positive things.Brianne
Moving the Narrative Forward
Do you see that talking about and understanding your past helps you to negotiate the present or the future in terms of asking what what you want? Being open that way?Kenneth
Yeah, I mean, certainly if I didn’t look back on those things with the perspective that I have with the awareness in the acceptance, you know, my eyes wouldn’t be as open going forward into new things right.
Like plenty of things can happen to you. But if you never sit and examine how they happened and why they happened and you know the circumstances around it and you know how you felt afterwards, you’re never going to give yourself the opportunity to behave in a different way. Which is kind of what we’re all looking for.Brianne
Protecting the Innocent
So part of the reason that as a culture, we are afraid of sex is that it can be dangerous. Maybe we blow that out of proportion sometimes, but there’s truth to it. It can be dangerous in in the wrong context. And you mentioned sex ed for children. And so, particularly, we want to protect children or vulnerable people from sex.
But at the same time, children are exposed to sex from the day they’re born, right. We give them a sexual identity, male or female. And then there’s all these sorts of cultural norms that come along with that—about how you’re supposed to behave. And even if we don’t intend that to be sexual at first, it certainly is all related, I think. Right, right. The the ideas of normalizing masculine behavior are very much interrelated with issues of like you said dominance and aggression, and I think there’s a missing piece between between what is normal for children to be exposed to and what they need to learn to be healthy adults in terms of sexuality.
Do you think that there’s something fundamentally wrong with our approach to sex ed, or do we just need to do a better job of communicating these things?Kenneth
I think there’s a lot fundamentally wrong. A lot missing.
I mean, my experience with sex ed was related to STIs and preventing pregnancy. So that’s all very useful information right but like I said consent is a huge missing part of that conversation. But also the idea of sexual pleasure. And you know I understand a lot of people’s hesitation with, you know, just in the same way in the 90s. It was a whole thing about like, we don’t want to offer condoms at school because this is just going to be encouraging everybody who sees or has access to a condom to have sex. Which is not true.
You know, it’s a matter of being open about healthy behavior. Like it’s one thing to, you know, have a child only encounter unhealthy depictions and unhealthy demonstrations of sexuality, and another to, you know, kind of force the issue with with positive things. And, you know, if we think about it very realistically, there is no child that is not aware of porn. Right. And there’s a whole backlash that porn is so negative and porn is, you know, ruining our kids and corrupting them.
And, you know, but that’s the only real—I don’t want to say honest—but like, but I mean explicit. It’s the only real explicit demonstration of sex that they have access to most of the time, because we’re not offering an alternative.
So what would it look like if we instead of running away from how you know we show sex—like, “they shouldn’t be looking at sex!” We don’t want to look at it. We don’t want to see it. We don’t want to like have that that exposure. We don’t want to like go that far. You’re giving them no alternative but to seek something out that will actually show them body parts and will actually show them action so they don’t have to wonder about the vagaries of, you know, maybe illustrations or vague language in a book. Because you know all these topics are skirted around. They’re never addressed. And so that’s what they seek out.
So I just propose that we, you know, embrace the topic and try to put, you know, healthy things out there instead, and you can educate somebody much better. I think educational porn would be so useful. And I mean videos with real people having sex that you see you can see: What a trans person looks like. You can see what group sex looks like. you can see what it looks like for a woman to insert a tampon, or a trans, you know, woman not dealing with that and maybe a trans man menstruating. Like, you know, being able to see these things in specifics—
Like education is power. And and you’re setting children up to be safer to be, you know, more able to advocate for themselves because they know the reality of something when you just keep something under wraps, it’s just, it’s always going to lead to something that’s not going to be good. But, I mean, the information is out there, they’re not going to not get it. So it’s like, how about we give them good information. Instead.
So you know I think realism is very important. Education about you know that pleasure is a component of sex. It’s not just like, “how do you not get pregnant” and “how do you not catch herpes or AIDS or whatever.” But like, “how is this a part of normal life” and “how can you be good at it, and how can you take your own pleasure into your own hands.” You know, i.e. masturbation. And it’s again it’s not encouraging them to do it. It’s just saying, “This is the information that’s out there and I’m going to shoot straight with you and tell you all about it.”Brianne
So let’s talk about pornography and art, more broadly. I guess, is there a distinction? Should we, I’m not sure what the best way is to use those words. But pornography tends to have a very negative association, but you’re talking about a positive use of sexual art. Can you talk about what you have in mind?Kenneth
Yeah, I mean just reality based. I mean documentary style sex. That maybe would be less confusing because the word pornography does bring with it a lot of connotations that I mean—even the definition is like it’s intended for arousal—which I it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m very pro porn, but I do recognize that there are—there’s bad porn out there, and there are some really good independent, you know, very body-positive very gender-inclusive creators of porn out there. They’re few and far between.
But I think in terms of using it for sex ed, I think, is something that that’s not being tackled. I mean, I don’t know anybody that’s doing that. But I just think that that would be real.
I think about how when I grew up, you know, asking my mother what a low job was and she told me it meant to give oral pleasure. Which at the time I was reading these books that would talk about oral presentations and that it was about speaking skills. So I’m hearing this, and I’m like, does that mean to like tell a good….
Like I knew she was being vague and it was just such confusing language. Like what the fuck are you talking about? This is not an answer. Right.
But it’s all like if she had—if I had somebody that was straight with me and said, no, this is what a blow job is, or maybe showed me a video of somebody giving somebody else a blow job. I would have understood and it wouldn’t have been like, “Oh, well, now I’m going to go out and do that now because I’ve seen an example of it.” I mean, that’s just ludicrous.
It would just, would have set me up better. And honestly, the reason why I was asking because I was in fifth grade and I had a boyfriend a year older that was already talking about blow jobs. Like, don’t you think it would have been helpful for your daughter to have known exactly what the guy was talking about? That would have made it safer for me.
I mean, I felt incredibly uncomfortable being alone with him, like I didn’t know what he was going to try to make me do. I didn’t have this actual idea of what a blow job is. It was just, you know, my fears and everything and and—It’s just such nonsense.
But anyway, yeah, did that answer your question? I’m sorry.Brianne
Art in the Conversation
Yeah, yeah. So, and and thinking more broadly about about your mission and the, the idea of normalizing sex. How do you think art plays into that as opposed to just having conversations?Kenneth
Well, it’s funny. I’m also a visual artist, and I don’t care about art in this context honestly. When I think about that I think about like erotica which I hate. I don’t know. I’m, I’m more interested in just in reality and honesty.
So, you know, like when I said you know documentary style depictions of sex. Same with writing. I’m not into like erotic fiction or you know, whatever. But I love to read people’s first hand accounts of something that’s true.
So, I mean, again, that’s my motivation for trying to drive that direction with the site, but I, you know, I’m creating something that’s crowdsourced right. So at some point, I’m not going to be driving that ship. It’s going to be a matter of, like, what do people want to post? A lot of people, you know, that’s how they they are comfortable talking about sex. And you know sharing about it you know if they make things like as a creator, that’s helpful to them. Which is great for them. It’s not something I’m at all interested in.
I don’t think sex has been missing from art ever. I mean, just the fact that, like nudes are so—I mean it’s such, it’s like a weird contradiction that you know nude statues and paintings have been around for hundreds of years. And yet we’re still uncomfortable with nudity. So I don’t put a lot of stock in like art being able to save us in this situation.
I truly think it’s about like what is the truth. What are people really doing and how can I see it or read about it or hear it? Yeah, that’s what I’m looking for.Brianne
Yeah. That’s interesting. I think sometimes I’ve thought that fiction and writing—and art is the same way—but fiction is a way to talk about things that are too difficult to talk about otherwise that as a, as a creator of that type of work. I think that that can put some distance between me and the work in a way that allows me to express things that if I were just saying it directly might be too hard to do. Does that make sense?Kenneth
It does, it does. But like my my gut reaction to it is like, it feels like spin, right. It feels like fantasy. And I don’t think either of those things are helpful. Especially, you know, when I think about all the writing that that’s out there. And how often, the more popular depiction of something will be, you know, an experience that a woman is having, but surprise, it’s written by a cis man who has no idea and is, you know, unintentionally, you know, well maybe not unintentionally, but sharing information that’s not useful if somebody’s reading it. Like, “Oh, I’m supposed to quiver at a touch and we’re going to have simultaneous orgasms.” Like that’s fucking bullshit that’s unhelpful to anybody.
And I just feel like again, what is, what is the truth? Tell it to me straight. Show me people, neither of them can come to an orgasm, or one does. And the other ones just like defeated, it just—like we, I just want to see the reality of it. Because I think it also gives people, you know, the space like a safe space to feel like “I don’t have to be performing. I don’t have to, you know, meet this expectation. I don’t have to have a certain experience or a certain result.”
And it just lets them them be where they are and you know just be in the moment instead of shooting for something which I think any creation any art or fiction or whatever—movies. They’re always striving for this ideal.
You know, it’s, I just, I’m more—I mean, I enjoy my entertainment. That you know, false or otherwise, but when it comes to like changing a conversation and changing thinking into educating people and to try to motivate change behavior, I think reality all the way is the way to go.Brianne
Well that makes a lot of sense. Um, that’s everything that I had to talk about. Is there anything that we didn’t cover yet that you think is important and you’d like to bring up?Kenneth
Oh well, I mean, this is an interesting thing I’ve been dealing with recently. So my podcast. You know, I said, you know, one of the things to with with reality is like, I want to hear it. I didn’t mention but mi podcast features episodes of audio porn, which is just audio recordings of real sex. And I was recently banned from my podcast platform for having pornographic content which was really interesting to me, given that it was a completely audio-only medium and then it’s real.
There is audio content out there where it’s actually people that are acting. They’re like reading either erotica or maybe something that that’s factually based but they’re performing the reactions. They’re performing the sounds and that’s not what I’m sharing. I’m sharing real people having sex or masturbating, and like what does that really sound like.
And it’s funny, there is this immediate assumption, especially from—I have a more majority male listenership which is not shocking to me. But anyway. I’m not putting them out there to turn people on. And in fact, when the idea occurred to me to use a podcast to put content like that out there. To even, you know, like record sex and listen to it. It was never about that, you know, it was about having the opportunity to hear something from a different perspective or, you know, I want to say look at something in perspective but you’re hearing it. You’re not seeing it. But it just gives you a different insight. Right.
I mean, there’s something so so disconnected about how how we see sex, but I think, you know, taking the visuals out of it. Especially given you know how kind of doctored a lot of visuals are. Like, and just being able to listen to something your understanding of the situation and the intimacy of it is just incredibly compelling and I think even just from an anthropological standpoint, is just like, why aren’t we, why haven’t people really been focusing on examining sexuality in this way? You know, is like more towards a science.
So anyway, I did find a new podcast host after another try. So I’m actually coming off of hiatus today and I was, you know, grateful for this opportunity to do your show, because it was going to get me a little, you know, jazzed up to do it because it’s been really frustrating. You know, the show’s been out, we’re almost at the end of our second year, and it’s just like “still dealing with this shit.”
I mean, it’s just sounds of people having sex, and you wouldn’t even know it if I didn’t fucking put it in the title of the thing. Like it was all prompted by Spotify taking down several of my episodes. And then my host Buzzsprout—throw them under the bus—like, Oh hey, fuck you, by the way, you can take your podcast off our platform by the seventh. Yeah, it was a real … whatever. Anyway.Brianne
Yeah, that’s a whole—I’ve been thinking about doing an episode on censorship actually just because there’s, it’s such a complicated and a weird problem. You know there’s there’s certainly laws that fit into it as well. But the way things are set up a lot of platforms have their own policies or whatever that go far beyond the law. And it’s not, it’s not clear if that’s helpful or if it’s actually serving the purpose that it is designed to.
But I’m glad to hear that you’re back up and running and I’m looking forward to future episodes.Kenneth
Yes. I haven’t published your episode yet. So you are—you are coming.Brianne
Okay, great. We’re all going to look forward to that.
So thanks for doing this. It was great talking with you.Kenneth
Likewise. Thank you.Brianne
As you heard at the end there, Brianne interviewed me for her podcast and that episode will be coming soon. I’ll warn you that it is much more personal and detailed than anything I’ve discussed here. But in terms of honest and real conversation about sex, it certainly fits the bill. If that sounds like your cup of tea, I definitely encourage you to look for it.
Take a look at her other episodes too. She’s interviewed people in sex work as well as people who simply love sex. If you want examples of what real sex communication is like, her podcast is the place to find them. It’s called, simply, Sex Communication, and you can get it wherever you get your podcasts. Except, evidently, Spotify. Go figure.
Funny story. I almost hosted this podcast with anchor.fm until I saw that they were bought by Spotify. Spotify’s morality clause in their licensing agreement scared me away. So far they haven’t censored any of my episodes, though.
Anyway, Brianne’s other venture is GRAPHICPAINT, so check that out too, especially in the near future. I for one am definitely looking forward to what comes of that project.
Thanks for listening.