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Crisco, cock rings and sexperts, oh my!

By Anna King

I always thought that sexperts, given their area of expertise, would have no qualms about sharing the sordid and glamorous details of their personal lives. In print, they blithely dispense advice about the best cock rings, but when talking about themselves, they give away very little. Faced with such an impasse while talking to one sex-advice columnist, and feeling uncomfortable during the subsequent awkward silence, I started babbling about my own sex life. I received a barrage of advice in return (along with an offer to call my ex and sort things out). Dating columnists, on the other hand, are different beasts entirely. Just minutes after formal introductions, I had received far too much information, including a favored sexual position from one columnist and the number of months since the last sexual encounter of another.

There’s a distinction to be made here between sex-advice columnists (or sexperts) and those who write about dating. The former dip into a mailbag of readers’ letters each week; the latter rely on their own dating experiences. Sexperts lie back and wait for their readers to come to them, whereas dating columnists have to be more aggressive.

While being a sexpert may seem like a journalist’s dream job, it can take years of training. Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., is a sexologist at Indiana University and a writer for The Kinsey Institute. Topics covered recently in her Time Out Chicago column, “In & Out,” run the gamut from dildos and sex swings to teabagging and premature ejaculation. “I try to make sure everything I say is backed up by clinical research,” she said.

The oddest letter she received from a reader “was more about food-poisoning issues. I really needed to talk to a microbiologist.” From her description of the reader’s dilemma (which involved a freezer and some bodily fluids), soliciting the advice of a scientist seemed like a good call.

Although Herbenick said that “you can’t draw a complete line—life spills over,” she was reticent about her personal life. “I’m pretty good at relationships,” she said, adding that she currently has a boyfriend. “For the most part, I follow my own advice.”

Dan Savage, the man responsible for the syndicated column “Savage Love,” which appears in dozens of alt-weeklies and the odd magazine, is also a sexpert who prefers dissecting the sex lives of his readers to delving publicly into his own. Although he has written a book about his personal life, The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family, it hones in on different issues from his column. “People who learn anything about my home life are shocked,” he said. “They’re appalled at how boring I actually am. My neighbor thought we were going to be having sex parties and the Crisco truck would back onto the lawn every night.”

Savage prefers his writing method to that of some of his colleagues. “There are too many columnists who write about their own lives,” said Savage. “The younger ones will fold their tumultuous, crazy love lives into their columns and then have the gall to tell others how to live their sex lives.” The problem with this, he said, is that readers lose interest. “You’re doing crazy shit just to have something to say. That’s going to play out,” he said. “People have a small set of things that turn their crank. It’s harder to be a sex writer than it is to be a travel writer.”

Ron Geraci seems like a man with a lot of things turning his crank. During his time writing a dating column for Men’s Health, he went on more than 450 dates. He parlayed this into a book, The Bachelor Chronicles, and continues to write about dating for Glamour, Redbook and Modern Bride.

Geraci’s work at Men’s Health had a mixed effect on his love life. “There were women who only wanted to date me because of the column. There were women who specifically didn’t want to date me because of the column. I had a date with a woman I met on Match.com. She said, ‘I just Googled you, and I’m very uncomfortable with what you do, and I want to call off our date.’”

Dating columnist Julia Allison of Time Out New York leaped on the distinction between sexperts and those who dole out dating advice. “People don’t seem to understand that there is a difference. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been introduced as a sex columnist.” Allison sees the two as distant cousins rather than close family. “Dating leads to sex? Not always. In my life, rarely.”

What interests her, she insists, is the psychology behind relationships. “It’s not that sex doesn’t come into play—if your boyfriend cheats, I focus on the machinations between men and women, dating and relationships. I don’t talk about positions,” she said.

Despite not doing so well in her own dating life (“I could declare myself celibate”) Allison would rather write about her trials and tribulations than anything else. “I worked on the Hill, I studied political science. But what are people crying about at night? They’re not crying about agriculture. They’re crying about their boyfriends.”

Some things, however, are beyond the purview of either sexpert or dating columnist. As Dan Savage pointed out, he can only help up to a point. “The trouble people get into with their genitalia is never-ending,” he said. “People send me photos of sores on their genitals that they’re too embarrassed to show their doctors.” He isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do with them.


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