Dan Savage is FREAKING OUT, you guys, because Sue Carter, the new head of the Kinsey Institute (where I was trained) told a USA Today reporter that she was going to be studying sex in the context of relationships.
Let me say first that I think I GET why this triggers so much fear in Dan Savage – indeed, why it prompts him to tell his massive readership that they, too, should “be very, very afraid.” He has been part of a culturally CRUCIAL push to de-“should”-ize sex, to let sex be in a person’s life whatever it wants to be. It’s all too easy to read this article and feel like it’s a recapitulation of centuries of “Here Is How Sex *Should* Work” cisheteropatriarchy hegemonic bullshit.
But let’s do a reality check: What did the USA Today article report as Kinsey’s top priorities?
Relationships, trauma, transgender issues, and medical interventions’ effect on sexual functioning.
Since Dan doesn’t mention those other three priorities, I’m going to assume that all sounds okay to him. So what does Carter say?
“I think human sexuality must be viewed in the context of relationships,” she said. “Just working on sexual behavior to me is not sufficient. We need to understand how sex affects sex and how relationships affect sex.”
And if we slow down and take a deep breath… *in*… *out*… and we think about it for a second, it’ll strike us that if we’re having sex with another person, regardless of what KIND of relationship we have with that person, we definitely have SOME kind of relationship with them. “I had sex with that person,” is a relationship.
Nowhere does Carter say, “It should happen in pair bonds,” or “We have an agenda of promoting pair bonding in humans,” or anything similar.
But even if Carter said she only wants to study specifically the sex people have in long-term relationships – which she didn’t say, but for all I know that’s her plan (but for all I know, it’s not her plan!) – it is just true that most of the sex most people have happens within the context of some kind of longer term relationship, and it’s important to her that the work of Kinsey be of relevance to many people’s lives – “unequivocally important.” And it’s hard to argue with that – but it doesn’t mean that any other kind of sex is not valid or important or completely, perfectly, 100% healthy and normal.
Again, I get why this is so scary for Dan Savage – I mean, turning a penis to the wall? Could there be a clearer metaphor for shame? Having worked at Kinsey, I found it sort of sweet that Dr. Carter would bother; when you walk in the door at Kinsey, you’re met by a 6′ tall carved wood fertility god, with a 3′ tall erection. (That’s about a meter, for those who think in metric.) But if you don’t know that – dare I say, if you don’t know the larger CONTEXT in which she said it – it could easily sound upsettingly sex negative.
This was a tricky one for me, when I was a fledgling sex educator, determined to be as “sex positive” as possible. At that point, my “sex positive” and “without shame” looked a lot like “in your face” and “I dare you.” It took me a long time to get to a point where I could honor the reality that the world is still full of people who are afraid and awkward and ashamed, and THOSE PEOPLE ARE ALSO WELCOME. I became less in-your-face, more you-do-you. I learned to meet people where they are, rather than pushing them to be where I am.
And where did I learn this lesson of patience and gentleness?
The Kinsey Institute.
Kinsey is not an organization dedicated to pushing everyone to be in one place around sex. It is a place dedicated to creating space for EVERYONE’S sexuality.
Anyway. Dan Savage has been wrong about things in the past – judgmental about things – and has had both the intellectual rigor and (equally important) the personal grace, to listen to people who disagree with him and, when the arguments are compelling, change his mind.
And he isn’t the only one. It’s less clear to me why Alice Dreger’s first reaction was so knee-jerk critical. I would have expected that she – as a philosopher of science who was trained at Indiana University; as the author of a really compelling book about how political sensitivities, often on the LEFT, have interfered with sex research; and as an intellectual who has learned to interact with the mainstream media – would Get both how the media representation of Sue Carter would differ from what was actually in her head, and how crucial it would be to investigate further before concluding that something is how it appears in a USA Today article.
But Dreger, too, is super-duper smart and has had her mind changed.
So you guys: Alice. Dan. Go talk to Sue Carter – email Jenny Bass (she’s my old boss – tell her I said hi) and see if you can use your positions of influence to snag interviews.