The Sex Issue

Don’t Ask the Sexperts

Dan Savage, Dr. Ruth, and others on what still mystifies them.

Read more from Slate’s Sex Issue.

Slate asked seven people who earn their livings thinking and writing about sex what they’ve never been able to figure out about it. Some of our sexperts have academic backgrounds, some religious, and others have just logged a lot of hours talking to people about their habits and pleasures. They say there’s still a lot of mystery left.

Ian Kerner is the author of She Comes First, He Comes Next, and other sex advice books.
Why do most men still know more about what’s under the hood of a car than the hood of a clitoris, and why, in our post-Sex and the City culture, are women faking it more than ever?

Em & Lo are sex and relationship writers and authors of Buh Bye: The Ultimate Guide To Dumping and Getting Dumped.
We’ve never been able to understand why virginity is still defined strictly in terms of penile penetration. Does that mean all lesbians are lifelong virgins? What about gay men who just aren’t that into anal sex? (There are plenty of them.) And how is it possible that a straight couple can engage in oral sex, manual sex, mutual masturbation, and possibly even anal sex (if you believe the rumors about Catholic school girls) and still claim they’re “saving themselves for marriage”? Sure, intercourse’s role in baby-making elevates it a bit among sexual acts. But these days, birth control, family planning, and reproductive technologies mean that intercourse is less a means to an end and more a pleasurable end in itself. Add to that the influence of feminism and the gay rights movement, and you’d think that there’d be a few more seats at the official sex table. Of course, if we defined “loss of virginity” as merely “mutual orgasms,” millions of American women would become born-again virgins overnight. Any kind of orgasm? Er, ditto. While we’d hate to heap any more sexual pressure on women, we think a dedication to making sure all parties end up sexually satisfied should be the gold standard. Did you and your partner climax, or at the very least have a really, really good time? Then hand over that V-card.

Simon LeVay is the author of The Sexual Brainand Human Sexuality.
I’m co-author of an undergraduate human sexuality textbook, so every few years I have to review the whole field of sex research to see what advances have been made. The most depressing area is that of “paraphilias,” which are pathological sexual desires, often involving victims—everything from pedophilia to zoophilia, exhibitionism to sexual murder and cannibalism. What’s depressing is that we seem to be making little or no progress in understanding the cause or treatment of these conditions. So victimization continues, and the perpetrators—nearly always men—are warehoused in state “hospitals” or exposed to ever more vindictive harassment in the community. Whoever figures out how to prevent their descent into deviancy, or how to give them back healthy, loving sex lives, will have alleviated untold suffering, and will have made that dark corner of my textbook a greater pleasure for me to write and for students to read. 

Dan Savage is a nationally syndicated alternative weekly sex columnist.
What I don’t understand is … gee, how people can be so willfully stupid about sex. Sex came first. Before marriage, there was sex. Before religion, there was sex. Before freakin’ humans, there was sex. All human cultures, and all our fanciful religions, were constructed around sex, built to regulate and control sex, sanctify and elevate sex. But so many people want to start with culture or religion before they approach sex, as if the former can teach us all we need to know about the latter. Not true. We have to start with sex. I’m not arguing that we should do away with all regulations or controls, or that sex shouldn’t be sanctified or elevated. But there are regulations and controls that are idiotic, products of a time when we didn’t truly understand human hair growth—or physics or gravity or the movement of the planets—much less human sexuality, and they should be reassessed. I’m thinking of bans on prostitution, bans on same-sex marriage, the promotion of “normal” sexuality (meaning: no kinks), the cultural assumption that the ability to have sex without love is evidence of some sort of mental illness. In these areas, some of our attempts to sanctify and elevate sex run so counter to human nature that they cause nothing but misery.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer is the author of 31 books about sex and relationships.
I’m sure there are many, but one nagging one is what causes homosexuality. I admit, I am curious—but the real importance in getting to the bottom of this question is that the answer would be helpful to the homosexual community. I suspect that the cause is genetic, which would mean all those people who say that gays and lesbians can change to become heterosexual would have to sing another tune. Instead of trying to “fix” a situation that doesn’t require fixing, they would have to learn to accept homosexuals. But I am not a scientist, so I can’t set about finding out the etiology, the cause of homosexuality. All I can do is act as a cheerleader to encourage scientists to come up with the answer.

Andrea Nemerson is the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s sex columnist.
I don’t imagine that my answers to the questions about why X person is into Y weird thing ever satisfy anyone, since no matter what the experts, from Krafft-Ebing to John Money, have claimed, nobody has the slightest idea why people like what they like, and it’s all completely random as far as I can tell. As for me, I have always been and still am utterly confounded by homophobia and similar hatreds. I don’t mean this in a “Why must people be so meeeaaan?” kind of way; I mean I truly cannot fathom why anyone gives a crap, and I’ve read all the theories. I guess I’m missing the “gives a crap” gene. I’d like to have it, actually—it’s not helpful in my line of work to simply not comprehend what other people are feeling, but every time another one of those anti-gay-marriage ordinances passes, I’m all, “Huh? Who gives a crap?” again.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the author of Kosher Sex, Kosher Adultery, and Shalom in the Home.
What I don’t understand about sex is the fundamental contradiction it poses to love. While love deepens with time and shared experience, sex is stifled by relationship and routine. It seems to thrive most through novelty rather than intimacy, through new flesh rather than old love. Sex is the quintessential expression of love. We even call it lovemaking. So, why are so many couples who are so deeply in love with each other, after so many years of being together, utterly sexless? Why must couples choose between being lovers and being best friends, between being passionate and being intimate? King Solomon proclaims in his famous Song that there is a love like fire and a love like water, and it seems that one cancels the other out. The fiery love of sex and erotic passion becomes more and more muted through the more watery love of marital routine, familial patterns, and an increasing number of anniversaries celebrated. Why can’t sex and love go absolutely hand in hand, as they should?