In today’s behind-the-scenes look for Advice Week, hear from Jessica Stoya, one of our founding How to Do It columnists, on how her approach to giving sex advice has evolved over her years writing at Slate and her thoughts about why the idea of “normal” sex is so pervasive.
Jessica, you, along with Rich, founded our How to Do It column back in 2019 and you’ve been giving advice ever since. How has your approach to giving advice evolved over that time? Have you gravitated toward different questions or found yourself viewing something differently?
In the first year, I received far more questions that were mainly about relationships than I was used to fielding, so that was an area I did some work in—reading, considering themes in the anecdotal experiences of myself and people I knew, and also developing connections with experts. It’s still a weak spot for me, and I’m not likely to engage in a 25-year monogamous marriage and be able to draw from that lived experience, you know?
Sometime after our podcast started releasing, there was a note about readers questioning whether I was too quick to advise ending the relationship, which prompted me to rethink my stance. Some effects of that rethinking are that I try to offer both green flags and red flags, and suggest ways to attempt moving forward, whenever it seems even remotely possible.
Something I love about How to Do It is how much you both stress that the concept of “normal” is essentially a fallacy. There is no normal when it comes to sex—there is simply your experience. Why do you think that’s such a common thread in our letters, and how can people really start to push back against that kind of comparison in their lives?
A theme that comes up often when I’m speaking with other people who provide sexual content or experiences directly to consumers is the vast and intricate variety of what people are into. I could write a whole longread about that. Even if you zoom into a specific act—spanking, feet, oral sex—everyone is attracted to slightly different facets, has different ideal emotional contexts or narrative framings, and so on. The thing is, even with PornHub’s long-standing habit of releasing broad viewing trends, none of this seems to be legible to outsiders.
The internet has certainly made it possible for people to anonymously access sexual media about nearly everything under the sun, and see that there are others who are into what they’re into. But so much accessible sexual education is focused on heteronormativity and homonormativity. There’s an implicit message that digital, oral, and penetrative sex are worth spending a lot of time on, but that everything else falls into the category of kink and is therefore niche, obscure, and uncommon or abnormal.
My articulation of normal as a fallacy absolutely stems from studying the disability justice movement. A huge thank you to Bianca Laureano of ANTE UP! and Patricia Berne of Sins Invalid for introducing me to the concept.
Adding to this is the way that we (myself included) tend to reach for “normal” when we mean “OK.” I’m not sure how people can start to untangle this in their lives—an extremely sex-positive practicing therapist would likely have more expert insight in that area. Maybe someone will write in asking how they can debunk “normal” within themselves and then I’ll have justification to reach out to one of the many brilliant experts working on sexuality.
What’s one piece of sex advice you wish everyone knew and followed?
Communicate, which is more than exchanging words. This is a back-and-forth process involving listening and confirming understanding of each other. For any relationship related to sexuality—whether we’re talking about a sexual partner or a health provider—that sharing of knowledge and understanding is crucial.
Are there any types of questions you receive you really enjoy giving advice on?
I have a particular sort of joy for the questions that are basically spatial geometry problems sans measurements. I enjoy connecting people to resources that may be difficult to find through a web search (oh, the side effects of search engine optimization) though sometimes I research for days and come up with nothing. Even then, I may at least be able to offer an explanation of why there are so few resources available, which is very interesting to me.
One column that comes to mind is the person who was seeking queer porn in historical settings, and another is the woman who couldn’t find a vibrator that was soft and gentle enough for her. I get a feeling of accomplishment out of having figured out who might know something useful and tracking down some options.
And finally, is there a letter you’ve received or a response you’ve written that’s stuck with you from your time at Slate?
In gestalt, all of them—the letters, and the resources I’ve encountered while answering them. There are so many people in the world considering sexuality, in their own lives, as experts, and sometimes both. It’s a huge field to cover, and we’ve got a long way to go until we understand the full picture, but the fact that there’s enough interest to provide multiple weekly columns worth of questions—here and in many other publications—strikes me as beautiful.