There’s no other way to put it. This week’s Sexpert Q&A blog battle was brutal. In sorting through one man’s marriage dilemma, readers attacked everything under the sun.
Always one for sexual discourse, I didn’t mind the mudslinging. I regarded postings from those disagreeing with my advice specifically as a good thing. At least people were thinking about sex issues. But then things got personal.
"If you are credible, you don’t need to 'flash' your sexy parts."
"What kind of legitimate, professional 'doctor' dresses the way she does?"
Irritated with my advice, a few readers attacked my attire. Had they foregone taking stabs at my hard-earned academic qualifications, I might’ve been no more than amused. After all, I once turned down the chance to pose for Playboy.
But I’ve spent too much time, money and effort being rigorously trained to let this one slide. And hardly a week goes by that somebody isn’t haughtily asking an actual authority: "What makes you the expert?"
Unlike with most other fields, seems everyone considers himself a master on sex matters. So let’s get this sorted once and for all. What makes somebody a "sex expert?"
I’ll be the first to say that we’re all "sexperts" to a certain extent. Our sexuality is a fundamental component of being human. We’re all sexual in nature. Everyone is an ace at his own opinions, beliefs and values around sex issues. That does not, however, make someone a virtuoso on sexuality and relationships.
A sexologist, like yours truly, is somebody who studies sexuality. This typically involves specializing in human sexual development, sexual relationships and sexual behaviors. People with advanced degrees in human sexuality take courses in the biology of sex, behavioral foundations, sexual dysfunctions, cross-cultural perspectives — you get the picture.
So what makes me a sexologist? In a nutshell, I have a master’s in human sexuality education (from an Ivy League university, no less), and a Ph.D. rooted in sexual health, plus bachelor’s degrees in clinical psychology and sociology.
Part of what makes it so tough to decipher who is and isn’t a true expert is the fact that there is no clear path to becoming a sex scholar. While some will say there are no particular qualifications for such, there are. They’re just largely ignored.
Alarmingly, most people dishing out advice have no background in sexuality research, education or therapy. Many make claim to "sexpertise" if they’ve:
— Had sex.
— Chalked up "sexperience" as a porn star, stripper or peepshow artist.
— Written articles and/or books on the subject.
— Penned a college sex column.
Author and self-proclaimed sex expert Tracey Cox went so far as to attribute her initial credentials to those of her sister, a nurse in family planning. Yet those lacking graduate degrees aren’t alone in claiming supposed expertise.
Many academics who have dabbled in sexuality have never been trained in the field. While their work occasionally may involve sex — anthropologists, biologists, educators, historians, nurses, physicians, psychologists, sociologists, theologians — they often sorely lack an acquired skills set, let alone had any coursework, regarding sex.
Even those with theses, dissertations or research findings on a sex-related subject aren’t necessarily experts in the field. They’re simply pros on that topic alone.
Don’t get me wrong. There are good sex experts from all types of fields doing good work. And some sex-related areas do not necessarily require academic training, e.g., becoming a Tantric practitioner.
What’s scary, though, is that anybody can set up shop as a sex educator, sex and relationship expert or sex coach in helping us with our most intimate issues. When it comes to sex therapy, Florida is the only state regulating who, as a mental health professional, actually qualifies for such services.
What I want you to take away from this column more than anything is how to evaluate your sex resources. It’s wise to scrutinize them. So in doing so ...
Watch out for code terms. Many "experts" use words like "experiential" or "grassroots" researcher to give the illusion that they’re experts. The most creative one I’ve seen was from the Midwest Teen Sex Show. In educating adolescents about sex, the video podcast’s talent, Nikol Hasler, coins herself as a "former expert practitioner of teen promiscuity."
Consider your needs. Are you after entertainment or information? Do you want somebody who speaks from experience or who has learned from sages?
People often think that a sex expert needs to have done "X" to comment on it. That’s like saying a vegetarian nutritionist must eat beef to be an expert on its benefits. There are, however, advantages to learning from somebody who has been in the trenches on taboo topics academics won’t touch, e.g., Tristan Taormino’s materials on anal sex.
Look at their credentials; many don’t have any. Stripper and burlesque dancer Ducky Doolittle, for example, boldly calls herself a "sexologist." It’s funny she can get away with that, given society’s concern over quack doctors. Bottom line: Find out how they’ve been trained and where, with accredited institutions holding much more weight.
Another thing to keep in mind is that even some of those with legitimate expertise are not necessarily the best ones in the field. Perhaps wisely, lots of qualified people avoid the media spotlight for a number of reasons. Others, however, have "risen to the top" because they’ve created media buzz with something of shock value.
Even more likely, they’re paying somebody to get your attention. They’re about the fame and limelight — and not your best interests — more than anything.
Determine if they’ve done their homework. There are great sex writers out there, such as Nicole Beland, who get the facts straight and from legitimate resources. Then there are other ones, such as Dan Savage, who would rather pick a bone with the experts than focus on the facts.
Yes, you can get bad advice from experts and lay people alike, and those who walk the line. You also can get good advice from either camp. Ann Landers didn’t do so badly for herself when it came to sex advice. But let’s remember, advice, according to Webster’s Dictionary, is "an opinion about what could or should be done."
An opinion is just that — an opinion. What makes it worth listening to is how one can back it up.
In the Know Sex News …
— Parents in Pittsburgh want comprehensive sex education. A group of parents have been circulating an online petition in hopes of forcing the Pittsburgh Public Schools to overhaul its sex ed program. Citing the need to go beyond abstinence, parents want their youths to learn about contraception and healthy, responsible decision-making.
— Juicy talk for women gets even juicier. CherryTV has become the latest .com to offer informative sexuality video programming. Aimed at women 18 to 35 years old, the Web site seeks to enlighten and entertain while keeping things real.
— Love may be a cheek swab away. In the name of romantic chemistry, people are submitting DNA samples to ScientificMatch. The U.S.-based company assesses clients’ cheek swabs for genetic compatibility with other clients.
Dr. Yvonne Kristín Fulbright is a sex educator, relationship expert, columnist and founder of Sexuality Source Inc. She is the author of several books including, "Touch Me There! A Hand Guide to Your Orgasmic Hot Spots."