Sex Educators and the Politics of Attractiveness

Dr. Emily Nagoski (whose smart, insightful, and plain old fun blog you should read if you don’t already) recently wrote about the sexualization of female bloggers and issues of sex/attractiveness and sex educators that hit home with me. (In full disclosure, Emily and I went to graduate school together and so I have first-hand knowledge of how badass she is.)

In her post, Emily wrote:

“And here’s another complicated feeling. Have you noticed the phenomenon that most of the women “sexperts” you see in the media are thin, with long shiny hair, big eyes, and a pretty smile?”

Yep. And it’s complicated on so many fronts. Take me: by US standards, I’m thin; I’ve always had long hair (though it seems less shiny with each passing year); I’ve got big eyes thanks to my parents’ having big eyes; and I’ve got an all right smile thanks to childhood braces. Also? I study and write about sex.

Of course, I’m not the only “sexpert” in the media or academia to fit this description but it’s one I’m aware of fitting. Should I dare forget and simply enjoy my job, people remind me by asking, with some regularity:

“Do you think it helps you or hurts your work that you (study/teach/write about sex) and you’re (attractive/hot/pretty/beautiful)?”

For the record, I don’t think I’m necessarily attractive/hot/pretty/beautiful – I genuinely think every one of us is these things to different people – but I get that I fit the “conventionally attractive” aesthetic rather than, say, the “hippie attractive”, “goth attractive”, “big and beautiful attractive” or “supermodel attractive” aesthetics. None of us can escape how we look and what that means to other people.

I think my appearance helps me in some situations and hurts me in others. It’s probably made TV producers more likely to put me on their shows, but it’s not that easy (we’ll get to that in a moment). And I think it hurts me when people don’t take me seriously. Or when they find out I have master’s and doctoral degrees and then act surprised and say, “Oh! You’re legitimate.” Or when someone asks a question and I give an informed, educated response and they say, “Wow, you really know what you’re talking about! I thought you were just a pretty sex columnist.”

Ugh.

Emily also wrote:

“I can’t help thinking that the reason [these conventionally attractive female sexperts] have the gig is not that they’re especially good at the job, but instead because they’re especially rich masturbation material.”

Also complicated. I hadn’t considered whether people who don’t know me well have wondered these things about me, particularly in regard to the magazine/newspaper columns I write. The truth is that I started writing all of my columns before pictures of me were Google-able. The first column I wrote (and still write) was/is Kinsey Confidential, a column that has never carried a photo of me and, for years, never even carried by name in its byline. Other columns I’ve written were jobs that I was approached about and asked to submit writing samples for. Never once was I asked for a photo until after I’d been offered the jobs and we started piecing together the details (contracts, byline, word counts, and a photo). That said, I don’t know how much I care what people think of me; I’m really proud of my work.

And yet, I have had same of the same thoughts as Emily. There are certainly some media “sexperts” (both female and male) who I am pretty sure are sexperts because they are conventionally attractive and willing to talk about sex. I say willing, but not necessarily well-equipped. And there are some who are smoking hot,  in conventional and unconventional kinds of ways, and are totally well-equipped to be talking about sex in smart, helpful ways.

And it’s even trickier than that because there’s a balance. It turns out that if you’re a legitimate, hard-working, earned-her-credentials kind of scientist/sex educator like me – and yet conventionally attractive – media folks don’t always know what to do with you. Having served as a sex expert for several TV shows, I can tell you that the producers have sometimes struggled with how I look. In one episode, they wouldn’t let me wear my own clothes because they wanted to dress me in more professional, conservative and high-necked clothes so that I would look “less sexy”. For another episode, the producer instructed the make-up artist to make me look professional but not sexy, which included not adding any false eyelashes to my eyes unlike some of the other experts who were older (though conventionally attractive) and I guess therefore were approved to have a little “sexy” look to them. (Which brings up so many other issues related to age, gender, and sex.)

Another thing that Emily’s blog post made me think about was the time I released my first book, Because It Feels Good: A Woman’s Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction. The book has a picture of me on the cover. Although the stylist had a number of outfits for me to wear the day of the photo shoot, the dress I’m wearing is one of my own work dresses. It has a moderately high collar and doesn’t show any cleavage. However, the dress is form-fitting – as many of my dresses are – and I have fairly large breasts, a small waist and a curvy butt thanks to genetics, a love of healthy food, and a passion for exercise. But here’s how the cover happened (which many people have asked me about): when my editor called to say they wanted to put my picture on the cover and to ask if it was okay, I said I would think about it. I talked with a colleague and he encouraged me to do it. I thought about it and talked with my mom about it. We all agreed that having my picture on the cover might make the book more relatable to women and the ultimate goal was to educate women about sex. Rather than an anonymous scientist/sex educator typing away in the background, it would be a real woman talking to other real women. So I said yes.

At the time, I had a vision of the picture being a small head shot, a professional photo – like the shoulders-and-up photos that businessmen/women and professors and doctors have on their websites. I imagined the rest of the cover would have an abstract design and my picture would be a tiny square on the bottom left next to my name.

When I flew to NYC for the photo shoot, I still had the same vision in mind and considering they didn’t ask me to sprawl on a bed or do anything “sexy”, there was nothing that made me believe otherwise. The stylist had chosen professional clothes for the shoot and I had brought a few work dresses with me.

When they emailed me the book cover choices, I was surprised to see that each of the 5 or 6 options were covers that featured me front and center; it was the first time I realized it wasn’t a little tiny headshot picture of me. However, I decided that I was okay with it: I still believed that having my picture on the cover would make the book more relatable because I was a normal woman talking about sex to other women. This is what students and people in various community groups I’d given talks to had always told me was a strength; that I didn’t try to “sex things up” when teaching about sex; I was simply a normal, relatable woman educating others about sexuality.

When I received the first copies of my book in the mail, I felt really excited. I had worked hard on Because It Feels Good. I wanted to write a book that would help educate others and it was so meaningful to me that it was published and available to the masses. I was living my dream of educating gobs and gobs of people about sex!

I showed the book to a friend/colleague. She was surprised – shocked might be the better word – that I was on the cover. When I said that I thought, and my mom thought, and my editor thought, that it would be a nice thing to show that normal women like me can talk about sex and write about sex, she said:

“But you’re not a normal woman.”

She thought it was a mistake.

It’s been more than two years and I can still hear her saying that. And so there it is. Yes, I have long, relatively shiny hair. Yes, I am thin. Yes, I have big eyes. And yes, on that particular day of being photographed I had the good fortune to have my hair and make-up done by professionals.

But apparently I was not then, and am not now, a “normal woman.”

And yet, I feel like I’m a normal woman. I mean, what’s a normal woman anyway and how do you know when you’re one or when you’re not? Is it really based only on looks? What about my experiences with being a daughter and a sister and a girlfriend and having periods and dreaming about babies and balancing work?

It’s sad to me that other women – and not so much, in my experience, men – think they can take a sense of being like other women away from me, or away from other women, because of being conventionally attractive instead of hippie attractive, goth attractive, ski bunny attractive, big and beautiful attractive, or nerdy attractive. It’s not that different from how some feminists try to keep other feminists out of the feminist club if they wear heels, have long hair or like dresses (that’s a subject for another day but that keep-women-out brand of feminism isn’t what I signed up for).

Here’s the thing.

I have long hair because I have almost always had and liked it long. Soon enough there will be people who will say I am too old to have long hair and I know I can’t win either way, but I like that it’s long so that I can tie it in a ponytail when I exercise.

And my big eyes? They remind me of my dad, who I’ve lost and have missed terribly for a decade almost to the day (I can’t even believe that is true).

Also, I like my body the size it is; I am a normal and healthy kind of thin – not skinny, not restrictive in my eating, and with a few pounds to spare should I get stranded on a desert island.

And yes, I’m a sex educator, researcher, columnist and book author and I work very hard at my job. I work more hours per week than I ever thought I would. I stay up at night dreaming of scientific studies I would love to do if only there were more time. And none of the scientific journals ask for photos when I submit papers to them but I still publish all the time.

So I think people should know better. And yet, like Emily, I can’t help feeling my own biases and suspicions when it comes to other women and men who don’t seem well-equipped to be talking about sex, and I wish that weren’t the case. I think I should know better. I feel bad for feeling that way. For me, a helpful antidote has been to help mentor others to be better sex educators, sex researchers, and advocates.

I, too, have no answers. It’s a complicated place to be. In a world that needs more smart, passionate, dedicated sex educators, I hope we encourage them to come out of the woodwork rather than make them feel that they’re not attractive enough or too attractive or not the right kind of attractive to teach and research and advocate.

Oh, and if this too-long blog post has made you forget my opening big to read Emily’s blog, let me remind you to do so. You’ll thank me later.

Follow us on Twitter @mysexprofessor.

About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at www.sexualhealth.indiana.edu.

  • http://twitter.com/foxyfolklorist Jeana Jorgensen

    I hear you on a lot of these issues. I’m not trained as a sex educator, but as a feminist scholar who works on sexuality among other topics, I sometimes get flak for my appearance. I have a very youthful face, which means I have to dress older than my age in order to make sure students know I’m in the classroom as a teacher, not as a fellow student. Same at conferences. I’m also on the slender end of the spectrum, though I have large hips, which seems to somehow mark me as sensual or womanly (despite the fact that I don’t really see myself that way).

    It’s a tough balancing act to say “Hey! Respect me for my scholarship!” while simultaneously recognizing that by being conventionally attractive, I can count on people looking at me with interest and possibly being more open to what I say. When I come out as a feminist, that generally throws students for a loop, and because it confuses their expectations (am I supposed to be hairier? fatter? more obviously man-hating?) I can hopefully get them to reexamine their assumptions about gender, appearance, and beliefs.

  • Julie Sunday

    Debby, thanks for this. I can understand the frustration people feel toward women who get space in public to talk about sex (I’m one of them) and the suspicion of our ‘qualifications’ that can underpin it. But attractive women who do whatever it is they do in the public eye are *always* suspected of not really having ‘earned it.’ When I was in grad school one of my classmates, who is a really close friend, said to me that I got some opportunity or other because I was a “pretty girl.” I refer to this as the “Elle Woods Problem.” [I also experienced the overt sexual advances from the professor part of it.] You took the same GREs, got into the same grad programs, and took the same classes, and yet becuase you’re attractive–and receive attention because of it–your professional legitimacy is called into question. It’s not my problem that other people suspect I’m not really qualified–it takes only a few minutes of any of us trained educators/researchers to open our mouths and talk for people to realize that we are, in fact, experts in our field. But all other things being equal, I think being  attractive–and smart and well-trained–DOES make me more effective, because people listen to me and look up to me. Is that fair? Probably not. But hey, I could be using my good looks to sell pharmaceuticals or something.

  • http://yogabeautylife.wordpress.com Kait

    This may be my favorite post ever written here….thank you for opening up to us in a new way. 

    More than anything, “But you’re not a normal woman” speaks to me.  I think any female sex educator gets this, regardless of her looks and not necessarily because of them.  I think those of us who have tapped into our sensual selves shine a little brighter and walk with a little more pep in our step.  We can’t be “normal” because we are unafraid to speak about a topic which is still considered taboo.  Throw in our willingness to casually drop the “v-word” (and our love for it) and well…now we’re all officially weird.  Some of us are conventionally pretty weird…some, goth weird or big weird or WHATEVER weird.

    Fact of the matter is: we’re empowered.  We know our bodies and we own our pleasure and so we can’t be normal.  I LOVE THIS FACT.  Pretty sure our partners love it too.  ;)

    Studies show being conventionally attractive helps you out…so I would say take it as a blessing.  Thank your genes and your parents and whoever taught you your good habits.  Stand up for yourself.  And continue to surprise people by proving you can have looks and brains.  ;)