Secret Sex Lives

One thing I discovered through researching, writing, and publishing Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality is that people look at me through colored lenses when I tell them I research and write about sex. I have yet to figure out if those lenses are rose-colored or black.

I do know they looked black on the day a former student insisted that I go up to his hotel room to talk with him about his work. When I refused and refused repeatedly, he grew peeved … and then more and more peeved. When I asked him why he was upset, he said, “You say you’re a Christian, but you write about sex! That’s sending mixed messages!”

I wanted to scream at him, “That’s called conflict! That’s what makes a story! And your story has no conflict!!” I refrained, though.

Then after I appeared on Katie to talk about Secret Sex Lives, I received too many emails from men I’d never met and who’d never read a word of the book but had  — do I dare say — the balls to invite me on overnight trips. I think those men’s lenses may have been rose-colored while mine were black, most definitely black. After all, if they’d bothered to do their research before approaching me — meaning if they’d read the book — they’d have better understood my negative reaction and maybe better understood how to approach me.

Months later, while listening to a friend play a South by Southwest showcase, I met  a couple of seemingly nice men and all was fine until one asked me my name. When I said, “Suzy Spencer,” the look on his face changed and his tone of voice was different when he said, “Oh, I’ve read about you.”

At that, I know the look on my face changed too, and I quickly made my escape, fearing what he thought of me and what would come next. Eventually, he did ask me out, and he did read the book, but our schedules never coordinated, perhaps on purpose on my part, even though he seemed like a very nice man.

To say that Secret Sex Lives has made me a bit fearful and uncomfortable when meeting the opposite sex is an understatement. So when my friend Brooke Axtell handed me a copy of Jill Di Donato’s novel Beautiful Garbage, which is about art and sex, and when I found out Jill was a sex columnist for the Huffington Post, had also been on Katie to talk about her sex life, and also teaches writing, I had to ask Jill about how writing sex has affected her personal life.

Jill Di Donato on "Katie"

Jill Di Donato on “Katie” with Dr. Phil.

Suzy Spencer: How does an English professor become a sexpert?

Jill Di Donato: By having lots of sex, and not being afraid to write about it.

SS: How does speaking and writing about sex affect people’s image of you? And how does it affect your students’ interaction with you? 

JD: This is actually a serious dilemma I face. I have full support from both chairs of my department at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who not only respect my work, but think it benefits students to have a professor who is a published author.

As for students — I start off the first day of class and tell them that when they Google me, this is what they will find. Then I tell them they’re not unearthing a secret, that writing about sex is just what I do. End of discussion. After the semester, when I allow students to connect with me on social media, I get a very positive reaction from my female students who like to call me “Carrie Bradshaw.”

As for dating — being a “sexpert” has put a huge damper on my dating life. Men make assumptions about my character and I have to explain that Jill Di Donato the “sexpert” is a persona. If I really like the guy, I work extra hard to prove I have a multitude of interests beyond the bedroom. But in the early stages of a relationship, a potential boyfriend can read about many of my past relationships and/or encounters. Unless the man is secure in himself and in what we share, this tends to be problematic in developing a meaningful relationship with a man.

SS: Why is it so difficult for people, specifically Americans, to talk about sex?

JD: Our culture presents conflicting messages about sex, which I think promotes some of the taboo. On the one hand, billion dollar industries use sexual images to spark arousal in consumers so that they buy products. On the other hand, open discussion about sexuality is quite limited. Legislation is ions behind where it should be (in my opinion) when it comes to issues of sexuality and women’s health, which governs how many people think they should live their lives. Sexuality and legislation encompasses so many issues — from the criminalization of sex work to pregnancy termination restrictions, to gay marriage, birth control, even regulations over the age fashion models need to be in order to walk  the catwalk. With such a stew of issues, how is everyone going to agree? That’s impossible and why healthy debate and discourse as opposed to silence should be what we’re striving for.

SS: How have you taken ownership of your own sexuality?

JD: I never do anything unless I feel comfortable doing it. But most of all, I try really hard not to punish myself for a dating mishap or a sexual encounter that may not have ended how I envisioned it was going to. Shame is a wasted emotion. I keep it moving; everyday is a fresh start. That’s not to say sex doesn’t have consequences. Of course it does — very serious ones. So, this goes without saying: I promote safe sex — physically and emotionally. To be corny, I’m going to use a chocolate cake metaphor: the chocolate cake looks amazing. I want to eat it. But if I do, will I feel satisfied, regretful, sick, or happy? When making decisions of a sexual nature, I ask myself the same questions.

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Be sure and read my Q&A with Jill about her novel Beautiful Garbage

Suzy Spencer is a New York Times best-selling author and journalist.

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