The sex column has mutated mightily since the earliest days of “Ask Anka” in Details. Once banished to the back section of alt-weeklies, right by the classified ads, frank first-person sex writing has spread to college newspapers and blogs.
And ad as this world has matured, so have its participants. So what happens when writers decide that they want to focus their erotic energies on one person, or just that they need to take a break from chronicling their intimate exploits? Some writers go the eminent-sage route, moving into a position where they dole out advice to the needy. But others, including the acid-tongued New York City dating columnist Amy Sohn and the pioneering sex Web site Nerve, are moving on to a step that, one could argue, comes naturally: They’re writing about their children.
“When I had a kid, it seemed natural to me to start exploiting it for material,” Sohn once joked. Sohn came to prominence in the ’90s with her sex columnist for the New York Press. Her column “Female Trouble,” as well as and her first novel Run Catch Kiss chronicled her postgraduate exploits in New York’s singles scene. She’s since abandoned the streets of Manhattan for the more genteel world of Brooklyn, and the dating merry-go-round for playground equipment at the local park. The change of scene has proven to be no less neurosis-inducing for Sohn, if her writing is any indication.
“The only show I could tolerate was the Saturday-morning Upside Down Show because I had developed an intricate sexual fantasy involving the two Australian hosts and myself in the Outback,” Sohn wrote in a 2007 piece lamenting trends in kiddie tv. And in a January piece entitled ‘Baby Einstein Was My Porn,’ she mourned her tied-downness:
I knew these families were too attractive to be real, but I wanted to believe this fantasy of domestic bliss. This was a world with no Zoloft, no mastitis and no wine. The Baby Einstein parents did all the things that we were unable to do with our own babies, because if we were, we wouldn’t have been plopping them in front of the TV while we took a shower, made a business call, or had sex.
Sohn’s lack of a libidinous life isn’t necessarily casting a pall over her career; her moving on from having sex to dealing with kids was noticed by no less a light of the carefree New York lady set than Sarah Jessica Parker, herself a mother of three. The Sex And The City star has optioned Sohn’s book about Park Slope upscale Brooklyn parenting, Prospect Park West, for an HBO-show treatment. And Nerve, the crisply hip sex Web site that launched around the time that Sohn was engaging in her downtown adventures, spun off Babble, a site devoted to parenting, in 2006; it’s stuffed with blogs about cooking for kids and obsessing over celebrity spawn. (It’s probably worth noting that Dan Savage was ahead of this trendlet, writing his first parenting memoir The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend And I Decided To Get Pregnant in 2000.)
In part, the shift from talking about lube to discussions of diapers is brought on by demographic movement. “More and more young parents are choosing to living in cities, and the average father today spends twice as much time with his children than the average father in 1965,” noted the press release accompanying Babble’s 2006 launch. “This is a generation in the process of reinventing technology and media, and eager to look at the challenges of parenting with fresh eyes.” Not to mention, with enough money to spend on advertisers’ products — particularly the sort of big-budget advertisers. (Sohn, in her announcement about Parker’s optioning of her book, refers to this as “the perils of aspirational living.”)
Still, there are some writers who are trying to work both sides of the aisle. Ayelet Waldman’s 2005 attempt to fuse orgasmic sex-columnist rapture with stories about being on the front lines of parenthoood made people cringe over their New York Times Sunday Styles sections, although that might be because she was so self-admittedly smug about her boasts:
I am the only woman in Mommy and Me who seems to be, well, getting any. This could fill me with smug well-being. I could sit in the room and gloat over my wonderful marriage. I could think about how our sex life – always vital, even torrid – is more exciting and imaginative now than it was when we first met. I could check my watch to see if I have time to stop at Good Vibrations to see if they have any exciting new toys. I could even gaze pityingly at the other mothers in the group, wishing that they too could experience a love as deep as my own.
Of course, it’s not like becoming a parent turns off the libido, and Waldman’s icky self-satisfaction, while rankling, certainly fits in well with the rest of the Styles section’s consumption-happy ethos. Another parenting columnist, Kristen Chase, calls herself The Mominatrix, and her bio notes that “when she’s not perusing the local adult bookstores and foot fetish websites, she maintains several weblogs (sic), including Motherhood Uncensored, Cool Mom Picks, and Parent Bloggers Network.”
And not to be all “what about the children,” but, well… what about the children? Sohn might have used the verb “exploiting” jokingly in her explanation of her new career trajectory, but there’s a certain unsavoriness to the idea that the offspring of these writers are accruing a paper trail that was written long before they could learn their ABCs.
In dating columns, the “others” are given nicknames, or at least identified by their first name only; sure, the waynicknames are generally used to distill complex human beings down to a single character trait is dehumanizing, but they at least have the advantage of anonymizing those parties who can’t speak for themselves.
Also troubling are the notions of sexuality ascribed by the career path of the person who chooses first-person libido chronicling as their beat when they’re first embarking on their career. Is it possible, one wonders, to move on from cataloging one’s dates to a topic that doesn’t involve? Is there some sort of twistedly American redemptive arc implicitly stipulating that any woman who talks about their sex life in public eventually has to produce a kid from all that energy – kind of like the old sitcom trope that results in so many long-simmering couples popping out a baby, once the time was right.