Carol Queen Says Your Sexual Prime Can Be Anytime

Category: POV Podcast

Author: Aria Vega

Carol Queen saw her career in sexuality take off once she moved to San Francisco in the ‘80s. So much of what she's taught and learned has only become truer with time.

Carol Queen, PhD, is a sex educator, writer, speaker, and activist. She’s currently the staff sexologist at Good Vibrations. You can buy her book, The Sex and Pleasure Book, here

Also mentioned in this episode — What Fresh Hell Is This?: Perimenopause, Menopause, Other Indignities, and You by Heather Corinna.

Podcast Transcript:

Aria Vega [00:00:00] [Voiceover] This podcast contains explicit content. Listener's discretion is advised. POV by Lustery explores culture, politics and creativity in the sex industry, one point of view at a time. I'm your host, aria Vega.

Aria Vega [00:00:16] Carol Queen, Ph.D., is a sex educator, writer, speaker and activist based in San Francisco, California. She's currently the staff sexologist for toy shop Good Vibrations, the original progressive sex shop that centered women customers and made sex ed more accessible. Carol has a long history of enlightening minds about sexuality, politics and everywhere they overlap, beginning with the queer youth organizing she did as a teenager in her home state of Oregon. From that point on, Carol tirelessly pursued other causes that inspired her in a similar way.

Carol Queen [00:00:55] [Interview] You know, when I was in college, I heard a storyteller who told this— you know storytellers, they tell these long stories — but it had a chorus, not a song chorus, but a spoken chorus. And the chorus was "follow what fascinates you, follow what fascinates you." And I wish I could acknowledge the storyteller, because she had such a huge influence on my life. Because when I heard that I was like, Yes, am I doing that right now? I'm not so sure.

Aria Vega [00:01:19] [Voiceover] Carol kept asking herself that question until eventually, the answers led her south, to San Francisco. It was the mid '80s, which meant that Carol had arrived just in time to witness a cultural sea change taking place in that city. By the time she had begun her PhD program at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, the AIDS crisis was in full swing. Carol had intended to become an AIDS service professional, but she got swept up in the sex industry instead. She started working at Good Vibrations, founded in 1977, and assumed the life of a pleasure activist: writing, teaching and soaking up the counterculture that we'd nowadays describe as "sex positive." As HIV was spreading through the community, so were conversations about safer sex and sexuality in general.

Carol Queen [00:02:11] [Interview] HIV/AIDS in San Francisco was a distinct entity, full of activism and sexual discourse and openness, and people from the community helping people in that community, not just looking to medical authorities to help. That's what greeted me when I showed up, and that's what I believe supercharged Good Vibrations into that sort of mothership space that it was for some other entities like Babeland, and they weren't the only ones. So there was this meeting of the development of the idea of sex positive culture; I believe that that was developed in its first iteration, ish, at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. That's where I heard about it first. That's where I heard people using it as a framework first. And that has affected my entire intellectual life since then, and activist life. It was the theory I needed. It was also the theory that San Francisco and the AIDS crisis needed. In order to to develop this, we have to be open about this. We can't put a lid on it. That's not going to end this crisis. It has to be something that we can talk about freely. And, of course, as I discovered and many others did, too— once you start talking about safer sex freely, which you have to talk about sex freely to be able to do, then the changes in one's life and being able to talk about sex and gender and identity and relationship configuration, and then a little later, whether or not you had sexual desire in a traditional way (traditional way, quote unquote) at all, which our friends in the ace community have have really shed light on.... Those were the things I think that led a little vibrator store in a progressive corner of San Francisco to become known by more and more and more people, and to have an outsized influence to the size of the square footage that we occupied, which is, I like to say, initially was about the size of a postage stamp. It was a teeny, teeny tiny little store. Nobody who has gone into a sex store in our, you know, decade would even believe it. There were about eight vibrators, there were three kinds of massage oil, the dildos were in the filing cabinet and you had to know that they were in there and ask to see them because Joni wasn't sure what people were going to be cool with...

Aria Vega [00:04:54] And now sex toys are a 15-20 billion dollar industry thirty-some years later. It's actually kind of mind blowing.

Carol Queen [00:05:04] Now we see pegging on TV! And yeah, it's a...it's been an interesting 40 years, I just want to say that! I think that that's an understatement in certain ways.

Aria Vega [00:05:19] [Voiceover] On top of being an educator and an activist, Carol is also an artist. Her writing includes fiction, erotica and memoir. In addition to her reporting and academic work, Carroll considers self-expression to be both a spiritual offering and an essential component of her activism.

Carol Queen [00:05:39] [Interview] Most people don't know it, but I also have an art practice around collage that is sort of more about... That's a different side of the expression and the need to process. It's more spiritual, maybe? It's a different thing, but it's all related to... You know, any of us who are motivated to make art. It's because of what we carry around, and it could be lots of different things, right? But we can't make art about something that we don't have any kind of touch to, I don't think. Not making compelling art, anyway. And for me, the 70s and 80s sort of led to the 90s, which is when I started... It's not when I started my writing practice, I had been writing since forever, but it's when I started publishing. It's when I started to sort of find my voice, and find what it seemed I was supposed to be doing. And what I was supposed to be doing was chronicling, reflecting and, you know, doing the personal essay bounce around with the topic, and bring out some personal elements of it to share with others. This whole process, to me, has felt like I'm working on manifesting what I understand sex positive culture to mean. Sometimes I do it via fiction or by explicit memoir, but sometimes I just do it with a more reportorial or a more essay-ish voice, and sometimes it's just full-on, this is how you do some things, this is what you didn't learn in school about sex. Like with The Sex and Pleasure Book right? Trying to distill my and Good Vibes's knowledge down into a book.

Aria Vega [00:07:18] Yes, I was just going to bring that up! I feel like that book perfectly encapsulates the inclusiveness that you're going for. While it is a beautiful foundational text for so many sex educators, myself included, it really is for everyone. You don't have to be a professional to find it valuable. One of my favorite things about the book is how affirming it is of elder sex in particular, which is sadly rare. The sex positive movement is very youth oriented. Was that an explicit intention of yours to kind of shine a spotlight on elder sex that way?

Carol Queen [00:07:56] Oh, for sure. I mean, in the first place, I'm not getting any younger. As we speak, I'm currently not quite sixty-four and a half. So, you know, I started, as I told you, I started this, this business... I came into this space when I was still a teenager doing the gay youth organizing, doing, you know, getting around, learning about sex in the gutter like you had to do back then because the sex education was, if anything, even worse than it is now! No, it wasn't, it was just as bad. Anyway, so I had gone through perimenopause and into menopause. I'm doing it bareback, which I'm not using in the same way that the condom yes-or-no people use the term "bareback."

Aria Vega [00:08:41] Oh wait, what do you mean?

Carol Queen [00:08:42] I mean, I'm doing it without hormone replacement therapy, as many people, especially many people who have led sexy, sexy lives, don't choose to do because there are some common changes. Now the first— I mean, let me finish my sentence and then then let me give a huge disclaimer about what I'm saying. Some of the changes associated with perimenopause and menopausal hormonal changes, especially for people who are assigned female at birth, will add up to a change in sexual desire, in orgasm experience, and lots of different things. Let me start, though, by saying if we're talking about menopause, perimenopause age, et cetera, that not everybody has the same experience, regardless of whether they add hormones into the mix as their own start to shift. Not everyone has the same experience. Some people really become asexual in later years. Just really just lose interest in desire and either suffer over that or are cool with it, depending on their worldview, their experience, all the things. Some people are still quite sexual all the way into, you know, 90s, 100s, however far you get, whether or not somebody's got a partner. It's not uncommon for people to maintain a self pleasuring routine.

Aria Vega [00:10:12] No that's my plan, I hope I'm still getting laid when I'm ninety-five!

Carol Queen [00:10:15] Exactly! I remember when my mother went into ... sort of an assisted living place, but at an independent assisted living place where everybody gathered for dinner together. Sshe was in her late 60s when she went into this place, and she would tell me— with a little attitude, I might add— about Lulu Belle, who came in for dinner, scoped around, figured out if there was any man who could ambulate himself, who she hadn't already gone on a hot weekend to the coast with. And Lulu Belle... all the other women were like, "All we want is a man to just cuddle up with!" And Lulu Belle is snapping 'em up out from under us and I'm all Lulu Belle, baby! You are my hero, my woman! I never met Lulu Belle, but I sure do wish I had. I love her name. You know, when you've got a moniker like that, you might as well just be extra the whole time, and I just feel that she must have been.

Aria Vega [00:11:21] I love this! And it makes me wonder, what do you make of the notion of a sexual prime? You know, we often hear, like cisgender men hit their prime in their 20s, and cisgender women will hit it in their 30s or early 40s. Is there some truth to that? Or are there more Lulu Belles out in the world than pop culture in the medical establishment would have us think?

Carol Queen [00:11:47] Well, I do think there are many Lulu Belles out in the world, and there are plenty of older people who don't lose their attraction to what sex and intimacy gives us. And of course, what a what a wide variety of things those are, right? Just like touch, connection, pleasure, orgasm if you're still having orgasms, be it a little exercise, the ability to get outside your own individual lonely self and and be with somebody else, affirmation, like so many things! So many things. I haven't even gotten into exchanging sex for money or a really good dinner. I mean, there are many reasons to have sex, and not everybody will have sex for all the reasons. Not everybody will have any sex, right? But but there are so many, so many reasons that people are drawn to it, and hormones are just just the part that you can measure with a medical test. That's really all they are. So they're not the end of the story. They're woven into sort of a social psych and a cultural space, which is what I want to say about the prime question. You know, who gets the phrase "sowing their wild oats" in our society, right? Boys. Who gets the "boys will be boys"? Boys. What have, historically, people assigned female at birth gotten? Don't touch yourself there. Don't run around. Don't wear that. Don't go outside wearing that. You've got too much makeup on. Don't hang around with those bad girls. Just so many don't, don't, don't, don't, don't messages. Don't touch yourself, that's dirty. Save it for someone you love. That's one of my favorite sexology jokes, ha ha. And then, are we surprised when it takes longer for assigned female at birth people to step into masturbation and feel pleasure? So that's why I think that we say women's sexual prime is so much later. So a lot of catching up to do. It's not just hormones,

Aria Vega [00:14:13] You know, that makes so much sense that this sexual prime that we speak about colloquially as if it's this hormonal predestinatio, it is probably more attributable to culture than anything else. And that's why it also makes a lot of sense that a lot of people in middle age, regardless of gender, but especially women, report having the best sex of their lives. And when you scratch under that surface a little bit, it seems to be, Well I know what I like now, and I'm not afraid to ask for it.

Carol Queen [00:14:45] That's right.

Aria Vega [00:14:46] And that, in theory, you can do at any age. But because we live— you know, speaking specifically for within the context of American culture— very Puritan, very sex negative. Of course, it takes people until middle age to unlearn so much of that toxic conditioning. It makes all the sense in the world.

Carol Queen [00:15:08] And we don't have our village, whatever we would mean by that, you know, in a Hillary Clinton sense or whatever. We don't have our village to help us with child care as much as (some people do, some people don't, obviously) many would appreciate. You know, my addiction to reading advice columns in the pandemic has really taught me... I don't know a whole lot of people with young kids right now at this time in my life, right? But I sure see how suffering so many are with pandemic stressors added to the not very comfortable way that we're expected to raise our kids at this point and late-stage capitalism and nuclear family situations, whoa! And sleep deprivation, as well as hormonal disruptions around baby-having, those things are real. Those will put you off for a few years from finding out what you want sexually and how to talk about it, right? And then you have to hope that the person that you're having the kids with, if there is somebody there with you, wants to have those conversations with you. So the way the communication health of your relationships go is crucial to this as well, isn't it? I mean, it's not just that you can snap your fingers and have better sex all of a sudden because you turn thirty-seven. That's not how it works. The boo has to want to have good sex with you. The boo has to understand what you're saying and not go, But we were having good sex this whole time, orwhatever the internal narrative is. And I also want to say that some of this — late thirties, especially early forties, pre-perimenopause kicking in, or or maybe perimenopause— is actually supportive of sexual exploration and fluidity, which is cool because that's a really good way to deal with perimenopause. Some people are empty nesting and having better sex because they are no longer feeling worried that their kids are going to overhear them use their safe word, or whatever it is. And of course, the pandemic has stepped on that too for so many people. Like, Oh my goodness, my adult kids are still in the next room. I really feel like I have to still be really, really quiet. And you know, this is a culture too, I mean, talk about sex positivity or its lack. Again, it's quote unquote opposite, sex negativity, or erotophobia. That's what really sparked interest in that set of ideas to me, because I was already working with homophobia as a young person, and I was like, Oh, it's not just us, it's sexuality, and sexual choice and difference in orientation, and all the things.

Aria Vega [00:18:00] I've never heard the term erotophobia, that's so useful.

Carol Queen [00:18:03] It's so useful. I mean, I really want people to understand that that's the source of this freakin' drama, the shame, the opprobrium, all the things that I said about the boys versus the girls, you know, that's the gendered stuff, right? But it's all sexualized, and it's all touched with erotophobia, and erotophobia hits people assigned female at birth especially hard. I stepped into sex work when I came to San Francisco. I know from that space that there are plenty of men, too, who are too ashamed to say what they want at home, and go somewhere else to try to explore the things that are fascinating them, to quote that wonderful storyteller back then that I was so inspired by. So I don't want to have talked about perimenopause many times, though, without saying, 1) That, too, is different for many people. 2) Stress makes it especially bad: loss of sleep, hitting the hot flashes... So my thoughts are with anybody hitting perimenopause in the pandemic, whoa, as well as the young parents and all you people, whoa! I want to suggest Heather Corinna's amazing book What Fresh Hell is This? Perimenopause Menopause, Other Indignities, and You. They are the person who gave us Scarleteen, the smartest and most sex positive website for youth trying to figure out what sexuality is all about, gender is all about. Now, the perimenopause stage of life has come under Heather's withering gaze, and this is the attitude-filled book about The Change that everybody didn't know they needed until Heather wrote this book. I am ... Heather, they are my hero!

Aria Vega [00:20:15] [Voiceover] I really love the idea of exploring sexuality across the lifespan, as Heather Corinna does with their work. Because life is full of bodily changes, some that you can anticipate and some that you can't. If you live long enough, eventually you'll experience one that impacts how you have sex.

Carol Queen [00:20:35] [Interview] People become disabled every day in their sex life, as well as the rest of their life changes. There are people who find that their body chemistry doesn't keep up with what they think they want, and perimenopause is only a piece of that, like depression, loss of interest in sex, or ability to have an orgasm is diagnostic for depression, and for some other things too. There's a lot! So don't just assume that you better get it all right now while you're cute, and you don't have to worry about it later. That's not the way it works for most people. And later on, if you don't.... If you don't think more broadly, you might wish that you thought more broadly earlier, so let's start now. For those of you who are listening who are younger— the thing that I think young people might find the most easy intro to thinking about this stuff is that midlife and older sex asks us to understand that everybody's sexuality, to some degree, is fluid. Everybody also finds that the life cycle, if not their sexual orientation and gender identity, shifts around on them. I mean, how could it not at least to some degree? Doesn't mean you're going to come out when you're in your 60s, though some people do. It doesn't mean that you're going to stop having sex, though some people do. It doesn't mean that you're going to have more sex, though, when some people aren't worried about becoming pregnant anymore, that's when they really start having sex, right? You cannot predict with specificity. And since we are respecting fluidity now, in many ways, let's respect it around the lifespan too. And when we do that, I think maybe this ageist business— because people, of course, are ageist toward youth and they're ageist toward elders —there's a notion of a norm there, too. I just want people to cut that out! If they're lucky, they'll get that old. The other thing is, besides the fluidity, the way that we have learned to communicate and be intimate and understand our boundaries and understand our desires and realize that there's only so many decades left and we better open ourselves to those questions, and we lose a lot of insight about what the role of sexuality is in our lives. If we look at grandma and go, she never really had a sex life the way I do. I'm like, Oh honey, I want to tell you something! Grandma either lived right through the sexual revolution or she was running around after we thought the sexual revolution happened. Or, you know, maybe she was so suppressed by where she came from that the sexual revolution passed her by, and she turned sixty three and got one of Joan Price's books on a whim, and now she's swinging from the chandelier! You don't know unless you open yourself to knowing. And to do that, you have to be respectful of whether she wants to talk to you, and what she has lived and is living, because why would she want to talk to you otherwise? Let's just be a little bit more loving about this, and we might learn something.

Aria Vega [00:23:58] [Voiceover] That's sex educator and activist, Dr. Carol Queen. You can find her online at carolqueen.com, and she's on Twitter @carolqueen, and Instagram @carolqueenphd. By the way, in case you're curious about that book by Heather Corinna about The Change. I've got a link to it on the show notes for you. So, does anyone want to keep talking about sex and menopause? I have so many more questions. I'd love to hear from professionals, and also just people about your experiences. Hit me up at askaria@lustery.com with an email or voice memo. Or you can find me on Twitter @vegadreamcast. If you're into the show, please leave us a five star rating and a review. POV is brought to you by Lustery, and this episode was hosted by me, Aria Vega. It was edited and produced by Kathryn Fischer and Adrienne Teicher, and our showrunner is Paulita Pappel. Lustery is the home of real-life partners filming their sex lives behind closed doors. If you're 18 or older, you can find us at lustery.com, and we're on Twitter and Instagram @lusterypov. Until next time, lovers!