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A quickie with Brian Alexander

January 26th, 2009

Dr Petra

‘Quickies’ are my weekly interviews with key people working in the area of sex and relationships. They’re a showcase for people who all make a difference to how we understand sex, love and relationships.

Today’s quickie interview (and the first one I’ve run on this blog) is with Brian Alexander. I’ve been interested in two areas of Brian’s work – as an advice columnist and as a journalist who has captured diverse stories of American’s sex lives and wanted to hear more about what drives and guides his work.

Over to you, Brian….

My name is Brian Alexander. I am an American freelance journalist who covers sex and sexual health for MSNBC.com, among other assignments for other outlets. My most recent book, America Unzipped has just been released in paperback. It explores the seeming contradiction between America’s supposed religious revival with America’s mainstreaming of sexual adventurism.


What have been your proudest achievements?

Some of the stories I have written, and my books. I cover several big areas and have been fortunate to have been recognized for my reporting on them, but when it comes to sexuality specifically, I’ve reported stories, for example, about how the Bush
Administration and religious forces distorted medical and science information to advance agendas more fitting to their moral views. The story wound up being used in Congress and was recognized by a premier journalism school (Medill at Northwester University) for excellence in public interest reporting. A story I did about young men and STDs was a finalist for the U.S. National Magazine Awards.

My recent book, America Unzipped, tries, in a humorous way, to point out that sexual experimentation is now a mainstream pursuit. It aimed to de-mythologize it, and even to cast a sceptical eye on some of it. I’m proud of such work.

What do you still have left to achieve?
Oh man, tons. I often feel hopelessly unaccomplished. I haven’t read Proust. I’ve been trying forever to master Spanish and still haven’t. Six-pack abs are far on the horizon, too. Professionally, there is still much more to write, not just about sex but many topics that interest me.

Who are your heroes/role models?
Professionally, the great magazine writers of the 1960s and late 1950s. Gay Talese. Tom Wolfe. I read Talese now and I get teary-eyed because the articles are so good and because no editor would ever run them, or even assign them, any more. Ernie Pyle, the legendary World War II correspondent. Ed Murrow, of course. More distantly, novelists like Julian Barnes, Don DeLillo. Certain filmmakers.

In the realm of sexuality, I don’t have any journalist colleagues who serve as role models. But there are people I cover who I admire. I have grown to admire some of the pioneers, people I find myself surprised at admiring, but who deserve my admiration. Candida Royalle, for example. Educators like Eli Coleman at the University of Minnesota, people in the Kinsey vein who have struggled to break down fears and prejudice, researchers who have had to fight just to do their work because their field is sex.

Tell me one thing about you that might surprise me.

Geez. Not sure what would surprise you. I bet very little does. How about the fact that I have an addiction to old Warner Brothers cartoons (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky)?

What do you do to relax?

I surf, drink cocktails from the grand age of cocktails in the 1920s and 1930s. Read. Watch bad sci-fi on TV. Cook.

What makes you happy?

Feeling that I’ve done solid work. Sex. Food. Booze (see cocktails, above). Seeing real progress in the world, not phony progress (latest digital thing). Travel. Listening to a great bluesman.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am writing the MSNBC.com column, Sexploration, and reporting on a variety of health topics for MSNBC.com. My book has just been released in paperback. I’m writing some pieces for UK Glamour, and a couple of American magazines. I have two non-journalistic writing projects that may or may not come to fruition but have certainly taken a lot of work. (I should have listened to my mother and become a lawyer, or a banker. Oh….No, wait, not a banker.) My house is a never-ending project.

What are the main problem areas in sex/relationships we need to deal with currently?

Talking! People don’t talk to each other. It’s incredible how shy we are about speaking to a person with whom we are frequently naked in all sorts of compromising positions. Oh, sure, we talk about work, money, our in-laws, maybe the kids if we have them, but God forbid we would ever open our mouths to talk to each other about what we do in bed (or in the kitchen, or the car). I get hundreds of emails every week from people who write “How can I get my husband/wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/neighbor to do XYZ” as if simply asking has never occurred to them. I also think it is important to say why one is asking for something or has certain feelings about an issue. Often people assume the wrong thing, like “My boyfriend asked me to put my finger in his bum, he must be gay, right?” Well, no, it can just feel good.

I also think we expect too much bliss from relationships. Pop culture still has us hoping for the Prince/Princess thing. I’m not saying you have to be miserable, but sharing your life with another person for any length of time will produce challenges.

What can’t you live without?

Aside from food, water, air and shelter? Love.

What sex education did you receive when you were a child/teenager?

None. Well, that’s not exactly true. I went to Catholic schools, so I learned that the Pill will kill you, God hates masturbation, and wearing a condom is a sin. Luckily, Catholic boys have a pretty good secret communication network.

What sex information do you wish you’d been told as a child/teenager?

That sex does not equal love.

What’s the best sex tip you’ve ever heard?
It’s supposed to be fun.

Name your guilty (or not so guilty) pleasures.
The women in old James Bond movies. (I mean, really, has there ever been anyone sexier than Honor Blackman? What is she, 80-something? She’s still amazingly hot). Double cheeseburgers. Fois gras. Business class. Trashy sex clichés like cheap lingerie and schoolgirl outfits. Long, backless evening gowns. Old screwball comedies. Bangers-n-mash. The American Bar in the Savoy Hotel, London. The carne asada burrito at Sombrero’s, my local Mexican dive. Borat.

What do you consider to be the main innovations in sex/relationships over the past century?

Information. If you don’t know about vibrators, birth control, oral sex, and lubrication it’s because you don’t want to know or you live in a place here those things are not readily available. Starting with the women’s movement of the late 19th Century there has been an explosion of information and, mostly, that’s been a good thing.

Where do you see our sex lives going in the future?

Well, there may be some tweaking here and there, or new gadgets, but I don’t think sex is really going to change all that much. Writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson was into bondage and domination and he lived in the 1700s. Luis Bunuel directed Belle de Jour, about a housewife who goes in for S and M sex as a part-time hooker and he directed that 40 years ago and it was based on a novel from 1928.

I do think alternative relationships will continue to evolve, though. I think we will see less marriage, at least with “forever” as the ideal. Gay marriage will be fully accepted soon at least in the developed western world. I hope that sexual violence comes to be seen for what it is: cowardly and totally unacceptable and that it stops being a weapon of war.

What are the main threats to our sex/relationships lives today?

Ignorance. Superstition. Intolerance. Certain entertainment depictions. I especially think that the depiction of men and men’s lives as buffoonish, silly and immature has done some damage to our sex lives and our relationships. Men are often depicted as goofballs, or as louts. It’s become an overused joke. Granted (see “trashy sex clichés” above) men always have that juvenile bit to them — our reptilian brain — but this is not the complete picture of who we are. I’d like to see masculinity portrayed as good rather than as either “superhero-with-guns” or Judd Apatow characters. That said, I think this goes deeper than entertainment. It has to do with feminism, economics, education…long list.

Is it possible to have great sex?

Oh my yes!

Describe an average day/week in your job?

From the outside it looks astoundingly boring. I read. I research. I interview. I sit on my ass and type. Sometimes I travel and do those things elsewhere. A lot of my time in journalism has been spent trying to get people to say things they’d rather not say, but know to be true, or digging up some piece of paper that says it. From the inside though, it can be pretty exciting. I suppose it’s like chess. I’d rather shoot myself than watch a chess match but people who play tell me it’s thrilling.

What are the main things people worry about in relation to their sex lives?

“Am I normal?” That’s number one. Then there’s “I don’t last long enough, am not big enough (or small enough), don’t make enough.” These are followed by “Am I doing it right?” Finally, there’s “Where is it?”

What causes those worries?
Porn. Lies told by our friends. Self-help books. Human insecurity over the outliers among us. Just as there is always going to be somebody who is richer and prettier, there are going to be those with bigger, better ones.

If you could plan school sex education programmes, what would you put on the curriculum?

Accurate, realistic biology of how it all works adjusted for the appropriate age groups. Kinds of contraception and how to use them for older students. Sexual autonomy. Violence and abuse prevention and how to spot potential signs. What sex and love are and are not. I would also include an abstinence message. Research has shown over and over that sex for everyone, but especially younger, inexperienced people, can be very powerful emotionally and I think it is important to be as ready as one can for that power. I would hope that there would be ways to help students realize that sex is not currency. It won’t buy love or happiness or acceptance.

Are there any issues in sex/relationships are given too much attention?

The latest, newest tend, the “blow-your-mind” move, gadget, partner, movie, fetish, clothing that will result in eternal bliss. Also sex-as-competition, the “I must have eight orgasms” syndrome.

Are there any issues in sex/relationships are overlooked or neglected?

In relationships I think it is the day-to-day living. People have sex, maybe, two hours per week? (O.K., four hours if you are dating.) Then what? How do you navigate a relationship when you are worried about money, careers, kids, the laundry, who’ll buy the food, what music to listen to, what movies to see? Even a dating relationship has a lot of mundane time. Well, how do you do it? Better yet, what is reasonable to expect? It seems weird to say this is overlooked because there are a million self-help books out there, but I don’t think many talk about real life.

What question(s) do you wish I’d asked you? List them – and answer them too!

Favorite Monty Python moment? “It’s da Bishop!”

Fantasy Sex Partner: A cross between Honor Blackman in her Pussy Ga-lory and a woman who can recite the entire Bishop sketch. (Wait, what was I saying about men being childish? Oh well.)

Most Interesting Work Experience related to Sex: Working in an adult sex shop in Arizona as research for America Unzipped, and then hanging out in a sex club while wearing punishingly tight PVC pants. I haven’t been the same since.

Cheers Brian – and as a ‘thank you’ for taking the time out for a quickie, here’s your reward…..

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