Someone contacted me recently, saying he was gathering responses from journalists who discuss sex and gender issues. I don’t know that I’d classify myself in that category, but I was happy to answer his questions and thought I’d share my responses:
– First, simply put, what advice do you have for students interested in writing about sex or social issues that fall within the sex, sexual health or gender realms?
Be honest! This means two things: draw from your own experience to relate to stories, but also acknowledge the limits of your own experience and when you need to ask for outside help. Bringing in experts (which does not simply mean looking something up on Wikipedia) is always OK. Even just chatting with friends – anything to get a wider idea of what other people think.
I’d also encourage anyone writing about sex and gender to work real hard to acknowledge their own biases. We all have ‘em. That’s not a problem. What is a problem is when we pretend we don’t. I’d much rather hear a sex columnist say “I’m not a fan of XYZ, but” than hear someone say “What you’re asking about is dumb.” without providing any further explanation.
Another thing is to think about what – if any – boundaries you put on your own personal information. Are you planning to talk about your own sexual experiences? Better check with your partners first, or make sure to mask the identities of any escapades.
As a blogger, this has been an issue for me, since people are able to comment on things I write. I once wrote about a weekend hookup, only to have her comment on the post and correct my memory about who initiated certain things! It wasn’t a problem – and my blog is moderated, so the comment only appeared because I was OK with it appearing – but having her comment was a bit of a surprise.
– What are the keys to uncovering or brainstorming related story ideas??
The obvious one is to talk about questions or experiences you’ve had in the past: first sexual experiences, first good sexual experiences, what you’re doing to continue to have good sexual experiences, how to do XYZ. I’d also encourage writers on sex and gender topics to explore their own privilege, or lack thereof. (And I promise, just about everyone has some place in which they’re privileged, even if that’s mostly outweighed by other factors.)
Beyond that, ask readers what they want to hear about. Talk with professors about common questions that come up, or call a local sex/gender org (LGBT, sperm bank, sex therapist, transgender advocacy group, whatever) and ask to interview someone who works there.
The best – and most read – stories I’ve written have come from talking about the hard stuff: figuring out coming out, being fired for being trans, getting into an argument about toplessness at Dyke March (I was topless, someone there thought I shouldn’t be). Don’t be afraid to examine what you’re hesitant to examine!
– Something a student asked me the other day that I wanted to get your take on… Are there any sexual clichés, topic areas or tired story narratives that you look out for and immediately kill or attempt to spin fresh?
There’s a long history of stories about transgender or gender non-conforming people being presented as sensational, over-sexualized, or worse. If I see anything along those lines, especially of the “all trans folks are ____” nature, I try to call out the person saying that and redirect the conversation to somewhere more productive. Likewise, any line of questioning calling into doubt my identity is something I’ll shut down or send elsewhere. There are great resources out there covering what it means to be trans, and I don’t need to justify my existence to bigots or the ignorant.
– What has been a particularly memorable moment for you as a journalist– during your student or professional days? A few lessons learned?
I once wrote a piece on my blog about consent and touching, discussing how our culture places an importance on some consent (sex) but not on others (whether or not you like to be hugged). I was very careful to not equate unwanted on nonconsensual touching with rape, but tried to open a discussion about how any nonconsensual contact can be problematic. The post was linked to by a “Men’s Rights” website, which misrepresented what I was saying and brought a flood of hostile visitors.
That said, some of the new readers – even those I disagreed with – brought up really interesting points about consent, socialization, and human interaction. If someone had told me a “Men’s Rights” site would link to my blog, I probably would have been unhappy about it. If someone told me I’d get into a conversation with some of their readers, I’d be worried. If someone had told me the conversation would be calm, polite, and mature conversation, and about consent to be touched, I wouldn’t have believed them.
But all that did happen. People I disagree with can be reasonable. They can be polite. And they can add to the conversation. Sometimes they can add more to the conversation than people who agree with me 100%.