Sasha Grey, via her Twitter feed
A Cuddle Party would exist in my personal ninth circle of hell. Nevertheless, the sex/relationships guru who came up with the concept, Reid Mihalko, made some interesting comments in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday that back up the ideas I was getting at in my critique of Katie Roiphe's Newsweek article on women, work, and S&M.
In short: Greater interest in sadomasochism has less to do with economic trends and more to do with increased access to porn and erotica online. Mihalko spends a lot of time conducting workshops for college students, and he has found that many of them are exposed to really kinky stuff via the Internet, yet lack basic information on sexual health and pleasure, in part because they are graduates of abstinence-only sex-ed programs or received no sex education at all. He explains:
About 30 to 40 percent of what I do is lecturing at colleges. I do a lecture called "Sex Geek Chic," which is about using peer pressure in a positive way to encourage young adults to get their shit handled. If you don't know your STD status, if you don't know how to use a condom, if you're not savvy with consent and how to navigate your emotions in intimate relationships, you're uncool. …
There's an interesting dynamic going on among college students. A lot of them grew up with federally funded, abstinence-only education. But they also grew up with the Internet. So for visual learners, especially, they're getting their love-making cues from watching porn.
Trying to learn how to be a better lover from porn is like trying to learn how to drive from watching "The Fast and the Furious."
Yes. I began high school in 1998, before pornography could be easily streamed online. It could be downloaded, but this took some real time and effort; guys I knew figured out how to do it, but if any of my female friends were experimenting with this in the late nineties and early aughts, we weren't talking about it openly with one another. (We were reading Anais Nin, though, don't get me wrong!) And way back when we were first hitting puberty in the mid-nineties, it was still scandalous and fascinating to get one's hands on an issue of Playboy.
Obviously, everything changed during my first few years of college–not just because my friends and I were getting older, but also because of technology. I don't want to be all old-ladyish at 27, but the last decade has seen a sort of epochal shift in how teenagers and young adults explore their sexuality. It used to be you had to go to an adult movie theater or the adult section of a video rental store or a sex club to watch other people getting it on; you had to actually interact with other human beings in those places and you risked getting "caught" by someone you knew. (A somewhat separate category of consumption would be the semi-ironic screening of retro porn movies on college campuses. Been there! And how prevalent was buying video pornography via the mail back in the day? I don't really know. Commenters?)
Now you can watch other people have sex anytime you want, for free, and in total privacy. This is a really significant development in the history of human sexuality, and I think its effects are both positive (less shyness about sex) and negative (more exposure to unrealistic, staged sex; more sexual outlets other than one's partner; and possibly more body anxiety as a result of comparing oneself to hundreds and thousands of other naked people).
Today it seems like we're having a constant, national conversation about porn and how it is changing our culture. Pornstars like Jenna Jameson and Sasha Grey have achieved some modicum of mainstream respectability, and pornography is regularly opined upon in the kinds of publications nobody would be embarassed to read on the subway. Porn has gone mainstream before, as it did in the "Deep Throat" era. But the shock and moral panic is, for the most part, missing these days (pace Rick Santorum); the general assumption is that almost everyone over the age of 12 has seen video porn at least a few times.
In any case, Reid Mihalko is on to something about young people and kink, even though he also seems a bit kooky. I really love the site MakeLoveNotPorn, and would like to especially refer my younger friends and readers to it (make sure to click on the arrows to see all the tips!). A more comprehensive resource on these matters is ScarletTeen.