NightOwl Interview


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NightOwl is a sex-positive activist, writer, and educator. This interview with her was conducted in her Seattle home on December 21, 1997, and is Copyright © 19997 by Nightowl. [Note: We're saddened to report that Nightowl passed away in mid-September, 2004. She was one of the inspirations for our originally founding Society for Human Sexuality as a student organization at University of Washington in March of 1995, and she served as the discussion leader at the first event we ever hosted.

SHS: How long have you thought of yourself as a sex activist?

I've thought of myself as an activist since I was in my early 20's. From very early on I was defending sex and explicit media: defending the right of people to put sexually-oriented personal ads in newspapers, the right for porn movies to be advertised, etc.

Actually, I guess I've been a sex activist since I was 11 or 12 years old, when I started learning about sex and telling the other kids about it because it was such a big secret. I learned from talking to my mother recently that their parents came over and chewed her out for allowing me to have sexual information and for me telling it to their kids, because they didn't want their kids to know anything about sex. What's so crazy is I grew up in a farming area; we grew up watching dogs and horses and cattle fuck all the time. We all knew exactly where babies came from, but somehow never connected it to what human beings did because there was this big code of silence about it. Those kinds of contradictions caught me very early and I just decided I was on the side of freedom.

I never have completely understood the people who go hysterical about sex and want to suppress every mention of it; I can sort of understand that it's some kind of high-level anxiety on their part. It's like people who are racist or sexist who just throw this blanket over something that upsets them and have these automatic thoughts, behaviors, and actions around that subject. One friend of mine is that way about food. If you offer him some new kind of food that he's never eaten before he automatically rejects it. Myself and couple of friends dragged him into a Thai restaurant and practically forced him to eat Thai food because we knew he'd like it. He loved it. Now probably half of the meals he eats in restaurants are in Thai restaurants. So I asked him, "Did you learn anything from that encounter that will change your attitude about food?" He said "No." I think the segment of the population which is so anti-sex is like that about sex; nothing will change their point of view that sex is bad and evil and must be suppressed.

For instance, a woman I worked with allows her teenage children to watch slasher movies like Friday the 13th but very carefully makes sure they don't watch any sexy movies. I asked her, "Why is that?" She said, "Oh, I don't know, I'm just uncomfortable with them getting any sexual information." As I said, I find it very confusing; the only conclusion I can come to is that sexuality creates such a huge anxiety for the anti-sex people that they have to fly into action to try to suppress it.

SHS: But it doesn't seem to be that way in all cultures. Do you have any ideas about what is particular to ours which generates these moral panics?

Sometimes I wonder if it's genetic. This country was founded by religious nuts from Europe who got driven out of Europe. Maybe we have a genetic disorder called "moral panic."

One of my theories about sexually explicit media is that people who like it generally find it to be media with a purpose: its purpose is to serve as an aid to masturbation. We use it to arouse ourselves when we're planning to have sex with ourselves. We go to the video store or the adult bookstore, sift through stuff, find some imagery that gets us hot, take it home with us and use it for its intended purpose (which is arousal for masturbation or sometimes arousal for couples), have sex, have our orgasms, and then we're totally bored with sexually explicit media until the next time we want to get hot. The people who hate pornography seem to spend every waking moment sifting through stuff looking not for what they like but for what they *dislike the most*, which they'll then collect and force other people to look at: "Look at this! Isn't this the most horrible thing you ever saw!" And since presumably they don't allow themselves to masturbate or have any sort of sexual release with the pornography they collect they're in this state of almost hysterical sexual tension all the time, which they feed by looking at even more and more horrible stuff.

SHS: How would you like to see sex education in this country improved?

I would like to see sex education done as it's done in countries that have very low teenage pregnancy and venereal disease rates, like Sweden and Denmark, where sex is seen as an ordinary part of life. I'm not suggesting that schools ever give children hands-on instruction in how to have sex, but I think there should be movies. I believe that given the information, most teenagers will be able to make reasonable choices. For example, one of the most effective methods for preventing teenagers from having children are these "flour baby" classes where they have a sack of flour or some computerized doll, and to get credit in the class they have to take care of this "baby" for a week or two; the thing cries regularly, they can never leave it alone, they have to change its diapers every two hours, they have to pretend to feed it every three or four hours, etc. After two weeks in this class all the kids say, "I had no idea! I am NOT producing children!" They also have a "belly" that kids have to wear for a week which is the equivalent of a full-term pregnancy. Both of these techniques have been very effective. So basically I would like to see some realism and common sense introduced into sex education.

SHS: What are your favorite tips for people who want to improve the quality of their sex lives?

Explore and discover what really works for you, what really makes you feel safe, what the circumstances are that you feel safe in, what kind of touch you like, what kind of sexual acts you like, and learn how to communicate these things in a gentle and accepting way to your partner. Learn to communicate what you like and what you need in order to feel safe and open and loving, and practice being able to hear that from other people.

For women there's a tremendous temptation to pretend you're having a better time than you're having, because women warm up so slow and men warm up so fast. There's an enormous temptation to hope your body will catch up if the sex goes on long enough, which is self-defeating because if you have sex before you're really hot it just doesn't feel that great. There is a tendency for men to get impatient with the half-hour or hour it takes to really warm a woman up, because men can practically be hot from one breath to the next. Men are kind of overwhelmed by how quickly they get turned on, and so just want to do it right away.

I think the thing I have seen which improves sex the most for men is if they can become less focussed on orgasm and become less anxious about whether they will momentarily lose their erection and instead focus on the sensation of their whole body and try to put off having orgasm as long as possible so that the tension can build; then they'll have much better orgasms. For men there's such a tendency to be goal-oriented, and for the goal to be: "how fast I can make her come and how fast I can make myself come." It's the difference between fast food and fine dining. For most women the only true sexual fast food is a vibrator. Having sex with a partner and trying have a quickie and getting much sexual satisfaction really isn't possible for most women. Women just aren't built for quickies.

It's helpful to think of sex just as the way that adults play. It's play, so it doesn't have to be serious; it's just play, it's just fun, it's just a thing that people do with each other that's a wonderful opportunity to really have a good time.

I attended a party last night where we sang. Most of us had mediocre voices, and the people playing the music weren't perfect either. I found myself going in and out of having a great time and being kind of embarressed. It was a lot like having sex; I kept thinking, "Oh, I look silly; Oh, I'm not very good at this; Oh, what are other people thinking about me; Oh, how am I coming across to other people," instead of just losing myself in singing with the group of people and having a terrific time. To me sex is very much like that; it's better the more you're able to lose yourself in the rhythm of it and not just keep going faster. I took a drumming class and one of the things the instructor said was that when people first learn to drum that they always keep speeding up. It's very easy to do that with sex too. When it feels good instead of staying at that rhythm and enjoying the singing for a while we tend to say, "Let's get to the end." So I guess that's my best advice: don't hurry to the end.

SHS: What about safer sex? What can people do to make safer sex more enjoyable?

Well, it's just like a lot of other things: you have to discipline yourself to not be silly. If every time you ate something that was good for you you thought, "I'd rather be eating a chocolate-chip cookie," then you'll never enjoy anything. We get so childish when it comes to sex. Sex is like other parts of life, which means if you want to have the fun part you have to accept that there are conditions for it. For example, almost no one says, "Oh darn, I don't get to have sex with six people, I'm being deprived, I only get to have sex with one person." If you say, "Oh darn, I wish we didn't have to use latex," all you're doing is ruining it for yourself.

We all can make the choice to enter into a monogamous relationship. It's not that difficult to find somebody who wants to be in a latex-free relationship, and if it's that important then do that. All you have to do is get tested, use latex for three months, get tested again, and then if you're both negative and really believe that you both can make an agreement to use latex with everyone else then you can have sex without latex.

People get too hysterical. Yeah, there's a loss of sensation and yeah it's a little more difficult, but so what? We have to cook food and we have to put gas in our cars; sex is in this special category in our society where it's both devalued and seen as more significant than it is.

SHS: Are there any other sex activists whose work you find especially compelling, or who have served as role models for you?

Oh yes, people I admire just incredibly: Pat Califia, Susie Bright, Annie Sprinkle, Betty Dodson, the people at the Body Electric School, the people at Planned Parenthood, the list could just go on and on. I read Margaret Sanger's biography when I was a teenager and I'm sure that had a lot of influence on me; what she went through to insure that women had access to contraception was just amazing.

SHS: What do you think of today's sex education videotapes?

I was at a workshop training counselors, and one of the things we did was watch some sex education tapes; it was interesting because they were very arousing. We talked about it later and decided what was so arousing about them was that the people were talking to each other very authentically and very sincerely about what they wanted.

Most pornography is aimed at the male sexual model which is arousal to orgasm in about 10 minutes, so it's in these 10 minute bursts and has to be very athletic and has to be constantly something new. When you look at the sex videos made for women you really see that men and women are not the same. Like the Candida Royalle tapes made for women; they're almost exclusively foreplay. I watch those tapes and after a while I think, "Are these people ever going to fuck?" Beautiful costumes, beautiful music, soft-focus, and foreplay forever.

SHS: Do you have any tips for getting past body-image issues that hinder sex?

There's no easy way; I have body-image questions myself. Basically I recommend trusting that your partner really wants to be there or they wouldn't be. If we couldn't cook unless we were gourmet chefs, if we couldn't dance unless we could dance perfectly, then we'd never get to do those things. If your feelings are the impetus to get in better shape so you like your body more then fine, but I recommend just loving yourself the way you are. Going to a nudist camp or a nude swim is a great idea; then you see what the range is, and see how unrealistic the Victoria's Secret models and Playboy models are. I think we all like to look at pictures of beautiful people, but we don't need to use that to devalue ourselves. From the time I was a small child it drove me crazy that we human beings put everything on the better-worse scale, and only the perfect is considered worth striving for.

What it still comes down to is that people want to be with each other emotionally and sexually. So I guess my only advice is to be generous towards yourself and others and take the risk. Don't use being unhappy with your body as an excuse to not take care of your body and not cherish it. One of the nicest things you can do for your body is have sex, whether with yourself or with someone else. Taking a really hot bath and getting really clean and then doing a very elaborate masturbation, making love with yourself, is one of the most lovely things you can do as a present to yourself. Same thing with another person; call up a friend and say, "You know, I'm just feeling very sensual tonight, let's go to the hot tubs and let's give each other a massage, and let's see if we feel like making love after we do all these lovely sensual things, just as a present to each other and as a present to ourselves."

The bane of many people's existence is HWP in personal ads. HWP turns out to be like pornography; it's in the eye of the beholder. There is no agreed-upon standard, but everyone thinks there is. If you asked 20 people to point out who is HWP and who is not, you would be amazed at how little agreement there is. And yet we all go through life like there is perfect agreement about this and it doesn't apply to us: "I'm bad, I'm not HWP." Putting something like HWP in a personal ad eliminates a lot of potential partners, and implies much more judgementalness than most people have.

SHS: Do you have any suggestions for people who feel they don't know how to flirt?

Look at the primate studies where the male looks directly into the eyes of the female and the female glances into the male's eyes, glances down, and kind of smiles; that's a standard sexual signal among all primates. So practice doing that and practice giving people little complements and practice inviting people to touch you: "My neck hurts, could you rub it a little bit?" Find ways to be physically close to people, but be very careful that you don't scare people. Do things tentatively at first, and then pay close attention to the response you get. If you receive a rejection response then don't go on; if you get a positive response then be encouraged by it. Another way to flirt is to talk about a romantic movie you've seen and say what you liked about it. Find ways to bring the conversation around to relationships and sexual matters and see what the response is. I guess all I can really say about flirting is that it's definitely worthwhile, and that it's so much fun!

SHS: How would you like to be remembered?

I guess just as a person who stepped out and lived her own life, and who examined herself and her behavior by a stringent moral code which wasn't automatically anti-sexual.

SHS: That's wonderful. Thanks so much for talking with us today!

You're welcome!

RESOURCES MENTIONED

Planned Parenthood:         http://www.plannedparenthood.org
Body Electric School:       http://www.bodyelectric.org
Betty Dodson's Books/Tapes: http://www.bettydodson.com
Candida Royalle Videotapes: http://www.royalle.com
Susie Bright:               http://www.susiebright.com
Annie Sprinkle:             http://www.anniesprinkle.org


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