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Pleasure Politics Surround Sex-Skill Courses

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Sex-act training courses for women have gained ground in major North American cities over the past couple of years. The trend is either a sign of greater sexual freedom or a new emphasis on service, depending on whom you ask.

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Sex-act training courses for women have gained ground in major North American cities over the past couple of years. The trend is either a sign of greater sexual freedom or a new emphasis on service, depending on whom you ask.
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Blaire Allison

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Ian Christiansen grabbed a plastic bag filled with chilled cucumbers and passed them out to his 12 students, women between their 20s and 50s.

Christiansen was teaching a class in New York this summer on the art of providing oral sex to men. "Remember, you are in control," he says wrapping up the lesson. "It's pretty much in your hands, literally."

Blaire Allison, owner of Metro Event Planners, which hosts Christiansen's class, started offering the classes about a year ago.

Her company, which also hosts bachelorette parties, runs these classes twice a month and has drawn more than 500 women, who pay $40 apiece for the hour-long seminar. She says her clientele is growing in size and the classes are attracting more women of color and women interested in boosting their sexual confidence overall.

"There is some fear with being unskilled in sex," Allison says. "This fear has always been there, but now women are like, 'Let's team up and help each other out.'"

Gone are the days when only sex workers openly and formally studied sex acts.

Judy Norsigian

Dr. Ted McIlvenna, founder and president of the San Francisco-based Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, says all kinds of women are looking for a greater sense of sexual accomplishment. "Women are managing their sexuality now more than they have in history," he says. "That's because they have more information and options."

Internet searches turn up ads for classes on all types of sexual subjects. Stripteasing, lap-dancing, pole-dancing and oral sex show up in cities such as San Francisco; Austin, Texas; New York; and Toronto. New York-based dating network service, Moxie in the City, has oral sex classes open only to women over 21 at least once a month in Washington, Boston and New York.

While proprietors depict the classes as enhancing women's sexual confidence, critics see them as focusing women on the provision of a service rather than a mutually pleasurable relationship.

'Seeking to Please'

"Women are seeking more to please than to be pleased," says Dr. Hilda Hutcherson, a sex columnist for Glamour and Essence magazines, in an e-mail exchange. "We are in many ways returning to the environment before the women's movement."

Hutcherson says women often overlook their own sexual needs and pleasures. "Women have told me that they do not get enough oral sex from their partners, and when they do get it, it is often bad," she says.

McIlvenna, with the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, says women's attendance at classes on sexual technique indicate an interest in gaining control. "Women want to be good at what they do," he says, adding that in the wake of the women's movement of the 1970s, more information is out there to help women achieve their goals.

Still, many women's goals, he says, seem to be focused mainly on providing services to men. When interviewing female teens, McIlvenna says most of them wanted to know "how to be a better lay."

Mainstream interest in sexual-act instruction became evident in 2001, when television and film actress Sheila Kelley began teaching stripper moves out of her Hancock Park, Calif., basement to women whose livelihoods have nothing to do with exotic dancing.

S Factor on Oprah

Kelley's program, S Factor, has since branched out to New York and Illinois and has been featured on Oprah Winfrey's talk show. Her band of stripper-teachers has taught more than 12,000 women. The typical student is a stay-at-home mom or a businesswoman, says spokesperson Chaton Anderson. "I don't know of any who are strippers."

S Factor promotes the classes as a way for women to boost their sexuality and get a good workout. The oral sex classes make similar promises, claiming to empower women with sexual knowledge.

Judy Norsigian doesn't think it's so simple. Women are routinely signaled by popular media images to become sexual know-it-alls, says Norsigian, executive director of Our Bodies Ourselves, the Boston nonprofit group that in 1970 published the first edition of "Our Bodies Ourselves," the manual about sex and health that gave women access to frank sexual information and photos that had formerly been obscured by silence and taboo. Routinely updated, the manual has been translated into more than 20 languages and has sold more than 3 million copies.

"We have some cultural icons that have shaped people's ideas of sex, which is really distorted," says Norsigian. "One of these is 'Sex and the City.'"

Delving Into Intimate Affairs

For six seasons, the HBO show delved into the intimate lives of four Manhattan chronic daters. Every week, about 8 million viewers tuned in to watch the foursome bemoan their love affairs and liaisons. Another 4 million people in the United Kingdom watched the show's last episode in 2004.

Norsigian says that "Sex and the City" and other shows "encourage thinking of sex and a relationship as one of performing, rating and scoring." She says the focus has turned to whether a woman is "a good enough object, or something you want to be seen with."

And men are also becoming objects, Norsigian added. "It goes for men looking at women and women at men," she says. "But most of the time, the women have the task to please men and very rarely do men take time out to understand women's pleasure."

Marsha, a 41-year-old attendee at Christiansen's class, indicated both points of view affected her. The New York resident says her mother once told her she might have to perform oral sex to keep her husband yet she also believes the class enhances her personal power.

"You're not doing something to me anymore," Marsha said, referring to men while holding her hands out and standing tall. "I'm giving the pleasure."

Malena Amusa, from St. Louis, Mo., is an editorial intern at Women's eNews.