CEO Lisa Hickey wonders, ‘What happens when stuff that is NSFW is your work?’
A Saturday night, and an email comes through on my iPhone: “Hey Lisa, what do you think of nymphomania?”
There were days when I would have taken that as a flirtatious pick-up line. This was not one of those days. I put on my best professional email demeanor and replied, “Sure, sounds great. Story angle? Title? Men?
Being CEO of Good Men Media, Inc., which runs the Good Men Project, I happen to have to talk about sex a lot, in the most unexpected ways. There was a discussion about whether to run “a vehement disagreement about porn.” Yes. Cunnilingus? Yes, but with a twinge of fear. I almost had to close my eyes when it was posted. “In defense of threesomes?” No. How often had I had conversations like this before the Good Men Project? Uhm … never.
Most of my life, I had received a very clear message: “There is a time and a place to talk about sex.” The problem was, the time never arrived. And I never seemed to be in the right place, that one magic room where I could talk about sex openly. Sure, with a sex partner, sometimes. But, here’s the rub—only after we had sex. Sometimes, I was offered the advice: “Maybe you should talk to a therapist.” Really? The only time I can talk about sex is when I pay someone? Clearly, that was not going to work. Better advice was, “Don’t be afraid to talk about anything. You shouldn’t be afraid of reality.”
I’m in a work conversation with a potential columnist—and we are talking about sex. And I casually mention, “Oh, when I was growing up, I was asked if I wanted to be raped more times than I can remember.” The woman on the other end of the phone was young. She did not have that same sort of experience growing up. When I said those words to her, her gasp was loud and pointed. I got the feeling she wanted to hang up. The wave of all those years of never being able to say the word out loud came flooding back to me. She was a sex columnist. And I still felt guilty for mentioning the word “rape” in a conversation. But that’s exactly why it should be talked about. And I’m proud to say that the difficult stuff to talk about—topics like pornography, race, sexual violence, and plain old sex—talking about those things with depth, intelligence, and grace has become our specialty.
Not too long ago, a Penthouse arrived in my mailbox. It was the end of a very long day (turns out it’s not so easy to launch an interesting, provocative, national discussion about what it means to be a good man 24 hours a day). I picked up the unmarked white envelope, slid out the copy of Penthouse, tore off the handwritten sticky note from publisher Peter Bloch—a cheery “Thanks for all your help!”
The Good Men Project had a partnership with Penthouse that lasted six months. (Ironically, I’ve heard that six months is the average length of time a relationship lasts when it’s only about sex.) Stories from the Good Men Project book were reprinted in Penthouse once a month. My moral issue with this was nil. I certainly believe that guys who read Penthouse have the same complex mix of “good” as all the rest of us. I will, however, defend my right to talk about the fact that as a society, I believe the obsession with women who look like they are from the pages of Penthouse is unhealthy, one that hurts both men and women. But I don’t think the solution is to ban freedom of expression. I also don’t think the solution is to try to shame men into feeling guilty over to wanting to read those publications. What I do think is important is talking about the issues as honestly as possible, listening, as individuals to the people we care about, and allowing space for honest dialogue.
Part of the problem with the Internet is that we judge people by sentences. A single sentence gets held out, scrutinized, and shouted about. “LOOK AT WHAT S/HE SAID.” That becomes part of the fear. “What if … What if I say that one wrong thing?” But here, at least, we appreciate people who are careful with their words. And I, for one, will not be judged by a single sentence.
Talking about what it means to be good, as much as anything, means talking about what is not good, talking about consequences of things you’re not sure of, talking about polarizing topics—not just with people on your side but people on the other pole. Talking about mistakes made and insights gleaned in the process. Doing it with an honesty and rawness and passion—and being willing to screw up that conversation as it unfolds.
I’m happy to report that the female oral sex post was one of our top stories of the day—even with the words “ick factor” in the subhead. My anti-obsession with worrying about whether we all look good enough for Penthouse is being addressed in a section on women and beauty on Sept. 22. And we’re having a section on rape and sexual violence on Sept. 27.
So yes, I’m going to keep talking about sex. And I sincerely hope you’ll join me.
To submit to any of our special sections, or other topics you are passionate about, relating to men, manhood, masculinity, goodness, and, of course, sex, please email me, [email protected]. All are welcome.