More than 20 years of Sex on Tuesday

coloredited_kellybaird_sexontuesday
Kelly Baird/Staff

Laura Lambert, in her own words, has held a variety of sexual positions. About 20 years ago, she was the facilitator of what is now called the FemSex DeCal (created in 1993), and she served as a peer sexual health educator at the Tang Center. But the most notorious was her stint as The Daily Californian’s first Sex on Tuesday columnist.

It all started for Lambert, when then-editor in chief Mike Coleman approached her at a party with the idea. It was the late ‘90s, there was a sex-positive movement, and sex columns were all the rage in alt-weekly newspapers. It’s when Dan Savage, a nationally syndicated sex columnist, first rose to prominence.

“It wasn’t like I’d been plotting for years to start a sex column,” Lambert said, though all of her experience slanted toward sexual health and education. “Like most things, I think it was just sort of the right time, the right place and the right people at a party.”

But sex columns were new territory for a college newspaper. The Daily Californian had just come off a period of financial instability and was trying to reassert itself as a serious newspaper and the city of Berkeley’s paper of record, said Erin Allday, the managing editor at the time Sex on Tuesday was conceived.

Beyond its financial woes, the Daily Cal had undergone severe backlash for a contentious editorial it published in support of Proposition 209, a state ballot measure that sought to ban affirmative action. The day the endorsement published, protesters with the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary stole thousands of copies of the paper, ripped them to shreds and deposited them over the balcony of the Daily Cal office, which was then on the sixth floor of Eshleman Hall.

Under the cloud of this controversy, then-features editor Matthew Belloni and then-opinion editor David Katz pitched a student version of “Ask Isadora,” a sex column that had run in the San Francisco Bay Guardian for nearly two decades.

Daniel Reimold, who details the Daily Cal’s conception and creation of its sex column in a chapter of his book “Sex and the University,” dubs Sex on Tuesday “the longest-running and most prominent student sex column appearing in a U.S. campus newspaper.”

Question and answer

When Lambert started, technology was “super old-school”: It was a time of IRC chatrooms, when “everything was black screen with green font and you were halfway coding things,” Lambert said. “Did we have an email in 1997? I can’t remember.”

Twenty years can erase some of the details. The Daily Cal did have email, and actually, readers emailed a couple of questions to [email protected]. The majority of questions Lambert answered in the column, though, were carefully crafted by Lambert and editors, according to Reimold’s book.

My partner always insists on a helping of raw oyster shooters when we go out for sushi. He’s convinced that sea creatures are the be-all and end-all of aphrodisiacs. I find it terribly funny, but I’ll admit he’s good to go by the time we get home. Is my lover just a seafood junkie, or do aphrodisiacs really work?

Unlike the current form of the column, the original Sex on Tuesday had a simple, conservative question-and-answer format. With the subject of the content, there was no easing in, and Lambert did not hold back, Allday said. Lambert ranged from absurd relationship tensions to practical application, covering everything from aphrodisiacs to the painstaking process of selecting a vibrator.

Some vibrators sound something like a lawnmower, which, depending on the hours you plan to be masturbating, might not go over so well with your neighbors (especially if there’s no lawn in sight). Coil operated vibrators (the ones that resemble electric hand-mixers) are often the quietest. Do not hesitate when shopping to turn on display vibrators for a sound check. If noise is a concern, you may want to keep looking if you can still hear the vibrator buzzing when you’re 15 feet away.

Perhaps one of the more important aspects of every vibrator is the intensity of the vibration. You don’t want to waste money on something that hardly purrs, and you don’t want a vibrator that will leave you numb for days. To strike a happy medium, don’t be afraid to test out display vibrators on your hands or arms. If you’re in a shop where displays aren’t available, try and find a vibrator with adjustable speeds or at least high and low. That way, you have a bit of choice and flexibility.

Lambert’s writing was rooted in health education, and that expertise lent her the credibility to talk about a subject that many perceived as too edgy for public discussion.

Criticism came in the form of outraged letters and emails or occasional angry calls from Berkeley residents. In the earlier years, the writing was more clinical and informed, Allday said, because the column had to justify its existence to readers.

Sex on Tuesday writers portrayed themselves as sex experts, but this wasn’t always the case.  One columnist in the early 2000s wrote that people should brush their teeth after giving blowjobs, which is misleading advice — several health websites caution against brushing right before or right after performing oral sex. He was let go after that.

Nowadays, the column has grown out of its early clinical voice. Columns are more informal and conversational, Allday points out.

Local infamy

Over the years, as news media has shifted to digital, the experience of Sex on Tuesday columnists and interaction with readers has morphed as well. When Jia Jung wrote the column in 2004, she didn’t even consider the thought that writing about sex could follow her on the internet. 2004 was still before the mainstreaming of Facebook — people were on Friendster. Advanced people were on Myspace.

Jung remembers someone wrote a testimonial on her Friendster along the lines of “Jia walked by and my friend was like, ‘You know her?’ ”

Jung is just one example of the way Sex on Tuesday writers often enjoy local infamy.

One reader got hold of Francisco Ramirez’s landline back when he was writing the column in 1998 and would call usually when Ramirez was watching “Beverly Hills, 90210.” The man would start by asking shy “plain Jane” questions like “How do you think people can enjoy themselves better?” But the questions would progress to “What do you think about prostate massages?” and “Would you give me one?”

“I was like, ‘Bro, are you masturbating right now?’ ” To this day, Ramirez doles out sex advice for free — he sets up shop wherever in New York and dishes it out to whoever asks.

But this experience of fame for many sex writers was often interchangeable with notoriety: Brett Tanonaka in 2014 earned the ire of a group of student leaders and community members, who detailed reasons they believed the column had been harmful that semester in a letter to the editor.

Jung herself braved some community criticism, specifically from a Southeast Asian student group when she used “Cambodian child whores” in her description of the way men often fetishize Asian women.

Years later, Jung requested that her column be taken down, worried that having written sexually explicit content would ruin her job prospects. It’s impossible to write about sex and not run into detractors, and the airing of one’s private parts on the World Wide Web has sometimes served to dissuade people from taking on the role.

Jung and earlier columnists may have experienced most interaction with their readers on campus, but the truth is that Sex on Tuesday’s following has long been larger than just the Berkeley area, and that geographic reach has only increased with time.

Ramirez said that at least five years after he graduated, a woman approached him in Central Park in New York and gushed about how his column on rimming changed her relationship with her fiance.

“Nobody walks around on the East Coast under a shady tree in Central Park being like ‘Did you go to Cal?’ and talks about oral anal sex,” Ramirez said.

Boni Mata went somewhat viral in 2014 for her column detailing a sexual relationship with a professor.  Numerous blogs and conservative media outlets such as Campus Reform reported on her column. Another piece she wrote on the importance of penis size was cited in the Huffington Post, and another on being a “sugar baby” was in Salon.

Mata exemplifies the more personal tone contemporary columnists take. Recent columnists have used the space and their own identities to shed light on the various experiences of marginalized communities. For example, Jennifer Wong wrote about her fear of not being queer enough and Trixie Mehraban explained her experience being exoticized by white sexual partners.

But regardless of what the specific Sex on Tuesday column says, they all serve a similar role.

“It’s not often that we give ourselves permission to think only about our own sexuality, free from our relation to any other person,” Lambert wrote in one of her columns. Sex on Tuesday does just that, and in doing so, it serves to open up discussion.

“That was the revolutionary piece of it,” Ramirez said. “When someone has a question about sex, to not shy away, but to tackle it head-on.”

Contact Suhauna Hussain at [email protected].