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We recently had a chance to talk with Glamour contributor and MSNBC's Sexploration columnist Brian Alexander about his new book America Unzipped, which chronicles his cross-country travels measuring the tension between the sexual extremes of experimentation and repression. We also talked about his too-tight PVC pants. 

Em & Lo: In your travels across the country, what was...the most shocking thing you witnessed?

Brian Alexander: If shocking means "surprising," it was the love, sex and marriage seminar given by Joe Beam, former Church of Christ preacher and frequent radio guest of fundamentalist firebrand James Dobson.

Those of us who are not evangelicals have a stereotyped view of the beliefs about sex that exist among many Christian believers. I wasn't expecting a vivid lesson on 69, but I got it.

Now, not every fundamentalist thinks the way Joe Beam does; some think he is a heretic. But there is a much more liberal view of married heterosexual sex within evangelical Christianity than the rest of us generally think.

...the most hilarious moment?

Boy, that's a tough one. Trying to interview a furry in a six-foot-tall rabbit outfit? A guy so mummified in duct tape that he can't talk? Selling sex toys to housewives in Missouri?

I guess, for me, it was shopping for my own fetish fashion under the mentorship of Allena, a woman who knows her fetishes and who insisted I buy a pair of PVC pants so tight that my voice is still a little higher than it once was.

...the thing that made you most depressed about sex?

What I see as a lack of romance connected with sex. I mean that old-fashioned uncertainty about what may or may not happen and how it will happen and with whom and when. This can be an intangible thing and some people who have read the book think my attitude is somehow anti-sex. It is most definitely not. I did meet people who have found happiness through sexual exploration. But there is something antiseptic, it seems to me, about so much of our sexual expression now. Sex has become a commodity and, sadly, at least in my view, some sex is less interesting.

How much of a guinea pig did you make yourself for research purposes?

You mean did I have sex with anybody? Nope. I did try to place myself "in situ" so to speak. I worked at an adult superstore, I sold sex toys at house parties, I went to events at a sex club and dressed the part. But even if I weren't married and in a non-swinging relationship, I wouldn't have done it any differently. I didn't think readers wanted to read about my own cocksmanship, I think they want their curiosity satisfied about what's going on out there and whether or not we are the sexually repressed and puritanical country we imagine ourselves to be. The book is also about the culture we live in and me running around having lots of sex would detract from that exploration.

And was there anything you were uncomfortable trying or wouldn't try yourself?

I was very uncomfortable my first day or so working in the adult store. This is partly because I am lame at retail sales, but also because, really, I have never had to explain the comparative advantages of Chasey Laine's molded genitals as opposed to Tera Patrick's. I'm sure they're both just fine. But when a guy stands there holding both boxes there's a certain amount of pressure to perform.

I'd try anything once. There wasn't anything I saw that made me say "Nope. Never." There were plenty of things I reckoned I would never really be enthusiastic about. A lot of BDSM, for example, takes a lot of work and, besides, I once received a "D" in junior high because I was totally unable to memorize the bowline knot.

What's the best thing about the current state of sex in America?

How wide open it is. The increased discussion.

What's the worst?

How wide open it is. The increased discussion.

I mean that we are discussing more than ever but too often the discussion is not very enlightening. Way too much about Paris Hilton having it or not, or  whether we should all shave our pubic hair, and not nearly enough about what we are hoping to get from sex, how rich sex can be, what our responsibilities are, how our culture is driving sexuality. (Unlike many people, I think the culture is driving sex, not that sex is driving the culture.)

And my objection to how wide open it is has nothing to do with wanting to restrict sex. Hardly. Rather it has become so wide open that many people are now made to feel inadequate--hopelessly square--if they don't own a quiver of sex toys and don't hang from the ceiling.

And in this current state, is America transcending gender roles or are they being re-affirmed, just in more graphic ways (i.e sex sells, but the image of sex in that case is usually a passive naked woman)?

Transcending gender roles? Hmm...that's a very big sociological question. I'm not a sociologist.

I will say I think gender is far more flexible than it has ever been.

On the other hand, we will never transcend gender roles because we are products of our evolution and evolution creates gender for a purpose. We have seen the growth of riot grrrrl porn and alt porn of all sorts in which women are "in charge." Do they have staying power? I don't know. There are still going to be many men who like passive naked women and women who like hunky guys in tool belts just as they have for thousands of years.

I think issues like this are for individuals to decide for themselves. I loathe sexual politics. I am utterly bored by it. I find it hilarious how much condemnation and judgment you can find coming from both poles of the sex wars.

On that same note, if most sex takes two to tango, why the jacket image choice of the lone woman's cleavage? Why not, say, a man's pants unzipping?

Yeah, why not? And if we had a man's pants unzipping then why not a woman's cleavage? A cover is a small space. All those zippers can get crowded.

If sex is bourgeois, do you think sex is on its way to becoming completely boring? After all, aren't taboos, and sneaking around, and doing things behind closed doors what adds to sex's excitement? And if everything is "permitted" in our consumerist culture, doesn't that kind of ruin it?

And there you have one of the central ideas of the book--that tension you ask about.

Thank you.

For many people sex is already boring, hence all the mainstreaming of experimentation. But it's not just the sex. It is out entire culture that is driving us to boredom, to seek some sort of more intense connection.

One of the smartest people to comment on the book, one who really got it, has been Candida Royalle. We spoke after she was kind enough to say something nice about it, and she said "It's not really about sex, is it?"

Are we inevitably headed for another Puritan Reformation, once we all get disillusioned with sex?

Nope. I think what we have seen with the rise of the political religious right is the dying gasp of backlash that started 40 years ago with the political, sexual, and cultural upheavals of the 1960s. We are just beginning to come out of that. The proof of it is the rise of John McCain amid the whining of the religious wing of his party. Mainline Republicans (I think, or maybe just hope) want to throw off the inordinate influence of religion in their party. James Dobson has become virtually irrelevant.

America has these paroxysms of hyper religiosity, and maybe we will again someday, but I think we are going to come to some sort of accommodation with sexuality that is basically live and let live. That is really the attitude I found throughout the country. People do not generally care how their adult, consenting neighbors are having sex, they just don't want them doing it on their front lawn.

People don't want to feel pressured to do anything they are not comfortable doing. They do not want to be called "vanilla" if they like making love to their husbands or wives using the missionary position. But they want the freedom to learn bondage or buy sex toys or try a threesome. And they want information on how to do it. Then they want to decide for themselves.

We are struggling in a disjointed, atomized, consumer, global culture to establish real human connections, to find a sense of community amid corporations, and some meaning in our lives. Sexuality, being primal, is one way many people are going about it.

Why should people buy your book?

Because I've got a mortgage to pay?

Because I think they will find it a fun ride. The books editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune was generous enough to say that it was "a swift, smooth, contemplative and frequently hilarious travelogue through America's surprisingly mainstream nether regions."

More than that, though, I also think readers will find themselves asking questions about their own sexuality that are very like some of the questions you have asked me. What would they do? What would they not do? What would freak them out? I think they will identify with many of the people in the book and be surprised at how like them those characters can be. That's a challenging thought. It sure challenged me, to see somebody a lot like me chained to a post and getting flogged and loving it.

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After a break-up, do everything you can to avoid rose-colored hindsight. This may include playing that montage of fond memories over and over in the theater of your mind with the Dolby surround-sound system playing Muse or Maroon 5 on repeat. No good can come of this; you'll simply end up feeling more inadequate, lonely, and depressed. Instead, focus on your ex's faults. There must be at least one (besides their ability to live without you), even if it's just a malformed pinkie toe or a tendency to douse every meal in ketchup.
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