Talking Sex, Frankly, With Martha Kempner

Long-time sexual health advocate Martha Kempner believes that humor can be a powerful educational tool. This is why her weekly blog, Sex on Wednesday, pours a generous helping of snark on coverage of topics like the prevalence of masturbation while working at home or the shifting political terrain that made Congressional candidate Mike Itkis’ hand-crafted sex tape the centerpiece of his mid-term run for office.

But the two-year-old blog can also be serious–very serious–as it spotlights rightwing efforts to curtail sex education in public schools, restrict access to contraception, limit abortion in prochoice states, and oppose anything-and-everything that affirms LGBTQIA+ identity.

Kempner spoke to Lilith’s Eleanor J. Bader in late October.

Eleanor J. Bader: You grew up in a liberal Jewish family where dinner conversation sometimes revolved around sex and sexuality. Why do you think your household was so open?

Martha Kempner: A while back someone did research on families that routinely spoke about sex. She found that, for the most part, American families were different from their European counterparts and had fewer conversations about these topics than people in Europe. The one exception was US academics who were much less reserved than the rest of the population. My dad was a philosophy professor, so maybe that’s it.

EJB: You took what you learned at home and became a peer sex educator at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. How have these conversations changed since you were in college?

MK: I was at UMass from 1990 to 1994 and at that time, safer sex messaging was a lot bigger than it is now. At that time, HIV was really scary. Since then, science has turned the virus into something preventable and manageable so we now talk a lot less about using condoms to prevent the spread of Sexually Transmitted Diseases. This is likely why STDs have spiked.

Another difference is the way we talk about consent. When I was in college, the phrase ‘No Mean No’ was popular, but we seemed to get stuck there. It took until the #MeToo movement several decades later to move us into a more substantive discussion of what consent actually means. This is a good thing, although obviously, we have a long way to go.

EJB: Gender identity is now a common topic and the right is continually working to pass laws restricting access to healthcare and restricting sports participation for trans youth. Is this another shift, or was this talked about when you were in college?

MK: We didn’t talk about gender in the 90s; we talked about sexual orientation and the need for acceptance of lesbians and gay men. The move to include gender identity is more recent and I see it as wholly positive. It’s great that high school and college students are talking about what it means to be nonbinary, trans, male, female, or other.

EJB: Why do you think the right is so obsessed with gender identity and is working so hard to squelch trans inclusivity?

MK: The right has always been afraid of sex and the fact that so many people are transitioning or calling themselves nonbinary is freaking them out. They persist in believing that there are only two genders, male and female.

EJB: Sex on Wednesday recently reported that several colleges and universities–including Oberlin–are outsourcing their health services and are choosing providers that will not offer contraception, emergency contraception (EC), or abortion referrals. This is a huge step backwards.

MK: Absolutely. Many college health centers provide birth control, abortion referrals, and emergency contraception to students on campus, but thanks to abortion restrictions and the financial situations of many schools, they are looking to outside agencies to offer these services.

In a lot of areas, the available partners are Catholic agencies. In addition, new laws restricting abortion have made even non-religious providers leery of offering reproductive healthcare to students. This has become something that everyone planning to go to college has to consider.

EJB: I thorough enjoy reading Sex on Wednesday but I wish the messaging could get out to anti-abortion/anti-contraception/anti-LGBTQIA folks who may never see such materials. Does the blog seem like ‘preaching to the choir’ to you?

MK: Yes and no. I always want to read the right’s stuff and I want them to read our materials. Of course, I hope that this will lead them to a change of heart and I hold out hope that they will read Sex on Wednesday and learn something.

At the same time, progressive people don’t always know the inner workings, the details, of the constant attacks on reproductive health so the facts I provide are important. My goal is for readers to take the information into their lives and use it to influence others. I see Sex on Wednesday as giving readers a way to understand the day-to-day impact of new or pending legislation, developments in contraception and sexuality research, and other information they won’t find elsewhere… and I hope to give them a laugh along the way.

EJB: The right relies on FOX, Breitbart, and other conservative sources for information and ignores scientific research. This seems so intractable.

MK: There is a lot of confirmation bias. People want to read and hear affirmations of what they already believe and it can take a long time to bust through this. Transitioning from one belief system to another is hard for people on all sides. Hopefully, if we face issues with empathy and an open mind, we can absorb new information, new insights, new experiences, despite it rocking our ideas and assumptions.

EJB: Sex education in public school classrooms has led to the recent formation of rightwing groups like Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education. Why do they see sex ed as so threatening?

MK: For the past 70 years, people who’ve supported comprehensive sex education have been attacked. In the 1950s they were called communists. In the 1970s they were called dirty hippies. Now they’re called groomers. It’s as if the right is looking through a fun-house mirror. The real issue, again, is why they’re so afraid of sex.

We live in a sex-saturated society and the message seems to be that you can do a lot of sexual stuff as long as it makes you feel bad or guilty later. I don’t get it.

EJB: What role can the progressive Jewish community play in advancing a more sex-positive society?

MK: My understanding of Judaism is that we value sex. We value personal autonomy. We value the idea that if an abortion is needed to save a pregnant person’s life, it’s a good thing. These are important values. Christian conservatives and evangelicals don’t own morality and religion. I want us, as Jews, to say NO to them, to argue that religious freedom should mean just that: My right to practice my religion. Period. No one else has the right to dictate how I do this. I know that there is a pending lawsuit to challenge the Dobbs decision on the grounds that it tramples religious freedom and goes against Jewish law. I hope it succeeds.