When was the last time you had really good sex?

What is good sex, and how do you have it? And when you want to define good sex, where do you look?

What is sex advice?

Researching sex tips and advice in Cosmopolitan for my Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) this semester forces me to struggle with these questions regularly. At the beginning of my project, I was confident that “sex advice” would be straightforward and quantifiable—easy to measure and analyze. Cosmopolitan, after all, seems like a perfect site to engage with and study the production and (re)production of sex tips in contemporary media.

For the past couple of weeks, however, I haven’t failed to notice that sex advice doesn’t appear to wait, neatly folded in the glossy pages of a women’s magazine. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized sex advice can be dauntingly broad and encompassing.

Take a recent event on the Grinnell College campus about sex, for example. If I were to quote two pieces on sex: “Sex is always sexiest when both partners desire it,” and “Sex is all about maxing out your pleasure,” how easy would it be to neatly identify which quotation came from Cosmopolitan and which quotation came from a poster advertising the Sexual Consent Forum on campus? If you can’t tell which quotation appeared where, it may not matter whether one is intentionally and explicitly sex advice and the other one isn’t.

Are the messages we receive continuously ever not sex advice? And how do we separate one from the other? When do we decide to be the active recipients of advice on sex, and have we developed enough sexual literacy as a society to recognize sex advice when it presents itself in our daily lives?

What is good sex and sex advice?

When mainstream media sources choose to report on Kristen Stewart cheating on Robert Pattison, we hear how good sex is faithful and committed. And we may or may not consciously flash back to reports on President Bill Clinton’s extra-marital affair and the media craze for the Zippergate story, arguably the first time mainstream news media focused on a sexual scandal in such a widespread way.

This coverage is sex advice.

When E. L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey sells over 65 million copies worldwide, we hear how good sex is kinky but also mainstream, aggressive but safe. What was once labeled “deviant” is now in fashion. It is now fashionable to try new sex positions based on what is currently popular. So we hear: good sex reflects changes in society—if everyone else does it, then it must be good.

This is sex advice.

The Sexual Consent Forum on February 7th advertised itself as a space where the Grinnell community could join a conversation and ask questions. With the purpose of discussing issues relating to sexual consent and sexual assault on campus, participants in the forum were to express opinions on what constitutes good sex. When a poster explains: “Consent is never implied and cannot be assumed, even in the context of a relationship,” we hear: good sex is consensual, but not necessarily committed.

This stance is sex advice, too.

Sex advice is as open to interpretation as the act of sex itself. On a daily basis, we must navigate this continuous stream of varied (and often contradictory) messages. And more often than not, we have yet to develop the media and sexual literacy to do so.

—Nazareth Soberanes ’14