Martha Kempner on Sexuality in the U.S.: ‘This Is a Really Scary Moment for Sexuality and Sexual Agency’

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“I hate the lack of critical thinking that’s out there,” said Kempner. “I’m also sensitive to the hypocrisy of politicians and always try to draw attention to their heinous behavior.” (Courtesy)

Myth-busting is writer Martha Kempner’s stock-in-trade, and since sex, sexuality and sexual health are her subjects, she has no shortage of material to draw from. Her nearly two-year-old newsletter, Sex on Wednesday, tackles diverse topics—from masturbation to conservative attacks on school-based sex education, to the Supreme Court’s most recent anti-abortion ruling—in a straightforward, no-holds-barred manner. But what really sets Sex on Wednesday apart is humor. In fact, readers say that it is not uncommon to laugh out loud at Kempner’s snarky take on social issues and right-wing efforts to control the who-what-when-and-where of our sexual behavior.

That said, Kempner’s mission is extremely serious and in addition to Sex on Wednesday, she is a sought-after public speaker and has written for publications and websites including Rewire.Newsbedsider.orgthebody.com and whattoexpect.com. She also co-authored, with Pepper Schwartz, 50 Great Myths of Human Sexuality to challenge long-held tropes and myths—like that everyone is born either male or female; married sex is boring and boring sex is bad; women want to be dominated in bed; abortion causes breast cancer; and sex ed makes kids sexually active, among them.

Kempner spoke to Ms. about Sex on Wednesday and the current political climate in the U.S.


Eleanor J. Bader: Let’s start with the name of the newsletter. Why Sex on Wednesday?

Martha Kempner: Because Wednesday is funnier than Thursday! I used to write a column for RHRealityCheck, which is now called Rewire, called This Week in Sex. It was a riff on The Daily Show’s This Week in God: Fatwas and Sacraments.

When I decided to start Sex on Wednesday, I was trolling for a name, knew that it would come out once a week, and thought, ‘Why not assume that some days of the week are funnier than others.’

Bader: How do you come up with content for the newsletter?

Kempner: I knew that I would never have trouble coming up with material. Sexuality is always in the news, whether it’s a story about someone masturbating in front of a window or an upcoming election that is making trans athletics or bathroom use, sex ed, or access to abortion or birth control the subject of debate. State and federal laws are also always changing and new research is always being released. At the same time, people do not always make connections between what is going on in the world and their own sex lives. I wanted to call this out, to call attention to these issues and intersections.

Many women of my generation wait to be given a platform. But I see younger people—I have two daughters who are 11 and 17—make their own platforms. It occurred to me that I could do this too. I could create a way for my voice to be heard. And wow, there is great freedom in doing my own thing.

Bader: How do you keep up with what’s happening in all 50 states?

Kempner: I use a clipping service. Then, when it’s time to put the newsletter together each week, I look for a mix of informative material and silliness. The news of the week, of course, determines what will be included, but celebrities are always fodder for snark. There was Tucker Carlson’s suggestion that men should tan their testicles for “testosterone-fueled dominance,” and rapper Nicki Minaj’s tweet about her cousin’s friend in Trinidad who claimed that his testicles swelled after the COVID-19 vaccination.

I hate the lack of critical thinking that’s out there. I see misinformation or BS, and my snark meter goes off. I’m also sensitive to the hypocrisy of politicians and always try to draw attention to their heinous behavior. 

Many women of my generation wait to be given a platform. But I see younger people make their own platforms. It occurred to me that I could do this too.

Bader: How do you promote Sex on Wednesday?

Kempner: When I first started it in October 2020, I reached out to a pretty lengthy list of personal contacts, organizations working to promote sexual health, and the people doing sex education on the ground. These individuals and organizations continue to repost the newsletter and tell their friends and colleagues to read it and subscribe. I also use social media but have not yet developed a real marketing plan. It’s on my to-do list!

Bader: What articles have been the most popular?

Kempner: Anything that reports from the intersection of popular culture and sexuality. Tucker Carlson tanning his testicles got a lot of play because it’s absurd. And when singer-rapper Drake put hot sauce in his condom to make sure a sexual partner did not impregnate herself with his sperm, the article got a lot of hits.

Bader: How about the “That’s Not How It F**king Works” section of the newsletter?

Kempner: After Missouri Republican Congressman Todd Akin (1947–2021) said that “legitimate rape rarely leads to pregnancy in 2012, my husband had a T-shirt made for me with the words “that’s not how it f**king works” because I said it so often. I’ve since made more shirts with this phrase, and printed stickers, and use them to promote Sex on Wednesday. Sadly, a decade later many politicians still don’t know how the body works, so it’s still something that needs to be repeated over and over.

Bader: How about your other work to promote sex ed and healthy sexual expression?

Kempner: I spoke at Harvard’s Sex Week this fall and called my presentation, “That’s Not How It F**king Works.” It was great fun. I also do some consulting and other writing for nonprofits such as Advocates for Youth, the American Sexual Health Association, and SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change. And I write content for brands like Trojan and First Response, pharmaceutical companies and telehealth sites. A recent article, “Top Tips for Sex in the Shower,” reminded readers that tiles can be slippery!

I love being able to break subjects down and explain complicated ideas in clear, direct language. I also love doing research and confirm everything I write using original research or Centers for Disease Control materials. Ideas and best practices are constantly changing and I always make sure I’m using up-to-date findings. For example, many sex educators have outdated ideas about condoms. They tend to stress the negatives rather than presenting condoms as sexy and important. I took this on in an article I cowrote for the American Journal of Sex Education.

People do not always make connections between what is going on in the world and their own sex lives.

Bader: How did you get into this work? 

Kempner: I was a peer sex educator in college. I went to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and did workshops for other students on alcohol and sex and on contraceptive options. At that point, it never occurred to me that I could be paid to do this as a career, so after college I went to law school. I dropped out after three months. I then started working for nonprofit organizations and pretty quickly saw a path for myself working to promote sexual health. I eventually went to New York University and got a master’s degree in human sexuality; from 1998 until 2009 I worked for SIECUS as the vice president for information and communications. Since then, I’ve been out on my own as a consultant and writer.

But my involvement and interest in these topics actually began before college. I grew up in a really open household and my parents answered every question about sex that my sister and I threw at them. As we got older, we were allowed to have sleepovers with our boyfriends. Not surprisingly, early on I became the kid other kids came to for information, so it was absolutely natural for me to become a peer counselor in college.

I’ve tried to replicate my upbringing with my daughters and always give them accurate information. 

In truth, it is harder for me to talk about things like science or religion than it is to talk about sex or sexuality. I understand sex and sexuality!

Bader: Have you gotten much pushback?

Kempner: Not really. A student wrote a letter to the Harvard Crimson newspaper following my Sex Week talk and accused me of distorting Todd Akin’s ‘legitimate rape’ comment. And I had my first troll comment on the newsletter just last week. 

For the most part, the anti-abortion, anti-sex ed, and anti-contraceptive groups have not yet caught on to Sex on Wednesday. My strategy, if they do begin harassing me, is to refute what can be refuted and ignore the rest. 

Bader: Do you have a strategy for refuting the well-organized push to end LGBTQIA+ acceptance, school-based sex education, and further limit reproductive justice?

Kempner: We are in a really critical period right now. This is a really scary moment for sexuality and sexual agency. 

No matter what, we can’t let the right wing speak for everyone or control the narrative. Opinion poll after opinion poll show that parents want sex education to be taught in school and a majority of the population supports legal abortion and the availability of birth control.   

Justice Thomas’ suggestion that marriage equality and access to contraception might be reconsidered is chilling. The Republicans want us to return to a time when homosexuality was considered deviant. They want to move us backward on race and gender. We have to pay close attention to their agenda and actions. 

The right is obviously scared of losing power, but thankfully, networks are in place to promote reproductive justice, connect the dots between issues and organize a sustained fightback. We as progressives need to work with them and support them in any way we can. We have to pay attention to what’s going on in our communities and beyond. 

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

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About

Eleanor J. Bader is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who writes for Truthout, Lilith Magazine and Blog, the LA Review of Books, Fiction Writers Review, The Indypendent, and The Progressive. She tweets at @eleanorjbader1 .