Let’s talk about talking about sex

Sunday, December 6, 2020 - 6:07pm

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Illustration by Eileen Kelly

People love listening to other people talk about sex.

The fear is actually talking about it themselves. Aside from the awkward sit-down discussions  some parents force upon their adolescent children and the inadequate sex education classes most students are subjected to, talking about sex is generally considered taboo — most especially for women.

Most men are granted a free pass in this department. As I’m sure you’ve heard as many times as I have, boys will be boys. Our society frames men as more dominant, aggressive, sexual and outright horny in their nature, so who can blame them when they want to talk about how good a partner is in bed, or how badly they’d love to sleep with someone? And when the current United States president has said, on record, to, “grab ‘em (women) by the pussy,” it makes sense that no one bats an eye when the sex talk is male-dominated — no matter the content or harm it implies. 

This isn’t the case for women, or for anyone who isn’t a cisgender, heterosexual male for that matter. The narrative around sex has historically been that it’s a private act people engage in for the purpose of two goals: 1) To reproduce and 2) To please men. And if women are going to talk about it, it better be about at least one of those two things. The distinction here comes from where and when it is discussed: If it’s about having a child, it’s permissible to discuss in public; If it’s about pleasing a man, well … that’s a conversation for behind closed doors. Anything not adhering to these invisible yet unspoken rules is deemed by polite society as dirty and  impure. 

It should be at least somewhat obvious that everything I just mentioned is objectively backward in tradition and oppressive. All people, regardless of their identities, should be able to talk about all of the intricacies of sex. Whether it be shifting the dialogue around pleasure, or making people feel less alone in discussing what often are universal experiences, we must break the barriers around these conversations. But what’s the best way to do so? 

The answer may lie in the media. 

Media inevitably shapes public opinion, as it proves to have a strong influence on who and what is normalized. For years now, different types of media have worked to make discussing  women and sexuality more acceptable. Breakthroughs began with the emergence of sex-positive feminists in the 1960s and ‘70s, with a focus on deconstructing the stigma around sexuality to improve intimate relationships overall.  From then, the media improved with developments like the pioneering career of sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer,  the 1960s shift in Cosmopolitan’s focus to sex initiated by Helen Gurley Brown or the 1998 premiere of “Sex and the City.” With these markers, sex-based conversation among women has made significant strides. These changes have helped women across the country feel a sense of reassurance and empowerment in their sexuality, undoubtedly marking some degree of progress. Though these programs started off as progressive for their time period, modern culture has inevitably changed — and with it comes a change in demand for pushing boundaries. 

Introducing: “Call Her Daddy,” a new and popular female-led, sex-focused podcast, which has turned what’s considered permissible for sex and media right on its head.

The show doesn’t talk about sex in a way that lacks depth; instead, “Call Her Daddy” immediately dives into all of the dirty details of explicit sex techniques and common mishaps. In an attempt to be relatable and authentic, the podcast spits in the face of expected pleasantries: It’s unfiltered, explicit and extremely raunchy. They swear — they refer to sex as fucking; genitalia as dicks, pussies, tits and ass and common sexual acts like oral as blowjobs and eating out. And listeners seemed to like it — in 2018, the show hit two million downloads just two months after its creation.

When I first heard about Call Her Daddy, I was overwhelmed with excitement. As a sex-positive feminist, I’ve recognized the importance of and called for this type of nuanced sex media since I began studying gender and sexuality. A podcast with this much success felt groundbreaking and promising. I was sure that this was a step of progress that society so desperately needed. Yet after actively listening for a handful of months, my honeymoon phase began to deteriorate and a wave of clarity forced me to take a step back.

The closer I paid attention to Call Her Daddy’s content, the more I realized that it was full of issues. The show preached empowerment, agency and autonomy, yet had misogynistic undertones with arguably problematic messages. Not to mention, at the time the show was hosted by two conventionally attractive, heterosexual, young white women — a standard that is by no means the norm and comes with a set of undeniable privileges. With this in mind, I began to question: 

Who does this podcast really serve, and how is it shifting the public discourse around sex?

A Crash Course on Call Her Daddy

In the fall of 2018, roommates Alexandra (Alex) Cooper, 24, and Sofia Franklyn, 26, were living and working in New York City. At the time, both women were unenthusiastic about their day jobs, so when they gained positive attention for “talking candidly about sex” from strangers in an Austin bar, they seized what they saw as an exciting opportunity. They took their casual, off-the-record conversations to the internet, creating the infamous “Call Her Daddy” podcast.

And with this setup, the “Call Her Daddy” brand was born: a name that purposely attempts to take back the power from men by attributing a patriarchal position of power to women. The duo began releasing half-hour episodes with eye-catching titles such as “SEXT ME SO I KNOW IT’S REAL” and  “Fine Dining: An Eating Out Special.” Each episode was structured as a conversation between Alex and Sofia, touching on elements like stories from their pasts, out-of-the-box sexual theories like the concept of “post nut clarity” and advice on how to have better sex. They were young, carefree, funny and unapologetically detailed as they discussed the intricacies of their sex lives. 

Following its release, “Call Her Daddy” gained thousands of listeners and climbed the charts of Apple podcasts. It was evident that their first listeners experienced “Call Her Daddy” as a breath of fresh air, transforming the show into an overnight sensation. For many, the podcast represented a sort of fly-on-the-wall look into how young women really talk about sex with their friends. People started to take notice of this success and after only a month of content, Barstool Sports, a well-known, polarizing digital media company, acquired the rights to the show.

It’s important to note that Barstool Sports, led by University of Michigan alum Dave Portnoy, is an extremely controversial company. What began as a sports newspaper grew into an empire, with content ranging from food to pop culture. Barstool has a target audience of men aged 18 to 34, so much of its material is catered to male college students. This premise is not problematic in its nature but is misogynistic in its execution. They have affiliate accounts like Barstool Smokeshows — an Instagram dedicated to showing off “hot” young women in an extremely objectifying manner. They told a female staffer that she will not “be able to put her face in front of a camera in five years, because people will throw up,” and publicly said ESPN sportscaster Sam Ponder’s main job requirement is “to make men hard,” among other disturbing instances. With this in mind, I found it peculiar that a corporation so evidently tainted by toxic masculinity would be interested in purchasing a podcast that claims to empower women.

Nevertheless, the Barstool acquisition pushed “Call Her Daddy’s ratings over the edge, catalyzing the creation of a loyal fanbase known as the “Daddy Gang.” And even after drama between the two hosts and Barstool itself — Cooper is now the sole host due to a widely publicized dispute with Franklyn — the show still has millions of listeners, its Instagram has 1.8 million followers and the brand has numerous items of merchandise. It’s safe to say that “Call Her Daddy” is no longer just a podcast but also a community. 

Testimonies from the “Daddy Gang”

To further understand the intricacies and implications of the mass consumption of “Call Her Daddy,” I interviewed fans of the show to see why they like it so much. Their answers were wide-ranging and passionate, illustrating a deep care for the subject matter. 

I first spoke to LSA sophomore Jordyn Staff over Zoom, who reflected on her experiences with the podcast. Enthusiastic and well-spoken, she told me that she was introduced to “Call Her Daddy” her freshman year by her male friends and has been hooked ever since. 

“After I started, I began listening almost every day, and I fell in love with it,” Staff said. “I’ve listened to every single episode.” 

What excited her about the podcast, Staff said, was how real and unfettered it was.

“What initially hooked me was the show’s rawness,” Staff said. “You’re listening to the craziest of conversations that sound like the ones you have with your friends, and it’s just validating … All girls have these conversations but nobody ever talks about it because women are not supposed to be sexually out there.”

This sentiment mirrored my frustration with the lack of authentic sex-based discussion among women in the public sphere. 

“There’s a standard that men know what women want more than women know what women want,” Staff said.“‘Call Her Daddy’ is working toward balancing the playing field … It’s a form of empowerment, and it’s a form of education that has been stripped by people trying to censor fluidity and freedom of expression. And they introduced the new medium of empowerment, focused on women pleasing themselves, or doing things for themselves that is so ignored by any other media platform.”

LSA junior Daniel Glickman offered a similar analysis, especially focusing on the podcast’s current-day relevance. 

“For what it is, the podcast gets into a space that not many others do. ‘Call Her Daddy’ illustrates a new age,” he explained. “For example, Samantha from ‘Sex and The City’ is so open about sexuality, but Alex recently graduated from BU and is telling stories from college or reading her Instagram DMs. That sort of thing is just more modern. It’s a new exploration of sex relatable to a younger crowd.”

Glickman is a recent initiate into the Daddy Gang, having started the podcast over the summer. For him, the show’s biggest selling point is its fearlessness in describing sex and sexuality. 

“For me, I’m kind of shy when it comes to talking about that stuff, and it shows that people can be candid and talk about their experiences, so I like that it exists,” Glickman said.

Glickman and I spent a good amount of our interview discussing how the normalization of sex-based conversation can be reassuring for many people. “Call Her Daddy” makes an overt effort to do this while still engaging viewers, accepting questions from their audience in a way that preserves the asker’s anonymity. In doing so, the podcast not only creates but reinforces a sense of community. 

“When they read direct messages from people, it allows audience members to step back and realize ‘OK, that experience was something similar to what I’ve had, but I didn’t acknowledge it, or I didn’t see that there could be a similarity between me and someone else,’” Glickman said.

Progression or Regression?

While many people view the “Call Her Daddy” franchise positively, others are more vocal about its perceived harms. For example, some critics argue that it is important to acknowledge that the podcast was created under the “male gaze” — a core feminist concept coined by film critic Laura Mulvey, in which the audiences of popular media experience depicted subjects through the eyes of a heterosexual man. 

Natalie Siegel is a graduate student studying social work with a focus in sex therapy at the University of Denver. Though this bias is not a surprise after Barstool — a company in which she describes as “male-generated, heterosexual confirming website” — bought “Call Her Daddy,” she said it is imperative that viewers try to recognize the male gaze when listening to the podcast. 

 “(The content) reaffirms information that is specifically catered toward pleasing men, and reaffirms women that they're doing the correct thing for men, which places female sexuality as something that exists specifically for male pleasure,” Siegel said. “It’s a heterosexual, cisgender perspective on sex, entertainment and information.”

The male gaze is present in much of the podcast’s content, manifesting through Cooper and Franklyn’s internalized misogyny. One episode repeatedly came up among the people I interviewed as an example of this: “If you’re a 5 or a 6, Die for that D*ck”. To save you the time, the episode’s TL;DR is that those who fall on the higher side of the scale of physical attractiveness (i.e. 7-10), a.k.a conventionally attractive women, should play hard to get, while those more toward the middle need to “die for dick” — a problematic and immature theory to promote to their young, female audience and perpetuate for their male listeners. 

“It solidifies that women are objects that are allowed to be set on a scale,” Siegel explained. “It reaffirms cultural and societal ideals of what is hot, who can generate this scale, and who is this for.”

Other examples of the sexism in “Call Her Daddy” are not as explicit and instead have to do with the podcast overall. Natalie Ngai, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan studying communication and media with a focus in gender and sexuality, said the podcast has internalized misogyny from even just its name. 

“It’s a concept where women try to imitate their daddies, like, call her daddy,” Ngai said. “They want to overtake that patriarchal figure and in the process of becoming their ‘fathers,’ they become someone who is a misogynist, who is sexist, who downgrades women in some sense ... They are stuck in the patriarchal system, and they are becoming someone they would not like to be.”

This concept is most evident when the hosts encourage their audience to make power grabs in their relationships by mirroring toxic behavior often illustrated by men.“Call Her Daddy”’s internalized misogyny offers a distorted perspective on sexuality and romance, such as by normalizing manipulation within relationships — or what my generation has rebranded as game-playing. In numerous episodes, the hosts encourage arguably more innocent mind games, such as purposely leaving texts on read or a Snapchat on open. But oftentimes, their advice to maintain power and autonomy goes to explicitly cruel lengths, reaching as far as urging viewers to cheat on their partners. 

But regardless of the power promised by these advertised tactics, Siegel said that even these mind games are for the benefit of men, as the motive behind them is to receive a sense of gratification in their response.

“It’s completing a task to please a man,” Siegel said. “I did the same thing in college, where I played these cards, but that's just not how sexuality works — it's not a game. But you have these women confirming this idea and therefore it solidifies it in your brain that it's correct, and it's awful and it takes a lot of reprogramming to change.”

LSA senior Arielle Sturr, a former listener of “Call Her Daddy,” echoed this sentiment. Sturr initially considered herself a fan but altered her perspective after seeing the podcast’s effects on younger women. 

“The moment that really changed my opinion on it was last year when younger girls — freshman and sophomores — were saying to me things like, ‘Oh, I love Call Her Daddy! I’m just a hole. I know that I mean nothing to men except for sex,’” Sturr said.

Sturr elaborated that she fears young women may consume the podcast’s messages unclearly. She said the nonchalant nature of these statements from underclassmen made it clear to her that her younger peers view sex in a very skewed way, failing to identify the problematic nature behind both the podcast and their own perspectives. 

“They (the podcast) were creating a false sense of empowerment around the idea of being lesser, and that’s so bad for someone’s mental health,” Sturr explained. “Acceptance of thinking you are less is not being empowered, and acceptance of mediocrity and not getting what you want in an intimate relationship is really destructive for young women.”

In contrast, Staff’s view on if the podcast is empowering was different and more positive. When it came to the instances of “Call Her Daddy” that some may see as degrading, Staff argued that it all depends on the listener’s interpretation. 

“(These instances) are taking power from words that have assumed negative connotations because they’re a term for males,” Staff said. “I think they’re trying to toy with and reverse the ownership of these words in terms of female sexuality … When they (“Call Her Daddy” hosts) say things like ‘Oh, I’m a whore,’ it’s not only owning it, but it’s making it yours and not letting anyone else define you because of your sexual activity.” 

And while it’s unclear if taking back power from men was the intended effect of the podcast, or if it’s even actually empowering young women instead of hurting them, Staff’s perspective demonstrates that for every person looking at the podcast with criticism, there is another seeing it from the positive perspective. 

Susan Douglas, a feminist columnist for "In These Times" and professor of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan, tends to view the podcast with a critical lens. She expressed her views in a phone call with The Daily.

“It’s not a level playing field — we still live in a patriarchal society where sexual assault and harassment is rampant, primarily by men against women,” Douglas said. “This podcast is really sitting on a fault line, and it's trying to make money off pseudo-feminism.”

Where to go from here 

As someone who started out as a dedicated listener — maybe even a “Daddy Gang” member, if you will — researching and writing this piece was for me a feat defined by ever-evolving opinions. My perspective grew larger and more complex with every interview, and in the end, my conclusion could only be described as the following: As with most things, there are both positive and negative aspects of “Call Her Daddy.” But in my opinion, the negative elements are strong enough to overpower its positives. 

It may seem like a convenient position to both enjoy the positive sides of “Call Her Daddy” while criticizing the more negative aspects, but the only way we will achieve better women-led, sex-positive content in the media is by studying and discussing what worked and what didn't in those prior.

“I don't think it would be correct to say that ‘Call Her Daddy’ hasn’t helped anyone,” Siegel said. “Women hearing other women talk about sex on a platform like this is something that hasn't existed yet for people in our generation, and I applaud them for that. Having said that, I do think that it confirms and solidifies the zeitgeist of who is allowed to speak on the topic of sexuality, who is allowed to be sexual,” that is, solidifying a culture of white feminism and heteronormativity. 

Douglas also pointed out this duality. 

“The show has feminist elements to it, but there are sexually exploitative elements as well,” Douglas said. “It’s this weird concept of contradiction.”

At its core, “Call Her Daddy” serves a need that society is so obviously demanding. One can see that by taking one look at the show’s analytics. And if people are so heavily consuming the podcast’s content, and we consider the right to free speech, then who are we to say it’s the producers’ responsibility to censor its material? Because of the vacuum that exists with the absence of honest conversations about sex, people who are desperate will uncritically consume whatever they can get their hands on; therefore, it makes sense that more harmful content will rise to the top with a lack of competition... And if “Call Her Daddy” is intriguing enough for me to voluntarily write a 3000+ word analysis about it, it’s probably doing something right — to some capacity, at least. 

That said, there is still an element of responsibility when consuming sex-based media. As listeners, we cannot let our brains absorb anything and everything that is placed in front of us. We must instead think critically about what’s being said, how it’s being said and why it’s being said. Is it for profit? For shock value? For laughs? Or for genuine guidance and community? 

But this also begs the question: If we as a collective have such a significant demand for this kind of content, then why isn’t it more widespread? And if better, more inclusive and intersectional content does exist, why aren’t those the podcasts that are more heavily consumed? I don’t know the answer to this question, but if I were asked to speculate, I would say it has to do with who’s holding the power and how we as a society maintain cultural norms (cough, cough, upholding the patriarchy). 

What I do know for sure is that, along with thinking critically about media like “Call Her Daddy,” we need to stop demonizing conversations about sex, and instead start making them regular, acceptable, productive and normalized. 

The unshakable taboo around the topic is antiquated and useless. And it’s irrefutable that people have always had sex, and people will always have sex. So let’s start talking about sex — in a healthy and honest way — as much as we think about having it.