When Kathryn Gibson read her daughter Sarah's inaugural sex column for the Johns Hopkins Newsletter, in which she fondly recalled her discovery of masturbation, the elder Gibson responded by e-mail: "I am the 51-year-old mother of a sex columnist ... I am feeling a mixture of great pride and extreme discomfort."
Gibson signed it: "Needing advice in Pittsburgh."
It's not that her daughter, a National Merit Scholar who graduated fifth in her class from an affluent Pittsburgh public high school, hasn't written about sex before. An undergraduate poetry student in the Writing Seminars, Gibson has crafted deeply erotic works that have appeared in several places, including J, the literary magazine she started at Hopkins.
The latest issue includes Gibson's essay on the physical marvels of Marilyn Monroe. In her conclusion, Gibson writes that Monroe died by her own hand, perhaps because "she had no personal body keeping her on the ground, just a body of inconsequential flesh she might have been happier without."
That essay helps to explain why Gibson, whose weekly The 'G' Spot is one of the most recent in a glut of sex columns to be launched on campuses from Yale to the University of Kansas to Berkeley, feels compelled to write about things that make most people squirm. She wants readers to be grounded in their bodies, to know their capability for pleasure and the pitfalls of not knowing what they are entitled to ask for -- and to refuse.
If you start having sex "before you know who you are, you're going to get into trouble," she says.
Few people really are in touch with their bodies in this prurient, yet prudish society, says Gibson, who is 21. "We really do not pay attention to our bodies at all. We know every curve of Cindy Crawford, but most people can't name the parts of their genitalia."
The need for a sex column occurred to Michael Spector, co-managing editor of the Newsletter, after reading about the Yale Daily News sex columnist in a Playboy article. "This is something we should really do," he thought.
Hopkins, he says, is a "very conservative campus, with lots of introverted students. If there's any campus that needs a sex columnist, it's Johns Hopkins, especially the undergraduate community."
First came the idea, then the ideal columnist: "Sarah popped into my mind as someone who is perfectly open about sexuality. She's not squeamish or uptight."
When he learned of Spector's proposal, the paper's adviser, Bill Smedick, special assistant to the dean of student life, spoke with him and co-editor Jeremiah Crim. "I gave them the talk, to make sure they knew what they were getting into."
Blunt discussion of sex in the column, which debuted last month, would inevitably push buttons, Smedick knew. "Certainly there are going to be people that don't recognize that this is something the university should be supporting necessarily," he says. "From our vantage point, it's a freedom of expression issue and we're supportive of that."
Smedick's main advice to Spector and Crim was to "make sure they temper it with safe practices."
Energy under pressure
On a mild March afternoon, Gibson devours a Caesar salad at Xando cafe in Charles Village. She lives around the corner, off-campus. Gibson wears her strawberry blond hair in a tight ponytail; loose ends clipped with a kitty cat barrette. She's in jeans and a tie-dyed T-shirt, but the avid consumer of cheeseburgers claims she only looks like a hippie. A diamond stud twinkles in her nose and around her neck, Gibson wears a gau -- a Buddhist locket that holds peace prayers.
In a few days, her longtime "sex buddy" Josh will arrive for a visit. "He's absolutely my friend first," she says. Their relationship "taught me how to separate sex from emotion."
Their physical intimacy carried "an explicit lesson," she says: " 'I really care about you. I think you're hot. I don't love you.' "
They've used each other at different points, a practice that Gibson views as a pragmatic approach to all that youthful sexual energy under pressure.
Perhaps that energy is under more pressure than usual, since she was dumped earlier that week by a boyfriend of less than a month. Gibson pronounces it a "new Sarah record: I scared a boy in two weeks."
Still, she laments, "he totally pursued me," and even dug her car out of the snow. But Gibson allows, "I'm a lot of person to take at certain times."
It's doubtful she was rejected because of her outspoken columnist's voice, Gibson says. Her less public voice is not much different, she says. If the column scares a would-be suitor, "I think I'd scare them just as much."
She speaks in fusillades of words. Verbal shorthand, her father calls it. It's hard to keep up. That's why her penmanship is lousy: "My hand can't keep up with my brain."
Gibson, in her first column, reminds readers that she is not a trained therapist, but a Writing Seminars undergrad, "who happens to have a bit of a penchant for erotica, my seven-speed Pulsatron and a good dose of smutty girl talk every so often." Her photo runs with the column, (though not on the Newsletter Web site) so the campus community can pin a face to her saucy talk.
Gibson places the nature of her expertise on a continuum somewhere between inherent wisdom and the fruit of experience. Being in therapy, she's sensitive to the way others often fail to act in their own best interest. So far, none of the seven or eight questions she's received on topics ranging from how to "talk dirty" in bed to whether a relationship can be salvaged, has required research. But Gibson can see a time when she may have to consult the campus health center or an online source for her column, which so far has varied between essay and question-and-answer form.
Self-possession is a Gibson given before plunging into a sexual relationship. "Everybody has to decide for themselves what is right for them," she says. Gibson, for example, determined early on that she wouldn't lose her virginity until she fell in love, the feeling was mutual, and she felt ready. Also, "it had to be a relationship," Gibson says. That moment came around the age of "15 or 16."
In her column, Gibson takes pains to withhold judgment on those with different agendas: "No sexual practice that you or I or anybody else can think up is inherently 'deviant' or 'wrong' so long as both partners are willing and comfortable."
Response to the column has "been overwhelmingly good," Gibson says. She's aware of anonymous rumblings of disapproval, but has received no angry letters or calls so far.
Smedick has heard from students, faculty and staff who "don't particularly like" the column, but, "I haven't had any kind of pressure to influence [the Newsletter editors] to try and stop it."
Gibson's mother, a therapist and psychologist, probably doesn't need the advice she sought in the aforementioned e-mail -- just a little reassurance from her daughter.
She speaks proudly of her. Sarah may come across as brazen, but that, for the most part, is a good thing.
"Her father and I were both children of the '60s. We were hippies. Our goal was to raise open-minded children, and just to have them think about what they do and to express themselves. Sarah has certainly expressed herself." The Gibsons divorced when Sarah was 6, and she remains close to both Kathryn and Roger, an investment adviser and Buddhist.
She was a sexually precocious kid. Her girlfriends first rolled their eyes at her exploits, then came to her for advice.
But she was hardly "easy" in the classical sense. By the time Gibson was in high school, oral sex had become a casual occurrence. "You couldn't escape from oral sex" on high school marching band bus trips, says Gibson, who saw through boys' promises of popularity in exchange for sexual favors.
A fascination with sexuality found its way into her art.
"A lot of my poetry is more concerned with how our bodies function. How we live in our bodies," says Gibson, who admires the work of poets John Berryman, Ntozake Shange, Olga Broumas and e.e. cummings.
"This is really coming from her soul," says Kathryn Gibson, who also has a 19-year-old son named Adam. "This isn't her pretending to be someone. I truly believe we get interested in certain things in life and play out those patterns."
Citing Sarah's Monroe piece, she says, "I believe she can do it and do it in a very healthy way. I don't get concerned that it's perverted or pornographic. It's shockingly open."
'Open,' not 'easy'
And if her daughter's frankness may be tough to take -- even for her liberal parents -- it's better than avoiding the subject entirely. "I grew up in an era when you just didn't talk about sex," her mother says.
"I literally had to go to a dictionary to try and figure out with a friend what menstruation was. That was in the fifth or sixth grade. I just wanted my kids to know [about sex], to feel good about it, and to be responsible about it."
An older person may think that daughter Gibson is fooling herself -- about the ability to have "sex buddies" without getting hurt, that sexual exploration is fine if all participants have their eyes open.
Gibson, herself, is the first to admit that she can be a fool for love. "My rational brain doesn't have much control over my heart."
Her mother believes Sarah has her life under control and isn't setting herself up for grief. "I know Sarah and I know that she would have difficulty really acting as if this were a sport. Her heart's on her sleeve. She loves romance. There's a piece of this also that's partly a posture; that, as a writer, [she thinks] 'This is hot and I can do it.' So I am really OK with this in my heart."
Still, "It's certainly slightly embarrassing. I haven't shown it to her 81-year-old grandmother," Kathryn Gibson says.
What is next for her daughter?
After graduation, Gibson plans to move to New York and become a chef.
For now, she's spending spring break in Baltimore, putting out the next edition of J.
She's also planning the next column, which will likely be a response to the freshman on the soccer team who, having read her column about oral sex, e-mailed her with an obnoxious proposition. Says Gibson: "I'll be pointing out that openness is not sluttiness."
Here is a partial response from Sarah Gibson to a question from someone shy about "talking dirty" during intimate moments:
My guess is that even though you say you're not shy when it comes to having sex, you are a little. Most of us are. What's making you feel shy about talking dirty is that you do feel shy about your body and what it enjoys. If you really know your body and your desires -- and really like and trust this boy -- then you won't have any problem telling him what you want him to do, or what you want to do to him, which is basically all that talking dirty is.