Even sex columnists have to watch their mouths these days, as Josey Vogels discovered when the Daily News of Halifax spiked her long-running column for rubbing readers the wrong way. In a world where there’s more sex on TV and in movies than ever before, it seems the only remaining taboo is to write frankly about teens and sex in a major daily newspaper.
Vogels, an internationally syndicated columnist since 1994, realizes that audiences across the country have varying comfort levels when it comes to sex. “I write the way I speak, but I try to strike a fine balance between using real language and silly innuendo [and I try] not to use language gratuitously, to simply shock,” she says. Her assistant, Karen LaRocca, is in charge of tweaking her columns for their various destinations each week. For the alternative weeklies, it’s just a quick copy edit for length and clarity. But LaRocca made special arrangements for Halifax. “Right from the start, I’d had lengthy conversations with the section editor about what we could get away with in their small, very conservative market,” she says.
Earlier this year, while LaRocca was on vacation, Vogels wrote her columns, fed them into the email list and hit send with no special treatment. That week, in her My Messy Bedroom sex column, Vogels responded to a Globe and Mail “exposé” about teen girls and oral sex. Vogels’s take on teen sex: what’s the big deal? She related some of her own early sexual experiences and chastised the Globe article for being alarmist.
“We’re still not comfortable with girls being the sexual aggressors,” she wrote. “We still rely on girls to be our social sexual barometer. I mean, why aren’t we scolding boys for not refusing oral sex? Were these guys just standing around when girls’ mouths happened to fall on their dicks? Interestingly, not one BJ recipient was interviewed for the article.”
The Daily News received 75 letters in response to that column. “While many readers supported the column, others hated it. They said it was too graphic, the language too frank,” says Marilyn Smulders, editor of the HFX section, where the column appeared. Ultimately, the paper sided with the majority of outraged readers who argued that Vogels’s work was unfit for HFX, which includes entertainment features for kids and is distributed to local schools. It was a hard blow for Vogels, since The Daily News was the first daily to publish My Messy Bedroom and was originally one of the column’s biggest supporters. HFX now runs Dating Girl, Vogels’s tamer relationships column, instead.
Could this dust-up have been avoided if the column had been pre-edited, as was Vogels’s usual habit? She and LaRocca don’t think so. “We were willing to do that little bit of extra work if it meant having a presence in Halifax. All we asked in return is that they consulted us, in advance, if they encountered any problems or required further editing. Clearly, that didn’t happen.”
And although she is disappointed with the decision to pull her column, Vogels isn’t surprised. This isn’t the first time a paper was spooked by the views in My Messy Bedroom. Around 1995, the column was pulled from View magazine in Hamilton, Ontario. The offending column was titled “Cock Tales” and talked about men and their sexual preferences. It sparked outrage not only with readers, but also with advertisers. Since then, View has reinstated the column. “The mainstream media are really uncomfortable with talking about kids having sex,” she says. “It’s automatically assumed that any sexual experience will be traumatic.”
Vogels says she’s prepared to compromise but only to a point. “I’d rather censor myself slightly and still get the message across than have someone shut me up entirely. I don’t want to get too lofty about it, but really, if we shut down every opinion we’re uncomfortable with, we might as well shut down as a free-thinking society.”
For Haligonians and others wishing to peek into Vogels’s Messy Bedroom, her columns appear in all their uncensored glory at www.joseyvogels.com.