For Hopkins student, no subject's too hot to tackle

It's everything you always wanted to know about sex, and Sarah Gibson has the answers

March 23, 2003|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

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."

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