Amy Baldwin is a straight-up sex expert. While the splashiest entry on her resume might be the fact that she co-owns Pure Pleasure Shop — a sex boutique — with her mom, she’s also a certified sex educator and a trained sex and relationship coach. As one half of the duo behind the popular podcast Shameless Sex, Baldwin and co-host April Lambert speak to sex researchers, thought leaders, and a wide range of people who feel deeply invested in the various permutations of human connection on a weekly (sometimes bi-weekly) basis. The show is fiercely non-judgemental, deeply inquisitive, and reveals the co-hosts’ shared passion for both their audience and their subject matter.
When COVID-19 hit the United States and the whole “horny in quarantine” conversation took hold across social media, Baldwin and Lampert chose to take an interesting tack with Shameless Sex. Rather than focusing only on the more sensory aspects of the whole sexual experience, they reached out to listeners for a check-in. The duo read emails for hours at a time and wrote back with messages of emotional support. The entire exercise proved to be a reminder of how online communities can become powerful gathering spaces during this era of isolation and how sex is so often about more than just the physical act.
With quarantine dragging on (and getting stricter in some states), we hopped on the phone with Baldwin to speak about how Shameless Sex has approached the COVID era, her favorite episodes of the show, the lengths that she and Lampert go to take accountability for their mistakes and blind spots, and how she hopes to see conversations around sex continually evolve in the year to come.
You’re taking a kind of interesting approach to the shutdown. It’s a lot more human-driven and not quite so overtly sexualized as people might expect. Do you want to explain what you and April have been doing?
Yeah, totally. With our podcast, first of all, I mean, we take sex questions and things and we get testimonials and fan emails and PR stuff. Our email box is crazy. We do not have the opportunity to respond to everyone who sends requests in and all that stuff, so we have to pick and choose. But we’re seeing that during this time people are just so hungry for connection and feeling just how extreme the isolation is — regardless of if they’re married with three children or if they’re single and alone. A lot of people are feeling kind of a similar thing: this challenge of aloneness.
So what we started to do was send out, to our newsletter list, a newsletter that’s literally asking them, “How are you?” When you walk down the street and a friend sees you and they go, “How are you? That’s great. It’s cool. I’m hanging in there.” But we really are like, “How are you really? What’s really going on? And we invite you to respond to us and we will read all those and we will respond to every single one of you who email us in response to this.” And then in it, we share how we are. We’re not just like, “Oh yeah, my dog’s cute, and life is great.” We’re like, “this is fucking hard.” And sometimes I have these really great days where I’m super optimistic and I’m seeing the silver lining and the beauty. Other days, all of a sudden for absolutely no reason, I’m just in this low funk.
So people have been responding to that. And they’re sending us things like, “I’m a single mother with three kids.” And sometimes they contemplate like, “how long can I do this for?” They’re not talking about suicide, but they’re like, “how much capacity do I have?” And other folks are just sharing how grateful they are and they’re sharing their stories and also the beauty of it, like, “Oh, I’m having more connected sex with my partner.” And someone else was like, “I want to kill my partner.”
You’re getting the full spectrum of quarantine experiences.
Yeah. Then we respond to them and if they keep responding to us, we just keep this dialogue going with strangers. And in it, I feel connected to these people I’ve never met. They’re feeling this connection to us. Obviously, they hear our voices, but here’s the silver lining — something that we’re just missing in society in general — usually we can only open up to people we really know, really well and we don’t check in on the folks that we rarely see. We’re not really checking in with them and giving them space to really share who they are and for us to do the same.
So this idea is just helping us be part of a really powerful opportunity that’s happening right now — to embrace checking in and maybe actually shift the way we connect.
Have people been surprised about the fact that your focus has been more “tell us how you’re connecting and how you’re holding up” than some of the more hedonistic “how to have a COVID sex party on Zoom” stuff?
We received so much gratitude. Folks were just like, “Oh my god, wow, you’re actually taking the time to talk to us?” They know that we have 50 or 60,000 people that listen per week, but that we’re actually taking the time to really check in on them. So it was more just this gratitude. And then when we respond to them too, they respond, we respond back, they were more like, “ah!” This felt really, really good for them. So yeah, just more this gratefulness, this gratitude that was coming through.
Yes, our podcast is about sex. Right now, people, I think, need to hear things that are just spicy and juicy and aren’t just talking about isolation and the coronavirus, right? They need those outlets because COVID is everywhere. But also, there’s this other part. Like you’re saying, “yeah, there’s sex and there’s the fun stuff!” but there’s also the other deeply emotional pieces involved in what we do. I think it’s important for us as the educators that we are to open up the doors for those conversations too, because they’re so connected, right? You’re feeling complete anxiety and aloneness and in the world and in your isolation. That’s going to somehow translate into sex. Maybe it makes you desire more sex, maybe less sex. Maybe it makes you desire a new type of sex. I don’t even know, but it’s all interconnected. And I just think that it is just a really important time to create space to embrace all of it, as opposed to just staying in the shiny stuff.
That’s really well put. I spoke with Dan Savage once and one of the things that he captured really well, and I think your show captures well, is there is inherent messiness to sex just as there’s inherent messiness to being human. Is that a thing that you and April are constantly wrestling with? Asking “How do we tease out the nuance of this issue or what this means?” or that sort of thing?
Yeah. Honestly, I feel with a lot of what we do is just going with the flow of what the current times or energy is based on our listeners and what’s happening there. And it’s a tricky thing. Here’s one other thing I’ll say that’s happening right now. This is a little off-topic, but somewhat related — our listeners are 20 times more sensitive than they’ve ever been right now. Some of the things that we say now, that if we were to say this two months ago, totally fine. Now, we say certain things that might be somewhat political, our beliefs, things like that, and people are just on edge. So we’ll get eight emails in a day that are like, “Hey, this really offended me.”
We’ve committed to — we’re not going to walk on eggshells and change who we are — but we still need to pay attention to everything because they’re a part of us, our listeners, they are Shameless Sex. We wouldn’t be anything without them. We know that we’re not our own thing. And so we take that into consideration. And sometimes it is rather messy. Sometimes we hear some of those harder, more critical critiques of us. It’s hard to take in, but it just shows what people are going through right now. I can see it, I can hear it. And I can know. “You’re having a really hard time right now,” I can see that. Or “This touched a really personal place or was something that you’ve experienced.” And then we just work with that.
Adjust to the audience, respond to things that bothered people —
One thing that we do in our podcast is we own it. When people call us out, we actually… First of all, if they call us over something that we’re like, “I don’t know about that one” — we’ve been called man-haters before and all of these things; I’m not going to buy into that one because we love us some men — but if people are suggesting ways that we could do better, we talk about that in the podcast. And we own it and we’ll apologize. And we say, “all right, we’re learning and this is how we’re going to work with that.” And it’s just happening at a stronger, faster rate right now, but it’s making us better, ultimately, more connected to our listeners and to our community.
I think of My Favorite Murder also in this same vein of reacting and responding and owning up where it needs to be done. “We’ll get better on this issue. Whereas over here, we kind of disagree with you on this issue.” It’s a more circular content model — where the audience is involved in the next stage of creation. Is that something you’re constantly conscious of? And how do you feel that benefits the audience?
I don’t believe I saw a model for doing things this way and was like, “we’re going to do that.” But I was consciously like, “we’re going to take everything into account that the audience says.” And make it, like you said, that circular model.
I think that it just kind of coincides with who we are and what our platform is and our message. Because Shameless Sex is about inspiring people to make their own rules for who they are as sexual beings while abiding by rules of consent. I think it just kind of goes hand in hand with the model for what we do and for what we offer, that we need to hear the audience’s voices and their stories. If we were a platform where we were like, “oh no, we have all the answers and this is how you should do life,” then we probably wouldn’t care about what they were saying and take that into account, but it’s not why we created the podcast or what we do. So I can’t say, I mean, I think I know of some other podcasters that are doing the same thing. And for me, when I hear that, when I hear people that can give other people voices and then own their shortcomings, I value them 20 times more. I think they’re more credible, more trustworthy. I’m more interested in what they have to say and teach.
I think people just probably value that they feel seen and heard. And we’ve of course had some people send us emails that, “I don’t feel seen and heard by something that you said,” and I’ve had people say, “I’m not going to listen to you anymore,” and I’ll respond to them and let them know, “I actually really appreciate you sharing that with me, because while I’m not going to necessarily have the ability to change everything, you’re making me a better person by just giving me feedback. And also that’s really fucking vulnerable for you to share that.” That in itself is a powerful exchange for me and for that person, for them to even open that up.
Whether they choose to listen to us or not, something powerful happened there.
To what degree do you think the world in 2020 — and obviously, I would imagine that you guys have a pretty socially liberal-leaning audience — but to what degree does the world in 2020 have progressive viewpoints about sex? Where do you feel the mainstream population is lacking? Where do you feel you wish you could push people and what do you wish for them and their sex lives?
So most days, I’m like, “Oh my god, it’s getting better. Everyone’s getting more open and progressive and there’s more room for women’s sexual reproductive rights,” and all these different things. Then all of a sudden, that changes again two days later. And so I think in some ways, it is growing and expanding. In mainstream media, we’re seeing more examples of polyamorous relationships and queer relationships and trans folks. Even if you look at the representation of queer and trans folks on TV 20 years ago, it’s entirely different than what it is now. Now it’s almost something that is standard to see, as it should be, because this is a huge part of our population that should also be represented.
What I would love to see are more examples of mainstream folks, whether it’s in a TV show or something, where they’re like, “Here’s my really set belief system of how things are — how sex is as a man and a woman, they do it like this and dah, dah, dah.” And more examples of them having some holy shit or a-ha moment where they hit rock bottom or something and it inspires them to question everything they believed. And then they totally recreated their whole idea of sex and relationships. They reframed their whole idea of what sex and relationships needed to look like and lived the most ultimate juicy, beautiful aliveness that they possibly could, which is totally happening. That is out there.
When you get out of your own way and you start to get really curious about what’s true for you — and know that that’s going to be different for everyone and you need to create that acceptance for everyone — that’s where the magic comes in. Those are the people who are like, “life is fucking incredible. Oh my god. I have all these moments where I’m so grateful. I’m so alive. I went to a sex party yesterday, or my partner and I had this deep, vulnerable conversation.” Instead of being stuck in the “this is how you do it.” And I can’t tell you how many people I know who did the “this is what you’re supposed to do” dream and are so confused as to why they’re not happy, whether it’s sex, relationships, or just an overall sense of purpose.
So just more examples of that — mainstream folks getting out of their own way, and then discovering that this is the key to ultimate happiness, potentially.
I’ve wondered if there will be a return to hedonism coming out of the quarantine as people say to themselves, “This is my life. It’s clearly fragile. It’s time to live.” Do you see a new Summer of Love coming?
I’m so curious about what will happen because on one side, we are entering this stage of people having so much less closeness and contact with people. Physically, at least. In the sexuality realm and in the relationship realm, people who were already maybe curious about doing things that were a little bit outside of the box are like, “Oh god, I missed the window. Now I have to wait to do that again!” Stuff like going to sex parties or even just people wanting to go up to that person in the bar and not doing it because of fear.
And then quarantine happened. And now you’re like, “Fuck, I can’t do that for two years, maybe.” So there’s a silver lining there of making us think, “You know what? Now that I know that anything can change at any moment, I think I’ll flirt with that person the second I get a chance. No putting it off until tomorrow.”
We have a really wonderful opportunity to get more clear about what we’re missing and what we wish we had done. And when it comes to relationships and sexuality, those are going to be huge, huge parts of it. I think it’s going to be a little weird when people come out, where they’re like, “Wait, I can touch you? I can kiss you?” Because it’s kind of like STI and STDs, right? It’s like sexually transmitted diseases. But yeah, that’s the way I describe it. And being in isolation, we have our isolation pods. I see my partner and my two housemates and that’s it. But my partner sees his kids and my two housemates see their partners. And so we’re all kind of just having sex with each other, right? We’re all taking risks on getting this virus with everyone we see and everyone that they see.
Yeah, you’ll have your quarantine cluster, right?
Yeah. It’ll open up more and more and more, and it’ll be wonky as we open and get used to this thing. And I think my advice is for folks also to really not get set on things being what they once were. I’ll say this with sex and relationships too. Actually, it should always be that way. It’s not helpful for us to ever be set on sex in relationships a believe that just because things happen one way today that they should be the same tomorrow. What we’re going through right now is an even greater example of that. We’re living it right now. And maybe people can really take advantage of that and adopt that into their belief systems.
Right! And that doesn’t mean that the previous time was wasted. It doesn’t mean that what I had five months ago, my sexual philosophy, was wasted. It means that it’s continuing to evolve. What do you say to people who are just beginning that journey? When you get someone who comes into your orbit, but is really skewing on the straight and narrow end of the scale and the spectrum? What’s “progressive sex 101” for them?
A lot of how I would start with people is asking them, “What is sex to you?” Because the definition of sex for everyone is different for everyone. Some people like penetration, some will throw everything in there — making out is sex. I like to get curious people and ask them questions. What is sex to you? Where did you learn that? Did you believe that three years ago? How has that shifted? Do you think that that can change? And how do you think your life might be different if you shift that? What would that look like? And are you aware that your definition of what that looks like is different than mine and every other human being on the planet?
Of course, there’s might be a mainstream idea of what that is. I feel like some of the ways, the times I’m working with people, I’m almost trying to teach them meditation. Teaching them how to have that internal observer, that instead of just becoming their feelings and beliefs, they actually are looking at it as an observer and asking themselves questions along the way, which I think is so important for sex. Because again, we’re constantly being affected by all these different messages that are shaping who we are. And so many people, they just believe it. They just believe it. They can live their whole lives just believing instead of actually going in with a deeper inquiry. So I think wokeness about sexuality means there’s a greater perspective of understanding what’s happening.
And then also wokeness on sexuality, by the way, isn’t just understanding what’s happening here in California or here in the United States. What is sexuality in, I don’t know… Uganda or in Zimbabwe, and in different communities or cultures? You have to educate yourself about the diversity of sexuality. Also, how was it 100 years ago? There are two parts. It’s the internal piece of your own work, asking yourself the questions, but also the external piece of getting curious about how sexuality is everywhere and how it’s constantly evolving and changing minute for a minute, I think is the ultimate woke place that you could be in.
Yeah. So it’s the flexibility that is the answer in many ways, right? The being willing to reevaluate your definitions and your thought processes around sex.
Totally. And being willing to change. Being willing to prove yourself wrong. Being willing for your whole identity to shift, or maybe not the entire one, but so much of what we were attached to, to thinking who we are. I’m Amy and I’m a straight woman who wants to get married and have babies some days, to all of a sudden being Amy who’s now heteroflexible and actually doesn’t believe in marriage and wants to go have an orgy with her neighbors. And maybe that’s not for you, I’m not saying that everyone needs to go and have wild sex and do all those things, but to be open to everything, just being fluid as is everything in the world. I feel only, there’s only… I have a stainless steel sex toy. This thing is kind of the only thing that will be constant for a long time. This thing’s not changing, it’s indestructible. Most other things that I see and look at, they’re changing all the time.
I love that. And what episode should someone start with the pod?
Yeah. Well, it depends on and what people want to listen to, what’s going to excite them the most. We were doing one episode a week and now we’re doing, during this whole thing, we’re doing two episodes a week. I don’t know if we could keep doing that. I think it might just be a temporary thing. We’ll see how it feels. We need to also talk to our listeners and see what they’re thinking.
Okay, so one that I love that is super entertaining and wild and it’s with another podcaster, it’s number 149. And it is about group sex, sex parties, and gang bangs. I just think it’s fun and playful. And it’s also, they’re very much about consent and things. And I think I’ve talked about group sex a lot in here. I actually only do a little bit of that. I’m not a huge advocate that, just so you know, but —
That’s one of the episodes I’ve listened to. It’s really fascinating.
Isn’t it, though? It’s so good because he also talks about… So when people think of it, it’s just swingers and, “oh, they just go and do this thing!” And there’s so much thought to it. So yeah, I would say — there’s one. If people want to listen to something that is maybe a little more… Well, that’s still educational, but I love, so we’re doing monthly episodes with Dr. Nan Wise. She’s a neuroscientist and she’s now coming on to answer sex questions, but she does have an episode on why good sex matters. That’s episode one 46. And I love that one as well. She’s absolutely wonderful and brilliant and inspiring. So yeah, I think that’s a really good one.
I think that’s —
One more episode though.
Number 126 — “Erotic Blueprints with Jaya.” That one is badass because it gives people this very simplified blueprint thing to figure out who they are, how do they get aroused, and what is their sexual communication? So it’s kind of like love languages, but more like sex languages. And it’s really inspiring to people. She’s such a great speaker too. And there’s a quiz in there that people can take that’s free. And I got so much out of it. It’s really well done.