Working as a Sex Journalist Taught Me When to Say No

Writer and broadcaster Alix Fox thought that she had to be down for whatever to be good at her job—until she learned how to make her sexual boundaries clear.
Sirin Kale
as told to Sirin Kale
September 13, 2018, 3:21pm
Illustration by Soofiya Andry

My First Time is a column and podcast series exploring sexuality, gender, and kink with the wide-eyed curiosity of a virgin. We all know your "first time" is about a lot more than just popping your cherry. From experimenting with kink to just trying something new and wild, everyone experiences thousands of first times in the bedroom—that's how sex stays fun, right?

This week, Alix Fox—BBC Radio 1 Unexpected Fluids co-host, Modern Mann sex and relationships advisor, and ambassador for Brook, a charity for young people's sexual wellbeing—shares her experiences in sex journalism. You can catch My First Time on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Acast or wherever you get your podcasts.

I’d always wanted to work in journalism, and after graduating from college I was offered an entry-level job in London. It paid hardly anything and London is an expensive city to live in, so I’d go to the opening of an envelope if there were free canapés.

At one of those events I met a girl who offered me a part-time job promoting a sambuca brand. The brand wanted to affiliate itself with the fetish world, so they’d pay women to give out shots at BDSM events. I got paid a few hundred dollars, given a rubber skirt, and a bottle of sambuca.

I started hanging out on the fetish scene and making friends on that circuit. At one of those parties, a photographer took my picture for a specialist alternative lifestyle publication called Bizarre. After the magazine got in touch to confirm my name for the caption, I started pitching them stories. That photograph changed my life. They commissioned me to write for them, and then kept commissioning me. As a result, I became completely immersed in this world of alternative culture, and would write about anything from someone with a vomit fetish to a woman who made her living by farting on command for paying clients. I would spend time with all these subsets of humanity, and I became fascinated by different people’s sex lives.

The first time I did anything sexual in my work as a journalist was when I went on assignment to a strip club for Bizarre. I’d never actually been to one before—I was quite sexually naive when I started working there—and I tried it out. The dancer oozed sexuality like it was sap, and I was just a bit awkward. There’s a brilliant photograph they took that day where I look like I’m not really sure how to deal with the situation. I called my mom, who is very open-minded, and she said, “As long as you’re OK with this, I’m OK with this.”

During my time at Bizarre, I reported on all kinds of stories. I went to a sex club at 6AM and watched a man bent over a spanking bench have a large garden gnome inserted into his anus. I went to a swingers’ party at a country mansion where there were all these llamas outside, braying in time with the orgasmic moans. I saw someone have a series of silicon beads inserted under the skin of their penis—permanently. Probably the most extreme story I worked on was when a shibari master [an ancient Japanese practice which involves the tying of elaborate and ornate knots] tied me up at the bottom of a swimming pool. But because I’d been working at Bizarre for a long time and knew the team well, I felt safe and comfortable to try things.

When 50 Shades of Grey happened, a lot of the niche stuff I’d been investigating suddenly became mainstream. I went from being a specialist reporter on a very small publication to suddenly being commissioned by major newspapers and TV shows. It was incredibly exciting for me to be contacted by all these new outlets. But as my platform and potential audience grew, I started to feel more pressure to deliver exclusive stories and try increasingly personally challenging things out myself. As I didn’t have a close relationship with the new editors I was working with like I had at Bizarre, they had different expectations of what was safe for me to do, and indeed what it was my job to do. Sometimes editors would say, "We’re so glad to work with you because we know you’ll go further than anyone else.” It was flattering, but also pressured, and sometimes even coercive.

I was sent on one assignment to investigate a practice called orgasmic meditation. Orgasmic meditation basically involves a woman lying on the floor, while someone strokes her clitoris for 15 minutes. The idea is that it focuses on female pleasure: It’s about the journey, without necessarily making climax the destination. I went down to the class, and everyone there already knew each other, or had brought partners to pair up with.

In the morning we had a lecture about the practice, and a demonstration with a man and woman running the course. The woman was gasping and convulsing; she looked like she was having the time of her life. The instructors very heavily implied—although they didn’t say this explicitly—that if we weren’t ready to try orgasmic meditation that afternoon, it was because we weren’t enlightened enough, and we needed to go home and work on our spirituality. I felt a lot of internal angst about the fact that I wouldn’t be pleasing my editor if I didn’t go through with it.

When it came to the part of the day where we would be trying orgasmic meditation, I was paired off with the only guy in the room I’d previously felt uneasy about. I really didn’t want to do the practice with this dude, so I approached one of the organizers and asked if I could do it with an instructor, but they said it was against their policy. Because I felt like it was my duty as a journalist, I decided to go through with it. I was lying there, on the floor, completely exposed, and he coated his finger in lube and started to rub me with his hand in this special position we’d been taught.

Staying overnight in a medical fetish hotel on an assignment. Photo by Matt Writtle.

I tried to stay inside my own head and focus on the bodily sensations, not who was delivering them. It was weird and not sexually pleasurable for me. Afterwards, when I was getting dressed, the mood became a lot darker. The guy said to me, “You don’t know me, I’m just a stranger. I could go on the Internet now and tell everyone what your genitals look like—and you’re a journalist, so it would be really easy to find out who you are.”

I was chilled to the bone, and told him he was being inappropriate and frightening. He said he was joking, but I couldn’t tell if he was trying to intimidate me, or blackmail me. I felt frightened, repulsed, sick, and exploited. My stomach dropped below the floor. I wanted to go home and bury myself. After the class was over, he asked for my number and when I said no, he made veiled threats towards me and implied it was a bad move because we’d done intimate things. I went back to my apartment and cried in the bath. I felt like I’d been really taken advantage of.

The next day, I had to write up the article. I kept getting emails from my editor asking for the copy as the deadline was approaching. I tried to express that it had been a tough piece to write, and that the experience had been triggering and traumatic, and the editor was compassionate, but I also felt their compassion was lessened by their urgency to get the magazine to print. Now as I’m in a more privileged position, I don’t have to accept every job going, and I won’t accept commissions with such a limited time-frame, as sometimes you need to give yourself some breathing room in case something happens on the job. When the piece got published, it got cut down to just 250 words. Having been through all of that, just for a paragraph in a glossy magazine, felt like I’d given a lot of myself for very little.

That piece really was a turning point in how I approach my job, in order to take care of myself. I learned that, even though I’m ambitious, if I don’t look after myself, I’m going to burn out. You can’t do a good job unless you’re in a good state of mind. If I’m going to have any longevity in the media, I need to work out where my boundaries are. Now, when I’m approaching a story, I make it clear to editors that my priority is me, not the story. Before, I’d be too much of a people pleaser and say yes to everything. But saying “no” can help you grow a lot of the time. I’ve found a sweet spot between diva and doormat.