Cornell Alumni Magazine, March/April 2008
Sari Locker Aims to be the Gen-X Dr. Ruth:
Meet Sari the Sexpert
By Brad Herzog (famed author of States of Mind, Small World, and many other books)
Sari Locker ’90 sits in a corner booth at Popover Café on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and smiles when her lunch date apologizes for being a couple of minutes late. No worries, she says. She was just chatting with the waiter, who happened to be revealing some intimate matters of sexual frustration and family dysfunction. “I’m not sure why,” she shrugs. “I don’t even think he knows who I am.”
Apparently, when you’re a nationally recognized sex educator, you’re never quite off duty. Much like the mother of media psychology, Dr. Joyce Brothers ’47, Locker had made herself into a ubiquitous presence. She can be seen discussing intimacy issues with Ann Curry on “The Today Show,” examining the Britney-Paris-Lindsey bad girls phenomenon with Bill O’Reilly and bantering playfully with Conan O’Brien. In the mid-1990s, she even hosted 200 episodes of her own sex talk show, “Late Date with Sari,” which aired on Lifetime Television. Such omnipresence has been Locker’s goal from the beginning.
“In the field of sexology, there are sex educators, sex counselors and sex therapists. And I always felt that, rather than working one-on-one with someone in counseling or therapy, I was best suited to be an educator -- teaching a class or a large group of people,” she says, as she bites into an egg-white omelet. “So I always had this idea that to help the most people I would go to the media to have the biggest audience.”
But Locker’s career is much more than just, well, locker room talk for mass consumption. Yes, she is the monthly sex advice columnist for Maxim magazine, a publication for men who like to view scantily-clad women. And yes, the four books she has written have titillating titles like Mindblowing Sex in the Real World and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Amazing Sex. But with a degree in educational psychology from Cornell, a master’s in human sexuality education from Penn and a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Columbia, Locker comes at her expertise from an academic angle. Only rarely does she resort to sexual slang, for instance. “In general, I tend to use clinical words.”
Her range of forums is remarkably broad. One moment she might be on Vh1 commenting about “Awesomely Bad Dirty Songs," the next she might be lecturing a group at Missouri’s Central Methodist College. Indeed, for two decades now she has traveled the country, speaking on subjects ranging from talking to teens about dating to discussing common myths about sexuality.
Last April, Cornell students packed Statler Auditorium to hear her speak at an event sponsored by the student-run Sexual Health Awareness Group (whose acronym is, in fact, "SHAG"). “She gave a very refreshing talk about sexuality in the context of us as college students in this day and age, how we develop our own sexuality and how it’s influenced by other people and the media,” says SHAG president Liz Franzek ’08. “People were standing in the back, which was very exciting because we didn’t know how it would be received on campus.”
Locker teaches a once-a-week adolescent psychology class to graduate students at Columbia, which harkens back to her moment of career epiphany during her sophomore year on the Hill. She was 17 years old, having skipped a couple of years in school, and she was taking an adolescent psychology class. “I was learning about myself, I guess,” she laughs. “And I loved the class. I wanted to write a final paper on a topic that really mattered to me. So I thought: When it comes to teenagers, what do I really care about? That’s when it dawned on me that I always talked to people about sex. Friends always asked my advice, especially about losing their virginity. I was not sexually active in high school, but I knew a lot about it.”
Her knowledge came from a couple of sources. Raised in Fort Lauderdale and then on Long Island, Locker grew up in a household where her mother, Molly, always talked openly about sex and where her love of animals – puppies, hamsters, turtles – gave her an early understanding of the clinical aspects of breeding them. Always precocious, Locker recalls the first time she heard Dr. Ruth Westheimer on the radio: “I was eleven years old. I would listen to the sex question, turn down the radio, really quickly answer it and then turn the volume back up to see if I had the same answer she did.”
At age eleven?
Locker grins. “She’d always just say, ‘Try lubrication.’”
After writing that fateful paper at Cornell, Locker immersed herself in sexology scientific journals and then began traveling the country as a near-peer educator, teaching high school students about making better sexual choices. She also stood in front of Willard Straight Hall, microphone in hand, lecturing her own peers. “It was remarkable,” recalls her longtime friend, Daniel Kaufman ’89. “Even back then she was fearless and ambitious and totally dedicated to educating people about sexual choices.”
After graduation, Locker began studying TV in earnest, watching the daytime talk shows, tracking when the guest expert would come on and how many sound bites he or she used. She contacted producers, pitched herself as a young expert and, at the age of 22 in 1992, snagged her first television appearance. Geraldo Rivera held up a couple of props and introduced his guest by saying, “When we come back, this woman will put this condom on this banana.”
So began a career and an educational focus that has evolved along with the sexual culture. “My generation was the first to come of age during a time with AIDS in existence, so we had more fear of sex than knowledge of the pleasure of it. Today, twenty-somethings are in a different situation. They’re so bombarded with sexual images from TV and the Internet. The quantity is unbelievable. But my goals are still the same – to help people understand and feel good about their sexuality.”