Nick Karras' father died recently. His passing makes Karras even more open and proud of what he's dedicated his post-retirement life to—sex.
"That's a picture of my mom and dad there," Karras says, motioning toward an old photo of a happy young couple kissing on a blanket in the grass. "They were very passionate people. They made love every day, so I grew up in a house where we knew sex was happening. So, I have a good connotation of it; it's a way to heal."
Karras will be 63 soon. He spent what he calls his "previous life" as a commercial photographer in San Diego for 37 years making good money shooting for the building industry and the convention scene. What his clients and cohorts in photography didn't know was that his true passion was for erotic photography. For decades, he took out ads in underground newspapers around town, asking couples if they wouldn't mind an experienced photographer shooting their private lovemaking, and he got a surprisingly good response.
"I had to do it secretly for years on the side," says Karras, sitting in his comfortable living room next to shelves filled with books like Oral Sex She'll Never Forget and Love Scents and surrounded by the erotic art of Olivia De Berardinis. "But no one ever knew all those years."
As soon as Karras handed the business over to his son, though, it was game-on. He emerged from the shadows of shame in a big, bold way.
In 2005, CityBeat covered Karras' controversial project, Petals, an artistic photography book featuring up-close, sepia-toned photos of women's vulvas. The images were so risqué that Karras was forced to exhibit the photos in his own home; he couldn't find a San Diego gallery willing to display them.
Since then, Karras' life has become almost completely centered on sex—mainly, helping others talk about it and enjoy it. He's photographed about 250 more women's vaginas and published a full-color version of Petals, which includes poems and essays and is geared toward helping women understand, accept and celebrate the diversity and beauty of their genitals. The color book is partly a response to the increasing popularity of labiaplasty—plastic surgery on the inner and outer lips of the vagina—a procedure Karras sees as disturbing, unnecessary and potentially dangerous.
"It's become the sixth most common plastic surgery in the U.S.," he says. "I've photographed botched cases. I could show you a picture that would almost make you want to throw up."
There's also a documentary film, Petals: The Journey of Self Discovery, which shows the process of making, publishing and touring with the book and photos. In the film, you see Karras struggling at times to defend his work.
"It's hard for an older man to do that and not have the 'creep factor' be an issue," he says. "I try to explain that it was done out of empowerment and love, but I usually get attacked for being a pig and objectifying women."
Other women have reacted to Petals differently, approaching Karras after one of his talks or film screenings and unloading their insecurities and issues related to their sexuality. Karras found himself unable to respond well to either reaction, and that motivated him to further his education in human sexuality. He eventually decided to get his doctorate degree in sexology from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, an unaccredited for-profit school in San Francisco. His degree has allowed him to dig deeper into his passion for sex while also providing him a tool to mask his own sexuality by activating his more academic side when required.
"I started pulling away and had to shut my sexuality off, because, otherwise, I couldn't do presentations," he explains. "If anybody sensed for a minute that I did Petals because I really do love pussy, people would go, 'Eew, a woman should have done this book. You're creeping me out.'"
His degree has also allowed him to become a sex coach who works mostly with couples to improve their intimacy issues. In March, as a marketing tool for his sex-coaching services, he'll restart a series of conversation salons called "Sex Talk with Dr. Nick," in which he invites the public to join him for free, casual talks about anything sex-related.
Karras also spends a good chunk of his time studying and researching sex. Currently, he's working on a research paper about the use of marijuana as an aphrodisiac (he's asking people to fill out his online survey). So far, he says, his research has led him to believe that certain strains of marijuana are better than others at helping people loosen up and better connect with their partners. Men have a pill they can take, he explains, which simply increases blood flow and helps them achieve erections, but solving women's sexual issues is much more complicated.
"I really do think pot could be the Viagra for women," he says.
Last year, Karras traveled to China with fellow sexologists from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality and presented Petals to Chinese women, many of whom Karras says were shocked but ultimately appreciative of the project. After his trip to China, he took a six-month position as the director at the Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas, the world's largest sex museum. He also struggled with complications from an enlarged prostate and, ironically, spent most of 2013 sex-free. He says the experience made him even more compassionate toward those with sex issues.
This year, as he finishes his marijuana research and focuses on his sex coaching, Karras' goal is to improve his personal life. He doesn't want to merely preach the importance of good sex; he wants to practice it.
"To me, making love and being with my partner, that is my purpose on this Earth; everything else is just details," he says. "I think love, in the end, is the only reason we're all here."