Today's review is a little different. I'll be reviewing Best Sex Writing 2013, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel as part of a blog tour promoting the book. The book is a collection of, as it says on the label, the best writing on sex this year. It ranges from discussing child prostitution, to religion and virginity, all the way to film bombshells.
It's hard to say something cohesive about so many topics, so I'll just give a bit of my overall views and then share a few thoughts on each article.
BSW13 had my brain working hard. The articles are tough, well written, and educational. I felt like I was getting a crash course in the current issues surrounding sexuality today, and history that paved the way for current liberties. A lot of the issues seemed to involve the normalization of different sexualities, how pioneers tried to lead the way, and the ambiguity that still exists between the unspoken lines of human sexually.
That probably sounds like a lot of fluff, but what I'm trying to say is read it, you'll learn something!
Okay, on to the pieces themselves.
Live Nude Models • Jonathan Lethem
Even as I recorded with my charcoal or crayon the halo of untrimmed pubic bush and the flesh-braid of mystery that it haloed, I attained a total non-purchase on those bodies as objects of desire. The palace of lust was a site under construction—that’s what I was off doing at night or afternoons, fantasizing about girls I knew who’d never even show me their knees.
This is a great and funny way to start off the collection. Lethem explores his childhood sketching nude models and how his understanding of and desire for the female body was influenced by this early introduction.
Can a Better Vibrator Inspire an Age of Great American Sex? • Andy Issacson
Imboden was inspired. “As soon as I saw past the fact that in front of me happened to be two penises fused together at the base, I realized that I was looking at the only category of consumer product that had yet to be touched by design,” Imboden said. “It’s as if the only food that had been available was in the candy aisle, like Dum Dums and Twizzlers, where it’s really just about a marketing concept and a quick rush and very little emphasis on nourishment and real enjoyment. The category had been isolated by the taboo that surrounded it. I figured, I can transcend that.
Thank goodness for JimmyJane! I was lucky enough that my first sex toy was a super fancy, new generation, luxe vibrator, but this piece helped me to see what life was like before well designed toys. Could the normalization of sex toys lead to a sexual Nirvana in America? I'm not sure, but having nicely designed things has taken masturbation out of the shadows.
Also, now would be a good time to mention Dildology, since the article touches on the unregulated and frankly dangerous materials used in most sex toys.
Sex by Numbers • Rachel Swan
In fact, there are two main obstacles facing the polyamory movement. One is that, like it or not, we’re a morality-obsessed culture, and in many ways we’re still a doctrinal culture. A 2009 Gallup poll showed that 92 percent of Americans think that having an extramarital affair is morally wrong. That’s about twice as many as those who condemn gay and lesbian relationships, and three times as many as those who oppose the death penalty. Which is to say that as a culture, we’re intractably wedded to the idea of a solid matrimonial bond. We’re more amenable to the idea of legally killing someone than the idea of wrecking a marriage.
Dan Savage of Savage Love fame has brought polyamory into the limelight recently, and this piece touches on the movement's struggle for acceptance. My one qualm was with the quote above. Even though Swan makes a distinction between polyamory and cheating later, this seems to imply that because Americans hate cheating, they will hate polyamory since they are similar. But I guess the bigger problem is how to make it clear to the general population that polyamory is not the same as cheating, and that it's (optimally) totally consensual.
Very Legal: Sex and Love in Retirement • Alex MorrIs
All of which takes the pressure off; no one here is burdened with finding the loves of their lives. The cafeteria’s complex pecking order may recall high school, but relationships don’t have nearly the same all-consuming nature as when residents were younger. Of those now dating, only Henrietta and Herb have moved in together, despite the economic advantages of double occupancy. For the most part, people don’t feel the need to alter their lives substantially. “I want a little peace in my life for the first time in seventy years,” Roosevelt tells me. “I want my space, and I want freedom. And I finally got it.
This is the cutest thing in the world. I know lots of people want to gag when they think of older people having sex, but Grandma wants to get her sexing on too. It also brought up differences in relationships later in life that I simply hadn't thought about, like people just being tired of drama. I would be too!
Notes from a Unicorn • Seth Fischer
I just couldn’t come. I just couldn’t. He was getting tired and starting to look around but he didn’t stop, thank god, because it would have ruined it, because I was right on the edge. Right there. So I did what no one admits to their lovers they do but that everyone does: I closed my eyes and let my mind wander to other people. I thought about men. I was sitting there forcing myself to think about men, only men, men men men men men men, and then it slipped in there, like when someone says don’t think about rhubarb pie and you think about rhubarb pie. I thought, for a second, about Willow from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” because I’d watched an episode earlier that day. Then I fucking erupted.
I think a lot of bi people (myself included) might recognize a lot of their sexual journeys in this piece. Fischer puts the reluctance of many LGBTQ people to accept that "B" into pretty simple terms that makes the problem easy to understand. It's just not good branding. It's too complicated. But by the end, he revels in that complexity.
Rest Stop Confidential • Conner HabIb
The new ways that men meet—endlessly staring into phones, searching on hookup apps like Grindr or sites like Manhunt—haven’t changed the fact that we’re still having sex at rest areas, because they offer something different. For the man who is unsure of his sexuality, or unsure of how to tell others about it, for the man who has a family but feels new desires (or old, hidden ones) unfolding inside of him, the website and the phone apps are just too certain of themselves. They’re for gay men who want to have gay sex. Sex at the rest area, instead, abolishes identity; there’s a sort of freedom there to not be anything—instead, men just meet other men there; men who want the same sort of freedom.
The elegiac, dreamy, and poetic feeling of this piece by Habib was a definite tone change, but a welcome one. I never knew about these illicit meetings at rest stops, but he makes it sound like an entirely different world.
When on Fire Island... A Polyamorous Disaster • Nicholas Garnett
Chipper was right. Rachael and I returned home, where our sleep-and-food-deprived bodies finally teamed up with our ravaged nervous systems and our bruised egos to let us have it, right in the old cerebellum. The whole damn country seemed to join us in a spectacular crash, as markets collapsed and planes smashed into buildings. Some of our friends ended up sick, others in rehab. It had been one hell of a party, but the party was over.
So yeah, polyamory doesn't always turn out okay. Sometimes it turns out horribly. Like this time.
Cherry Picking • JulIa Serano
My first supposed sexual peak came when I was eighteen. It was my first year of college and I didn’t really have any freshman sexual experiences to speak of. Some years are just like that but don’t feel bad for me, I made up for it by having a second sexual peak as a woman at the age of thirty-five.
What I loved about this piece was that it didn't focus on Julia's physical transformation. That was almost secondary to her journey of begin accepted societally and emotionally as the woman she always felt she was.
Holy Fuck:The Fourth-and-Long Virgin • Jon PressIck
No. He should keep on doing what he’s doing. So much work, so much activism, so many lives have gone into creating sex-positive culture that we cannot undo all of that by being hypocrites. And telling Tim Tebow he shouldn’t be a virgin, he shouldn’t wait until marriage, and he shouldn’t have religious beliefs creates a sex-negative situation for him. Nobody is telling him to fuck because he wants to and it feels nice. No, Tim Tebow is being told to fuck because he’s supposed to want that. In doing so, we’re giving everyone the right to tell other people “You shouldn’t be a slut,” “You shouldn’t have sex before marriage,” “You should wait for the right person.”
I am the first person to admit that I don't know anything about sports, especially American football. I've heard the controversy over Tim Tebow, but never really paid it any attention. But the quote above put the whole thing in a different light: The Tebow story isn't just frivolous news bait, it says something about how far we have actually come in our society to being truly sex-positive a.k.a. accepting all sexualities, including the choice not to have sex.
Baby Talk • Rachel Kramer Bussel
It was fascinating, because it felt entirely different than the usual sensual act. Here was a man over six feet tall who probably weighed close to two hundred pounds, yet he seemed to have shrunk as he curled himself up against me (I’m around five-foot-three and one hundred and fifty pounds). He felt smaller as he “nursed.” He was showing me his vulnerability, transforming into someone else, which made me want to offer up a different side of myself in return. And that was hot.
I didn't "get" age play before this piece. I'm not big into diapers, you know? But Bussel explains the power play, vulnerability, transformation, and nurturing that can be involved, and I have to admit that it does sound kind of hot.
Dear John • LorI Selke
I was booking space for an upcoming party. All I needed to know were the house rules, the rental rates and could we bring some mattresses in to increase the horizontal space? And the owners looked at me kind of funny, and then started talking to me in a way that made me realize that they thought I wasn’t really kinky at all, because who combines sex with spanking and bondage? It must mean I wasn’t serious about what I was doing and needed some remedial lectures in safer sex, hygiene, and kink, all at once. This was not cool. We’d known each other for so long. How could you treat me this condescendingly, just because of my orgasms?
Selke's "Dear John" letter to the leather community is funny, thoughtful, and enlightening. She struggles with the power dynamics that seem to have taken over the culture, perpetuating traditional subservient female gender roles. It was a particularly interesting read for me, since I'm trying to work though these issues in my erotica as well.
Sex by Any Other Name • InsIya AnsarI
At first, my heart wasn’t in the decision, and the fact that I wasn’t holding anything back scared me a bit. This anxiety begat paranoia. How could the man really love me and at the same time pressure me to have sex when I felt so ambivalent about it? Was this my pattern: becoming infatuated with selfish men who would do me wrong? I dizzied myself with these thoughts, and gave of myself tentatively. Moreover, the sex was often disappointing. So it might sound delusional when I say that I considered our intimacy over the next five years to be redemptive. But finally confronting the ambiguity in my sex life allowed me to be more accepting of all my purported contradictions. And when the obsession with my sexual status fell away, my religious identity came into relief. I focused on maintaining the practices that are core to my spirituality and my connection to God.
Yes! I was glad to see a discussion of a person's struggle with virginity in this collection. I only would have been happier if there were also a piece about asexuality in here as well.
Enhancing Masochism: How to Expand Limits and Increase Desire • PatrIck CalIfIa
Euphoria and agony are next-door neighbors—you can’t break that paradoxical connection. And if you are not willing to tolerate contradictions and paradoxes, human behavior will never make much sense to you.
If you are into BDSM in any way, you should read this. It's like a crash course in sadism, masochism, dominance, submission, endorphins, and all manner of stuff. Plus, it's pretty funny.
Submissive:A Personal Manifesto • Madison Young
In a fantasy world, Sir and I would exist 24/7 in an erotically charged nonstop BDSM scene. But this is reality—and thank goodness it is! It would be boring and not nearly as special to me if submission were a constant. It is difficult to fully appreciate the calm without a healthy amount of chaos. Besides, Sir and I lead very hectic lives, and between work and our newborn baby girl, it’s not possible for us to maintain that dynamic of our relationship on a 24/7 basis.
Did I mention that some of these pieces are pretty hot? Young explores how she and her husband live out their dominant and subservient roles in everyday life while balancing work , sexuality, and a baby. It's a nice look into how D/s roles work outside of fantasy sex shows.
Ghosts: All My Men Are Dead • Carol Queen
You should have felt how hot to the touch a naked cock could be when there was no sure way to keep someone alive if they got AIDS from the load that cock shot. What it meant to negotiate to be fluid-bonded when that bond had come to promise more than any ring: naked-cock sex was now coded to mean life or death, like the words the straight people said when they got married, but everyone knows they can get out of that if they want to.
While Habib was elegiac, Queen's piece is actually an elegy to all the men she knew and loved that were killed by HIV and AIDS. It really makes it seem like they came from an amazing and wonderful bygone era that was full of sex and love. One that will never happen again.
Happy Hookers • MelIssa GIra Grant
The anxiety is that sex work may be legitimate after all. In a sense, the prohibitionists are correct: people who might have never gotten into the sex trade before can and are. Fighting what they call “the normalizing of prostitution” is the focus of anti–sex work feminists. In this view, one happy hooker is a threat to all women everywhere.
Grant basically asks and explores the question of how we deal with prostitution when hookers are not just victims.
Christian Conservatives vs. Sex:The Long War Over Reproductive Freedom • Rob Boston
Baird, now eighty years old, still lectures about reproductive justice. He told Church & State that he was at first reluctant to challenge the Massachusetts law. “My initial reaction when I saw the penalty,” he recalls, “was, ‘I have four kids. I can’t afford to be in prison for ten years.’” Baird changed his mind after students pleaded with him to come. “I thought of a young woman I once saw in a hospital who died from an illegal abortion,” Baird said. “I was so absolutely outraged that a fellow human being was dying in front of me because she could not legally have birth control.
Kids today are lucky. I'm lucky! I didn't realize the extent of the fight for birth control until I had this little history lesson. In light of that, the recent controversy of birth control seems even more urgent and a fighting attempt to step in the wrong direction.
Porn Defends the Money Shot • DennIs Romero
Jenna Jameson is perhaps the ultimate porn success, a woman who never did the kind of “gonzo” films that give performers STDs, an entrepreneur who ultimately produced and distributed her own product. Sasha Gray, who quit the industry earlier this year, has crossed over into indie film (The Girlfriend Experience) and cable (Entourage). The new girls want to be Jenna and Sasha.
Condom or not to condom? Is it a privacy issue or a health issue? Good questions that might impact whether you'll be seeing a lot less bukakke sometime soon.
For further reading: Ventura County Condom Mandate For Porn Shoots Passes With Board Of Supervisors Vote
Lost Boys • KrIsten Hinman
“[Initially] there were a lot of people enthusiastic in Washington that we found such a large number,” he recounts. “Then they look more closely at my findings. And they see, well, it wasn’t three hundred kids under the yoke of some pimp; in fact, it was half boys, and only ten percent of all of the kids were being pimped. And [then] it was a very different reception.
Law-enforcement personnel, the kids say, are not always helpful: “One cop said, ‘You’re lucky I’m off duty, but you’re gonna suck my dick or I’ma take you in,’ ” a transgender youth stated. “This has happened to me about eight times.” “Police raped me a couple a times in Queens,” said a female who had worked as a prostitute for four years. “The last time that happened was a coupla months ago. But you don’t tell anybody; you just deal wit’ it.”
This was something for my inner sociology methodology geek, but I won't bore you. The big takeaway was that most child prostitutes are not being controlled by pimps and nearly half are boys,not girls. The sad part is seeing how people's view of children as inherently asexual and incapable of selling sex to make a living prevents them from helping these kids get on their feet.
The Original Blonde • Neal Gabler
Her originality was in her attitude—in the way she flaunted herself as her own aesthetic object. Her characters are not only outré, they cultivate that quality. They luxuriate in it. They are highly conscious of the effect it has, especially on men. In some ways it makes Harlow the first postmodernist sex symbol. One part of her, the mental part, was always measuring the other part of her, the physical part. No sex symbol has ever been as brainily self-aware.
We end on a pretty bubbly and happy note. Gabler gives us a short primer on Jean Harlow and all the platinum locked ladies that come after her.
So, after all of that, should you get BS13? Yes!
It's sexy and educational. What more could you want?