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What Sex Guides Say About Our Changing Ideas on Sex

Feb 13 2017 5:00 PM
What Sex Guides Say About Our Changing Ideas on Sex

Photo by Guille Faingold

Unlike the sexist, paternalistic, and homophobic tips and tricks of the past, a new crop of inclusive advice books aims to show readers that sex is whatever you want it to be.

In honor of Valentine's Day, we're spending the week debunking myths and lies about romance. Read the rest of our "Love is a Hoax" coverage here.

A sex guide is a useful barometer for changing sexual mores. Few people know this more than Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, whose book, The Ethical Slut, will be published in its third edition this September (following previous versions in 1997 and 2009). While revisiting their material over the last 20 years, the authors have witnessed how attitudes towards their chosen topics—"polyamory, open relationships, and other adventures"—have changed. As Hardy told Broadly approvingly:

"My observation of the millennials, and especially the post-millennials, is that, instead of breaking themselves up into little groups the way our generation did (A is a polyamorist, B is a BDSMer, C is genderqueer, D is bisexual, and so on), they have all the world of sex and relationships as a buffet: They can try a little of this dish and a little of that, and if they like it, they take more, and none of that changes their core identity."

Read more: How People with Disabilities Have Sex

Historically, the trajectory of Western sex advice books has gone a little something like this: In the early 20th century, things had a decidedly clinical—or conjugal—flavor. Both 1918's Married Love or Love in Marriage, written by the British contraception pioneer Marie Stopes, and 1926's Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique by Dutch gynecologist Theodoor Hendrik van de Velde clearly focused on married sexual relations as the only legitimate kind. The emphasis on heterosexuality and gender conventionality continued in books like 1969's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) and 1972's The Joy of Sex. Feminist works like Our Bodies, Ourselves, first commercially published in 1973 by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, expanded the conversation to include more diverse perspectives. In the 90s, bestsellers like the Guide to Getting It On! and Hot Sex were infused with their authors' personalities—"we were initially very radical, bad girls for writing this book in conversational English rather than some careful, timid version of medical Latin," Easton told me—but they retained a core interest in techniques.

Since then, sex advice books have gotten more specific, with guides specifically for certain age groups, sexualities, and religions. But a recent crop of authors is creating a new type of sex guide—one that emphasizes a general individuality over specificity, rules, and a sense of what one "should" do in bed.

We were very radical, bad girls for writing this book in conversational English rather than some careful, timid version of medical Latin.

One clue that things have moved on from attempts to be authoritative is in the (slightly unwieldy) title of a forthcoming alternative sex guide: Enjoy Sex (How, When and If You Want To): A Practical and Inclusive Guide. Compared to the sometimes hectoring or paternalistic sex manuals of yore, Enjoy Sex, written by activist–academic Meg-John Barker and sex educator Justin Hancock, takes a kinder, gentler approach to dishing out advice, peppering their suggestions with phrases like "You could try" and "You might find it helpful."

These are authors who wear their credentials lightly, and aren't offering a scientific approach (apart from calling their focus a "biopsychosocial" one); they call themselves "sex advisors" rather than "sex experts." Amy Rose Spiegel, a former Rookie editor and the author of 2016's Action: A Book About Sex, goes further, wearing her lack of authority almost like a badge of honor: "No academic degree—or degree of skankitude—can imbue someone with the grand and lofty ability to know what feels good for them/fuck like a maniac," Spiegel writes.

A key premise of Action, Enjoy Sex, and The Ethical Slut is that it's not helpful to think in terms of sexual problems or normalcy. In Enjoy Sex, even the idea that people should have or want sex is seen as archaic. There are no absolutes in this post-sex-positivity world.

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Well, actually, there's one. All three books aim to bring active, enthusiastic consent front and center—and this foregrounding of consent above all may be the key difference to previous guides. While previous editions of The Ethical Slut discussed consent, the 2017 edition is the first to have a full chapter dedicated to the topic. As the authors of Enjoy Sex write:

We've noticed in mainstream sex advice that consent is hardly ever explicitly mentioned. When we looked through the bestselling sex advice books, the average number of pages devoted to consent was 0.005 per cent! It seems like the authors buy into the wider cultural idea that consent isn't really relevant: as long as nobody is actively expressing distress about sex, then it has been consensual.

One refreshing aspect of Spiegel's contribution to what she calls the "consent-versation" is an understanding that this can be a gray area:

we have to acknowledge the fact that consent, though essential, is fallible. I think the gigantic, looming threat of potentially messing up when it comes to consent, and then being forever after labeled an abuser, assailant, or rapist, is part of why some members of the genuinely non-monstrous majority population are afraid to discuss it—and are, as a result, more likely to mess it up.

The consent-first focus of all three works is a long way from Ideal Marriage's treatment of signs of female distress, which "prove conclusively that the psychic preparation of the bride is incomplete; and that she must be wooed into compliance." Each book presents itself as breaking away from traditional ideas about sex, which are equated with harm. The authors achieve this by expanding notions of what sex is, shutting down socially inculcated shame (particularly for women), acknowledging the high frequency of past sexual trauma (particularly for women and non-binary folks), and helping readers to understand what they want and how to talk about it. These books steer clear of the anatomical diagrams and cheesy stock photos of couples that have been staples of previous sex manuals (though Action does include a proudly nude photo of Spiegel).

The most genuinely alternative of the three is Enjoy Sex, in that it's not even really about sex. Its overarching message about the importance of being kind to yourself might sound like a platitude, but its shrugging attitude toward sex (have it if you want, whatever) marks a change from the implicit assumption, from many other sex advice books, that more (and wilder) sex is better.

Although they profess otherwise, this assumption nevertheless sits below the surface of both The Ethical Slut and Action. Both books draw on the authors' personal experiences of, respectively, "ethical sluthood" and "skank advocacy," which could be taken as suggesting that an abundance of sex means having a richer life. Spiegel comments early on that sex "structures the highs and lows of my life," and there's a sense that she is trying to remake her readers in her own image by suggesting (understandably enough) the things that have worked for her. But not everyone wants to throw sex parties or make their own porn. Spiegel's practical suggestions (how to finger someone, what supplies to have on hand for a booty call) and list of don'ts (most types of internet dating, having sex just to feel good about yourself) would be more welcome if Action were presented as an exuberant memoir rather than as general counsel.

The authors of The Ethical Slut take a nuanced view; it's not that they think everyone should do what they did, but they hope everyone can learn from what they did. "I think most people's sex lives would benefit from many of the skills that are essential to polyamory: discarding cultural assumptions about what relationships 'should' be, and working together on agreements that meet both people's desires and evolve to accommodate normal growth and change," Hardy said.

There are no absolutes in this post-sex-positivity world.

As Easton put it, "there is no gold standard of how your sex life could be." Nevertheless, Easton and Hardy believe in the transformative potential of good sex; the book comments that "sex and intimacy really are physical expressions of a whole lot of stuff that otherwise has no physical existence," and this isn't so far away from Stopes writing about sex as enhancing spiritual union in 1918.

Action and The Ethical Slut could go further in establishing that sex doesn't have to be about personal growth and learning, or about making the world a better place; it doesn't have to mean anything. While it's important that these authors gently encourage readers to learn more about themselves and what they want, adaptability and flexibility are also necessary for a satisfying sex life. The emphasis on unapologetically going after what we want (just as soon as we figure out what the hell it is) reclaims sexual assertiveness for people whose desires have traditionally been pushed down or treated as shameful. But there must be a middle ground between the "Here's how to rock his world" and "Here's how to organize a BDSM orgy" schools of sex advice. This middle ground might be inhabited by people of color or those with disabilities, who are very familiar with the way sexual power relations interact with other kinds and who might reflect critically on the way this affects their sexual negotiations and desires.

This middle ground might also recognize that plenty of people operate within sexual constraints—not of the whips-and-chains variety, but social, physical, and interpersonal kinds. One person could have a challenging physical condition, another a partner with different preferences and expectations, and yet another stresses about other parts of their lives that affect sex. Considerations like these would move away from an assumption that most people have access to as much (or as little) sex as they want, and that enlightened sex is mainly just about negotiating boundaries around this sex.

Ultimately, though, it's hard to fault the generous spirit of these three books. One positive feature of this new wave of sex advice books is their recognition that they're not—and can't be—definitive. Culture changes too quickly, and people are too diverse, to return to the days of the lab coat–wearing, column-penning author who aims to speak for all.

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Keeping that in mind, it's interesting to speculate about the ways that these works, which seem ultra-modern now, might appear hopelessly dated in 20 years. For the next generation of sex advice writers, will "relationship anarchist" be a standard relationship category on Facebook? Will two-person relationships go the way of the passenger pigeon?

For now, there's plenty of scope for choice. If the authors of Enjoy Sex are like soft-spoken camp counselors, the authors of The Ethical Slut are akin to favorite aunts, the ones who tell great stories about free love at Woodstock. Meanwhile, Spiegel is a chatty friend you meet at happy hour (and a millennial diner at the kind of sexual buffet Hardy imagined).

One of these might be for you, or none. You might find thinking and reading about sex to be hugely erotic, or about as sexy as cardboard. Whatever your proclivities, in the spirit of Enjoy Sex: keep the pressure off yourself. I would add: Don't trust any one person (or one book) too much.

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