Review of Best Sex Writing 2009 (x-posted on Amazon, Visual Bookshelf, & Goodreads)

Posted on January 5, 2009

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Best Sex Writing 2009 is an anthology of articles about sex; while a few articles refer to sexual encounters they are not erotic. These articles will not physically arouse you but they will engage your intellect and present a panoramic portrait of sex in America in the middle years of the first decade of the 21st century.

Best SexWriting 2009 opens with “One Rape, Please (to Go)” by Tracy Egan. Ms Egan explains that in order for her to reach orgasm her lovers must follow specific instructions or it won’t happen. This puts her in control of her coupling and for that reason her most frequent masturbatory fantasy is being raped. She decides to hire a male prostitute thinking that way she could safely act out this fantasy. She hires a young man for this purpose through an escort service and finds his performance disappointing. My first thought was that she might have had better results by joining a BDSM club and hooking up with a Dom, but then again she only wanted to try this once, and with an employee of an escort service there is some accountability. My next thought was that if she stayed with any one partner long enough to develop a rapport she would not have to repeat her instructions every time.

The next article, “Searching for Normal” asks “Do Dating Websites for People with STIs Liberate or Quarantine?” The answer is that people who have recently been diagnosed with an STI will likely find a community, a sense of belonging and acceptance at such websites, while those who have lived with the diagnosis for a number of years do not consider it their most important attribute and are more likely to frequent dating websites for the general population. “Father Knows Best” describes another subculture, evangelical teenage girls who have sworn chastity oaths and the ceremonies known as Father Daughter Purity Balls (a cross between a prom and a wedding reception) at which their fathers pledge to guard and guide them until they wed at which time paternal authority will be transfered to their husbands. It is a fascinating portrait of a patriarchal, conformist and risk averse lifestyle. There are some young people, however, who do not need purity pledges to remain abstinent. In “Sex Is The Most Stressful Thing in the Universe” Dan Vebber tells the story of his adolescent and young adult years as a low libido male, one of the very few teenage boys who never masturbated and never desired sex with a partner. Maybe that explains the puerile sense of humor that is the keystone of his successful career as a comedy writer. He appears to have been a late bloomer who would eventually experience intercourse before masturbating for the first time at age 24. He is currently a happily married father.

Tracy Clark-Flory’s “In Defense of Casual Sex” is a reply to the culture of abstinence of which Purity Balls are but one manifestation. She points out that young sexually active singles of both genders are vetting one another: “Hopefully, by taking several test-drives before buying we’ll be happier with our final investment.” She learned something from every man she has slept with: what turns her on sexually and “More importantly, by spending time in uncommitted relationships, what I wanted in a committed relationship became clearer–and it wasn’t amorous antagonism but a partnership that didn’t trigger self-protectiveness.” She sees sexually active single women as applying feminist ideals of equality to sex. She points out that “the idea that a woman has to test a man by withholding sex–as many abstinence advocates actually argue–relies on a paradigm of inequality in which women are forced to rely on such power plays. It isn’t that feminism has taught women to have sex like men, as the argument goes, but that withholding sex isn’t women’s sole superpower; coitus isn’t women’s kryptonite.”

Daphne Merkin’s “Penises I Have Known” has the most eloquent prose in the collection. She begins with a survey of fictional penises in French, English, Irish, and American literature and moves on to anecdotal conversations among female acquaintances. She observes that while the male gaze confirms the femininity of the heterosexual woman, female appraisals of male genitalia tend to emasculate the man being sized up. But what lingers longer than any physical measurement are her feelings of attachment to and nostalgia for the penises of her partners which leave her longing for “the feeling of being filled” and “a certain kind of need being met by a a certain kind of virile understanding.” In “Silver-Balling” Stacey D’Erasmo discusses the allure of adolescent slang even when its meaning is obscure.

In “Sex Dolls for the Twenty-First Century” David Levy speculates whether lifelike sex doll rentals will render real live human prostitutes redundant. Susannah Breslin , who explores former New York governor Eliot Spitzer’s assignations with prostitutes in “Dear John,” concludes that risk taking and the danger of getting caught were his turn-ons and his downfall. That is also the motivation of openly gay men who seek sexual encounters in public lavatories, according to James Hannaham in “Why Bathroom Sex is Hot.” On the other hand it is the anonymity and fleeting nature of such encounters that draw closeted men like Senator Larry Craig to seek sex in public bathrooms. Had Governor Spitzer consulted the kind of on-line consumer reports of prostitution described by Keegan Hamilton in “Oldest Profession 2.0: A New Generation of ‘Providers’ and ‘Hobbyists’ Create a Virtual Red-Light District” he might have learned how not to get caught. Such web-sites allow customers to review their experiences with and critique the performance of specific prostitutes, afford prostitutes the opportunity to warn each other about problem johns, and alert both clients and professionals of police activity.

Dagmar Herzog’s “Soulgasm” explores the evangelical sex advice industry. There is some disagreement among evangelical sex experts as to what sex acts are permitted in a Christian marriage, but the consensus seems to be that anything a couple chose to do with each other that does not involve other partners is OK. Evangelical sex experts encourage Christian wives to have sex more often, even when they’re not in the mood, for the sake of their husband’s sexual purity. These experts insist that men must ejaculate at least once every 72 hours, and if a husband doesn’t do so with his wife Satan will lead him to someone else or tempt him to take matters in his own hands and commit adultery in his heart. The more I read about evangelical mores the more I am convinced that the concept of “sexual purity,” like that of racial purity, is evil and pernicious. In “Unleash The Beast” an author who writes under the pseudonym “Josephine Thomas” describes how an extramarital affair was good for her self-esteem and actually improved her and her husband’s marital sex. To the question “Is Cybersex Cheating?” Violet Blue answers that it depends on each couple’s Terms of Service. She suggests that couples cyber together as a team with strangers in distant locations whom they will never meet in real life.

In “An Open Letter to The Bush Administration” professional dominatrix Mistress Morgana Maye complains that the Bush administration’s conduct in Iraq (such as the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib) has given torture and humiliation a bad name which has adversely affected her business. She combines deadpan straight forward prose with an undertone of irony that hits just the right note. In “The Pleasure of Unpleasure” erotic fiction writer Kristina Lloyd explains why she finds pain, submission, and humiliation freeing. In the words of her fictional character Kate, “I’m coming to realize that I want this not because I’m worthless and I must suffer. It’s because I’m human and life’s tough. Letting go is so powerful. Surrender transforms me. I adore oblivion.” Lloyd admits that Kate is “conflicted about her sexuality. I think this is true of a lot of people whose kinks are on the dark side, and I think this is okay…for plenty of people, suffering and degradation is intensely erotic. It’s the pleasure of unpleasure, of being split between yes and no.” Although she intends to accomplish the opposite, Lloyd’s article may confirm the commonly held suspicion that people who are into BDSM are somehow emotionally damaged. Brian Alexander reports on The American Psychiatric Association’s attempts to confirm or refute that suspicion in “What’s Normal Sex?” He reminds us that oral sex and masturbation also were once considered deviant.

In “Sex Offenders!!” Kelly Davis corrects the misconceptions underlying the policy of residential restriction–namely that most sex offenders are actually less likely to reoffend than the general prison population, and that the disorders that lead to sex crimes are in fact treatable. Residential restriction and compulsory wearing of GPS devices are very expensive, don’t work, and divert funding for what does work, Davis asserts, namely educating children to identify, avoid, and report inappropriate adult behavior and providing therapy to offenders.

In Iraq in an attempt not to offend local sensibilities our government has banned the possession of sexually explicit printed materials, DVDs and sex toys by men and women serving in the military and as civilian contractors according to Tom Johansmeyer’s “War Games: No WMDs but Military Police Find ‘Dangerous’ Dildos in Iraq.” It turns out that plain plastic vibrators are acceptable, but dildos that resemble male genitals are not. MPs are supposed to provide several hours advance notice before a raid and each service member or contractor is supposed to witness the search of his or her belongings. A raid that failed to comply with those guidelines turned up pornography in men’s barracks and dildos in women’s barracks. The pornography and adult products industry, which has been very supportive of the troops, is especially upset that Americans serving in dangerous conditions cannot use their products to relieve stress.

Sadly many returning vets will have difficulty resuming normal sex lives. Don Vaughan describes how and why in “Sexual Problems: A Common Side Effect of Combat-Related PTSD.” Other returning vets may have to overcome physical injuries that impair their sexual functioning. In “Immaculate Orgasm: Who Needs Genitals?” Mary Roach reveals that 40-50% of patients with injured spinal cords are able to reach orgasm despite their injuries. The spinal cord controls the voluntary nervous system but not the autonomic nervous system, and it turns out that orgasm is controlled by the latter. Moreover orgasm in unimpaired people results from a two way stream of stimuli: mental stimuli that travel from the brain to the genitals and physical stimuli that move in the opposite direction. People with spinal cord injuries may be able to reach orgasm with one directional stimulation. You don’t have to be a science nerd to enjoy this fascinating article. I’m a humanities nerd, and this article makes me want to read the book from which it is excerpted.

Likewise, you don’t have to be a lawyer to understand and enjoy the Johansmeyer chapter, which reads like a law journal article, and Alan Levy’s “How Swingers Might Save Hollywood From A Federal Pornography Statute,” which was first published in Yale Law Journal. Kudos to this anthology’s editor, Rachel Kramer Bussel, who is an NYU Law School alumna, for including them. The federal statute of the latter article’s title was found unconstitutional when challenged by a swinger’s publication because it abrogated the first amendment right to free speech and the right of the couples depicted in the publication to anonymity. The statute’s defeat will allow Hollywood to continue to make serious films with sexual content and also protects the porn producers of the San Fernando Valley. For an historical perspective on attempts to repress erotic free speech Debbie Nathan chronicles 19th century censor Anthony Comstock’s crusade to prosecute publishers and distributors of erotic material in “Kids and Comstockery, Back (and Forward) in the Day.”

I strongly recommend Best Sex Writing 2009 to intellectually curious readers wishing to explore the landscape of contemporary American sexuality.

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