Monday, March 5, 2012

Best Sex Writing 2012: The State of Today's Sexual Culture edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel

Best Sex Writing 2012: The State of Today's Sexual Culture
edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel

"This is not a one-handed read," Rachel Kramer Bussel writes in Best Sex Writing 2012's introduction, "but it is a book that will stimulate your largest sex organ: your brain." Knowledge is a wonderful aphrodisiac, after all, and I'm absolutely game for smarty-pants frisky business. Given the current atrocious battles some groups are waging against any sort of sexual and gender-related education, the book comes at a great time. Filled with intimate moments, political movements, and personal revelations, it is a fantastic collection — one I flew through in just one day.

Originally, my interest in the book came from already being a familiar with several of the included authors, such Tracy Clark-Flory, Roxane Gay, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Kevin Sampsell. Roxane Gay's "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence," I'd already read when it originally ran on The Rumpus, and I suggest you read it now as well. Same goes for Kevin Sampsell's "Pottymouth," a reflection on dirty talk with girlfriends, which originally ran on Fanzine.

Much of the book appeared online first, but as I'm one who is perpetually behind with my Google Reader items, I hadn't already seen the majority of the contributions. (Plus, despite appearances, I'm also not one of those people who needs to have read everything, ever, the moment it comes out.)

Right away, I found Marty Klein's "Criminalizing Circumcision: Self-Hatred as Public Policy" quite interesting. Klein is a sex therapist in the Bay Area, and as such, has a more well-rounded perspective on the lives of men and their undercarriage. Considering the 2011 San Francisco ballot initiative that wanted to outlaw the circumcision of infants, he found the whole thing horribly misguided and overly theatrical. He says, "In the 31 years of talking with men about their penises, I have never met a man who felt damaged, mutilated or emasculated by his circumcision who did not have other emotional problems as well." And before anyone gets up in arms over what they might perceive as dismissiveness, he adds, "I am certainly no apologist for circumcision. As we say about abortion, nude beaches and non-monogamy, if you don't believe in it, don't do it."

And that should absolutely be a fair and reasonable statement. Unfortunately, as we know all too well, politics has a tendency to drown out reasonable statements. One would hope that if a parent chose to circumcise their son, that their friend, who chose not to do the same, wouldn't be calling this parent a mutilator. Or in the reverse case, an oversensitive hippie. In short, of course feeling strongly about something can drive us to action, but when those emotions cloud our receptiveness to facts or a broader perspective, there's a problem. Unfortunately, we have a lot of political problems that extend far, far beyond a failed ballot initiative in one city.

Heading onto that national level of governmental what-the-fuckery, Katherine Spillar's "Sex, Lies, and Hush Money," details one specific case of "an illicit sexual relationship between a powerful U.S. Senator and his female campaign treasurer, and of the equally powerful male political figures who allegedly helped cover it up." In 2007, the now-former Republican Senator from Nevada, John Ensign, pursued Cynthia Hampton to the point where a Senate ethic committee found it constituted sexual harassment. Their relationship grew out of a fear for her job, and her husband's job, since he was also employed by the Senator. The entire story is too lengthy and detailed to adequately summarize here (let Google do its thing, if you're so inclined), but essentially, the Senator paid off the woman's husband using his parents' trust fund, the husband then negotiated more money, then somehow Rick Santorum and the Fellowship Foundation got involved. Ensign's career tanked and he faced criminal charges, and the players who assisted him walked away. The people involved in all this are the same people who try to legislate their brand of morality — the ones who, on one hand, cried for the impeachment of Bill Clinton, while on the other, are out "hiking the Appalachian Trail." It's a story it seems like we've heard a zillion times, and yet it seems to make zero difference. It runs through a couple of news cycles, Leno makes his shitty jokes, and then there's another story to talk about. The people screwing over their professional and personal lives do not see themselves in the screw-ups of others. They are somehow "different." Special little hypocritical snowflakes.

Religious upbringing often plays a role in this whole uncomfortable sandwich of guilt, shame, power, and deciding to look the other way. So, independent of politics, how does religion influence a person's sex life? In Greta Christina's article, "Atheists Do It Better: Why Leaving Religion Leads to Better Sex," she examines the results of a 2011 survey conducted by organizational psychologist Darrel Ray Ed. D. called "Sex and Secularism: What Happens When You Leave Religion?"

According to "Sex and Secularism," some religions have a harsher impact on people's sex lives than others. People raised as Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, ranked much higher on the sexual guilt scale than people raised as Buddhists and Episcopalians. […] Catholicism is pretty much smack in the middle.

Conservative religions have a much more harmful effect on people's sex lives than more moderate or progressive ones — in terms of guilt, sexual education and information, the ability to experience pleasure, the ability to accept one's sexual identity, and more.

But one of the most surprising conclusions of this research is that sexual guilt from religion doesn't wreck people's sex lives forever.

Apparently, if a formerly religious person no longer feels religious, their sexual satisfaction increases. The only exceptions to this, according to the survey, was with Unitarianism and Judaism, both of which experienced overall lower instances of sexual guilt.

It's certainly an interesting survey, and one in which we might have already seen anecdotal evidence. Still, Christina's article points out that the survey designers admit that, of course, this information only illustrates the responses of those who took the survey — a limited slice of life — although the results do support other already existing research. It's also worth pointing out that Greta Christina herself is an atheist, and her article originally appeared on Alternet. It's a bit preaching-to-choir in its writing style, but any person can find the survey online and make their own conclusions.

How information is presented and from what source it arrives is insanely important to what we do with that information. In "Men Who 'Buy Sex' Commit More Crimes: Newsweek, Trafficking, and the Lie of Fabricated Sex Studies," Thomas Roche takes on the highly biased "report" conducted by Melissa Farley, a woman who has claimed that high-priced call girls are no less damaged than street prostitutes, and often equates human trafficking with those $500-an-hour girls. She designed her questions to support those views, Roche observes, and disappointingly, major news outlets ran with her results without question.

A survey, incidentally, is not the same thing as a study. A study is a formalized procedure for obtaining concrete and measurable data, with steps taken to ensure that compared data sets are equivalent.

Good surveys are transparent about what questions are asked and how they are asked. They don't come with foregone conclusions established by the bias of the lead author.

So keep that in mind every time some new "study" is reported on by the news. Consider the source. Make sure your own brain is functioning, in other words.

Perhaps my favorite contribution to the book is Hugo Schwyzer's "I Want You to Want Me." For one, I love that song. Secondly, he won me over completely with the statement, "Count me in the camp of those who believe that sexual fluidity isn't just for women; authentic male bisexuality is far from a myth." Amen, man.

In all seriousness, it's a great essay. Schwyzer talks about how he has struggled with the idea that the male body can be considered beautiful in the same way that a woman's can. That's not to say that male and female bodies have some sort of shared universal attractiveness scale, but rather, that someone could look at a naked man's body, dangly parts and all and say, "That's hot." His insecurity stemmed from a statement that his middle school art teacher made about how, compared to a woman, who really wanted to look at a naked man? Who really desired that? And all around him, he seemed to find further evidence that a man's body was only supposed to be utilitarian and supportive.

Starting in high school, he would pursue girls, but with guys, he was the one pursued. Shortly before he turned 18 and living on the Monterrey Peninsula, he met a man who was on shore leave and they went to a motel room. At first, he felt so nervous over the way the man regarded him, convinced he was nothing special to look at. But then:

Standing there under the heat of his gaze and his touch, I felt a rush of elation and relief so great it made me cry. The sex I had with him was based less on my own desire than on my own colossal gratitude for how he made me feel with his words and his gaze. As we lay on the motel bed, this man ran his fingers across every inch of my body, murmuring flattery of a kind I had never heard on a woman's lips. As I lay beneath him on that lumpy hotel mattress, the dim light of the TV flickering in the corner, he said the words I can still hear nearly 30 years later: You're so hot you make me want to come.

I mean, damn. Who doesn't want to hear something like that? He goes on to talk about how many men, straight or not, don't know what it is like to feel beheld like that. "[T]hey don't know what it is to be found not only aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but worthy of longing. And they want to know."

Ladies and gentleman, tell the person in your life how good they look. Maybe you think it. Maybe you think they know. Still, tell them.

One of the few weak spots in this book is Rachel Rabbit White's "Latina Glitter," about one of the only Spanish-speaking drag shows, and the longest running of its kind, in the United States. What makes the show unusual is that all of the performers are male-to-female transgendered. All of this makes for fascinating subject matter about which one could probably write an entire book, but I felt like White's article barely skimmed the surface. Sure, we learn about the collision of prejudices these women face, but there's not much else.

Still, the book is overall very strong. There are plenty of pieces that would take up even more space here to talk about, but we're nearing a 2k word count as is. I would definitely recommend checking out the book in its entirety.

Full Disclosure: Cleis Press sent me this book at my request. I thank them for the gesture and will continue to be fair in my reviews.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year. Though I'm taking things easier this year, I expect to surpass the 'Half Cannonball' distinction by the end of 2012.


  1. Regarding: Criminalizing Circumcision: Self-Hatred as Public Policy, maybe you and Marty could check out why more parents are leaving their sons intact instead of trying to minimize the 'movement' and make it seem like it is just because we are emotional about the subject.
    "In short, of course feeling strongly about something can drive us to action, but when those emotions cloud our receptiveness to facts or a broader perspective, there's a problem."
    I may disagree with the ballot because I don't' think it makes sense strategically- but I cannot argue with the ethics of the proposed ban. It is an emotional issue, but I think it is Americans who are entrenched in a cultural tradition that lose track of the broader perspective- not those that are against this procedure.
    It is hard for many parents, grandparents (and indeed doctors) to feel that circumcision is 'wrong' when nearly everyone around them has had it done or chosen it for their child- yet if we take a look at our maternity culture in the US we see how this tradition took a stronghold- basically because parents were simply not given a choice after birth. Mothers started off with a 'twilight birth' and circumcision was probably just one of the cruel procedures carried out in our maternity wards. Then what was done to daddy became common for the son. In an era of scientific modernity, male obs taking over maternity from community based midwives and crazy hygiene practices (lysol douches for women, remember that?!), circumcision doesn't seem out of context historically. Indeed, the US is the only place where circumcision stayed common (other than for religious reasons). Why? I'm not sure, maybe because our maternity system is the only one where midwives were edged out in the hospitals and because circumcision became covered by insurance? I’m not sure, but in England, Ireland, Australia and Canada where circumcision was as common as in the US- it was only practiced routinely briefly and now these countries are back to being predominately intact.
    Only in the USA could there be a so-called 'sex therapist' who does not even know the basic function or purpose of the foreskin. I suppose those of us with intact children, partners, or men who are intact really tend to notice this. An interesting saying I recently heard is that the foreskin is not just the 'wrapper' but also the candy. This is something I can't really imagine in terms of my child, of course, but sexuality is an important part of this issue and it seems that most Americans lack the basic information to even puzzle such a saying. Most are quick to dismiss the subject as 'a simple procedure', 'people being emotional' or 'just a flap of skin.'
    The SF may be a very polarizing way of bringing this issue up, but maybe, just maybe there are valid reasons why we should think about this issue with an open minded. Maybe we do need to ask more questions. Is it ethical to perform circumcision on an infant with no medical need for the procedure? No, I don’t believe it is.

    It's to complicated an issue to just simply dismiss.


  2. Damn. I suppose I should've expected someone to come write at length about the subject. So now I guess it's my turn!

    Here's my thinking on the matter: If you don't want to circumsize, don't do it. Legislating it is something else entirely. By me saying, "when those emotions cloud our receptiveness to facts or a broader perspective, there's a problem," I mean that for people on both sides of the issue.

    Of course people should be open-minded and choose what feels right for them. Making it criminal and equating it to more horrific forms of mutilation is taking it too far. That's my thinking, and I believe that's what Marty Klein was getting at as well. Perhaps you don't find it ethical, but that's your call for your kid.

    I don't have the book in front of me at the moment, but I want to say that his article originally appeared online. With some googling to read the whole thing, maybe his perspective will be more clear than the excerpts I've given.

    On one hand, you say that people should be more open-minded and have a broader perspective, yet you discount an entire subset of legitimate therapy by saying, "Only in the USA could there be a so-called 'sex therapist' who does not even know the basic function or purpose of the foreskin."

    For one thing, I don't if doctors like him exist "only in the USA." Do you? Secondly, saying "so-called" is rather dismissive of something that requires just as much schooling as any other type of therapist. And I'm betting they covered basic physiology.

    Anyway, you don't need me to tell you it's fine to feel the way you do. Of course it's fine. Just like it's fine for people to have different standards on all sorts of things, different "lines" they'd prefer not to cross.

    It's why I said: "One would hope that if a parent chose to circumcise their son, that their friend, who chose not to do the same, wouldn't be calling this parent a mutilator. Or in the reverse case, an oversensitive hippie."

    Not that it's anyone's business, but let's say my son was circumsized. Let's say you have no idea if it was for religious reasons or not. So do you want to call me a mutilator, from the safety of the internet, or would it be different if we were friends? If you saw me every day? If you knew me to be a good person, would you still find me ethically lacking?

    It's honestly none of my business whether or not people I know or don't know choose to circumsize their sons. Sure, because of the longtime cultural practice, I might be surprised if I suddenly had a partner who was uncircumsized, but ultimately, I don't think it would matter.

    To be more crass about it: My friend's kid's junk is not my business, so let's try to keep the law out of it. That's all.

  3. Sorry, let me correct my own typo:

    I don't *know* if doctors like him exist "only in the USA."