Sunday, March 25, 2012

The State of Today's Sexual Culture: Best Sex Writing 2012

It should come as no surprise to you that in addition to the smut I mention with some regularity on this here smutty blog, I also enjoy smart, erudite, and critical work about the state of sexuality in our culture. I've called myself an intellesexual a time or two, and many of you share my overall perspective. For that reason, I am thrilled to share a review with you today of Best Sex Writing 2012, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel (@raquelita on Twitter), and guest-judged by Susie Bright (@susiebright on Twitter).

Rachel shared an advance copy of the book with me a few weeks ago, and I admit that it took me a while to get through it. I mean that in a good way. This anthology makes you think. You want to re-read the essays. You want to check in with yourself and your biases and then read again. The works included run the gamut and touch on politics, social issues, the upcoming presidential election, legislation of sexual behavior, personal sexual experiences, and gender identity. There's more, but this gives you a sense of what you'll find.

I want to touch on a few pieces that I especially enjoyed, for very different reasons. And "enjoy" may not the be the right word. They were affecting. And they all happen to be about sexual experiences. Which isn't to say that the pieces on sex and politics or legal issues weren't equally compelling. They were just...different.  I was especially moved by the memoirs in this edition.

First up is Hugo Schwyzer's "I Want You to Want Me." His essay explores the issue of what is usually termed the "female gaze"--that is, how women see, take in, and respond to the physical bodies of men. Schwyzer begins by laying out how he came to understand that the male body is repellent, dirty, and generally repulsive to women. He sources the depth of his shame back to his sixth-grade art teacher's offhand remark about the comparative beauty of female bodies in works of art, rammed home by the reaction of the girl seated next to him. "Ewww," she said, when thinking of the male nude representation.

What follows in this essay is how this understanding informed Schwyzer's relationships with women (badly), that women liked and participated in sex in spite of their repulsion to the male form. And the experience, with a man, incidentally, that led him to have a 180 reversal in his perception of the male body as an object, or even subject, of desire, and of his own desirability. He ends on a discourse of the importance of "...creating a new vocabulary for desire, empowering women as well as men to gaze, expanding our own sense of what is good and beautiful, asthetically and erotically pleasing." That's a powerful thought, and one which resonates with me.

Immediately following Schywzer's essay is Joan Price's magnificently told "Grief, Resilience, and my 66th Birthday Gift." Lest you think this essay might be maudlin and depressing, it's completely the opposite--a declamation of the importance of moving on, reclaiming life, and reclaiming one's sexuality in the face of a tremendous loss. And frankly, it's an insight into sex after 60, which is something we could all stand to read about more frequently.

At approximately age 64, Price lost her very beloved husband to cancer. They had been together only 7 years, but from her telling they were 7 glorious years of friendship, partnership, love, and stellar sex. So when she lost the love of her life it was understandably devastating. At the outset, she couldn't imagine having another sexual relationship. But as she processed through stages of grief, the stirrings resurfaced. As Price tells it, she "...wanted to orgasm and be aroused from a man's touch--but (was this selfish?) I wanted the pleasure without giving back just yet...I wondered, though, could I hire this pleasure?" And what she did to recapture her sexuality surprised me. She sought out a Tantric healer.

Price recounts with beautiful detail the experience of finding and engaging the services of Sunyata and the erotic massage she experienced at his very sympathetic hands. Her description of the massage and the eventual orgasms is detailed without being clinical. It's as if you are present with her, experiencing the sensations as she does: "I felt my body rise and fall with his touch, his rhythm in sync with mine...I parted my thighs and I could feel my own heat drawing his hands closer to my pleasure center. Finally his hand cupped my vulva and waited." You'll have to read the essay to see where it goes from there.

Price's experience seems to have been all she wanted/needed it to be and more. The experience was nothing short of transformative. It was what she needed to bring one period of her life to a close (the mourning) before she could re-enter the world as her full self, including her clearly vibrant sexuality.

The last piece I'll mention is Lidia Yuknavitch's "Love Grenade." And grenade is exactly the word I'd use to describe this piece. In an anthology of mostly serious, journalistic, and reflective pieces, this intense and personal memoir is explosive, beautiful, and painful all at once.

"Love Grenade" retells the author's experience of a dirty weekend with two fellow grad students. Everyone's sexual identity is touched on--Yuknavitch frequently has sex with Hannah, a confirmed lesbian, but she also has a boyfriend. Chloe seems by all accounts straight but curious, and flexible. She and the author shared at least one kiss before the weekend in question. From the outset Yuknavitch makes it rather clear that she used sex to medicate: "I was a woman gone numb. I would do anything. Anytime. Anywhere."

The weekend begins with Hannah pouncing on the other two girls, urging them to go along with her plan for a weekend at a cottage by the sea. Hannah is insistent, wheedling, all energy and whirling dervish. I thought, certainly, this is the love grenade in action. What comes next seems expected, and I don't want to devalue Yuknavitch's brilliant descriptions by calling it a hot lesbian threesome, but it is. It is sex written in the best possible way, and in a way that I really enjoy, like snapshots of moments within the encounter: "I came in Hannah's mouth, her face between my legs like some goddess in a new myth. Chloe came with Hannah's fingers in her ass and pussy, her body convulsing and falling off the bed...Hannah came while jamming a dildo up herself as I buried my face in the clit of her." And later: "All the night it was difficult to tell whose body was whose. The woman of it all drowned me. It nearly cleaved my mind. And again. Again. Waves."

As beautiful as the night seemed to be, the aftermath isn't pleasant. The love grenade was dropped. And as magical as their hours spent together at the beach cottage seemed to be, the three women's real lives meant something quite different. While the ending of the essay is the least satisfying part, taken as a whole, it's a powerful meditation on sexuality, identity, and choices.

There's so much more where those came from. To learn more about Best Sex Writing 2012, click here.

Visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to get yours, available in hardcopy and for e-readers.

7 comments:

  1. You know I'll be reading this.... Thanks for a great tease!

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    1. I think there's a lot you'll appreciate in this edition. Enjoy!

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  2. Joan Price contacted me earlier to say she was having trouble commenting. Here's what she had to say:

    Thank you for this excellent review, and especially for your warm comments about my essay. You make me glad that I decided to share this intensely personal part of my life.

    Joan Price
    http://www.joanprice.com/

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  3. Thanks for the review! We are big fans of Rachel Kramer Bussel, who actually follows Jill on Twitter, though sadly not me. As fans of the series to date, we are certain to read this new installment.

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    1. Haha, she follows me but has never once responded, even when I tweeted her a review of this book! I think the word "cupcakes" needs to be in there to get her attention ;). Hope you enjoy, lots to chew on in this edition.

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  4. I once reviewed an article of hers for our EdenFantasys gig and really enjoyed it - found it enlightening, intelligent, and well written. Perhaps I'll check out this book. Thanks for the heads up!

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    1. It's a good one, some very solid pieces. I didn't love them all, but the good ones are very good.

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