Best Sex Writing 2006, edited by Felice Newman and Frederique Delacoste, Cleis Press. 197 pages, $14.95.
America has always had an unhealthy fear and obsession with sex. It’s everywhere. In our consumer-driven society, idealized sexual images are ubiquitous. And yet we deliberately suppress our very raw, very real feelings about sex. It’s the most complex issue we deal with today.
Subsequently, our combined fascination and disdain for it has led to moral debate, political revolt, artistic tension, really bad television and thankfully, some very thoughtful literature.
In an attempt to authenticate sexual expression, the editors of Best Sex Writing 2006 have gathered some of the best nonfiction sex writing of the year. The 17 short stories, whether longing for the days of sexual repression or exploring black strippers’ relationships with their fathers, collectively offer an “in-depth look at sex the way it actually happens in America today.”
Consider it a Sexual State of the Union, with stories ranging from a personal perspective to a broader social and political significance.
In “Where the Truth Lies,” Emily DePrang writes about her experiences with prejudice and sexual harassment as a lesbian in the workplace. And in “Tortured Logic,” Eli Sanders uncovers the Bush Administration’s new war on porn, questioning why “the behaviors described as prosecutable and obscene in the FBI memo overlap quite directly with behaviors that FBI agents and others have witnessed at U.S. facilities holding prisoners in the War on Terror.”
In “Rope Burn,” Michael A. Gonzales goes to the Bay Area and Manhattan to investigate the world of professional dominatrices who are women of color, and wonders about the role race plays in measuring levels of humiliation. He also asks why there isn’t greater ethnic diversity in the BDSM [Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sadism/Masochism] community.
“Much of the guilt comes from moral-dilemmas issues connected to religion,” he quotes Mistress Heart as saying. “There are others who have deep-seated issues that they haven’t dealt with in therapy and they feel a sense of shame. There are also issues of what slavery represents in the minds of black people. I rather say dominant or submissive than slave. I never use the word, because it feels like [I’m referring to] someone who doesn’t have a choice. In our world, choice is everything.”
And there are scientific findings, too. In “The Coming Boom,” syndicated columnist Annalee Newitz delves into the relatively young science of sexual arousal. As neuropsychologists and the pharmaceutical industry scramble to discover the complicated chemistry of turning women on, it takes a biomedical researcher—and perhaps the only orgasm theorist in the world—to offer a more cerebral answer in that maybe the key is more nurture, less nature. “Sexually repressive environments may affect the growth of brain pathways in girls,” she says.
Overall, today’s world of sex writing is as eclectic, humorous, challenging, thought-provoking, erotic and deeply disturbing as the subject itself. My only complaint about the book is that although there’s a diverse cross-section of material here, and the reporting comprehensive, I am left wanting more—more of the same microcosmic look into such a broadminded topic.
What the majority of these stories seem to be saying is that there is more to sex than meets the eye. In other words, while individual expressions of sex can be cathartic, they are also representative of a greater cultural experience.
In “A Porn Valley Story” by Susannah Breslin, the author finds herself on the set of an adult movie for the first time. For her, it wasn’t just about uncovering “how far humans could really go” but it also inevitably proved to be a life-changing experience.
“You see, the one thing I learned in Porn Valley is that it’s not about sex, it’s not about pornography, it’s about all that’s supposed to be. It’s the opposite of death, it’s what I fled from, it’s what was between my father and me all those years. It’s about what sex is, it’s about that of which pornography is a pornography, it’s about what we are always searching for. Maybe it had to be a woman who would tell this kind of story, maybe it had to be me, maybe if I tell this story one more time I’ll be able to say it’s about love.” MTW