Open, Fearless, and Needed: A Review of Best Sex Writing 2012
That an anthology series called Best Sex Writing exists thrills me. Truly. There are few topics I feel the human species would benefit more from exploring, questioning, and opening to. The fact that those things all seem particularly lacking makes me even more excited to see a book—in this case, Best Sex Writing 2012, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel and published by Cleis Press—devoted to inviting and displaying them in a multi-authored tapestry.
Between the pages of Best Sex Writing 2012 is rumination, information, and investigation of a society displaying, as I see it, a severe misguidedness around the book’s title subject. The fascinating exposition of “Sex, Lies, and Hush Money” by Katherine Spillar outlines for us (just in case anyone has forgotten) the corruption and hypocrisy that is alive and well in our political systems—largely resulting from, I would argue, our continued repression, distortion, and shame around sex.
I found Radley Balko’s “You Can Have Sex with Them; Just Don’t Photograph Them” painful to read (which is not a negative comment—it was one of the pieces I appreciated most in the book); my sense of wanting to do something to help put a stop to the literal insanity it described was activated from its first page. The seemingly small but important victory of at least seeing it recognized and reported on assuaged my distress a tiny bit. The suspense in the powerful, heartbreaking “An Unfortunate Discharge Early in My Naval Career” by Tim Elhajj was breathtaking to me, as was the reminder that “being [accused of being] a homosexual” in the United States military could be the basis of such suspense.
In “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence,” Roxanne Gay offers a profound elucidation I found so extraordinary I don’t know how to even sum it up here. It struck me deeply as something that needed to be said, and I’m grateful to Ms. Gay for saying it.
I had already read (and recommended on my own blog) Thomas Roche’s “Men Who ‘Buy Sex’ Commit More Crimes: Newsweek, Trafficking, and the Lie of Fabricated Sex Studies.” As I said then, I found it incisive, comprehensive, and illuminating of the issues the piece was about and responding to. (A one-sentence case in point: “Trafficking continues because of corruption and poverty, not because there are no laws against it.”)
There are also what Rachel describes in her introduction as “more personal takes on sex [...] that aren’t about making a point so much as exploring what real-life sex is like in all its beauty, drama, and messiness.” To me, three of the most moving of this kind of piece were Joan Price’s “Grief, Resilience, and My 66th Birthday Gift,” a striking slice of memoir interwoven with, as the title suggests, experiences of grief, vitality, love, and the beauty of connection—including with ourselves; Hugo Schwyzer’s raw, insightful (and indeed rather hot in parts) “I Want You to Want Me,” which, while very personal, lays out a commentary on gender socialization I much appreciated; and “Losing the Meatpacking District: A Queer History of Leather Culture” by Abby Taller, which relays a compelling, poignant portrait of a time and place that is no longer.
All three of these pieces compelled me in a different way, enlisting empathy and softheartedness as they opened a part of themselves onto the page and paradoxically shone a light on universal levels of sexual—and human—experience.
The combination of this kind of personal memoir alongside the investigative exposition, irreverent humor, and incisive commentary also found in this book makes for a vastly varied volume of entertainment and thought provocation. The few things in the anthology that didn’t resonate with me did not decrease my overall appreciation of it; I indeed encountered perspectives that diverged from mine, and I see that as one of the values of a book like this. Certainly I was engaged and even energized by the eloquent, captivating articulations of perspectives in alignment with mine—but those that weren’t invited me to discern and articulate why, an opportunity which is not lost on me.
Ultimately, this book exemplifies something it seems to me we could use a lot more of: open, fearless discussion of sexuality in which we talk about it like we do so many other topics—with consideration, enthusiasm, respect, curiosity, interest, reverence, scrutiny, and maturity…rather than the degrees of pubescence and oppression I have found so woefully pervasive in our culture. Rachel asserts in her introduction that “the more we talk about the many ways sex moves us, the more we work toward a world where sexual shame, ignorance, homophobia, and violence are diminished.” I couldn’t agree more, and I thank the the editor, contributors, and publisher of Best Sex Writing 2012 for offering their time and attention to doing so.