A while back, I was sent a review copy of the TV series “Sex: How to Do Everything,” starring Em and Lo, former Nerve.com columnists who now host their own sex advice website and have co-authored several sex advice books. Now, I have a pretty strict policy about not doing product reviews. But I do like to write about films and books, so I figured, okay, TV’s not that much of a stretch.
But really, my big motivation for watching a ten-part sex advice series was that the title seemed to be making a rather outrageous claim, and I wanted to know if they came through on it. How to do everything? Like, everything? Really?
Okay, so the chances of a ten-part series actually covering everything one could possibly do in bed are slim to none, so I was seriously skeptical from the get-go. But I thought, okay, I’m relatively certain that “everything,” from the perspective of a pair of (not explicitly self-confessed but nonetheless conspicuously) heterosexual gals employed in the mainstream sex advice-u-tainment world, would not include things like felching or play piercing, so I gave them a fail on the title from the outset. But I decided that I’d set the bar for impressing me at something that’s fairly basic in my world: fisting.
Fisting is perhaps not one of the staple ingredients of dyke sex, but it’s definitely not on the outside edge, either. It shows up fairly regularly in dyke erotica; it’s mentioned, albeit usually briefly, in every lesbian sex manual I’ve ever read. You don’t need any special toys or training, although it definitely helps alleviate fears and improve safety if you take the time to do a workshop or read a book first. (Allow me a moment of shameless self-promotion: I am in the process of writing just such a book myself!) But really, the mechanics aren’t that complicated. Lots of dykes do it as a staple of their sex lives, and they don’t even have to be kinky. Thanks to the whole it’s-all-about-the-cock approach to heterosexual sex, in which anything bigger than a cock is perceived as threatening to manliness and therefore bad, I don’t think fisting is nearly as common among straight folks – because yes, fellas, your fist is necessarily bigger than your cock, or you wouldn’t be able to wank – but it’s not unheard of, either; every time I teach a fisting workshop there are at least one or two straight guys in the group, sometimes many more (and sometimes even gay ones). And anal fisting has its own subculture among gay men, as well as being common in leather circles.
With all this in mind, I set my expectations at medium-high – perhaps unrealistically, but I was being indulgent about the title already – and I figured I’d give Em and Lo’s series a good review if they included fisting. I’d settle for even a brief mention of it.
No big surprise: total fail.
Okay, so now we know that “Sex: How to Do Everything” doesn’t tell us how to do everything. What else?
Well, the show’s a mixed bag. Em and Lo may be popular writers, but as talk show hosts, they rely way too much on a script that sounds like it was lifted straight from the pages of a cheesy women’s magazine. Neither of them actually seems particularly comfortable in their TV roles – the interviews are strangely stilted, their narration sounds teleprompted and even their wardrobe is a bit too sweetly matchy-matched, with themed looks for each show (today it’s corsets and red lipstick and updos! and now it’s pastels and romantically curly hair!). For all that I really like their pleasure-based politics and I mostly like their mostly-feminist approach, all in all they come off as mouthpieces rather than as genuine experts. Which makes sense, I guess – the bios on their website don’t say anything about what qualifications either of them holds or who they are more broadly. I’m just not sure whose mouthpieces they are.
But beyond being mouthpieces, they also seem to imbue their work with very little personal touch. And at the risk of a bad double entendre, when it comes to sex advice, personal touch is really key. With Dan Savage, we know he’s gay, we know he’s adopted a kid, we know where his biases lie – he’s totally biphobic, for example – and we know he’s a snarky, hilarious writer. With Sasha, we know she’s a former stripper who’s strongly identified with sex work activism, a burlesque queen, and a scrappy grassroots political queer as well as being a sage and witty advice-giver. (And she’s not shy about claiming her lack of expert credentials, either.) But with Em and Lo, I don’t even know what their sexual orientation is, let alone how they met, what they did before or in addition to writing for Nerve.com, or where their personal biases lie. Perhaps this information is available elsewhere than their website bios and video, the intro to one of their earlier books that’s on my shelf, or their ten-part TV series, but really, I shouldn’t have to look that hard for it. This is doubly unfortunate in that I’d like to think that most people who make a career out of sexpertise probably do have some kind of interesting history and possibly have something interesting to say about themselves. I’d like to actually hear that stuff from them, but I feel like I can’t quite make it out through the scripted dialogue and the layers of production lacquered on top.
That said, there are elements of the show that really do work. Em is a New Yorker and Lo is an import from London, and the show’s on-the-street interviews are carried out in both metropoles, which makes for an unusual and fun mix of British and American flavour. The device occasionally trips up, though, in that at times the in-studio script was clearly written for one of them but assigned to the other to slightly awkward effect (do you know many New Yorkers who’d use the word “cuppa” when talking about tea?). “Sex: How to Do Everything” also features a gorgeous interracial couple who demonstrate various activities in soft focus while an official-sounding male narrator describes proper techniques with the help of diagrams – accurate ones, if a bit overly simple.
But the real reason to watch this show is the “roving reporters,” Georgie and Dougie, a fresh-faced young couple who get sent out to explore the latest in sexual trends and then try them out in the bedroom. Dougie starts out a bit uncomfortable, but he’s a good sport and he loosens up after a while. The big draw, though, is Georgie – she’s enthusiastic, incredibly genuine and really articulate about both the technical details of what she’s learned and her own likes, dislikes and feelings. And while she’s definitely beautiful, she’s not a manicured-for-TV type at all. While they don’t fall far outside the mainstream ideal of beauty, these roving reporters have real bodies, and they have real sex on camera. When their chemistry comes through, it’s actually pretty electrifying to watch. That, in combination with Georgie’s expressiveness, smarts and emotional honesty, kinda makes me wish they’d given them a show all to themselves! I really hope she goes on to do more work like this. She’s an absolute treasure.
Okay, the politics. You knew I was getting there.
Em and Lo do a good job at pushing a pretty progressive sexual agenda. They insist, for example, that oral sex is real sex because a woman’s pleasure organ is her clit and so pleasuring it “counts” as sex as much as pleasuring a cock does. They are explicitly gay-friendly and they don’t buy into the kind of body shame that’s often par for the course in the mainstream. So… they’re good, right?
Well, sorta. They’re kinda… surface-level, liberal mainstream good. It’s something I feel like we see a lot of these days. It came up not long ago when my friend, blogger and Montreal gay tourism pin-up boy Daniel Baylis, asked me for my thoughts on a question he’d been posed: “Is having a same-sex encounter part of living holistically?” My answer was, more or less, that if a same-sex encounter means that a heterosexual person does something mildly titillating with someone of the same sex to prove how open-minded they are but never gets thinking about their heterosexual privilege, then that’s not holistic at all; it’s just self-congratulatory. But that’s just one example. Self-congratulatory gay-friendliness comes up a lot of the time in today’s progressive social atmosphere. It’s practically a cliché to say that having a gay friend is trendy. But it goes further than that. It’s like the mainstream has recently discovered the advantages of expanding the parameters of what counts as acceptable in the realm of sex… by a few inches. But in no way does that mean there’s been a revolution.
It’s another example of Gayle Rubin’s concept of the charmed circle. In her brilliant 1984 article ‘”Thinking Sex,” she writes about the classification system that’s applied to sexuality:
“According to this system, sexuality that is “good”, “normal” and “natural” should ideally be heterosexual, marital, monogamous, reproductive, and non-commercial. It should be coupled, relational, within the same generation, and occur at home. It should not involve pornography, fetish objects, sex toys of any sort, or roles other than male and female. … Any sex that violates these rules is “bad”, “abnormal”, or “unnatural”. Bad sex may be homosexual, unmarried, promiscuous, non-procreative, or commercial. It may be masturbatory or take place at orgies, may be casual, may cross generational lines, and may take place in “public”, or at least in the bushes or in the baths. It may involve the use of pornography, fetish objects, sex toys, or unusual roles.”
She makes the point that the boundaries of that charmed circle do move every once in a while to include things on the inside that were previously on the outside. Masturbation is one example – it used to be decried and pathologized, now it’s considered pretty much normal. These days, same-sex sex is another example (at least in some places and contexts). But only in very limited ways – in essence, nothing that challenges the primacy of heterosexuality or relatively conventional gender roles.
Em and Lo actually do a pretty darned good job of pushing the edges of that charmed circle outward, or rather, positioning themselves to buttress the edges that have been pushed out. They advocate porn-watching and sex toys, gamely mythbust about ass play, interview experts on female ejaculation, talk to polyamorous people, and bring in escorts to ask them how the business works – and they actually manage to do these things without turning the set into a session of “let’s look at the freaks.” Their episode on “kinky fetish play” features a very credible and articulate pro-domme who’s also a lifestyle dominant, an investigation of electro-stim toys (not your standard fare for a mainstream TV show!), and an interview with three furries that somehow manages to be both serious and absurdly ironic – Lo bonds with one guest, a gal who’s dressed head-to-toe like a cast member of Cats, over their mutual bewilderment about people who get off on wearing large-headed mascot costumes or having sex with others thus clad. “Frankly I think they look utterly ridiculous,” says the cat girl in a condescending tone as she preens her fur and bares her extended canines.
So, okay. They dare go to places that the mainstream often fears to tread, and they do it respectfully and with an eye to accurate information and down-to-earth pleasure advocacy. They manage to showcase some relatively maligned aspects of sexuality without taking a totally voyeuristic freak-show approach. On that count, well done.
But oddly enough, despite their stated politics (“We believe in gay rights!”), the place they seem to fall down the most is in their approach to same-sex partners and gender roles. They talk about women using strap-ons as a way for a woman to dominate her man – without noting that, by that logic, anytime a guy fucks a gal using his flesh cock, he must therefore be dominating her. (I’m not saying that strap-ons can’t be a tool for domination, but I definitely take issue with the automatic association, and even more so with the unspoken counterpart.) In their on-the-street interviews, they include commentary from gay men and bi/lesbian (?) women, and even drag queens, which is great on the one hand, but often it simply showcases how the occasional sound bite of queerness can make its way into mainstream discourse despite the poor fit.
The episode that made this the most uncomfortably clear for me was on the topic of sexual fantasy. In one of their get-the-public-involved gimmicks, Em and Lo set up a pair of curtained change rooms on a beach and display his-and-hers racks of matched fantasy role-play costumes outside; they ask couples passing by to pick outfits from the racks without showing each other their picks, change into them, and then unveil their new looks to one another in the hopes of a match. Y’know, hooker and pimp, French maid and aristocrat, dominatrix and gimp. True to their gamely gay-friendly attitude, they invite a gay couple to participate. Which is fine and good and all inclusive-like, except that of course the outfits are paired up based on presumed heterosexuality. So one of the guys picks from the “hers” rack and the other picks from the “his” rack – I’d have loved to see the conversation in which they figure that one out, but sadly it was left out of the episode. The guys then emerge as a French maid and a gimp, and much hilarity ensues, including a mock swordfight with a paddle and a feather duster.
Now, I’m all for cross-dressing, gender-bending, fantasy costumes, butch-femme pairings and all the rest. So in no way am I trying to say that getting a man dressed up in a French maid costume is a bad thing. It’s not. What I am trying to say is that this little vignette shows exactly how the whole happy “heterosexual but reeallly open-minded!” approach doesn’t always fit – in this case literally.
In this little scenario, two things are possible. The first is that Em and Lo (or their producers, writers, handlers, etc.) figured that gay people all have polarized roles in which one is “really the woman” in a gay male couple, and presumably (though we never see it) one is “really the man” in a lesbian couple, and therefore that his-and-hers costume pairings would simply transpose directly onto a same-sex pair. The second, and in my opinion more likely, scenario is that it never even occurred to Em and Lo (or their producers, writers, handlers, etc.) that a same-sex couple might have a hard time fitting into their preconceived role pairings, but when confronted with the possibility, their “we like gay people” philosophy prevented them from excluding the guys, so they went ahead with the poorly-conceived plan and ended up unwittingly setting the stage for a moment of subversion – which was probably not intentional on the part of the guys in question (it could have been a statement, but from what I could tell, they look like they’re just doing the whole thing on a lark).
To me, this whole scenario was a literal representation of how queerness doesn’t fit into the terms set out by heterosexuality. Subversion is an option in which the terms of engagement are turned on their head, but that doesn’t necessarily add any new terms to the discussion.
I suppose I could intellectualize about this for a while more, but really, I’m not sure it’s worthwhile. Predictably, in “Sex: How to Do Everything,” we do not learn how to do everything. We learn that mainstream sex advisors are giving us relatively mainstream sex advice. They might even be allowing the mainstream to rise higher than its usual banks, but it’s still not getting me wet.