review: more than two

March 26, 2015 - Leave a Response

More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert

Janet Hardy and Dossie Easton did some of this work in The Ethical Slut, but the focus there was more sexual. Wendy-O-Matik did it in polemic form, beautifully if poorly edited, in her little self-published gem Redefining Our Relationships. But finally, finally, someone’s written a hefty, full-sized, guide-style book specifically on the concept of ethical polyamory. More Than Two may well be the best book on polyamory I’ve ever read. No joke, it’s really that fantastic.

(Full disclosure: Veaux and Rickert mention my writing in the book a couple of times, which was kinda sweet to see, but I promise I don’t give good reviews based on that sort of thing.)

You’d think, with all the hype about communication and ethical non-monogamy and all the rest, that poly folks would be the most ethical and considerate bunch on the planet. But so many of the concepts, habits and terminology quirks that have evolved over the admittedly short few decades that polyamory has existed as a more-than-just-fringe practice are in fact pretty toxic. In some ways this is all the more the case because these toxic ideas and practices are championed under the guise of open, honest and ethical relationships. At over 450 pages, Veaux and Rickert’s book is huge, yes, but I think that’s in part because they took the time to tease out all the little places where the “ethical” part of ethical polyamory gets lost or eclipsed, to really dig them up and drag them into the light, and then to discuss them gently and kindly. That shit takes time, or in this case, word count. It’s well worth reading the whole thing. Twice.

More Than Two isn’t perfect. The book’s discussion of solo poly, for instance, is overly brief and kinda makes it sounds like solo poly people are standoffish commitment-phobes, which doesn’t really do justice to the idea. I’d have liked to hear more explicit discussion of relationship anarchy as a philosophy or movement. I’m surprised that there’s so little discussion of the BDSM world and its gigantic overlap with the poly one, and why that might be the case, and the specific challenges that come up in that little section of the Venn diagram.

As well, their approach often fails to make a clear distinction between the practice of polyamory and “the poly community,” which is problematic for a couple of reasons. Poly communities (plural, because they exist in most major cities as well as online, and in many forms of overlap) are often made up predominantly of straight men and bisexual women, mostly cis with a sprinkling of trans folks, mostly white, etc etc. Poly people do not necessarily fit this description at all, but those who don’t may not circulate primarily in poly communities because it’s not where they best fit. Conflating the two makes for some odd logical burps, which become evident for someone like me who really doesn’t hang in “the poly community” at all, nice though those folks may be, except that 90% of the people in my rather vast social network are nevertheless poly because we’re primarily queer-identified leatherdyke types.

This leads me to a further criticism: More Than Two’s section on LGBTQ communities leaves much to be desired. While I appreciate their attempt, and I will give that it hits most of the basic notes, I would have appreciated a more nuanced dissection of the spectrum of LGBTQ opinions on polyamory. In reality it ranges from the arch-conservative “it’ll make us look bad to the mainstream” marriage-equality people to the “monogamy is oppressive” radical queers and everything in between, including radical poly queers who get married (!). In a good percentage of queer and LGBTQ communities, non-monogamy of some sort is so normalized that it doesn’t raise an eyebrow, but reading this section left me feeling like they think it’s a lot more widely frowned upon than I’ve ever observed. Their conclusion is sort of “YMMV,” but I think there’s a lot more to say than that. Maybe this points to the need for a different book? I’d love to read an analysis of ethical non-monogamy from a queer perspective, with a good-sized history section that takes into account everything from gay and lesbian communes in the 60s and 70s to feminism to sex work politics to leather communities to radical young queer movements today. (Hmm… I wonder who might write such a book… hmmm…)

Anyway. Those are my criticisms. They are real, but honestly, they pale in comparison to the overall high quality of this book. It’s thorough, it covers ethical situations from the most basic to the trickiest, and it articulates two very down-to-earth principles and then sticks to them throughout. In some ways it’s a crash course in how to do decent human relationships, period, but that’s not a bad thing. If anything it points up pretty starkly how a person-centred, kindness-focused, rigorously ethical framework is missing from a lot of what gets said about poly out there in the world. More Than Two is a welcome antidote to a lot of the glib advice that’s proliferated in the last five or ten years. I hope it gets as widely read as it deserves to be.

review: some gay fiction for a change!

February 12, 2015 - One Response

The book review blitz continues! I rarely get asked to review fiction, so this one was a treat for me.

The Medici Boy by John L’Heureux

There’s a particular sub-genre of historical fiction that attempts to imagine the inner worlds and intimate experiences of great real-life historical figures. In The Medici Boy, John L’Heureux has chosen Renaissance sculptor Donatello as the great central figure upon which to build a (mostly? entirely?) fictional tale of forbidden homosexual passion and the tension between Renaissance society’s quasi-worship of artistic genius and its vicious persecution of sexual deviance. Even the most homophobic society gives some leeway to the privileged deviant, whether that privilege is based on money, family connections or respected talent. But the space of permission is terribly conditional. L’Heureux’s novel spins its tale almost entirely in that liminal space between permission and punishment, lending an aching, urgent quality to even the most banal of everyday activities in its characters’ lives.

The Medici Boy tells the story of Donatello’s life through the eyes of one of his devoted assistants, Luca Mattei. This set-up creates yet another liminal space: the space where a man stands when he works closely with a genius for decades, knows his moods and preferences like his own flesh, sees all his terribly human flaws while still admiring his superhuman abilities, loves him with a multifaceted kind of love, and yet never quite touches or fully understands the artist’s inner experience. The story conveys a kind of intimacy between the two men, not exactly sexual but hardly lacking in erotic energy, and a kind of utterly unbridgeable distance all at once.

Donatello does turn his amorous attentions to Luca, once, as well as to other assistants, some for a long time, some fleetingly. But the object of his long-term affection is Luca’s younger step-brother, a shallow, shady layabout who uses his good looks as currency, and lives off the goodwill of his older admirers. Oscar Wilde can tell us how this goes – although in this version of the tragic tale, the backdrop is the Black Plague, the Italian Church, and rich families’ political battles for control of Italy’s major cities.

The rich historical detail is immersive, and a reader could get lost in the lush descriptions of Donatello’s artistic practice alone. The sweaty task of pouring boiling metal into moulds feels both hellish and heroic at once, with loyal assistants straining to complete the raw grunt work that makes the genius’s role possible. You can almost smell the sharp stink of effort and fear and liquid bronze. But the novel’s real strength lies in its ability to convey the nuance of a tale that’s in some ways heartbreakingly predictable and in other ways utterly unique to its time and its people. In this story of love and persecution, overflowing wealth and brute labour, adulation and imprisonment, L’Heureux succeeds in bringing us deep into the past and showing us just how far back our history of great injustice goes, showing us exactly what we expect to see while also demonstrating just how much we can’t know. While spinning his own kind of myth, he still conveys how different real people can be from the legends that grow up around them.

 

book review twofer: sexual inspiration! also cunnilingus!

February 3, 2015 - Leave a Response

Sex: An Erotic Journal for Sexual Inspiration and Exploration by Margaret Hurst and Jordan LaRousse

This little book presents scraps of writing intended to inspire thought, reflection and inspiration, along with plenty of blank space to write and draw things. In lieu of a full review, I will simply quote here the first full paragraph of the book. It is very representative of the book as a whole.

“KISSING. What makes a good kisser? The cliché phrase ‘It takes two to tango’ really applies here because a good kiss literally depends on the chemistry between two people. In fact when a woman kisses a man, part of the reason that she becomes aroused is because she is absorbing his testosterone through her mucus membranes. The more testosterone your man has to share, the hornier you’ll feel!”

Well. Um. I guess I better forget about all the hot homo action I have at home, because clearly there’s not enough testosterone coming through my mucus membranes and all that turn-on must be a figment of my imagination. Also, I… oh, never mind. I can’t be bothered. Just don’t buy this.

 

Oral Sex That’ll Blow Her Mind: An Illustrated Guide to Giving Her Amazing Orgasms by Shanna Katz

Sometimes when I read a sex guide, I try to discern what kind of process led to its production. Who pitched the idea to whom? Who decided on the layout, the illustrations, who edited the language and picked the title? Of course there are always many people involved in the making of a book from tip to tail – I’m just talking about the major influencers. In Shanna Katz’s book, I think I can see up to five or six significant sources of input. And my hunch is that they did not at all get along.

For starters, despite the title, it’s not an illustrated guide, exactly. It’s a text-based guide with a whole lot of photographs, all of the same pair of models. But none of the pictures serve to help the reader figure out anything about oral sex, other than false eyelashes look lovely if you’re going to be mostly looking down while someone takes a lot of soft-core pictures of you. There are no vulvas to be seen, save one very simplified and stylized diagram on page 12, which is both the only vulva and the only diagram in the book. Again I shall repeat my sex-guide review refrain: Where are the diagrams. Just where are they.

Here’s my guess about the production story. Katz is a smart, savvy queer perv who wrote a killer good cunnilingus guide. She used gender-neutral pronouns throughout, making it clear that not all people with vulvas are women, and not all women have vulvas. She gave sharp, sex-positive advice about communication, consent, safer sex and more. She wanted it to be paired with great visuals, lush and rich illustrations that demystified every angle of the relevant anatomy for the thirsty reader (for knowledge I mean), so she sought out a publisher, who said yes. But the marketing department decided it would only sell if it looked like mainstream porn. Therefore slim white people were photographed in alluring poses. The editor realized that the guide needed to be expanded to make the photographs more relevant; it is easier to photograph poses than it is to photograph authentic pleasure or technical information, so Katz was asked to write a whole bunch of extra material about “positions,” that ever-so-persistent space-filling and ideology-pushing tradition in heterosexual sex guides, as though sex were kind of like catalogue modeling, or trying to impress each other, instead of being kind of like wrestling, or dance, or just not bloody caring where each limb is placed because holyshitfuckthatfeelsgood. Then the editor noticed the pronouns, and a battle ensued. The result is an odd mess of “her/she/woman” and “their/they/person” which, while not confusing, exactly, nevertheless betrays the clash that produced it.

The end product? Better than many, frankly. But this might be one of those instances where self-publishing (potentially with the hiring of a freelance editor and illustrator) would have made a good thing excellent, whereas mainstream publishing took that good thing and made it ho-hum.

 

a blue review

January 23, 2015 - Leave a Response

Another review to amuse you as I get back into the swing of this blogging thing. Enjoy! I’ll be posting a handful more over the coming three or four weeks, and then we’ll see about some other stuff. :)

***

The Ultimate Guide to Sexual Fantasy: How to Have Incredible Sex with Role Play, Sex Games, Erotic Massage, BDSM Play and Much, Much More by Violet Blue

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a guide to sexual fantasy. I sort of figured it would be about how to navigate the psychological depths of fantasy – learn how to describe the details of your fantasies, discern your motivations and turn-ons within them, decide how you feel about them, and figure out which ones you want to bring to life vs which ones are best kept in the realm of your own personal fictional world. Maybe sections on writing (diaries, memoir, erotic fiction and fanfic, for instance) or making art about your fantasies, or choosing erotica or porn films that might best tap into them, or dealing with negative feelings such as shame or guilt that may be attached to some fantasies. Maybe stuff about how best to find people or communities of people who share your fantasies, or tips on discussing them with your lover(s). Maybe some woo-woo visualization exercises.

But Blue’s latest book is more of a survey course in sex play outside the one-on-one missionary think-of-England sort. It might be more appropriately titled A Primer on Sexual Adventure. Fantasy plays a role here, for sure, but the book is more about ways to explore your sexual desires – which may or may not be the same thing as your fantasies, a distinction the book does not draw. When she does write about discussing fantasies with your lover, she sets it up as a thing that might be challenging, but spends just a few paragraphs on basic ways to work through those challenges before jumping right to “Ready to play now?” It’s a bit jarring. Hurrying to the action seems like an odd choice in a book that in theory would be focusing on the psychological.

Okay, so let’s talk about the action. Unfortunately, because it tries to cover so much ground, this book ends up being kinda… watered down. Each section is mostly made up of lists of things one can try – essentially, of popular (read: other people’s) things to do. The lists themselves are for the most part pretty clichéd. The concept of the “naughty schoolgirl,” for instance, comes up at least three or four times in different sections. I can’t help but wonder whether, in focusing outwardly, on the most well-known, and therefore necessarily a bit wilted, ideas about sexy play, this guide might in fact serve to restrict and discourage readers from having and exploring their own. A sort of “here is how to have fun” approach instead of a “how would you most like to have fun?” one. At worst it could even be shaming – if one’s own fantasies are so outside the pale as to be unmentionable in a guide to fantasy, does that mean they’re really truly evil?

As well, the book’s section on BDSM is almost indistinguishable from the one on role play, with amendments for a bit of very un-scary pain and what almost sounds like mandatory power play – in the bedroom only of course, and with plenty of “funishment,” except she just says “punishment” because of course this is all fantasy, not reality (sigh). Given how much literature is out there about BDSM these days, I’m surprised to see it given such a slap-and-tickle treatment here, with no mention that for some people this goes way beyond bedroom play, and no acknowledgement that Leather culture even exists. The chapter reads as though it were written by someone imagining what BDSM is like rather than knowing it from the inside. Which is fine if BDSM isn’t really your thing, but then perhaps it would be wise to call for reinforcements when writing about it.

Given all this, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that the scenarios are also almost exclusively geared toward heterosexual monogamous couples, with the possibility of bisexual exploration noted every once in a while. And the element of surprise is suggested uncomfortably often. (Pro tip: sex-related surprises are only a good idea if you’re already pretty darned sure your lover will totally adore what you have planned, *and* has already consented to being surprised. Outside that framework, you’re taking some pretty big risks.) All in all The Ultimate Guide reads a lot closer to a Cosmo-style grab bag of straight sex tips than I’d have expected from either Violet Blue or Cleis. At the very least, it would have been nice for them to explain in the subtitle or the back-cover blurb who the book is intended for – cuz it’s very much not Cleis’s usual readership of porn-loving queers.

Speaking of which, for a book ostensibly about fantasy, it bizarrely skips any real discussion of people’s most common sources of fantasy material – regular old books, TV and films, and their pornographic cousins. I would have really liked to read a guide that would accompany people through that!

Anyway. If you’re straight, very new to sexual exploration outside the box, pretty sorted-out around whatever shame or other baggage you might have, and in search of a basic tour of what’s out there in sexyland, check out this guide as a starting point. If that’s not you, here’s what I’d advise instead: If any of the topics in the guide really appeal to you – threesomes, BDSM play, erotic massage, whatever – go find a book devoted entirely to that topic, possibly from Blue’s extensive resource guide at the back. You’ll doubtless come out with a more satisfying level of detail. Do check out other works by Violet Blue – I gave her Adventurous Couple’s Guide to Sex Toys a solid review last year, for instance. She really shines when she’s talking about how tech and sex intersect, and it’s high time we saw an extensive book about just that from her. Don’t take The Ultimate Guide to Sexual Fantasy as a prime example of the work she’s capable of. Sadly it’s just not.

good intentions for 2015! also, a book review: playing the whore by melissa gira grant

January 13, 2015 - One Response

Dear readers,

Thanks for your patience. I am so pleased to know you’re still interested in reading me after all these years, especially since I rarely post these days. I miss you, and I miss writing here. I plan to do more of it as my health improves in 2015. I also have some other big ideas, including a donation button and a few formatting revamps! Eventually.

For now, I’m going to be posting a series of book reviews. Instead of one big post like I did last year around this time, I’ll be posting them one at a time over the coming weeks in what I hope will be an entertaining trickle. I hope you enjoy them! I have every intention of writing posts that aren’t book reviews over the coming months – lest you be concerned. I already have a few topics in mind. Among others the film version of Those Damn Books will be coming out soon and doubtless I’ll have things to say about it. Sigh. Also I’m chewing on lots of ideas these days about relationship transitions, power and protocol, fetishism, and more. Perhaps some of them will find their way here.

For now, I give you the first in my short series of reviews. Read on, and stay tuned.

***

Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work by Melissa Gira Grant

Grant’s brief book takes a fresh look at sex work from an insider’s perspective. She does an admirable job articulating the politics of sex work without simply rehashing the same-old.

Especially strong is her chapter “The Police,” in which she explains in shockingly simple terms how feminist organizations collude with the state to produce a situation in which cops are able to perpetrate violence against sex workers freely and with impunity, proportionally far more so than the workers’ clients ever do.

In her chapter “The Prostitute,” she describes the social construction of the prostitute as a creature who is always seen as working (and therefore sexually available), and always needing to be controlled. In “The Work,” she decries a public that demands punishment for sex workers while also voraciously consuming their stories. She sees the prostitute’s storytelling about her own life as being itself a form of sex work, and one that Grant herself refuses to engage in within the pages of her book. Essentially, we’re not paying her for that kind of service. (Her framing of this is fucking brilliant.)

In “The Debate,” she notes that the internet, dating sites and social media are blurring the lines between the prostitute and the non-prostitute:

“Is this the real fear then: not that more people are becoming prostitutes but that the conventional ways we’d distinguish a prostitute from a nonprostitute woman are no longer as functional? Antiprostitution laws are primarily about exclusion and banishment; how, now, will we know who is to be banished and excluded?”

In “The Industry,” she takes on rescue-industry NGOs and feminist groups, arguing that these groups use sex workers to legitimize their own morality programs. In “The Other Women,” she critiques the black-and-white framing employed by anti-sex-work feminists:

“As controlled by customer demand as sex workers are supposed to be, anti-sex work reformers carry on far more about customers than sex workers do, insisting that they and their sexual demands are all-powerful. Sex workers are made helpless before them, their consent and critical thinking apparently eroded by their attire.”

She concludes with a clear call to decriminalization:

“There’s no reason to wait for all these attitudes to change, for whore stigma to somehow fall away, to make room for another way, whether that’s amending the law, ending sex workers’ status as outlaws by other means, or by something more and yet unimagined. To hope that all those others who are occupied by their obsession with us – by the prostitutes in their fantasies – to wait for them to change and accept sex work as work and sex workers as full agents in their own lives before we take the lead? They won’t. It’s through our demands, our imaginations, that we will.”

The book is somewhat disjointed – I wished for a clearer thesis. Grant often raises a topic or an example and doesn’t bring it to a satisfying conclusion. And yet, I wonder if that’s just me wishing for pat sum-ups where they simply don’t exist. Instead, Grant excels at insightful reframing, turning questions back against their askers and challenging the ways we understand what “prostitution” is and isn’t, who’s exploiting who, who’s perpetuating violence, who’s harming and who’s helping. Throughout, she never relies on the “party line” of progressive sex work politics, preferring instead to push even further, ask more complicated questions, never pretending to have a simple solution but always challenging the boring received ideas about sex work that circulate in our culture. This book is much-needed, frank, simple, and relentlessly intelligent.

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