2013 in (book) review

Greetings in these snowy, bitter cold early days of 2014!

This is the time when everyone is publishing 2013 year-end reviews of all manner of things. I’m adding mine to the mix, but it’s a little different than most. Welcome to my 2013 review of books. I don’t often review books here, mostly because in the past couple of years I’ve had terribly little time and energy to read the ones that publishers have sent to me. But I sure did mean to! And as I’ve been trying hard to catch up on the many elements of everyday life that fell by the wayside during the last few years of a) grad school and b) serious chronic pain, I pledged to myself that I’d read through the stack and bloody get it done with.

I’m going in more or less chronological order from when I received them. Predictably, this makes for a long post, but handily it’s divided into sections by titles, and each one stands alone, so you can skip or peruse at your leisure. I cringe to admit that the first on the list (and a mighty fine one it is) has been sitting in my review queue for ummmm about four years now. Ahh, better late than never? Perhaps the next time I do this, it really will be a year in review and not, like, half a decade. Sigh.

The titles, in order of appearance:

  • Dear Raven and Joshua: Questions and Answers about Master/Slave Relationships by Raven Kaldera and Joshua Tenpenny
  • 7 Keys to Lifelong Sexual Vitality: The Hippocrates Institute Guide to Sex, Health and Happiness by Brian R. Clement, PhD, NMD, LN and Anna Marie Clement, PhD, NMD, LN
  • The Ultimate Guide to Prostate Pleasure by Charlie Glickman, PhD and Aislinn Emerizian
  • The Smart Girl’s Guide to the G-Spot by Violet Blue
  • The Little Book of Kink: Sexy Secrets for Over-the-Edge Pleasure by Jessica O’Reilly, PhD
  • The Adventurous Couple’s Guide to Sex Toys by Violet Blue
  • The S&M Feminist by Clarisse Thorn

Read on for your (annual?ish?) dose of book critique! I have endeavoured to make it both incisive and entertaining.

Oh, also, if you want me to review your thing, whatever that thing may be, first take a look at my review policy. If it suits your fancy, send me a note and I’ll get right back to you. And: don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

Dear Raven and Joshua: Questions and Answers about Master/Slave Relationships by Raven Kaldera and Joshua Tenpenny

Full-time, ongoing M/s relationships—as opposed to playtime-only arrangements—are a rare and fascinating thing about which precious little has been written. That small pool of writing is pretentious at best and purely fantastical at worst. Kaldera and Tenpenny’s book bursts forth from the rest, a clear superior, a true fountain of valuable insights and knowledge born of many years’ experience.

I know, that all sounds vaguely ejaculatory, and possibly with reason. This book kinda gives me a braingasm, I’m not gonna lie. In the years since it was sent to me, not only have I read it twice, but I’ve lent it out at least half a dozen times, discussed it with my book club as one of our monthly selections, and recommended it both in person and on my D/s, M/s and protocol reading list here.

The thing about this pair of writers is, while they aren’t academics, they are intellectuals in the truest sense of the word. This is to say they lead a deeply examined life, filled with careful, considered choices which they can, and do, articulate in a gloriously down-to-earth and yet intensely rigorous fashion for the rest of us to ponder. Even if you’re an M/s practitioner, you don’t have to agree with all their decisions; that’s not the point. The questions they so ably raise, and the process by which they explain the answers at which they’ve arrived, are sufficient to inspire plenty of thought and discussion so that we can all come to our own conclusions about what we do and don’t want to get up to. We should all think about the ethics of our relationships so thoroughly. It is such a bloody relief that someone’s done so, such that we can follow suit in our own ways.

Kaldera and Tenpenny are a pair of queer polyamorous pervy trans men who are devout Pagans living with disability and living on a farm. They bring their keen minds and wealth of life experience on the fringe to bear on basic questions of how to do deep power-based relationships ethically, responsibly, with care and love and planning, and while still having fun along the way. This is a long book, and stuffed full of enough intensely thought-provoking concepts to keep your mind busy for weeks, to say nothing of the conversations it’ll inspire in your power pairings. It’s so yummy I hope they’ll write a volume 2.

As well, it pleases me to no end that Team Kaldera and Tenpenny have got this self-publishing thing down to a real art. I don’t love self-publishing in general, as it’s often a way for people who badly need, but don’t actually want, good editing to put their unvarnished oeuvres out into the world. But in the same way as you may occasionally find a pair of $500 mint-condition vintage Fluevogs for five bucks in the bargain bin at a Value Village, occasionally the self-publishing world surprises me with a minor masterpiece. This is one such book. Topic aside, it’s solidly written, clearly edited, free of poor punctuation and sloppy grammar, and beautifully well organized. Makes my little editor heart sing, it does. And this is one example of how self-publishing can allow voices that might otherwise be marginalized completely out of existence to truly shine. This tome will never be picked up by HarperCollins, y’know? But for the thinking power-exchange pervert, it is a Very Good Thing that we can get our hands on this material and feel a little less alone in the world. We suffer from such a crushing dearth of models – this book may save a life or two simply by existing.

Okay, sure, there’s some less than perfect stuff here. Like, umm, I don’t love the cover art? Yep. I mean it’s okay. Just not amazing.

So, uh, go buy this book. For real.

 

7 Keys to Lifelong Sexual Vitality: The Hippocrates Institute Guide to Sex, Health and Happiness by Brian R. Clement, PhD, NMD, LN and Anna Marie Clement, PhD, NMD, LN

With 7 Keys, the authors aim to give readers the keys to lifelong sexual pleasure and health. Unfortunately, the book kinda just reads like a 200-page ad for their health institute.

I will say that 7 Keys’ last chapter is pretty great. It’s about aging and sex, and is a solid treatise on reclaiming our right to enjoy sex well past the standard ideas of the “acceptable” age for it. Right on! Let’s fuck into our twilight years.

The rest of the book, though, is… sigh. For starters, gimmicky. It’s mostly compilations of anecdotes and magazine-style sidebars about this and that health study, but what are readers meant to do with it all? We don’t know. The whole thing reads like an extended and somewhat more subdued- and academic-sounding issue of your average women’s glossy, with some vaguely Buddhist/Tantric/yogic spirituality thrown in for flavour.

It’s also flat-out heterosexist and cissexist. Not a single mention of trans people of any sort; a token anecdote about a gay couple and one about a lesbian couple. With these “look how open-minded we are” exceptions, the language throughout the book is entirely premised on the assumption of heterosexuality, and for the most part, marriage as well. It’s also bizarrely moralistic – it purports to be sex-positive, but instead it encourages copious sex within a fairly rigid framework of what I’d call “soft monogamy,” meaning love and long-term commitment, with possible exceptions for swinging. (It also uses outdated terms like “frigid” to talk about women who don’t orgasm.) In the 7 Keys world, nobody’s single, unmarried, queer, trans, disabled or, gawd forbid, a sex worker. Hey, maybe it’ll speak to you if you’re a high-income married straight person who needs a kick in the (sexual) pants. Handy, that, considering those are the folks who can likely afford to be “guests” at their institute!

In Key Two, “Imagine Your Sexuality,” they spend a chunk of time on sex addiction, for which you can apparently qualify if you answer “yes” to questions such as “Though you may love your spouse and feel sexually compatible with this person, do you still masturbate regularly or seek sexual gratification outside your relationship?” Oy. Just… oy. Please go read some Marty Klein on why sex addiction is a useless diagnosis instead of this claptrap.

The authors’ nutrition advice, mostly in Key Five, “Nourish Your Sexuality,” is bizarre. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but having worked with half a dozen naturopaths and health consultants in my lifetime, I can tell you that there is simply no miracle diet or superfood that works for everyone. And barring physical trauma or certain specific hormonal or medical conditions, robust sexual function is basically an outcropping of overall good health – clear circulation, good energy levels and so forth – and happy relationships, which, mysteriously, are barely addressed in the book at all.

When it comes to nutrition, the best natural health practitioners will find out about your specific constitution, current challenges and health history and tailor something to you. Here, the authors flat-out push a vegan raw food diet – which, while charmingly New Agey and surely of great benefit to some, will wreak havoc on other people’s digestive systems. (For instance, I’ve personally never felt better since I started cooking as much of my food as possible on the advice of two separate natural healthcare providers, whaddaya know!) They also list dozens of studies about foods that purportedly stimulate the sex drive – with the number of hours prior to having sex that you should eat them. I challenge anyone (who can’t afford a private chef) to come up with a realistic program that actually incorporates all their suggestions and that still allows you to have a regular work day and anything remotely resembling spontaneity in your sex life. Also, never mind any consideration of food politics (say, preferring local and seasonal produce), lifestyle, budget and so forth. Gah. Skip this and instead, eat some dark leafy greens, go take a nice circulation-boosting walk to the bookstore, and buy yourself Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. You can stop at the drugstore on the way home, because I’ll also suggest that you ignore the anti-condom advice they seem to give in their section on how “semen absorption is good for mental health,” which opens with the stunner “If you’ve overcome your resistance to contact with another person’s sexual fluids…” Um, WHAT.

What bugged me most about this book is that in Key Four, “Protect Your Sexuality,” there is… wait for it… zero discussion of sexual boundaries. Like, none. No mention of STIs, pregnancy, safer sex, preferred or disliked sexual acts, emotional boundaries, recovery from past trauma or abuse… nada. Nothing about consent, negotiation, any kind of sex-related communication. Instead it’s all bits and pieces about sexual dysfunction, “why orgasms are good for you” (uhh… really? We need convincing?), whether the G-spot exists (they seem to think maybe it does, but refuse to say so categorically), and whether or not it’s all right to sleep in a separate bed from your partner. In the Hippocrates world, these are the big problems. Wow. Must be nice there.

Seriously? Along with your Pollan, pick up Jaclyn Friedman’s What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety. Don’t even bother looking at this one unless it’s for the cute cover art concept—a photograph of pleasantly non-gendered hot peppers romantically entwined. It’s about the hottest thing about the book.

 

The Smart Girl’s Guide to the G-Spot by Violet Blue

This is a friendly, no-bullshit book. It’s clear, well-written, well-edited, thorough yet concise. Solid. Violet Blue gamely skewers all the stupid, shaming, inaccurate information about the G-spot and replaces it with sex-positive advice on how to find it, what to do with it and why that’s all perfectly okay. She insists that the G-spot does not need to be endowed with spiritual meaning in order to be enjoyable – a welcome point, given how alienating some of the “goddess-spot” stuff out there can be. (If that’s your thing, great! But it’s not for everyone.) She also makes it very clear that the G-spot is not, as she writes, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” which kinda made me think “turducken!” (in that both it and the G-spot pseudo-mystery are unnecessary, weird and overhyped). This brief book also contains a handful of porn vignettes by Alison Tyler, who is reliably top-notch in the erotica department. Bonus!

Violet Blue’s sexual politics are such that you don’t need to worry about the heterosexism here. Also she’s plenty kink-friendly, and there’s nary a mention of assumed monogamy to be seen. But there’s no mention of trans folks and how they might relate to their comparable anatomy. She includes a sidebar on “the male G-spot,” i.e. the prostate, which is handy. But no note of alternate terminology that trans women might use to discuss the analogous part of their anatomy, or how to stimulate it on a trans gal, whether or not she’s had genital surgery; and no notes about trans men, their possible preferred terms for the G-spot, and whether or not this part of their bodies might change with testosterone, for instance. This isn’t so much a comment on this particular book as much as it’s a comment on sex how-to manuals in general. It is high time that we started seeing trans people’s bodies and realities included in them as a matter of course, rather than having to extrapolate or be content with a “YMMV” note.

I’d like to have seen a few more details included that seemed odd in their absence. For instance, in the piece about creative solutions for the wet spots resulting from ejaculation, she doesn’t mention either the sheets designed specially for this purpose (soft rubber sandwiched between layers of silk and velvet) or the super-budget solutions of disposable puppy chucks (cheap!) or the laundry-saving single towel laid over a garbage bag. And in the anal play section, she doesn’t note that because of the thin wall separating the rectum from the vagina, if you take the right angle, anal penetration can stimulate the G-spot itself, just through the added layer of a second wall of tissue, rather than simply being a pleasant side dish. But these are small things – for a short text, the book covers a lot of ground with confidence, competence and clarity.

Unfortunately, the one exception to Blue’s otherwise super-clear writing is at precisely the wrong spot (ha!).

It starts out well. On page 4, she says that “About one to two inches inside and on the front (belly button side) of your vaginal canal is the route through which urine leaves your body – your urethra.” She explains that it’s surrounded by glandular tissue that swells during arousal, can respond very well to stimulation, and can result in ejaculation. So far so good. On page 7, she notes, “To get an idea where to find the spot, go to the toilet, pee, and see where it comes from. Ding! There’s the map to your buried treasure; this is the urethral opening, the outside indicator of your G-spot’s underground hideout.” Yep. Still with her. The diagram on page 19 shows the outside view of a vulva, complete with urethral opening, sorta around halfway between the clit and the vaginal opening. We’re still on track. Blue also does a great job of explaining what the G-spot feels like to the touch and where it’s located inside.

Thus far, we get that the urethra is a tube, through which your pee comes out, that runs between your belly and your vagina; it’s surrounded with glandular tissue called the urethral sponge (think of a garden hose wrapped in a thick blanket); that tissue swells with liquid when you’re turned on. The front end of that tube is the urethral opening. The tube itself is best accessed by inserting something in the vagina and angling upward toward the belly, so you’re stroking its spongy underside through the vaginal wall.

But on page 27-28, in the section entitled “What the G-Spot Looks Like,” things get all confusing. She suggests that people take a hand mirror and look to see visual proof that your G-spot exists. Which is a great idea in general, but when you’re trying to see something that’s 1-2 inches inside your vaginal canal and on the front wall of your body, that’s kinda… not possible. At least without using a periscope. A hand mirror simply won’t suffice. Instead, she proceeds to instruct folks to look for the urethral opening, which, according to what she wrote earlier, is actually the outside indicator of the G-spot – not the G-spot itself. Absolutely valid, and worth knowing about for its own (related) erotic potential, but confusing given the section subtitle.

She then mentions an “acorn shape,” but it isn’t described in detail or shown in either of the diagrams – on the drawing that shows the urethral opening, there is simply a little slit, no acorn to be seen. Having never taken the time to visually explore a urethral opening up close, and not currently having the flexibility to do so on myself, mirror or no mirror, I recruited a kind volunteer who gamely let me go acorn-hunting. Thanks to my lovely helper and some bright light, I can now confirm that the tissue surrounding the urethral opening does vaguely, kinda maybe, look like a little upside-down acorn seen from the side, if you squint at it. Two small ridges of tissue mirror the shape of the labia, meaning they meet above the urethral opening in an upside-down V. A third ridge of tissue lies horizontally beneath the urethral opening, and it’s a bit puffier than the side ridges, and could perhaps look a bit like an upside-down acorn cap. Maybe. A stretched-out, skinny one, if you’re pulling the skin up so you’re able to see the opening. And otherwise, probably mostly hard to see because labia and such.

At the conclusion of the section (why here, instead of upon first mention of this acorn?), she writes, “When unaroused, your G-spot area is going to look somewhat like an acorn with tiny folds of flesh around it – and you may even be able to see a little opening. Yay! That’s it!” But, well, that’s not it. That’s your urethral opening. As stated earlier, the outside indicator. Not the G-spot proper. Unless maybe you’re trying to include that external indicator in the broader system, which is totally valid, but in that case the project in question needs to be clearly explained.

All in all, these few pages add up to being remarkably confusing, which is a real shame considering the smart, no-nonsense quality of the rest. I suspect this may be an editing issue – some of it reads as though it were written in a different order and then shuffled, and it’s possible that misleading section subtitles were added rather than written that way originally. It’s just a real shame nobody caught the mess-up upon re-read. (Third edition, Cleis?…)

Some of this difficulty could also have been resolved with better close-up diagrams. But honestly, this is (another) general complaint about… well, pretty much all sex-related how-to books that have been published this century. WHERE ARE THE DIAGRAMS. Just where are they. I simply do not understand the concept of producing sex manuals that are all text. This book contains two illustrations; they’re both tiny, like half a page or less, and the perspective is removed, as if you were standing a foot or two away from the goods. I am all the more disappointed to see yet another insufficiently illustrated book come out on this specific topic, considering that the number-one complaint about the G-spot is that people can’t find it.

One last note applies not just to The Smart Girl’s Guide but to pretty much all the G-spot material out there. I’m always surprised when books on this topic don’t explain how recognizing a G-spot orgasm may require that you redefine the word “orgasm.” This book, better than most, explains that it’s a qualitatively different experience, but it still feels like not quite enough. A G-spot come feels very different from a clitoral one, not just more intense, squirty or repeatable. If you’re used to understanding “orgasm” as being the particular set of direct nerve-stimulation-based sensations that result from rubbing your clit, which then pull the body’s muscles along for the whole great shuddering ride, then a G-spot orgasm might register as a big exciting “something” – but not an “orgasm.” It takes a redefinition of the term to properly experience this other thing as also an orgasm – it simply doesn’t (always or necessarily) behave the same way. It’s more muscular, and it can be more breath-based, or at least, can be achieved via breath and muscle contractions in a way that will (likely) never bring you to a clitoral orgasm. Some people experience them as all of a piece, but I have met many people who have G-spot orgasms without understanding them as such, so this bit needs to be hammered out some.

All in all, The Smart Girl’s Guide to the G-Spot is a solid effort, but lacking in a few predictable areas. I want to see someone – possibly Violet Blue herself! – take this topic to the next level.

 

The Ultimate Guide to Prostate Pleasure by Charlie Glickman, PhD, and Aislinn Emirzian

Glickman and Emirzian have produced a very thorough, accessible and sex-positive manual on prostate play. It covers the basics, such as anatomy and hygiene and the eternal how-to-find-it question, capably and simple language. For serious bonus points, it also devotes an entire chapter to the question of masculinity – entitled “Real Men Don’t” – to help men get comfortable with including their prostate, and by necessity their ass, within their understanding of what it means to enjoy sexual pleasure as a man.

This is a thoroughly queer-positive book, with illustrations that include guy-guy couples as well as a section about strap-on play intended for guy-girl couples (meaning, guy-girl is not the assumed default). It’s kink-positive too, and the strap-on section acknowledges that a girl penetrating a guy can be about dominance but doesn’t have to be – thank goodness, because the automatic association of penetration with dominance makes me wanna retch. They also include a full two pages on trans women’s experiences of similar play, with notes about how hormones and differing emotional associations with this body part may affect a trans woman’s experience. Of course I’d have loved to see this section be a whole chapter, but it’s pretty great that it’s there, and the authors’ language use in it is super-respectful.

The book features an intriguing section in which the authors compare the P-spot (prostate) with the G-spot, as the tissues are considered homologous; and they explore how nerve networks function in the deep internal sub-structures of our genitals. It’s really interesting material, and again, I’d have loved a whole chapter on it. That said, I wish there was a way to get away from the gendered language that often comes up in this sort of discussion. For instance, while I’m not a super-big fan of having a part of my sexual anatomy named after a dude, even with the best of activist intentions (read Violet Blue’s G-spot book for that intriguing story), I really don’t love the idea of naming it the “female prostate” either. I mean, really, must we? Can’t we come up with something that doesn’t take the assigned-male body for its reference point, and that’s not binary-gendered? We managed to come up with “internal condom” instead of “female condom,” for instance, so surely this isn’t a Herculean task? Sigh.

I appreciate the gentle, encouraging tone the authors take when explaining how to relax the sphincters for penetration – “One sex educator we know compared this to learning to do a split in gymnastics: you wouldn’t expect to do it all in one day. Rather, you’d practice regularly and each time you’d be able to go a little lower to the ground. It’s the same with penetration.” They take a similarly kind approach to explaining how to find the prostate and what it might, or might not, feel like when you do, taking care to debunk the whole “magic button” idea. And they also discuss how you may need to rewire your interpretation of certain sensations in order to interpret them as pleasurable – “think of it as like acquiring a taste for liquor or for a new kind of food.” As well, kudos for the solid sections on fisting and perineum massage. Really, they cover it all.

Their description of the way a prostate will feel to fingers, and the structures that surround it, are great. I only wish – here we go again! – that the diagrams included in the book substantiated the eloquent descriptions. The authors go into great detail about the “bulb of the penis,” which you can probably imagine as being a bit like the bulb of a tulip, but the few and small illustrations don’t show this bulb, never mind showing what inner bits it’s made up of – we are left to guess. Same with the prostate itself. The pictures show a far-away map of where it’s located, and further pictures show techniques for playing with it (fingers moving in different directions against a disembodied blob of a prostate), but none show what this “plum buried in sand” might look like up close, nestled among all its neighbouring bits of flesh. Later, they describe how the corpora cavernosa (part of the tissue forming the penis) splits into a Y behind the perineum – but again, no visuals to help us understand where this happens or what it looks like internally. For readers with a visual mind, and even those of us who could just use a multi-dimensional explanation, these feel like major missing pieces.

Overall, I’m very impressed with this book. I look forward to seeing more work from Glickman and Emirzian – we could use more sex manuals written with this much care, detail and political thoughtfulness.

 

The Little Book of Kink: Sexy Secrets for Thrilling Over-the-Edge Pleasure by Jessica O’Reilly, PhD

If you’re straight, curious about BDSM, and enjoy looking at glossy, airbrushed soft-porn photos of almost-exclusively-white, slim, able-bodied and heavily made-up/waxed/plucked/styled straight folks, this is the book for you!

Sigh.

Okay, I’ll give you the good news first. The Little Book of Kink contains good basic safety advice and a solid myth-busting section about BDSM. I definitely appreciate that O’Reilly took the time to note, for instance, that being penetrated does not make you submissive and kink doesn’t come from being abused as a kid. I was also pleased to see that, in the suggested scenarios, she makes an effort to include a fairly balanced array of power pairings – some female-dominant, some male-dominant, no particular emphasis on either one. Yay feminism! As well, though it reads like an afterthought, I appreciate the good intentions behind the note acknowledging that the book is intended for “opposite-sex” couples, but that the wider kinky community “is composed of a diverse range of folks with a wide range of experiences related to gender, sexual orientation, and relationship arrangements.”

That said, I think the following quote sums up most of the book pretty well: “Remember that there is no right or wrong way to be kinky. Whether you’re turned on by spiked high heels and leather whips or dog collars and ball-gags, you’re perfectly normal – and perfectly kinky.” In other words, there are millions of ways to be kinky, but we’ll lay out the most product-oriented, easy-consumption kinds and let you choose from within them so you can feel super kinky but still be totally normal. TOTALLY normal. So don’t be worried or anything.

Mostly, this book gives straight couples ideas for how to “kink up” your basic sexual intercourse. This isn’t a book about getting an endorphin high from a good flogging or thoughtfully exploring power dynamics. At best it’s about fresh foreplay techniques and soft-core role-play. The bulk of the book is made up of lushly photographed suggested scenarios. To be fair, it’s not necessarily a bad idea to assemble a book of semi-scripted sex scenes to try out – for some folks, that might be just what they need to get their imaginations flowing. But to me, this reads like a parade of tired old “spice up your sex life” ideas à la Cosmo. And the suggested dialogue… oh dear. I just… no.

Call me biased (and queer), but I can’t help but think that an excessive focus on trying out exciting props and new positions is an indication of some sort of crushing underlying boredom. Don’t get me wrong – toys can be fun, and I’m all for sexual acrobatics if that’s your thing. I just find that when the “spice up your sex life” discussion centres on ways to add variety to three basic sex acts – penis-in-vagina, penis-in-mouth, and cunt-in-mouth – it points up a kind of flatness within the acts themselves. Like a cookbook called 101 Pasta Recipes. It’s still just all boiled durum semolina flour, y’know? And maybe it’s because I just read Margot Weiss’s Techniques of Pleasure, a scholarly critique focusing mostly on the heavily capitalist/commercial character of the San Francisco pansexual BDSM scene, but I couldn’t help but note how readers of The Little Book are supposed to find the idea of an array of new toys and props to be just sooo exciting. Oh my goodness cock rings! Oh my goodness blindfolds! Meh. There’s very little in here about the substance of SM and a whole lot about the externals of it.

O’Reilly notes that she’s learned about BDSM by talking to experts and visiting the occasional dungeon party. At least we know that she herself doesn’t purport to be such an expert, so good on her for honesty. Unfortunately, it shows. Maybe for this book’s intended audience that’s no big deal? But I couldn’t help but cringe repeatedly as I read through some of the sections. She mentions single-tail whips, for instance, without noting that they’re seen as a seriously specialized implement even among experienced perverts, mostly because if you don’t learn how to use one properly you can slice off your own ear in fairly short order, not to mention other people’s bits. And her BDSM checklist includes caning (generally understood as relatively advanced high-pain play) but omits floggers, which are kinda hard to do any serious damage with.

The book’s missteps along these lines vary from the hilarious to the seriously endangering. So, for instance, I laughed out loud when I read “The Saucy Snake.” It’s essentially a side-by-side rear-entry sex position, with an added twist: “Grip your teeth into her wound-up hair and give it a little tug. If she cries out, remind her that you are in charge: ‘You know you like it. Now behave, please.’” Points for domly politeness, but really, if the dude has a mouthful of ponytail, wouldn’t this little dialogue just make him gag on the hair if he hadn’t already? Or at least sound like he’s talking with his mouth full? “You gnow you lie id. Gnow behay pleesh.”

In “Life of the Party,” O’Reilly suggests using a remote-control vibrator at a friendly dinner party. I’m not a big vibrator girl myself, but I did just read Violet Blue’s sex toy guide (review below!), which states in no uncertain terms that remote-control vibes need to be kept for loud venues such as dance clubs, because they simply make too much noise to stay discreet. This, of course, might be less of an issue if you have really open-minded friends, but The Little Book seems designed for the average suburban couple, not the sorts of people who have half a dozen pervs over for a buzzy kind of dinner most weekends. So, not exactly dangerous, but if you’re part of the target audience here, quite likely pretty embarrassing.

Then we get to “All Tied Up,” in which the gentleman is made to kneel and have his hands bound behind his back. Ensues genital stimulation. So far so good. But then, “When you are both ready for more, walk away and demand that he chase you.” Um – chase you? Like, with his hands tied behind his back? “You can increase the kink factor and degree of challenge by binding his upper arms.” Such a delightful idea! You’d better be quite sure that your house has no slippy area rugs or kiddie toys lying around, mind you, because you are now engaging in what’s classically understood as high stupidity by the average bondage aficionado. (Helpful hint: if your bottom couldn’t catch themselves in the occasion of a fall, and you’re not right there to do it for them, don’t destabilize them. Just don’t. That kind of bruising isn’t the fun kind.)

O’Reilly’s penchant for neck-breaking (and occasionally penis-breaking) risk is also apparent with “The Submissive Slide,” where the gentleman holds a back arch over the end of the bed and supports his body weight on the top of his head (at least he is allowed the use of his arms for this one, poor guy) and the “Bend Me Over,” where the lady gets her turn at cervical spine damage (and possibly shoulder-wrenching) when she straddles him backward on the couch as he fucks and spanks her simultaneously, while holding her upper body in the air by the wrists. (I thought that last part was a nasty arrest technique. Or maybe something out of Ann Rice’s infamous anatomy-defying Beauty series.) At least here O’Reilly suggests that pillows be laid on the floor in case he loses his grip and she pitches face-first onto the carpet. How thoughtful!

Here’s an idea. Use this book for a party game. Try racing to see who can find the best bits of standard weird magazine-style advice (gems include “surprise your lover by rubbing [sandpaper] into the crook of his elbow” and “paper clips … can come in handy for scratching, poking, clamping and pricking”). Bonus points if you’re the first to find the sly Fifty Shades reference (“the apex of her thighs”). Or you could play bingo with the cheesy porn-star faces in the photos (lip-biting! finger-biting! oh, the sauciness!). Beyond that? Give this one a pass.

 

The Adventurous Couple’s Guide to Sex Toys by Violet Blue

Okay, I’ll admit that I kinda ho-hummed my way through the first few chapters of this little guide. It starts out reeeeally basic. Nicely done, mind you, in that if you’ve never heard of a sex toy before, it’ll take your hand and gently guide you through the process of understanding the dizzying array of stuff out there, acquiring the ones that you might enjoy, and playing with them safely. The advice is all solid, and it covers all the bases.

But then I got to four of the later chapters and all of a sudden I perked up considerably. Violet Blue gives one of the most interesting tours of unusual gear that I’ve ever read.

Chapter 6 is about teledildonics – high-tech sex toys and software allowing people to screw in cyberspace. It’s absolutely not my thing, but it makes for excellent reading. As well, she gives great tips on how to set up a sexy webcam show, what with all the lighting and angles and such. Useful!

Chapter 7 is all about sex machines. She gives a fantastic rundown of the many styles and options available, their pitfalls and selling points, and sex machine culture more generally. Again, not my thing, but a great window into a whole area of the sex toy industry with which I’m not super familiar. I totally want someone to make a documentary film based on this chapter! I feel like I saw one at some point, but I don’t recall it being as thorough as this.

Chapter 8 covers exotic sex toys, opening with the sentence, “If you’re the kind of person who thinks that life’s pleasures should be a decadent indulgence to be truly appreciated, you’re not alone.” Apparently I’m a sex toy snob, because while I’m really not the sort to accumulate dozens of cheap jelly toys, reading this section made me absolutely lust after several of the luxury models out there. How have I lived this long without a custom-carved rose quartz dildo in a locking gilded silver cage appropriate for bedside table display?! Sigh.

Chapter 9 deals with sex furniture, from the simple to the fantabulous. Blue gives a delightful tour of the possibilities. Man, human beings are so creative. I totally want to get the Tally Ho contraption for my pony play friends. (See what I mean? Such boggling variety!)

With all this in mind, I’m surprised that she didn’t include a chapter on sex dolls – speaking of documentaries, I saw The Mechanical Bride last year and found it utterly awesome, and these must surely count as sex toys. Seems like an odd omission for a book that’s otherwise so unafraid of the eclectic.

The Guide has a couple of down sides. For starters, it lacks both an introduction and a conclusion – a very strange editorial choice. In this missing introduction, Blue could have noted that who this guide is intended for. Blue’s language isn’t hugely gendered most of the time, so she’s implicitly leaving a lot of room for folks to pair up in whatever way they want, but it doesn’t say much about same-sex couples even when that might have been useful, so it left me feeling like the intended audience was straight. And the missing conclusion could have avoided the book ending on the odd note that it does – the last two sentences, about safer sex, read “If you choose to go at it uncovered, here’s what you’re at risk for. Make an informed decision!” This is followed by a weirdly-structured table-form list of STI risks that, to be honest, is pretty confusing, and it certainly makes for a strange way to end a book.

Like Blue’s other book reviewed here, the Guide to Sex Toys makes no mention of trans people. Well, that’s not true – she does mention the existence of trans men once, kinda randomly, in the strap-on section. But that’s many pages after she first notes that dildos can be used for “mock blow jobs,” a wording choice which doesn’t leave much room for a trans man’s relationship to getting his (silicone) dick sucked to be a real one. I’m not sure what to make of this absence, but it’s definitely unfortunate.

I’m surprised to note that Blue also gets a little confusing when she deals with BDSM. For instance, her basic advice for people wanting to learn bondage is to look online for a complete list of knots. A puzzling directive, considering the resource she suggests isn’t kink-specific, and beginners don’t really need to know more than one basic knot to do decent beginner-level bondage (advice that bondage expert Midori makes very clear in all her rope classes) – but they sure might need to know a few things about safe places on the body to tie, circulation, nerve damage risk and so forth. I’d suggest instead Midori’s classic The Seductive Art of Japanese Bondage, or one of the Two Knotty Boys’ nicely photographed basic guides. Blue also gives contradictory advice about clamps – first suggesting that they be left on no longer than five minutes, then later switching that to 15 to 20 with no explanation. She also notes that “wooden, plastic, and specialty metal clothespins fall into the ‘mean’ category” – but in my experience a standard wooden clothespin is widely understood as a pretty entry-level pervertible, and not an especially scary one. Now, most of what she says about kink is spot-on – but these odd little glitches really stood out to me.

One thing I definitely appreciate about this guide is that despite being essentially a tour of commercial sex products, it doesn’t reek of consumerism. I didn’t sense a strong push to spend spend spend, or the message that sex is only fun if you dress it up with as much gear as possible, or even that gear is a necessary part of sex. It reads more like she’s got a genuine fascination with the wide world of what’s available out there, and the human creativity behind it all. And Blue does a great job balancing the reality that some folks just don’t have a lot of money to spend on toys with her overarching message that sex toys should be of high quality so they don’t endanger their users. So while she trashes cheap Doc Johnson toys for their poor quality and chemical off-gasing, for instance, she does so while also providing advice on how to use them in the safest possible manner if you choose to do go there for budget reasons.

All in all, if you want an entertaining and informative tour of today’s sex toy world, this book is a solid pick.

 

The S&M Feminist by Clarisse Thorn

This is a quirky book. It’s mostly charming, sometimes infuriating, often thought-provoking, and overall well worth a read.

The charming stuff: The book is a collection of Clarisse Thorn’s best blog posts, written, from what I gather, in her mid- to late twenties as she emerged into her identity as a BDSM practitioner and sex-positive activist. As such, much of it is to varying degrees coltish and earnest, imbued with that sense of excitement and discovery that happens when you’re figuring out some big thoughts and identity pieces. Clarisse is a submissive/masochist-leaning switch with strong feminist leanings, a keenly curious mind, and a commitment to social justice and self-reflection. Kudos to her for taking her online work and publishing it in book form. It’s a young voice and frankly, we need more of those, especially the ones wrestling with big questions about sexual politics.

Every once in a while the youth element made my not-so-inner jaded scholar laugh out loud in delight – for instance, when she discusses how historically people who aren’t strictly gay or lesbian have been excluded from gay and lesbian communities: “I understand that there are historical reasons that kind of thing happened, and analyzing the phenomenon would take up a whole post. I’m pretty sure books have been written about it.” Yes… yes. Books indeed have! It’s actually kinda neat to read work from a self-identified feminist who appears to have only minimal exposure to any kind of feminist theory or formal feminist organizing. What Clarisse lacks in reference points she makes up for a kind of genuine political conviction that’s refreshingly free of dogma, bitterness, intellectual pretentiousness and more-radical-than-thou attitude. Clarisse is too curious about the world to waste her time trying to be cool and ironic. It’s wonderful.

She’s a lucid writer, too; the structure of each piece is solid and logical. A few gems also stand out for evocative language use, often the ones more focused on personal narrative. She’s got an image-rich piece about her experience of breaking up with two lovers in San Francisco, for instance, and a heartbreaking one about how her mother’s experience of rape has affected her own sexuality and political identity as a feminist.

I found myself wanting to see the book split into two. One book would be a young perv’s thinky memoir, with a great deal more narrative structure and detail so I could follow the threads of her various love affairs and experiences of sexual awakening. The other would be a collection of her theory pieces, arranged in some sort of progressive order building from elementary to more complex; she could write an introduction to chart the progress of her thinking rather than having prefaces to each individual essay. In both cases I think she could expand and deepen her writing. I can see the interest in mixing the two approaches together, but I was drawn in enough that I wanted more from each, and the book is already over 300 pages long. This wanting-more was especially true for me when it came to pieces like her triptych about her experience doing HIV mitigation work in Africa. It’s super interesting stuff, but I wanted to hear waaaay more about her understanding of anti-racism and international work, how her experience overseas informed her subsequent activist work in North America, and so forth. As it is, the pieces feel a bit plunked in alongside all the rest; the triptych itself makes intriguing connections to her other work, but her essays not directly about Africa don’t seem to reflect her experience there much.

The infuriating stuff: The S&M Feminist is self-published, and it needs an edit. From a copy editing perspective, on some pages the gratuitous misuse (and overuse!) of italics and bold type is enough to cause sharp pains to the eye. And the number of sentences starting with or including “there is” or “there are” made me want to cry a little bit. She could also stand to tone down the self-promotion a touch – it’s not overwhelming but it does detract from the quality of the work itself, which doesn’t need the self-sell in order to be worth reading. More importantly, from a substantive perspective, even without the split I might have liked, the book could stand to be shortened by a quarter and re-ordered somewhat. Some of the pieces are a questionable fit with the book topic overall, such as a piece about veganism (complete with recipes!) that, while interesting, makes only tenuous links to BDSM politics. Other pieces, while absolutely on-topic, are structured in a way that makes them stand out from the rest of the book, such as her excellent interview with long-time BDSM and HIV activist Richard Berkowitz. It’s fantastic, and made me want to run out and see the film that inspired it, but it’s the only interview in the book and so it’s an awkward inclusion.

In short, I’d have liked her to make the pieces flow a bit more seamlessly, instead of putting together a straight-up collection of blog posts in what seems like more or less their original form. She could then have incorporated new thoughts or amendments inspired by the online comments on some of her pieces, as well – as it stands she often refers to the existence of such comments, but readers are simply left with the option of going to read the online post if they want to know more about the discussion.

The thought-provoking stuff: Clarisse is at her best when she’s asking big questions without quite knowing the answers. Her musings on masculinity within feminist sexual politics open up some great lines of inquiry. Her exploration of pick-up artist culture, in the same vein, takes an unusual angle on the topic, attempting to discern the elements of PUA theory that might have redeeming features while still condemning the misogyny inherent in the approach as a whole. (She has a whole book on that topic too, which I may review in a future post.) She discusses some thorny questions about BDSM that I don’t see talked about much – some detailed thoughts about aftercare, the nature of sexual chemistry, “clean” versus “dirty” pain, the complications of distinguishing BDSM from abuse, and a number of other topics on which she provides a fresh, unique take. The S&M Feminist, for all its flaws, would make a great book for a discussion group because of all the rich territory it covers and the genuine curiosity Clarisse brings to her many subjects.


2 thoughts on “2013 in (book) review

  1. This is an excellent reading list. The only one I’d add is “Best Sex Writing 2003” published by Cleis Press. It’s an excellent collection of sexual non-fiction. Check it out.

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