on bibles and buttsex

lsb2Truth: I’m only talking about one bible. Specifically, Lesbian Sex Bible: The New Guide to Sexual Love for Same-Sex Couples by Diana Cage. The buttsex part is more literal though. (Stay tuned for more, too, as my next review will be of Carlyle Jansen’s Anal Sex Basics: The Beginner’s Guide to Maximizing Anal Pleasure for Every Body.)

I had high hopes for Lesbian Sex Bible (why no “the”?) because I had read favourable reviews before receiving my own copy. Sadly, it does not live up to the hype. It’s not without its redeeming features, but the good stuff is sprinkled in so unevenly that it doesn’t form a cohesive whole.

For starters, it’s wicked prescriptive. For instance, on page 14: “CONFIDENCE IS MANDATORY. You must feel good about yourself to have good sex. That is nonnegotiable.” Um, whut? I never knew that insecurity disqualified us from having good sex. So much for… well, most of us!

But you know what is mandatory? Consent! A topic which Cage mentions on occasion, but fails to place front and centre. Instead, she starts with “Flirt First” (p. 17), where she advocates techniques such as “Touch her and let your hand linger on her arm,” without mentioning you might want to check if touching is welcome.

The book is peppered with “basic” scenarios that, beyond being prescriptive in a really off-putting way, would be total deal-breaker turn-offs for me if someone followed them. And while I’m sure I’m a special snowflake or whatever, I am also quite sure that we are all different, and therefore a one-size-fits-all approach is pretty much not ever going to fit all when it comes to sex. So why not advocate an approach that’s about curiosity and consent, rather than “do this and then that”? I mean:

“Always start slowly. Lean in closely. The hottest part of a kiss is that moment just before it happens when you know you are about to start kissing. Enjoy that moment by leaning in until your faces are almost touching. Stay there. Let the tension build. Make her come to you” (p. 19).

Always start slowly? Really? So all that awesome kissing that starts out with a rough pounce is, like, no good? Also, won’t it result in minimal kissing if everyone reading this is trying to make the other person come to them?

“Try putting your hands on your lover’s face while you kiss her. Touch her throat softly while you kiss” (p. 19).

Jesus Christ, if someone did that to me I might punch them, and not in a good way. Cage managed to find two of my hard limits barely twenty pages in and suggest breezing right past them.

“Everyone agrees that sexting rules, as long as it stays private” (p. 35).

Yeah, no. Everyone does not agree on this. Ask anyone who’s been burned by a vengeful ex with a poor grasp of consent and privacy, for instance. And that’s not the only reason to abstain. For some folks, it’s about language skills. For others, discomfort and awkwardness. Yet others just don’t find one-finger typing on a tiny screen to be hot. And some folks happen to know their “private” communications are only as “private” as their country’s terrible laws allow. Can we make space for some range of opinion here?

“Butch or femme, top or bottom, trans or cis, everyone has a butthole, and they are all begging to be fucked” (p. 122).

No. Just no. They are not. Argh. If you ask about people’s worst anal sex experiences, a high percentage of them will tell you about that time someone thought they could slip in the back door without asking. So don’t write advice that encourages people not to ask. When you assume, you make an ass out of… well, just you.

We do get a paragraph about “hands-off zones” and limit setting eventually, but it basically tells us that setting limits is the job of the person who has them: “No one likes to feel as if she’s done something wrong, and if you don’t tell her, she may not realize she’s hit a no-touch zone until it happens and you express displeasure” (p. 34). God forbid the person who didn’t bother asking what was okay in the first place should feel upset about guessing wrong! It’s all your fault if you didn’t magically anticipate what she was about to do and say something before she got there! Clearly the most important thing here is to not make the person who didn’t ask for consent feel bad!… uh, WTF?

To be fair, Cage does advocate a much more curious, consent-oriented approach at various points in the book. But she switches off between that and the more prescriptive one quite randomly. So while on p. 70 we get “The only way to find out is to ask her!” we also get “To make things extra hot, try putting your hand on your partner’s head or grabbing her by the hair and guiding her mouth” on p. 108, with no indication that maybe not all blow jobs feature that kind of power dynamic, and that maybe such grabbings might not be welcome even if they did.

Cage’s “Lesbians and Labels” chapter has some great stuff to say about the politics of how we name ourselves, and I love that she sees this stuff as being relevant in a sex manual, because it totally is. That said, the section on “butch swagger” made me want to tear my (clipped, non-binary) hair out. It perpetuates the tiresome assumption that butch = masculine = top, which, well, fuck that shit. Some of us like our butches swaggerless and possibly on a leash, thank you very much. Butch tops are great. Not all butches are tops. Why are we still having this discussion?

I know you’ll be shocked to hear this, but: femmes get short shrift here. While we have two solid pages on perfecting your butch swagger, femmes get zero advice. We are told they exist as part of butch-femme couples, and we get one teensy paragraph on femme-on-femme relationships which amounts to noting they exist but advising that to call them lipstick lesbians is a ’90s throwback. No femme top swagger advice. No femme bottom anything. Go read Joan Nestle, she says. (Note: Joan Nestle, while awesome, did not write a sex manual.)

It also kinda made me cringe how often Cage brings up the idea of the “spirit animal,” starting in the butch section (apparently butch “spirit animals” are wolves and foxes). First Nations folks have been pretty clear that people shouldn’t use that term if they’re not speaking from a First Nations perspective. Google “spirit animal alternatives” and you’ll get a long list of posts by various smart people with lots of ideas of how else to convey the concept of identifying with the qualities embodied by an animal. These may or may not work for you, but there are lots to choose from so if it’s important to you, forge ahead til you find a non-appropriative idea that does. (Be warned that although having a patronus sounds awesome, if you’re a Potter fan *ahem* you’ll know that Pottermore might just decide yours is a mole, which, like, not sexy. Anyway.)

I love that Cage mentions trans women and intersex folks who identify as women. She includes a paragraph at the start of her chapter on anatomy, and a page further in, plus at various other points throughout the book. But instead of taking us for the full ride in the promising direction she’s pointing, she again begs off with a referral to another publication (for trans women; intersex women get nothing at all). I really do want to praise her for regularly bringing up trans women here, because most books don’t even try. But it’s not enough. Cage’s book, along with all the other sex manuals out there that fail to include trans women’s bodies to the same degree as they do cis women’s, are perpetuating a cissexist hierarchy. All the diagrams and technical advice are for cis women’s bodies, just like every other such book. I don’t know how much of the decision-making on this is in the publisher’s hands versus the author’s. But one of these days, an author needs to push hard enough that the publisher says yes, or a publisher has to seek out an author willing to write a truly, all-the-way, trans-inclusive book. Someone has to be the first to really do trans women justice in a women-centred sex how-to, and I have yet to see it happen outside resources by and for trans women specifically.

Now let’s talk about kink. Cage writes a pretty good kink section, but reassures the reader at every point that they don’t need to take their kink explorations very far. Which, of course, is true, but it’s also true of every other kind of sex and play, so the insistence reads as vaguely shaming of those who have more hardcore desires. Take her intro:

“Kink doesn’t have to be a lifestyle. You don’t have to join any clubs or start wearing leather all the time, unless you want to. You don’t even have to be into pain. Some kinky people like to play with needles and knives and other hurty things, but there are also kinky people into playing with balloons and feathers” (p. 143).

She picks up the theme repeatedly:

“Sure, there is a BDSM ‘scene’ and while it can be really fun, you don’t have to join it. BDSM players can be very serious about their likes and dislikes and very picky about tools and techniques, but so are people who collect vinyl. It’s just part of what makes nerds hot” (p. 144).

Uh, thanks? Sort of? Further, you can use gas masks “if you are serious about this stuff, or just, you know, really weird” (p. 147). What?

So although the kink advice is generally pretty solid, I’m not sure why it had to come packaged in a bunch of negatives. There is no need to create or reinforce a hierarchy of kink acceptability, even in a book aimed at newbies. I think Cage’s intent is to be reassuring, but the effect can be quite the opposite depending on the proclivities of the person reading. And the hierarchy can be misleading, too. Balloons and feathers aren’t necessarily lighter play than knives and needles (watch the documentary Tickled if you don’t believe me—it’s terrifying). Role-play and bondage are not necessarily simple and non-threatening activities; in fact, the psychological aspects of both can take you to places you really weren’t prepared for if you go in thinking it’s all simple fluffy fun. To her credit, Cage does seem to actually understand and do kink, unlike some people writing kink advice these days *cough Jessica O’Reilly cough*. I just wish she had provided her reassurances in a way that didn’t polarize kink into fun explorers versus obsessive out-there weirdos.

I really appreciate Cage’s chapters on dyke sexual culture and sexual self-care. In fact I wish sexual culture were discussed in more how-to manuals, because folks looking for sex advice are also often looking for advice on where to find others into their kind of get-down. With all her focus on politics and culture, though, I found the book’s lavish photography super disappointing in contrast. It’s all skinny, feminine, heavily made-up cis women posing on white-upholstered furniture. Where are the butches she’s so enthused about in the written text? Is this another weird publisher decision? Like, a lesbian sex advice manual will only sell if it looks like straight-man-pleasing soft-core porn? Ummm no. (Also please do not have buttsex on your white couch. Or sex that involves heavy makeup, for that matter.) I note that Lesbian Sex Bible looks a lot like another book with soft-core skinny-girl photography, Shanna Katz’s Oral Sex That’ll Blow Her Mind, which I reviewed a couple of years ago. I guess this type of publisher has a formula and they’re sticking to it. Somebody please publish a sex advice book with pictures of dykes who I might actually see at a dyke event? A fat girl in the mix would be nice. Someone with a tattoo, perhaps. I’d even settle for an asymmetrical haircut. Hell, a pair of jeans! Anyone? Anyone??

Ultimately, although I think Cage is going in the right direction in some respects, I think you can safely give Lesbian Sex Bible a pass. I hope Cage, or the next writer who takes a stab at this topic, can pick up all the progressive elements from this book and run with them, and leave all the ’90s throwbacks—not just the lipstick lesbians—behind.

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