As a fairly obsessive sex educator, S&M activist, and informal researcher, I didn’t expect Best Sex Writing 2010 to make me think nearly as much as it did. I’d imagined it as an anthology that would hit all the usual bases and say the usual sex-positive things: Sex work should be decriminalized! Open relationships can work! Fetishes don’t have to terrify us! Women deserve to be promiscuous, if that’s what we really want, and we must be empowered to say “no” to sex too!
The first few essays struck me as par for the sex-positive course — though extremely well-written. Indeed, my favorite essay in the book is the sixth (of twenty-five), an absolutely brilliant work by gay escort Kirk Read that made me want to close the book and start selling sex on Craigslist. Still, it didn’t actually challenge any of my current preconceptions, it just made me want to cheer.
But then the book surprised me. As editor Rachel Kramer Bussel explains on the anthology’s website, “I want writing about sex that makes people think about it in a new way, that confronts sex and sexual stereotypes, that opens people’s eyes, that says things people might find uncomfortable.” This even applies to perverts like me, I suppose. The chapters that unsettled me most weren’t the explicit ones, but rather the ones that don’t align with my ideals of positive sexuality: as openly and carefully communicated, for example, or negotiated with an eye to egalitarian ideals. (No matter how extreme the power differential when a gentleman friend whips me, I approach the relationship itself on an equal footing.)
I felt most grossed out by Michelle Perrot’s essay on her upcoming affair, in which she writes: “I don’t want an open marriage, where you and your partner agree that you can have sex with other people. I don’t want hurt feelings and jealousy, all the inevitable trouble that would come with such an arrangement …” but then notes that she’s discussed the idea of cheating with her husband, and that “if one of us were to have sex — just sex — with another person, we’d just as soon not know.”
In other words, Perrot refuses to style herself as one of those open relationship people — and let’s not even get into the stereotypes in her description thereof — because having a tacit agreement with your husband that both of you can sleep quietly with other people isn’t an open relationship. Huh? At the same time, Perrot published the essay under a pseudonym “to protect her marriage,” which would seem to indicate that she’s not actually sure about her husband’s consent after all.
I don’t mean to pick on Perrot, whose essay was quite well-written and gave me a lot to ponder. My point is that Best Sex Writing 2010 has something for everyone, including material to make a jaded sex theorist think twice. It lacks political sensibility by missing some important bases (e.g., trans people, polyamory, and people outside of the US) and makes one or two truly odd editorial choices. (Why on Earth is Mollena Williams’ essay on race play, a fetish so transgressive that it unnerves most people even within permissive S&M communities, placed before Betty Dodson’s much gentler memoir that could serve as an introduction to S&M? Are we trying to blindside and horrify the newbies?)
Still, lesbians and sex work and sex education and sex biology and safer sex all appear; S&M comes up a surprising amount, and even manliness gets a mention. Most importantly, Best Sex Writing 2010 is a genuinely layered and challenging book.