Robert Beveridge's Reviews > Best Sex Writing 2012: The State of Today's Sexual Culture

Best Sex Writing 2012 by Rachel Kramer Bussel
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Feb 15, 12

bookshelves: owned-and-still-own, finished
Read from January 20 to 30, 2012 — I own a copy, read count: 1

Rachel Kramer Bussel (ed.), Best Sex Writing 2012: The State of Today's Sexual Culture (Cleis Press, 2012)

Full disclosure: this book was provided to me free of charge by the publisher.

I can't believe I did it. I took a review copy that came with a review deadline attached to it. What was I thinking? I have books sitting in the queue to be reviewed I finished last April, for heaven's sake, and here I am with a book of essays, and I have twenty-six days to read and review it? I cracked the cover, pored over the table of contens, and figured I could read two of the essays per day and give myself a week's lead time to write the review. And then I started reading. And I kept reading. And I was finished with the book well over a week ahead of schedule, and it looks like I may have the review turned in two weeks in advance of the due date. (Note: I would have, too, had I not kept tweaking it. This may not even be the final draft. There is so much to be said about this book!)

Okay, sure, I'll admit that reading about sex is probably going to go down a lot easier than a book of essays on, say, quantum physics. And it's pretty much a given that any book edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel is going to be a good read. Having Susie Bright as a guest editor is icing on the cake. But still, I didn't expect I'd be gulping down three or four essays in a single go. And yet I did that multiple times while reading this.

To get the first part of this out of the way as quickly as possible: Given that (a) any collection is probably going to be of varying quality, that (b) any collection of multiple-author nonfiction today is likely to contain memoir pieces, and that (c) memoir < other types of nonfiction, the conclusion (d), that there are going to be memoir essays in this book and that they will bring down the overall quality, is pretty easy to reach. That said, there's actually a decent memoir-style piece in here, “Love Grenade” by Lidia Yuknavitch. She actually gets the meaning of the term “creative nonfiction” in a way that emphasizes the “creative” part as “I'm going to use language in a less than straightforward way” rather than “I'm going to make shit up.” Far too few people get that. There are a few other memoir pieces in here, and none of them made me despair for the future of literate readers in the way that so many memoirs I've read in the past decade have, but most of the rest are pretty aggressively average.

The balance of the pieces, on the other hand, have to do with the state of today's sexual culture, as the subtitle indicates. They range from the titillating to the outrageous, and I use the latter term in the sense of “inspiring outrage”. It is an unfortunate consequence of the society we live in that my favorite pieces in the book, the most impassioned, are all of this stripe: Thomas Roche's “Men Who 'Buy Sex' Commit More Crimes: Newsweek, Trafficking, and the Lie of Fabricated Sex Studies” doesn't tell us anything we don't know about the increasing polarity of the media, but illustrates the dumbing-down process in the newsroom nicely; Ellen Friedrichs' “The Continuing Criminalization of Teen Sex” and Radley Balko's “You Can Have Sex with Them, Just Don't Photograph Them” examine the ludicrousness of magic-age laws with more sympathy than I've seen in a long, long time (and in the case of Friedrichs' piece, perhaps than I've ever seen); and while I'm probably more sensitive to the subject than most (we spent weeks gathering information and debating circumcision after finding out our now-three-month-old baby was going to be male), Marty Klein's “Criminalizing Circumcision: Self-Hatred As Public Policy” made me want to light the torch, grab the pitchfork, and take to the streets of California.

Not to say that the entire books is going to send you into an unrecoverable spiral of depression. Greta Christina's “Atheists Do It Better: Why Leaving Religion Leads to Better Sex” is witty, concise, and fun, and if it may have a bit of smug triumph in its tone, well dagnabbit, it oughta. (Spoiler: Big Catholic Guilt makes for great fiction, but is largely a myth.) I'll admit that my great love for Camille Dodero's “Guys Who Like Fat Chicks” most likely stems from it hitting my personal buttons more than anything, but whether you're fond of the subject matter or not, Dodero's as good a writer as anyone else here, and presents her material in an engaging, winning fashion. Adrian Colesberry's “Adrian's Penis: Care and Handling” is just as funny as the name suggests, even if it does dip into memoir territory (though Colesberry, as well, understands that “creative” is the operative term in “creative nonfiction”). And I've mentioned less than half of the essays here. If you open the book to a random essay and start reading, you're probably going to come up with a winner.

While I singled out “Guys Who Like Fat Chicks” above and mentioned that's one of the “I identify with it” pieces, I should also mention Abby Tallmer's micro-history “Losing the Meatpacking District: A Queer History of Leather Culture” as one that is about a kink that does nothing for me, yet is still absorbing reading. I promised myself I wouldn't spend this entire review simply summarizing Bussel's wonderful intro—which covered about 95% of what I wanted to say here—but I can't resist quoting this, which would serve as a perfect summary for any review of this book: “As an editor, I'm not only looking for pieces I agree with, or identify with, but for work that illuminates something new about a topic that's been around forever....What moves me most about [“Losing the Meatpacking District”] is that you don't have to be a New Yorker, queer, leather, or kinky to understand what she's talking about”. Bussel is absolutely right; it's about the quality of the writing, not the subject. Any subject can be made interesting, given the proper writer. (My favorite example of this, which I now have another chance to recommend to people who probably haven't heard of it, is Hodding Carter's Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization. A history of sewage, and it's as gripping as any nonfiction I've ever read.) Bussel and Bright's expertise in the selection and presentation of the wide range of topics covered here provides hard evidence of same. If only the guys in the pit at Newsweek remembered that. ****
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