Cleis Press and Rachel Kramer Bussel always deliver quality writing on the topic of sex, and this year’s Best Sex Writing is no exception. This collection of 20 essays span a broad range of topics, writing styles, and voices that are all provocative. While a few stirred me sexually, largely this book challenged me to think more.
The point of Best Sex Writing is to bring together all of the most fascinating essays published in the past year. Since I read a lot about sex, some of these pieces were a reread for me, but most of them were fresh. I was surprised to see a brief reference to Harold in an essay about polyamory. Weird!
I enjoyed reading through this book, but I have to say the overall tenor was discouraging. Best Sex Life’s tagline is, “The state of today’s sexual culture.” I suppose that’s true, but I found the collection to be strangely flat and depressing, almost as though a fog obscured nearly every piece. You can’t write interesting things about sexuality without engaging the emotions, and I’m afraid that very few of these grabbed me. Several made me feel very negative about sexuality. I’m afraid that our culture is still far from pleasure positive.
Still, I had to share my favorites with Harold and we’ve engaged in a little He said/She said for you enjoyment…
Very Legal: Sex and Love in Retirement, by Alex Morris: A report on love and sex in an assisted living facility.
He said: I am getting old myself… wait, can that be? Yes, I’m coming up on 65. What strikes me about aging so far is how little the core of my sex life has changed in 50 years. Well, it’s true I can’t get a good hard-on any more without Viagra, and I don’t jerk off four or five times a week like I used to, but the overwhelming joy of reaching ecstasy and sharing intimacy is still there, just the way it always has been, at the center of my life. Alex Morris writes about people in their 80’s and 90’s, people coming up on death who are living with the inevitable failing of their bodies, who seem to be finding the same thing… sex may get more difficult physically, but still has that vibrant emotional kick to it. The story makes me happy.
She said: How delightfully refreshing to be talking about ninety-year-olds’ relationships! These are all things that I’m not thinking about yet, so I really enjoy seeing that romantic interests and libido doesn’t die as one ages. In a way, the people discussed in this essay have more freedom to be honest with themselves and each other about what they want. I’ll totally be sneaking into Harold’s bed 30 years from now.
Baby Talk, by Rachel Kramer Bussel: A personal memoir about the author’s first experience with age play and being a “Mommy.”
He said: What happens when your lover asks you to treat him/her as a child in bed? I’m a father, I adore my children, and I’ve always felt very protective of their personal boundaries. I’ve known too many people whose fathers let sexual desire leak onto their children explicitly or subliminally, causing lasting damage. I would never want to impose adult sexuality on any child. But then… my lover asks me to make love to her as if she’s 13 years old. Oh no, I couldn’t. But she shows me that it’s healing because of her past, it’s a kind of acceptance that would be precious to her. I understand, but… does this make me a pedophile? How real is it? Are there boundaries within our imagination? It’s not an easy place, truly. I’ve gone there though, and it was possible, and healing, and good. That’s what Bussel is writing about too.
She said: Having myself been confronted with a lover’s odd kinks spontaneously in the middle of sex play, I really commend Rachel for going with it and immediately seeing the potential. Age play can be such a minefield. My heart just opened up reading this account and her willingness to push her own boundaries. This is a very sweet essay, and a bit wistful over the outcome.
Ghosts: All My Men Are Dead, by Carol Queen: A love note to the men the author is mourning, as well as a coming of age story.
He said: While sudden death can tear a hole in the fabric of reality, lingering death eats away your heart. Carol Queen writes simply and beautifully about her friends and lovers who have fallen over the years to the plague of AIDS and related syndromes. It’s so hard to know what to do with death in our culture. As she says, “I think we are ashamed to die.” By celebrating their memory and honoring her own grief, Queen makes it easier to face the losses we have to deal with and the end we all come to.
She said: This is hands down, the best essay in this book. I read it with tears silently streaming down my face. Carol is so honest, so authentic. Talking about death could easily become manipulative or maudlin, but she doesn’t go there. It’s so easy to see myself in her writing. I was incredibly moved by her account of self discovery and personal evolution entwined with dying lovers and the character of the city she loves. Hauntingly beautiful.
Lost Boys, by Kristen Hinman: An exposé on the inflated numbers of underaged girls being sex trafficked, the numbers more likely to be real because they’re based on science, and how many boys in sex work fail to get aid at all.
He said: Sex work is like recreational drugs: criminalization and demonization blur all distinctions in a fog of myth, and create the very horrors people say they want to prevent. Hinman reports on the best studies of underage prostitution in the U.S., and makes clear that nearly half the young sex workers are boys, and only around 10% work through pimps. The kids don’t particularly like doing sex for money, but they like the money. What is clear is that their main exploitation is economic: no one will offer them any other work. And the worst of this is that horrendous trafficking by adults, often parents, in very young children is put in the same bucket as teenagers choosing to make money the only way they can find, by selling sexual services. The former is a devastating crime of violence, while the latter is a symptom of our society’s economic failure.
She said: I’ve been hearing some outrageous “statistics” lately about the 3 million underage girls being pimped out and it makes me angry. Don’t get me wrong, I know that sex trafficking happens and I want it stop, but this essay made it clear that many of the organizations set up to help rescue trafficked girls exist mostly to make money for themselves. It’s a lot of politics. They aren’t even trying to understand their demographic. I really appreciated this article because it was understated and let me come to my anger on my own.
As always, Best Sex Writing is a must read, if only to get a snapshot of the year in sexuality. This year, I came away with two main points, one personal and one a universal truth. Personally, I discovered that I really dislike the term “open marriage” to describe polyamory. It’s kinda like asking a pair of lesbians which one gets to be the man. It is using the rules of the cultural norm to define something totally outside of the rules. But, whatever. The most important thing I learned was that sexuality changes all the time throughout life. I find that very reassuring.