So apparently, Best Sex Writing 2010 just came out and I'm a year behind. But I picked up Best Sex Writing 2009 at Powell's in Portland when I was there shopping with the birthday money my brother and his girlfriend had given me (thanks Brian and Renee!). I didn't realize until after I'd gotten the book home that the woman whose torso is pictured on the cover has no navel which is freaky and probably means she is actually an alien from outer space, or possibly a genetically engineered human like Luke Smith. Which is a little not okay (and now I can't stop noticing it), but does not detract from the essays within, which gather together awesome writing on sex from the past few years and bring it together for all of us to enjoy in one single place.
This anthology works well as a pick-and-choose anthology: you can read it from cover to cover or you can dip in and read whatever piece intrigues you at the time. The pieces included are sometimes erotic by not erotica -- this is not a collection of fiction designed to arouse the reader. Rather, it's nonfiction reporting, personal narrative, science writing, and opinion pieces that take as their central topic something related to the messy subject of human sexuality. In "An Open Letter to the Bush Administration," dominatrix Mistress Morgana Maye writes the (then) commander in chief to complain that his gratuitous use of force is driving away business: her clients lose their taste for domination when real-life humiliation of prisoners in Iraq is plastered all over the nightly news. In "Silver Balling," Stacey D'Erasmo recounts her humorous and inconclusive quest to discover the definitive meaning of sex-related slang term a friend tosses off during a phone conversation. On a more serious note, Don Vaughn reports on the sexual problems as a common (yet under-acknowledged) effect of PTSD, while Amanda Robb explores the Purity Ball phenomenon and Keegan Hamilton reports on how the "oldest profession" has gone 2.0.
One of the funniest (and also saddest) pieces in the book, Hanna and I agreed, was Dan Vebber's "Sex Is the Most Stressful Thing in the Universe," in which Vebber describes losing his virginity in college with his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend Molly (names have been changed).
Beginning with her phone call, and throughout our quest to purchase birth control, Molly's constant mantra was "We've got to get this over with." Is there any sentence in the English language that conveys less passion or romance? Thanks to the last moments leading up to our attempt at sex, Molly provided me with at least one: "Just so you know, this is going to be really painful for me, and I'm probably going to be bleeding all over the place." This final sweet nothing imparted, and the fortress of contraception having been built (including Molly's mood-killing-last-minute dash behind a closed bathroom door so she could put the sponge in), it was finally time for me to get a boner and fuck my way into adulthood. Three, two, one...go!
Needless to say, the encounter went down hill from there. It's a great piece of writing, though also painful in that it so clearly illuminates the need so many of us have for a less competitive, performance-based conception of sexual intimacy (and here I mean "performance" as in "quick! ace this pop quiz!!" rather than improvisational jam session). Molly's reaction to her boyfriend's failure to "perform" in the expected manly fashion illustrates once again how Patriarchy Hurts Men Too: if women are supposed to dislike sex, find it "really painful" and "bleed all over the place" the first time, dudes are supposed to be perpetually oversexed and ready to penetrate said women at any moment, in any circumstance, or they're somehow less-than men.
Anyway, this was a great anthology for airplane and airport reading (yes, really) because it had short pieces that I could pick up and put down as I boarded planes, listened for boarding calls at the gate, took naps on the long transcontinental flights, and so on. They'd also make great selections to read before bed if you know you're only going to be able to stay awake for 5-10 pages before your eyes start to droop . . . I don't know about you, but sometimes I'm more in the mood for something short and nonfictional than I am for something that requires me to invest in -- and keep track of -- the lives of multiple fictional characters. I'm definitely keeping my eye out for 2010 and look forward to what personal and political revelations the contributors have had this year.