Sex & Relationships

The Mind-Boggling Variety of Sexual Experience

The Best Sex Writing 2009 covers everything from virginity pledges to orgasming after a spinal chord injury.

When people ask how I came to write primarily about sex and relationships it’s easy to say something glib like “I enjoy the research,” but the truth is that I get a kid-at-Christmas thrill, a true sense of wonder at the sheer volume of different experiences everyone has with these topics. It doesn’t matter to me whether the wrapping paper is erotic, scientific, emotional or cultural – I can’t wait to tear it off and see what’s in there. Despite having been born in 1964 I was raised by people who were pacifists in the sexual revolution. Having started out with limited ideas on the subject, the more I learned (along with the rest of the country) the more interested I got. I have a friend who came to America from England as a child and said that the variety of cereals and cartoons suddenly available to him practically made his head explode. I kind of feel that way about S&R. I might not want to eat every crunchberry and mini marshmallow, but you bet I want to shake, feel up and sniff all the boxes.

That’s what’s so magically delicious about a book like Best Sex Writing 2009 (and in the fairness of disclosure, I was lucky enough to be in the 2008 edition). Award-winning editor Rachel Kramer Bussel, though an accomplished titilator herself, doesn’t go for tittilation, but rather stimulation, selecting pieces that arouse our senses of curiosity, indignation, wonder, humor, empathy and discomfort more than our bathing suit parts. It’s an elegant orchestration in which BSR contributor and MSNBC columnist Brian Alexander. says the reader will find “…a variety of answers to the larger questions of how Americans are adapting…to new opportunities for sexual exploration.” And it was gratifying to find that the pieces that made me uncomfortable (“One Rape to Go, Please” by Tracie Egan or that I doubted I’d relate to (“Sex is the Most Stressful Thing in the Universe” by Dan Vebber) ended up being stories I took as much pleasure as those I was sure I’d love (“An Open Letter to the Bush Administration” by Mistress Morgana Maye), possibly even more.

“Sex is the Most Stressful Thing in the Universe” absolutely fits that last description. Sounds like a smart alecky routine about how tough it is to get the nookie you want but in the end it’s so worth it, right? Oh, so wrong. Vebber’s story is an acerbic, side-splitter about how weird it is to be a guy with a near-total lack of interest in sex (“Not all guys have a longstanding and storied relationship with porn. Some of us honestly don’t find it even interesting enough to get past the girls’ bad teeth.”) and his attempt to lose his virginity with his terrified and terrifying girlfriend Molly.

“One Rape to Go, Please” describes Tracie Egan’s adventure in paying someone to fulfill her rape fantasy, which was a scary one for me to read even though I knowit was a fantasy (I’m a suspicious and jumpy person who once nearly decked a theme park character who surprised me with a touch on the arm). Egan’s show of power in engaging such role play was surprising enough but the final sublime twist would be unbelievable if it wasn’t totally true. “An Open Letter to the Bush Administration” by Mistress Morgana Maye finds the dominatrix lamenting how her business has suffered since EVERYONE feels bullied by the Bushes already. Reading it after having waded comfortably into the soothing pool of a new administration makes one almost dizzy with relief that that’s all in the Before-Time.

You know how you watch those Blue Planet shows and are thrilled and open-mouthed at the variety of life on the ocean floor? You get to feeling this way about the sex lives of everyone in the world when you get a glimpse of how varied other people’s concerns are.

If you have never considered, for example, the rocky terrain of STD-specific dating websites (“Searching for Normal: Do Dating Websites for People with STIs Liberat or Quarantine?” by Lynn Harris), the ability of people to have orgasms even after devastating spinal chord injuries (“The Immaculate Orgasm: Who Needs Genitals?” by Mary Roach) or the effect of combat stress on sexual function (“Sexual Problems: A Common Side Effect of PTSD,” by Dan Vaughn) now’s your chance. Other standouts include the hair-tearing frustration of not understanding a mysterious sexual term you have never heard of and don’t want to ask about (“Silver Balling” by Stacey D’Erasmo) and a treatise on virginity pledges that actually had cynical, try-before-you-buy advocate me thinking “Oh, well, that’s her choice then,” in a way I’d never have guessed I would (“Father Knows Best” by Amanda Robb).

That’s exactly what’s so great about BSR 2009 – as full as it is of excellent reportage and beautiful writing it’ll also be challenging for many readers who might find their views softened, broadened and more dynamically colored for having read it.

It is true. I do enjoy the research.

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL.
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