This book is a wonderful surprise. I volunteered to do a review, and was unprepared for what I got. This is not a book of sexy stories (although after reading this I will confess that I now am rather interested in Ms. Kramer Bussel's other work). Rather, it is a collection of writing about sex from the social standpoint. It's not quite social science, and it's definitely not erotica. This is one of the things that I am very taken with: the book bridges a large gap, in my mind, between the often dry, remote world of academe and that of the often over-stated world of sexuality.
The contents speak volumes (hah!). There are pieces on virginity, chastity and military regulations of sex toys. There are deeply heartfelt pieces on love and abuse, where the pain and intensity of the author emerge in well crafted writing. A piece on sex offenders is written by one of the victims, who avoids falling prey to hysterical reactions despite her own difficult past. There is a piece by a man who remained a chaste virgin, even to himself, until he was out of college. There is a remarkable spectrum of pieces that speak not just to sex, but something a lot deeper, a lot more difficult. In the end, what I took away from this little volume was about relationships.
Relationships are perhaps the most complex layer of human experience. What we as individuals bring to a relationship is a lived experience; we never really get much from school or home on the actual mechanics - it's something we have to see, feel, experience along the way. Much of that, clearly, is difficult.
Any attempt to bridge the aforementioned divide between popular and scholarly runs a considerable risk. Critics on the scholarly side will quickly note the dearth of references, and few citations. That's true here, but there are a number of references, good ones, and despite the sprinkling of citations, the articles are written, and the book is set up, to make it relatively simple to dig deeper. In one of the articles, for example, there is a fascinating quote by Virginia Woolf - "I will wait until men have become so civilized that they are not shocked when a woman speaks the truth about her body." - and a quick search online led me to several good sources. The curious need only dip a toe into the water. At the same time, critics on the popular side will likely decry the meticulously crafted article on the impending changes to the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the exceptional dissection of the United States Army's General Order 1a as it pertains to the real and gritty lives of the troops in the war zone. How, they might ask, can we expect a reading audience seeking to be entertained to cozy up to this kind of dry technical detail?
The answer to both sides is that sex, and relationships, just aren't always easy or pretty or even sexy. Sex can be difficult, painful - both emotionally and physically. It can leave lasting traces, damage that takes years to repair. Relationships are not the 1950s black and white images that an awful lot of that same "entertain me" audience seems to think they must be. Nor are they the sterile compartments of a General Social Survey. Differences can tear partners apart, and leave families gasping for breath. Yes, Virginia, there are good ones, even hot ones, and that's touched on here too.
What makes this little book so special is this spectrum, a presentation of perspectives that ranges across a large area of sex and love and passion and humor and fear and relationships. After reading it, I was left with a hope that it is a good beginning to really opening doors between two vastly different layers of our social milieu, and that in the end, the readers who choose this one will come away wanting more of both: more detail about the difficult parts, and more thrill about the soft and delicious parts. Ms. Kramer Bussel is to be commended on this count. It's not an easy task. I plan to look for the 2010 edition soon.