I may not be the ideal reviewer for this hard-to-categorize collection of short stories and essays. I "met" Quiet Riot Girl online through our shared appreciation of gay British blogger Mark Simpson. As a result, I have learned that QRG does not "believe in" feminism or the gender binary. And while it's probably better not to know too much about a writer as an individual in order to experience his/her work on its own, this information was helpful to me in persevering with a book I would otherwise have abandoned after the first story.
The title of the collection and first story is a reference to the recently published "The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures" by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy. In that first story, QRG portrays what seems to this 21st-century middle-aged New York City feminist an outdated stereotype of a stagnant marriage between middle-class Brits in their early 40s. The wife is excited by the idea of polyamory and joins a group to explore the possibilities of "swinging" and "secondary partners." The husband understandably resists the idea of such a rule-bound form of sexual experimentation and goes to the neighborhood pub instead, where at the end of the evening he is invited into the flat of the 20-something barmaid Jo (whose androgynous look he contrasts with his "fleshy" wife) and given "the best [oral sex] of his life." Yeah, that resonates with most of us fleshy women over 30...
Don't be put off by that first story. Start with the third story, "Taken," about a chance sexual encounter, the one piece of erotica that really worked for me. Or perhaps with the essay on "Macho Fags," or "Bullet," an excerpt from a novel about "Foucault's Daughter." There's nothing terribly modern or new here: surely we know that gay men aren't all "effeminate" and that the clone look of the late 1970s was a way to play with and perform ideas of masculinity. But it doesn't hurt to revisit some of these concepts thirty or forty years later, especially for the many readers who are too young to have lived through those exciting times, or for anybody who still thinks that being a gay man necessarily means being sympathetic to women and "feminism."
The funniest piece is the last, whose title Amazon won't let me transcribe: "[Fraking] Steinbeck." This is a hilarious comment from across the Pond on "Great American Literature." The narrator, standing at the end of a London subway car, sees a beautiful red-haired woman who "reminds me of Orlando, as played by Tilda Swinton," and a man reading something by Steinbeck who never looks at her. "Why can't that man ... be reading someone more subtle, someone who gives the rest of us a bit of space to breathe?"
I've given this book four stars because it actually does what most works of nonfiction or unusual fiction promise but rarely achieve: it made me uncomfortable in a thought-provoking way. It looks at situations and ways of being that I feel have been solved and shut away in the attic of my mind and forced me to reexamine and reevaluate them. The writing, like all good prose, is spare and simple. There's no fussy overwriting or elaboration, or metaphors piled upon metaphors, no tangles of convoluted prose. QRG uses neat, clean writing to tell messy stories and ask inconvenient questions.
The title and first story introduce the theme by asking a very modern question: can "sex" of any kind maintain its excitement when it's reined in by rules, by safe words and codes of conduct? Some of us remember when BDSM was just S&M, a carefully-guarded secret, a genuine radical sexual underground. Now it's all gone mainstream. Mark Simpson wrote a blog post a few years ago lamenting the way that the decriminalization of "gay sex" has led to the loss or dulling of the old forms of gay night life and risky, transgressive encounters.
Nobody wants to go back to the days of arrests for soliciting in public toilets or, in this country, the not-so-long ago time when in some states the authorities could raid a private home and arrest two consenting male adults for committing "sodomy" in their own bedroom.
It's just that being "ethical" tends to take all the fun out of being a slut. "It makes sex sound rather academic and political," the husband in that first story thinks. "All this analysis is highly unsexy."
In "Unethical Sluts," QRG gives us some ideas for making sex sexy again.