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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Virtual Book Tour: Best Sex Writing 2013

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The prolific erotica writer and editor Rachel Kramer Bussel recently kicked off her virtual book tour for Best Sex Writing 2013: The State of Today’s Sexual Culture. A virtual book tour is one where different columnists and bloggers post their reviews and critiques of the book on successive days, with each new post serving as a “stop” on the tour. I’m happy that SEXPress is a part of this year’s tour.

BSW13 is a collection of writings by 21 different authors that appeared in various print and online publications over the past year, which serve as a snapshot of current “hot topics” related to sex in the U.S. Subjects from aging to polyamory to kink to sexual orientation to religion to sex work are covered.

It can be hard to find an overall theme amongst such diverse pieces, but one issue that stood out to me as I was reading is the continued mainstreaming of previously marginalized communities and identities. An example of this type of mainstreaming could be that over the past decade, queer identities have become more “normal” through major LGBT advocacy groups' focus on marriage equality and inclusion in the military. Instead of challenging dominant cultural narratives, LGBT advocacy groups have said, “Hey, we just want to have our relationships sanctioned by the state and fight wars like the rest of Americans.” There are both gains and losses to be had with this approach.

Several pieces in BSW13 focus on the normalization of BDSM, sex work, polyamory and sexual orientation. In his piece “Notes from a Unicorn,” Seth Fischer writes, “In the few years I spent working in politics pretending I wasn’t bi…the most disturbing thing I learned was how to win: What you do is find the simplest message possible that resonates with people…and then you repeat it ad nauseam.” According to Fischer, simplistic messages about sexual orientation make the subject easier for society at large to understand and accept, but end up erasing the complexities of many people’s identities, making Fischer—and other bisexual or queer people—invisible.

Both Rachel Swan and Nicholas Garnett write about polyamory. Like all minority groups, people in polyamorous relationships want to be free to live their lives without fear of being ostracized by others, which requires acceptance by society at large. Despite increased visibility due to advocates like Dan Savage and Christopher Ryan, Swan claims, “[N]o matter how successfully they’ve been at negotiating relationships, many polyamorists still have one foot in the closet. And in a world where monogamy is not only well-entrenched but vital to the workings of a property-based society, their scene may always remain marginal.” Some (not all) gay, lesbian or bisexual people may be able to shoehorn themselves into our culture’s one accepted model for sexual and romantic relationships, but complexity once again loses out.

BSW13 includes several pieces about kink and BDSM, but Lori Selke’s and Madison Young’s stood out to me, because they provide flip-side interpretations of sexual politics within the BDSM scene. “Why is it fascinating and stimulating to engage in power exchange?” Young asks in her essay, “Submissive: A Personal Manifesto.” “We are breaking the rules. As queers, feminists, kinky persons and sexual outlaws, we have always broken the rules. We go outside designated sexual norms as we search for connection, community and fulfillment.” Yet Selke’s piece is a “Dear John” letter to the Leather Scene, saying that she no longer feels included precisely because of her feminist analysis of what’s going on around her.

As I read the words that Selke and Young had written, I couldn’t help but think of Fifty Shades of Grey. With all the virtual ink that has been spilled about this kinky trilogy over the past year, I was surprised that BSW13 didn’t contain a single mention of it. I can understand why; many sex writers and members of BDSM communities consider these books to be derivative, poorly written and barely worthy of discussion. Perhaps Bussel felt that enough had been said on the topic and deliberately decided not to include writing about Fifty Shades in her anthology. But to me, it seems important to examine the fact that kink has now been normalized to some extent, and it has been normalized in exactly the way that Selke criticizes—by reifying, rather than dismantling, the gendered norms that exist in our society. By presenting a submissive woman and a dominant, even abusive, man in a way that does not break rules like Young describes, but upholds them. Once again, the mainstreaming of a previously marginalized identity leaves many people behind.

While reading BSW13, I thought a lot about what's gained and what's lost when sexual identities are made more palatable for American culture at large. Some previously marginalized people will benefit, but those with the most to lose—the kinkiest, the queerest, the most complex, the hardest to explain in a sound bite—will be shut out.

Laura Anne Stuart owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side. She has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than fifteen years. Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXPress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

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