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by Lee Damsky (Editor)
Seal Press, 2000
Review by Kari Kesler on Nov 13th 2001

Sex & Single GirlsThis book invokes its title from Helen Gurley Brown's 1962 Sex and the Single Girl, an advice book (Cosmopolitan magazine style) for the newly sexually liberated female of the time. Much has changed since 1962, and women today navigate a wholly different sexual landscape. While possibilities abound, so do conflicting expectations regarding women and sexuality. Lee Damsky points out in her introduction that Brown's concept of "the single girl," warped and reductionist as it was in the 60's, makes even less sense today. Attempting to understand what single girls are up to these days, Damsky warns that "the last thing we need is another advice book. But with so many possibilities and so few role models, I couldn't help being curious about what other women are doing with their sex lives these days." The purpose of this collection is explore the sexuality of Gen X women, understanding all the while that sexuality and sexual expression are not separate from the rest of women's lives. The sexual decisions we make (and don't make) say a lot about who we are and how we understand the world we live in.

Sex and Single Girls is a feminist collection of 44 essays from straight and queer women telling their own stories of sexual experiences, identities and desires. This collection explores how these varied women currently understand their own sexuality and the sexuality of others. Contributors come from a variety of backgrounds and sexual/gender orientations: all flavors of queer and straight, a variety of class, racial and cultural backgrounds, able-bodied and disabled women. Contributors also represent a broad variety of sexual experiences; from Black Artemis, a thirty year-old virgin, writing about the joys of solo sex with sex toys in "Armed and Satisfied", to Meg Daly's "The Allure of the One-Night Stand," in which she writes about the one-night stand as "a sort of enigmatic lover in itself . . . [that] I would court for years to come." Contributors write about solo sex, group sex, vanilla sex, BDSM sex, sex drives, sexual relationships, sex ed - the list could go on and on.

Although some of these essays are pretty steamy, and graphic details are rarely held back, this is not an erotica collection. This book is at turns hilarious, tender, and sad, but never disappointing. I found myself wanting to send essays to friends of mine, and this book will definitely make into more than a few of my buddies stockings this holiday season. It reminds me of discussions I have had over the years with friends, as we talk sex and relationships. However, this book brings me insights from so many wonderful women I have not had the pleasure of counting among my friends. Many of the themes that emerge are familiar to me. As a Gen X girl myself, I understand the struggle to define and defend sexual autonomy in a sex-saturated culture. Like many of the writers, I too grew up on a diet of pornography, with sophisticated knowledge of sexual techniques and jargon years before I learned about my own sexual desires. This "information age" of sexuality has forced us to become more discerning, but has also left us much room to explore. This collection helps put a frame of reference on these experiences, and asserts female sexuality as the many-faceted, many-splendored thing it is.

Let me give you a brief sampling of some of my favorites from this collection. Probably my favorite essay is "Seductions of a Bordertown Boy," in which Karleen Pendleton-Jiménez recounts her experiences of living in an ambiguously gendered body as a Latina butch lesbian. This essay ends with the retelling of a (metaphorical?) sexual encounter between the writer and - you're not going to believe this - President Clinton. Our writer tops Clinton, as he explains that "he no longer had sexual relations with heterosexual women, or men, or anyone else besides butch dykes. That [this] sexuality defied any regulation definition of sexual relations thought up by any legal or government system." This is good stuff. Ironic, hilarious, and very smart, this essay is an excellent examination of the complicated power dynamics that accompany sex. In fact, the link between sex and power is a theme that runs through many of the essays, with each author offering up a slightly different take on the subject.

Adrien-Alice Hansel, in "The Long Walk Home," explores the power of self-definition and community regulation. Raised in a working class environment with her relatives, Hansel's mother struggled to paste a middle-class veneer onto their lives, often with disastrous results. Hansel never spoke in her childhood world of her lesbian desires and activities, since desire, and especially lesbian desire, was a taboo subject. "I wasn't victimized or ashamed," she says, "I was invisible." Later, as she entered the lesbian community, she found no place to speak of her working class background. Hansel laments that "The queer community has bred as much complacency as comfort, much like the farmland of my youth . . . The world I have entered denies the world I am from." This theme of duality and integration is also echoed in many of these essays. Contributors discuss the many communities they belong to in which they can express the many sides of themselves, but find few, if any spaces in which to be their whole self.

Magdalen takes a more humorous and applied approach to this problem in "Confusion is Sex," when she wonders "why's it so damned difficult to find someone you're sexually compatible with? And if you should find him or her, what are the chances that your non-sexual lives, traits and preferences will match up to any reasonable degree?" As she ponders the possible reasons for this all too common disjuncture between "Real Life" and "Sex Life" she forms a few hypotheses. My personal favorite: "It could be caused by a secret potion, dumped into the water by local freebie newspapers to ensure the ongoing popularity of their personal ads."

The women we hear from in these pages relate varied tales of coming into their own sexual power, and of having it taken from them. We hear of rape, childhood sexual abuse, and sexual harassment in more than a few of these essays. It is unfortunate but true that we cannot talk about women's sexuality without discussing women's sexual victimization. But their stories, bold and unflinching, show us the resiliency and cleverness of women as they take control of their sexuality and their lives.

Women take this control in many ways - by shunning stereotypes, interrogating their own desire, reclaiming sexual scripts and stereotypes, and never making assumptions. Simplistic understandings of gender, sexuality, feminism and desire are blown apart inside the covers of this book. Sex and Single Girls is wholly unpredictable and immensely satisfying. I recommend it without reservation to anyone looking for a more real picture of sexuality in all its wonderful forms.

© 2001 Kari Kesler

Kari Kesler recently completed her Master's degree in Women's Studies at Texas Woman's University. She has published work on feminism and sexuality in Jane Sexes it Up, and her research interests include sexuality, lesbian and queer studies, and Latina culture. She now resides in Seattle, Washington and works for a sexual assault resource center.