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