S.E.X.—The All-You-Need-to-Know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through Your Teens and Twenties, Second Edition. By Heather Corinna. Da Capo. $17.99.
There are 462 oversize pages in “this very (very) big book,” as Heather Corinna describes what she has written. She is not a medical doctor, not a psychologist, not a professional educator in any traditional sense, but the founder of a Web site called Scarleteen whose promise is “Sex Education for the Real World.” Actually, Corinna is as interested in what she would like the real world to be as in what the real world is. “I picture a world without shame or fear when it comes to bodies, sexualities, or sexual or gender identities, where difference is embraced and celebrated, and where every voice is acknowledged and treated with care and respect.” And changing the world into this one “really isn’t that hard to do. It’s mostly just about changing your mind, which you probably already do at least several times a day, if not more often.” And so on. And on and on and on and ON. This helps explain the 462 pages.
Luckily, S.E.X. (which “spells out” every sexual matter Corinna can think of – clever title, huh?) is not so mired in utopian twaddle as to be useless. In fact, quite the opposite. The vast majority of the book is excellent: clear, scientifically accurate, plainspoken (if rather cutesy in style, especially considering that the author is in her mid-40s), and extremely effective as introduction to (or intermediate-level discussion of) sex and sexuality. A fair sample of Corinna’s approach is this, from a subsection called “Braaaaaaaaiiiinnns” (not necessarily the best place for a zombie reference, but this is her style): “…I have something very, very important to tell you: when it comes to sexual response and pleasure (not just reproduction), sex is mostly between your ears, not your legs. …Once you understand how the brain is our largest and most significant sex organ, you can begin to see how thinking differently isn’t necessarily a negative when it comes to sexual pleasure.” Ah…differently from what? Well, that is a big part of Corinna’s book. All sexual activities are fine when mutually agreed to; all forms of sexuality are equally good; there are in fact no negatives at all where agreed-upon sexual communication is concerned. Typical remark: “The prostate, like the G-spot, clitoral glans, or the glans of the penis, is sensitive to touch, so plenty of people enjoy prostate stimulation during sexual activity. Some people call it the ‘P-spot.’ Because of its location, it is stimulated by receptive anal sex or stimulation or deep massage of the anus or perineum.” See? Total inclusivity for anything and everything sexual.
Notice that “plenty of people,” though. In Corinna’s world, “plenty of people” do just about anything and just about everything. Bending over backwards (so to speak) to be inclusive, she determinedly asserts (without any real scientific backing) that lots and lots of people do everything, assert their sexuality in every way, and behave in every possible manner (and never “misbehave,” an absent concept here, even jokingly: this is a virtually humorless book). The underlying “lots and lots” assertion is demonstrably false: a May 2015 Gallup poll found that even though Americans believe – thanks in part to skewed media coverage – that about 23% of U.S. adults are gay or lesbian, the percentage actually self-identifying as homosexual, transgender, or bisexual is 3.8%. But Corinna joins many, many other media people in drawing very substantial attention to this tiny subgroup, as when she creates a box in her chapter on gender identity called “Straight and About to Skip This Part?” and writes, “Please don’t. I am literally begging you. Not only may you find that, over time, your own orientation or sexual identity shifts but also queer people, like transgender people, like all young people of any stripe, need allies.” Corinna is never more than a paragraph or two away from advocating something designed to create that better world that she believes she can help bring about.
If your thinking resonates with Corinna’s, S.E.X. will be a wonderful (if lengthy) read; but even if you find her rather hectoring presentation of the way things should be (and the utterly normal way everything already is) to be over-the-top, you will find a tremendous amount of straightforward, extremely useful information here on sex and sexuality. Her presentation of sexual anatomy (never mind that “brain” stuff), for example, is excellent, filled with carefully drawn diagrams that may be revelatory even to the sexually experienced. There is even a full page of drawings called “Genitals Come in All Shapes and Sixes!” that looks like something the underground cartoonists would have created a few decades back – but that is used here strictly for informational purposes. Also extremely useful are boxes labeled “Myth Busting” that tackle things “everybody knows” and show why they are false – for instance, that eating disorders affect only women, that it is common to meet one’s “soulmate” early in life, that the hymen seals the vagina before first intercourse, that the greatest risk of abuse or assault is from strangers, and so forth. Useful in a different way are detailed discussions of “body fluid or blood play” (which, like everything else, is perfectly fine as long as those involved agree to it), finger cots (which are “easy-peasy” to use “for anal play or clitoral stimulation”), vaginal discharge that is “chunky or very heavy, with small curds like cottage cheese,” and much more.
“Much more” is the watchword here, whether discussing oral herpes or “the sexual readiness checklist,” which is lengthier and more exhaustive than a list used for planning extended international travel (well, it should be, Corinna would surely say), and which is broken down into “material stuff,” “body and health,” “relationship requirements” and “emotional items” – in which, for example, one of the nine required (and very lawyerly) assertions is, “If my partner or I have any strong religious, cultural, ethical, political, or family beliefs or convictions that pose serious conflicts to any kind of sexual activity, we have evaluated, discussed, and resolved them,” and another states, “I understand that sex and love aren’t the same thing, and I do not seek to have sex to use it to manipulate or harm myself, my partner, or anyone else. I feel my partner’s sexual motives are sound, safe, and realistic as well.” Exhaustively informative this book certainly is: it is about as comprehensive a tome on sexuality (and, really, not just for people in their teens and 20s) as you are likely to find anywhere. It is fair to say, however, that it is exhaustingly informative as well, so filled with so much presented at such length and in such detail – and within a context of such strong, even strident advocacy – that for at least some readers, it will seem like a very, very, very big book indeed.
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