Book review: MOMENTUM

19 Apr

In the introduction to MOMENTUM, Dr. Joycelyn Elders declares that “the best contraceptive in the world is a good education.” MOMENTUM provides more of an open discussion and dialogue than an entirely accurate or comprehensive sexual education, but it lays much-need groundwork for these necessary conversations, it’s enjoyable to read, and it ends with a gorgeous poem. In these senses and more, it’s the best sex-ed book they never gave you in high school.

The anthology comes out of a conference I have never attended and now very much want to, MOMENTUM, an open space that strives to “embrace all elements of sexuality” and “create a safe space where respect and a willingness, not to always agree, but to listen with an open heart and open mind” where attendees could get their sex geek on and, at the same time, feel a tremendous sense of acceptance and camaraderie.” These attitudes from the co-organizers and no co-editors, Tess Danesi (I’m referencing her words from the introduction), Dee Dennis and Inara de Luna run throughout the book as themes.

Rebecca Chalker goes beyond the “sexual revolution” to identify work in what she terms the “pleasure revolution,” the “liberation” of the clitoris and of female pleasure from the “murky swamps” of male-dominated psychoanalytic culture (Freud was not kind to our lady-parts. I read him so you wouldn’t have to.) Ned Mayhem gives a similar, completely fascinating overview of the history of sexual science, complete with an extensive works cited. Also, his name is Ned Mayhem, which is just phenomenal, and it was very cool to see someone self-identify in their bio as a queer scientist who runs a couples’ porn site. For a queer academic with a fluctuating relationship to the gender binary, this sort of gem makes the book utterly worth reading. Likewise, there is something adorable about Bill Taverner’s detailed advice – complete with exclamation points! – for those seeking work in the field of sexology. Work like this creates space for a new kind of normal, for a world on which queer scientists can “Become a Presenter!” and “Get Yourself Published!” in the field of sexology and be concerned only with the quality of their work, rather than whether the work is necessary, or welcome, as those are merely givens in the utopic space MOMENTUM creates.

On the other hand, Esther Perel’s piece, while interesting to read as an “across the pond” view of American sexuality, seems to engage in the very kind of examining of sexuality that it sets out to critique. Perel is not policing the boundaries of sexuality, but she is participating in the very same Foucauldian incitement to discourse that she is decrying. A better title might have been, “A Foreign Therapist Observes American Sexual Discourse and Habits” rather than “A Foreign Therapist Observes American Sexuality” – since there is, obviously, no one uniform American sexuality, and if we all participated in, or were subject to, the kind she describes, the book would likely never been written. Her observations themselves are correct, but not particularly original. Even parts I particularly loved, such as this observation:

“But when we reduce sex to a function, we also invite the idea of dysfunction. We are no longer talking about the art of sex, but rather the rules of sex. Science has replaced religion as the authority, and is a more formidable arbiter. Medicine knows how to scare even those who scoff at religion. Compared to a diagnosis, what’s a mere sin? We used to moralize; today we normalize, and performance anxiety is the secular version of our old religious guilt,”

will already be very familiar in terms of principles to anyone who has read Foucault.

Lara Riscol’s “Culture Warriors vs Sexual Pleasure,” is both about sex and also sexy, from the very first line where she tells us, “From the beginning I knew I was being bad.” The personal nature of her confessions – and when I say personal I mean her confessions about herself as a person and her personal experiences, not to be confused with the exploration of sexual experiences, which can be personal, but are not always – is interwoven with an examination of the cultural context of our present lived historical moment. Her narrative on sexual pleasure is actually pleasurable to read. Jim Grimaldi engages in a shorter examination of her personal experiences and their intersection with religion, while Joan Price has an equally brief summation of her work as a sex therapist for senior citizens. Avory Faucette uses personal sexual experiences to explore her “own gradual sexual liberation” “through the lens of gender.” All three are enjoyable and touch on issues that intersect with sexuality in difficult ways. Meanwhile, Charlie Glickman’s “Queer is a Verb” is just delightful. I work in queer theory, so “to queer” has begun to come naturally. This reads the way I wish Queer Theory 101 would be taught. Queer. To queer. I queer. You queer. We all queer together.

The second-to-last section, “Fighting Sexual Assault and Abuse Within Sex-Positive Communities,” is my personal must-read section. Sex-positivity can mask a lot of things, and rape and sexual abuse are evolving, particularly when visual media is so unavoidable and social media is so available. Until assault and abuse no longer exist, analyses of what they are, how they’re being experienced, and what can be done to prevent them and interfere with them are, and need to be, constantly evolving. Likewise, I will take the last section, “Sex Work and Social Justice,” as a whole, and an important, necessary whole at that. As several writers point out throughout the anthology, sex workers and people in sexual industries are being spoken for with an alarming frequency, by both conservatives and feminists. Too often, those of us who work or have worked in these industries are constructed as other, by others; too often our experiences are invented rather than researched. Collections like this are an excellent step towards re-thinking feminist approaches to those communities, bearing in mind that a feminist approaching a subject doesn’t make it a feminist approach to the subject.

Before I conclude, I would like to say that the book needs to be read very critically. For example, Sarah Elspeth Patterson, in her essay, calls HPV “a sexually transmitted infection that [someone would] be living with for the rest of her life.” As far as I know, that simply isn’t an accurate assessment of HPV, and certainly not every type of HPV. Factual errors like this, as well as more thoughtless things like unexamined privilege or positionality, are more problematic in a book like this, meant to open up new kinds of understanding and facilitate new discussions around sexuality.

Throughout the book, I couldn’t help but think that I was a somewhat resistant reader, that the real problem – if there was a problem – with my reading this book was that it was no longer the 90s and I was no longer 14, two conditions that were pivotal to my own experience in developing an understanding of sexuality. I read Cunt and Real Live Nude Girl, I saw Ani DiFranco five times in three states, I went on roadtrips with my girlfriends to womyn-owned sex shops so we could test out the new vibrators on our hands and buy porn. Now, officially in my late 20s, I see girls treading the same water. It’s deeper now. They have a better theoretical understanding of their present lived condition than I had, and they’re a million times more media savvy in every sense, but it’s still the same water. I think ‘zines have even made a comeback. That was what I saw in the largely-failed “Slutwalk” movement – I saw who I had been at 20, “claiming” my sexuality like I was the first one to think of it, claiming my self and my body, loud and proud. And I understood, too, why the greater theoretical understanding and increased media – social and otherwise – meant that it couldn’t be done the way they were doing it. And that was, ultimately, how it felt to read this book. It is utterly enjoyable, giant steps forward from what I had access to a decade ago in terms of thinking and understanding sexuality in terms of the various structures of power that construct our lived existences and in and through which we function and are, in turn, constructed. Yet its concerns are no longer precisely my concerns.

And just as I was thinking through my position, there she was, Carol Queen. One of my nascent adolescent sexuality’s hero’s, writing in MOMENTUM. At 18 I once sat through a conference to hear a woman’s keynote address because she had travelled with Carol Queen (it was totally worth it, it was incredible). And there, again: Cunning Minx, talking about Fetlife, a site I have used, and BDSM social media etiquette. One of my 90s sexual icons discussing things that didn’t need to be discussed then because they didn’t exist, in the same open, frank, liberating, lovely way that was among my first introductions to sexually liberating discussions. MOMENTUM is, for me, a book where the things I used to be preoccupied with doing – promoting sexual freedom, having a wide impact on people’s notions of sexuality and ideas about sexual practices, promoting the idea of access to comprehensive sexual education – are being done well, and being done with joy. It is a great anthology for those interested in those things and more, a great anthology for a bad day, a great anthology for someone feeling alone in their exploration and discovery of their sexuality and of what it means to be sexual. You’re not alone, I promise. There’s a long history, there’s a great future, and there’s a phenomenal present moment of those practices, in which MOMENTUM has an important place.

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