A Book About Sex That Doesn’t Talk Down To You
The epigraph for Action: A Book About Sex comes from St. Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions: “Love, and do what you will.” On the next page, author Amy Rose Spiegel explains her connection to this philosophy, and one other tenet Augustine held dear: “the pursuit of sex.”
This combination of ideas — starting with love and kindness while maintaining a focus on sexuality — is an apt beginning. The Action chapters that follow offer a singular exploration of what it means to be a human who has sex, with how-to sections that cover everything from hand-job techniques to boosting self-confidence and surrounding oneself with a life they love.
Spiegel inserts her own narrative within the instruction, which makes the book less like a textbook and more like it’s a long, handwritten letter covered in cool stickers from a best friend or older sister. Throughout, Spiegel remains thoughtful, informative and sensitive, writing in a way that invites any reader, regardless of gender identity or sexuality, to take part.
“I feel like advice walks a really heavy line in terms of … you’re telling somebody what to do but you’re also telling them what not to do,” Spiegel explained in a recent phone conversation with The Huffington Post. It’s true: when offering a directive on how to live a certain way, the implicit message is that other ways are, as a result, less than. Balancing that line, of wanting to provide practical advice without excluding readers, was something Spiegel had at the forefront of her mind when writing.
“I do believe in being explicit when it comes to giving advice, but I also didn’t want to preclude other attitudes or other inclinations within those things,” she said. So Spiegel drew from her own experiences as well as research, which meant delving into academic works and simply asking others around her about their experiences.
“For me, I wanted to start out with the baseline that consent is the thing that you need in order to make the rest of the vehicle of sex go. Like, that is the gasoline. You need consent,” Spiegel said. Beyond that, she knew other topics she wanted to cover: gender, group sex, queerness, polyamory, etc. “I really wanted to make sure I hit [everything], from the most basic-feeling stuff — and what’s basic is different for everyone; basic can mean polyamorous, it can mean, like, how the fuck do I give a blow job? — to the most complex, which are those same topics, just flipped, depending on how you feel.”
For me, I wanted to start out with the baseline that consent is the thing that you need in order to make the rest of the vehicle of sex go. Like, that is the gasoline.Amy Rose Spiegel
And why is advice like this so crucial to give? Even in an age when questions like “what is a threesome like” to “what is consent” bring up thousands of search-engine results, finding real talk about sex — heck, even talking about it at all — is rare. Early on in Action, Spiegel brings up Michel Foucault’s idea of the “repressive hypothesis” from his book A History of Sexuality. In layman’s terms, she explained, it’s the idea of saying, “‘Oh, well we all have to suffer this thing. No one talks about it. What a shame that we don’t talk about it.’ But in doing that, you’re reinforcing it.”
It goes without saying that the state of sex education in America’s high schools is dismal. “I really had no sex education growing up,” Spiegel said. “I feel like there’s an assumption, as with money in America, that you know what you’re doing and you have a baseline understanding of what’s going on. But that’s not the case.”
I can easily picture myself devouring Action as a teenager with questions about sex and no clear way to find the answers. Misinformation concerning sex can lead to dangerous, life-altering outcomes, and instead of clutching our pearls as we’ve historically done, we could use resources like this book in the hope of promoting more open, informed sexual futures for everyone.
This drive to confront the uncomfortable extended to Spiegel’s writing process, too. Talking about the idea of writing about sex as a woman, she explained that “you’re so afraid of counting yourself out,” and being pigeonholed as a writer. “So sex was the last thing I wanted to write about,” she said, “but in that way, I find that the hardest thing to write that I encounter is the thing I have to write about.”
“The things that you don’t want to write about are often the most worthy,” Spiegel continued. “I had no idea that I would find myself here, but I’m really happy I did.”
Her work as a writer and editor for Rookie was an encouraging place to explore this idea. “I commissioned a lot of stories, and I assigned a lot of stories that were specifically about sex. And at Rookie, I was really lucky to be working with writers who thought about it in the way that they think about everything else, which is just that it’s part of the main framework of life as much as, like, podcasts or reading.”
This notion, that sex is important but also just another expected part of life —
“I think every sex life is a normal sex life,” Spiegel said at one point — is the artery that gives life to Action, that dictates every topic she covers. This book sends a valuable message from those just starting out to those who’ve seen it all: one of love, one that echoes the Augustine quote where it began. And even through the advice she imparts, it’s clear Spiegel is still learning herself.
“I am literally a person with cat hair on her shirt right now, like, it’s all fine,” she said. “Everyone is. Everyone is! No one is better at this than anyone.”
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