A few months back, after I slammed the new edition of that old warthog, uh, warhorse, "The Joy of Sex" in Salon, I got letters from readers asking me to recommend a sex manual. Had I read the just-published third edition of "The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex: The Most Complete Sex Manual Ever Written" by Cathy Winks and Anne Semans, I would have had an answer for them.
To cut right to the chase, I simply can't imagine a better, more informative, more encouraging, more common-sensical, more readable sex guide than "The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex." Semans and Winks have pulled off the near impossible: a book of solid sexual advice and information that can be consulted by people of both sexes, and by all orientations, races, ages and -- and this is its real fineness, I think -- levels of experience. You can imagine this book being used by parents trying to tell their kids about sex, by teenagers trying to find out on their own, by newlyweds, by couples who've been together for years, by people who are single by choice or circumstance.
I think the toughest thing in talking openly about sex is trying to cut through the pernicious and destructive idea that sexual guilt is a necessary component of sexual ethics. Too many folks seem to believe that unless they're making themselves feel bad about some aspect of their sexual behavior then they are "bad" people. They are operating under the delusion that there is one and only one acceptable way of having sex and every deviation from that alleged norm marks them as selfish or, worse, abnormal.
We all recognize some of those guilt-producing things. "I feel guilty about masturbating"; "I feel guilty about wanting to use a vibrator with my partner"; "I really enjoy reverse-cowgirl position because I can't see my partner's face"; "I feel guilty about telling my lover that he (or she) isn't doing what I want in bed"; "I feel guilty because I'm in a relationship and I still fantasize."
To understand the importance of what Winks and Semans have done in "The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex," I ask you to indulge me in a digression and an attempt to place all the varieties of unnecessary sexual guilt in their societal context. And to do that we have to be willing to acknowledge one simple truth: All the talk about our explicit, sexually open society is horseshit. Plain and simple. Horseshit. We are in the midst of a continuing public health crisis and we are still debating whether to provide people at risk with the most basic, lifesaving information. Condom manufacturers cannot get their products advertised on broadcast networks. We are living in a time when theocrats who would be more suited to living under the Taliban than in a free society have the unmitigated gall to call themselves "pro-life" when they push policies that will inevitably result in death, either for women who can't obtain abortions (poor women, of course, since the rich will always have medically safe options) or kids who can't obtain information about birth control.
An editorial in the Week in Review section of a recent Sunday New York Times outlined the measures the Bush administration is taking to abolish Roe vs. Wade and, despite the fact that teenagers will have sex, to push that oxymoron known as abstinence-only education. We are facing a world population crisis and the continued eruption of AIDS, and still world leaders have yet to band together to take the step they will one day be unable to avoid: bringing pressure on the Vatican to shut up about birth control. For far too long, the religious right has bandied about the phrase "consequence-free" sexuality when the fact is that they are refusing to face the consequences of their concerted efforts to block sex education and information: a glut of unwanted pregnancies, the spread of disease, and death.
And the January issue of Playboy has a startling article by the sex therapist Marty Klein on the sexual information being handed out by Oprah and her new Mini-Me (figuratively if not literally) Dr. Phil -- or as Letterman calls him, "the quack." Klein gives examples of Winfrey and Dr. Phil telling couples whose sex life has dried up that reticent partners are selfish if they don't force themselves to have sex with their spouses, and telling their viewers that women don't look at porn and that men who do -- or who have any sexual thoughts not involving their spouse -- are being unfaithful (which perhaps means that, to keep in line with her beliefs, Oprah should run a disclaimer before her show telling chubby chasers to switch the channel).
A great example of how we avoid the reality of sex came in the recent New York Times Book Review piece on the revised "The Joy of Sex." Who did the Times get to review it? A doctor? A sex therapist or educator or activist? No, it got humorist Christopher Buckley. To be fair to Buckley, and to acknowledge the "family newspaper" constraints he was working under, he turned in an amusing piece that took that ridiculous book no more seriously than it should be taken. But assigning a humorist means the Times didn't have to deal with assessing Dr. Alex Comfort's advice that people have to train like an athlete to have sex, that dildoes are no substitute for partners, that claimed anal sex was always unsafe and should be avoided altogether, that shied away from assessing the practicality and logic of Comfort's arguments. You can't imagine the Book Review sidestepping the ramifications of the latest public-policy snoozer about, say, irrigation in the sub-Sahara. But they get skittish around an issue that confronts all of us throughout our life.
Semans and Winks have no time for self-defeating, self-denying guilt. The two state their credo in the beginning of the book: "You deserve to experience pleasure for pleasure's sake" and, about the use of sex toys, "no means of experiencing sexual pleasure is morally, aesthetically, or romantically superior to another." Whether we're talking about sex, food, going to a movie or reading a book, the idea that pleasure doesn't have to be justified is still a radical idea. (Think of the still-popular "guilty pleasure" concept of watching movies, which operates on the precept that we should feel guilty about what we enjoy.)
The book is divided into chapters that, among other topics, discuss self-image, anatomy, the changing way we experience sex over our lifetime (they have no use for the idea that the elderly are nonsexual), masturbation, intercourse, touching, oral sex, anal sex, lubrication, sex toys, fantasies. There is also a listing of sexual resources -- help lines, information lines, mail-order retailers, publishers. Throughout, there is liberal use of quotations from people who have taken the Good Vibrations sex survey. These are particularly clever. Often you can't tell whether a man or a woman is talking, or if the person is straight or gay. The point is to break down barriers, the most obvious being the one that men who enjoy anal stimulation have to be homosexual. The effect is to teach us that we all have a lot to learn from each other's sexual experience (a popular, and useful, sex manual of recent years was called "Lesbian Sex Tips for Men"). Similarly, Phoebe Gloeckner's illustrations show straight, gay and lesbian couples, men as well as women, masturbating, and sex toys being used on both sexes.
For those of you who don't know, Good Vibrations is a woman-run San Francisco sex boutique that has been around since 1977 and has grown to two stores, with a thriving mail-order business. The first edition of the "Guide" was published in 1994. (Among the company's other books is Cathy Winks' slim and sensible "The Good Vibrations Guide to Adult Videos.") Anybody who's visited a woman-run sex store, whether Good Vibrations, Toys in Babeland in New York, Boston's Grand Opening or others, knows the advantages of these businesses -- to both men and women -- over the "novelty" shelves at adult bookstores. The stuff at most adult bookstores hasn't been stocked with any regard for durability or value, and the guys who work there aren't liable to be able to answer your questions about what distinguishes the Hitachi Magic Wand from the Rabbit Pearl vibrator. At the women-run places, you get sales clerks who are knowledgeable about their products, who ask questions to help you determine what's right for you, and who are open and friendly in a way that tends to overcome any potential embarrassment you feel.
Winks and Semans are delightfully nonjudgmental about their customers. Of her own retail experience in the store, Cathy Winks writes, "The hippest leftie was likely to walk out of the store in a panic of shyness. The most Republican of military men was likely to display a complete familiarity and affection for our product line." About the only people for whom women-run sex shops are not safe havens are the (thankfully dwindling) anti-sex feminists (which is not to say they wouldn't be treated with respect if they ventured in) who regard erotica and porn as exploitation or violence against women. Winks and Semans are great spokeswomen for an industry that is pro-pleasure, pro-self-knowledge, pro-communication with your partner and anti-guilt, -shame, -prudery and -embarrassment.
It would take far too long for me to go into the particulars of all the subjects that Winks and Semans cover. Each chapter having to do with a consumer product -- sex toys, lube, porn, written erotica -- contains good, compact discussions of the benefits and drawbacks or the various products available. For example: Is oral sex on the menu? Then you probably want an unflavored lube. Using a silicone dildo? Then you want a non-silicone lube. Trying a cock ring for the first time? The leather, Velcro-fastened variety is a safer bet than the metal rings, which might necessitate a trip to Home Depot and the purchase of bolt cutters to get off.
None of their advice and information is written in a hipper-than-thou manner. The guiding light for the authors is to make each reader feel OK about what they are comfortable, or not comfortable, with. They avoid the subtle condescension of the sex writers who make you feel like Whistler's mother if you're not trying the farthest-out sexual things around. And in the friendliest, most nonthreatening manner, they are able to suggest things that may not have occurred to you. (My favorite eye-opener was the section on benefits men can get if their partners use a vibrator during intercourse.)
One of the biggest contributions that Winks and Semans provide here is the book's cumulative vision of what constitutes sexual ethics. It's not just what you'd expect: that sex should take place between consenting adults (though they are brave and eloquent on the right of teens to experience sexual pleasure), that safe sex is a must. Sexual ethics, as defined in "The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex," is a matter of maintaining constant communication, of being true to what brings you pleasure, of not feeling guilt because you derive pleasure from something other than heterosexual missionary-position intercourse. Winks and Semans have written a book that is designed to grow with you throughout your sexual life. Among its other virtues, it's a work of breathtaking sanity.