Everything You Know About Sex is Wrong isn’t really a book of sex myths, as one might guess from the title.
Editor Russ Kick’s specialty is compilations of writings from outside the mainstream. One of his earlier books that celebrated such unconventional perspectives was Everything You Know is Wrong. The title of this book is based on the title of that one.
But whereas many of the writings of that earlier book looked at familiar issues in an unfamiliar way—and at times did indeed imply that the kinds of things you would believe if you were only exposed to the consensus of the mainstream are often wrong—I would say this one deals more with unfamiliar issues. So not so much, “Here are some sex-related things you’ve been lied to about,” but more, “Here are some sex-related things you’ve probably never read about, probably rarely think about, and in some cases may not even be aware of.”
More often than not I find reading about sex to be quite interesting. It’s such a deep part of us, so intermingled with love, hate, prejudice, religion, law, gender relations, guilt, power, and on and on. The few conversations I’ve had with sex workers or former sex workers are among the conversations I’ve been most engrossed in and retained the most memories of in my life.
On the other hand, I almost never find reading about sex—I don’t mean something pornographic, but an analytic/intellectual/psychological/sociological/etc. discussion of sex—to be a turn-on.
And that was certainly true of Everything You Know About Sex is Wrong. The various descriptions of people having sex were consistently my least favorite part of the book.
Part of the reason is the gross out factor. I don’t across the board find fetishes and kinky or unusual sex repulsive, but of the nearly infinite sexual activities people have invented, I’m sure there are more that are gross to me than are not. (And I would guess that’s true of almost everyone, no matter how sexually open they think they are.) A good portion of this book I wouldn’t want to read while eating, or in some cases kind of wish I hadn’t read at all (e.g., the account of the fist-a-thon).
Another part of the reason is that it makes me self-conscious that other people are doing a heck of a lot better at this sex stuff than me. I mean, the accounts of sex almost all sound like those soft porn romance novels. It’s always an extraordinary, if not life-changing, experience where the participants are practically transported to some spiritual realm of bliss. Is that really what’s going on in everyone else’s bedroom?
There are about seventy pieces in this book, and I’m certainly not going to discuss all of them here. Instead, I’ll just mention a few in passing that struck me as interesting.
The very first piece, Answers, is one of the ones I liked best. It’s about what it’s like to work at a sex information phone line in San Francisco. It’s probably not surprising—as this was very much Kinsey’s experience too as I understand it—but one of the most common things they are asked is whether a certain kind of behavior the caller does or fantasizes about is “normal.” The assumption so many people make is that how common something is, especially something sexual, determines whether it’s OK. People are obsessed with making sure they’re “normal.” (To which my reply would typically be, “Why the heck do you want to be normal?”)
Speaking of Kinsey, I would recommend the essays about Kinsey and about sex folklorist Gershon Legman. Quite interesting accounts of the history of sex and sex research.
Odd and surprising—to me at least—are the accounts of being sexually aroused by childbirth (not one’s own birth; I’m talking about the mother being aroused).
American Sex Ed by Violet Blue, about porn and her experiences trying to make some kind of sexual education film with porn actors and actresses, is definitely a high point of the book. She is a gifted humor writer with an eye for the absurd. I laughed out loud multiple times reading it.
I also enjoyed Girls Gone Wild by sex-positive feminist Greta Christina, about what’s appealing and not appealing about the video series of that name.
The first person accounts of working in peep shows and sex shops are interesting. I was surprised how many of the women who work in such places claim to be turned on by it. There is one cynical old veteran who is very much the stereotype of the jaded sex worker who hates men and finds them pathetic, but she’s the exception, whereas I would think someone like that would be more the norm.
One of the longer pieces—and one that’s only a little about sex—summarizes the legends of Buddha. The Buddha of the traditional stories was an ascetic, but not in the sense of intentional suffering, like the flagellants. His ideal instead was indifference to pleasure and pain, as well as the transcendence of sex and gender.
Actually I was struck by how similar he sounds to Gandhi. Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise, since they’re both a part of the Eastern religious tradition, but Gandhi is a Hindu rather than a Buddhist. Yet, for instance, he took a certain pride in combining the best of traits traditionally associated with men and traits traditionally associated with women. One of his relatives that he helped to raise later praised him in a book whose title referred to him as her “mother,” which sounds like just that kind of Buddhist transcendence of gender.
Or take for instance their attitude toward food. As related here concerning the Buddha, and as I’ve learned of Gandhi from a great deal of reading about him, they said almost identical things about food, which is that food should be taken like medicine, that its value comes in how necessary and good it is for keeping the body healthy and functioning, and that to instead see food as a source of pleasure or to care about how it tastes would be like choosing what medicine to take and how much of it to take based on how much you liked its taste.
The absolute silliest moment of the book is Bed Knobs and Broomsticks by Fiona Horne, wherein a “witch” gives advice on how to use “magick” to improve your sex life. It includes that irritating “you have to suspend any disbelief for it to work” bullshit, which is the commonplace way that woo woo folks cheat to undercut any potential criticism.
In Everything You Know About Sex is Wrong, you can learn such things as that half of all sex in Japan takes place in “love hotels” (establishments filled with heavily sexually themed bridal suite-type rooms), though frankly I have trouble buying that and have to think the figure is exaggerated. You will also learn that in many cultures throughout history, an exposed vagina was considered extremely powerful in various ways. It scared away human enemies, wild animals, evil spirits, and even gods and heroes. It made crops more fertile. It calmed the seas, and calmed storms and harsh weather.
Heck, maybe it could help with global warming. Couldn’t hurt.
I dare say Everything You Know About Sex is Wrong is also one of the very few books where you will come across the wonderful Finnish curse, “Go pull a cunt over your head!”
But looking back on the book, the primary question that occurs to me is the basic: What is sex? Everything You Know About Sex is Wrong describes numerous offbeat fetishes—people who get an erotic charge out of cutting themselves or a partner with a razor blade, playing chess, popping zits, etc.—with the implication being that these are among the countless ways people have come up with to have sex, but what makes these things “sex”?
Is it that these acts accompany “regular” sex (like if these people only cut themselves with razor blades while having intercourse, or at least as foreplay leading to intercourse)? I don’t think they all do though; I think some of them are supposed to be intrinsically enjoyable and don’t have to be accompanied by anything else.
So is that enough, just that something be enjoyable in order for it to count as sex? Surely that’s way too wide a definition.
Does it have to be enjoyable specifically in a way that leads to an orgasm (or at least usually does, if it’s not interrupted, etc.), without intercourse being necessary? I mean that’s why oral sex is “sex” presumably. Is that true of all sexual fetishes?
I’m not sure. That might be it, or that might still be a bit narrow. I think at least some of the things in this book—which it’s implied are all “sex”—don’t involve the genitalia or orgasms at all. The last piece in the book is about an oddball couple who have had multiple plastic surgeries and such to look as much as possible like each other, but it’s not like they’re having sex while they’re having surgery, nor are they—I don’t think—changing themselves in such dramatic ways to enhance their future sex life. Yet their story is in this book as if there’s something somehow sexual in what they’re doing.
Is sex simply anything that you enjoy (with or without orgasm) that’s physical? Is that why popping zits is a fetish for some people, and not just something nonsexual that they enjoy? Again, I’m not sure, but I’m inclined to say that’s too broad. I can imagine enjoying a massage without it being an “erotic” massage specifically. Indeed, I enjoy having my back scratched more than I have enjoyed 90%-95% of the times I’ve had sex, but I’m reluctant to say that that means having my back scratched is having sex.
I suppose in the end what it comes down to is that something is sexual if it generates a type of enjoyment that is in some sense the same type of enjoyment as “regular” folks experience having sexual intercourse, which is close to one of my earlier suggestions. But I would guess that’s a definition that would need a great deal of fine tuning before it could come close to being adequate.