Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it,
#ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
Sex Ed, By The Book
By Roxanne Fequiere
It was bound to happen. Little bookish me, growing up in a house with several bookshelves twice my size, each one of them overflowing with decades worth of my parents’ books. I could have tried my hand at a presidential biography or maybe a yellowed shorthand workbook. Instead, I zeroed in on a certain goldenrod paperback: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask).
Frowning, I examined the back cover. I was old enough to know that sex was a taboo subject—which made the book an intriguing prospect—but young enough to feel a shudder of suspicious revulsion at the fact that my parents had actually purchased such a title. Gross. I flipped through it furtively, listening for approaching footsteps.
There were none, but I knew reading it out in the open was too big a risk. If I wanted to find out what all this sex stuff was about, I’d need to smuggle it downstairs to my room. Once I’d managed that, I hid it under my mattress and waited up at night until the house became very still, the silence pierced only by my parents’ snoring. Then, out came the flashlight and the book. I deduced via context clues what words like cunnilingus and fellatio meant, encountered the concept of masturbation for the first time. Mind-boggling stuff. I didn’t finish the book so much as skip around from chapter to chapter, mouth agape, before returning the book to exactly where I’d found it a few days earlier.
I’d gotten drastically ahead of myself. The world suddenly had a cruel clarity to it that I wished I could undo. Every song on the easy listening station now seemed crass to my young ears, odes to sweaty, tangled limbs heaving in unison, thinly veiled by lines like “tonight I celebrate my love for you.” Those thick paperbacks stocked at every grocery store checkout aisle—that’s what they were all about? I was appalled.
Of course, it wouldn’t be long until my shock and disgust was replaced by a renewed curiosity. I listened as my peers shared spicy snippets about their older siblings and friends of friends, filing each factoid away for later. Sometimes, the details they shared weren’t heard through the grapevine but rather lifted from a book. The titles circulated among us covertly. The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah. Forever… by Judy Blume. Where there had been low-level horror and anxiety the last time I read about sex, now there was a definite thrill, but still with an underlying purpose. I was on a reconnaissance mission.
As I moved from middle school to high school to college, I realized that whenever sex did come up in our assigned reading, usually in books written by men, the act was perfunctory. A plot device for demonstrating how hopeless a marriage was, perhaps, or a way of impregnating a female character so that she could later be shamed and ostracized—the amount of pleasure she experienced in the act seemingly directly proportional to how much anguish she’ll later suffer. There were rape scenes. There was Lolita. Still, I regarded racks of romance novels warily—all those ruffly blouses and rippling biceps seemed decidedly garish, and besides, I’d gleaned pretty much everything I needed to know from books like that. Much like the books I was reading in class, I had unwittingly fallen into the trap of using the depiction of pleasure as a means to an end. Funny how that male gaze catches up with you, one way or another.
My fiancé likes to do his research before investing in a movie ticket, cross-referencing his favorite critics’ reviews before deciding which one he’ll see he next. I’ve been known to mock him for this from time to time. What’s the harm in seeing a movie that’s not critically acclaimed, anyway? If a trailer catches your eye, that’s all the reason you need to give it a shot, I tell him.
To be fair, reading a book is a much bigger time investment, but I am guilty of a similar hesitancy when it comes to choosing what to read. Critical say-so, the opinions of my peers, whether or not I’ll feel some type of way reading it on the train—I’d be lying if I said I don’t take these things into consideration when before deciding on a book, all of which has made it so that I typically don’t even consider reading romance. But that’s not to say the titles, the premises, the covers haven’t caught my eye. So this month, I’m taking my own advice and giving romance a shot. Now that I’ve nailed the mechanics of sex, I’m curious to see what happens I consider the literary possibilities of female pleasure for female pleasure’s sake.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.