Sex Pages

Short reviews of books about sex

Dress Codes

By Noelle Howey

Picador USA (2002), $24

Imagine writing the story of your parents’ youth — without disguising a moment of humiliation and terror. Imagine that Mom is the desperate-to-fit-in daughter of FBI-hounded lefties, while cross-dressing Dad spends hours every week learning how to walk like a guy, only to be spotted, teased, and tormented by the genuine articles again and again. Howey deftly interweaves these stories of her parents’ trials by fire with those of her own childhood; we understand why grown-up Dick is unable to connect with young Noelle while at the same time we cringe at his coldness to her. We sympathize with Dinah and ponder her bond with Dick, whose mood swings and withdrawal make family life a mockery. In this threesome, it’s Dinah and Noelle trying to placate Dick, with Noelle spending much of her youth wishing her father would move away: he’d left them emotionally long ago, so he might as well finish the job. But Dick has another move in mind, one that puts his wife and daughter in the closet right along with him. This material could be godawful, but Howey plays neither victim nor accuser. She treats everyone, including herself, with an astonishing honesty tempered by considerable empathy. This is not a tell-all full of stale secrets; it’s a wonderfully rendered, fully rounded story of human beings who learn what love and family really mean.

— Linnea Due


By Shere Hite

Arcadia (2002), $26.99

Shere Hite’s first book, The Hite Report, was a 1976 blockbuster — the first study of female sexuality to suggest that women’s orgasms derived from the clitoris, not the vagina. Hite herself was a compelling figure, a former Wilhelmina model who spoke of liberation from traditional gender roles. But in 1987, after being attacked by the press for questionable methodology, Hite emigrated to Europe, renouncing her American citizenship. There she continues to evolve sexually, spiritually, and intellectually. Now Hite, a self-described “serious scientist,” has written a celebrity tell-all, replete with glamour shots of herself — and with the self-pity of a wounded fawn. Of the media’s attacks on her, Hite writes, “It is so hard for me. I can only reconstruct what happened in the most crude and jumbled sort of way.” This “poor me” tone trivializes her narrative to the point where the reader wonders whether it was actually Hite or a ghostwriter who composed those literate studies 26 years ago. Fundamentally, she never addresses the central questions of her life: What was the impetus for the original study? Why did her marriage to a German pianist fail? Why didn’t she remain in the United States and fight her critics? That final question is a serious one for Hite. Pioneers can expect to be attacked. Serious researchers defend their work. Freud took on the Victorian mainstream. Hite fled from Fox TV, but leaves us guessing.

— Nora Ostrofe

Sex: A Natural History

By Joann Ellison Rodgers

W.H. Freeman (2002), $32.50

This is one ambitious book. Where did sex come from, it asks, and how and why do we bother with it? Prancing gaily around those weighty puzzles, science writer Rodgers manages to both have some fun and shed some light. That none of her “answers” fully satisfy is not her fault. The real problem is in the state of the research itself. Despite sex’s central role in evolution and the rest of biology, most researchers have been too shy or polite to stare directly at it for long. “At the end of the day,” Rodgers concedes, “scientists don’t know exactly why sex exists” — although, what with an avalanche of new research, this might be changing. Meanwhile, plenty of kinky data keeps these pages warm and turning. Consider, for instance, that pigs’ orgasms last for thirty minutes and harlequin toads can copulate for months at a stretch, while both antelopes and elephant shrews take only about three seconds to pull it off. Yet for all of the animal kingdom’s diversity, Rodgers claims there is a common reproductive arc found among the creatures scientists have examined: attraction, courtship, arousal, allegiance. Surveying scientific studies of each of these stages, she roams from psychologists to geneticists studying everything from fruit flies to the super-randy bonobo chimps. After over five hundred pages of compelling scientific reportage and speculation about sex, however, even the theoretically inclined might be tempted to put the book down and do some research of their own.

— Gordy Slack

Skin Flutes and Velvet Gloves

By Terri Hamilton

St. Martin’s (2002), $25.95

Who could resist peeking into a book that promises “Facts and Fancies, Legends and Oddities About the Body’s Private Parts” — i.e., what can only be called sexual gossip? The subtitle of this book promises strange, lurid details. But while Hamilton does deliver some risqué facts and an impressive six pages’ worth of alternative words for “penis,” in the end, like Howard Stern’s member, the book comes up short. Part of the problem is that like the ” ’tain’t” it describes — the perineum ” ’tain’t the balls, ’tain’t the anus” — Skin Flutes falls between categories. It’s a mishmash of anatomy lesson (the clitoris is ten times larger than the average person thinks it is), advice (don’t douche), and historical trivia (Napoleon Bonaparte liked dirty sex, literally, preferring Josephine unwashed). Also here is sex trivia à la Cosmo, with the author inserting snarky asides, rhetorical questions, interpretive comments, and so-theres. For instance, Hamilton, a certified sex therapist, shows how peeved she is at the patriarchal spin put on sex by Aristotle and his ilk with such zingers as “the basic blueprint for all embryos … is FEMALE. So there.” Skin Flutes covers a lot of ground, including hermaphrodites and circumcision, yet it’s surprisingly slim on the actual act.

— Elise Proulx

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