Lessons in lust and love
They say that sex is an instinctual, experimental thing 1. They say that kids today know all too much about it. They say, safe in numbers and insecure in their knowledge, a lot of shit. And now They – those clueless and authoritative spokesmen of common knowledge – are being taken on once again. Forty-two years after The Joy of Sex first shook up shagging, Alex Comfort’s revolutionary sex-manual finally has a worthy successor.
It’s called Sex & Lovers: A Practical Guide and it is 256 pages of brilliance. Co-written by Danish sexologist Ann-Marlene Henning and Tina Bremer-Olszewski, a German journalist, it is intended, as the blurb proudly tells us ‘ for young people who are just starting out sexually’.
As such, the book’s purview is extensive (Henning and Bremer-Olszewski cover everything from the science of periods to masturbation techniques, from issues of consent to BDSM) and its treatment of every subject thorough. There are six paragraphs devoted to epidermic stroking, none of which turns out to be superfluous. There’s even a little write-up on the fanny-fart, which reliable polls (ok, drunken conversations I’ve had outside kebab shops) indicate is amongst the least-discussed epiphenomena in traditional sex education and, as such, a frequent cause of embarrassment behind the bike sheds. So all in all it’s hats off to the authors for their content curation.
But perhaps more commendable than any piece of information that Henning and Bremer-Olszewski impart is how they impart it. Because although teenagers can’t always scrabble together all the facts they need from school textbooks and the internet; what really needs readdressing is not so much the knowledge they have as the attitudes they hold. And how you communicate to young people about sex has just as great an impact on their attitudes towards that long-forbidden fruit as what you communicate.
One particularly brilliant method of communication in this tome is the use of carefully selected images. Brightly coloured, detailed infographics don’t just show the many elements of the male reproductive system or what’s happening with pregnancy rates – they also acknowledge the reader’s sense of fun.
Heji Shin’s photographs, meanwhile, encourage us to see sex as something purely beautiful. A set of activities that need bring no shame. And juxtaposing couples of different orientations engaged in everything from cuddling to full intercourse with individuals masturbating or even just displaying their fully developed bodies, she’s letting us draw the conclusion that there’s no one way to ‘do’ sex: anything goes. The visuals run perfectly parallel to the inclusive, sex-positive line of the text.
And boy, do the authors cleverly keep to that line. They skilfully juggle pronouns and tenses so as not to isolate any member of their heterogeneous readership. They let us know every step of the way that they are writing for an audience that includes both nascent lovers and total virgins; both pre-pubescents and university students; and, most surprisingly in some ways, both boys and girls.
Sex & Lovers is about as unisex as they come. A no-nonsense explanation of the hymen is balanced by a section setting the record on bent penises straight; sex positions are explained and illustrated from both the male and female perspectives; and, best of all, there’s ‘Orgasm Training’ for all.
It’s admirable, this commitment to answering the questions of both sexes. All the more so when you consider that the authors knows – certainly, Henning with her marvellously subtle understanding of adolescents, must know – that it’s a book that will be read disproportionately by girls. Clearly, the design team never resigned themselves to this fact, fighting valiantly on with unfussy fonts, and gender-neutral hues of brown and grey but it remains a fact and one we’re all aware of.
The determined perseverance with the male-oriented sections of the book just goes to show how committed Henning and Bremer-Olszewski are to the sexual education of each young person. They know that they’re probably putting in the research and the words for only a small percentage of their total readership but they continue to do it meticulously.
Oh, this book, down to its bronze ribbon bookmark, is in so many ways a triumph! But, then, like most great things, it’s not beyond criticism. What the authors have to say may be wonderfully refreshing but it’s not always laid out in a way befitting a practical guide. There are long sections of more or less unbroken prose and the way that advice and information is categorised and subdivided sometimes feels illogical, making for a book that is difficult to dip in and out of. A glittering gem of a suggestion can be difficult to relocate coming to the book a second time.
So judged purely on the terms it sets out on its front cover, with those capitalised black words ‘A Practical Guide’, Sex & Lovers might not entirely succeed, but to give the book anything short of enthusiastic approval, you’d need to have your proverbial knickers in a twist. Because whether or not Sex & Lovers is the instruction manual it professes to be, it is exactly the sort of sex guide that our age needs.
For all their sins, the ubiquitous ‘They’ whom Sex & Lovers so brilliantly confronts time and again are right about one thing: it never does you well to judge a book by its cover.
Ann-Marlene Henning and Tina Bremer-Olszewski with photographs from Heji Shin, Sex & Lovers: A Practical Guide, Cameron & Hollis, Paperback, 256 pages, ISBN: 978-0-906506-28-8. £18.99
Photographs by Heji Shin, courtesy of Cameron & Hollis