Ellen Nicholas Rathbone’s Loving Sex: Every Woman’s Guide to Sensual Sexuality is ambiguous in two ways. Both have to do with the title, and whilst the one is a playful exercise in sublation, the second is simply misinformation.
This review begins with the good ambiguity, and this relates to the formative pun in the title. The ‘loving’ in Loving Sex could be read as an adjective or as a verb: it could refer, that is, to sex pursued in a loving fashion, and sex that is loved – enjoyed. It becomes increasingly (if not instantly) clear that in order to appreciate Rathbone’s advice, it should be read as having both meanings. For Rathbone’s words are above all based on an ethic and an aesthetic of pleasure grounded in self-respect, responsibility for one’s own actions, giving rather than accusing, and communication with one’s partner rather than simply implementing sexual ‘tricks’. Interestingly, these values are often framed in an overtly Christianised fashion – we are told explicitly to ‘apply the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you’ as our ‘moral compass’, and the idea of sexual pleasure as a God-given gift pervades the volume. For Rathbone, these values can only be implemented through knowledge of sexuality, and arguably the biggest strength of Loving Sex is the experiential knowledge she herself has built up, as well as her nous for marketing. Her section on the correct use of recommended products is a prime example of this: after all, who (granted that they use these products at all) wants to injure themselves by slipping on Joy Jell in the shower, or failing to hang their Love Swing from a double beam?
The rest of the title is, however, simply misleading. The volume is by no means ‘Every Woman’s Guide‘; it is a guide for women (preferably married and monogomous) who have sex with men. It does not include women who have sex with women, women who are born with penises, women who like to have sex with more than one person at a time, or women who do not define as female in any of Rathbone’s senses at all (the list by no means ends here). Nor does it include (and I will come to this later) women who object to Rathbone’s styles of reasoning and presenting her argument. Within a heteronormative context, the book includes information for women who have no sexual partner and for whom masturbation is consequently a significant sexual experience. It is crucial that this information is contextualised this way; these masturbators are certainly heterosexual. Similarly, though Rathbone’s discussion of massage could be co-opted by a lesbian couple for example, it is clear that lesbian couples are not the intended audience. Indeed, the only explicit mention of homosexuality in Loving Sex is Rathbone’s affirmation (in her discussion of the prostrate gland) that heterosexual couples can reclaim anal sex from homosexuality as something they too can do.
Loving Sex is also directed at an even more specific type of reader: the American woman. Rathbone’s polarisation of Europe and America could be described as the book’s founding myth. American women are presented as caught in a culture that talks raucously about how much everyone is enjoying sex, yet never tells anyone how to enjoy it, making sex seem simultaneously dirty and shameful. Rathbone claims that this culture leaves many women with no knowledge of sex (not even of their own genitalia, she insists), achieving no pleasure therefrom, and, crucially too ashamed to ask (how) to enjoy it. Rathbone asserts that Europeans represent the opposite attitude of being sensually warm and free. She rehearses too the old stereotype that ‘they’ never shave their arms or pubic hair.
Loving Sex is a work that delights in myth, from the persistent contrasts between Europe and America to the (fabricated!) story of the Renaissance nymph Pix Pieswax with which the volume ends. The book even opens with an almost mythographic evocation of Rathbone herself as the fitting author of the volume: a woman who never felt shame for her own sensuality, who is constantly on a path of sexual discovery, and who is the mouthpiece for both mystic and ancient sexual knowledges (she quotes the philosophies of Socrates and delights in pseudo-scientific claims such as heterosexual male promiscuity being ‘hard-wired’). But Rathbone is a keen observer of character however she chooses to express it; this is a book written by someone I would like to meet, for she appears with a strong moral backbone, a head for business, and a desire for knowledge.
Loving Sex: Every Woman’s Guide to Sensual Sexuality, by Ellen Nicholas Rathbone; Down There Press; ISBN: 978-0-940208-38-4; $14.95 from www.revelbooks.com