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Do it yourself: Sex books don't need to embarrass
Special to The Seattle Times
Don't kid yourself. The bookstore's "Self Help" sign doesn't fool anyone when they spot you feverishly browsing through those shelves of sex books. Nor will that "delete files" function prevent your boss from discovering that you spent last Thursday morning trying to determine if self-heating massage oil is tested on defenseless animals.
Yet, researching the latest how-to sex info need not be embarrassing, career-threatening or time-wasting, as long as you proceed logically. Just remember, any how-to book about things sexual will fall into one of these four categories: directive, reflective protective and erective
These books are the easiest to spot. They typically sport lurid large-type covers, making them impossible to read on public transit unless you are really brave, or have one of those little knitted book-covers that looks like a potholder.
Case in point, the latest offering from Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Kate White, "How to Set His Thighs on Fire: 86 Red-Hot Lessons on Love, Life, Men and (Especially) Sex" (Warner Books, $21.95). White couldn't quite decide if she should stick to sexual tips, or explain why someone as well-educated and hardworking as herself is running a magazine that has had exactly the same cover stories since 1972.
Still, the woman has done her homework. Or, as she confesses: "During the last few years, I've thought a lot about sexiness." Some of White's mood-setting suggestions have merit, but her endorsement of prolonged periods of sitting cross-legged in the buff indicates a certain lack of familiarity with, say, middle-aged knees.
A more serious directive approach (with much smaller type on the cover) is found in "Sexploration: The Ultimate Guide to Feeling Truly Great in Bed" by Jane Bogart (Penguin, $15) Bogart is a nationally recognized health expert, and head of Health Services at the University of California-Santa Cruz. She is a popular guest on hip TV shows people watch late at night — when they could be having sex or reading book reviews.
Bogart is unflinchingly direct and very thorough. She mixes counseling, sociology, health education and colloquial terminology in her workbook-format approach. For some younger readers, this might be a bit of overkill, and filling out "My Fantasy Worksheet" could be slightly too close to the new SAT essay to be anything like fun.
That said, most popular-market sex literature seems to be directed at heterosexual women and Bogart is a rare expert who crosses sex/gender/orientation lines with ease.
Lauren Levin and Lauren Blitzer's "Same Sex in the City: So Your Prince Charming is Really a Cinderella" (Simon Spotlight Entertainment, $14.95) is such a book. Its authors write at length about their own longing for just such a resource in their not-distant youth.
The book's confessional anecdotes are meant to comfort and inform those coming-of-age who are also coming out of the closet, and some young women will surely find it affirming. Others will find the emphasis on sexual hookups to be an annoyingly narrow view.
"Sperm Are From Men, Eggs Are From Women: The Real Reason Men and Women are Different" by Joe Quirk (Running Press, $19.95) is what would happen if Dave Barry channeled Dr. Ruth. Slightly off-kilter biology and evolution, wrapped in sophomoric humor. The result makes for some laughs, even as you tell yourself only an idiot would be amused by this stuff.
Quirk has a knack for turning facts into entertainment: "Ladies, which would you rather do: run from Los Angles to Denver or go through a pregnancy? Both consume about 80,000 calories." His argument that women and men see the world differently because one bears children and the other is less wired to sticking around doesn't quite hold up, but he hits on enough true notes that before you know it, you've read the whole book without quite meaning to do so.
Protective books are bait-and-switch products, protecting a writer's agenda from oblivion by sexing it up in order to sell. One such new release is "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism" by Carrie L. Lukas (Regnery Publishing Inc., $19.95)
This tricky little bit of work looks directive in nature if you grab the book without careful perusal of cover and contents. It's really a rant about how feminism has ruined everything — absolutely everything — that used to be fun.
Under the Top Ten Things Young Women Need to Know (That Feminists Won't Tell Them!) are shockers like this one: "Flowers, candy, and opened doors aren't weapons of oppression." This, of course, is welcome news to all those ol' diehard libbers who will no longer have to refuse bouquets on birthdays, or push ahead through the door of the movie theater and buy their own M&Ms.
These are the really steamy books labeled as self-help. They exist because self-help is more available in the average bookstore than pornography — and so much easier to explain if the government finally does manage to get into your Internet book-buying records.
"Sex With the Lights On: 200 Illuminating Sex Questions Answered" by Ducky DooLittle (Carroll & Graf, $15.95) was a strong candidate for the porn-dressed-up as-self-help category. There's no denying Ducky's extensive credentials for answering questions about the hydraulics, if not the romance, of sexual acts.
Ducky started out as an exotic dancer in sleazy New York City clubs, then took her sex-advice show on the lecture and TV circuit. She's gained some health-education credibility along the way, but her book clearly has its roots in her early days as a shake-it-in-your-face kinda gal.
Trouble is, capturing steamy stuff on paper is tough. Ducky's 200 questions — never mind the answers — are as mechanical as can be, and the sheer volume of so many how-does-it-work queries is overwhelming. The result feels a little like the brain-freeze that comes when assembling one of those giant Swedish entertainment centers. Halfway through the project you realize you've lost sight of what you're doing and why you have all those wing nuts left over.
Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer living in Portland.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company