bdsm, book review, case studies, interviews, journalism, living on the fringes of american sexuality, psychology, secret sex lives, sexology, sexuality books, sociology, suzy spencer, swingers, writing
Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality
by Suzy Spencer
genre: non-fiction, psychology, sexology, journalism, human sexuality
An oddly intimate book that is quite confronting. Find out why I gave it 3 out of 5 stars!
(Taken from Goodreads)
Suzy Spencer set out to investigate sex in America—to go beyond the talk and find out what people are really doing in their private (or not so private) lives. What she discovered online, at sex clubs, and elsewhere was truly eye-opening.She started talking to men and women—from across America of all ages and sexual orientations—who make no apology for how they fire their imaginations and satisfy their desires. Soon she found herself invited to be a voyeur—listening in on phone sex, reading e-mails describing sexual encounters in graphic detail, and attending BDSM mixers and workshops. It was all astonishing… and enticing. At every turn she felt herself pulled deeper into people’s secret lives and began questioning her own choices about relationships and sex. Secret Sex Lives is an intimate account of a journalist who is seduced by her subject; a woman who sets out to look behind closed doors but ends up on a personal, revealing journey to find herself…
I thought this book was going to be a collection of scientific case studies. Instead, it was a memoir with Craigslist interviews thrown into the mix. Coming from a science background, I felt myself cringing at HOW subjective this was. When I finished the book, it took me a while to process what I read and what I gained from it. Even though it was very subjective, I feel like it was still a decent read. But I was disappointed at the lack of objectivity.
I think the strongest aspect of the book were the interviews she did. We met many interesting, confronting, and good-natured people. I feel like there were two main ‘kinks’ that she explored through the people who messaged her. Swingers and BDSM-ers. I found it interesting to learn more about these worlds and how they exist (in the context of America). I liked how some of the characters in the book received quite a lot of attention, showing how complex each and everyone of us is. Society often likes to shun ‘sex deviants’ and make them out to be one-dimensional, to define them by their kink, but I liked that this book showed them as normal people with normal lives. Although, in saying that, I disliked how often Suzy referred to her interviewees as ‘sex freaks’. I think she used it endearingly at times but… it’s still not cool.
The writing was good. I thought it was smooth, easy-to-follow, and easy-to-read. There was no scientific writing. The book wasn’t slow and it didn’t get boring. We swapped between interviews to explicit sex scenes of the interviewees, to Suzy’s reflections and sexuality memories of her own. I didn’t mind the explicit and graphic sex scenes but there were times where it felt like it was in there for the sake of shock value. It rarely gave the reader more insight into the interviewee. I’m not sure how it was meant to make the reader feel? Is it meant to make the reader aroused (even if the reader is trying not to be)? We didn’t need the explicit scenes. I don’t think I’m being prude-ish when I point this out either. I have no qualms with erotica, I think it’s a great medium for people to express their sexual needs, but should erotica be mixed with journalism in this way? I’m not sure. I think that it made the reading experience more strange and at times uncomfortable. Maybe it was done so we could confront our own sexualities and fantasies? I’m not sure but I know that these scenes would make certain individuals upset. Ultimately, I didn’t mind, it became part of the book’s style. It was new and therefore I appreciated the unique experience. But I’m not sure I was convinced that the scenes were necessary except to make the book even more confronting.
The ending fell flat for me. I liked the first half of the book a lot more than the second half. I think this is because it focused a lot more on the interviewees and less on Suzy’s sexual exploration. The author more or less describes herself as fearing touch, asexual, emotionally stifled, etc. Everyone is at a different stage in their sexual journey and openness, but I didn’t appreciate some of the sex-shame comments she made throughout the book that stem from her Christian guilt. I found it interesting that the author herself became a case study in the book, at times it felt like a bit of self-therapy was being done as she wrote a series of diary entries. Not that this is entirely bad… it’s just so different from what I’ve read and makes no evidence-based claims about sexuality on the fringes. It was a collection of N=1 sample size studies. But I did like hearing a few voices, a few stories of what it is like for those living “on the fringes”.
I liked how the book didn’t hesitate around interviewees who had or continued to have homosexual relations, particularly “straight” men. There were interesting conversations with some of these men about how they rationalised their experiences. How they considered themselves heterosexual despite having sexual relations with both genders. I found it fascinating and it’s a topic I’d like to read more into.
To be honest, there were a few times that I had to put the book down. As someone who reads lots of books about sex, it wasn’t the sex that got to me, it was the very explicit sex scenes included. Many of these scenes included people who were cheating on their spouses. I wasn’t born yesterday, so I know that cheating happens. And considering that Suzy Spencer found her interviews on Craigslist, I shouldn’t be surprised that there were a lot of ‘cheaters’ in the stories. I’m not condemning these people. Everyone has their path, but as someone in a happy, long-term relationship, there were times where I felt like I was losing faith in monogamy and the possibility of sex-happy long-term couples. There were many frigid wives. Children and parenthood ruined many sex lives. There were husbands who just wanted their wives to enjoy sex (and their wives didn’t care to learn how to enjoy sex for themselves) and so sought women who did enjoy it. Etc. It was just so sad and depressing for both parties. I know that there were so many sampling issues in this book’s project, so it is not representative of societies relationships, but it still got to me at times. It made me sad for the many people in this world who feel sexually dissatisfied and lack intimacy despite being in a long-term relationship.
The book felt very human. It was messy, and not objective, and complicated, and dirty. There are things that you wouldn’t read in a scientific journal or book about sex but I think they are still important things to read and understand if one goes into this area. Sexuality is complicated and it can induce lots of strong emotions like disgust, shame, dislike, excitement, and curiosity. And even though the book was limited because of the way Suzy approached this entire project, and included her own journey, it felt human and served to remind me that the path to healthy sexuality can be particularly difficult and shame-inducing for many.
Would you give this book a go? What do you think of Suzy’s method of mixing her emotions and sexual exploration with a collection of interviews? Could you read a book so sexually graphic?
3 out of 5 stars
- Want to learn more about unconventional sex lives
- Have an open-mind in regards to sexuality and what is “okay” and “not okay”
This book is not for you if you:
- Are too sensitive to sexually graphic scenes
- Are too sensitive to discussion of hard-core BDSM, swingers, cheating, homosexual relations, and other confronting sex acts
- Were looking for a scientific, objective book about “on the fringes” sexuality
– Ermisenda Alvarez
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I think it is a sign of our times that any book about sex would have almost invariably a shock factor to it. The book has got to sell and all that don’tchaknow.
As a reader of sex books, I was surprised by the shock factor. It’s not the norm imo. But maybe it’s because I read primarily scientific and academic work on the subject.
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