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CULTURAL AFFAIRS

Carnal Confusion

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Reviewed by Lily Burana
Sunday, April 13, 2008

SEXUAL FLUIDITY

Understanding Women's Love and Desire

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By Lisa M. Diamond | Harvard Univ. 333 pp. $27.95

AMERICA UNZIPPED

In Search of Sex and Satisfaction

By Brian Alexander | Harmony. 304 pp. $23.95

In a culture in which the pornographic has become predictable, it seems downright cheeky to write and publish a sex book -- not because it's difficult, but because, to cop an exhausted term, eros has jumped the shark. Is there really anything new to say about sex? Lisa M. Diamond and Brian Alexander think there is.

The title of the first chapter in Diamond's Sexual Fluidity-- "Will the Real Lesbians Please Stand Up?" -- is likely to intrigue even the most jaded sexpert. In the kick-off to her study of the malleability of female erotic longing, Diamond, an associate professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah, writes:

"In 1997, the actress Anne Heche began a widely publicized romantic relationship with the openly lesbian comedian Ellen DeGeneres after having had no prior same-sex attractions. . . . The relationship with DeGeneres ended after two years, and Heche went on to marry a man. The actress Cynthia Nixon of the HBO series Sex and the City developed a serious relationship with a woman in 2004 after ending a fifteen-year relationship with a man. Julie Cypher left a heterosexual marriage for the musician Melissa Etheridge in 1988. After twelve years together, the pair separated and Cypher -- like Heche -- has returned to heterosexual relationships. In other cases, longtime lesbians have unexpectedly initiated relationships with men, sometimes after decades of exclusively same-sex ties. . . . What's going on? Are these women confused? Were they just going through a phase before, or are they in one now?"

Setting out to prove the theory that, for some women, love is truly blind where gender is concerned, Diamond presents her evidence in a fascinating, anecdotal fashion -- by tracking over the span of a decade the relationships of nearly 100 women who at one point or another had experienced "same-sex attractions." The women move from men to women and back again (or vice-versa), their sexual identity as changeable as their desires. Additionally, she delves into the brain science behind lust, love and infatuation, revealing that what draws women toward a particular partner is as much a function of biology as it is anything else. To her credit, Diamond avoids scripting her arguments in obtuse academese. With her compassionate, understated approach, she has stepped up the business of gender research.

Far more splashy is Brian Alexander's America Unzipped, which covers the same even-kinky-sex-is-as-wholesome-as-apple-pie territory as HBO's long-running docu-series "Real Sex," with an emphasis on the challenges of self-discovery. The book feels at once forward-thinking and oddly dated, in a 1990s "sex positive" kind of way. Ostensibly, we're to be comforted by the notion that nothing's shocking anymore, and that behind the Pottery Barn curtains of middle-class America, people are gettin' it on, bow-chicka-bow-wow. There are all-female sex toy parties being hosted by housewives in suburban Kansas, Connecticut prepsters running porn empires and fetishists flocking to conventions at the Tampa Hyatt. Throughout his travels in sexual America, Alexander, who is MSNBC's "Sexploration" columnist, points out, with something akin to delight, that a fair number of kinksters are avowed conservatives -- politically, anyway. According to him, the Internet is the great sexual democratizer (and educator) of our age.

A likable, open-minded guide through the sexual underworld, Alexander salts his observations with casual wit (though most of his better asides aren't fit to print in a family newspaper). Toward the end, he finds the limits of his own tolerance when he comes upon the sight of a male submissive at a BDSM (bondage domination sado-masochism) club in Seattle: "He is lying there in her arms curled like an infant against a mother's breast and all I can think of is wanting to slap him so hard he'll know what real pain is. . . . This is the end of my journey and I get this guy, a white-haired, bearded, sixty-something 'computer guy' nuzzling into her lap as if he's trying to return to the womb? This is what we've all been looking for? Mommy?" A moment later, Alexander regains his perspective -- and his composure. "Maybe it's just my pants," he writes. "They are punishingly tight." Often the most revealing -- and entertaining -- things in America Unzipped are the thoughts of the author.

Despite the barrage of girls going wild, prostitution scandals and paparazzi crotch shots, it appears we're still stumbling, no more knowledgeable about sex than we were when modesty carried the day, a fact that lies at the heart of these two books. Even in a permissive environment, we're seized with self-consciousness and looking for reassurance. A sex-toy party hostess in the heartland says it best: "It's okay. Everyone else is doing it." ยท

Lily Burana is the author of "Strip City: A Stripper's Farewell Journey Across America" and the forthcoming memoir, "I Love a Man in Uniform."


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