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Lynn Harris Reviews 'Behind the Bedroom Door,' 'How Sex Works,' 'The Purity Myth' and 'The Johns'

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By Lynn Harris
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ah, summer! Our footwear turns to office-appropriate flip-flops; our minds to sex. And four recent books explore its lighter and darker sides: sex as personal experience, physiological phenomenon, puritanical fixation and salable product. Whether you'd prefer to be hot or bothered on these warm days, there's something here for you.

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-- While "Behind the Bedroom Door" -- essays by female writers, edited by Paula Derrow (Delacorte, $25) -- fizzes with words unprintable in a family newspaper, it is not erotica. ("I am miserable that sex interests me only about as much as checkers," writes Lauren Slater.) Nor, to its credit, is it a superficial collection of giggling, swaggering "Women love sex, too!" exploits. Rather, this diverse collection of well-crafted autobiographical essays serves as a reminder that our sex lives are not separate from the rest of our experiences. These writers explore unmet expectations, clumsy experimentation, abuse and addiction, illness and infertility and, yes, blinding, soaring lust. Some essays tread familiar territory (awkward youth, creaky dotage) but with refreshing, spirited humor. ("I'm not a slut!" a young Valerie Frankel blurted when caught in teen-hookup delicto, "I'm an honors student!") The strongest of the lot are the narratives that tell a real story rather than merely think out loud. Two favorites: Susanna Sonnenberg's cringe-worthy account of an assignation gone awry and Hope Edelman's aching tale of teen love never consummated.

-- Sharon Moalem begins "How Sex Works" (Harper, $26.99), his exploration of human sexuality, "where most people outwardly begin theirs -- at puberty, where hormones and history collide in a biological and emotional process that begins the transformation of girls into women and boys into men." From there, it's on to the evolutionary underpinnings of attraction, arousal, reproduction, homosexuality and the female orgasm (thank you, Doctor). His case studies are both human and animal. (Sometimes both at once, as with this timely tidbit: The bare-all Brazilian wax may spell extinction for pubic lice.) Think of this one as the teacher's edition, despite Moalem's occasionally corny asides. What the book lacks in rhetorical elegance it makes up for in sheer density and liveliness of scientific detail -- Lesbian macaques! Female ejaculate! Detachable bee penises! He also provides scattered but resonant calls for better understanding of human sexuality as a matter of public health.

-- Taking on one particular area of misunderstanding, Jessica Valenti explains in "The Purity Myth" (Seal, $24.95) that the concept of sexual virginity has no demonstrable basis in science. Rather, it's a "lie told to women" as part of a "well-funded backlash that is rolling back [their] rights." Abstinence-only advocates teach girls that premarital sex strips them of their rosy petals, leaving their future husbands with but a "bare stem." Prom-from-hell "purity balls" require white-clad girls to pledge their virginity to their dads until marriage. The whole enterprise, Valenti argues, reduces girls' worth to their sexuality -- not, say, to their honesty or kindness -- all while fetishizing their virginity under the guise of protecting it. Only Valenti's chatty footnotes distract from her otherwise cogent argument that the paternalism of the virginity movement is linked to other political and legislative efforts -- abortion restrictions, pharmacist conscience clauses -- to contain and control women's sexuality. "It's time to teach our daughters," she writes, "that their ability to be good people depends on their being good people, not on whether or not they're sexually active."

-- No one's sexual agency is controlled more thoroughly than that of prostitutes. "Prostitution is the world's oldest oppression," writes Victor Malarek in "The Johns" (Arcade, $26). And the customers -- not the pimps -- are the cruelest tyrants. "It is their demand for paid sex that is creating huge profits for crime networks worldwide and incentives for traffickers, pimps, brothel owners and porn producers to entrap more and more victims." The typical john is no longer a lone silhouette in a slowly cruising car; rather, by Malarek's both fascinating and repellent account, he is a member of an Internet-based brotherhood of " 'mongers" -- some lonely, some angry -- who share vernacular, trade tips and feel little shame about perpetuating the global sexual slavery of women and, yes, children. Stylistically, Malarek could stand to turn down the dudgeon -- the sparest description speaks volumes enough -- and his book would be stronger if he explored the role of misogyny more deeply. But his call for expansive changes -- target johns, educate boys, address the inequities that force women into prostitution -- should be required reading for anyone serious about protecting women and preserving the dignity of all human relationships, sexual or otherwise.

Harris is a journalist, author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net.


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