Category Archives: Writing

Guess Who Finished Her Dissertation on the History of Sex Toys?

Dildo TrophyAfter writing nearly 300 pages on the history of sex toys, you would think that I would be burnt out, that I would shut down dildographer.com and open up an Etsy boutique selling artisanal hazelnut butter and cardamom-infused rum. And I did have a two-day post-dissertation melt-down (sample thought: “Now that I’ve finished my dissertation, and I’ve run out of junk food blogs to read, my life is not worth living.”) Once I clawed my way out of the post-dissertation sinkhole, I realized that devoting the past three years of my life to sex toys had not dampened my love for them, that, in fact, I loved sex toys even more than I had when I started. I guess that’s what true love is: Even when you’re at your lowest the thought of your beloved brings you immense joy. In this case, as I was weeping in bed, thinking about my uncertain future, a penis-shaped beacon shone in the distance, shiny, glittering, burning my eyes with its brilliance. It reminded me that I still have a lot of work to do on the history of sex toys, and the current status of sex toys, and the future of sex toys (sex robots remain woefully ignored by the academy). It reminded me that I have to transform my dissertation into a trilogy of books on the history of sex toys, and that if I don’t nobody will.

But first, a few insights from my dissertation (and committee members, if you’re reading this, these are your Cliff Notes for my defense):

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What Are The Best Erotic Books Ever Written?

house of holes Dhb lo

“Nicholson Baker does not look like a dirty-book writer. His color is good. His gaze is direct, with none of the sidelong furtiveness of the compulsive masturbator.”-  The New York Times, August 4, 2011

From the opening three sentences of this New York Times magazine profile of NIcholson Baker, you would assume that Baker was a writer of 50 Shades of Grey-style books. But he’s not a writer of fan fiction-turned erotica. He’s a revered prose stylist and winner of the National Books Critics Circle Award. So why did a journalist from The Times presume that Baker must be a masturbating sexual deviant? Because he’s written books with sexual themes. Journalists would never assume that murder-mystery writers have a history of homicide. So why do they treat writers of erotic books as if they must be morally unhinged?

In part, it’s related to our American value system that celebrates violence in cultural products but pillories sex. One need only to look at the MPAA to get an idea of how Americans view sex. To take one example: the heart-wrenching drama Blue Valentine (2010) received an NC-17 rating because it has an oral-sex scene between a married couple in it, while the dismemberment and cannibalism-filled Hostel 2 (2007) received an R.

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How We Should Write About Sex

If only more academics followed Stacia Kane’s advice.
Image from staciakane.com

Most sex writing is terrible. Most scholarly sex writing is even worse. It’s a problem that stems from the unimaginative academic universe, a world that indoctrinates grad students out of creative prose, that Scientologizes away all sense of originality so that all papers sound as if they could have been written by the same chunky, black glasses-wearing, latte-sipping, theorist-name-dropping late 20s humanities Ph.D.  Academic writing is the antithesis of sexy. It’s dry and clinical, jargon-filled and plodding.  Reading it is like decoding a text whose message, when revealed, is frequently not worth the effort. Even if it is worth the effort, it’s still a frustrating endeavor. Writing about sex needs to be wet and messy and passionate and dirty. Academics have even managed to sanitize the word body, to jargonize it, to make it the opposite of what the body is, a flatulent, oozing, prickly thing that brings us sloppy, messy joy.

Sex writing needs to evolve away from a clinical, Kinseyian style. Since he was writing in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Kinsey’s clinical style made sense. It was appropriate. It was a way to give sex studies legitimacy. But we’re over a half a century beyond that. Even though the sex-studies stigma still exists, that doesn’t mean that we have to be overly scientific to the point of impenetrability in response. Stigmas about sexuality will always exist. Scholars shouldn’t respond to criticism by making their work innocuous and boring. Instead, they should fight critics with provocative prose full of stimulating ideas. Here’s a 3-step plan to improve academic sex writing.

First, academics need to stop pretending that they don’t have sex. Why is there an insistence that to be an intellectual means that you have risen above the corporeal? In the words of Us Weekly: Academics are just like us! They watch porn, masturbate, and have sex just like the rest of the rabble. They don’t copulate while wearing a monocle and a top hat. They don’t bring test tubes and statistical software to their assignations. They fuck. But for some reason intellectuals like to write about sex as if it’s something that happens to other people. Continue reading

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