Let’s talk about sex.
No, but really. Considering sex tends to be at the forefront of everything from pop culture to political discourse, the days of sexual taboos and embarrassment should be behind us—especially since we’ve seen the damage unhealthy relationships with sex can cause.
Fortunately, that’s where author Amy Rose Spiegel comes in. With the release of her debut book Action: A Book About Sex, the writer (and former Rookie editor) tackles and talks about sex in a way formerly reserved for a big sister or good pal—which is a welcome relief. By making sex accessible, universal and inclusive, she creates a space for readers to combat their insecurities or worries, or even just a place to learn a few tips and tricks.
Congratulations, holy shit. This is such a big deal! So, obvious question alert: why a book on sex?
I find that most books that I’ve come across that either mention sex or use sex as their focal points are either incredibly corny or incredibly tepid and overly pleasant and kind of condescending. And I wanted to write a book where I felt I could discuss things like consent and gender and the fun parts of sex like how to do actual specific sex acts in a way that was accessible and hopefully not corny. I really wanted to put forth a book about sex that used straight forward language that everyone could understand.
It reads like it’s by a person who’s had sex and who knows how to talk about it in a way that’s not [alienating]—you’re not treating it like some novel taboo.
Sex is a part of everything. You can’t really isolate it and say, “Okay, I’m going to write about sex now” as this stand-alone thing. And I think it’s a little bit disingenuous to be like, My Sex Life: The End, and not talk about the context surrounding that. Because of course it relates.
When did you start becoming interest in the way sex is portrayed in popular culture?
I think my interest was piqued when I was maybe 19 or 20 and I was starting to publish my work. And I was really loathe to write about sex because every every TV show or book that was overtly about sex didn’t look or feel realistic to me. It felt so separate from what was happening in my life and my family’s lives. So I wondered why that was—why it had to be so special and novel?—because it didn’t feel that way. And it also felt like there weren’t depictions of queer people having sex or people of colour having sex in the centre point of a popular work people were paying attention to. It was very anesthetized and strange-feeling. So I started thinking about why that might be and if I could maybe provide some tiny counterpoint to it.
Did you have anything like this growing up? A book or a source you embraced to help you articulate your sexuality?
In terms of sexual education or resources, I think that literature is what really did it for me. When I was 14, I started working at a library and that was huge because you could check out whatever book you wanted from anywhere in New Jersey. So the first thing I did was order a book called The Sluts by Dennis Cooper which was about gay hustlers. And I was just like, “Okay! This is really different from anything that I know about.” And I knew that I was queer, and I thought there had to be more stuff like this. So I got this great book of the best gay short stories [The Faber Book of Gay Short Fiction] and that taught me a lot, but that was also about dudes. And then I got into Patricia Highsmith, who is queer, and from there it went on. So I guess reading about sex in the context of other people’s work, that was the education I got.
I like how the cover of your book itself has sexy pictures, but they’re not sensational. It looks like [something] you’d get your younger sister or cousin. Did you intentionally make it look like it’s for everybody?
Yes! It was really important to me to get this cover right. It was something I was firm about from when I found out the book was happening. The artist, Suzy Exposito, I gave her a comic —a “Life In Hell” comic by Matt Groening—and it’s just all these bodies together in a room. And I was like, “I wanna do this, and I want it to be everyone, and I want a million interactions.” And the only thing I was firm about was [that] I didn’t want anything lewd. I wanted people to be able to carry this book around or read it in public without feeling embarrassed or giving it to someone without [them thinking], “What is this?” I feel like presentation is important, and I wanted something inclusive and fun, and I think Suzy nailed that.
Totally! Why do you think sexual taboos still exist? Because you cover things in your book that a lot of people don’t talk openly about despite those things being prevalent.
Yeah and I think taboos are self-architecting. Taboos exist because people don’t talk about them. There’s this book called The History Of Sexuality that I mention in my book, and [the author is] of the mind that by not talking about something, it’s reinforcing it. So instead of actually talking about, “What if I have a threesome and it goes wrong?” or “What happens if I’m sexually assaulted?” or “What happens if I make out with a girl for the first time and how does that go down?” and being like, “Oh I wish I could talk about it” it stays a secret forever.
How old were you when you started feeling comfortable talking about sex?
Oh man, I was probably 21 or 22. And how that worked was, I had started answering advice questions for Rookie, and I started getting some questions about sex. And I was like, “It is terrifying to write about this.” But then I found that it was incredibly satisfying to write about it. Because I’d told myself I was never going to be “one of those women” who wrote about sex. Which is a totally misogynist and wild thought. So in answering these advice questions, I started thinking more about articles about sex and eventually the book because I felt like it was so f-cking cathartic and lovely to be able to talk about the one thing I thought I never would and to hear responses from others and to read others talking about it too.
When do you feel a story is okay to tell? How much distance did you start giving yourself between what had happened in life and when you committed to writing about it?
That’s a really interesting question because I find that in certain pieces for this book and in certain articles that I wrote for Rookie, occasionally I would be writing about things as they happened. Like, there’s a part in the book where I write about open relationships. And as I was writing that, I was in an open relationship with someone, and it was a long-term one. And I felt like it still came out alright, but the process of writing it felt a little bit more threatening as I was doing it just because that person meant a lot to me. And there was literally no distance there at all. So I don’t know. I think that it’s not almost a uniform thing for me. I can write about things as they’re happening, or sometimes it takes years. The only thing I really try to prioritize within that is the privacy and feelings of the people in my life. I feel like I can tell a story fairly quickly if I want to: if something hurts, you don’t write it. If something isn’t working, you don’t write it. Maybe you come back to it, maybe you don’t. [But] the stuff in this book is all fairly recent—it’s all within the span of six years, which isn’t even that much distance.
But it depends on your perspective. It depends on your experiences and your relationships. And emotion makes it hard. In terms of writing about emotion versus action, is it more or less easy to write about sex acts than it is to write about emotion?
Oh my God, it is so much harder to write about sex acts. That was the last part of the book I wrote. It was excruciating. I was like, this is going to be the end of me. I felt like, oh my gosh. When I was writing the stuff about sex acts, it was so much harder to write about than emotional stuff.
I think writing about things that had occurred in my personal life, writing about those acts, that wasn’t hard, that was incredibly fun. I loved doing it, I loved remembering it, and giving weight to it. But when it comes to the parts of the book that are very straightforward things—giving a blow job or how to get into anal sex—writing that stuff in an instructive, kind-of-removed, not clinical but very, very factual way, felt a lot harder for me. Because I get skittish sometimes when it comes to instructing people. I think that most advice is more about the person writing it than the person reading it, a lot of the time. So the responsibility of somebody giving advice is [in a sense]; “Here’s how it’s been for me. Maybe in some way it will illuminate how it’s going for you.” So writing a guide was very, very hard for me.
And you almost have to be so removed from it, but those things are also probably tied to emotional experiences. Plus, there’s this onus on you to explain everything correctly.
Oh totally! And that’s the thing, too: thinking of doing it “the right way.” Because when you’re writing a guide, you’re saying, “Here is the right way to go about things.” And that’s really hard when, as you said, it’s a thing that’s so tied to emotion and so subjective and so shape-shifting. It was so strange to sit down and say, “Here are the things you need to do.’ And I tried my best to not get into that tone, but [it was] very, very tough and weird.
How did you overcome that?
I think I realized I was finding it tough and weird because I wasn’t in it. And when I realized how egotistical it was, I felt better about everything and was able to just go for it. Like, “I’m not part of this as much, so I don’t like it.” What a strange and selfish feeling. So I just pole-vaulted over that and got back to work.
I think people don’t talk about sex because there’s this level of embarrassment associated with it. How did you overcome any/all embarrassment when telling your stories?
You know, I don’t think that I’ve totally overcome it, but I’ve realized that there are so many people in this world. And if I’m doing something, somebody else has thought of it before, somebody else has done it before; I’m not inventing anything. I think that embarrassment comes from somebody set apart or [thinking they’re] strange in some kind of way or behaving subversively. But none of us are. Everything is normal when it comes to sex, that’s the beautiful thing about it. Everything’s normal. People search for the weirdest sh-t on the Internet, man. What I do is small potatoes. So I feel like talking about sex is kind of like talking about money in that you’re supposed to feel shame or guilt or embarrassment about it, but that’s what upholds a power structure. So I think about that and it dissipates [everything].
Was there something you learned in the process of writing this book that surprised you?
Yeah! I started thinking about masculinity a whole lot more. And I’ve always had a lot of empathy for the way that men are socialized in this horrible gendered prison world that we live in. And I have a lot of empathy and sadness for men who were raised to shave their emotions down to nothing, which of course leads to violence and exclusion. So I was talking to friends when I was writing this book, and the way that they were talking to me about growing up and being a dude and having certain sexual desires and having a certain way of wanting to relate, and it was totally inaccessible to them and out of bounds. And that was an interesting to hear and learn about. Masculinity is a real bitch, and was very useful to my own heart to hear those perspectives from dudes.
I also thought a lot about about asexuality and relationships in lieu of sex. I did a lot of research. I talked to a lot of people. I learned a lot and I hope that comes through.