What It’s Like to Publish a Book About Sex
Or more specifically, your sex life.
Ever find yourself—say, after devouring something salacious from cover-to-cover—wondering what it's really like to write a book about sex? Keeping in mind that said book very frankly uses real examples from your own personal, ahem, experience in helping its readers solve their most pressing sexual quandaries? If we had any preconceived notions of ~the process~, they were pretty much thrown out the window after hearing about what it's actually like firsthand from Amy Rose Spiegel (who you might remember from this).
While her book, Action, is exceptional in its inclusivity, and covers a lot of ground in the realm of human sexuality; it has a singular intended takeaway, which is something along the lines of, ‘everything is going to be okay—you’re normal.’ Spiegel really drove this home when we asked about any potential awkwardness while putting the book together, “Wouldn't that undermine the whole thing? If I were like ‘Sex is great! But not if you talk about it.’ I mean, it would totally go against my convictions to feel skittish about that,” she pointed out. We never thought we’d see the day where the idea of IRL pals digging into a chapter you wrote exploring past threesomes didn’t feel a little uncomfy, but girl has a point.
Knowing that much, you can probably see how the conversation that ensued around what it was really like writing a book (!) in your 20s (!!) about your own sexual path was anything but predictable. But we won’t spoil it. Read on for yourselves.
How it all came together:
“This [book] is something that I went out and pitched. Action came from being an editor at Rookie, and getting letters in my inbox every day from people who were writing into our advice column; asking questions about sex that I thought were very rudimentary, very basic. But then I realized there is no such thing as rudimentary or basic when it comes to sex. I find that more so with adults, who just want to know what they are doing is normal. That feeling of being fixed within a sexual identity comes from that youthful feeling of not knowing much, or not knowing how to be certain in what you do now. So I wanted to write a book that was really based in factual information that was correct in terms of someone’s health, and in terms of their well-being; but also not preachy. This information has been out there forever, so how is it going to make it like feel accessible to people?
"I wanted to make it conversational and sweet, which is all a very roundabout way of saying I love talking about fucking, and so I wrote a book about it.”
The process of making the book inclusive of all sexual identities:
“I think that being consistent with my language is maybe the hardest part of using terminology that was inclusive, not because it's hard to say ‘they,’ or ‘their,’ or learn how to use pronouns that apply to people across the gender spectrum; but sometimes I wanted it to be more specific, and instead of saying ‘she,’ ‘he,’ or ‘they,’ I wanted to say ‘the person with a penis,’ or ‘the person with the vagina,’ about people with certain bodies in parts about giving head. I have trans friends who have told me that it's hurtful to hear things put a certain way. My friend Annie Mok did a really brilliant thing in a comic for the book about talking about bodies, and trans bodies in the book.
"I find it incredibly annoying when people aren't willing to use a pronoun to get a point across. I feel that in terms or being inclusive, it's not a choice that I made so much as something that is inherent to what I'm trying to do. I don't see the point in any sex or relationship book that wouldn't account for the way that we have sex or are in relationships in actuality. And actuality includes trans bodies and people from all kinds of backgrounds and all kinds of belief systems about sex, and all of them are okay as long as we find a way to communicate with each other. There’s a glossary in the front of the book, because I don't want people to get lost and have to read a textbook and have no idea what is going on.”
How she began the research process:
“I have a lot of background via research and editing for Rookie; fact checking very intently, speaking with many different kinds of people. That piqued my interest, as did the reading I've done over the years. I don't feel any more or less qualified to write this than anyone else. What probably mattered to me most was phone conversations with my friends about their experiences.”
How she navigated writing about her IRL experiences:
“I really tried to be respectful of the people that I've been with, but I also disguised them so well within it. I was getting texts from people who were like, ‘oh, I found the part about me,’ and they were totally wrong. At points I felt a little bit like, maybe there was a discordant part of me that was like, ‘don't write this, don't do it!’ I would examine that part, and see why I felt that way, and it was never really real.
"I would be thinking, ‘I can't write that because if this gets out to my family, then they won't love me anymore [laughs].’ Or, ‘oh, no one will ever want to date me ever again.’ If I were to hold on to that belief then I would be perpetuating it, I would be making it valid, I would be making it something that held water; and I would be moving away from what I actually thought in order to service that.
"Also, when you have that feeling of, ‘oh, this is going to be so embarrassing for me if I tell everybody this big deal about me using my own body.’ If you think that way, it's like 'dude, there have been so many people who have used their bodies in the ways that I have, and like, twelve million more. There is nothing pioneering about what I'm doing.'”
On the Q&A of that first tour stop:
“There were so many people ranging in age from 13 year-olds, to their moms who had been following my work on Rookie, to like, 80 year-old veterans. And I found people really wanted to ask about issues of inclusivity. Another thing that people really wanted to know about was, ‘do young women like sex, or is it just the internet that's happening?[laughs]’ My favorite question that I got from somebody was, a man came up to me at the signing after and said, ‘do women like you like sex, and if so, how much?’ And I was just like, ‘10,000 dollars?’ [laughs] There was like, polyamorous, evangelical Christians who wanted to talk. It was just such a wide range, it was really incredible in that way.”
On meeting teen Rookie readers’ moms:
“Their moms were so cool! Their moms were awesome. So many young lion hearts, and then their incredible parents who had raised said lion hearts. It was so heartening that the girls moms were there, and coming up to give me a hug, and being so open about it. I thought that was amazing. Teenager's moms are incredible. In factchecking for Rookie I got to speak to a lot of them, and they are so open to the fact that young people are so much smarter than all of us. It's the coolest thing.”
How she’s seen the Internet change the way we learn about sexuality:
"Thahabu Gordon wrote the most wonderful essay for Rookie called 'The Right To Be A Black Girl.' It was all about how 'misogynoir'—the way misogyny specifically extends to black girls—is expressed in her life, and how that isn't something that she sees being discussed a lot. She wrote this eloquent, and just so incredible essay.
"I think about the space for things like that; the space for people to gather around experiences that they don't see as popular, or discussed, or in any way a part of dialogues they know in their lives. That essay reached so many people, and so many people reached back to it. So when I think about the internet as a vehicle for change in sexuality or in anything, I think about the fact of how we look at each other and how media has taught us to look at each other through typical modes of representation. And by typical, I mean white. And by typical, I mean rich. And there are so many smart people, and so many smart young people, specifically, who are challenging the lie that you've been fed if you depend on that. I'm in awe of that.”
How it’s making up for the shortcomings of Sex Ed, too:
“I really think it's important to talk about the fact that the internet allows people to access medical and health-based information that they otherwise don't have. I mean our president in the US just got rid of [millions of dollars] dedicated to abstinence based education in the US. Like, that was part of the federal budget. I had abstinence-based education, growing up in like the liberal Northeast. If people are being told one thing is true and that is their sexual education, then they go online and are able to see very clearly in medical terms that that's not real. That's more powerful and more helpful on a societal and personal basis than anything.”
The most surprising thing she’s learned from the whole experience:
“I was really surprised by the fact that people want to talk about sex in a way that implicates them, without really implicating them. Everyone just wants to know that they are normal. I found that most people wanted to know about others. And in wanting to know more about others, of course, you want to know about yourself. So when someone says to me to me, ‘I'm a married guy. Are threesomes normal?’, what they are saying is, "Is it okay that I'm not doing that, and if I did want to do that, how would I?" Or if somebody says to me, 'is it feminist to watch porn?’ what they are saying is, ‘I either do or don't watch porn, and I'm worried about what that means for me, because what is that about?’
"I found that there is a way of separating yourself from your sexual questions that is really telling and sweet, and I like that people frame things in this very inclusive way, like ‘I want to know what other people are doing.’ But I like that that inclusivity extends to themselves. I don't know, I thought that was really nice.”