How to Make Sex Boring
By Brett Kahr
Basic Books, 2008
Writing about sex makes a person look salacious. I’ll bet you think I’m salacious right now. I must be a deviant drooling pervert to even touch on the topic.
Reading about sex is the same way. You’re clearly a deviant drooling pervert yourself, or you wouldn’t be reading this post.
There’s a way around this, however. Touch your subject with cold philosphy, range the proofs and figures in columns, alter it with science’s peering eye, describe it with long Latinate words, and you may be able to persuade your readers, and modern Comstocks, and, if you’re good, yourself, that what you’re doing is Science. It’s not smut, it’s sociology! It’s not prurience, it’s psychology! How can you not see that, are you some kind of sex maniac?
That was the approach Brett Kahr took in his television series and later book on Americans’ and Britons’ sexual fantasies. It’s a long book, though it includes the questionnaire used to gather data as an appendix, and a dull one, even though it’s about sex. My first thought, when I sought to explain this, was “well, of course other people’s sexual fantasies are boring.” But pornographic writing is popular on the Web, and popular in bookstores even with the advent of the Web (and even with the advent of the Web on devices you can bring into the bathroom with you), and that’s basicallly other people’s sexual fantasies.
I think, in fact, that the dullness is the result of a tacit collaborration between Kahr and his interviewees: they agreed that both the samples and the analyses would be bloodless and unarousing, lest this compendium of erotic fantasy be confused with something sexual.
Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t pick this up hoping for wank fodder. But Kahr’s intent seems to be to destigmatize, or at least grope towards destigmatizing, odd or unusual types of fantasies (an uphill battle given his obvious discomfort with non-vanilla sexuality, but an admirable effort). This goal is ill-served by cruel, disgusting, and clinical descriptions, which inspire at best curiosity that anyone can find this arousing, and more probably hostility towards those people. The presentation makes it difficult to empathize, difficult to see one’s own fantasies as the interviewees appear to see theirs–which serves to otherize them and their sexual tastes.
In other words, the style, and the boringness, serves only to make the subjects seem more like perverts. If they’d been depicted, even briefly and indirectly, as blissing out over their fantasies, rather than being described as case studies, in as detached a way as possible, it would make those fantasies seem far more normal than studying them as specimens does.