23 Jun 2016

‘Sex doesn’t have to mean anything about you unless you want it to’

12:59 pm on 23 June 2016

A new book by former Rookie editor Amy Rose Spiegel explains how to get some action.


Amy Rose Spiegel

Amy Rose Spiegel Photo: Jordan Hemmingway

All too often, books about sex are staid and clinical – a stark contrast to the act itself; messy, fun and undeniably human. Writer and editor Amy Rose Spiegel has written a book about sex that delights in frank conversation about sexual exploration, undressing the tired old clichés in favour of something a little more modern.

Action: A Book About Sex is a practical how-to guide, with Amy Rose’s own sexual narrative interwoven through the chapters. She lovingly dishes advice on consent, group sex, celibacy, vibrators and everything else that happens between the sheets. 

Honed on the webpages of Rookie magazine, Amy Rose’s tone is candid, and feels a little like talking with a more experienced best friend. 

We caught up with Amy Rose to talk about sex, baby.

Action: A Book About Sex

Photo: Supplied

What made you decide to write a book about sex?

A lot of the books about sex speak as though people have a baseline understanding of some not-so-baseline things. Or the conversation around sex is very cautious and pragmatic and dry. I didn’t really see anything in the middle space that acknowledges that not everybody has the same experience, but that also wasn’t just a flat-out, instructive list of facts. I wanted to write something that was more accessible and somewhere between the two.

Why do you think writing or talking about sex has been so inaccessible?

You know, I think that people are often made to feel (or often do feel) that the way that they’re having sex might be wrong or it might be shameful or it might be out of the ordinary. So I just wanted to make it clear that I was coming from a place that’s more like, "Listen, you can have a million different experiences and they’re all totally normal". That is something that feels a little bit new. I don’t think that has been a part of the conversations surrounding sex and I think that can feel limiting to people when it comes to actually talking about it.

Are there certain archaic sex myths that you wanted to dispel?

I think the main thing that I really wanted to debunk was the idea that if you have sex one specific kind of way, or on a particular occasion that it has to mean something about you. That it has to change the way that you think about yourself, or the way that you identify, without you wanting it to. With something like, if you’re a guy and you make out with a guy, it doesn’t mean that you’re gay. If you’re a person who has sex with three different people in a week, it doesn’t mean that you’re a slut. Sex doesn’t have to mean anything about you unless you want it to. It’s totally up to you.

Would you also say that Action is about normalising having a conversation about sex?

Right, exactly. I feel like we do it among our friends, or I do with my sisters and my best friends, etc. and if I’m going to do it there, what prevents it from being something that we talk about in a larger way. I wanted it to feel like I was talking to a person I trusted and loved, and I wanted it to feel that way for the reader as well.

In the book you write that you see sex as being high and low. Are you able to explain a little bit more about what you mean by that?

Yes. When I say sex is high and low, I mean that sex is what drives our biology, it is what continues to perpetuate our species on this planet, it’s hard-wired in us and it’s an intrinsic thing that people have been doing forever. It’s kind of sacramental in that way. It’s bound up in every bit of our culture. But when it’s low, it’s also, you know, the stuff of music videos, and slang, and so many of the day to day fun parts of our life as well. I appreciate that it is both this amazing, divine, lofty thing and it’s like, grinding with somebody in the club, so that’s basically the definition of “Sex is high and low”.

When you wrote the proposal for the book in the first place, how did it change or develop when you sat down to write it?

It was so interesting. Writing the proposal for the book, at first I was a little bit stymied by the idea of writing a straight forward and pragmatic guide for sexual acts. There are parts of the book where I really delve into the specifics of what you can do with your body and somebody else’s, and that was really divergent when I sat down to write, because I realised in giving straight forward advice, you have to be really, really careful to not leave out something that somebody might have done, or say, "This is the one way you can do it", and leaving people to feel like if they’d had a different experience then that’s wrong or somehow misinformed. I appreciated the challenge.

In your introduction you made it clear that you wanted to ensure the book included all types of sexualities and genders. Are you able to talk a little bit about how you made the book inclusive to as many people as possible?

I think that in writing a book, I am naturally inclined to be inclusive, because to come from a single perspective or identity when you’re talking about sex is dishonest. I think to say, "This has been my experience and maybe it is different for you", is a more straight forward way of going about it. So while I can’t speak for trans people or straight men, or any number of gender identities or sexual identities, I can acknowledge that they exist and I can listen to people who have their stories about what that has meant for them. And even within that, just because you identify one way, doesn’t mean that you’re having sex the exact same way as everybody else with that identity. So there’s a million ways that it could go and I think in acknowledging that, it made it easier to write the book writ large.

Did you feel the need to change language that you used, or be really, really careful about how you worded things?

There was only one way in which I felt a little bit conflicted about that and there were places where I really wanted to say "The person with the penis", or "The person with the vagina", instead of saying he or she or they, but I felt like I trusted readers to understand that when I said "they", I meant – broadly - everyone. So there are places where I wanted to be more specific, but I feel like it was a choice where I had to understand that readers might get tripped up reading "The person with the penis" or "The person with a vagina" a million times. That was a little unwieldy but I think I came to a good solution for it, I hope.

Do you have a favourite euphemism for sex?

Sure, I like to call it boning. I like to call it getting a hot beef injection… [laughs] no I don’t like to call it that! I feel like I call it boning most of the time with my friends, but you know, call it whatever you want. Come up with your own nickname for it, or don’t. Call it coitus, congress, whatever the hell you want.

What was your sex education like at high school?

Not great, not great. The sex education at my high school was like misspelt leaflets and multiple choice quizzes and misinformation about STIs and that was fairly recently. I graduated high school in 2008 in New Jersey and that’s a fairly liberal state and it was still very, very backwards and close-minded when it came to sexual education. So if that was the case for me, in an East Coast, pretty liberal place, I can only imagine how it must be for other people in places that are more conservative or more anti-sex education.

You deserve the right to have proper information about what you’re getting into. I think it is incredible that anyone could be against young people having access to accurate information about their bodies, about their reproductive health and about their sexual wellbeing. I think it would prevent so many heartaches and medical maladies if people were given the information that they need about decisions they may or may not be making. And I find that a lot of sexual curricula is totally heteronormative in nature. I think that is a major problem as well.

It’s exactly the same here. What were some of your early sources of sexual education outside of high school, whether it was movies or books or blogs or certain writers?

Planned Parenthood has always been great, in terms of being a resource for young people and all people about reproductive health. Do you have Planned Parenthood in New Zealand?

Yes we do, it’s called Family Planning.

Wonderful. I read a lot of books about queerness and a lot of fiction about queerness. I worked in a library from the time I was 15 until the time I was 17 and I checked out just a million books about like, gay short fiction and like, Patricia Highsmith was a lesbian writer whom I loved. Dennis Cooper, that kind of stuff was really informative to me and let me know that there is a whole world of sexuality that maybe I wasn’t experiencing first hand, but existed in the world and that made me so curious as to where I could find more of that narrative.

How comfortable were you with sharing your own past relationships and sexual experiences in Action? Was it hard to get into that?

Sure. At first I was nervous, but then I felt without it, how could anyone trust me? If I was going to say "Sex is a really positive and wonderful thing if you allow it to be in your life", why would I then be reluctant to share how that has been true for me? I felt like, it was really essential to underscoring my point and putting my money where my mouth is, so that wasn’t really the hard part, I don’t think.

I just felt like, if I’m going to say, "You shouldn’t be ashamed of sex", I couldn’t then say, "But I’m not going to tell you anything either, because it’s private and no one should ever talk about it." That would be totally, totally beside the point.

A really funny thing happened after the book came out, where people that I have been with in the past would get in touch with me and say, "Oh, I found the part that’s about me", but they’re totally wrong. So, in writing the book, I tried to be really, really careful about obscuring people’s identities and if they are getting it wrong, I think I did an okay job. So that made me feel good about it. There have been very few occasions where somebody has gotten it right, and if they have it’s because I told them outright that I was including something about it.

In some of the interviews I have read with you about this book you often come back to the joy of flirting and you mention how much you love it. What is it about flirting?

Flirting is just a demonstration of appreciation for another person on this earth. At its core, that’s what it is. I think that is something to be celebrated whether it is sexual or not. You know, I flirt with my friends constantly, in a platonic way. I flirt with my 72-year-old butcher. I flirt with babies. I think that flirting is just another way of thinking about interacting with the world in a really sweet, and genuinely charmed way.

Looking at your work with Rookie magazine as well, it would have been such an amazing environment to learn and develop your writing style. What were some of the valuable lessons you learnt while you were there?

The biggest lesson that I took from Rookie, whether it was in editing or writing, was that the more specific you are, the more people will relate to you. It can be really tempting to generalise about your experience, or put yourself in the background in favour of showing instead of telling. But the more somebody can get down to the brass tacks of why they feel something and what happened to them within that, the better that piece is going to be, and the more people will relate to it, or it will relate with people. I had to learn to be not as shy as I was, as maybe I was inherently impelled to be. I had to get over that and actually write about what had happened, or ask somebody to get into the nitty-gritty of their experience, as opposed to talking about things in broader ways. I think that when people do, it’s really comforting to the reader, because it’s like, "Oh, here’s somebody who is actually saying why this is the case".

Action: A Book About Sex is published by Grand Central.