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When Sexploration columnist Brian Alexander started receiving letters from readers asking how to do 'fisting' and 'squirting', he didn't know. When they became common, he began to wonder how the apparent prevalence of 'kink' in ordinary Americans' sex lives could be reconciled with the nation that believed it might suffer post-traumatic stress over seeing Janet Jackson's nipple exposed on television. America Unzipped is Alexander's travelogue of the time he spent zigzagging across the country in search of the great American sexual contradiction. And of course, in search of whatever the heck 'squirting' is.
The point of Alexander's journey is to meet and study these ordinary, kinky Americans where they work and live. In the course of his travels, he works in a sex toy superstore, rides with a Passion Parties host, sits in on a BDSM film shoot, meets (in reality) some virtual sex aficionados, attends a sex club, a fetish convention and a Christian revival-style meeting on sanctifying kink.
The way Alexander recounts his entry into the world of the sex columnist says much about his persona in this book. More or less accidently, he was offered the job and took it, without much sense on his part of having any special expertise or insight into sexuality. He's no crusader with an axe to grind on our collective necks, though he does meet that type in his travels. Consequently he writes with a good deal of humility and quiet wit. As such, he is well-placed to take on the charged topic of sexuality, since the reader quickly sees that no agenda is being pushed. Alexander is eminently personable as a slightly abashed, former Catholic altar boy, exercising his honest curiosity.
Overall the story told is of various efforts to rationalize broadened, and broadening, sexual horizons with the 'horror story' view of sex on which many of us were raised. Some approach the problem through an educate and assist mandate, whereby a division of a porn and sex toys empire sells instructional videos for those not ready to dive right in. Others, like Joe Beam, the Christian good-sex preacher, stretch their Biblical hermeneutics to promote marriage-saving, slightly kinky but doctrinally-approved, hot sex. Still others adopt the pretension of pursuing the cutting-edge of art and enlightenment in the porn they make -- a tricky approach in a world where the mainstream is not far behind and catching up fast.
Of all the people he meets, the 'ordinary folk' seem to be regaining the pioneer spirit that settled North America (well, without the butchering of natives part), though this time, they are exploring and colonizing their sexuality. They strike you as nothing so much as plucky, DIY types, shucking off their sexual shame and their fear of what lies beyond the white picket fence. But as Alexander is quick to conclude, the truly exploratory are still very much in the minority. All the same, the thriving sex industry suggests that more Americans are comfortable with sexual entertainment than the religious right noise machine would like us to believe.
The annual revenue of the adult industry, which Alexander puts between 11 and 15 billion dollars, is frequently trotted out to demonstrate how serious the porn problem is, usually after the failure of other attempts to demonstrate any problem. It doesn't take a philosophy degree to see that this assumes the threat of pornography that it supposedly demonstrates, but even so, to get a figure as high as 11 billion, you have to include, not only porn videos, but revenue from strip clubs, peep shows, sex toys, cable subscriptions, magazine sales and more. In short, practically the entire sex industry is behind the 'scare stat', not just video porn. What this really shows is the extent to which commercial sex has become mainstream, both economically and in the everyday life of citizens. Since civilization has not expired, we can conclude that sex is not the destructive force it was feared to be.
There is no real argument here. That's really not a fault, though, since Alexander is doing something else. His aim is rather to convey the impressions he himself has acquired, through a series of anecdotes, tied together with his commentary. For similar reasons, the book is unlikely to serve well as a text in any academic context, and of course, it is not intended to. Rather, this is simply a fun read.
Perhaps the only distressing aspect of this great sexual contradiction is the speculation that perhaps the punitive anti-sex rhetoric of the right is tied to the excitement driving up the revenues. This is often asserted: the 'forbidden fruit' thesis. But it is also handily illustrated in that Alexander's response -- and that of many of those he talks with -- to the sex carnival he witnesses is frequently one of boredom. But then sex is hardly at it's best as a spectator sport.
© 2008 George Williamson
George Williamson, University of Saskatchewan