I’ve been looking forward to this book since the author first announced it a couple years ago, and was greatly dismayed to find, upon its release, that it was only available in Britain (and, I’m assuming, the associated commonwealth).
Then, a few months ago, Dr. Magnanti announced that she had a few spare copies laying around, which she’d happily trade with other authors for mystery novels. I took her up on it, and sent her Down From Ten and And Then She Was Gone in trade.
“Lucky me!” can’t begin to describe my reaction at getting a chance to read and review Brooke Magnanti’s The Sex Myth. “I’m an asshole!” can’t begin to describe my feelings of guilt when I opened the book and saw that she had signed it–something I had completely neglected. Brooke, if you’re reading this, please forgive me!
Now, on to the review!
I opened this book with equal measures of skepticism and excitement–excitement because Dr. Magnanti, as an up-and-coming cancer/edocrine researcher, is a personal hero of mine (I’m a sucker for uncompromising individualists with strong moral courage, who are yet susceptible to argument, but never susceptible to bullying), and that was before she was outed as being Belle De Jour, she of the Secret Diaries of a Call Girl fame (Belle De Jour was also a personal hero of mine, for the same reasons). When I found out the two were the same person? Well, that was a good day indeed.
But when you’re biased in favor of an author, and that author is writing in an area where she has a (legitimate) political axe to grind, you must go in with your skeptical goggles firmly affixed. I did. And I was shocked at what I found.
Over the course of ten chapters and an afterword, Dr. Magnanti takes on nine popular misconceptions about sex and sexuality that drive the creation of bureaucracy, governmental intrusion, prosecutorial malfeasance, civil rights violations, and a multiplicity of unintended consequences. I’ve read this stuff before, and largely agree with her conclusions, but I found something different in the presentation in The Sex Myth:
Dr. Magnanti is a practicing research scientist and a journalist, and she writes from the best of both traditions. The clarity of good journalism, with the integrity, deliberation, and documentation of a good science paper. She explains, in detail, the problems with the “data” supporting the notions that (to cite two of the less incendiary chapters) men are more visually stimulated and more frequently interested in sex than women, or that modern culture encourages the early sexualization of children which promotes teen sexual activity and violence against women. These notions, she reveals (with excellent scientific documentation backing her up), are less credible than that smelly stuff that falls out the back end of a cow. In many cases, predicating policy on these notions creates the problems such policies are meant to solve.
This is a hugely important book–a great example of a species that’s started to appear recently–because it teaches proper process. It argues (rightly) that even if you disagree with the author on the way things oughta be, you haven’t got a prayer of affecting effective change (from your POV) if you don’t start from the facts and work your way outwards. It’s time, the book seems to argue, to rejoin the reality-based community.
But as well as being important, scrupulously documented, and offering very good deep analysis, The Sex Myth is also highly entertaining. Dr. Magnanti’s sense of humor shines throughout, and her appreciation of the humanity even of the most patently dishonest of her enemies is never far from the surface. Thundering throughout is the moral conviction that we children of the Enlightenment should be better than this, and an unwillingness to let the public off the hook for shitty policies enacted on the backs of their moral panic.
Writing as an American, in a country currently enmired in the cesspit resulting from its own moral and existential panics over the last two and a half decades, I can’t help but cheer. This is a hell of a book, and it’s especially important reading for sexual and moral conservatives. If you want a society that’s more conducive to the values of family integrity, chastity, and mutual respect and decency that you proport to hold, you’d do well to get acquainted with the facts on the ground.
If you’re a liberal, libertarian, or libertine, though, don’t worry. There’s plenty in here to knock your worldview around a good bit too, and that’s important if you’re hoping to create a sexually open society that honors the autonomy of all people, maximizes their opportunities for pleasure and play, and minimizes the chance of their assault and exploitation.
Because it’s written in a British context, some of what Dr. Magnanti addresses isn’t applicable to the US in its particulars, but the underlying reasoning is airtight, and well worth wrestling with. Five out of five for style and substance. Bravo!