Danika reviews Acts of Service by Lillian Fishman

the cover of Acts of Service

I think that first I have to get the thing I want, and maybe then I can figure out why I wanted it, or whether it’s good.

This was a frustrating reading experience.

The main problem I had was that the questions it raised were ones I’m invested in, and conversations I want to see more of in literature. But while there were glimmers of insight and memorable lines, ultimately it felt like these ideas meandered around in circles, eventually petering out without making any real statement.

At first, I was enthralled by this story. Eve is a messy, deeply flawed character, and we spend a lot of time inside her head as she processes. She had a girlfriend, but she feels unfulfilled. What she really wants, underneath any noble façade, is to be fucked. Preferably by a lot of people. She wants her body, which she knows meets beauty standards, to be admired. So she posts naked photos of herself on the internet, which leads to her having a tumultuous, confusing relationship with Nathan and Olivia.

She originally meets Olivia, and she’s who Eve is interested in—but then Olivia insists she needs to meet Nathan. Olivia adores Nathan, who is also her boss. Despite Eve’s reservations, she is pulled under his spell, and finds herself validated by how he treats her, how they both value sex in the same way. Even as she worries for Olivia, she can’t help but compete with her for Nathan’s attention (yes, while she keeps this from her girlfriend).

This is a deeply introspective novel, with Eve constantly questioning what she’s doing and how it fits into her supposed values—but she never seems to get much below the surface or come to any conclusions.

Most men seemed hardly to exist for me, except nebulously, as acquaintances or obstacles. And then, occasionally, in the presence of a man who exuded power, I would feel a kind of weightlessness; I could feel myself growing soft and dimpling amiably under even a light touch of his attention. This was a truth so inadmissible in my life that I insisted even to myself that it was not the case.

Early on in the novel, there were moments that felt uncomfortably as if it’s peeled part of me away as a reader, exposing a thought or feeling I’d rather not admit to, even if, oddly, I related more to Eve’s girlfriend Romi than her.

I enjoy reading about complicated, flawed female main characters, so I enjoyed this insight into Eve. She feels like she’s trying to hold back her true nature, the parts of her that are vain and petty and selfish, resulting in these thousand tiny sacrifices for some indistinct noble cause. She puts Romi on a pedestal, who “so often wanted exactly what it seemed she was supposed to want and then enjoyed it once she got it.” She values their relationship because she wants to be deserving of that or to aspire to being the kind of person Romi is—without really recognizing Romi as a complete, flawed human being in herself.

Queerness rose in my life like a faith: When I came to New York I found there were shared beliefs, shared systems, not among all queer people but among a set to whom queerness meant a specific type of ethical awareness. Here was how I would know what was good to want.

Eve spends a lot of time thinking about sexuality, and specifically the difference between being with a man and being with a woman, and honestly… I found a lot of it perplexing. For one thing, she seems to think being with only one gender is boring or means you’re not truly living, but because she’s so flawed, I’m not expecting to agree with her on a lot. But there are a few ideas that this novel returns to over and over that got under my skin.

One is the assertion that being with women is both natural—that’s who Eve is usually attracted to—and awkward. That women who date are always circling each other, waiting for someone else to make the first move. That it’s exhausting, that you’re always “wondering who will make the first move, what it means to make the first move, what it means to want something as a woman, let alone to want another girl.”

It’s a common sapphic joke that we have trouble making the first move, of course. But the idea that when dating another woman you are left wondering “what it means to want something as a woman” is puzzling to me. I admittedly haven’t dated many men, but I found it much easier and more intuitive to navigate dating women and non-binary people, personally. But this idea that it’s somehow tiring to date women is returned to several times in the book, including being echoed by Romi.

So I’m supposed to think I can’t damage myself, that things don’t hurt me, if I choose them, if I see them clearly?

Ultimately, I lost interest in this story about halfway through as it just rehashed the Olivia/Nathan/Eve dynamic, which didn’t change much throughout. Eve enjoys being dominated and then feels guilty about it, but keeps coming back to it.

I wanted more depth to the conversations about power dynamics in sex, but they never really went anywhere. While what all three of them are participating in is BDSM, Nathan is disdainful of BDSM practices like negotiations or safe words. He seems to think they ruin the fun and mystery, and that he’s above all that.

There’s also something embarrassing about watching these two women obsess over what felt like a boring character. Nathan is just a rich, arrogant white guy. He doesn’t really seem to have any other personality traits. Both Eve and Olivia seem to treat what he’s offering them as something precious and rare, but power play is not unusual. There are many, many people who will fulfill sexual desires for humiliation, domination, and power play, but with bonuses like aftercare! Conversation! Respect for you as a multifaceted human being!

The more the story went on, the more frustrated I was at these rich people acting as if their awkward sex life was somehow novel or profound or… well, not boring. Yes, it’s easy to replicate gender norms, and it can even feel natural, because you’ve been trained into it from birth. That’s not particularly insightful or interesting.

It’s not just that Nathan is an asshole, of course: they’re all meant to be messy, deeply flawed people. It’s that I don’t see the appeal in any way. The things he says are so transparent that I don’t understand why Eve—who does occasionally challenge him and does ask questions about other details—doesn’t see through them.

For example, Nathan tells Eve, “I’ve always respected what you wanted—not just respected it but intuited it, discovered it, given it to you, in fact. Isn’t that true?” But “intuiting” is not above “respecting,” it’s below it. “Intuiting” is guessing what people want and doing that. You might be right. But you could be wrong. And just because you’ve successfully guessed before doesn’t mean your intuition of someone else’s desires should be valued above what they’re stating about what they want.

I found this book so frustrating because I was invested. I was interested in what it was doing. I just felt let down by where it ended up. It had moments of insight, but those didn’t feel worth reading a whole novel about two women idolizing this insufferable guy.

This is one of those books that leaves me feeling like I must be missing something. It feels like this is a novel that has something to say about sex and gender and queerness, but I could not tell you what it is. That sexual desire doesn’t always align with politics? Well, sure. That gender norms are easy to fall into? Can’t argue with that. That we can find pleasure even in unhealthy relationships? Yep.

I just wanted something more, and I kept waiting for it to end in a way that brought meaning to the experience, but it felt more like it fizzled out. I fully accept that I may just be missing the point entirely, and if you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear what you thought.

Elinor reviews Lesbian Marriage: A Sex Survival Kit by Kim Chernin and Renate Stendhal


I love reading about relationships, sex, and queer women. I especially like to read about lesbian marriage, since I’m one of the only women I know who’s married to a woman. I was incredibly excited about Lesbian Marriage: A Sex Survival Kit. Written by a married lesbian couple who have been together for nearly thirty years, I thought this book would offer unique insight and be fun to read. Sadly, Lesbian Marriage was an exercise in disappointment, starting with the title. “Kit” implies something along the lines of a workbook, with activities or writing exercises to complete. I was eager to try these but other than a few lines in the three chapters of introduction, there weren’t any activities or exercises for readers. The rest of book breaks down into twelve chapters about different relationship challenges, each beginning with a story of a queer woman or couple, followed by the authors’ thoughts on the story, then a list of “Do’s” and “Don’ts,” a weird illustration, and occasionally a blank page with “Notes, Scribbles, Doodles” written across the top. The authors called the advice section a “Toolkit” for reasons I didn’t understand. It turned out to be one of many things I didn’t understand about this book.

Clocking in at just 138 pages, and more than a dozen of these blank pages or tangentially related illustrations, there isn’t a lot of meat this book, and none of the topics go very deep. Chernin and Stendhal picked twelve topics to explore, with no explanation for why they selected these particular issues. Some of these, like extramarital desire or the impact of grudges on your sex life, seem pretty universal. Others, like a chapter called “The Genital Corset” (which is not as interesting as it sounds) about a woman who is mad at her partner because the partner doesn’t have orgasms with her, were overly specific. Meanwhile, topics I expected—like body image, identity, pregnancy and parenthood, disability and health issues, STIs, BDSM, non-monogamy, and past abuse and sexual assault—were either not addressed or presented in bizarre extremes. Lesbians raising children appear only in the story of a couple living in a two-bedroom house with their four adult daughters, two of the daughters’ partners, and a grandchild. None of the couples in the household had the privacy they needed, obviously, and this had a negative impact on all the couples’ sex lives, but the story was so over the top that I had trouble applying the lessons from the chapter to my own life.

In a chapter called “Butch and Femme: The Habit of Roles,” the couple discusses their difficulties around their elaborate sexual role play, but the role of power dynamics in a marriage is barely examined. Despite the chapter title, butch and femme identities are simply treated as synonyms for “top” and “bottom” respectively. As a femme this reductionism bothered me. I think the authors were using this story to make a point about getting stuck in limited roles, but conflating this with the identities of butch and femme was not helpful, and I was unclear how the couple was actually resolving the tension in their relationship.

I also didn’t understand how the authors found the couples in this book. Often the authors described these stories as being reconstructed from “listening sessions,” but never explained what a listening session is. Are they therapists writing about their patients? Are these their friends? Couples they found while researching the book? They gave no context to the couples, and sometimes didn’t even give the women names, which was confusing.

The strongest stories were about Chernin and Stendhal’s relationship, including their powerful tale of weathering Chernin’s affair with a younger woman. However, nearly every Chernin/Stendhal story describes a way their relationship either improved or works well, and most of the other couples’ stories seem to show people who are doing things wrong and struggling. It read to me as smugness from the authors, rather than real illustrations of lesbian couples who worked out challenges in their marriages.

I had trouble determining who the intended audience was supposed to be. Some chapters seemed aimed at older, long-time partners, while others seemed focused on women in new relationships deciding whether or not to commit to marriage. One chapter was about young single queer woman who was ambivalent about the concept of marriage entirely. None of it seemed aimed at a queer newlywed like me. This might explain why I heartily disagreed with some of their “Toolkit” advice. I found it irritating that they offered up prescriptions about marriage that left no room for a differing philosophy of relationships, while presenting them in a “Do” and “Don’t” list that didn’t explain why they’d come to these conclusions.

Their advice sometimes contradicted other advice they’d given. In early chapters, they tell readers to make sex a priority even if you’re busy or not feeling especially sexual. Later they present the story of a woman who wants a sexless marriage, though her wife does not, as a jumping off point for assuring the reader that it’s okay to stop having sex if that’s what you want. They offered no suggestions for the partner who didn’t want or expect a sexless marriage, or when to make sex a priority and when to embrace celibacy. Desire discrepancy is very common, and I expected them to address it with a little more consideration and creativity in a book with the words “sex survival” in the subtitle.

Their conclusions didn’t always seem to line up with the story they chose for the chapter either, with frustrating results. One of the most obvious examples of the authors missing the point of the story was a chapter about a cisgender woman who is uncomfortable that her boi partner is considering transitioning and/or having top surgery. The couple is also debating getting married, but the woman—the only half of the couple we hear from—does not want her partner to transition or identify as male. Chernin and Stendhal use this story to tell readers that marriage does not fix your relationship problems. It seemed to me that the issue wasn’t this at all, and the woman’s concern was about signing on for a marriage with someone whose self-identification and appearance might change. She was quite ignorant about trans and gender variant people too, which was putting strain on relationship with a gender variant (and possibly trans) partner. The authors could have used this story to make a broader, yet relevant, point if they’d acknowledged that one of the scary things about marriage is that you committing to someone who you know will grow and change–and that you’ll change too. You don’t get a guarantee who either of you will be in twenty years let alone what you’ll look like, which is something every married person wrestles with. Or the authors could have focused on the genuine, specific concerns around gender in a useful way. As far as I know, there isn’t a book about how to be a decent partner to someone who is gender variant and/or trans (if there is, please let me know in the comments!). A book like that is sorely needed, and this story could have been followed up with thoughtful, appropriate, and helpful advice on the subject. Instead, the authors seemed like they hadn’t read the story. Plus the woman used some transphobic language in the story that could have been edited out or responded to by the authors, but was simply glossed over. I was disturbed that the woman’s partner wasn’t given an opportunity to speak. It was a pretty raw story, and wasn’t handled with the care it warranted.

Similarly, the story in a chapter about not holding grudges featured an interracial couple from different class backgrounds. The conversation with peppered with microaggressions from the wealthier white partner, and the authors didn’t challenge these comments or discuss the impact these might be having on the relationship. Even when the woman of color called her partner out on a particularly racist comment, Chernin and Stendhal didn’t back her up, which make me lose respect for them. It was pretty clear to me from reading this story that the problem wasn’t just about holding grudges. The white woman was hurting her partner over and over and failing to acknowledge it, and it was destroying their relationship. How could the authors present themselves as experts without seeing this? Chernin and Stendhal chose these couples to write about, and chose to include problematic comments, so they should deal with what these couples said. The fact that they didn’t is troubling.

Occasionally this book has common sense advice, but you can find common sense relationship advice on Autostraddle or in the partnership chapter of The Whole Lesbian Sex Book, with more suggestions for putting it into practice. Skip Lesbian Marriage.

1/5 stars

Discussion of Hello, Groin by Beth Goobie with Anna Cook

Once again, Anna Cook from Future Feminist Librarian-Activist (which, like its tumblr counterpart, is amazing) has agreed to read and discuss a lesbian book with me. Last time it was Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden, this time it’s Hello, Groin by Beth Goobie. We discussed it by email this time, which means it’s less back-and-forth and more long diatribes, but I’ve taken Anna’s lead and colour-coded it for you. I’ve marked all the spoilers so that you have to highlight to read them, but fair warning, this was a pretty spoiler-heavy discussion, so it might seem a little fragmented. To read it without highlighting for spoilers, check out Anna’s post. This was lots of fun, and we plan to do it again, plus I’m reading another teen lesbian book with Rie of Friend of Dorothy Wilde this month! If you want to do something similar with me, just send me an email  at danikaellis@gmail.com!

Danika: I guess to start off with, we could talk about the handling of teen sexuality in AOMM vs HG. HG [spoiler starts here, highlight to read] doesn’t actually have any lesbian sex scenes (spoiler!)[spoiler ends here], but it does have a lot of sexuality in it. I found it really interesting that Dylan is not a virgin. Neither is Joc, of course. And sex is a frequent topic of conversation and speculation. It seemed really true to the reality of teenagers at this point in
time. What did you think?

Anna: Wow, so there’s a lot to unpack in your opening comment, and I’d love to tackle it all eventually! [spoilers] I was very struck by the fact that, despite the frank acknowledgment of sexuality in HG there was no lesbian sex (I was so disappointed!). The (mostly implied) sex is hetero sex, and masturbation, neither of which are demonized but both of which are not a substitute for same-sex love scenes, and I thought it was an interesting choice for Goobie to back away from being sexually explicit in that instance when she had not with other aspects of sex and the fact that teenagers can be sexual beings, and that this isn’t divorced from other aspects of who they are in the world. [end spoilers]

In fact, I felt in a lot of ways that Dylan (our narrator) is a lot more uncomfortable about her same-sex desires than Liza was in AOMM. She acknowledges her discomfort directly in the book, quite early on, in chapter five when she addresses the reader and says, “The main question here, I suppose, would be, What was the big deal? Most people didn’t go into a major funk over sexual orientation anymore–a lot of lesbians and gays were out these days.”  And yet, for Dylan, it’s not so much a question of sexual desire but social identity: “I just didn’t click with them,” she says, “They were all really different than me–besides our hormones we had nothing in common.”

To me, that’s a pretty major shift away from understanding your sexuality in terms of specific, personal desires and specific relationships in AOMM towards understanding sexual orientation as a form of group belonging in HG. And, ironically, the greater visibility of the LGBT community in Dylan’s life means that she has a much stronger sense of what it “means” to be queer. Therefore, because she can’t see herself as part of that community, this becomes a roadblock to her acknowledging, and feeling comfortable with, her desire for Joc. In AOMM, nearly the opposite is true: it is [spoilers] the lives of the lesbian teachers (embodied in their home and relationship) [end spoilers] that help Annie and Liza see that being together is possible. It’s a dawning awareness that takes place almost in isolation from their peers.

[spoilers] What do you make of the lack of relational lesbian sex scenes in the book, and the fact that Dylan’s dawning awareness of her desire for Joc is depicted primarily in terms of solitary sex and her internal physical reactions, rather than exploration as a couple?  And (major spoiler!) I was particularly struck by Dylan’s desire to slow things down with Joc when they finally got together, rather than dive in and get to know her very willing partner on that level.  What are your thoughts? [end spoilers]

Danika: Interesting. You know, I’ve never really considered [spoilers] how there is no explicit lesbian sex [end spoilers] in HG. It seemed to fit with the models of lesbian teen books I’ve read before, like Empress of the World and Bermudez Triangle (correct me if I’m wrong; it’s been a while since I’ve read them). [spoilers] But you’re right: why shouldn’t these teen lesbian books include lesbian sex? After all, AOMM did (even if it was a little “off screen”), so you would think by this time we’d be more frank. When I think about it, though, I don’t know if I’ve read any teen lesbian books with actual lesbian sex scenes, even any that are comparable to AOMM. [end spoilers]

I think the scenes of masturbation and talk about hetero sex was pretty explicit in HG. You’d be hard-pressed to find a reader who didn’t catch on that Dylan was masturbating. It’s kind of an ongoing theme at some point.

Hmm, that’s a good point. HG offers a sort of double-edged sword of queer visibility. Dylan knows what being a lesbian is, and she even personally knows lesbians. She doesn’t think they have miserable lives. But that idea of a queer community, which can be life-saving when coming out, can also seem too exclusive. If you don’t fit in in the queer community, can you really be queer? Can you be queer in a straight community? And that’s been an ongoing issue with queer activism: the “extremist” queer people want to create our own community, our own world, or at least radically reconstruct dominant society; the “moderate” queer people want to tweak dominant culture to allow us to assimilate. Even within lesbians I’ve met I’ve heard both “Why can’t I just sleep with girls without having it define me?” and “I love the lesbian community”. I think it’s really important to have both, to have a place for queers who feel displaced in straight/cis society to be around people they can relate to, as well as accommodating queer people who just want to fit into dominant society. Unfortunately, in Dylan’s case, the community was too small to really be inclusive, and the straight/cis world wasn’t going out of its way to be queer-positive.

I think we see this positive aspect of queer community/role models in AOMM and the downside in HG. I mean, if [spoilers] the teachers in AOMM had been people that Liza didn’t like, or didn’t relate to [end spoilers], would that have made it even harder for her and Annie? It’s hard that queerness has these two elements: the queer culture, with a rich history and literature and activism and entertainment and social scene, but it’s also something that is so very personal and individual, and has to do with the most private parts of ourselves.

My first instinct to respond to [spoilers] the lack of lesbian sex in HG [end spoiler] is that it doesn’t fit the storyline. HG is about Dylan coming to grips with her sexuality and sexual orientation, with her desire and what that means for her identity. [spoilers] Getting together with Joc was really almost secondary to that. It was the final step in that journey, in that arc. The story of Joc and Dylan as a couple isn’t really included in HG. I don’t feel like you could really have them have sex after years of repressed desire and then fade to black, because it would leave too many questions. And answering those questions would require a whole other book! [end spoilers]

That’s my first instinct, but I know that it’s really easy to dismiss these sorts of questions by saying “That’s what the story demanded”, so I’d like to look more closely at it. [spoilers] I really quite liked Dylan’s insistence that they move slowly. I thought the “I’m in love with this finger” line was absolutely adorable. I feel like them having sex right then would be too fast, because they had only just acknowledged their feeling for each other, their sexual orientation, and Joc hadn’t even come out to her mom yet! It would have been too many emotional experiences at once for them. [end spoilers]

I think it’s exactly what you touch on: the “dawning” of her sexuality. The title alone implies that Dylan is only beginning to know herself. I think that the book was working up to this point, to this careful introduction to sexuality. [spoilers] I guess it also is in contrast to Dylan’s previous sexual encounters. She’s forced herself to have sex before, because she felt like that’s what she’s supposed to do. She’d been pressured to have sex with her boyfriend the whole book. I think maybe Dylan negotiating with Joc about sex shows her new understanding of her sexuality, her ability to not repress her desire, but also not repress her better judgment. I’m not totally satisfied by that answer, though. What do you think? Was she afraid of backlash about have lesbian sex in it? She already addressed drinking, drugs (briefly), partying, homosexuality, queer desire, teen sex, and female masturbation. It doesn’t seem likely that she thought lesbian sex was going too far. Do you have any theories? [end spoilers]

Anna: I like your analysis of the two-edged sword of queer “communities.” In my own life,I can think of examples where the HG model has been in operation as well as examples where the AOMM experience has been really helpful.  Particularly in smaller populations (I’m thinking particularly of the insular spaces of teenage peer culture, so often segregated in schools), the “queer” community, in my experience, tends to be dominated by — as you put it — “extremist” personalities. And if you don’t see yourself mirrored in those personalities, it’s hard to see how your life is going to improve by identifying with them. Coming out, in those cases, seems ripe for being rejected by both the dominant culture (for being queer) and the queer community for not being the “right” kind of queer. As someone with more fluid sexual attractions, for example, I was timid about voicing my same-sex desires for many years because I perceived the potential for rejection by the lesbian girls I knew for not being lesbian enough, and I really didn’t see myself reflected in the lives of the few bi women I met at college. So I sympathize with Dylan’s struggles to name her desires openly, even though she knows inside herself where her attractions lie.

As someone in my late twenties, too, when reading YA literature I wonder what role my adult expectations play [spoilers] in the sense that there’s not “enough” sex in HG? And whether, as you say, having Dylan approach her relationship with Joc as something special, more intimate, and therefore something to approach slowly and cautiously, might be a legitimate reflection of age rather than prudishness on the part of the author? When I was Dylan’s age, would I have wanted to go from zero to sixty in a sexual relationship? I suspect with the right person, yes, given my personality :).  But I also think it’s legitimate for an author to write characters who are slower to feel sure about how they want to express their sexuality in relationships, even when they know it’s a relationship they want to be in, and be sexually active in, eventually.  An example of a similar “taking it slow” approach that is nonetheless sex-positive (and more sexually explicit) is the novel This Is All by Aiden Chambers, although I think that novel had other issues. However, the (hetero) couple at the center of the story were both very purposeful about choosing the time and place to be sexually intimate for the first time, yet also joyful in the moment as well. I rather wish HG had gotten to that point. In part because, from a political and cultural perspective, there’s such a persistent stereotype that lesbian relationships are more romantic than physical. Clearly, Dylan and Joc are both highly physical, highly sexual beings. But the fact that this grinds to a halt when the girls come together in bed was frustrating to me.

Have you read other books by Goobie and if so, how does the treatment of sexuality compare? Going back to our last conversation and the example of David Levithan, he writes romantic stories with explicit sex and without explicit sex, and I enjoy them both, so perhaps it is unfair to place the burden of expectation that this ONE novel do everything at once! [end spoilers] I know that, as you pointed out, YA authors often have to tread a very careful line between exploring issues that they feel are relevant to teenage lives and also not being too heavy-handed with the Real Life Issues stuff. [spoilers] Likewise, the balance between including stuff about sex without being so controversial that young people can’t get their hands on the books! [end spoilers]

Of course, resourceful kids (with access to a good library!) can get around this by going straight for adult lesbian literature, if they know where to look. It’s interesting to me that, with the emphasis on the library book display, that Dylan did not reference more lesbian-themed literature, or at least didn’t seem to see books as a resource the same way that Liza did in AOMM.  I know, as a teenager, that novels like Fingersmith (to give one example) were a wonderfully safe and private way to explore same-sex desire and sexual arousal. Do you have any thoughts about the role of books in HG, particularly since we discussed this as such an important element of AOMM?

Danika: Yes, again, that idea of having a shared culture is amazing when you identify with that culture, and alienating when you don’t. The queer community, like the feminist community, still has a while to go to actually be as inclusive as they claim to be. Luckily, I think that a lot of girls (not so much guys) in high school now are feeling more comfortable coming out as queer, especially as an unlabelled queer. I think, in some situations, at least, we’re seeing more acceptance of people being true to themselves without necessarily claiming a title. A lot of teens are now saying that they don’t feel the need to label their desire. [spoilers] Speaking of, I found it a little disconcerting that Joc uses the word “bi-curious” to describe herself, and then has her mother label her “lesbian”, and Dylan thinks that label will take a while to get used to… but that’s not Joc’s label. I mean, I think that since Joc has been attracted o Dylan for years now,

she’s probably more towards bisexual than “bi-curious”, but there’s no reason to think she’s gay.

When I first read this book, I was in my late teens, and I don’t remember thinking that it lacked sex. I really liked how it handled their sexuality. But now that you mention it, I hadn’t considered how their sexuality ends when they’re in bed together. That is problematic. I keep coming back to not knowing how it could be fit into the story, though. Dylan wants to wait until they’re both more comfortable with each other, with the idea. I know that when I first realized I was attracted to girls, I didn’t immediately want to have sex with them. It was a slow process of wanting to kiss them but not anything else, and then maybe a little bit further, but not “all the way”, etc. I know when my girlfriend first started realizing she liked girls, she was first just puzzled about why she wanted to write girls poetry. And then actually doing anything with girls was a whole other process. I think I thought I was going to pass out the first time I held a girl’s hand. It’s overwhelming to begin with. (Or maybe that’s just me…) I think that Dylan and Joc would have waiting at least a month or two before having sex, which is a perfectly valid thing to do in any relationship, and I don’t know if you could really fast forward a month to the sex scene and then fade out. At the point we end the book on, Dylan and Joc are still adjusting to switching from “best friend” mode to “girlfriends” mode.

I’ve only read one other book by Beth Goobie, and that was Something Girl, which was about parental violence, so it didn’t include any sex. I’m fairly sure that this is Goobie’s only queer book, but I could be wrong. [end spoilers]

On of the reasons I really like HG was the literature subplot (there’s even Harry Potter references!), just like I liked AOMM for that. I really like how the idea of censorship got woven into how Dylan feels like her sexual orientation is censored, but also just teen sexuality. The display really seemed to let her work through her own feeling about sexuality and censorship. There was also the reoccurring Egyptian Book of the Dead theme, which I liked, and it also let her work through her feelings. The scene with “I have not eaten my heart? […] No heaven for you then, eh Dyllie?” was haunting. I thought that was very effective.

Again, it’s funny how I never noticed that before. Dylan sort of sees Foxfire as a representation of lesbians, but it’s not explicit, and she never seeks out other books. Are there no others at the library? The librarian doesn’t seem like the type that wouldn’t stock queer books. Was Dylan not aware of them? She volunteers at the library; she should be pretty familiar with the material. How odd. I guess that Dylan really doesn’t see the books as a resource, which, now that you mention it, seems odd. She likes the library, she seems to enjoy books (she talks reverently about a shelf of books near the beginning of HG), but we don’t see her reading anything that isn’t assigned, and she never seeks out lesbian books. I think that might have been an oversight on the part of the author, because it seems like something Dylan would do, or would at least consider doing.

On another note, though, I kind of wonder about it being a sort of curse of plenty. In AOMM, it was fairly easy to know which lesbian books to read, because there weren’t very many! You could conceivably set out to read all of them in your lifetime. Now, though, there are enough lesbian books that it can be overwhelming to know where to start. I don’t think that would’ve stopped Dylan, though, so I really think that was an oversight.

Have you read Beth Goobie’s explanation of writing HG? It’s really interesting and encouraging: http://www.orcabook.com/client/client_pages/hellogroin.cfm

Anna: Thanks for the link to Goobie’s comments. I was particularly struck by the comment that some have criticized her book for being “surrealistically positive,” since I read it as much more of a mixed bag.  Perhaps what people were reacting to is the fact that, while teenage sexuality — and coming to grips with one’s sexual desires — is central to the story, same-sex attractions aren’t presented as a problem, something to be overcome and/or something that is going to damage the character.  Until very recently, I think, literature with gay or lesbian characters presented those characters as somehow inherently tragic and wounded, whether those wounds were the result of being internally disordered somehow OR whether those wounds came as a result of living in a hostile culture. [spoilers] AOMM tries not to do this, but Liza’s public acknowledgement of her relationship with Annie, and the discovery of the teachers’ lesbian relationship, is still dramatic and painful for people. [end spoilers]

In HG, the issue isn’t so much homosexuality but teenage sexuality. Homosexuality, as you say, isn’t being censored — teenage sexuality is being censored.  And I think that’s an interesting angle. In some ways, I agree with Goobie that this is the direction we’ve moved in — people are more willing to think about the diversity of sexual orientation, but they’re still very, very uncomfortable with teenage sexuality.

On the other hand, the recent flurry of suicides by queer students who have experienced bullying here in the US (in part because of their perceived or actual sexual orientation and/or gender expression) belie somewhat the rosy picture that Goobie’s adolescent informants painted.  I’m skeptical that the (mostly straight) students she interviewed or otherwise talked with really understand what it means to be a non-conforming teenager and all of the internal and external pressures non-straight teenagers might face to just conform already! Another example of this disconnect would be the wide-spread perception that college campuses are generally lgbt-friendly, whereas the 2010 CampusPride survey of queer faculty and students indicated an enduring pattern of harassment and hostile climate that has pushed over a third of the individuals surveyed to seriously consider leaving their place of employment/studies.

Returning to the book-and-library theme, as a librarian I was so pleased that the school librarian in HG was seen as such a supportive character! She comes across as a real advocate for the students, even if she couldn’t overrule the school administrators about Dylan’s book display.  But, as you say, the book theme doesn’t develop as much as it could, and it does seem strange the Dylan doesn’t seek out information in the library or in books that might help her make sense of her desires. Certainly, in the face of a local queer community I didn’t feel I could connect with, literature and online networks were where I was able to piece together a broader context for my own sexuality (though not until college and post-college, so perhaps I’m placing too much expectation on a high school student to have herself sorted out!).

The commentary from Goobie that you linked was interesting in that it was similar to some of the commentary in the back of my copy of AOMM, which contained an 25th anniversary interview with Nancy Garden.  It is interesting to me that Garden wrote the book very much out of her own personal experience — writing, perhaps, for the teenager she herself was.  Whereas Goobie seems to have taken a more distanced approach, interviewing teenagers and writing a story that is not so clearly connected to her own personal feelings (from the brief commentary you linked to, one gets no sense of her own orientation.  It’s not like I don’t think only queer people can write books with queer characters and/or protagonists, but I wonder how that effects the stories they tell and their narrative priorities. Do you have any thoughts about this?

Danika: It is odd that people thought it was fairytale-ish, considering how hard Dylan fought against her sexuality to begin with. [spoilers] I think what they were criticizing, though, was the way the parents and other students dealt with Dylan and Joc coming out. In AOMM, even if we don’t see any disowning by the parents, Liza and Annie still face huge consequences as a direct consequence of being outed, and so do their mentors. Joc and Dylan don’t see this, other than with Joc’s brother. [end spoilers]

It is a very interesting direction to take, because in some ways, while HG is a “teen lesbian book”, it’s not about being a lesbian. It’s about being a sexual being, and it’s just that differing sexual orientations tend to be the times when we really critically look at sexuality. So the lesbian theme, though it can be seen as the major theme of the book, can also be seen as secondary to the theme of teen sexuality, and that lesbianism was just the easiest way to confront sexuality.

Aah, but you have to be very careful about that. It’s clear that definitely, a whole of teens face incredible pressure and harassment for their perceived sexual orientation. Many queer kids are disowned by their parents, a disproportionate amount commit suicide: you can’t deny that it is still nowhere near being an accepting or even safe environment for queer teens in North America as a whole. But, the cases that you are talking about are from the United States. The thing I noticed about Goobie’s commentary about HG which I really appreciated was that she was careful to set it in a very specific location and was telling a very specific story. Dylan’s story isn’t supposed to universal, it’s supposed to represent the reality for teens from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She didn’t interview students from all over NA, or Canada, or even Saskatchewan, but just that specific city. And that’s how students responded. So she shaped her story around what these teens represented their lives as, the stories they told, the experiences they had. She wasn’t trying to impose her own idea of what growing up queer looks like, partly, I suspect, because she didn’t. I fully agree that queer youth face a huge amount of difficulties coming out or even just appearing queer (regardless of whether it’s true), and those stories need to be told, but we don’t need that to be the only story told. I don’t think we have a lack of stories about how hard it is to be queer. I don’t think it’s a hugely underrepresented narrative, to be told that coming out means losing your friends and family. It is true in some cases, and it’s a story that deserves to be told, but it’s not every queer youth’s story, and even if it is, it’s not necessarily something you want to hear reinforced over and over. It can be heartening to read a positive portrayal of coming out, even if it’s not something to relate to.

I can attest that these students were not necessarily making it up; there’s definitely a chance that that’s just what being lesbian/gay looked like in their school. When I came out as bi, there were at least half a dozen other girls in my (small) high school who I knew also were out as bi, and those were just the ones I knew of. When I came out as gay (standard disclaimer: coming out as bi was a transitional thing for me, but it’s definitely not transitional for all or even most people), I knew of at least one other lesbian in my high school, and she was fairly popular. I was very out, and no one gave me a hard time. I never faced any harassment at all, my parents were okay with it, my friends were okay with it… I had an even easier time of it than Dylan did. (I lived on Vancouver Island in British Columbia; it’s a pretty hippie place.) I think we have to be careful not to generalize people’s experiences with being queer. Just because it’s a positive story doesn’t mean it’s unrealistic.

Yes, I definitely think that Dylan [spoilers] and Joc [end spoilers] not exploring more in the library or even online is a bit of a plot problem. It seems unrealistic. [spoilers] Joc mentions in passing that she got the term “bi-curious” from “the net” [end spoilers] (do teens actually say “the net”? Don’t we all say intertubes now?), but that’s as far as it goes.

I would suspect that Goobie doesn’t identify as queer, yes. I think that’s why she did the interviews; to get more of a context to what real teens’ experiences with queerness look like. I’m always happy to see more queer books, no matter what the sexual orientation or gender identification of the author is, but I do think that it’s important that queer people are able to tell their own stories. It’s fine if straight, cisgendered people are also telling queer stories, just as long as they aren’t creating the dominant narrative, because you do definitely get a more nuanced view of queerness when you live it.

Anna: I was thinking about Goobie’s non-queer identity yesterday, after I wrote you, and also about the fact that she is an established author of young adult literature, which in some ways has its own very specific conventions. If I remember, Nancy Garden wrote AOMM very early in her career — and wasn’t it her first novel for young people? Whereas Goobie set out to write a YA novel. And I think this does something to change the tenor of the book.  Especially since it’s in a contemporary real-life setting, then it’s really hard not to read everything she writes into the novel as some sort of object-lesson.  In part because that’s how real-life teen literature is often reviewed — on the adult perception of whether or not it’s “appropriate” and something young people can relate to.  And there’s this expectation that it will have some sort of moral value. It’s very difficult to write teen fiction that is accepted as a story without some sort of message.

The issue of depicting sex falls into this category. If you’re writing science fiction, fantasy, even historical fiction or magical realism — your teenagers can be sexually active and there isn’t the expectation that you will write in stuff about safe sex, for example. Or about waiting until marriage, etc. The teenagers are just characters within these other universes. Whereas, in YA fiction in the contemporary world, there’s the expectation that it will somehow interact with all of the expectations surrounding management of teen sexuality, risk, etc., that goes on in the world around us. It’s no longer acceptable for it to be just a work of fiction.

I know from talking to my queer friends, for example, science fiction and fantasy authors like Tanith Lee and Ursula LeGuin were often where they found stories about characters and relationship models they could somehow relate to. I still remember vividly my first exposure to the modern, queer concept of polyamory being through the ElfQuest graphic novels series that my brother and I used to read (checked out from, bless them, our local library!) … the elves in that series were straight, bi, gay, and existed in a network of group marriages. It offered me a different model for intimate relationships that I could think about, but not be threatened by, because it was so clearly fantasy.  It makes me wonder how large a role genre fiction plays in the queer community in positing alternative ways of being, and whether — in the end — genre fiction (not to mention the proliferation of fan fiction and slash narratives that queer mainstream television and fiction storylines) ends up being more powerful in some ways in connecting teens with their sexual selves than even the best real-world YA fiction.

And I think I’ll leave it there — feel free to add any last thoughts and I’m looking forward to doing this again at the end of October.

Danika: I think that’s probably a good place to end. I don’t think I have anything more to add. Thanks for doing this with me!

Lesbrary Sneak Peek: Nonfiction

Okay, so yesterday I went to this incredible book sale. People donate their books (it all benefits children’s literacy) and then they are sold for $1 for a mass market, $2 for a trade, and $3 for a hardcover. People camp out in the line, you have to get there at least an hour before to be let in when the doors open, everyone else has to wait until some people leave or it would be packed wall to wall. There was tons of books, and I picked up 14 lesbian ones, but first I have to fill you in on the books I’ve gotten before that.

There’s a reason this blog is about lesbian books and not lesbian fiction (or “lesfic”), and that’s because I’m a fan of nonfiction, too. So here are three more nonfiction lesbian books I got in the mail recently (through Bookmooch).

Although this book does discuss Califia’s transition, it also looks like it covers issues like S/M and same-sex marriage. Flipping through it, Speaking Sex to Power seems really readable and its back cover promises controversy, so I’m excited. The copy I have is actually autographed by the author, saying “2/28/04 To Mandy – Good luck on your path in sexual politics” and it looks like Mandy underlined, starred, and put smiley faces by the sections she particularly enjoyed. I love used books.

I’m Canadian, so I like stumbling on Canadian lesbian/queer books. Despite having a really weird cover, The Regulation of Desire: Sexuality in Canada looks like it’ll be thought-provoking, addressing how we define what sexualities are acceptable and which are unacceptable. This is from 1987, so it’s a little outdated, but I like seeing where we came from. The dedication is: “For the angry and proud faggots and dykes who took over the streets of Toronto to protest the police raids on the gay baths in 1981 and to all those who fight for lesbian and gay liberation everywhere”. The copy I have is a review copy, and has question marks and criticism written in pencil through it… I might have to erase it so I’m not distracted. This is definitely an academic book, though; it won’t be an easy read.

And finally, the classic On Our Backs Guide to Lesbian Sex. On Our Backs is a big part of lesbian history. It was, as Wikipedia says, the “first magazine to feature lesbian erotica for a lesbian audience in the United States.” The book includes the best of the writing on sex and desire from the magazine, illustrated with photos. On Our Backs seems to be the foundation that writing on lesbian sex has built on, so I’m looking forward to reading the original.

Have you read Speaking Sex to Power, The Regulation of Desire, or On Our Backs Guide to Lesbian Sex? What did you think of them? Do you read many lesbian nonfiction books?

Lesbrary Review: The Whole Lesbian Sex Book by Felice Newman

Now this is a sex book! I read the second edition of The Whole Lesbian Sex Book: A Passionate Guide For All of Us (from my public library! Though now I’m going to buy it for myself).

When it says “whole”, it really means whole. The Whole Lesbian Sex Book includes information on how menopause & perimenopause and drugs for depression affect sex, information on having sex with a trans partner (FtM or MtF), tons of info on safer sex and why it’s important for lesbians, sexual health info, sex toys, BDSM, anatomy, group sex, masturbation, play parties… the list goes on and on.

I loved the tone in this book, too. It wasn’t overly clinical, but it wasn’t trying to be erotica, either. It’s completely casual and conversational. It also includes tons of quotations from women who filled out a sexual questionnaire, whether it’s about their gender identity or how they like to be touched or how childhood sexual abuse affects their adult sex life. Those really added to the feel of the book. I should mention that this is also not just a book for lesbians; it is also inclusive of bi women, and often mentions those not covered by either label. As the blurb by Bust says, “I highly recommend this book to every woman: bi, lesbian, almost queer, totally straight, or boy-girl.”

One of my favourite things about The Whole Lesbian Sex Book was the illustrations. It doesn’t use photos, which often end up either awkward or porn-ish, but instead uses detailed drawings. These drawings include a range of women of different colours, sizes, gender expressions, etc. For example, the illustration of the vulva includes a labia piercing, a tattoo, pubic hair (and not in a neat triangle or strip, either! Gasp!), and a bottle of lube.

The only quibbles I had were pretty minor. One was that I would’ve liked them to go more in depth on the range of different vulvas, since so many women are self-conscious about that. The more bothersome concern I had was that there was no mention of vegan or vegetarian options, which is relevant when talking about sex toys and even lube. It seems to include everything other than that.

It also includes a bibliography in the back for finding real made-by-lesbians porn, erotica, etc. It also has resources for sex education workshops, play parties, bisexual resources, sex toys manufacturers, etc. Unfortunately, the online resources for communities are now a little out of date: this was last published in 2004.

Overall, I definitely recommend this book. It wasn’t really meant to be read cover-to-cover, but I did, and I liked it. The good thing is, you can look up any specific chapter you want to and it will have all the relevant information, even if it’s repeated elsewhere, which I think is the best call. (For example, if you look up oral sex, it will include info on dental dams, even though that’s also covered in the safer sex chapter.)

Have you read The Whole Lesbian Sex Book or another lesbian sex book? What did you think of it?

Lesbrary Review: The Guide to Lesbian Sex by Jude Schell

I just wanted to start off this post to say that, believe it or not, I got this book from my local library. Yes, my library is awesome. Anyways, on to the book review.

If you’re looking for a practical how-to guide to lesbian sex, this isn’t it. The Guide to Lesbian Sex is mostly dominated by pictures. Some of them are quite artistic and/or erotic, but a lot of them have weird added textures from a photo-editing program that are really just distracting, and the same couple models are repeated, meaning you see them a couple dozen times in very similar positions, which gets repetitive.

As for the actual content, it doesn’t go into much depth. Most of it is just introducing sexual concepts and uses a tone that’s an odd mix of scientific and sexual, like the introduction to the “Lick” section (the book is divided into sections like Flirt, Lick, Desire, etc, each only a page or a couple of pages):

To lick is to pass our tongue along a surface. The tongue is a large bundle of muscles covered with thousands of highly sensitive taste buds and papillae capable of inducing our sexual appetite and enhancing sexual pleasure. It’s versatile, pliable, moist, and an ideal texture for sex.

Some of the little facts she shares are fairly interesting, like where the word flirt comes from, and some of the sexual tips are good, but there’s not enough depth (it’s only about 200 pages, most of which are pictures) to really offer much in that respect, plus it seems to veer from the very specific to the very general in focus.

Overall, The Guide to Lesbian Sex was an interesting enough read to pass the time and to look at the pictures (at least the ones that aren’t strangely altered), but it didn’t have a lot of practical advice.

Although Girl Meets Girl by Diana Cage isn’t exclusively a sex book, I thought its sex section was pretty helpful. Susie Sexpert’s Lesbian Sex World is a bit old, I don’t think it’s outdated; it still is pretty open-minded, even by today’s standards. I’ve just put the other lesbian sex guide at the library (yes, there are two) on hold: The Whole Lesbian Sex Book by Felice Newman, which I’m looking forward to.

Have you read The Guide to Lesbian Sex or another lesbian sex book? What did you think of it?