When speaking with Amy Rose Spiegel, two things become immediately apparent: she is whip-smart, able to perfectly synthesize the sociological and physiological constraints of sexual politics into a four-word alliteration, and she is fearlessly frank, emboldened by her own experiences and receptive to the tales of others’ lives and sexual explorations. Her debut book, Action: A Book about Sex, is a perfect compendium of her erotic philosophies. Equal parts banging field guide—complete with enough pre and post-romp etiquette lessons to make Emily Post blush to death—and revealing post-romantic memoir, Action leaves the reader questioning his or her own sensual appetites and whether to ever seriously give a damn.
I spoke with Spiegel on a Saturday afternoon regarding carnal confidence, the nuances of sex-positivity, and our mutual love of seltzer, a reoccurring player and all-around champion in the nebulous game of sex.
The Rumpus: Right away you address the cultural phenomenon that it is often only cis-gender, heterosexual men who are allowed to both discuss sex and openly admit they enjoy having it. As someone who does not fit that mold, why was that important to you to present from the get-go?
Amy Rose Spiegel: I think that it was important to me because I wanted to address from the onset the stereotype of a woman who writes about sex is this lousy babe who’s loud and getting attention and that kind of trope. I wanted to point out why that was unfair and untrue and to acknowledge it and also blow right past it. It was the elephant in the room in a way.
Rumpus: Early on in the book you mention, and I’m paraphrasing this, that ambition, in the context of having a crush on somebody, is born of a lack of something or someone. Many might find this subject matter, and the way you confront it, rather ambitious as well. Is there anything specifically you lacked or experienced that motivated you to tackle this project?
Spiegel: Yes, I felt that in my writing for Rookie, a website for teenage girls where I was an editor for a while, it appeared to me that what our readers were most curious about when sending in advice questions or asking for certain pieces on the site, was always steeped in sex and sexual anxiety. They were curious and felt positively about it but they were also worried because they didn’t have the precedent in what they had been reading and what they had been interested in in terms of what was positive and helpful and clear and that wasn’t euphemistic or in any way shaming. And I had always wanted that too, because a lot of what I found felt either very niche or very male, or like it came with a wink and a warning, as in you could do this, but that’s dicey territory.
Rumpus: I find that half of the book reads as how to prepare yourself and find someone to get down with, and the other as how-to approach and properly execute that. Did you set out to make a more realistic and compressive guide to literal sexual acts than the market cornered by women and men’s magazines?
Spiegel: I set out to address sex as a series of potential prompts. Maybe you could do it this way; here’s how I did it one time; try it out see if you like it. If you don’t, there’s a lot of other shit you could do. It didn’t feel so discrete in terms of having a guide and then reflections. I mean this book is a total hodgepodge. I feel that sex is so entangled in every other part of our lives that there was no other way to write it other than following that format.
Rumpus: As the reader goes on, they learn more and more about you as a person and it became more like talking to your girlfriend than a publication giving tips. How did you maintain a balance with your own sexual autobiography?
Spiegel: Well, I feel that it’s kind of impossible to trust somebody who’s ostensibly giving you advice on something unless you know that they have experience with it, and since a lot of advice is really vague about the giver’s history with that topic, I wanted to make myself the schlemiel and the schlimazel so that the reader could feel like, whatever they did, they could see how it had been for me and the ways it was messy and the ways it was enjoyable and how that all went, and then apply that to how I decided to approach the book.
Rumpus: You make a point of stating how much you loathe the term “sex-positive,” but it wouldn’t be unrealistic to categorize this book as such. How do you hope people talk about this book without using that descriptor?
Spiegel: I don’t mind if they do. That’s a personal taste. I don’t like sex-positive because I think it differentiates all sex from being positive and it treats sex-positive as the aspirational endpoint instead of what all sex should be. If that’s a distinction then it’s not the general truth. So it’s not something I like to use. I also feel like it’s a little bit distancing for people who might not be familiar with that term. So I shy away from it, but I certainly don’t mind if other people like that term and want to apply it to the book. I do think I rail against it more than any others in the glossary because I don’t think sex should be the property of the people who have the language to describe it. I don’t feel like most people know or use that term outside of certain educated circles. So that’s also a frustration of mine.
Rumpus: Sure, it’s always when people are talking about a certain movie, or music or a book or something. It’s never like “hey, I had a really sex-positive conversation with a friend of mine today!”
Spiegel: Right! Or, “I had a really sex-positive encounter last night.” Like, no, you just had sex last night.
Rumpus: In part II of the book, you begin to discuss some of the heavier aspects of sexual encounters, like unintended pregnancy, STIs and sexual assault, but still manage to keep an element of levity in the writing and execution. Why was it important to you to equally address these two sides and not shy away from the differentiation?
Spiegel: I feel like often there’s a narrative imposed on women who have sex that goes you’re either a victim or you’re a slut. It was either sex-positive or you were assaulted, and I think you can have all of those things and many more be true of your sexual history, so to not address each side of what that could be felt dishonest. I know that for a trauma survivor, how sex appears in their lives is totally different from a person who has never experienced that. And I thought that this carefree account of “ruttin and sluttin” [a catchy idiom found in Spiegel’s book] with no acknowledgement that this is a reality for so many people, not just women, would be totally negligent. And to lean too heavily on the other side would ignore the fact that people who have had that happen to them still have really robust and positive sex lives. I think it’s still possible to feel good about sex even if you have a very unique relationship to it.
Rumpus: You’re quoted as saying you want to read more about sex and more people should write about it. What advice do you have for other likeminded people who might want to share their thoughts and experiences but are afraid or shy about doing so?
Spiegel: The beautiful thing about being a person on this planet is that nothing you do is new. No matter how odd or offbeat or fetishistic or individualized you might think your experience is, or being afraid of writing about it for fear that you might seem like a total freak, someone else had done it, someone else is currently doing it. And it’s important to diversify the sexual narrative as it stands now in order to reflect that. I think it’s really important that we have a dialogue about sex that accounts for way more than just the experiences of a certain set of people that are an easy party line to toe. I think that sex can be nearly anything when it’s happening and I’d really like to see that acknowledged more publicly. I think it would be really helpful to a lot of people and helpful to the people writing it. It was very helpful for me.
Rumpus: What authors and writers did you look to as an inspiration before picking up and doing it for yourself?
Spiegel: I like most writers who tell first person or fictional accounts of sex that doesn’t look like the sex that I have. So I like Kathy Acker, I like Lynn Kestenbaum. I like Edmund White’s amazing collection of gay short fiction. I like Dennis Cooper’s “The Sluts.” Ashley Reese, who wrote a great column called “The Accidental Virgin.” I’m really impressed by anyone who is very forthcoming about what it has been for them or how they imagine it might be exactly as that is applied to their life. I think that’s cool. I didn’t look to sex columnists or sex advice outlets as much as I did just what I enjoy reading in general.
Rumpus: So many things you discuss in the book seem obvious about sex or being a stellar sexual partner—I’m thinking specifically of the “Grooming” section—because I’d be shocked to find somebody who doesn’t have a hilarious anecdote about someone, say, less than fresh. Do you think that’s why people are responding to the book, because you lay out these seemingly commonplace ideas about being a good partner? Or are you trying to smash those unspoken rules and encourage people to create a new set for themselves?
Spiegel: Oh, I want people to make their own rules completely, entirely. This is a book of suggestions. This is not a book of mandates. I didn’t want to assume that anyone knew anything going into this book. And I didn’t want to assume that I knew anything. It was a lot of talking to my friends about different things. This book is a total pastiche of experiences I’ve heard about as well as my own. It’s amazing too, because we all have blind spots when it comes to sex and even the most basic concept felt as fundamental to me as the hairier shit.
Rumpus: Plus it always makes a good story. I think everyone enjoys hearing about his or her friends, you know…
Spiegel: I mean I do! My friends are surprisingly prim about their sex lives a lot of the time, which I totally get, but when somebody isn’t I want to listen to every single word. I want every detail. Not that this is something I’m leering, panting looking for. I have a married couple that are some of my closest friends, and at their engagement party, both talked to me separately about the sex that they were having, and it was one of my favorite conversations ever because it was so loving and it was so specific and cool. It was so different from the way that I have thought about things. That to me was so fascinating. I think that should be celebrated.
Spiegel: I also feel like when a friend or loved one tells you a story it makes everything feel less taboo. I have a friend who was telling me about an encounter with her boyfriend that hinged heavily on a specific kind of sex, and that’s not what I’m doing, but it made me feel like everything is normal. Everything is fine. No one is going to do it the same way, even with the same partner, every time they do it. That’s always really comforting to be reminded of. Plus I love gossip, man. I just love it. [Laughs]
Rumpus: It’s hard not to be impressed by the candor with which you explain your sexual exploits throughout the book, and more so the casual confidence with which you mention them, which in turn makes everything seem really relatable. Even though you didn’t set out to tell people what they should or should not be doing, would you be excited to hear that they took your advice and improved their own sex lives?
Spiegel: Yes! I would be thrilled, that would be the best thing ever. I got a letter from a woman in rural Utah and it was totally galvanizing, so great. She said, your book is making me really excited to crawl out of this hole and get together with a fuck-ton of new people in a way that makes me happy. It was the most gratifying feeling ever. I feel incredibly, incredibly lucky to have elicited that kind of response. I’m beyond grateful.
Rumpus: I think that it’s so easy for people to relate to so many of the stories. For example, my favorite anecdote was about Rex, that Republican who insisted on taking off your shoes for you before hooking up.
Spiegel: I love him.
Rumpus: Do you hope that people who might identify with more of his conservative ideals pick up this book? What do you want them to get out of it from approaching it maybe less open-mindedly?
Spiegel: I really wanted people to disagree with me; to understand that I’m not saying this is how everybody has to do everything or that your daughter, like me, has to be a queer menace on society. I didn’t want that. I wanted to write a book that my high school best friend and my little sister and all the people who had compunctions about certain parts of boning could see as something someone they know could experience and then think about it a little bit. I didn’t want to leave anybody out. I didn’t want to write a book only for people who have healthy sex lives already, although I want them to read it of course. I was really hoping that I could write something about sex that made it feel less fraught with politics or less personally condemning than maybe they thought prior to reading it. I just don’t think it works to completely deny or refuse the points of view of people outside of us even if we vehemently disagree with them. I think that conversation and respect are paramount when getting closer to each other. Which is how sex starts. [Laughs] That’s pretty much how it works, right?
Rumpus: I think the ending section “On Sluts” is potentially the most delicate and most essential conversation regarding people who enjoy sex, primarily for straight and queer women. Aside from your supportive comments to others who identify as “sexual innovators” is there anything else you hope readers of all stripes take away from the book?
Spiegel: Yes, I hope that people who are into having sex with great frequency feel supported and heard, and I hope that people who are asexual and celibate and who are maybe not interested in being sexually romantic also feel supported and heard, and everyone in between is able to see that there are so many realities. There are as many relationships to sex as there are people on this earth, so to say that one way is wrong or one way is right is to be denying the fucking lived humanity of other people. I don’t want to be pushing boning three people in a day more than I am not boning anyone ever if that’s your thing. I wanted the whole panorama of it. Which, of course, I couldn’t do, but I just wanted to promote the idea that it’s important to figure it out for yourself no matter what shape that takes and to feel okay about that. I hope that every single reader at some point in this book either disagrees with me or says that’s not my experience or says I have questions about that or that’s not how that plays out in my life. I’m not here to say this is how you should think about it, but more this is something you should think about and I hope that you do. And I hope that is in some way helpful to you.
Rumpus: You’re a sexual moderator of sorts.
Spiegel: Totally, like I’ve got glasses and a water bottle on the table asking questions about anal.
Rumpus: Yeah, sometimes you need a little help.
Spiegel: Me too.