In the acknowledgements ofAmerican Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction
, author Brian Alexander (msnbc.com’s “Sexploration” Columnist) thanks his wife first: “My wife, Shelley, deserves an award of some sort. If you have to ask why, you haven’t read this book.” For the project, Alexander set out to discover just how mainstream sexual experimentation has become in America, and in the name of research, he:
• Crouched outside the bedroom of two Internet lovers photographing themselves during sex for online posting;
• Watched a porn shoot that involved a woman with suction devices on her nipples and a steel contraption in her mouth hanging from a hook and being electrocuted;
• Attended a party where people screwed on couches and flogged each other, and a naked woman huddled in a tiny cage looking at him with the beseeching eyes of a dog, because, apparently, she hadn’t “been good.”
If Alexander had gone around the country gleefully getting off as he took notes, this book would have been beyond lame. Instead, he opens up about his Catholic childhood and his own ambivalence toward what he witnesses. He calls himself a “libertarian” when it comes to sex, meaning that he doesn’t judge what happens between consenting adults. But you get the impression he sometimes doesn’t know how to feel about his discoveries, and it’s interesting to see him wrestle with that.
At points, he registers discomfort. Outside the bedroom door of the Internet couple, he can’t really bring himself to watch. He thinks he’s gotten to know the pair too well to do that. Instead, he stares at a bookshelf and quietly leaves.
Other times, he claims to be bored. After the porn shoot, he writes, “I was bored…I was surprised at being bored, because you wouldn’t think a guy would be bored watching a cute girl get tied up by another cute girl and then be hit with a cattle prod and fucked by a giant dildo, and spit on and licked and electrocuted, would you?...But I got nothing. My sensitivities were not shattered, my libido was not plucked, my moral indignation remained happily asleep.”
As for the party, it’s there that he finally reaches his limit. “After everything I have seen, every conversation I have had all over the country with all kinds of people, this is the first time I feel disturbed. If only she [the woman in the cage] would smile.”
Alexander himself is at least as interesting as the people he observed and interviewed for Unzipped, and he interviewed some characters trying to prove his “thesis” that in the culture wars, “lust ha[s] quietly won and just failed to declare victory.”
We’ve all heard about the billions and billions of dollars Americans spend on porn and sex toys every year. Alexander points to a few other stats to prove his point, like the fact that when you type “sex” into the search function of Amazon.com, you get 277,697 results. But the bulk of his evidence is anecdotal. He interviewed a middle-aged, religious, minivan-driving woman from North Carolina who makes “how-to” sex videos (porn for the self-righteous); watched a Tennessee preacher counsel a church group about how to give good cunnilingus; observed the unabashed suburban shoppers at an enormous, brightly lit Arizona sex emporium (he took a job there); and attended “Passion Parties” in Kansas, Tupperware-style gatherings where women (often along with their mothers and daughters and sisters and cousins) buy sex toys and lube.
I think the point can be conceded – sex is everywhere. Lust has won.
Here’s an idea for a book: Canvas the country in search of that dying breed, what the hanging porn star refers to as people who are “vanilla.” Where are they, how have they remained that way with the existence of the Internet, and what would all the “freaks” do without them?
As Alexander points out, unless someone out there thinks what you’re doing is wrong or shocking, it’s no longer taboo. He attends Fetish Con at the Hyatt in Florida, where he notices a young woman with a tattoo that says “God Forgive Me” in gothic lettering. “The Hyatt doesn’t care if she is into fetish,” he writes. “So she appeals to God.” Later, when attendees are standing outside the hotel, some young guys drive by and shout “Freaks!” at them. Nothing could make them happier: “Yeah! We’re freaks!” they yell back. And as Alexander notes, “they remained enlivened…their sin reaffirmed, until the bus arrived.”
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Alexander interviews a BDSM porn star -- among other things, she fisted the woman hanging from the ceiling -- who prides herself on not being “vanilla.” But as he observes: “…Donna needs to be special and to be seen as being special by being outrageous. I have no idea what normal means when it comes to sex. I am coming to the conclusion that nobody in America does anymore, and if everybody is not ‘normal,’ then…Donna isn’t so special.”
What a turn-off. If nothing’s outrageous and it’s all normal and socially acceptable – the bukkake and the fisting and the threesomes and the anonymous Internet sex and the ball gags and the wax – what’s exciting about that? Our frenzied quest could leave us numb.
America Unzipped is entertaining. Alexander has a gift for narrative, and he’s not afraid to put himself in the story, which makes it a better read. He leaves the question open, but as a reader, I wondered whether, in the end, he’s a member of the “vanilla” minority. When an attractive woman hits on him at a sex party, wondering whether he has some kind of agreement with his wife, he says, “Let’s just say that’s not part of our deal.” The moment is, strange to say, refreshing.
While Alexander’s book may not really teach us anything new, it did leave me thinking something unexpected: that what’s really subversive, these days, is lights-off missionary sex. – Cathy Matusow