Love, and Do What You Will

Amy Rose Spiegel writes a sex advice book for a progressive generation.

action book illo.

Matt Cummings

It’s a shame I had to wait until age 28 to read Amy Rose Spiegel’s Action: A Book About Sex. That’s not to say 28 is too old to delight in Spiegel’s coquettish writing or learn any new tricks from her exhaustive autobiographical register of sexual encounters—on the contrary, this old dog took plenty of both from her slim nonfiction debut. But had I gotten my hands on this book as, say, a ninth grader, I might have dodged a few unsavory trysts with less-than-ideal sexual partners, not to mention evenings spent spiraling into shame and self-doubt.

Action is a sex advice book for a new, progressive generation, one whose views on sex are informed by a basic ethos of fluid sexuality, body positivity, and feminist responses to rape culture. In stark contrast to the women’s-magazine school of bedroom instruction (“Surprise your man by waking him up with a blowjob twice a week!”), Spiegel centers her guidance on finding personal and physical fulfillment. She opens with a quote from St. Augustine, of all people—“Love, and do what you will”—and a lengthy disclaimer stipulating she does not expect readers to agree with all of her recommendations, just to use her perspective as a jumping-off point for their own self-guided discoveries. “Imposing broad, uncritical rules on sex rankles me—this is right; this is wrong,” she writes. “I prefer to think, Yo! This is possible? Fascinating!

But fear not, horndogs: There are plenty of explicit step-by-steps in here, too, many of them neutral to gender, if not genital. How surprisingly radical it feels to read a directive on handling the balls of your partner, your sexual teammate, or your hunky simpleton, and not your man! Spiegel even decouples the word sex from the act of penile-vaginal or penile-anal or penile-anything intercourse, instead defining the concept as “whatever act fills in the gaps between any number of bodies, which of course includes—and can even extend exclusively to—the brains operating them.” In Action’s working glossary, that includes solo sex and cybersex. Though Spiegel’s commitment to inclusive, painstakingly broad language can make some of her advice turn in on itself—an anal dildo should either be smaller or larger than a vaginal one, she writes—it’s worth it to read an entire book that resists the mainstream centering of sex on the heterosexual male orgasm.

Spiegel’s prose is peppered with conversational bon mots and unbound from fusty norms of style and grammar. (Spiegel is particularly fond of ALL CAPS for emphasis.) Her voice is that of a hip, super-knowledgeable babysitter, the kind you wish you’d had and that your parents, if they were anything like mine, would have rather left you home with a set of matches and a flammable nightgown than hire. She’s affirming, maternal even, in a way that feels comforting and somehow completely genuine. In one of her many discussions about sexual assault and consent, Spiegel presents a hypothetical encounter with a jerk who makes his partner feel guilty or unsure about her boundaries. “The idea of even the potential of that happening to you,” Spiegel writes, “makes me want to mail a congressperson a stink bomb and yell obscene, hideous things at a beautiful phenomenon of nature—ideally a canyon, but definitely a majestic, centuries-old sycamore, at least.” I believe her.

Honed during her tenure at Rookie, the online magazine for teen girls that’s attracted a sizable following of twentysomethings, Spiegel’s talent for writing thoughtful advice without condescending to her readers shines brightest when combining no-nonsense real talk with reassurances that almost nothing is as life-alteringly tragic as it seems in youth. A detailed segment on making DIY nudie pics and videos counsels readers concerned about privacy to “consider not taking them, because there’s no such thing as totally secure data anymore, even if the other person guards your attachments as closely as they can.” But in a worst-case scenario, “your life is never ‘over’ if photographic evidence of your involvement in adult practices is discovered.” Have you queefed, farted, prematurely ejaculated, expelled menstrual fluids, or otherwise committed a natural bodily function in bed? That’s nothing to be ashamed of, and if your partner makes you feel bad for it, “kick them to the curb with no compunction.” In fact, writes the highly qualified author, “fucking up is how you go pro.”

Amy Rose Spiegel.
Amy Rose Spiegel.

Jordan Hemingway

That’s a lesson most teenagers could stand to learn before they first have sex—and Action is brimming with them. Spiegel leads intrepid explorations of the physical and philosophical impasses that often lead to years of middling sex: How can I buy a sex toy at a store without acting awkward? Which kind of lube goes with which kind of device? When should I tell my date I have an STI? What household items should I hide before a lover comes over—in order of priority, please, because she’ll be here in five minutes? What do I call my transgender partner’s genitals? How can I get my boo to welcome the idea of a threesome and how should I behave as the third leg of another couple’s triangle? What do we think about pubic hair? What if my identity as a feminist conflicts with my desire to watch a fake-breasted woman get face-fucked on the internet? Spiegel deconstructs the social forces weighing on each dilemma with the sensitive precision of a bomb-squad technician and the chatty irreverence of, well, a sex columnist.

Most of Action’s blind spots are a result of Spiegel’s confessional-style reporting on her own dramatized sexual experiences, which can be at odds with her goal of preaching to a wide audience on matters of the bedroom. On flirting, Spiegel claims that 80 percent of the time, saying something honest and weird will get someone to talk to you, and 25 percent of those times the discussion could end in a kiss—if you want. “These are bullshit statistics culled from the field,” she declares. “I am not a numbers guy, but they feel really true?” That question mark is cute and familiar but may confound a novice reader taking diligent notes. Some may balk at Action’s examples of tried-and-true pickup lines, which include statements you might feel justify a knee to the groin: “If you were a hamburger at McDonald’s, I would call you McBeautiful”; “I want to make out with you in a kitchen made of fur.”  There are nearly six how-to pages on fellatio, just under two on cunnilingus, and, curiously, none at all on penetrative vaginal sex with implements other than fingers.

What Action lacks in encyclopedic breadth, it makes up for in good-natured encouragement and trust in its readers: I won’t yuck your yum, Spiegel seems to say, and don’t you dare yuck mine. She hasn’t just had a lot of sex—she worships it and treasures it for more than its carnal pleasures, using sexual connection as a means of exploring the world and the self. In a world increasingly capable of accepting that young women can and do want to have a lot of sex—including queer, kinky, and nonmonogamous varieties—Action offers an idea of the next frontier of sexual liberation: Ensuring that all that sex is not only safe and consensual, but good.

Action: A Book About Sex by Amy Rose Spiegel. Grand Central Publishing.

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.