Posts Tagged ‘review’

The Sex Myth begins with an anecdote. Dr Brooke Magnanti (aka Belle de Jour) describes a phase in her childhood when she and her friends were in competition to discover the ‘truth’ about the naked body of the opposite sex. The girls were particularly inventive, and would look under cubicle doors in the boys’ toilets, craning their necks to get a glimpse of a fleshy member (p1-3). I found this story engaging, fascinating and not a little Freudian. For, as Magnanti states, one of the ‘sex myths’ of our age is that children are innocent and sexuality only develops with the onset of puberty in our teens. But Magnanti uses her childhood investigations of how not to do sex research. Now she is a grown up, a doctor (PhD), a scientist, she knows the difference between ‘bad science’ and ‘good science’. Or does she? This is the main question I had whilst reading her book. And, unfortunately, I think the answer has to be ‘no’.

Worryingly, I don’t even think Bagnanti knows the difference between ‘science’ and ‘social science’. Right at the beginning of the book she writes:

‘In recent years a large number of researchers have looked into areas of human experience previously assumed to be untestable. Questions such as whether porn is harmful, or how childhood is affected by sexuality, can now be examined in a way that is consistent with evidence-based reasoning. Not only that, people who study different disciplines are starting to realise the advantages of interdisciplinary study, with social science enriching the finds of quantitative methods and vice versa. [emphasis mine]’ (p5).

This suggests that ‘social science’ does not include ‘quantitative methods’ when in fact a large section of sociological study is based on quantitative (numerical) data. I found this to be a glaring error and a sign that this is a book by an academic with little interest in the complexities and value of social science. My reaction is borne out by the lack of bibliography in the book. Magnanti includes her references in endnotes, which, on close examination, reveal that she uses very few social science/theory books in her work. Most of the references are from scientific academic journals and the popular media. This is a ‘bias’ that should be acknowledged I think. For one of the greatest myths I know of in sex research is that ‘science’ is objective, rigorous and the best way to get to the ‘truth’. My experience has shown otherwise.

The most obviously ‘bad’ science that Magnanti uses is in her chapter one, where she sets out to debunk the myth that ‘when it comes to sexual attraction, men are visually stimulated and always interested in sex – and women aren’t’ (p9). To do this she uses the scientific ‘experiments’ of a group of American researchers from Northwestern University. The most well known of these is J Michael Bailey. He found his way into the news last year when he included a live sex show  in one of his lectures to students. The two adults involved were consenting, thankfully.  Serious ethical questions were raised however, over whether the audience were consenting, the value of the results from such a sensationalist method, and the effects of the media reaction on everyone involved.

But my concerns about using Bailey’s work uncritically are not limited to that one incident. You only have to google his name to find a string of controversies relating to him and his research. The most famous relates to his book The Man Who Would Be Queen: ‘The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism’. Even the title sets off alarms, with its use of such loaded terms. Basically, in this book Bailey used his ‘sex science’ (which includes hooking people up to penile plesmographs to measure their sexual response to viewing pornography) to claim that gay men’s homosexuality is genetic. And that trans women are actually gay men. Nice. Bailey was investigated by his university, NorthWestern, and was demoted. But he remains an academic at that institution. Whatever one’s views, it seems irresponsible of Magnanti to completely ignore the furore surrounding Bailey’s research, and to present it as solid, reliable ‘science’.

Another point about Bailey that Magnanti failed to mention is that only last year, he and his colleagues had to revise their theories on bisexuality in men. They were commissioned to re-do their experiments which back in 2005 had shown that bisexual men don’t exist! The penis plesmograph never lies, except sometimes it does. This latest set of experiments, surprise surprise, showed that bisexual men do of course exist. And that even ‘science’ can be wrong sometimes.  On reporting this news, [redacted] asked:

‘So why the turn­around by Bai­ley? Well, it seems the loud and angry protests from bisex­ual organ­i­sa­tions that Bailey’s 2005 find­ings under­stand­ably aroused has taken its toll -– and indeed one bisex­ual organ­i­sa­tion even funded this recent research.

They got the result they wanted, but I fear they’re wast­ing their money and merely encour­ag­ing more bad sci­ence. Some of course will hold these find­ings up as proof that this Heath Robin­son kind of bio-mechanical sex research can cor­rect itself. But they would have to be true believ­ers to see it that way. All that has been proven is that mea­sur­ing penile blood-flow in a lab­o­ra­tory is a highly reduc­tive and highly abnor­mal mea­sure of male sex­u­al­ity. Men are not just penises. They are also prostate glands. Per­ineums. Ear­lobes. Inner thighs. Brains. Nipples.

It also shows that you get the result you’re look­ing for In 2005 Bai­ley wanted to prove that male bisex­u­al­ity didn’t exist. In 2011 he didn’t. QED. Per­haps the worst thing about this new find­ing is that Bai­ley et al will now try to turn male bisex­u­als into a ‘species’ to be stud­ied and dis­sected. Bisex­ual men may quickly come to the con­clu­sion that they were much bet­ter off when they didn’t exist. Unless of course they them­selves have a bit of a fetish for penile plethys­mo­graph play.’

Could it be that Brooke just didn’t know about the controversy surrounding Bailey? Like I said if that is the case she failed in doing basic research, such as googling his name. But she blogged about his work in 2011, and both [redacted] and I tried to tell her about the problems with it. This is the reply I got from Dr Magnanti:

This is a sign that when ‘objective’ science that is not objective at all, is questioned, it and its ‘scientists’ do not stand up very well to scrutiny.

So the first chapter of The Sex Myth showed its methodology and ‘theoretical’ basis to be seriously lacking. I read the rest of it with a sceptical arched eyebrow. I also did not learn much that was new. As another reviewer, Heresiarch noted,

‘I find a lot of this yawningly familiar by now, but many people won’t and Magnanti’s book provides an entertaining compendium of tabloid myths, as well as a source of ammunition. Whether it can do much against the juggernaut of the Daily Mail, currently engaged in a crusade to introduce compulsory web-filtering, remains to be seen. ‘

The chapter on the false correlation between rape statistics and the increase in adult entertainment establishments was the best (p79-99). I had read some of it on Brooke’s blog before, but it stood up as a tight piece of research, in comparison to some of the less rigorous work in the rest of the book. However even in that chapter, and the one questioning the motives of people campaigning against the sex industry (p209-222), Magnanti was very vague about politics. An uninitiated reader of The Sex Myth might come away from it thinking Brooke was the first person to criticise ‘feminism’ and its views on sex/sex work.  This is of course not the case.

Magnanti fails to acknowledge the politicisation of sex workers, who have been campaigning for years against anti-sex work feminists such as Julie Bindel. She also makes no reference to Sex Positive Feminism which has too been going for years, and has posed a direct challenge to draconian ‘conservative’ anti-sex feminism.  And, even in the realm of science, Magnanti ignores the ‘skeptic’ movement and the critical approach to science and science reporting employed (often very selectively I might add) by people such as Ben Goldacre.

It seems to me as if Magnanti is trying to reinvent the wheel. And to stand alone as a unique ‘sexpert’ in the field of sex, science and politics. Well she is actually one of many women (and men) who has staked a claim as having knowledge in this field. I was particularly disappointed in The Sex Myth because I actually think Magnanti is a very able writer. Of all the ‘sex bloggers’ and sex writers I have read including Zoe Margolis, Susie Bright, Bitchy Jones and Hugo Schwyzer I think Belle de Jour was one of the best. I would have been happy for Magnanti to have continued from her childhood anecdote that she began the book with, rather than promoting herself as a scientist as she did. Especially since she has relied upon and peddled such bad science.

‘Romance is analogue, and so very last century’ – Mark Simpson

Pharmacology is set in San Francisco in the mid-1990s. It seems like a long time ago. I have never been to that American West Coast city, but now I’ve read Christopher Herz’s second novel, I feel like I know it well. He takes the reader, holding the hand of his lead character Sarah Striker, through the steep streets, dockside coffee shops, pavement bars and downtown nightlife, eyes wide open, amazed at what we see.

There is a wonderful ‘cameo’ in the early part of the book, an appearance from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the American beat poet. Sarah asks him for some advice, and he replies:

‘Surround yourself with talented people who other people don’t realise are so talented, and do whatever you can to get it out. Never believe what anyone tells you because those who have time to critique have little time to create’.

I think the old man would be honoured to find himself in the pages of this book, partly because it is full of poetry itself.  Sarah, the young woman from Kansas who is trying to make a go of life in the big city, is a passionate music fan. So some of that poetry comes in the form of lyrics. NWA, Public Enemy, and other hip hop bands of the 90s provide the background music to Sarah’s  fanzine project, an aptly-named publication called ‘luddite’. For a major theme of Pharmacology is the onset of the digital age, and how the forward march of internet technologies has changed life forever.

The rest of the poetry is all Herz’s. His talent for description and evoking an atmosphere kept me gripped throughout the book. There is an intricate plot – and I am not giving too much away by telling you it involves vampires, sadomasochism, pharmaceutical companies and bicycle delivery couriers – but it’s the language that makes the book special.

Sarah Striker’s narration is compelling, funny, dry and poignant. I trusted her implicitly, and believed what she had to tell me. And every so often she’d come out with a pearl of wisdom that left me nodding my head, with a sad sigh, in agreement:

‘Only a few stick with you down the entire way because on that path, there are so many missteps and falls that cause deep wounds and lasting scars, most people shy away when the pain starts. It’s the ones who walk with you through it all that allow you to understand love. You have to learn that by being left’.

I share Herz’s misgivings about the increasingly detached, electronic world we live in (though I note he is pretty nifty at using the internet as a writer, including in the form of a Sarah Striker twitter account).  And I agree with Mark Simpson who seemed to echo Herz’s views, when he said that ‘romance is analogue and so very last century’. But Sarah Striker reminds me that no matter how old-fashioned and seemingly behind the 21st century times they may be, the things we make with paper and pens, and blood, sweat and tears, things like words and novels and poems and fanzines, will always be here in some shape or form. For they are part of what being human is all about.



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This is a review by Mark Simpson of my novella Scribbling On Foucault’s Walls.


Reg­u­lar vis­i­tors to this blog will be famil­iar with the spir­ited, sharp, thought­ful, charm­ing, insistently-infuriatingly rea­son­able — and occa­sion­ally down­right can­tan­ker­ous — com­menter Elly, alias Quiet Riot Girl.

Elly gave me enor­mous encour­age­ment and sup­port in putting together Metrosexy, which in all hon­esty prob­a­bly would never have seen the light of day with­out her. She also proved tire­less in spread­ing the word about it.

Elly is not only extremely enthu­si­as­tic about the con­cept of met­ro­sex­u­al­ity, she’s one of the few peo­ple to really engage with it and grasp its import. Per­haps more so than even Metro­daddy him­self, who remains some­thing of a dead­beat dad.

This is why Met­ro­sexy is ded­i­cated to her.

Now Elly has given birth to her own off­spring. A bounc­ing novella called Foucault’s Daugh­ter, about what might have hap­pened if the famous bald homo French philoso­pher had been a sin­gle dad, jug­gling cruis­ing Parisian S/M sex clubs with school runs. There is of course more than a lit­tle bit of QRG in Dr Foucault’s sprog, who scrib­bles all over his nice clean walls and then spends most of her adult life try­ing to live down and up to her father. Insist­ing that ‘macho fags’ (in QRG’s favourite phrase) acknowl­edge the (lit­tle) lady in their life.

It’s a fan­tas­ti­cally, pos­si­bly madly ambi­tious work that self-consciously nego­ti­ates her own highly informed, passionate-but-critical and ulti­mately highly ambiva­lent invest­ment in that very nearly extinct species: The Homo­sex­ual Intel­lec­tual. It won’t be giv­ing too much away to tell you that Foucault’s Daugh­ter, after pro­long­ing the agony of The Homo­sex­ual Intel­lec­tual with its inter­est in him (who else shows any these days?), comes very close to euth­a­niz­ing him.

Many pas­sages in it are beau­ti­fully writ­ten and breath­tak­ingly vivid. The scene, for instance, which rehearses the death of the famous cul­tural critic and QRG hero Roland Barthes in a traf­fic acci­dent stays with you. Even if you feel he is being ever-so-slightly, ever-so-lovingly pushed into the path of the oncom­ing laun­dry van.

So I strongly rec­om­mend you read Foucault’s Daugh­ter (which is free to down­load here). But if you do, you’ll also under­stand why, in the end, QRG and me, alas, had to go our sep­a­rate ways.



Being lectured by Susie Bright about sex is not my idea of fun. So maybe choosing to read a book, about sex, introduced and curated by the American sex positive ‘sexpert’ and activist was a mistake. But non, je ne regrette rien, and this is why.

The collection of 24 essays, with forewords by Susie Bright and the editor, Rachel Kramer Bussel, is interesting, political, occasionally sexy. But I have a few criticisms of the book which are as follows.

The main problem I have with the overall tone and emphasis of Best Sex Writing is that it presents what I think is a false, dangerous dichotomy: sex/sex positive ideas = good v chastity/abstinence ‘anti-sex’ ideas =  bad.

This dichotomy is presented, too, in more than one place in the book, as a contrast between atheist and religious perspectives. The chapter for example called ‘atheists have better sex’ is infuriating in its smugness and its prejudice against religious people.  Ironically, as I have found with many atheists and sex-positive people in general, this determination that ‘sex is good and atheist sex is best’ is actually an ‘evangelical’ message, and ‘Best Sex Writing’ reads like a religious tract in places.

Also typical of sex positive narratives, Best Sex Writing positions women’s experience and femininity as more interesting and worthy of study than men and masculinity. Amanda Marcotte’s defence of the Slutwalks (feminist marches protesting against a Canadian policeman’s remarks about how women should not dress as sluts if they don’t want to get raped) is an example of this. As is Tracy Clark Flory’s admittedly interesting and humorous account of a workshop devised to unleash the female orgasm. In a piece about some nefarious goings on amongst politicians, Katherine Spillar literally pitches ‘good’ women campaigners against ‘bad’ men politicians and their advisors. As an active non-feminist I am not impressed by this bias in the book.

These criticisms of Best Sex Writing though, do not detract from the quality of some of the contributions. I particularly recommend some of the more personal stories in the book. Rachel Rabbit White, one of my favourite ‘sex writers’,  paints a wonderfully evocative portrait of Latina drag artistes and changing times. Marty Klein educates us about men and circumcision, and manages to be funny and sensitive at the same time. And, maybe a little surprisingly to me, Hugo Schwyzer’s honest account of his sexual experiences with men is touching and, I have to say, quite hot!

Maybe if the book was called ‘Best Sex Positive Feminist Writing’ I might be more generous about its contents.  And whilst I don’t like being lectured by anyone about sex and sexuality, not even Susie Bright, I have learned from it. But I wish it had more lines in it like this, from Hugo Schwyzer:

‘As I lay beneath him on that lumpy hotel mattress, the dim light of the TV flickering in the corner, he said the words I can still hear nearly thirty years on:

You’re so hot you make me want to come.’

David Beckham: "prime exemplar" of metrosexuality

This is my review of Metrosexy by Mark Simpson, published in Freedom In A Puritan Age website/magazine:

If you were to listen to feminists, and the media in general, you might think we live in a culture in which ‘sexual objectification’ refers solely to women and girls. As some would have it, we are ‘bombarded’ by sexual imagery of the female form, and our society is ‘saturated’ with pornified material that demeans and exploits women.

'Metrosexy' — Mark Simpson

Metrosexy (2011), the most recent book by Mark Simpson, British author and originator (in 1994) of the concept of metrosexuality, tells a very different story indeed. In this impressive collection of articles and essays that span the last two decades, Simpson shows how it is men who have come to be the subjects and objects of the ‘gaze’ in recent years, maybe even more so than women. Or, to use Simpson’s own phrase, men are ‘such tarts’ these days.

Metrosexy is a fun read – a lively and humorous romp through television, film, boy bands, fashion, sport, gym culture and advertising. But there are some serious underlying messages. Metrosexuality — masculinity ‘mediated and (self)-fetishised’ — is changing gender roles, relations and identities beyond all recognition.

‘Contrary to what you have been told,’ writes Simpson, ‘metrosexuality is not about flip-flops and facials, ‘man-bags’ or ‘manscara’. Or about men becoming ‘girlie’ or ‘gay’. It’s about men becoming everything. To themselves. In much the way that women have been for some time. It’s the end of the sexual division of bathroom and bedroom labour. It’s the end of sexuality as we’ve known it.’

It’s not just feminists, with their rigid views of women as ‘objects’ (and victims) of (heterosexual) men’s predatory desires who could be threatened by Simpson’s theories. In my interview with him on the release of Metrosexy he said:

‘I think gay men are very ambivalent about metrosexuality.  It’s like a dream come true. And a living nightmare at the same time. All these fit, tarty straight men inviting – no, DEMANDING – the ‘gayze’. Pro athletes like Beckham and Ronaldo oiled up on the side of buses offering us their lunch-packets, and Becks and Gavin Henson bickering over who has the most gay fans. Homoerotics, narcissism and the celebration of the male body are no longer gay copyright’.

In the wake of Metrosexy’s publication, I named Simpson ‘A Roland Barthes for the iphone generation’, the ‘meticulous observer’ of contemporary culture.  This is a vital addition to cultural theory, and a book that should change the way we look at men and masculinity forever.