Sex from Scratch: Making Your Own Relationship Rules, by Sarah Mirk, Microcosm Publishing, 160 pages, $12.95.
First, a confession. When I discovered that writer Sarah Mirk was just 27 years old, I laughed, rolled my eyes and scoffed at the idea that she would have anything useful to say about sex, relationships, love or lust. Then I got my comeuppance. Although I have been in a solidly loving coupling for longer than Mirk has been alive, her sharp eye and ability to interview a wide array of people, makes Sex from Scratch not only engaging, but insightful and entertaining.
The book merges memoir with investigative journalism and interrogates what it means to be romantically successful. It is not meant to address every possible contingency. For example, it does not tackle the innumerable difficulties of single parents who wish to enter the dating fray, nor does it grapple with dating following the death of a partner. In addition, a discussion of ways to handle threats or violence - from date rape to stalking to other forms of harassment - is missing.
Instead, Mirk's goal is to affirm "the idea that everyone should be empowered to have a healthy and happy romantic life that looks however they want it to." For some, of course, this means marriage, fidelity and children. But not Mirk, for whom this ideal is pretty close to revolting. While she acknowledges that the LGBTQ marriage equality movement has helped shift our understanding of nuptial possibilities, she nonetheless bristles at the unquestioned assumption that everyone wants to find his or her soul mate and live with that person, and only that person, till death tears them apart.
Her research proves that she is not alone. Over the course of two years, Mirk interviewed approximately 100 people - straight, gay, bi, transgender and asexual - a quarter of whom were of color and a few of whom were aged 50 or older. Those in relationships span the spectrum from solidly monogamous to polyamorous.
The book opens with a chapter about choosing to remain single, and while Mirk concedes that navigating the world alone can be lonely and even scary, she also recognizes that it can be satisfying and exciting.
Each chapter of the text includes concrete advice - called lessons - that Mirk synthesized from the interviews she conducted. In "Loving Being Single," there are 16 lessons gleaned from folks who've continued to pursue intimate encounters and sexual hookups. Among their recommendations: Build a life you love; respect yourself and your choices; don't assume your problems will magically vanish as soon as you find someone; date people who add value to your life, whether sexually or through a platonic liaison; be intentional about what you want and what your boundaries are; discuss your expectations and preferences; and don't go radio silent by ignoring text messages, phone calls or emails. If you don't want to see someone again, tell them.
Other chapters cover opting to be non-monogamous; building feminist relationships; avoiding marriage; staying child-free; and knowing when it's time to call it quits.
Some of the advice will seem obvious to anyone who has been in a long-term relationship, nonetheless, Sex from Scratch gives voice to the many ways human beings nurture, and sometimes hurt, one another. The latter is something Mirk knows from first-hand experience. She tells readers about breaking off a loving, and in many ways ideal, relationship when she realized that despite great intellectual affinity, she did not enjoy sex with the man she was then living with. The truth of this wounded both of them, but veracity prevailed, and Mirk came to see the breakup - and breakups more generally - as something positive. "Breaking up means the people in the relationship aren't going along with the status quo, unless it's an impulsive and poorly considered mistake," she writes. "It means that y'all are thinking about what you want and need and speaking up about it."
Mirk says the same can be said about having children. While common wisdom assumes that all females have a mothering instinct, Mirk is ambivalent about becoming a parent and notes that she is not unique. In fact, she assails the notion of a biological imperative to reproduce. At the same time, the lessons section of the chapter highlights the importance of discussing this with potential mates. "Not talking honestly with partners about whether you want kids is only going to end badly," she writes. What's more, she is emphatic that avoiding pregnancy is not just a female responsibility. "Statistics show that dudes don't play an equal role in using birth control. But the world would be a better place with fewer unwanted babies if they did. This means inquiring about whether your female partners are on birth control, insisting on using a condom, and considering getting a vasectomy if you're 100 percent sure you never want kids," she writes.
Indeed, Mirk concludes that this is part-and-parcel of forging a feminist relationship. In one of the book's most incisive chapters, she explains that the feminism of my generation - the feminism her mother reared her to believe in - has given her and her peers "the tools to recognize that the pressure to build relationships around what men want is a sexist expectation that doesn't help anyone. We now have the language to talk about sexism in relationships. We have better role models for what expectations are healthy and the support to strive for more equitable relationships without feeling crazy and alone. But sexism is both gigantic and subtle."
Indeed, the pervasive division of women into domestic goddesses, mothers and good girls exists alongside depictions of heartbreakers, home wreckers, and sluts - proof positive that feminists are traveling a long, bumpy road. Indeed, try as we might to create truly egalitarian relationships, most of us continue to hit a multitude of cultural obstacles and roadblocks when we try to do so. Still, Mirk posits 20 lessons from couples, queer and straight, that are trying to create a more equitable balance. Among them: Feminism is not just for women since sexism impacts everyone; embrace conflict since it is inevitable; give each other ample space; never fake an orgasm; make sure that both parties are economically self-sufficient because "economic inequity leads to unequal relationships;" and recognize and appreciate the work that each party does, whether it's scrubbing the tub or filling the gas tank.
Central to all of this, Mirk writes, is good ol' respect, something she believes undergirds all successful human encounters. Her contention that monogamy is right for some but not all is refreshing, as is her personal honesty. There are no one-size-fits-all remedies here, and no sure-fire recipes for snagging - or for that matter finding - the companions of our dreams. This makes the book realistic, smart and helpful. Its wisdom will be of great benefit to teenagers and young adults who are trying to figure out dating, sexual attraction and, well, sexuality itself. Of course, conservatives and the religious right will go ballistic if schools hand out copies, but if educators really want an informed student body, they will confront the backlash and make Sex from Scratch an integral part of the sex ed curriculum.