by Leon Craig
Karley Sciortino, Slutever: Dispatches from a Sexually Autonomous Woman in a Post-Shame World 288pp Grand Central ISBN 9781478944768 $16.99
Although forms of non-monogamy have been practised since time immemorial, both tacitly and openly (think of the maitresse-en-titre, the eromenos and the cicisbeo), it is only relatively recently in the history of the Judaeo-Christian West that women have been able to talk about wanting something other than monogamous marriage to a man without incurring considerable censure. People have become increasingly disinclined to enforce normative social mores upon others, and as a consequence it has become more acceptable to question what were once considered non-negotiable conditions of adulthood, such as chastity, monogamy or the necessity of having a partner at all. If the rules do not suit you, they can be ignored or rewritten.
In her warm and funny memoir, Is Monogamy Dead?, the comedian Rosie Wilby takes her own dissatisfaction with a moribund relationship as a jumping-off point for a wider exploration of monogamy and its relevance to love in the 21st century. When her relationship with her girlfriend veered into Platonic best friend territory, it seemed natural that she should start to explore other options, rather than breaking up and losing all the good parts of it. In her quest to understand what she needs out of love, Wilby has done some pretty extensive research - the scene in which she tries to discreetly visit a sex club, only to be recognised by an intrusive fan, is one of the most amusing in the book.
In addition to vignettes from her quest for a functional relationship structure, Wilby includes a lot of interesting research on the subject of love and relationship longevity. I do question the decision to cite Catherine Hakim, who has pretty thoroughly discredited herself by suggesting unacceptable male behaviour is caused by a ‘sex deficit’, but Wilby’s other sources are more reliable. She goes as far as to conduct her own small-scale survey of one hundred people and comes across some really surprising responses. For instance, out of 100 respondents, 31 thought staying up all night talking to someone else was a form of cheating; these were presumably not among the 34 who did not count kissing someone else as cheating. Out of all the partnered respondents, lesbian couples reported the least sexual activity outside their relationships, but had the highest turnover rate of new partners - a statistic backed up by larger surveys conducted elsewhere.
Wilby consults an impressively wide range of experts trying to work out if the problem of her monogamous relationship beginning to falter after five years is a uniquely lesbian one or a universal one people are still too shy to talk about the full range of solutions for. She is brave about interrogating her own experiences with her newfound knowledge, and as a result the book feels both lucid and generous. While she finds at the end of the book that it was one particular monogamous relationship which she wasn’t happy in and that she only has eyes for her new girlfriend, she draws the conclusion that monogamous couples can benefit from similar behaviours to those poly couples more typically engage in, such as robust discussions about boundaries and actively trying to avoid having a deceitful affair. Is Monogamy Dead? is a non-judgemental, informative and amicable read.
For most of Karley Sciortino’s riotously funny Slutever, monogamy is not an option - she is too busy trying to work out which uses of her freedom will make her happiest. As Sciortino is growing up a good (and then not so good) Catholic girl in upstate New York, authority figures continually try to saddle her with guilt and shame over her high sex drive. A move to England for drama school, and then out of drama school into a squat, prompts Sciortino to embark on a voyage of sexual self-discovery that culminates in her working as a dominatrix for two years, and then as a sugar baby, before she ends up in an relationship with a woman that nearly works out, until Sciortino gets unexpectedly possessive and, in her own words, ‘it imploded’. There are some truly hilarious set pieces, such as the episode in which Sciortino manages to lie her way out of trouble with the cops after they notice her and two other dommes lifting a tied-up man out of their trunk as part of an erotic kidnapping scenario. There is also an entertaining story about taking a punter and a girl who has been ‘low-key internet stalking’ her to a hotel for an ad-hoc threesome, getting blackout drunk, then some time later, while wandering the corridors trying to find her original room, meeting someone more attractive and seducing him instead.
Although the book is episodic in structure and is subtitled ‘Dispatches from a Sexually Autonomous Woman in a Post-Shame World’, it opens with a slightly confused manifesto. One of the more dubious passages reads ‘Slut power is about freedom, but it’s also about taking responsibility. The world is not a safe space. There is no such thing as safe sex. We are not victims, we are predators.’ Role-play notwithstanding, could we not just be equal participants? Despite some infelicities, the overall effect of the manifesto is a rousing one and contains a question that forms a central justification for the memoir: ‘Why is it unfathomable that humour and irreverence are valid modes of resistance?’
The book does employ humour to make important points about liberation and pleasure - alongside some more serious handling of related political questions. Sciortino includes quotations from sex workers’ rights activists such as Tilly Lawless and Norma Jean Almodovar and tells us that this is first time she has talked openly about her remunerative sexual experiences, in order to level the playing field between herself and other varieties of sex worker not privileged enough to work invisibly. But she also uses quips like “I don’t always want to be a whole person . . . sometimes I just want to be my boobs” and “in my opinion, penetration is a grossly overused resource” to make fun of the misconceptions that in order to be worthy of respect, women should never let themselves go and that what works sexually for most men must necessarily work just as well for women.
One of the most charming things about Slutever is Sciortino’s palpably genuine interest in other people’s lives and how their sexualities fit into those, such as the quadriplegic man who, along with his partner/ slave, contrived a machine which allows him to (consensually) hit her breasts with a paddle. After her numerous adventures, Sciortino still isn’t sure of what she ultimately wants, but concludes that there may not be an ‘ultimately’, but rather a series of different and enjoyable arrangements throughout her life. Refreshingly, she refuses to section off her past from her present so that it can be repudiated, instead declaring herself ready for whatever the future may bring her. Both books are a winning combination of confessional and insightful – and definitely not for prudes.