Review of Let Me Count the Ways

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Review by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Let Me Count the Ways: Discovering Great Sex Without Intercourse, by Marty Klein, Ph.D., and Riki Robbins, Ph.D. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1999. $24.95.

When I was a boy coming of sexual age in the white middle-class days that preceded AIDS and The Pill, almost all sex was outercourse. We called it blow-jobs and hand-jobs, jacking off and jerking off and beating off and frigging then, and some quaint handful of retro youth still even called it heavy petting, but one way or another it amounted to getting off without getting in. Of course, we all imagined intercourse was better: in a back-door way that's why some people saved it for marriage, and in a front-door way it's why everybody called it "going all the way." Unfortunately, with our mental eyes on that particular prize, we belittled a lot of other really good times and downplayed a lot of marvelous teen-aged orgasms in the belief that what we'd had wasn't the real turtle soup, but merely the mock.

In any case I'm not recommending the sexuality of those days in retrospect, partly because I'm a bit of a feminist and I suspect the girls of the time didn't get off nearly as often as the boys who'd cleverly devised such piteous complaints as blue-balls and unbridled passion to excuse our less than courtly behavior, and partly because working ten thumbs around six-thousand passive buttons, thirty-eight-hundred prissy virgin snaps, and one sly zipper that bites in the back seat of a parental car or a '52 MGA is much more fun in the movies and in memory than in the reality of the ghastly moment. Fumbling for a body part while fumbling for a condom that's been heat-dried to cracking for the six months you've hoarded it in your hip-pocket wallet, which now you're pretending you don't even have so everything can seem natural and blasé at the same time you're tearing your finger to gooey blood with its impenetrable foil wrapper -- all this takes on an air of I-sure-damn-do-wish-it-were-surreal desperation when you're fifteen and it's really happening.

Desperation happens around sex for adults, too, and it's that desperate state that Marty Klein and Riki Robbins seek to ameliorate in Let Me Count the Ways. Though the book's a couple hundred pages long, chock full of examples of difficulties you may find familiar and suggestions to help you resolve those difficulties, the authors' tone is generally genial and their prescription disarmingly simple: stop worrying about what you think you're supposed to do and start enjoying what you like.

Simple? Alas, too often, no. That's why they're in business as a sex therapist and a relationship consultant, respectively. But the reason the answer isn't simple seems simple enough by itself. As the authors see it,

most complaints about sex are true only insofar as people are attached to intercourse. People may think they're talking about sex,' but they're really talking about intercourse. If people weren't so committed to intercourse, most of these situations and frustrations would go away. These complaints also depend on people wanting to be sexually "normal," which ... is one of the main reasons people are so attached to intercourse.

Yes, you read that right. Based on the authors' combined forty years of helping individuals and couples deal with problems of sexuality, Klein and Robbins have concluded that most sex problems result from people wanting to be "normal," and from believing it is "normal" for one penis to penetrate one vulva. Most of us don't even get so far as to think in terms of one vulva enfolding or embracing one penis, because we think it's "normal" for the male member to be a tool or a weapon that conquers receptive spaces instead of a sensitive organ of intimacy and making love.

Strangely, like teenagers in the dear departed past, most people have plenty of non-intercourse sexual experiences that they'd think of as wonderful if only they were "sex." So why do we persist in being stupid and making an equation between sex and intercourse? Because, Klein and Robbins say,

our culture teaches us that few things are more important than being sexually normal, and that few things are worse than being sexually abnormal.... Simultaneously, we are taught to question our own "normality" -- by advertisers who want to sell us "normalizing" products, the mass media who want to give us "normalizing" information, and medical, psychiatric, and religious institutions that want to fix us, making us "normal." All this pressure leads to our anxiety about not being sexually normal -- and that makes it difficult to relax and accept our own unique eroticism.

It is the authors' mission to reduce our desires to be sexually normal and to increase our pleasure in our own sexuality, whatever that may be. They aim to help us do that by demonstrating how many more options we have for sexual pleasure than we may have thought. But first they have to help us escape from an array of sexual fairy tales Americans live by, such as "Pornography causes people to masturbate and commit violent crimes," or "Same-sex experimentation will turn straight people gay," or sex is only "for the young and attractive." These fairy tales are just that, of course: myths designed to teach us lessons that will help us conform to our culture. And the underlying lessons our sexual myths are designed to teach us over and over again are that we should only have normal sex, and that the only normal sex is penis-in-vagina intercourse, preferably with the man on top. Yet, since the real behavior of person after person belies these myths -- many of us experiment with same-sex partners and stay straight (and if we're gay we experiment with complementary-sex partners and stay gay), huge numbers of us watch and read porn then roll over and go to sleep without performing a single axe murder, virtually all of us come from the day we can until the day we can't, and almost without exception we beat off and stay sane with perfectly hairless palms -- perhaps it is the culture that should re-conform to us, because holding on to these trumped up tales as if they were religions damages us.

Take the myth that a man should be able to get hard any time, and if he can't there's something wrong with him. "I recall one new patient," Klein relates,

who came in complaining of erection difficulties. After learning that he had lost his job a year before, that his son was barely staying out of jail, that his wife had gained forty pounds during this time, and that his father had been ill for a while, I suggested that his penis was behaving appropriately by not getting erect. The main replied that I obviously didn't understand the seriousness of his situation.

Actually, Klein and Robbins understand the seriousness of the situation all too well. In fact, what's surprising about Let Me Count the Ways is that underneath the funny stories, and underneath the lists of advice about love and intimacy and sexual techniques, underneath the important pages about the negative consequences of men taking Viagra, and underneath the frequent repetition of the authors' principal themes -- underneath all this, the book is downright subversive and a genuine threat to the sex police, because as the authors note,

our culture's sexual vision is not all that unified.... One can observe the clash of competing sexual values within American culture in many contexts: prostitution is illegal but is advertised in the yellow pages; universities claim to support women's independence but pass rules to hold men accountable for female students' drinking; teens and pre-teens are given access to contraception but are refused real sex education classes; conservative Christians say they want to reduce the incidence of abortion but will not support teen contraception.

The underlying conflict is about what we know we are versus what we think we should be. The result is individual behavior and social policies that look schizophrenic. But while there is overwhelming cultural pressure on the side of what we're supposed to do.... People who make sex toys, publish S/M magazines, and run strip clubs have no social standing or political power. They cannot compete with ... "intercourse is normal sex" institutions.

Let Me Count the Ways is a self-help book about non-intercourse sex, and as such it's designed to be very easy to read and very easy to understand, and is full of suggestions that are very easy to implement. But this isn't just a book about sex beyond intercourse: it's a polemic about individual liberty in a sexual context: about learning to be yourself, and standing up for your right to have whatever kinds of sex create pleasure for you, within the ever-present contexts of consent and doing no harm.

You may count the ways to be sexual until you reach the numbers of the stars, but there is finally only one way to be sexual that is right for you, and that way is to be sexual your way, every way, and every single time.

William A. Henkin is a licensed psychotherapist and a board certified sex therapist who conducts his private practice in San Francisco.

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