Review of The Ethical Slut

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Review by William A. Henkin

The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities, by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt. San Francisco: Greenery Press, $15.95

Is it too clich´d to sing out, They're ba-a-a-ack? This newest volume from Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt, the increasingly dynamic duo of modern sex guides, provides a whole new approach to self-help books because it chiefly concerns the task of getting you from where you are already to where -- ideally, anyway -- you already are. As the title claims, it's a handbook to teach the willing and the eager not just how to be sluts -- many sluts already have some kind of handle on that set of skills -- but how to be the best, most responsible slut you can be, and, therefore, how to have the most fun possible and wreak the least possible havoc being one.

In some regards this book intentionally preaches to the choir because it's not likely to be read, for example, by Newt Gingrich or Bill Clinton. That's too bad, because simply by reading the section called "How to F*** Up" they could learn to apply to their ordinarily unethical politics these detailed step-by-step instructions for conducting unethical sexual escapades, and could thereby provide a much more precise experience of pain and misery for everyone concerned without the muss and fuss they now encounter by ascribing to their behaviors some artificially redeeming social purpose. The same applies to anyone who currently conducts himself and/or his personal or political affairs in a less than perfectly ethical manner. Not to you or me, of course.

The social difficulty the authors have descried, which they address eloquently, is that at some point in their careers most sluts feel ashamed of themselves or guilty about what they like to do regarding sex because they've accepted someone else's generally stilted and stultifying beliefs about what they're supposed to like and do about sex, which is usually quite contrary to their own lighter-hearted, more open-handed inclinations. Consequently, trying to navigate between the Scylla of their own desires and the Charybdis of conventional mores, sluts too often get confused, and behave unethically without intending to do so. The authors want to repair this social problem, first by re-examining the whole proposition that being a slut is a Bad Thing, and then by laying out some groundrules for ethical slut conduct. Early on, therefore, they define the ground they plan to rule:

In most of the world, "slut" is a highly offensive term, used to describe a woman whose sexuality is voracious, indiscriminate, and shameful. It's interesting to note that the analogous word "stud," used to describe a highly sexual man, is often a term of approval and envy....

And then they describe how they plan to rule it:

So we are proud to reclaim the word "slut" as a term of approval, even endearment. To us, a slut is a person of any gender who has the courage to lead life according to the radical proposition that sex is nice and pleasure is good for you. A slut may choose to have sex with herself only, or with the Fifth Fleet. He may be heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, a radical activist or a peaceful suburbanite.

Not only do your authors have a very high regard for sluts, but it turns out that they could really be poster grrlz for Sluts Un-anonymus because they've been extraordinarily sluttish themselves, and they've had an extraordinarily wonderful time doing it, too, even though they've taken their lumps as every pioneer must do. So when they talk about what it means to be ethical, or promiscuous, or sexually adventurous, or a parent, you know they've done their research on the sheets, not in the library; when they explain how it's possible to be a slut with lots and lots and lots of sexual partners and still maintain an honest, loving primary relationship, you know they speak from experience; when they lay out their Ten Commandments of Sluthood, discuss obstacles to attaining your desires and ways to overcome those obstacles, or examine the ever-debilitating problems of feeling jealousy, you know they know whereof they speak.

One of the features that makes The Ethical Slut so valuable as well as entertaining is that long before you've finished reading the book the chances are good that you'll agree with the authors. And more important than agreement, you'll learn valuable lessons. If you're a good slut already, reading a narrative that elevates sluts to the higher planes of humanness can free your mind from a history of other folks' constraints; if you're not yet a good slut and you've a mind to be one, reading this book can let you improve upon your situation while learning to feel good about yourself; and if you don't want to be a slut and you're reading this paper, it's almost inevitable that you already know some sluts, so reading this book will help you help your friends to live richer, more rewarding, and/or more honest lives. Because underneath the authors' discussions about sex and honesty and communication is a subtext of rather spiritual dimensions. Now, by spiritual I don't mean all that namby-pamby stuff they taught you ain Sunday school that you had to parrot back in church; I mean, instead, what D.H. Lawrence referred to as the "aristocracy of consciousness." Because for the authors, it is not enough to be a slut, one must be an ethical slut, and to be truly ethical requires not that you follow someone else's set of rules, but that you know and be able to follow your own. Then, as the authors of this charming handbook note, "any sexual pathway, consciously chosen and mindfully followed, can be a positive, creative force in the lives of individuals and their communities."

Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt have written several other books already, including The Bottoming Book, The Topping Book, and The Compleat Spanker, and reading The Ethical Slut makes it obvious that they're not through. This is the sort of Mistress Manners' guide to impossibly correct behavior that belongs on the shelf beside Carol Queen's Exhibitionism for the Shy. It's a book that, if he read it, could make Jesse Helms's life worthwhile. But since he won't, you might as well: it couldn't hurt anything, and the chances are excellent that it will help you or someone dear to you.

William A. Henkin is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, a Board Certified Sex Therapist, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Sexology, and co-author, with Sybil Holiday, of Consensual Sadomasochism: How to Talk About It and How to Do It Safely. He conducts his private psychotherapy practice in San Francisco.

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