Book Review: Nina Hartley’s Guide to Total Sex

The good people over at Penguin’s imprint Avery have been so kind as to send me Nina Hartley’s Guide to Total Sex.

Hmm. A book on sex that features raves on the cover from Margaret Cho and Penn Jillette? Hmm, indeed. I wouldn’t exactly list Cho & Penn as two of my sex idols. In moments of unbridled passion, where the lights are low, temperatures rising, panties in a twist, when I’m staring down an erect penis, I don’t flash into the recesses of my brain and go, “Oh, god, what would Margaret Cho do right now?” I mean, obviously.

Let this be a lesson to publishers: Just because you can get a celebrity to endorse your product doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Penn? Ahem.

Now, Hartley pronounces that this is the book she wished she had at 18. Okay, all right.

I have a problem getting totally behind this book. And lemme tell ya why.

First, sex is a pretty mind-blowing thing, and unlike riding the old wooden roller coaster or some other cheap thrill like that, it can vary six ways to Sunday every single time you do it. Unlike other thrills, sex has a whole world of options available to you.

Sex is one of the most expansive activities you will ever, ever engage in.

Thus, I find it pretty hard to believe that Nina Hartley’s double-spaced, 349-page Guide to (Not-quite-so) Total Sex is ever gonna be an encyclopedic reference.

Add to that the total lack of images of any kind, and you can start to wonder just how clued-in Hartley was at 18, ‘cos I gotta tell ya, some diagrams woulda gotten me to a whole new place of fulfillment back when I was 18. Describing body parts by name or vague description isn’t going to work for a lot of people. Pictures aren’t too hard to do, and they can serve a whole lot of purposes. Sex books without pictures are somewhat baffling.

The other problem is this happy medley of voices employed by Miss Hartley as she narrates your way through the book – half porn-star, half biology teacher – I just find the weird voice to be a whole lot less effective a way of educating the masses. It’s missing something in its explanations, and it far too much assumes that the average reader already knows something about sex. And, unfortunately, in this case, they probably do. They’ve probably seen any number of Miss Hartley’s videos.

This is not a book for beginners. It doesn’t break shit down near enough. Maybe a sex-video star knows a bit more about human biology than the average person, but this is one incident when addressing the lowest common denominator is something that would benefit the masses.

That said, this is not the book I would have wanted at age 18, and if it was the first sex book I was ever buying, I think there would be an awful lot I’d be missing out on. As a back-up book or for an out-of-practice lover, it might be a good purchase.

All the negatives aside, I often enjoyed the voice it was written in, and I like the emphasis that one can be a moral sexual being, that there is an ethic at work among the more sexually promiscuous – most of the time – but I’m not sure that it doesn’t gloss things over a little at times. Still, it’s a great attempt at reminding people that sex is basic biology and not something we should be experiencing such guilt over engaging in.

That it touches on the basics of bondage, BDSM, swinging, and other less than mainstream deviations is something I do applaud. I just think it’s a little too simplistic.

And it’s not a Total Guide, however much it wishes to be.

The ultimate, absolute best book I’ve ever, ever seen on sex was and IS, with its brand-spankin’-new eighth edition, is The Guide to Getting it On.

In the next couple weeks I’ll be reviewing it, talking about the CRAZY new selection of new chapters they’ve just added in, and telling you why, if you only ever buy one book on sex, whether you’re male or female, Paul Johannides’ Guide to Getting it On is absolutely, hands-down, the one book to buy.

If you’re looking for an interesting look at other aspects of sex, and you’re wanting a good read, well-organized, basic look at a wide variety of sexual lifestyles and such, this is actually a really good book to have. It’s just not what Miss Hartley’s trying to sell you. Total guide? Not by a long shot, but certainly a good backdrop for a larger library.