Tuesday, April 24, 2012

booknotes: real live nude girl

After hearing Carol Queen speak back in February, I tracked down a copy of her book of essays on sex-positive culture, Real Live Nude Girl (Cleis Press, 1997; 2003). Nude Girl is a fascinating and deeply personal window into the sexual explorations of a feminist-minded sex nerd from the 1970s into the mid-1990s. The historian in me was particularly interested in the way Queen documents from on the ground the tensions surrounding sexuality and identity that ebbed and flowed in powerful tides through feminist subcultures, queer subcultures, and the lesbian-feminist community. Queen's essays provide a valuable first-person primary-source narrative of those turbulent and exciting times.

On a more personal level, as a child of the 1980s, I have no first-person experience with many of these political tensions, and I marvel at the rigidity and simplicity with which some women approached the intersection of feminist sensibilities with sexual and sensual experience. Enjoying your breasts, having your breasts touched, was consider objectifying -- wait, what? Wearing a skirt made you a bad lesbian? I'm sorry -- come again? I'm sure in thirty or forty years time, people will look back on our own anxieties of the aughts and similarly shake their heads that we made it so fraught for ourselves. (Really? There was a time when asexuality was rejected by some in the queer community? Really? We didn't let trans women into the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival? Say what?) At least, I can only hope it will be so!

I particularly appreciated her essays on being bisexual in the queer subculture, "The Queer in Me," and "Bisexual Perverts Among the Leather Lesbians." As someone who resists hard-and-fast labels (while appreciating the language of identity as a tool for both political organizing and self-discovery), it's always comforting to be reminded that debates over what it means to be a "good" or "bad" queer or feminist are hardly new. "Through a Glass Smudgily: Reflections of a Peep-Show Queen," among others, explores the social aspects of sexual performance and connection. As someone with exhibitionist tendencies, I enjoyed Queen's thoughts about what we get (performer and voyeur alike) from more public manifestations of our sexual selves. In a blend of sexuality and healthcare, "Just Put Your Feet in These Stirrups" is a thoughtful examination of Queen's experience as a live model, teaching ob/gyn residents to perform pelvic exams. Having just read Wendy Kline's historical treatment of pelvic exam practices, Queen's more personal perspective was a delightful parallel to Kline's analysis. And finally, "Dear Mom: A Letter About Whoring" is a heartbreaking essay penned as a letter to her mother after her mother's death. For me, it underscored the sadness of things not said between parents and children in our culture about sexuality and relationships.

I continue to be impressed by Queen's depth and breadth of personal and analytical thought. She blends self-examination and personal experience with the perspective of a scholar and cultural critique. While Real Live Nude Girl was a bit of a trick to find (I ended up ordering a used copy through Amazon), I highly recommend it for the library of anyone with professional or personal interest in the field of human sexuality.

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