In a poem titled “An Opinion on the Question of Pornography,” Polish Nobel Prize-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska writes, “There’s nothing more debauched than thinking.” By Szymborska’s standard, then, there’s very little debauchery in Anka Radakovich’s new book, Sexplorations: Journeys to the Erogenous Frontier.
The second collection of essays by the former Details sex columnist, Sexplorations is a series of short pieces on all aspects of the sexual realm, from flirting to sperm donation to sex toys to steroids (the Mr. Olympia contest). Radakovich tells us what gives her “chick boners” and hangs out with “polyamourists,” people who practice group marriage. She does “dominatrix for a day,” flashes her hooters in front of the Vegas Hilton, and studies the “physics of penile hydraulics.”
Desperately striving to be flip and brash, Sexplorations comes off ho-hum when in the past year Kathryn Harrison has told us all about her adult trysts with her father, feminist bombshell Naomi Wolf has offered up the tale of her teenage deflowering, and New York Observer sex columnist Candace Bushnell has published an almost identical collection of her essays, Sex and the City. (Both Radakovich and Bushnell do Aspen.)
Among those superior wordsmiths, Radakovich stands tired and weary. Her blunt talk about the Big O and anal eroticism makes one long for Henry James and the New York of Edith Wharton, where exist such things as tension, taboo, and, best of all, discretion. Lines like “[T]he vineyard setting left us in a romantic mood, and I gave Tom a wine tasting from my jugs,” send one running for Anaïs Nin, who at least found rich language to tell her cheap tales of seduction and perversion. Alas, Anka pummels us with her “labes,” her “boobies,” and men slapping their meat against her thigh. Oh, for repressed Isabel Archer, quiet suffering, and sex that sizzles the imagination!
Sexplorations may rankle the heartland, but at least for regular Washington City Paper readers, it’s no longer news that fat, middle-aged people swing, spank, and swap wives in settings from tony Manhattan sex clubs to red-light-district massage parlors. Despite the best efforts of the Christian right, stories about S&M, autoerotic asphyxiation, and other perversities are so mainstream that they’ve been incorporated into nighttime soap operas like NYPD Blue. A strap-on dildo even served as a murder weapon in the movie Seven.
Nonetheless, sex still titillates, and lately it seems that for smart women to break out in the publishing industry, they have to write about sex—and look like whores. (Or, for the elite market, a supermodel with bedroom eyes like Wolf—would Random House have bought The Beauty Myth if its writer looked like Dr. Ruth?) Radakovich is one of a number of women whose writing prospects have been boosted by the Wonderbra.
Radakovich’s columns, taken in small doses, can be funny. Her publisher bills her as a “sexual anthropologist,” and indeed, some of her best stuff comes when she wears that hat. Her interviews with members of grrrl bands are especially good. The grrrls lament that while beautiful women will swoon over men in rock bands, the men who swoon for grrrls tend to be wimpy, 17-to-22-year-old guys who are “average to below average looking” and sport the “heroin look,” which one woman describes as “underwashed, undernourished, zits, no underwear, bad breath.” The grrrls posit that normal men are afraid of them, and they contemplate how being in a band “changes the power play” in the sexual arena.
But vignettes like these are rare, since Sexplorations is mostly all about Anka. As Radakovich aims to challenge the double standard and have sex like men, her combined essays paint a picture of a woman full of self-loathing who has discovered that being a slut isn’t all that fulfilling. It seems she, too, has a penchant for romance and “someone to talk to.” In one section, Radakovich writes about the results of her “Win-a-Date-With-Anka Contest.” As she sifts through the mail that comes in response, Radakovich writes, “[T]he demographics of my appeal start to shape up: eight virgins, two cross-dressers, and a bunch of guys in prison.”
But out of the pile she finds Tom, the “twenty-seven-year old student from San Francisco who fell out of a Federal Express envelope into my wet lap.” She tells how she flies west for her dream date, and is so smitten with Tom that she can’t contain herself: “‘You look even cuter than your photo,’ I blurted out, sounding way too much like Marcia Brady.” They spend a dreamy weekend together not having sex, and she returns to New York believing, “For once, I’d picked a winner.”
But when the Dream Date arrives in New York, he turns out to be the caveman he claimed not to be and proceeds to use the weekend to try to further his writing career. In the end he tells Radakovich that not only is he not attracted to her because she’s too clingy, but, “It was also your personality.” It’s a pathetic story, and it leaves the impression that the real Anka is throwing her legs around every stranger in New York, claiming to be horny but really just as desperate and stupid as the rest of us, and that sometimes sex games break her heart.
In the end, though, the biggest problem with Sexplorations is that, as with most modern writing about sex, it’s a cheap thrill built on lazy writing. In one section on Christmas at home with her family in Maryland, Radakovich describes a group of Christmas carolers by writing that they “couldn’t sing worth shit.” Breathtaking prose, that. Radakovich may revel in her ability to approach sex like a man, but in the end, her potty mouth isn’t any more provocative or interesting than that of the average testosterone-addled construction worker.CP