I can't help but flirt with Amy Rose Spiegel every time I see her. I shoot her coy looks and confident grins, I stand close, my "hellos" and "goodbyes" are lingering kisses. I may have even winked at her. Spiegel, in turn, is the finest flirt I've ever met—with a fleeting interaction, she can make one feel like the sun in a spinning solar system. But, to crib Spiegel's own words, "I don't mean 'flirt' as in 'sleazily to bed'—that would be extremely troublesome in this context." Spiegel, as she notes in her new and first book, “Action: A Book About Sex,” is an advocate for flirting “with everyone and everything… noticing and communicating the shimmering qualities of life's entities."
This sort of invocation to full-bodied (and souled) engagement with the world and one's place in it runs through “Action,” which was released earlier this month. The 25-year-old former Rookie editor has offered up a collage of a text, combining sex advice (as direct as "How to eat pussy" step-by-step); theory-peppered reflections on sexuality, identity and gender; and (very) personal anecdotes. It's a messy book, because sex is a messy subject, and Spiegel aims to offer a lot of information and encouragement to young readers of any sexual orientation or gender identity.
It's not high theory—it's fast-paced and fun and should be required reading in high schools. Exclamation marks, italics, and capitalized letters abound. She'll call the reader "dude," insist that "LIFE RULES," then will give an intro into Freudian and Foucaultian analysis of sex as discourse. Then she'll explain a cool thing to do to a dick with the palm of your hand.
I spoke to my friend and flirt partner via email about the challenges of giving advice, undoing categories, and her alter-ego named "Small Deluxe."
NL: Which sort of sex advice genres, or sex writing, were you trying to counterpose with “Action”? There's a lot of brilliant feminist and queer theory focused on sex, but rarely does it come in advice form. Why do you think this is?
ARS: Most people aren’t reading theory in their day-to-day lives. I grew up a queer feminist—but I didn’t know I was at the time, because I was pretty poor and living in a community that wasn’t inclined to acknowledge that identity as valid, let alone worthy of respectful, curious discourse. I didn’t consider myself a feminist until I went to college. Many people never have those two experiences, but they’re still interested in healthy, blissed-out fucking, and they should be able to learn about it in conversational, open terms. It was important to me to try and find the most straightforward terms with which to discuss sexual concepts. I didn’t want to instill a sense of exclusion in people who might be unfamiliar with certain verbiage, but who would ultimately agree with or be interested in what it describes.
In assuming that everyone possesses the same vocabularies surrounding sex, discussions about sexual liberation becomes the would-be territory of only the urbane, formally educated classes. This means it becomes white-, wealth-, and male-dominated, in keeping with that social stratum on the whole.
NL: What concerns did you have about writing a sex advice book?
ARS: My main concern here was class and inclusion: making sure that, no matter a reader’s sexual politics, identity, background, or interest, they could come away with a baseline understanding of how different people might communicate about fucking, and what it means, regardless of whether the reader had desire-based commonalities with them. I wanted to write “Action” as a sort of stepping stone: Maybe a reader isn’t familiar with certain topics, writers, or ideologies, but will seek them out after being introduced to them here.
NL: Can you talk a little about the challenges of trying to write for readers from an array of subject positions, which you do in “Action”? A lot of sex writing seems to assume, or directly address, a specific assumed reader identity—young, cis, straight women, for example; or just gay men.
ARS: As a person who has now, professionally, been in an array of positions, I’m fascinated by the similarities of humans who are getting laid, as much as I am the differences. Regardless of how you manifest it, and with total acknowledgement of and love to the complications identity can present (for everyone!): Our shared main obligation, on the whole, is to be kind, listen, and respect one another with enormous intent and openness. Figuring out how to best express this to each and every new person you get with might seem burdensome, since it takes a new form every time. It’s not. It leads to this shitty erosion of quality and self if you choose to go about it the other way, and why would you choose to have a bad time when the alternative is a distinctive/hot-as-fuck experience?
NL: You include a lot of caveats and qualifications in the book, always with flare that makes it very readable. For example, you give a piece of advice and then write something like “(or not, if you don't want).” You often parenthesize and qualify if something seems to exclude certain groups of people or types of desires. And you often use “they” as a singular pronoun, as a way to navigate talking about people without assuming a gender. Was this something you did as you wrote, or was it about editing for care?
ARS: That’s how I write, although I agonized over the decision to say “the person with the penis/vagina” instead of “they” or other pronouns. I decided that readers would understand the usage of “they” in the sections where this felt like an issue. This was not the result of that middle-school-substitute-English-teacher-ass sentiment that goes, “What about GRAMMAIRE?” as an (anti-trans) way to exclude “they” as a singular pronoun. I love when bigoted pedants, on the merit of supposedly being devout Strunk/Whites, pretend they cannot understand ONE WORD used almost exactly as it is otherwise. It’s like, I thought you were supposed to be very, very smart!
NL: What's the dumbest sex advice you've ever read/heard?
“Nah, you should definitely have sex with a guy named Gilbert who just took you to Planet Hollywood ‘for dessert,”’ said my own brain. Still, I think I was right.
NL: I notice how you, when talking about you personal choices, prefer to use negating terms, e.g. non-monogamous as opposed to polyamorous, "shucking off" orientation, rather than choosing a descriptor bisexual etc. And you use "queer" as a catch all for this sort of negating effort. Can you discuss this approach of undoing identity?
ARS: Identifying in specific terms benefits many people practically (finding like-minded friends and partners; finding safe social groups) and personally. In my case, I find saying that I’m bisexual, or gender-fluid, or whatever I feel like to have the opposite effect: Trying to pin down what my gender/sexuality is feels limiting to me. I hate being told what or who I am—this has never done me an ounce of good in any area of my life; hearing “what I’m like” just makes me second-guess my actions. I prefer to just go about my business as the bizarro blonde menace typing this to you today.
I prefer to have conversations about sex and gender that are reciprocal, nuanced, and personal, and these qualifiers don’t feel personal as applied to me. I’m also hesitant to use them because my relationships with sex and gender rearrange themselves a lot, so why bother printing up a nametag for a bad part-time employee who’s just going to throw it on the counter and tell you to shove it tomorrow?
NL: There's a lot of "be yourself", "be who you are" sort of advice in the book. But there is also a recognition that who one is—who we are now—and what our desires are, are shaped and coded by a lot of normative social and historical forces, patriarchy and capitalism fiercely among them. How do you square those two things?
ARS: The social configuration and mores which a person is surrounded by are definitely intertwined with how they fuck—while it would be convenient and highly rad if that were the one area of life that was unaffected by societal grossness, this is sadly not the case. In the book, I wrote about social structures as they relate to sex most overtly in the segments about gender, presentation, pornography, fetishes, and promiscuity. (Heh: “In the book, I wrote about this most overtly in the entire book,” quoth this moron.) It’s useful to examine why you want something beyond the simple awareness that you want it. Once you have a handle on the outside forces that affect why you might want to express a certain kind of desire, and/or where that desire appears to bifurcate from the rest of your worldview, you might begin to think about those desires differently—effectively, changing their shape in your head without changing their shape in your bed by making them into positive, edifying vehicles for inquiry. (And for coming really hard.)
NL: Tell me about Small Deluxe!
ARS: For anyone reading this who doesn’t have a dumb, sweet nickname for themselves: I recommend it. It was the answer to the strange logical equation that starts with the advice—we’ve all encountered it—don’t worry about what other people think of you. That always implied, to me, that there was a particular impression I was leaving to begin with, and I had no idea what that might be. I decided to make her up myself: Who did I want to be in the world? What was she like? What does she do, say, wear? (Promotional T-shirts from a car dealership in her hometown and tiny cutoff shorts, as it turns out.) Whenever I get nervous or am unsure what to do, I place Small Deluxe in my situation and just imitate her. It rules and it works.
NL: Here’s something I was reflecting on while reading “Action”: Some of the most important and opening sexual experiences I've had, I've perhaps wanted to want something, but not known if that thing is actually what I do want. The first time I slept with a woman, having grown up heterotypically, or my first threesome, or sex when I was very young with much older men. I would not advise this sort of liminal consent type sex, but nor do I personally regret it. It is arguably the fraught nature of experimentation that fully wanting or desiring an experience cannot precede having first had it. Like, who knew I like eating pussy? I didn’t assume it, and was socially coded such that I had much thought about it until my early twenties.
This is of course common for a cis woman growing up “straight” in a heteronormative, albeit liberal social sphere. But I’ve also had some scarring, highly consensual, at-the-time desirable sex. Let's call it regrettable sex. This is usually related to choosing the wrong partners. I’ve never quite known how to navigate discussing non-regrettable instances of questionable consent, and regrettable instances when everything was "done right." A book of advice is not the place for that. But I’m be interested in your thoughts on that here.
ARS: Sex is an agent of change. It can unexpectedly morph your worldview in worthy, interesting ways, as with forms of experimentation you weren’t previously anticipating, and less great ones, like consensual sex that leaves at least one person involved in it wishing it hadn’t happened later on down the line.
Having a clear understanding of wanting to explore a new sexual premise doesn’t necessarily have to precede that actual act, so long as, in that act, you and your partner are agreeing to experiencing it together in real time. As with all matters of consent, it’s about the present more so than it is any preconception of “what’s okay” between you and your sexual partner(s). My first threesome happened out of nowhere—it was an evening like any other at the nightclub where I used to hostess, and the next thing I know, I’m heading back home having invited this cute-looking couple over. Although it wasn’t how I was expecting to end my evening, I was open to it, and we checked in throughout to make sure everyone was into it.
When it comes to sex in which consent was given, but the encounter sucked anyway: That happens! There’s no way to instruct your heart about what the right way to feel about other people might be, regardless of whether you’ve “done everything correctly.” As I mentioned is true of the past, consent also can’t be dictated by what happens after the fact. It guarantees only that each participant is okay right then and there. Prioritizing it each time you have sex sure as hell helps alleviate any additional stress, trauma, or hardship a person might feel about a not-great entanglement, though.
NL: What would you say is the central tenet of your advice?
ARS: Love and do what you will, and don’t feel obligated to give your own version of Small Deluxe a name that sounds culled from the dollar menu.