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Wednesday, May 28 1997
"Sex: In America an obsession. In other parts of the world a fact," Marlene Dietrich once said. Female sexuality seems to be the obsession of the moment, in the sense that more and more women (like Sarah Jacobson and Carol Queen) are taking to varying mediums (film and essays, respectively) to define sexuality on their own terms, rather than leaving it up to men like Joe Eszterhas, in whose hands we seem to always become psycho-bimbo strippers.

So a book like Anka Radakovich's Sexplorations: Journeys to the Erogenous Frontier should be a welcome addition to this burgeoning group, if only because its author approaches sex with the same headfirst gusto that most people still don't expect from women. As the former sex columnist at Details magazine, a post she held for seven years, Radakovich has written first-person accounts of lame singles cruises, road-tested condoms and herbal aphrodisiacs, and even engineered a Win-A-Date-With-Anka contest. Sexplorations collects the columns from the latter half of Radakovich's tenure at Details (an earlier anthology of pieces is called The Wild Girls' Club, and is notable for its celebrity sex gossip) in a giddy, warts-and-all examination of the kind of sexual pop culture that's both familiar (Hooters restaurants, John Wayne Bobbitt) and less so (swingers conventions). As our wacky tour guide, our funky big sister in her Wonderbra and omnipresent pouty sex-bomb face, Anka's gonna show us what's really going on within the fringes of our sex-obsessed culture. So why is this journey so annoying?

We can blame Madonna, indirectly at least. As that other great sexual journeywoman, La Ciccone staked her claim to the word itself five years ago, with her big mylar-sheathed book of naughty pictures. Sex implied that, as an avid practitioner of water sports, S/M, interracial love sandwiches, and sex with Vanilla Ice, Madonna was shedding her inhibitions so that we, as viewers, could benefit from her expertise. While the book was arrogantly touted as a means of loosening up, its arty contrivance instead shut out its audience, serving up a world of alternative sexuality that was supposed to be terribly enticing but, to anyone who wasn't Madonna, was ultimately unattainable. This kind of condescension has since made it difficult to take seriously any book that purports to school its readers in all that kinky stuff.

Sexplorations amounts, in many ways, to a rebuttal of the stylized, art-directed version of carnality proposed by Sex. Radakovich's writing takes situations like a visit to a swingers club or an afternoon at a house of domination and, rather than shrouding them in a seductive veil of artful text and chilly photographs, focuses on the human element, painting the sexual proclivities of America in gaudy cartoon colors, exposing fetishes and partner-swapping as nothing more than substitutes for canasta and Sunday-afternoon football for the dwellers of middle-class (and mostly white, apparently) America. Revealing that even the former fringe areas of sexual activity have become mainstreamed, Sexplorations finds Anka at a workshop on female-to-male cross-dressing, a nudist resort preparatory seminar, and a Learning Annex course called "Become a Dominatrix for Fun, Love, and Profit." The New Agey catch phrases of a rejuvenated sexual revolution -- "playcouples"; "safe spaces" -- are given a thorough mocking, as are 12-step sex-addicts groups.

While this demystification quite often makes for highly entertaining prose -- the chapter where a cross-dressed Ank is prevented from entering a ladies' room by a gang of drag queens is particularly surreal -- Sexplorations nevertheless retains some of the same sexual elitism that made Madonna's book so smug and off-putting. Radakovich's chief criticism of the mainstreaming of alternative sex isn't the commercialism that permeates it, but the fact that there just aren't enough good-looking people involved.

Even more unsatisfying is the fact that Radakovich, for all her potty-mouthed brashness, uses her position as arbiter of sexual savvy to advance the same old tired gender stereotypes that she herself is busting through. One might think that someone whose job requires them to delve into as many permutations of sexual lifestyles as possible would be able to find their way beyond the stale casting of man as sex-crazed commitment-phobe and woman as clingy romantic, but apparently not. Despite the fact that she has zero problems initiating the many purely lustful liaisons she details in her pieces, Radakovich still ends up back at the "women want love; men want sex" prescription. (From the chapter on first dates: "[F]or women, first dates are when we investigate a man's family background, sexual history, and life goals. For men, first dates are when they visualize what we look like naked.")

This tendency can possibly be chalked up to the more general laziness exhibited elsewhere in Sexplorations. When Radakovich comes close to touching on some interesting truth about, say, the class-based sexual subtext of a ski lodge in Aspen, she immediately backs away. Any potential for real exploration is subsumed into an endless series of bah-dump-bump jokes and goofy double-entendres.

Still, the nothing's-sacred attitude Radakovich brings to Sexplorations is admirable; she may spend a lot of time making people look stupid, but she's just as hard on herself, treating us to the sad spectacle of her one-night stand with an Elvis impersonator and her rejection by the ingrate who scores her Win-A-Date, among other things. No matter how otherwise superficial her treatment of her subjects, Radakovich does deserve at least a little credit for a lifelike representation of the bumpy sexual terrain she navigates -- by letting us see her in less than airbrushed form, she's a better sexual tour guide than Madonna could ever pretend to be.

By Andi Zeisler

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Andi Zeisler


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