Austin author Suzy Spencer has been writing about the real world for years--first as a best-selling true crime author, and then, more recently, as she immersed herself in years of research for what writer friends in Austin knew as "the sex book." When that book, Secret Sex Lives, came out recently, Suzy found herself the topic of articles in Salon and elsewhere, and going on Katie Couric's show and other media outlets to talk about the book--and to defend herself for having written it.
Secret Sex Lives is ostensibly a book about the swinging subculture, and the stories about swingers and prospective swingers--the people Ms. Spencer calls her "beloved sex freaks"--are certainly the headline-grabber. But the book is also (and perhaps most profoundly) a deeply moving exploration of our desire for connection, closeness, and, yes, love. Ms. Spencer made the decision early on to eschew objective journalism for involvement, to make her own story a part of this thread, and the decision was worthwhile for many reasons. The result is a book both titillating and brave, honest about the research and honest about the author's connection to those in the research sample, and a book that teaches us a lot about America's changing views of sex--and what hasn't changed a bit.
What interested me most about the book in fact is not the swinging world--honestly, one woman at a time has always been enough and more than enough for me--or the ability to take a glimpse into the lives and hook-ups of the swingers, although some readers of the book are of course drawn most to that pulling back of the curtain. I was most intrigued by the author's relation to the book and its subject. Ms. Spencer is a graduate of Baylor University (the church-related university where I teach and write), a woman raised in small-town Texas, and (as she notes in the book) not only someone more religious and culturally conservative than many of her subjects, but a person who has had a lifelong fear of touch and intimacy. Yet, as she writes in Secret Sex Lives, she too is someone seeking connection, another person wondering why she doesn't have more love and excitement in her life, also curious about why these people go looking for love in what many of us would consider all the wrong places.
Knowing her background (and coming from one that is similar), I knew that writing about sex was going to bring on a Texas thunderstorm of response, much of it critical. I actually asked her why she'd taken on the book in a conversation for Patheos:
I desperately wanted to get out of true crime, and I wanted to laugh again (because, obviously, laughter is rather frowned upon when writing about real life murder). So my literary agent suggested that I write about Americans' alternative sex practices. Sex. I was intrigued. Talking about sex has always made me laugh. (Those who can, do, those who can't laugh about it.) And I knew that sex scared me. And writers need to write about what scares them. At least I think they do. So sex seemed like the perfect topic--laughter and fear.
While Ms. Spencer and I both live in culturally-progressive Austin, it is a small island of blue in a red state. Since the book came out, Ms. Spencer has been the subject of personal attack and invective (in the cultures we came from, nice girls don't write about sex, or perhaps even have it!), has been invited to and disinvited from literary events outside of Austin, and as she wrote in her blog, has had to respond more to personal criticism of herself than to professional criticism of the book. (A note on critical response: Publishers Weekly listed the book as one of the notable memoirs of the fall, and Kirkus reviewed it positively.)
The personal responses have been interesting, though, because they tell us much about both traditional American religious morality and our growing tolerance. Ms. Spencer talked with me recently, for example, about the people she had most been worried about, her family, and how they were reacting to Secret Sex Lives. Some she expected to be highly critical were loving; others remained deeply offended: "While my mother and sister have been highly and shockingly supportive, especially my mother (after initially having a tough time with it), other family members have accused me of not being a Christian, teaching others that if they're lonely all they have to do not to be lonely is have kinky sex, and told me I'm leading everyone who reads the book to hell."
Welcome to Red-State Texas, where having sex outside traditional marriage still leads straight to Hell.
In contrast to the mixed response from her family, the reaction to the book and Ms. Spencer's media appearances from those in the swinging life, wrestling with the decision to participate, or in relationship with someone wanting to participate have been incredibly positive. She shared with me some of the emails and blog responses she'd received, and almost all are grateful to her for bringing the subject out into the light of day--and for chronicling her own emotional life, desire for connection, and acceptance of her "beloved sex freaks" as human beings.
Part of that acceptance comes, paradoxically from Ms. Spencer's faith, which is a more progressive Christianity than that of most of her critics. In fact, the relationship between Ms. Spencer's faith and her subject is the most challenging thing for some readers and observers--and the most interesting to me as someone who writes regularly on religion and culture. In our Patheos interview, she concluded, "I'm not sure that I believe that sleeping with many people is good for the spirit. After all, so many of my sex freaks are desperately lonely and seeking that one connection. But at the same time, I don't think God is going to toss one into hell just because one is desperately seeking."
Twenty years ago, I don't think Suzy Spencer would have survived in Texas after writing this book and promoting it in the national media. She'd have been tarred, feathered, ridden out of town. Now, while there are plenty of moralists who wish that were still possible, there are plenty more of us who are just grateful to have a book like Secret Sex Lives that treats all of its characters as people with natural human desires for love, connection, intimacy, and trust.