Stephanie Theobald’s Sex Drive is a wild ride! Theobald, a fierce bisexual British novelist and broadcast journalist, took it upon herself to survey the contemporary landscape of female masturbation, figuratively and literally. She made a list of all the American female sexperts she could think of and then rented a car and drove across the country to meet them and harvest their wisdom while having adventures which she shares in great detail with her lucky readers.
She starts at the top by taking private instruction with Betty Dodson, author of Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving and widely considered “the godmother of masturbation,” and then works her way through an illustrious roster of pleasure activists. They include Regina Thomashauer, founder of Mama Gena’s School of Womanly Arts; Veronica Vera, former model for Robert Mapplethorpe and proprietor of Miss Vera’s Finishing School for Boys Who Want to Be Girls;
Barbara Carrellas, who teaches classes in Urban Tantra; Annie Sprinkle, the renowned pornstar-turned-sex-educator; best-selling author and columnist Susie Bright, aka Susie Sexpert; Nicole Daedone, the founder of the female-centered sex institute OneTaste and the author of Slow Sex: the art and craft of the female orgasm; and a Bay Area-based professional dominatrix named Raven. Theobald even flies to Little Rock to commune with Joycelyn Elders, the former Surgeon General of the United States who was hired by her fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton and then fired for advocating that children should be taught that masturbation is a normal part of human sexuality.
An excellent interviewer and a game participant-observer, Theobald creates vivid, accessible, frequently hilarious prose that makes her every bit the equal of “New Journalism” heavyweights Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson (not unlike the New York Times’ rising star Taffy Brodesser-Akner). She truly goes into this enterprise as a nervous student and extracts a bountiful supply of useful nuggets from her teachers. Curiously, given her vivacious personality, Theobald is plagued by physical inhibitions and shame about her pervy fantasies.
Naomi Wolf claims in her book Vagina that porn desensitizes the pussy, but maybe it’s rather that it shrinks the imagination. Because at some point, you have to ask yourself: Is this really my fantasy or am I becoming addicted to someone else’s dream world? …When I told Betty that I worried about having dirty thoughts, not just when I masturbated but also when I was having sex, she told me not to worry. “Fantasy focuses the mind,” she said. “The dirtier, the filthier, the better.”
Susie Bright allays some of Theobald’s fears, telling her, “I have really insane fantasies. Most of them are physically impossible and morally repugnant. But they’re in my head, so it’s like criticizing me for pretending I’m a princess or riding a dragon….we need a more nuanced psychological understanding of this. I mean, I don’t actually want to be ravaged by nuns and priests on the altar, but in my imagination it can make perfect sense.”
Theobald (above) gets some good instruction in edging from Barbara Carrellas and in eco-sexuality from Annie Sprinkle. The pro-dom Raven is more helpful addressing Theobald’s history of painful intercourse than the medical doctors she’d consulted.
It annoyed me when my vulvodynia doctors used to trot out the “What are your pain levels on a scale of one to ten?” line. They didn’t finesse the question by asking, “Is your pain burning, stabbing, aching, shooting, throbbing, electric?” But Raven goes even further. She says that certain types of extreme sensation — i.e., pain — can teach you to relax around fear or adversity in your life. Sometimes you just have to sit with your pain. Accept your pain — see where it takes you.
I think of myself as pretty knowledgeable about women’s sexual pleasure – as knowledgeable as a gay cismale sex therapist can be – but I learned a lot as vicarious companion on Theobald’s journey. I’d been under the impression that clitoral stimulation (by hand or vibrator) is pretty much the be-all and end-all in terms of generating female orgasms, that penetration was something women go along with because it’s pleasurable to men but not so much to them. I learned otherwise from Theobald’s account of Betty Dodson’s tutelage.
A dildo makes you feel like you are being taken. Penetration is a big deal. It’s easy just to do what Betty calls “clit stim,” when you’re masturbating, but adding a dildo will take things up a notch.
Subtitled “On the Road to a Pleasure Revolution,” Sex Drive works as a zesty memoir and a funky sex manual. Yet at heart it means to serve as a kind of manifesto, shining light on an aspect of sexuality that most women are not trained to prioritize. I’ll close this review with my favorite passage from the book, which speaks to almost anyone:
The truth is that you never know what’s going to happen in your head when you start to masturbate. It’s like that challenge in Masterchef where the chefs lift the lid on a mystery box and find they have to make dinner from a tub of gherkins, some glacé cherries, a jar of peanut butter and a couple of crayfish. Who knows what will come out in the end? The only certainty is that whatever does emerge in the privacy of your head shouldn’t be thrown in the bin. It might not win a TV show, but you should look on it as your own personal masterpiece.