A Book about Sex


By Amy Rose Spiegel

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With whip-smart prose, reminiscent of Roxane Gay and Meghan Daum, Action interweaves Spiegel’s own sexual autobiography with loving advice on one-night stands, relationships, and everything in between.

With whip-smart prose, reminiscent of Roxane Gay and Meghan Daum, Action interweaves Spiegel’s own sexual autobiography with loving advice on one-night stands, relationships, and everything in between. Action is a book about sex that people won’t feel embarrassed about owning. There are absolutely zero provocatively shaped fruit on the cover, for one. In Action, Amy Rose Spiegel exhorts you to trust yourself and be respectful of others–and to have the best possible time doing the things you search for on the Internet, except in reality. The book covers consent, safety, group sex, gender, and the best breakfast to make for a one-night stand. Spiegel also includes dissections of threesomes, how to pick people up without being a skeezer, celibacy as a display of autonomy, and, of course, how to clean your room in 10 minutes if a devastatingly lovely side-piece is about to stop by. All told, Action totally doesn’t think it’s weird that you want to try that thing together. In fact, Action is very into it.


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Love and do what you will is the only inflexible truth I can tether myself to, belief-wise. Restated, it means: Be kind, and you can't be wrong. Another of Augustine's life-defining ideas to which I fervidly subscribe: the pursuit of sex, which he famously prioritized in his life—and felt mad conflicted about. Augustine's tail-chasing career was truncated when he buckled to contrary opinions held by his religion about what sort of behavior qualified as "holy" (turns out boning is pretty much the opposite of Christian divinity, in their literal book), but I think he was right the first time around. One can absolutely treat sex as a conduit for connectivity with the world.

Biologically, we are configured to want and be with one another. Sex accounts for such a sprawling part of what I consider sacramental because it's also the hardware of my genetics. Sex is high and low: the nexus of culture-shaping religious rites, elemental science, and the visual motif of a lot of the best music videos as yet committed to the canon. I notice how it structures the highs and lows of my life, too, and how that framework overlaps—or not—with other people's blueprints—and whether I should totally bone them, if our schematics work together interestingly.

Every person I sleep with is a new machine, albeit one with the same set of instructions: Be loving in a new way. Love like you did not know how to love before. My sexual partners each show me new forms of communicating Augustine's kindness, the most airtight definition of love that I know.

This is not to say that I'm conflating sex and love. HA, can you imagine? You'd close the book here, like, "No thanks—I think we're alllll set for today," and you'd be right. But I do clock private information about a person from the way they have sex. Seeing and becoming involved with someone in a fuck-based capacity evinces new things about them—and about me—even if those truths are only true right then and there, and neither of us ever have a similar experience again. Personal details pertaining to sex are not necessarily secret, but they're usually more clandestine than most other biographical compositions, and I feel lucky whenever anybody lets me in on theirs. Even in the most easygoing arrangements, a person who is undressed in a bedroom (or wherever) is vulnerable, physically and psychically. They are also redolent with a specific kind of power, and, I hope, about to have a hell of a lot of fun.

A lot of the time, I have sex in order to see what's possible—to become an updated version of the person I thought I was. I want to traverse as much as I can of the unending range of what I and other people are capable of enjoying (together). I love having sex with someone if I can feel that we're changing together—beyond the basic "marching ever closer to hanging out with the Grim Reaper" parade. (Isn't that the point of the processional?) These alterations can be small—as in, I have never slotted a hand down the pants of this particular personage, at this particular date and time, before RIGHT THIS INSTANT! Man, I am ALL-NEW! In other cases, they've felt more revelatory, like, Whoa, I guess I love sleeping with women, when I did not suspect that to be the case previously! Becoming ALL-NEW does not mean that anything you do is reflective on any part of your overarching identity in life—unless you want it to be. In the moment, you are still you, regardless of what you do. Imposing broad, uncritical rules on sex rankles me—this is right; this is wrong. I prefer to think, Yo! This is possible? Fascinating! (And then maybe fantasize about it later, if the memory of it rustles up that impulse.)

I love talking and thinking about sex as much as I do having it. Speaking about sex comes, in part, from the attendant preference for wanting to listen to how others feel about it, too. In this book I have tried not to mistranslate and express ownership over experiences that are not mine, which is exactly the behavior that leaves people feeling overlooked, erased from the record, and socially shut down. All I can do is recount how sex has featured in my life and how that has felt. I'm not a doctor—I am equipped to write about sex only in that I am a person who has a pretty normal life that (mostly) does not include anxiety meltdowns about sex i/r/t identity. If I am "qualified" to be honest about my whole sexual deal, of course you are, too. No academic degree—or degree of skankitude—can imbue someone with the grand and lofty ability to know what feels good for them/fuck like a maniac; you've already got that (if you want it).

I am trying not only to talk about sex, but also putting forth mad ideas about how to get your partners to talk back (remember that whole fun "listening" gambit? It pays off!). I am a single person, albeit one who happens to have been with many others, so this book cannot even come close to encompassing the boundless interactions people have with their partners. (I'm wild grateful for that—homogeneity is boring, and premature death.) I do not expect you to agree with me throughout all of this. I'd rather you observe the aspects in which you are unlike me—and make up your own mind about how you'd have met the decisions I came to.

This is ostensibly a contemporary, youthful, we-do-it-so-different-here's-how-we're-special-and-new guide to the rutting that our ancestors have enjoyed and started wars over since humankind took its place among the cosmic junk of our vast and terrible universe, so I'll quickly hearken back to my original point. Here is what you learn about a person when you're taking off their clothes: Are they good to the people they fuck—those people in those vulnerable, powerful states of anticipatory pleasure, trust, and fear? Yo—are you?

You are, and you can show them how to be good to you. (And have great orgasms about it.) I think we're about ready to figure out how that goes down. Dilige et quod vis fac. Let's go get some action.


Age of Consent

The number one most essential part of any and all sexual encounters: establishing the often-hazy-seeming-but-actually-pretty-clear parameters of "consensual sex," which is otherwise known as "sex." Sexual consent is a direct verbal go-ahead that conveys, "What we're doing with our bodies is okay with me," as confirmed before not only sex involving penetration, but so many other kinds of sensual scenarios, too. Consent is an important part of getting down with anybody, of any gender or sexual persuasion, every single time you're getting down. In fact, it's probably the most important part: If you're in a physical situation where the other person disregards that you've told them not to touch you in the way they're touching you, what you're experiencing isn't sex (a catchall term I'm using here for "hookups of all stripes"), but sexual assault, and possibly rape. There is a plethora of ways to give and receive consent—and to refuse it. We'll explore as many of them as we can here today. Is that okay with you? (Look! We've already begun. I wish it were always this easy.)

While it may seem obvious that consent extends to far more than "Can I sexually freaq your bod now, or…?" too many of us have been with people who don't understand that getting prior clearance can be as necessary for relatively low-impact activities, like kissing, as it is for sexual bod-freaqing. In moments spent with those types of people, the inside of my younger brain mostly neurosis'd out thusly: Wait, what the literal heck, I thought this person LIKED ME, so WHY IS HE TRYING TO HARASS MY LAP OUT OF NOWHERE, do I go along with this weird crotchvasion or risk losing his company forever??? Can we just go back to thinking that biting each other's lips was the most torrid this was going to get, please? Plus, am I strong enough to overpower him if I have to? This is not what the internal monologue of a person given over to erotic ecstasy sounds like, Alex-from-the-bar-on-the-corner-whom-I-made-out-with-because-I-was-bored! Thanks for the panic attack!

When someone instigates sexual contact that you haven't agreed to, it can be tough to negotiate how to feel—let alone what to do. First of all, that's totally normal, and second of all, it has got to change, because I want you to have fulfilling, electrifyingly hot encounters of the flesh (ew, this lasciviously horrible turn of phrase) without feeling pressured, uncomfortable, or, heaven forbid, endangered along the way. Or like you're some kind of frumped-out killjoy for simply saying no, because YOU AREN'T. Orrrrr like you can't have rough sex AND non-negotiable boundaries at the same time. You know better than anyone else what feels good and manageable to you and what doesn't. (And this would be true even if Mark Ruffalo somehow merged with Sappho into a single, sexually masterful entity, and that being sidled up to you all like, "… Hhhhello there, allow me to playfully lick you on the forearm, my dove.") You have the absolute right to broadcast these non-negotiable preferences to every individual to whom you decide to affix your various and sundry (and sultry, my dove) body parts. No lap-harassment or weird crotchvasions necessary. Unless that's what you're into.

On the whole, my bod-freaqing, et cetera, has been wild enjoyable. (I know, I am a very cool sex-haver, CHECK OUT MY COOL-GUY HAIRSTYLE AND STYLISH DENIM JEANS.) I've also had some less-than-sterling, and occasionally downright awful, experiences with partners who didn't seem to consider whether I was all right with what was happening between us—and there have definitely been times when I was too pushy, and we'll talk about all of these occasions in a little. First, though, an abridged list of illustrative quotations from Remembrances of Bone Zones Past (RoBZP), my mental encyclopedia of belt notches (this is not to be confused with Proust's classic literary masterpiece, which was definitely at high risk of happening here):

• "I didn't think you wanted me to use a condom."

• "Just relax. You'll like it."

• "You were okay with it last time."

• "I forgot you weren't into that."

• "This is the only way it feels good for me."

All of these are real-life garbage sentences, uttered by real-life garbage people in response to my protestations about some dubious piece of the "action" we were getting. Sometimes these people were also actual rapists (because, straight-up, anyone who disregards your not wanting to have sex, or coerces you into it after you say no, fits this description). Though these phrases were deployed in different scenarios/for ostensibly different reasons, each one means, "I don't care what you want, even though you just directly told me that it isn't what is happening, and I don't respect you as a person more than I do my own horniness in this one moment."

To operate under that mindset when someone has trusted you with the privilege of feeling all up on them is wholly unacceptable, and not only because you're trying to make that person feel bad for your own repugnant behavior. (Not, you know, "you," but some hypothetical Alex-from-next-to-the-jukebox-style garbaggio-fuck, whom I'm now itching to destroy in vengeance of your honor even though he's technically made up.) Any person who exercises this selfishness has bought into the set of false promises made to them by male-violence-dominated societies, aka that victims of sexual assault are responsible at least in part for the harm done to them, so the aggressors don't have to feel like it's their fault. This is untrue putrescence.

I know you (real you, this time) wouldn't be the kind of solipsistic cretin who thinks that way, but if you find yourself in a situation where someone is reciting a passage that sounds plagiarized from one of the above excerpts from the RoBZP, please understand that your decisions are sound and worth respecting, even though said scum is trying to make you feel guilty about the fact that they've decided it's okay for you to feel unhappy/uncomfortable/unsafe as long as they're feeling sexual pleasure. The idea of even the potential of that happening to you makes me want to mail a congressperson a stink bomb and yell obscene, hideous things at a beautiful phenomenon of nature—ideally a canyon, but definitely a majestic, centuries-old sycamore, at least (in addition to my previous crimes against fictional "Alex"-type pred-nesses).

You are entirely within your rights to let anyone trying to pull that know that they are acting execrably and extricate yourself from the scene immediately. In some terrible, wrenching situations, this self-removal is not an option for the person on whom sex is being pushed, as I also know firsthand. (I have no quips about my experience this time. It was just awful and that's it.) As we know, despite coming up in a social environment that doggedly tries to convince us of the opposite in order to keep traumatic physical harm a normal: Rape and sexual assault are never caused by their victim's behavior. They are the result of another person's callousness, and there is nothing you can do in this life to "deserve" or "invite" rape or sexual assault. The people on whom these acts are inflicted are sometimes led to believe that if they had somehow conducted themselves more responsibly and/or advocated for themselves more insistently, everything would have been A-OK. This is the highest caliber of cold bullshit. Even if you were drunk or on drugs. Another forever-true side note: You are entirely within your rights to stop fooling around with somebody if you're no longer into it, regardless of how considerate the other person is being. You don't need a reason or an excuse to not want to get with somebody, and you don't owe anyone a goddamn thing in that respect, ever. No one has a claim on your body but you.

I don't want to scare you off forever—most people are not angling to trap one another in these kinds of scenarios, but, if we're going to have this consent-versation, we have to acknowledge the fact that consent, though essential, is fallible. I think the gigantic, looming threat of potentially messing up when it comes to consent, and then being forever after labeled an abuser, assailant, or rapist, is part of why some members of the genuinely non-monstrous majority population are afraid to discuss it—and are, as a result, more likely to mess it up. (This is a shame, since verbally consensual sex is good, healthy, and the crowd favorite among highly skilled, hot, and respectful hookup candidates. I've had myriad physical experiences with well-meaning, resolutely decent types who just didn't seem to know how to address consent in a proactive and sexy way in the heat of the moment. As I mentioned, I have also been this species of person! I don't think everyone who stumbles when it comes to discussing consent is a rapist/predatory beast—many of them have never been made to understand that rape and sexual assault are things they even have to think about committing, since they are convinced that "rape" is a terrible act with just one meaning that of course would never be demonstrated by them. (I exhort these people to get an inch of a clue.) Others don't know how to bring up consent without getting skittish, feeling prim, worrying they're killing some kind of moment/boner/wide-on, or otherwise shutting down. This makes me sad, because avoiding consent because it's an "uncomfortable" topic actually steers people into the exact awkwardness they're trying to avoid: It leads to situations where two amenable foxes who set out to have a great time together end up snarled in a morass of anxiety, which is, at least from the maps I've drawn up in the front covers of RoBZP (as one does with fantasy novels) not usually their intended destination. It sincerely doesn't have to go down like that—in most cases, it is so easy for it NOT to go down like that! You just have to give each other directions.

At its best, sex, or making out, or touching regions, or whatever affectionate physical contact you're enjoying with another willing individual, is communicative and instructive in tons of ways. Every person has their own motions, methods, preferences, and modes when it comes to all these exercises. Learning someone's personal specificities—and having them learn yours—is edifying and sexy and worthwhile. One important condition on which this is predicated, though, is mutual honesty and consideration, which—guess what—come from mutual consent.

I don't mean you have to permanently chuck spontaneity into the garbage disposal mid-hookup to instigate a heart-to-pelvis conversation about your entire sexual history and interior life (although if that's what you need to do to feel comfortable about being physical with another person, do it right up without a second thought). But no matter how free 'n' breezy (or otherwise reminiscent of a feminine hygiene–centric commercial) your encounter, you still have to pay attention to and interpret signals, respond to cues, and intermittently ask questions. Those are the basics (but, trust your girl, we'll delve deeper in just a moment). Speaking up is so much easier—and so much more effective—than wordlessly removing someone's hand from a part of your body where you'd rather it not be fluttering around, although, frankly, your partner should get the message from that alone.

Sex, for all its virtues, is weird (which is also frequently one of its virtues). It can be hard to know what another person likes, wants, or is thinking, or whether they're able to gauge what you like, want, or are thinking without an explicit, out-loud announcement from you… or vice versa: Treating your partners like passive sexual objects is not only insulting and wrongheaded, but also overlooks the reality that it's crucial to ask the same consent-based questions you require of them. Once you get into the habit of putting words to that murky stuff, it'll be a massive relief and, as a result, a more enjoyable, less intimidating headspace in which to go about goin' at it.

The first tenet of consent: Each "yes" you give expires after a single use. Since you are a person with mutable feelings, you might want to do something one day, with one person, in one setting, but you're not bound to those feelings forever. Giving some babe permission to come aboard your areas on one occasion doesn't give aforementioned babe license to nonchalantly assume he/she/they have clearance to do so forever after, or even just the next time around, (if there is one). You are not being unreasonable or prudish if you decide to draw the line or otherwise change your mind.

So, since you're going to be giving a LOT of it, it's time we delve into some specific ideas about how to grant someone consent—and how to decisively withhold it. The ideal time to talk about what your sexual limitations are: prior to becoming embroiled in a physical situation where someone might be straining them. If you're able to have a conversation with the person you're potentially going to be intimate with before acting on whatever that means for you, you can tell them exactly what you do/don't want to do. When I started seeing one long-term boyfriend, we spent a lot of time talking before anything beyond entry-level kissing took place between us, and while most of that conversation probably concerned our differences of opinion about what the best episode of The Simpsons was, we also asked each other plenty of questions about where to pause and check our sexual mile-marking systems to see if we were on the right track. Our answers were given candidly: I told him that at the time, I was inclined to wait a bit longer before having sex, among some other things that seemed intense to me. In turn, he told me about his history with sexual trauma, which made me rethink being too rough with him in ways I would have otherwise thought were playful when we actually started going far together. We knew each other's deals, and we didn't try to abruptly broker new ones mid-hookup without first considering them aloud while wearing clothing. Learning to ask and respond honestly to the question, "Do you want to try [whatever new thing]?" then actually taking heed of what was said, was probably what made the sex we had after a few months so brain-dominatingly incredible—we were both stoked and comfortable—and faithfully aware that the other person was, too. We still had our Milhouse–based differences, but all the other important approaches to compatibility, we agreed on.

Not every sexual situation is going to come out of a relationship. Though that one was awesome while it lasted, I also find that, Whoa, so is attaching my face to people whose middle, or even last, names I don't know! Those experiences proved the plentitude of frank, direct, flirtatious, and gentle ways to make consent a part of every hookup, regardless of how well you might (not) be acquainted. How you decide to approach the babes of your consensual and highly sexy future is up to you, but here are some pointers on how to score and feel great about it, how to make sure dreamboats-to-come are equally jazzed about what's going on, and what to do if things take a too-intense turn and you want to set them back on track.

If someone is coming on a bit strong for your tastes (how you determine this is, as with most things related to sex, subjective), tell them to alter what they're doing, or to stop, if you prefer. If you're all right with the former, pull away by a few inches and say something like "Do that [more slowly, or gently, or however you'd like them to change it], please." No matter what that directive is, don't couch it in language like "I don't think I want to do that yet" if you're sure you don't want to do that yet. You don't have to water down what you know in your heart/parts to be true, and your boundaries are not up for renegotiation unless you say, and mean, that they are.


On Sale
May 17, 2016
Page Count
240 pages

Amy Rose Spiegel

About the Author

Amy Rose Spiegel is a writer and editor living in New York City. She is the author of Action: A Book about Sex (Grand Central), and her work has appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, the Guardian, the FADER, and many other publications. She is currently a senior editor at Broadly, VICE’s channel about identity, and previously edited at Rookie and BuzzFeed.

Catherine Willemse is a Dutch artist who specializes in illustrations, film, and animation.

Learn more about this author