Book Review: This Thing We Call Sex

Image description: the cover features a black and white photo of a couple embracing in bed. The bearded male is biting the chin of the female figure who is cradling his head with her hands and laughing.  The book is set on a silver and green sun blurred background.

David Steinberg’s 2015 book This Thing We Call Sex (A Radically Sensible Look at Sex in America) is one of my favorite sexuality books and a prime example of great personal essay and non-fiction writing.

I had not heard of this author until a few people in my sex-positive network shared the book. Looking into it, the book piqued my interest and I decided I needed to read it. I’m so happy I did.

This Thing We Call Sex is a collection of columns, personal essays, photography, and poetry by the author. Some of the pieces had been previously published, most notably several from Steinberg’s sexuality column Comes Naturally that ran for Spectator magazine. There are also some pieces that were written for or published for the first time in the book.

The range of topics covered is marvelous. From Jack-and-Jill Off parties to sex work and how sex is handled in families to sexuality in art. He talks about many issues for transsexuals and many aspects of kink. He delves into personal experiences involving Viagra and the deeply impacting story of when his partner had an abortion. This author comes from a different generation than I do and I appreciated the insights into the history of sex positivity and other sexuality movements in America this book gave me.

More striking even than the incredibly wide range of topics, the essence of the author’s writing is heartfelt and textured. If you are interested in any kind of non-fiction sex writing, I highly recommend giving this collection a read.

For example, a column that appears early in the book is about taking sex toys through airport security. I have to admit I was reluctant to read another essay on a topic that I’ve seen other sex writers tackle in a cheesey, situation-comedy type narration. But I was definitely won over. The essay was unique and refreshing and very different than other takes. After this installment, his essays on porn, family, erotic transformations, and gender were quite fulfilling. There is certainly humor and playfulness at times and just the right amount of weight when appropriate without being dramatic. In short, this book is a read that satisfies.

His black and white photographs that accompany each essay adds further dimension to the book. Several essays in the book address his journey as a sexual photographer and a whole section is dedicated to images of sex. Each photo is a couple Steinberg photographed having sex. These images are real, raw, funny, beautiful, and intimate. Most of the photos are focused on facial expressions and gestures of connection between the couples and showcases a range of pairings.

Ultimately, I highly recommend this book to anyone in the sex positive community, but in particular those who have an interest in sexual writing/art as well as kink, pornography, and gender.

I will keep this book for the rest of my life. I’m fortunate the work found me when it did. You may read more about the author and his work here.

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