BOOKS

Secrets of sex

A writer casts a shrewd eye on the genders

DIANE TURBIDE June 8 1992
BOOKS

Secrets of sex

A writer casts a shrewd eye on the genders

DIANE TURBIDE June 8 1992

Secrets of sex

BOOKS

A writer casts a shrewd eye on the genders

Wendy Dennis, the author of Hot and Bothered: Men and Women, Sex and Love in the 90s, was recalling her Valentine’s Day appearance on CBC’s The Journal. She was a panelist on a forum about relations between the sexes, hosted by Barbara Frum. Frum (who died on March 26) had read an advance copy of the book and took the opportunity to compliment her on it. “She said it showed a lot of insight, and that she thought it was going to be a hit,” Dennis told Maclean ’s. Then, she added, Frum “suddenly leaned across the table and said, ‘But Wendy, has your mother read this book?’ ” Dennis said that she howled with laughter, and then recalled how Frum continued about how she imagined dinner at Dennis’s parents’ house, “with everyone sitting around saying, ‘We’re glad Wendy is forthright, and we know she’s experienced, but did she have to tell everybody?’ ”

Part self-help manual, part social commentary, part investigative journalism, Hot and Bothered (Key Porter, $26.95) covers everything from the social niceties of oral sex to the postcoital phone call, from the political correctness of watching pornography to the plaintive pleas of lonely men and women. Dennis, a Toronto-based journalist and divorced mother of 11-year-old Sara, casts a knowing but never

jaundiced eye over the minefield of contemporary sexual politics. And she writes in a witty, racy style that avoids the patronizing tone that pervades most books of the type.

Frank and funny—sometimes downright raunchy—the book evolved from a 1989 article on sexual etiquette that she wrote for Toronto Life magazine. The piece led to an avalanche of mail, confirming Dennis’s theme that anxiety, confusion and conflict now prevail in matters of the heart. The response, said Dennis, galvanized her into expanding her field of inquiry. Why were men and women having so much trouble getting through the bedroom door, much less between the sheets? “There wasn’t a book out there that was telling me the answers in a way that made any sense to me,” she said, “and that didn’t insult my intelligence.”

Dennis says that she spent two years writing and researching Hot and Bothered. She read everything from Cosmopolitan to The New England Journal of Medicine and interviewed 300 people face-to-face in several major North American cities. The respondents were split evenly between men and women, mostly ranging in age from late 20s to late 40s. She acknowledges that her methods are unscientific. The people she spoke to are urban sophisticates, articulate and extremely candid.

What surprised her most, Dennis said, was

the degree to which men feel at sea. As feminism brought about a readjustment of sexual roles, she writes, many men lamented the fact that there are “no clear guidelines or rules of appropriate masculine behavior anymore, that they simply don’t know how to behave around women.” Their response, she added, is often to simply withdraw. At the same time, women complained to her that men, perhaps feeling defensive, are “co-opting what for centuries had been a female prerogative: withholding sex ... as a means of control.”

Women are also feeling ambivalent. An avowed feminist, Dennis argues that although no woman wants to give up the gains made in the past 25 years, many say that they are experiencing conflict over what they want in a man. “Their heads are telling them one thing and their hearts and loins are telling them another,” Dennis said. She cites the example of 1 a woman who shamefacedly admitted to being 9 sexually turned off by an attractive man when I she found a copy of Ms. magazine at his house, g Some of the author’s findings confirmed her g worst fears about safe-sex practices, Dennis said. Most of the people she met were not using condoms in sexual encounters with new partners. “That tells me that AIDS is still an abstraction for many heterosexuals,” she said. Other chapters cover such topics as extramarital affairs and relations among harried couples, especially those with children, the group she terms “the dins—double income, no sex.” Although many of the anecdotes are distressing in the sheer callousness that they reveal, Dennis’s description of them is often very funny. In one case, a woman recounts how after several dates with a likable but unexciting man, she finally succumbed sexually. The man never called her again. “I thought to myself, ‘Well, maybe he died,’ ” she told Dennis. “Women tell themselves that . . . maybe he died. Because they just can’t believe a guy would be such a snake as not to call.”

What sets Dennis’s book apart, besides its humor, is the compassion she brings to her survey. She writes that she was repeatedly struck by the similar longings of men and women for intimacy and comfort, despite the gulf between the sexes. “It breaks my heart to think of all the romances that aren’t getting going because of these short-circuited signals,” she said. And after several years of dating, a territory that she describes as “lunar in its unfamiliarity” when she first encountered it after her 1984 divorce, Dennis herself finally made the right connection. Last year, after finishing the first draft of her book, she actively canvassed friends and acquaintances—“I practically stopped people at the bus stop,” she said forthrightly—to introduce her to someone. And it worked.

Dennis says that writing Hot and Bothered showed her that in a time of great sexual turmoil, honesty, decency and empathy are more important than ever. And she points out that she began by writing a book about sex, but wound up writing one about intimacy—one that even her mother approves of.

DIANE TURBIDE