Book Review: ‘Sex and Lovers: A Practical Guide’

“Let’s talk about sex”, no really, let’s.

Dutch sexologist Ann-Marlene Henning and her co-writer Tina Bremer-Olszewski bring us a sex and relationships guide that answers all the burning questions that young people want to ask and that adults often find difficult to answer. After all, as Henning points out, good sex is about knowing “how your body functions sexually and a lot of people don’t know that, not even grown-ups”.

So let’s all go back to basics, debunk the misconceptions and ease the anxieties that young people frequently experience. Let’s join the authors in an exploration of sex that focuses on the excitement and fun that’s to be had.

From the very basic to the more experimental, the guide explores every aspect of sex and relationships, with just the right balance of humour, straight talking and sensitivity that will engage young readers. What is particularly progressive is that from the outset Henning rejects the common assumption that teaching about safe sex automatically leads to good sex. ‘Sex and Lovers’ instead advises that it’s knowing what you’re doing in the first place which will lead to both safe and good sex.

As you would expect from a practical guide, Henning details the very literal ins and outs of intercourse and suggests some of the best ways for those starting out to achieve mutual pleasure. But the most important advice that she reiterates throughout every chapter is that good sex comes in two parts: firstly it involves exploring and embracing your own individuality and secondly, it requires communicating with your partner.

Communication is one of the main themes of the book. Whether it’s asking for advice from people you trust, verbalising personal boundaries and preferences, or understanding your partner’s needs- communication is essential in order to create fulfilling sexual experiences and healthy relationships.

One of the book’s greatest triumphs is in its approach towards understanding personal boundaries. In encouraging young people to recognise and defend their most basic personal boundaries, Henning also asks them to respect other people’s boundaries, a vital message for combating sexual assault.

The guide does have some limitations; the authors admit some of these themselves. This guide would probably not satisfy the needs and answer all the questions of a LGBT teen for example.  However, as Henning explains, “everyone has an innate ability to become aroused, but that sexuality (and how to enjoy it) has to be learned.” So whilst the authors offer a comprehensive –but not perfect- guide, it’s just a gateway, which each teen can use to further their understanding of their own sexuality.

Even the layout of the book communicates to young people that we believe they are mature enough to explore their sexuality and make responsible choices. Yes, there are quirky quotes from the likes of John Donne, Bart Simpson and everyone in between and graphs representing current hair-removal trends, but overall, it treats young people with the respect they deserve. The authors rightly assume that their readers are intelligent and inquisitive people, who are capable of understanding these complex subjects and making their own discoveries.  

Perhaps one of the most-discussed elements of this book are the 50 photographs depicting real couples aged 18-24, having real sex. Of course, some of the images are graphic -this book is all about the nitty gritty detail after all- but they are in no way pornographic. The photographs are essential to the book’s truth telling and in proving to young people that the images propagated in porn are false representations of the real deal. There are no crazy sex positions here, just naked bodies, of different races and gender, enjoying being close together.

This is just one of the ways that ‘Sex and Lovers’ demonstrates the intimacy and - credit to photographer, Heji Shin- the beauty of sexual relationships where both partners are consenting, participating and most importantly, feeling pleasure.

It is also to be celebrated that despite the large role that photographs play in this book, there is not one leaky penis or warty vulva to be seen. Because isn’t this part of the problem? Nowadays, up until their first experience with another partner, many young people only see images of genitalia in porn or in the STI portion of their sex-ed classes: images which we must admit, are far from the truth in the majority of cases.

It goes without saying that recognising STIs and using contraception are fundamental parts of sex education, and Henning treats these subjects with the detail and fact-facing attitude they require. However, out of the ten extensive chapters that comprise this guide, only one is dedicated to Contraception and Sexual Health. That’s to say, whilst sex and relationships education often deals primarily or solely with these issues, it lacks 90% of what sex and relationships are really about. Without this knowledge, how can we expect young people to use safe sex practices and ultimately, have good sex?  

‘Sex and Lovers: A practical guide’ is therefore not only a great tool for teens to start enjoying their own sexuality, risk- and guilt-free, it’s also an excellent eye-opener for anyone who believes sex education needs some shaking up in 2015.

SEX AND LOVERS: A Practical Guide is written by by Ann-Marlene Henning and Tina Bremer-Olszewsk.