Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)

By David Reuben

Do you ever get depressed when you see all of those self-help volumes making it onto the bestseller lists? Do we really need that much expert advice in our lives? Dr. Spock on baby care I can understand, but why all of these volumes on something as basic as sex? How on earth did things come to this?

The name David Reuben comes to mind.

As a result of Reuben’s phenomenal success 30 years ago, this “all new edition” of the famous sex guide (actually it claims to be only “96.9 per cent new,” but I find that hard to believe) is entering a crowded field of love doctors and New Age sex gurus. The familiar title and bright yellow jacket may no longer be enough to establish market share.

Since Reuben believes that sex should first of all be fun, his approach emphasizes humour. Part of this is intentional, and part just comes from the fact that many questions about sex seem ridiculous when you see them in print (e.g., “Is oral sex OK for vegetarians?”). Reuben’s answers contain a number of memorable lines, albeit sometimes containing propositions that are not entirely self-evident. We are told, for example, that “orgasm is the peak experience in human existence,” “don’t have sex with anyone unless you would willingly use their toothbrush,” “ex-hookers do not make ideal wives,” and “a lot of men expect more from their genitals than they are designed to deliver.”

On what may be considered more delicate and substantive issues, Reuben has a tendency to be too diplomatic. The book gets off to a rocky start with the “question of the century”: “How big is the normal penis?” Sadly, after spending three pages hemming and hawing, Reuben’s answer comes out that the average penis is “about” four inches long “in its normal, non-erect state.” This, to put it mildly, is a fudge. Is three inches, or five inches, the same as “about” four inches? And while the non-erect state may be normal, what man ever took a measurement when he was not at his best? Doctor, please.

One of the few things Reuben is clear about is not getting your private parts pierced. (That is, if you are male. With women he seems indifferent.) On more controversial issues such as circumcision and abortion he tries to avoid making moral judgments. But sex and controversy can never be separated for long. In fact, Reuben’s caution that it is at least theoretically possible for mosquitoes to spread AIDS has already received some critical barbs.

These are not the only faults. There is, for example, no mention of Viagra, either in the aphrodisiacs or impotence chapters. For a 1999 book that claims to be “up-to-the-second” this is a significant omission. Then there is the curious distinction between “pornography” and “sexography.” The only conclusion I could come to is that sexography (which is good) is simply pornography that the author likes. Furthermore, the idea that the cause of pornography lies in “poor sexual education” is not true by a long shot. Are there no medical professionals who use pornography?

Despite the blurb on the dustjacket, this is not a “timeless work.” Thirty years ago Reuben’s book may have served a valuable purpose, but today it seems a lot less necessary. Sexual education has come a long way and there are far fewer things we are afraid to ask.

Still, there are a lot of things we should all know more about. As an introduction to the male and female equipment as well as some of the basics of disease prevention and birth control, Reuben remains an accessible source that should do no harm.

Review first published June 26, 1999.


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