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The Sex Book: an Alphabet of Smarter Love.

Jane Pavanel. Lobster Press; Montreal. (2001). 200 pp. ISBN: 1-894222-30-X.

I am a "mature" woman with gray hair and adult children. I am certain that I am not the target audience for this book so I got my 23-year-old niece to give me critical feedback. We were both eager to look at this new Canadian resource.

Both of us had the same reaction to the cover--we like it. It looks like a parcel where the brown paper wrap is pulled back just enough to see the letters The S Book and the author's name. The inside page has the full title. My niece pronounced it "subtle but intriguing" and she was keen to look inside.

The book is an A-Y (there is no Z) of sexual topics. Each one has basic information. Most subjects also have boxes or bubbles with additional information. Some are Questions and Answers. Some have a female or male symbol to indicate a part that speaks directly to female readers or male readers. Sometimes there is a magnifying glass which points out additional information about the topic. There is a great deal of print content but the format and look of the book does not overwhelm the reader. Most pages have at least some black-on-white, green-on-white and black-on-green print. Some pages also have "silly, jerky drawings" (niece) which are more humourous than educational. Because of the magazine look and the alphabet approach, it feels like a quick read which will appeal to young people who get turned off by a book that looks too wordy, no matter what the topic.

This is not a dictionary. It does not include every possible word associated with sexuality that starts with any letter. There are many topics under certain letters. A has: Aaah, Abortion, Abortion pill, Abstinence, Abusive relationships, Adolescence, Age of consent, AIDS, Alcohol, Anal sex, Androgynous, Anus, Aphrodisiacs, Arousal. Under F we find: Fallopian tubes, Fantasies, Fellatio, Feminine, Fertility, Fertilization, Fetish, Fetus, Fingering, First sex, Fisting, Foreplay, Foreskin, French kissing, Frenulum, Frigidity. Q, however, has only one listing--Queer.

After reading the first entry in the book, I was feeling slightly anxious. I was not sure what was going to be emphasized. For example, under "Aaah" we read,
 It can take years to feel comfortable with sex or it can happen right away.
 However it is for you, learning about sex and how to express yourself as a
 sexual being is an amazing and interesting journey, sometimes a lot of fun,
 sometimes confusing or painful. Then one day, after the climax, you
 experience "aaah". Now you're getting somewhere. This is the shining moment
 when you feel happy with your partner and yourself and the sex is great.
 "Aaah" is about satisfaction and pleasure and feeling right about what
 you're doing and who you're doing it with, whatever your age, whatever your
 sexual orientation.

I like a lot of these thoughts but wondered if the book would put a premium on "getting somewhere" and having "shining moments" that are built around having a climax with a partner.

I relaxed as I read further. Pavanel has a good balance between giving permission to discover and experience sexual pleasure and supporting a choice to set limits to sexual activity. The way she treats the subject of abstinence gives a sense of her overall approach to the content of the book. She starts by noting that celibacy and chastity are words that are often interchanged with abstinence and then gives a definition.
 Choosing abstinence, whether for spiritual, religious or pragmatic reasons,
 means choosing not to have sex.

She then describes the types. Total abstinence is when a person decides not to have any sexual activity with another person. Some people extend this to no kissing. Partial abstinence is not having intercourse but can include other activities such as mutual masturbation. She gives some reasons why people might choose to abstain, points out that it "buys time to discover what's right for you" and says that some people will choose abstinence for short periods while others choose it "until they find a partner they really love or can commit to for life". The side-bar has 3 questions:
 If I want to try abstinence, does this mean I can't even masturbate? Does
 being abstinent mean a person is frigid? What if people think I'm weird
 because I want to be abstinent?

Her answers help the reader to examine their needs ("What are you looking for from total abstinence? If it is........"), understand that we have choices ("It's up to you to make decisions that are right for you ...") and have a chuckle ("The term frigid is out of date unless you're talking about a lake in early spring.")

A persistent reader can learn a great deal about a subject area. A person who wants to learn about sexual activity with a partner might read any or all off Arousal, Desire, Dry Sex, Ejaculation (including premature, retarded, retrograde), First Sex, Foreplay, Hand Jobs, Intimacy, Monogamy, Multiple Partners (threesomes), Oral Sex, Orgasms, Ready for Sex and Sexual Intercourse. A person reading about menstruation, tampons and toxic shock syndrome may learn for the first time about menstrual products such as the Keeper and reusable cloth pads. There is a lot of material about birth control methods, including information about the female condom. Women are advised that it can be hard to put in at first and to practice before using as protection. They are reassured that it usually gets easier with practice. There is no similar advice for young men who are worrying about using their first condom with a partner but they are told that putting a bit of water-based lubricant into the tip will increase pleasure. Information about various STDs is factual but not fear-based. Pavanel normalizes condom use throughout the text and reinforces using condoms plus another birth control method for heterosexual couples.

I was frustrated by some content and several inconsistencies that result when different information is given about a subject when it appears under several headings. Some examples:

* Pavanel states that emergency-contraceptive pills are "extremely strong" drugs, for emergencies only and should not be used on a regular basis. This makes ECP sound frightening. There is no discussion of what is a "regular basis" or that many authorities now question setting limits on use of ECP.

* About Confidentiality--"when you can discuss medical or sexual issues with your doctor without the involvement of your parents or anyone else". The author explains how the age of consent differs in different states and provinces. She says that it is 14 in Quebec and 16 in Ontario. However, the reader who goes to Birth Control will find, in the section under Parental consent, that "in Canada you can get birth control and expect confidentiality if you're 14 and over". Because there is no cross-reference from Confidentiality to this section, some young readers in Ontario may miss this information and feel that they can't get birth control without their parents knowledge.

* Ovulation! Anyone who works in a clinic with teenagers knows how confused young women can be about ovulation and fertility. It is a complex subject but this book will not clear up questions. On page 42, under Conception, we are told "ovulation usually takes place 2 weeks after the first day of menstruation, though some girls ovulate earlier or later." On page 121, under Menstrual Cycle, we are told at the top of the page that the first day of the period is the first day of the cycle and "On day 14 the egg is released into the Fallopian tube...." Further down the page there is information about average cycles and short or long cycles and "Regardless of how long your menstrual cycle is, ovulation almost always happens 14 days before the beginning of your next period" (my emphasis). My niece and I agreed that it is very confusing to read that (a) ovulation takes place on day 14; (b) it may not take place then; (c) it happens about 14 days before the next period. We need a clear, consistent explanation of the mechanism based on (c). There is only a limited reference to another indicator of ovulation--cervical mucus. It is found under Vaginal Discharge and simply says that "around ovulation you may have more of it but just for a day or 2--its consistency will change to slippery or stretchy" (see Miller [2000] for more on this topic).

Despite these criticisms, I do like most of the book's content. The tone is positive, supportive and nonjudgemental. Concerns that males have are generally given the same respect as female concerns. There is a lot of helpful advice and good answers to common, and some uncommon, questions. I think that younger teens will be interested in some of the facts but it is older teens and young adults who will benefit most from the book. They are more likely to pursue the threads that lead from topic to topic and comprehend some of the complexity of sexual relationships. Adults may learn information that is new to them and those who work with young people can see examples of how to answer questions.


Miller, R. (2000). What we don't tell girls. SIECCAN Newsletter, vol. 35, in The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 9, 139-140.

Ann Barrett, Sexual Health Educator, Toronto Public Health.
COPYRIGHT 2001 SIECCAN, The Sex Information and Education Council of Canada
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Barrett, Ann
Publication:The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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