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07.02.08

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Phaedra

Editrix extraordinaire : Ellen Sussman compiled the titillating entries in 'Dirty Words.'

The Hot Type

Sexy smarts and ribald humor in 'Dirty Words,' a literary guide to all things erotic.

By Valerie Ross


When was the last time you had a really hot, juicy conversation about sex that was both honest and playful, imaginative and whimsical, but most importantly, wide-ranging in the variety of the topics you discussed?

For those of you who enjoy expanding and even sharing your fascination with human behavior as well as the variegated topography of your own erotic landscapes, you just got lucky. Hot off the press is Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex, edited by Bay Area writer Ellen Sussman, and it is a book that will broaden and enrich your sexual vocabulary and cultural literacy indelibly. Give it to a friend, read choice entries at night to your lover, sprinkle a few salacious quotes into your cocktail hour conversation and watch the intimacy unfurl, perhaps along with a few enticing blushes.

Dirty Words is an unusual book. It's not really an encyclopedia--it's more of a multigenre collection of short writing on hot topics by over 90 published writers, including poems, short stories, essays, numbered lists, quirky quizzes and even a one-act play. At the same time, the majority of its entries are highly informative, with clear definitions of the terms preceding each entry, often accompanied by clever little morsels of Internet lore related to them as well.

However, the writing here is not strictly erotica either. Some entries are comical, others poignant, many confessional, others academic. But each is unique and exceedingly well written, with more than a few gorgeous gems of short, sensuous prose scattered throughout.

Much of the publicity buzz about Dirty Words tends to focus on its inclusion of such trendy (yet still somewhat obscure) terms such as "Dirty Sanchez," "Lucky Pierre" and "Hum Job." If novelty is what you're after, "Dirty Sanchez" certainly packs a gross-out punch or two, but the rest of these entries are absorbing not for their shock value but for their range of emotional and literary appeal. "Lucky Pierre" is a coy and clever essay that comes complete with algorithmic formulae, and "Hum Job" is a hilariously intimate window into the joys of musical fellatio.

Beyond the lure of novelty, if you are interested in the history, etymology and related legends surrounding sexual terminology, Dirty Words has a wealth of tasty treats for you. Did you know that based on a medieval word for the female genitalia (quim), avid male fans of professional female tennis competition refer to a certain famous tournament as "Quimbeldon"? Or that in Ancient Greece there was an elite class of prostitutes, who were considered intellectual "equals of men, debating publicly on important philosophical themes of the day," known as the hetaerae? Perhaps you already knew that foot fetishism is also known as Retifism, for Rétif de la Bretonne, the 18th-century French novelist who wrote extensively about his own podophilic proclivities?

In general, the best writing in Dirty Words is found in three places: the highly informative essays (especially those on "Hardon," "Don Juan," "Foreplay," "Hand Job" and "MILF," as well as the delightful "mock essay on the term "Facial"); the most creative pieces (some favorites were the Q&A dialogue for "Fuck Buddy," the one-act play for "Mile High Club," and the short poem, "Ode to Quickies"); and, finally, what could be called "experienced adult narratives."

These are the entries that seem to come from a place of deep personal truth, even though many of them are probably pure fiction. These entries, like Sussman's own "Commitment" and "Happy Ending," Jerry Stahl's "Gigolo" and Anthony Giardina's "Wet Dreams," seem to best fulfill Sussman's goals for the book: short narratives that would offer "the essence of experience or thought ... the heady rush of so much flavor--a taste that explodes in your mouth."

If there is anything to complain about in this collection, it is that there are a few entries that are either too tame or else manage to evade their subject matter almost entirely. But these are, happily, in the minority, and the collection as a whole is a delectable feast.

Imagine relaxing after a long day by perusing the entertaining entries on "Orgy," "Tantric Sex" or "Obsession;" prepare to be charmed by the fresh perspectives voiced in "Monogamy" (written by a former player); "Polygamy" (a woman's fantasy of having multiple hot stud husbands); and even "Sex Ed," from a progressive young mother's point of view. All of the entries in Dirty Words have something to offer, in their earnest efforts to illuminate our occasionally clumsy, but always very human, acts of love.


DIRTY WORDS: A LITERARY ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SEX, edited by Ellen Sussman; Bloomsbury Press; 271 pages; $19.99 cloth


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