I’m not a big fan of self-help books. Maybe it’s the arrogant assumption that I’ve already learned enough from my own (many and varied) mistakes, or my inherent mistrust of anyone claiming to be an expert. The last book on relationships I picked up was The Ethical Slut, procured because my then-crush/now-partner recommended it, and I was in the midst of breaking free of an abusive marriage, trying to find a way to navigate the situation with as few battle scars as possible. While there were definitely portions of that book that were helpful to me, something about the tone still put me off. Most self-help books, I find, are written in the manner of an argumentative essay: there’s a clear thesis (in the case of The Ethical Slut, that polyamory is normal and natural and monogamy is a mistake) and the author/s spend the next 100+ pages attempting to convince you of it.
Sarah Mirk‘s Sex from Scratch: Making Your Own Relationship Rules is not this kind of self-help book. In fact, I’m hesitant to even place it in the self-help genre. Mirk, a journalist perhaps best known for her work as the online editor of Bitch Media, begins the book with the frank and honest admission: “Look, I don’t know what I’m doing.” And there’s something incredibly reassuring about this – and about Mirk’s assertion that “only you can change your life.” If you’re looking for a fool-proof, one-size-fits-all formula for a good relationship, maybe this isn’t the book for you. But if you’re looking for a book that will expand your horizons and offer you sound, solid advice for creating and maintaining healthy boundaries–for crafting a relationship that works for you–you’ll find none better.
Arranged into seven short chapters, each featuring interviews with feminists, scholars, and creative types who get raw and real about their relationships, past mistakes, and dating philosophies, Sex from Scratch feels rather like sitting around a cozy dining room table with a big glass of wine and a group of your wisest friends. Queer cartoonist Erika Moen talks non-monogamy and why love sometimes isn’t enough; Stu Rasmussen, Mayor of Silverton, Oregon, discusses the complexities of gender and how it intersects with sexuality and relationships; and poet and novelist Aya de Leon gets real about keeping things equitable in heterosexual relationships, in a society where the long tendrils of patriarchy still worm their way in to even the most feminist of partnerships. Mirk interviewed over 100 people for Sex from Scratch, and it shows; the diversity of perspectives, lifestyles, and opinions make this a truly unique book that, far from trying to force a relationship style onto you, seeks to encourage readers to create safe, stable relationships while maintaining healthy personal boundaries.
Nowhere is this agency-driven tone more keenly felt than in the first and last chapters, which focus respectively on choosing to be single, and choosing to break up. So much of the literature of modern dating frames relationships as a win/lose game; if you’re single you must be miserable, and if you and your partner/s choose to go your separate ways it means you’ve failed. Mirk gives an unabashed middle finger to both of these notions, encouraging readers to find happiness and satisfaction in themselves instead of settling for the sake of avoiding solitude. For me, the final chapter–which frames break ups as a relationship change, not a relationship death–was especially groundbreaking, challenging me to free myself of the damaging notion that choosing to call it quits means that, somehow, I must have fucked up.
And at it’s core, this is what Sex from Scratch does best: it deliberately flies in the face of standard self-help texts, offering perspectives from experienced, intelligent individuals who give the reader license to buck the mainstream narrative: is it okay to be childless? Mirk says yes, of course! Is it okay not to get married? Yes! Is it okay to choose to get married as a feminist, despite the institution’s history? Yes! Multiple partners? Go for it! Sexless monogamy? Whatever works for you! If this sounds wishy-washy, think again: Sex from Scratch puts the onus on the reader to do the work and establish their own relationship rules–think of it as a workbook for emotional, sexual, and romantic fulfillment. Who could ask for more?
It’s worth noting that despite the diversity in Mirk’s interview subjects, Sex from Scratch does still come across as, predominantly, a book geared towards heterosexual relationships. Those in poly and open relationships were mostly in primary partnerships with people of different genders**, and the book deals a lot with how to navigate relationships with men as a feminist woman–and how to overturn misogyny (internalized and otherwise) when it comes to heterosexual ‘relationship landmarks’ like marriage, children, and so on. Queerness gets a nod, and arguably a good deal of the advice regarding boundaries, self-love, and mutual respect apply to all kinds of relationships, but there’s still a definite default to male/female partnerships, especially in the chapters that deal most explicitly with gendered expectations in relationships.
When all’s said and done, though, Sex from Scratch was an affirming read that offered me plenty of new perspectives and techniques, as well as reminders on how to keep my relationship mutually supportive, healthy, and happy. Mirk’s down-to-earth tone and her willingness to bare all are a refreshing counter to the scores of preachy how-to guides that sell the myth of a perfect, bullet-proof relationship. And if you’re still hungry for more, she’s included an awesome reading list at the end! Bonus!
Whether you’re on the cusp of a new fling, floundering in a dissatisfying partnership, or simply want to remind yourself how to retain agency and autonomy without sacrificing intimacy, Sex from Scratch is well worth your time. Pick up a copy direct from Microcosm Publishing, or at your local vendor of radical texts.
** An earlier version of this review used the term “opposite gender” as opposed to “different genders,” which a friend/colleague pointed out was perhaps overtly binary and exclusionary to the complexities of gender identity and gender dynamics. Phrasing has been changed accordingly.
Kia Groom is founding editor of Quaint Magazine. The recipient of an Academy of American Poets award, and the runner-up for the 2014 Judith Wright Poetry Prize, Kia’s work has been published in The Mary Sue, The Establishment, Cordite, Going Down Swinging, Westerly, Permafrost, and others. You can find her online at kiagroom.com and she tweets @whodreamedit.