Edited by Hillary Jordan and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Between 1992 and 1997, at 10 p.m. on Saturday nights, as a kid I could be found scrolling through the channels until I inevitably landed on “Red Shoe Diaries,” which was my true target on Showtime. In the drama series, David Duchovny starred as a widow who placed an ad in the newspaper asking for her stories about women’s sexual experiences, fantasies and awakenings. I didn’t start dreaming about sex before I discovered the 30-minute weekly episodes, but then knew: Sex was in showers, offices, or abandoned attics. It happened during the day. They were teddy bears, knee-high boots, trios and easily achieved orgasms. Those bitches were etched in my very young mind for future reference.
I revisited the “Red Shoe Diaries” before reading its literary counterpart, “Anonymous Sex,” a new anthology of erotic fiction. Nostalgia, apparently, is an airbrush tool hell; the show wasn’t the illuminating soft-core treasure chest I remember, it was basically five seasons of the same action: All the women were slender, white, and writhing on their backs under soft white men pushed to the “rhythm” of soft jazz. Still, the show’s arrogance was very good. I wanted someone to try again, but better, sexier.
Enter writers Hillary Jordan and Cheryl Lu-Tien Tan, who discussed their mutual love of literary sex at a dinner party years ago: the kind that not only “turns on you” but also “makes you look at sex in a new way.” “Taking a sapiosexual approach (say, appreciating the power of the erect nipple not only as the erogenous zone but also as intellectual exercise), they decided to write stories from Series of Killer writers like Helen Oyeyemi, Jason Reynolds, Edmund White, Téa Obreht. and Mary Louise Parker. Despite the marketable signatures, none of the stories are attributed – Jordan and Tan wanted to give the writers the freedom to truly wave their freak flags.
The seeds of the book were sown long before it bloomed, like a courtship that took years to emerge. These stories, collected during the pandemic, offer what many are craving right now: “too much sex.” And a break from the monotony: Maybe we want different kinds of sex, or someone other than a quarantine partner, or not on Zoom. Maybe we want sex that feels illegal for reasons other than Covid.
The erotic arrangements covered in these 27 stories include people of various ages, time periods, and geographic locations. There is sex with a ghost – the final frontier. The stories will satisfy you and fill you with longing. Some make fun of you, take you to the edge of the cliff and leave you there. Some of the sex is animalistic and crude, some primitive, some unsheathed sensual. For the most part, situations feel modern and honest. They grapple with current sexual politics, but never feel like pandering on Twitter. Descriptions of the genitals and what people do with them are rarely intimidating. (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen mention of “a bouncing member” or “a moist flower” – sure, no judgment if that excites you.)
Of course, both genders and anthologies can be inconsistent. I had to cross my legs while reading “En Suite” (best friends almost date in a hotel room) and “Find Me” (a widow flirts with a stranger in a train carriage to Reno); “LVIII Times in a Year” where a husband misjudged his angle of entry and “poked” his wife’s “little anal star” blew me away completely. (The anticlimax of the second-person “Hard at Play” felt less deliberate.) I was so overwhelmed by the building tension in “History Lesson” that I had to stand in the middle to ease my own tension a little.
Even if the sex isn’t as jarring as you might hope (you’re the only one who turns you on), the gamble pays off: Jordan and Tan manage to entice readers to guess which author wrote the updated variation of “Rapunzel.” horny Anne Rice cries proudly in the afterlife. (The Brothers Grimm wouldn’t have known about the erotic possibilities of this hair.) Or which author confessed to having sex in the bathroom at the Brooklyn Book Festival. “That groan you heard while washing your hands,” the story reads, “was me, like a very young beard rubbing against the soft flesh just beyond my thigh.”
As with any casual date, the best part of this book is the anonymity; the promise that no strings are tied. No names or expectations, just give and take what you want. While no single experience or story will guarantee the pleasure you seek, excitement is giving the unknown a chance.