Amy Rose Spiegel’s goal as a writer has always been to help. Whether it is providing instructions for how to apply elephantine fake eyelashes in the Damn Girl, Ya Look Good column at Rookie Mag (where she previously worked as a story editor), or deconstructing the millennial work ethic, the 25-year-old Spiegel prizes individuality and encourages people to explore their own. In 2015, she launched the blog Enormous Eye, in which writers and other word-adjacent folks catalog an entire Saturday of their lives for the sake of intimate voyeurism. (For the sake of full disclosure, about a year ago, I documented my own. Spiegel has also seen me cry, as well as pet a dolphin. I didn’t like the latter very much.)
Spiegel’s first book, Action: A Book About Sex, is out May 17. It is part personal essay collection, part self-help, but all about taking care of yourself—whether that means a self-love quickie or processing trauma. Here she talks about how we use the word “consent,” pre-writing (and pre-sex) rituals, and how to get MRAs on her side.
Trust is actually a good word to start with: I knew that your book was going to be about sex, but I assumed it would be all personal essays, not necessarily a how-to guide. Something that struck me is how the first few chapters are about safety.
Safety is more a feature of the last third of the book, but I feel like it’s irresponsible to talk about sex without the attendant safety matters that go along with it. It’s all well and good for people to say, “You should be autonomous and sex-positive” or whatever the fuck words you want to use, but in order to do those things, if you feel unsafe, you can’t do those things. Of course it’s something that is so often out of a person’s control, but I feel like safety education when it comes to sex is something that is so overlooked and I wanted to address that in the book, for sure.
Do you think teaching liberation can get in the way of practical matters?
I don’t think it gets in the way, but I do think that you’re totally right that these two things are bound up; you can’t have one without addressing the other. In that way it would be really irresponsible to write this sexy, sex-positive, guide to doin’ it with aplomb without the roadblocks that there are to that. Not just what you might encounter, but maybe what you have encountered and how that goes with it. The expectation is that if you want to be autonomous and liberated sexually, then you can’t really account for or address any part of the fact that there’s trauma attendant to certain identities. That was a hard thing to write about, but it was also necessary to the whole project.
The first chapter of the book is about consent. I could see other writers wanting to wait a little bit before getting into that topic. But any person can see this in a bookstore and see the subtitle is A Book About Sex, which means a lot of different things. Addressing consent from the very beginning frames the book as being both very open, but almost gives your readers a chance to consent to, well, reading the book.
It’s ridiculous that consensual sex isn’t just known as sex. I wanted to make that the foundation of the book. Consent is something that’s often viewed as an almost separate issue in terms of sex, and I really wanted to put, first and foremost, that that is the main and only issue when it comes to sex. That’s bound up inherently with any kind of sex that any person is having, so I wanted to put it [first] and have it be the girding element of this book. That’s where I’m coming from: Any kind of sex cannot happen without it.
Why did you decide to write a guide instead of a memoir?
It kind of is [a memoir]. I’ve been running into these things along the way that are questions about what the book is: Is it a memoir? Is it a guide? And I don’t know. I didn’t really come at it from either angle. My publisher classifies this as self-help book, but I feel like it’s personal writing and maybe advice, but all advice is more about the person who is writing it than the person who is reading it. I just tried to come at every topic that I addressed as honestly as I could and I guess, in that way, it’s a memoir, for sure.
One of the things I really appreciate about the structure of the book is how much individuality is emphasized, especially in the chapter Notes on Grooming.
It’s so strange because [the book] is about how to protect yourself, how to deal with trauma, and how to have that be something you’re constantly corresponding with sex, but also how to clean your room in ten minutes if your fucking sidepiece is coming by and you don’t want to have your gross underwear sunny-side up on the floor. It’s very much that. There are a lot of tonal shifts and, again, to the point of honesty—what happens in the human brain? One minute you’re like, “I have to go brush my teeth,” and at the same time your brain is like, “Oh fuck, I’m so anxious,” and then you’re like, “Oh, I’m kinda horny also.” There’s a lot of things happening at once, and I feel like the book is a reflection of that.
Are you pre-coital teeth brushing or just general teeth-brushing?
I do spend time in the book talking about the importance of brushing your teeth. It is important. The Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brow—she’s the author of Sex and the Single Girl, which is a very important forbear for [my] book—she flossed her teeth before every single editorial meeting that she had. I was like, “Holy shit, I need to bring that level of intention to so much of what I do.”
Do you have any kind of rituals…
That I do before sex?
I was going to ask about writing, but whatever you want.
Well, before sex and writing, I like to strip down naked, rub essential oils on my pulse points, whatever those are, say a blessing to Sun Ra, as in the Arkestra, and burn incense in praise. Then I do my stretches, of course. Then I eat seven oysters.
That’s a lot of preparation for sex.
It’s important to me, man.
So Helen Gurley Brown inspired your interest in ritual. Were there other books or writers who influenced how your book was written? Did you feel there were dating or sex manuals that needed to be updated?
Not to be a dick, but no. When you’re writing a book proposal and you’re really into it, a large part of that is not only your agent, but publishers, asking you what is analogous to. It’s all strange to say, “Nothing is like this,” but I don’t identify with any sex writing that has been compiled into a book at all. The second thing is, after I sold it and after I wrote it, I had a friend come over one day and the trunk of her car was just loaded with sex manuals and books. They are, The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex, Guide to Getting It On, and so on. It’s all just really spunky people in a ’90s-ish way, looking curvaceous and feeling it. That has nothing to do with what I’m doing. It more has to do with Drag King Dreams by Leslie Feinberg, which is an incredible book about being butch femme, and whatever you are, and trying to make sense of that sexually. I wanted to look at the stuff around sex as much as I did sex itself. That doesn’t really go with the whole super-posi, puka shell necklace [thing]. I want the stuff around the stuff.
Don’t dating books usually address “the stuff around the stuff” as the things that are wrong with you and how to fix those things?
Right, and advice books suck because they’re essentially the author chronicling, “I’m great, I’m really great, promise you I’m great,” and [the books are] not really about the readers at all. I was thinking about this when I was washing dishes today: When I like something that’s corny, I think to myself, “Fuck, am I corny?” But nah, you can either a) find the thing itself corny and feel fine or b) not think about it at all and strut forward. I hate advice columns because they’re very much of the mind that there’s something wrong with you and if you could finesse yourself into something better, then everything would be okay. What kind of way to live is that?
It’s capitalism, right?
Straight up. Absolutely. And I’m not selling anything here. Ostensibly, I’m selling a book, but I just feel like there’s search a dearth of well-meaning talk around some very basic shit. I’m really kind of insulted by the whole thing. I’m insulted by very tasteful writing about [how] if you were more self-aware, etc. I don’t care if you’re self-aware. You can be as self-aware as the days are long, but are you respectful to others? That’s the only thing that matters to me.
One of the first things I thought of when I diving into your book, and this is not meant to be offensive, but I thought about how it is the antithesis of something by Tucker Max or a certain book by Neil Strauss. Do you think there are going to be Men’s Rights Activists getting their hands on this and learning from it, or will they just be monsters anyway?
I don’t know how to account for that or anticipate that. The place that I’m coming from always, no matter what kind of writing I’m doing on any subject, is I’m not writing for people who are like me or know me. I wrote this book as frankly as possible so people like my little sister in her salon in New Jersey could read it and relate to it and maybe find something in it. In the intro, I’m very, very frank about the fact that people might and will, of course, disagree with me through the process of the book. As long as they’re thinking about it, that’s fine with me. I don’t want everyone to feel how I feel. I want everyone to find their own version of the truth, whatever the hell that is. And if an MRA is upset with that, that’s ok with me. That’s fine. But I’m serious: Those are the people I also wanna reach and communicate with. I don’t feel any kind of derision or whatever toward people who disagree with me. I’m not someone who is totally spite-filled and hatred-fueled when it comes to Republicans or people who are pro-life. I think that attitude is what widens the gap between us. I would really, really like to kind of shuck off those identity-based definitions and work toward a more honest conversation. I don’t know about you, I also probably do believe that every single person has somebody that they love in their lives that is ideologically, pedagogically completely opposed. I’m talking about family, I’m talking about friends, and it’s important to have real conversations with those people. For me, those conversations have never historically included just a complete snub. I’m not about that. I’m about real, real talk. No one has ever had their mind changed by being insulted or by being looked over or by being discounted. I want to find the middle space.