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From the archives

Paper Rout

Postmedia in the gutter

Past Trauma

Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

Family Pride

Profiles in gay life

Bedtime Stories

Whose sex is it anyway?

Sarah O'Connor

Secret Sex: An Anthology

Edited by Russell Smith

Rare Machines

272 pages, softcover and ebook

Knocking boots. Shaking sheets. Getting laid. The euphemisms for sex are endless. Indeed, even when the business is funny, we tend to avoid discussing it directly. Just think of television shows and movies: so often the promise of intercourse is followed by a door closing, a camera panning away, a fade to black. Such widespread reticence can lead to feelings of shame and embarrassment over something that is, at the end of the day, completely ordinary. Is it possible to immodestly love the making of love?

Russell Smith addresses this very question with the anthology Secret Sex. The novelist and editor has gathered twenty-four writers, including Pasha Malla, Lisa Moore, Heather O’Neill, Susan Swan, Drew Hayden Taylor, and Michael Winter, to write about sex — anonymously. If given such an opportunity, Smith wonders in the book’s introduction, “would they write more explicitly, more openly?” After all, “their parents and their exes and Twitter would not be able to tell which of the scenes they were responsible for.” While some of the resulting stories are predictably titillating, the anthology as a whole provides more than cheap thrills. It offers “snapshots not just of the variety of sexual experience but also of the wide range of literary approaches the country is currently producing.”

The book’s entries range from intimate confessionals to body horror and slapstick comedy. Sometimes it’s unclear whether a tale is entirely made up or loosely based on real life. One such case is the opening story, which is told entirely through text messages between an aroused couple. “Sext” opens with a line familiar to tech-savvy paramours the world over —“hey u up?”— and escalates into an R‑rated romp. Another contribution that may have some truth to it, “Comets,” tells the surprisingly heartwarming tale of an elderly couple who find some old homemade porn and reminisce about their lovemaking through the years:

It’s easy to slip and think that we are still them. They look so familiar. I remember what they smelled like, what they felt. How turbulent. How everything mattered, the smallest slight, the tiniest kind of a gift. How slick and wet it all is. What we want. Always wanting.

In the tense “Mirror, Mirror,” a voyeuristic artist, who is isolating during the pandemic, becomes obsessed with watching her neighbour masturbate. “When I think of who’s in his mind I cannot help but feel a little jealous,” she admits, “but he doesn’t know I exist, doesn’t know I watch him, and so how can he possibly think of me? I am a shadow, a whisper, an echo only.”

The best stories balance original ideas, explicit content, and compelling prose. The hungry vampire of “Portrait of a Lady” enjoys feasting on men who sexually degrade her. The sadistic narrator of “Praying Mantis” desperately wants to enact revenge on a former lover, inspired by the insect that “bites the head off the male” before he nonetheless “copulates with her, headless.” After she sees that “erect dicks were falling from the sky,” a lonely character in “Cloudburst” travels outside to greet the “perfectly formed cocks” that begin “having at her” (after asking permission). Then there’s “Calliope,” about a floating brain called René that watches its mad scientist creator have sex — while yearning for a body of its own. These stories see the contributors revel in their anonymity. They pull back the covers and artfully explore new creative territory without crossing the line.

But other pieces descend into nonsense and vulgarity. “Party, Party, (Sex) Party,” about a grad student suffering from food poisoning on the way to an orgy, is a rambling and disjointed tale that includes egregious descriptions of human waste. Written in the second person, “Content Farm Confidential” follows a jaded millennial who fantasizes about sleeping with her boss, subjecting readers to a series of her graphic fantasies in the process. The most baffling story, “Labefactions of a Thwarted Patootie,” attaches a cutesy slang term for an attractive woman (or someone’s behind) to a declining “engineer of many sexual miracles”— and proceeds to use as many other old-fashioned words as possible. It’s just plain silly. In these cases, the secrecy afforded to the authors seems to have encouraged them to indulge in senseless excess.

With their identities hidden, the two dozen writers gathered here have surely explored their subject matter and literary styles with less inhibition than they might have if their bylines had featured prominently. But it’s also true that cloaking their contributions in anonymity seems to undermine the anthology’s message: that squeamishness over amorous congress is, as Smith says, “childish” and that sex is a banal thing that deserves to be normalized. With the book’s very concept, Smith undercuts his own critique. Despite that, and even with some uneven entries, there’s much to like about Secret Sex. The best stories demonstrate that there can be good reason to keep the door wide open — camera squarely on the action —  without fading to black.

Sarah O’Connor writes from Hamilton.