Sunday, November 27, 2016

Carnal Knowledge by John Baxter

Would you say the 20th century had more sex than previous centuries, or less?

John Baxter set out to encyclopedize the sex of the 20th century -- he called it "modern sex," which basically means from the tail end of the Victorian era up to 2009, when he published -- in Carnal Knowledge, which could be taken to imply the answer to that question is "more." (Truly, though, it's probably all a wash: we just don't like to think about our grandparents knocking boots, and previous generations were either more discreet, used euphemisms we don't recognize anymore, or were posthumously bowdlerized in the occasional waves of prudery that followed them.)

Carnal Knowledge runs from AC/DC -- not the band, in case you're wondering -- to Zoophilia, covering a few hundred people, places, kinks, ideas, and erotic works along the way. And, if you're looking for a book to while away stray moments, an encyclopedia of sex is hard to beat: it's chock-full of interesting tidbits (most of them prurient, obviously), but easy to pick up and put down repeatedly. Baxter affects a globalist outlook here, though his default cultural milieu seems to be the UK. This may disconcert those who think that the US is the rightful center of the world in all things, but I found it lended a quirky parallax to the various forms of spanking and other activities covered here.

I hope I don't need to say this bluntly, but Carnal Knowledge is not itself particularly arousing, though it does have some soft photographic and cartoon nudity among its many black-and-white illustrations. It's not a book to put one in the mood, but to list and comment briefly on a wide range of moods that a whole lot of people have had for the past century or so. You'll probably find a decent fraction of them perverted or appalling, but that's how sex is: if you're not scaring the horses when you do it in the road, you're not doing it right.

I found some facts here I could quibble with, but I didn't take notes -- really, it's not that kind of book -- so I can't attempt to dazzle you with my inappropriate knowledge. I do think the timing of Carnal Knowledge meant that Baxter's descriptions of the porn-film industry as it is "now" means that it's already a historical document; the Internet has transformed all content businesses a lot this past decade. But its whole point is to talk about sex historically, so that's not a bug so much as a feature: just file the descriptions of mid-aughts porn as "historical" in the same way you do Baxter's descriptions of the mob-dominated big-hair porn scene of the '70s.

This is an essentially frivolous book, but in the best way. It will not make you smarter, and any facts you learn here will be difficult to bring up in conversation in most circles. But it's amusing and interesting in a wholesomely voyeuristic way, and sex should be treated seriously, like any other aspect of human behavior.

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