Sometimes, I think it would do academic feminists good to read a little more about sex.

Big Big Love, Revised: A Sex and Relationships Guide for People of Size (and Those Who Love Them) by Hanne Blank (Celestial Arts 2011), recently released in its second edition, is written and marketed as a sex manual for fat people and their partners.  And as a sex manual, it’s quite good.  But the reason why I’m reviewing a sex manual on an academic feminist blog is that the book offers a perspective on fat sexuality that you’re unlikely to find in any academic text, and it’s a perspective worth reading.

Blank’s tone is cheeky, sharp, and irreverent–she dismisses criticisms of fat people and fat sexuality with a quick blast of facts and a reframing of the question.  By placing fat sexuality as a positive thing, and looking directly at the issues surrounding it, she sets an example to academics working in the areas of relationships, sexuality, feminist studies, and fat studies.

Too often in academic research, it’s easy to become ensnared by groupthink.  Obesity is an epidemic, for example, and can only be viewed as a problem.  Fat stigma is bad, but the solution is to attack the fat.  Why not celebrate fat people and fat sexuality instead, and attack stigma and discrimination?  Blank, who comes from an academic background, doesn’t live in a fantasy-land when discussing fat sexuality, and she recognizes the problems that can arise around health, fetishism, and negative self-image, among other things.  But she’s also careful to avoid the trap of generalizing.

Health, for example, is addressed in the book as an issue.  Nobody should be practicing sexual gymnastics without a warm-up.  But Blank points out the fallacy of myths about fat people crushing skinnier partners, or being completely unable to move in coitus.  Whether one can achieve a particular sexual position is related to strength, stamina, and flexibility.  In many cases, it’s not related to body size alone, or volume of fatty tissue.

It’s funny that a sex manual would run into the classic academic problems of correlation versus causation, science versus assumption, but in a way it makes sense.  Bad science often evolves into popular myth.  And here, the scientists might be able to learn a little from the popular sex guide.  Feminist academics were quick to lambast recent studies claiming that black women are less attractive, or that women are naturally submissive, but many of the same academics remain on the “your fat is killing you” bandwagon.  Fat is a subject that’s uncomfortable because for many it’s personal, and linked strongly with shame and personal history.

Big Big Love reminds us that any topic can be discussed rationally if we bring it into the light and speak its name.  Part of why it was such a big deal when it was first released is that fat sexuality wasn’t a topic for positive, rational discussion.  Not among doctors, or researchers, or academics, or most everyday Joes.  Unfortunately, not much has changed outside the fat positive blogosphere.  So maybe a fat sexuality manual has nothing to do with your research, but reading it might be good for you.  It’s a reminder that we study living, breathing people, and that research is not immune from popular myth.