[Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book in exchange for this review.]
[Content warning: quotations expressing the idea that rape survivors should pull themselves up by their bootstraps.]

I must profess myself puzzled about why one would decide to send to bona fide, card-carrying rationalist skeptic a review copy of book that includes the astonishing claim that “the universe gave us this well of [sexual] energy so that we could fully live and love all of who we are as human beings”. Sorry, friend. The universe gave us this well of sexual energy so that we could make babies and have more grandchildren than the previous generation; any living and loving all of who we are as human beings we’re doing is perverting it from its intended purpose.

Which is fine by me, of course. I’m a transhumanist. I love perverting things from their intended purposes.

But I’m inclined to forgive the woo. It is genuinely hard to talk about living the best life you can– about eudaimonia and arete— without coming off as either woowoo or a prig. People who have a lot of practical wisdom, as Amy Jo Goddard very well might from her years of counselling, often have sensible advice and ludicrous explanations about why the advice works. And she quotes Audre Lorde’s Uses of the Erotic, and I am willing to put up with a lot for a girl who knows her Lorde.

So let’s talk about Goddard’s advice. Much of it is very reasonable: for instance, she talks about doing breathwork, about masturbation, about developing a good body image and accepting your body as it is, about looking at your vulva in the mirror, about recognizing your defense mechanisms, about owning your anger, about developing sexual skills, about trying new things. It’s essentially the same advice you’d get from any reasonable sex-positive advice book, but some classics are classics for a reason.

Unfortunately, much of her advice is… lacking. For instance, she encourages women to say “no” unless they are enthusiastic about saying “yes” (both inside the bedroom and outside it). While this is an important and empowering practice for many people, and I would definitely not rule it out for everyone, I think that reflects a fundamentally androcentric conception of sex. Some people experience primarily spontaneous desire: they walk down the street and are like “hey! I’d like some sex!” Other people experience primarily responsive desire: their partner starts kissing them and they’re like “ooh, sex sounds nice”, even if they weren’t interested before. Men are more likely to be in the former group, while women are more likely to be in the latter group. A woman whose desire is primarily responsive and who takes Goddard’s advice may feel broken or simply have a sex life that’s not as interested as it could have been.

Goddard repeatedly discusses trans people (including a puzzling statement that people may identify as “men, women, trans*, transgender, or intersex”) and talks about the importance of finding a gender label that matches your experience of gender for people struggling with gender issues. However, her chapter on anatomy primarily discusses the vulva and completely leaves aside the penis (not to mention the effects that transition has on the penis for trans women). I understand many sex advice books are aimed at cis people, and I don’t mind that. However, if you are writing a book aimed at women, which makes deliberate steps to be inclusive of trans people, it is completely absurd if the only trans people you are inclusive of are those assigned female at birth, the vast majority of whom aren’t even women. (Her inclusion of asexuals is equally puzzling: at one point she says that asexual people are inherently sexual beings.)

Furthermore, Goddard is very strongly pro-divorce. I understand that divorce is the right option for many people and many people are biased towards staying in relationships that make themselves and everyone else around them miserable. However, there is a difference between that and writing:

Do I stay in a relationship with someone who is not on a path of self-transformation but perhaps meets many other needs of mine, or do I leave in search of someone new who can meet me at the evolutionary edges, who can grow with me? Do I leave in favor of myself and my truest desires? Sometimes the choice ultimately boils down to whether you will choose yourself over someone else. It’s not always an easy choice to make, but if you are forsaking yourself in order to be in the relationship, why are you there? Why are you settling for less than you really want or deserve?… It is hard to face the question of who you choose when you are in a long-term committed relationship, especially if you’ve made a vow that is ‘for life’. So ask yourself, ‘Am I living fully in this relationship?’ No matter what, live full out.

I don’t know about you, but my erotically authentic, sexually empowered self keeps their damn promises.

Goddard never addresses the possibility that one may grow and transform through staying in a relationship that isn’t perfectly 100% utterly satisfying, or that a relationship may be worth saving even if it doesn’t have everything you really want or deserve, or that a person might change and become someone you can grow alongside, or that if there are children it’s a pretty shit move to turn their lives upside down for the sake of your boner. No, it is all Fuck Yeah Divorce in this book.

Goddard’s advice for survivors is equally unnuanced. She writes: “Sometimes [recovery] means releasing an intense identification with the victim part of our self… and reframing the experience. For instance, rather than viewing yourself as a ‘victim of sexual assault’, see yourself as ‘someone who has experienced a sexual assault.'” In the next chapter, she describes the victim self:

You cannot be fully empowered and be a victim at the same time. They are antithetical. We all have a victim self. That victim self believes that things happen to it that it cannot control, and it does not like to take responsibility for things. Your victim will put responsibility on other sand then complain or want pity when unwanted things happen. People create a victim state in many ways, and it prevents them from taking full responsibility for their life, emotions, and circumstances. It keeps them from overcoming adversity.

Um. Not to put too fine a point on it, but victims of sexual assault did have something happen to them that they could not control, and it isn’t their responsibility.

It is frankly appalling to suggest that victims of sexual assault who dare to be upset by it, to consider themselves to have been victimized, who are fucked up, who think they don’t have control over their sexual assaults (???), cannot be fully empowered or overcome adversity or take responsibility for those portions of their life which are actually their responsibility. It is appalling to say that victims of sexual assault have to use language which both erases the perpetrator (you just sort of experienced a sexual assault, much like a rainy day) and the hurt they were caused.

You can buy Woman on Fire on Amazon. Or you can get Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are, Easton and Hardy’s The Ethical Slut, or Veaux and Rickert’s More Than Two, all of which provide far more reasonable advice friendly to both science and survivors.