It’s hard to describe what kind of book Thy Neighbors Wife is. “Narrative nonfiction” is the best way to say it, I think. It’s an exploration of the emergence of certain kinds of sexual outlaws in America from about the 1940’s to the 1970’s, with a few dips further back in history. Much of it is about a time we’ll never live again – after the Pill, but before AIDS.
Talese doesn’t cover much gay culture, and there’s not a lot about BDSM, either. This is mainly interweaving stories about straight nudist/swinger culture, some sex work history – massage parlors and porn modeling - and very personal biographies of influential people in the alternative sex culture like Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, and a number of others. If you’re an American swinger, or a polyamorous person, or a sex worker, or a sex writer/publisher, this is a piece of your history. The people in this book have all had – and in some cases, continue to have - a strong influence the alternative sexual culture we have now.
It’s a thick book, and it’s complex and absorbing reading, but Talese keeps you engaged. The wealth of detail he provides gives one a sense of really knowing these people.
Talese also tells a lot of stories about government’s very active censorship of sexually oriented materials in that period. People now take for granted their access to educational sexual materials, erotic literature, and unabashed pornorgraphy, but it wasn’t that long ago that many, many people couldn’t get those things. Some of the details of the Supreme Court cases aren’t super-sexy reading, but I think it’s important to know where your rights came from. People – actual live people – got arrested, stood trial, lost their livelihoods and their freedom, and fought back, so that you could read and look at whatever you liked. Pay them a bit of homage by reading and knowing about them.
Note on the subject of books and reading: several nice people have invited me to join Goodreads. Thank you for thinking of me, and it’s a cool idea, but I simply cannot handle contributing to even one more social website. It’s the same reason I haven’t signed up for FetLife, which I am also regularly told I should do. So I fear I must decline…