In December 2004, I - Suzy Spencer, an uptight white Southern Baptist chick - decided to write about sex. Kinky sex. Swinging sex. Any kind of sex in America that's legal. But wait. That sounds like my decision was a quick and easy, no strings attached pronouncement--just like so many of my sex (book) sources decided, hey, I'm going to go on Craigslist casual encounters and find as many sex partners as I want.
No, my decision wasn't like that. Not at all. It followed the better part of a decade spent researching and writing four true crime books - a near decade of interviewing friends and family members of murder victims and their killers, digging into evidence bags and drawing out vials of blood and tissue of the murdered, studying autopsy reports and staring at their photos as I ate dinner, sleeping in a bed filled with trial transcripts, and months spent poring over medical records trying to comprehend why a seemingly perfect and loving mother would drown her five children.
Finally, in 2003, as I sat through one more capital murder trial, this one for a killing motivated by a wife's greed, I knew I'd had enough. I had to get out of true crime, because I desperately needed to laugh. And, obviously, laughing while researching, writing, and talking about murder is rude and disrespectful to the victims, as well as to the victims' loved ones.
A year and a half later, and just months before that final true crime book was published, my literary agent suggested that I write about sex in America. Sex from a journalist's point of view. Disengaged. Arm's length away. Detached. Objective.
I nodded with interest. Talking about sex has always made me laugh. It sounded perfect.
But I wasn't just an uptight white Southern Baptist chick. I'm a never married, uptight, white Southern Baptist chick who is enmeshed with her family. And in the fall of 2004, my mother was actively involved with her church. My aunt was the church secretary. One cousin was a jail chaplain; another cousin was a teacher at a private Christian school. And if there's one thing I've learned while writing true crime, it's that my life - particularly my writing life - affects my family, if it's nothing more than my moodiness as I try to understand the people I write about or as we disagree about the death penalty. And certainly writing about sex could cause disagreements. So I decided to talk to my family about whether or not I should I do the book.
As we sat around a big round table at my favorite Chinese restaurant, and after I'd nervously inhaled my soup, eggroll, and chicken with broccoli, I breathed deeply and pronounced, "I'm thinking about writing a book about sex."
My family stared at me in complete and utter silence that ended only when my cousin, the jail chaplain, and my aunt, the church secretary, emphatically stated that they were against the idea. And once again, silence wrapped us. I yearned to unwrap my fortune cookie, stuff it in my mouth, and get the heck out of there. Instead, I looked at my mother. Hers was the opinion that really mattered, and she stunned me when she said she was for the book.
More awkward silence enveloped us, as my aunt and jail chaplain cousin glared at my mother. Finally, my Christian school teacher cousin said, "You could use this to teach kids." He couldn't leave it at that, though. He had to add, "Besides, you're too old to be tempted by any of this." I was approaching 50 years old.
I've always thought my mother was the deciding vote in my decision to write about sex in America. But as I sit here and type, I'm beginning to wonder if it was my cousin's words that made me so determined to write Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality [Berkley Trade, $16.00].
No matter what, in December 2004, I sat in my townhouse in Austin, Texas, clicked on Craigslist, and stared at the words "casual encounters." After reading the Craigslist warning that anonymous sex with multiple partners could increase one's chances of getting a sexually transmitted disease and that casual encounters included adult content, I clicked "enter."
Then, in search of a new laughter-filled life, I typed "Need to talk about sex." I wrote a one paragraph ad explaining that I was an author looking for men and women who were willing to talk to me about the most intimate details of their sex lives. After reading and rereading my ad, I hit send and wondered what I'd just done, because, in reality, I didn't need to simply talk about sex. I desperately needed to talk about sex. I just had no idea how doing so would irrevocably change my life, because disengaged, arm's length away, detached, objective didn't happen. But laughter did. Laughter... and tears.