Imagine this: You're 20 years old. It's been several months since you've had sex. You had a nasty yeast infection your doctor presumptuously put down to your “fooling around," and apart from a little masturbation, you just haven't given the thought much attention. But now your body's getting tense. A few guys have been hitting you up lately and you're feeling horny. You decide to go out with them. The first guy you sleep with doesn't seem to know you're there; he kisses you a couple of times, climbs onto your body, has an orgasm, and falls off before going for a leak.
Then there are a couple of other tries: one says “it hurts so good,” and the nearest anyone comes to knowing you're actually a person who can feel pleasure too is a guy who asks, “Didja come?” You say no, but you don't think he hears you.
Wasn't all too hard to imagine, was it? The only part that might surprise you is that it comes from 1944. This account comes from Lillian Maxine Serett a.k.a. Rey Anthony and her 1960 sexual autobiography, The Housewife's Handbook on Selective Promiscuity—a revolutionary and extremely controversial volume that brought the author into contact with the Mafia and became the only book to be banned by the US Supreme Court, throwing its publisher Ralph Ginzburg into jail on obscenity charges.
Unbelievably, it is still banned 57 years on, available only via the revived “Definitive” Kindle edition, published by Serett's eldest daughter back in 2011.
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Shortly preceding the 60s sexual revolution, the widespread adoption of the Pill, and the rising popularity of Playboy, Serett wrote the Handbook under the pen name Rey Anthony in an era of self-inflicted sexual repression. As a teen, she had rebelled against her strict Baptist upbringing. She had been aware of her sexual body from a very young age thanks to her own self-exploration—Serett begins her sexual autobiography as young as age three—and always believed that sex was natural and healthy.
The anti-sex environment in which she grew up couldn't be better illustrated than by her conservative grandmother: “Grandma had such an aversion to the penis that she would not even read the word 'prick' when she came to it in the Bible, where it is used in the sense 'to prick'—as with a pin—but rather substituted a word more acceptable to her.”
As Serett grows through her teenage years into adulthood—the Handbook's vocabulary evolving with her from childish to mature as her sexual understanding develops—she documents all of her significant sexual relations in great detail, from tales of teenage fumbling and first loves, through three marriages, five children, and extra-marital love affairs.
Rather than being a handbook in the purest sense of a point-by-point guide, the Handbook covers a great deal of fundamental sexual topics through its candid narrative alone—through masturbation, orgasm, sexual health, abortion and pregnancy—purposefully written in plain language her “neighbors could understand.” It's a sex-ed book in a time of sexual illiteracy; in a nation Serett described in her 1963 radio interview with KPFK's Fred Haines as “sexual savages.”
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Serett's relatable experiences seem to touch all corners of womanhood, from a liberal and feminist perspective that was well ahead of her time. Most notable is the author's defiant insistence on her own sexual pleasure throughout, despite men telling her she was “oversexed” for showing sexual desire or “abnormal” for climaxing solely via clitoral stimulation. And she bid goodbye and good riddance to any man who wished to take control of her body—from the lover who tried to knock her up to the boss who fired her for refusing to sleep with him.
Following its publication, the Handbook received a lot of attention—both good and bad. In the 1964 issue of The Realist, Serett (as Rey Anthony) describes losing some of her supposedly “liberal-minded” good friends within the first few weeks, whilst receiving great praise for the book's “marriage-saving” educational potential from many others. Most telling is her account of a man asking, “Rey, what's a clitoris?”
When asked whether she thought it was bad that some men had begun renting out their copies of the Handbook for pornographic reasons, she said, “If you mean that there are some men who have been starved in our anti-sex society, and are using my book to incite a few sexual sensations, I think that is sad rather than bad.”
"No amount of going at me would prevent the Handbook from being sold at this point."
Perhaps the most surprising reaction of all, however, came from the local Mafia, who informed her that they would do anything necessary to prevent her book from putting a spotlight on her hometown of Tucson. Still, Serett kept her cool, lying about the location of the printing plates and casually telling them that there was nothing they could do: “No amount of going at me would prevent the Handbook from being sold at this point.”
The culmination of the controversy was the Handbook getting caught up in publisher Ralph Ginzburg's bitter obscenity court battle. Ginzburg had received the hardcover rights to the book and had been advertising it in a way that wrongly accentuated the erotic content, for which the Post Office received some 35,000 complaints.
Although just one of the three obscenity charges, including his publication of classy erotic magazine Eros, the Handbook was brought to the center of the case thanks to a very prudish judge, who was quick to point out that Serett's description of cunnilingus fell under the legal definition of sodomy. Ginzburg was jailed for eight months and all copies of the Handbook were seized and destroyed. The nonsensical 1966 ruling has not been overturned or withdrawn.
Serett triumphed nonetheless, becoming a leading local authority for sexual rights and female empowerment, running popular sensuality workshops and even appearing beside Hugh Hefner in the 1967 NBC television special, The Pursuit of Pleasure. For Serett, sex was essentially communication. Comparing the lack of common sexual terminology to George Orwell's Newspeak, she campaigned for openness and education above all, so that society could move past the stifling, shame-giving idea that “any sex that doesn't include depositing sperm into the vaginal area is considered unnatural” and embrace its “civil right” to sexual freedom and enjoyment.
“It would be difficult for me to imagine an unnatural sex act as such. If I enjoy kissing someone on the elbow, it doesn't seem at all unnatural to me, especially if they're enjoying it too,” she said in her 1963 radio appearance. “I advocate that we completely restructure our present legal situation so that adults will be able to act like adults and have the rights to use their own bodies as they see fit.” Little did Lillian Maxine Serett know that over five decades later, her pro-rights, pro-abortion, pro-pleasure message would ring as true as ever.