Book Review: Of Sound Mind and Someone Else’s Body

Content note: there are some discussions of nonconsensual sex, transphobia, gender dysphoria, and whorephobia in this post.

Have you ever read the plot summary for a piece of media and immediately thought, “Oh, this is gonna be a shitshow?” That was me when I read the blurb for Of Sound Mind and Someone Else’s Body, by William Quincy Belle.

Picture this: a supernatural body-swap story, à la Freaky Friday or The Hot Chick, with the lead characters being a successful male businessman and a female sex worker.

“This is gonna be transphobic and whorephobic as fuck, right?” I asked a friend when I told them about the plot of the book. They agreed that it would be difficult to navigate the fraught territory this book wanted to tackle without wading into some problematic shit. But nonetheless, I dove in, wanting to see the probable trainwreck for myself.

Of Sound Mind is about Alan Maitland, a nonspecific “businessman” (much like our boy Christian Grey, the exact scope and focus of his work is never quite spelled out), and Hana Toussaint, an escort with ambitions of becoming a sex therapist. The two are strangers at the beginning of the book, but through a neuroscientific mishap explained in somehow simultaneously not enough detail and far more detail than I cared to read, their brains switch bodies one night. Hana’s shrewd, sexy consciousness relocates into Alan’s brawny businessman body, while Alan’s serious, analytical mind flips into Hana’s eye-catching lady-bod. And, as they say, hijinks ensue.

Hilariously – or horribly, depending on what type of person you are – the switch happens while Hana is blowing a client, so Alan finds himself suddenly choking on cock after a lifetime of staunch heterosexuality. I felt conflicted reading this section, because on the one hand, it seemed written for laughs and I got instantly annoyed at Alan’s no-homo bravado in punching the dude in the nads and walking out. But at the same time, gosh, it would sure be traumatic if there was suddenly a dick in your throat when you’d neither consented to that nor ever experienced it before. I couldn’t tell whether I was supposed to laugh at Alan or pity him, which was a frequent feeling for me while reading this book.

Alan and Hana locate each other fairly quickly, figure out what’s happened, and unite in a mission to find the neuroscientist who fucked up and switched their brains. In the process, however, they navigate various challenges, like Hana fielding Alan’s business calls, Alan chatting up Hana’s escorting colleagues, and – all the while – getting used to life in their new, gender-swapped bodies.

I can’t personally speak to what it would feel like to read this book as a trans person. I imagine it wouldn’t feel great. There’s no acknowledgment in the book of transgender identities, which seems a shame, as that would be an interesting take on the somewhat tired body-swap trope.

Some of the gender-based difficulties Hana and Alan encounter seem overblown for comic effect – like Alan struggling to put on a bra, or Hana getting her dick caught in her pants zipper. (She’s a sex worker. There’s no way she doesn’t know her way around a fly.) But though Alan is sometimes incompetent at his coercively-adopted womanhood, overall I get the feeling that he thinks men would make better women than women do, and that women’s “petty” concerns would be easily solved with a small dose of “male” assertiveness. In a couple different scenes, Alan (in Hana’s femme little body) confronts catcallers and subway masturbators, shaming them publicly, and the book seems to suggest that this is the best way to deal with these altercations – completely ignoring the reality that marginalized folks standing up to creeps often results in violence, which is why we don’t do it more often. Duh.

The book is peppered with monologues from Hana about the stigma and oppression faced by women, sex workers, and people who dare to be publicly sexual. While I think these soliloquies are designed to paint Hana as a three-dimensional character, she ultimately comes across as someone who doesn’t so much have a personality as a series of staunch opinions. The effect is Manic Pixie Dream Girl-esque; her narrative function is to open Alan’s eyes and change his life, and she doesn’t seem to have much of an inner emotional life beyond that mission. Further, her impassioned rants are fairly 101-level stuff; anyone who’s familiar with feminism and social justice concepts, even from afar, is likely to read these and go, “Yeah, of course.” I know there are still many people out there who would benefit from basic explanations of gender bias, sex stigma, and whorephobia, but are those people really gonna read this book, let alone learn from it?

The other weird thing about Hana is that she spends almost the entire book flirting with Alan, fawning over him, and trying to fuck him. This is a pretty classic thing for a male author to do: ignite desire in his female protagonist for wish-fulfilment purposes, even if it doesn’t make sense for the characters. We’re shown no reasons why Hana would be attracted to Alan, other than (maybe) the physical attractiveness of his body, which she is in. He doesn’t come across as particularly smart, kind, funny, or interesting – so why does this babely, ambitious, clever woman pursue him relentlessly for the entire book? It doesn’t ring true to me.

The author tries to paint a compassionate picture of sex workers, unpacking some of the stigma they face. But we’re reminded again and again that Hana is educated, volunteers her time for philanthropic causes, and could easily do something else with her life but has chosen sex work. There is nothing wrong with this by itself, but depicting Hana as a “good” sex worker for possessing these qualities feels icky to me. Sex workers are still perfectly legitimate and acceptable even if they don’t have a formal education and/or have chosen sex work for survival reasons.

As a piece of literature, I felt similarly about Of Sound Mind to how I felt about the Fifty Shades books: the writing is okay but the plot is at least fast-paced and interesting enough to keep my attention. It’s often hard to tell characters apart when quotes aren’t attributed because their voices are so similar, and the dialogue is consistently stilted and awkward. (“Man, did I enjoy my orgasm! I love ejaculating,” Hana exclaims after one ostensibly sexy scene. “God, I love a good fuck pounding!”)

I think the premise of this story is fascinating, and could’ve been a good jumping-off point for discussions of gender politics, privilege, and empathy. The author does address this stuff but it’s all fairly surface-level; I would love to read a deeply feminist, nuanced, “woke” take on this story trope. Likewise, I was curious to see how the author would handle sex scenes between two characters inhabiting different bodies than they’re used to – but the writer breezes through the one sex scene in a hurry, without delving at all into what that type of sex would feel like, physically or emotionally. I felt a bit cheated that one of the most interesting questions the book poses was never answered.

If you want something light and silly to read that might prompt some reactionary feminist thoughts, give Of Sound Mind and Someone Else’s Body a try. I didn’t hate it, and it gave me lots to think about – including the question, “Why is this making me roll my eyes so hard?!” There are worse things you could read. Like – by a small but decisive margin – any of the Fifty Shades books.

 

If you like, you can buy this book on Amazon (in Kindle edition or paperback). Feel free to check out the author’s website if you want to learn more! FYI: This review was sponsored, meaning that I was paid to write an honest (not necessarily positive) review.

3 Versions of Myself I Access Through Fragrances

“John Varvatos” by John Varvatos

I am a cisgender woman, but it is just not that simple. Gender never is.

In high school, I used to describe my eclectic personal style as a mix between a 1950s pinup girl, a 1980s teen queen, and a British schoolboy. Elements of the latter only snuck into my outfits occasionally – a collared shirt here, a silk striped necktie there – but I always felt that schoolboy somewhere below the surface, particularly as I came into my queer identity. Pursuing girls, giggling and blushing at girls in the school cafeteria, training my gaze on girls in an unabashedly desirous manner – these all brought out a butchness in me, for lack of a better term; a hard sharpness on the edges of my otherwise plush femininity.

I wondered – and still sometimes wonder – whether my once-in-a-blue-moon dalliances with dapperness are more an homage to a person I want to be, or a person I want to fuck. But then, maybe those two categories are always a Venn diagram, and it’s just a question of how much overlap exists in your personal version.

When I peruse fragrances online, I’m most drawn to notes I associate with masculinity: leather, oak, tobacco, sandalwood. It all sounds terribly sexy, for much the same reason I sigh and swoon when I encounter phrases like “blue striped button-down with the sleeves rolled up” or “freshly shined leather wingtips.” These aesthetic elements sit right in the centre of my Venn diagram of attraction and aspiration: a sweet spot where I can equally imagine myself pinned against a wall by a ravishing man who is kissing me, or being that man.

I ordered a sample of John Varvatos’ self-titled fragrance because a male xoJane writer described it as smelling “[like] you spilled a chai latte into an old leather jacket.” I could see it so clearly. Flirting with a leather-clad heartthrob in a bustling café, all waxy hair pomade and smug bravado – or being that heartthrob, and not needing to ponder petty concerns like gender, because chai and leather and flirty nerve are genderless and always have been.

There are some “men’s” fragrances that feel like drag when I wear them, coming off incongruously boyish on little ol’ femmey me. But John Varvatos melts into my skin and my gender with an uncomplicated ease. It’s masculine and powerful and sexy and bold, but coexists peacefully with my femininity and softness and docility. It’s like a men’s leather jacket I might steal from a boyfriend, that looks beefcake-handsome on him, but adorably spunky on me. It’s masc but it’s not a mask. It’s the brashest kind of boy this cis femme lady can ever be.

I love it. I want to wear it every day. I want to feel this attuned to all my gender-peculiar facets at every moment. I don’t ever want to lose that.

“Carnal Flower” by Frederic Malle

Like anyone who’s lived in a particular city for a long time, I have personal rituals tied to certain places and activities in my city. Like any introvert, many of my personal rituals involve being alone.

There are some activities I will not do alone. Though I love attending improv shows at places like Comedy Bar and the Bad Dog Theatre, I cannot go to a show solo; sipping a beer in a claustrophobic bar before the show cranks my social anxiety up to eleven, as my bad brain hallucinates judgmental eyes lingering on me from across the crowd. Likewise, I will not go to local sex club Oasis Aqualounge unless I am meeting at least one person there; the libidinous glances and bold advances of disingenuous lotharios aren’t worth enduring, even to languish in Oasis’ beauteous heated pool under the stars.

One thing I do love to do alone, however, is go to the theatre. In particular: Soulpepper, in the Distillery District.

There is something classy, mysterious, and refined about attending the theatre alone, at least in my imagination. I select shows carefully every year, spacing out my tickets so I never have to go longer than a couple months without one of these pilgrimages. It’s a special, pre-planned night out, like taking myself on a date. I get dressed up, do my makeup, spritz on some scent. When I used to live in the east end, I would get on the King streetcar, clutching a little leather purse and walking with purpose, and ride it down to the Distillery. Once there, I walk along the dimly-lit cobblestone streets, sometimes wobbling in heels (the theatre is one of the only occasions I deem worthy of heels), until I reach the warm, bright, elegant lobby of the Soulpepper theatre.

The crowd is different there from my usual haunts; it’s a lot of older people, married couples, mature professionals. Whereas swilling beer alone in the crowded Comedy Bar makes me feel like people are staring at me and think I’m weird, sipping a pint of Tankhouse in Soulpepper’s lobby gets me almost no attention at all. Everyone bustles softly around the space, waiting for the house to open, cooing gently at the posters of coming attractions, greeting each other with warm enthusiasm. There is no culture of cruising, scoping, judging or partying. I am almost always the youngest person in the room, but am otherwise invisible.

Stripped of other people’s projections, then, I am free to be whomsoever I please, and to be that woman in peace. And at Soulpepper – a brick and wood haven full of quiet theatre devotees – I am a mature, sophisticated young woman, elegant in my little dress and little shoes. I am precious and put-together, confident and collected. I am a nonexistent but aspirational vision of myself.

Frederic Malle’s Carnal Flower is often described as a “dangerous” or “sexy” scent, but I don’t get that from it at all. On me, it’s floral, summery, and feminine in a way I have never quite been. Helena Fitzgerald describes the woman evoked by this perfume as “the kind of woman I had once thought could wear perfume while I couldn’t… I am not her; through perfume I could try on her life as a costume.” I feel this too: when I wear Carnal Flower, I can gather up my guts, my smudged eyeliner and scuffed boots and crooked teeth, and compress myself into a lither, lovelier little lady. A lady who might – for example – waltz up to the bar in the Soulpepper lobby, order a glass of white wine, and sit sipping it on a leather chaise without once worrying what anyone thinks of her.

“Acqua di Gio” by Giorgio Armani

I’ve told you before about my conflicted love affair with Acqua di Gio. It’s the signature scent of someone I used to love, who never loved me in the same way. My heart’s year-long tussle with this man was all wild hope tempered with crushing disappointment. One followed the other, like a dance. We’d have a good night out, laughing over beers and sandwiches – and then I wouldn’t hear from him for days. We’d share sex so intimate, it made me believe those who use “intimacy” as a euphemism for sex – and then he’d declare how much he valued my friendship. He’d tell me that we were on the same wavelength, that we were meant to stick around in each other’s lives, that our connection was special and deep – and then he’d go off grinning goofily on dates with random women from OkCupid, looking for “the one.” I remained the one he left behind.

If I’d never been in love with someone who wore Acqua di Gio, probably its inhalation would strike me only as mildly pleasant. It might remind me of oceans, cucumbers, or musky muscled strangers fresh out of the shower. But I have been in love with someone who wore it, so when Acqua di Gio crosses my nostrils, it’s a guilty hit of glee. An endorphin rush I quickly work to suppress. Wild hope, as I’ve said, tempered with crushing disappointment.

This is a problematic reaction to have to a fragrance as ubiquitous as Acqua di Gio. I rarely go a week without passing someone on the street who’s wearing it. Every time, every damn time, I’m struck with the pins-and-needles feeling that haunted me throughout that ordeal: Will he ever love me? Why doesn’t he love me? How do I make him love me? Why doesn’t he love me? That love has since faded, but the scent is a time trigger, dragging me back into that pit I spent so long clawing my way out of. It’s a lot to grapple with, on a street corner, surrounded by strangers.

So I became interested in reclaiming the scent, reworking its fraught associations, like exposure therapy. I read an xoJane article about this a while back, and the idea resonated hard. When friends go through breakups, I tell them to make new memories in the locations that remind them of their ex – why not do the same with a scent?

There are times, while I’m wearing Acqua di Gio, when I catch a primal whiff and sink back into nostalgic sadness, wanting that Prince Charming and the promise of happiness he dangled just out of my reach. But then there are other times when I breathe deep and realize I am that Prince Charming, I can be happy, and I can and will save myself. There is hope. There is always hope.

What Aesthetics Turn You On?

Isn’t it weird how attraction works?

There are sometimes specific reasons you can point to: clear answers to the question, “Why am I attracted to this person/quality/feature?” And sometimes the answers are less clear.

It can have to do with our formative experiences. I’ve had a thing for fauxhawks, particularly dyed-purple ones, ever since my first girlfriend at age 15 rocked one in the Facebook profile photos I pored over during many a lovelorn late night.

It can have to do with what makes us feel sexy. I know my predilection for staring at 1950s-inspired lingerie is all about my hyper-femme identity: when my eyes roam all over babely pinup models in product shots, I get turned on not because I want to fuck those women but because I want to be those women. And I know I feel beautiful when I wear what they’re wearing.

The line gets blurry a lot. I have occasional days when all I want to wear is impeccably tailored pants, beautiful silk neckties, crisp collared shirts, and shiny lace-up brogues – and I’m not sure whether that comes from my own gender fluctuations or from a fundamental desire to fuck people who dress like that. It makes me happy to tart myself up like a dapper dandy from time to time, so I don’t question it too much.

I have a vision board (also known by its technical name, “a corkboard with a bunch of pictures pinned to it”) which I created to evoke the feelings of my ideal relationship, and how my ideal partner would make me feel. It’s covered in pictures of cute people (boys, girls, androgynes, and others) variously wearing geek glasses, plaid flannel, leather jackets, V-neck cashmeres, Pucci bowties, and sharp blazers.

But I also get dark stirrings of something like lust when I see feminine ladies rocking thigh-high socks, bouncy pigtails, tight striped sweaters, fit-and-flare dresses, perfectly-applied red lipstick, platform wedges, and/or neat little hair bows. I’ve never particularly wanted to date or fuck a rockabilly femme in real life, but they own permanent property in the fantasy-visuals sector of my brain.

Oh, who knows why we like what we do?!

What aesthetics turn you on? What clothing, accessory, or hairstyle makes you want to climb someone like a tree? And do you know where those feelings come from, or are they just sorta random for you?

Image credits, clockwise from top left: Beautiful illustration by Cameron Stewart. Leather-and-gingham street fashion photo via Costin M. Photo of Andy Samberg and Joanna Newsom (babeliest couple ever?!) from the Independent Spirit Awards via People StyleWatch. Screencap of Olly Alexander from the God Help the Girl movie (watch it, it’s visually and sonically stunning). Santiago and Diaz illustration by Celeste Doodles.

New Year’s Resolutions for Sex-Positive Do-Gooders

December is one of my favorite months, because I love obsessively plotting how I’m going to change when the new year rolls around. Even if the changes don’t stick, that weeks-long period of planning is delicious. But, of course, it’s better if the changes do stick!

I’m going to do another post all about my personal sexual goals for 2015 when it gets a little closer to the new year, but for now, here are some new year’s resolutions you might want to think about adopting for yourself. At the very least, you can use them as a starting point for brainstorming your own big changes and exciting plans!

Volunteer your time at a pro-sex cause.

I have some friends who volunteer at Planned Parenthood’s TEACH program, and some other friends who do work for their local campus sex education centres. I know someone who helps abortion clinic visitors get from the street into the clinic without being accosted by protesters. As for me, I’ve spent years helping out at an emotional support hotline for LGBT youth and an online community for gender-non-conforming folks. These are just a few of the ways you can contribute to your local sex-positive scene.

Volunteering is a really rewarding way to spend your time. It might be something for you to consider if you’ve been feeling a little purposeless or directionless lately, or even if you just want to make some new friends and fill out your days (or pad your resumé!) a little more.

Take up a positive practice for your body.

I don’t just mean “have more athletic sex.” Although, you could always do that too.

In this mind-centered, desk-oriented culture, too many of us ignore our bodies and get all up in our heads. This can result in a feeling of disembodiment, and often, a lot of aches and pains. (I myself have been dealing with a stubborn shoulder-and-neck situation for weeks from overcommitting to desk work. Yuck.)

Here are some habits you could take up in 2015 that would be really good for your body: yoga, swimming, pilates, jogging, long meditative walks, dance classes, cardio classes, strength training, hula hooping, getting regular massages, starting every morning with a few minutes of stretching… Pick something which feels manageable for your body, lifestyle, and finances, and which makes your heart leap in your chest at the thought of it!

Invest in your sexual health.

Throw out all your nylon underwear and buy all-cotton pairs. Get a menstrual cup if you’ve been wanting one. Upgrade your birth control to a longer-term and/or less annoying form. Ditch and replace any toxic or porous toys you own. Go get those STI tests you’ve been putting off.

Make your frequent sex location(s) more inviting.

It is amazing what new bedding and a few scented candles can accomplish!

Think: what bums you out about the place(s) where you most often have sex, and how could you solve those problems? Mood lighting, better heating, air freshener, wall art? Curtains, carpeting, a neater organization system? Groovier music? Make it happen!

Go deeper into your gender.

Weird phrasing, maybe, but here’s what I mean: whatever gender(s) you identify as, you probably feel hotter/cuter/better when you go balls-to-the-wall with your gender presentation.

Think about what visual or tactile elements could increase the pleasure you take in your gender presentation, and try to incorporate them more often. I’m femme as fuck so for me this would mean things like wearing lipstick more regularly, buying warmer tights so I can wear skirts and dresses more often, and stepping up my skincare and haircare so I feel prettier on a day-to-day basis. How could you enhance, and luxuriate in, your gender as much as possible next year?

Be a sex-positive friend.

I’m going to write a full post about this eventually, because I think it’s really important to support your friends non-judgmentally in their (safe, consensual) sexual endeavors.

If you’ve got a friend who’s never been to a sex shop, maybe you could take them. If your buddy gets nervous about going to get tested, you could accompany them to the clinic. If your amigo expresses interest in an unusual fetish or sexual practice, you could help them do their research while affirming and encouraging their explorations. Be like a sexy fairy godmother to all your nearest and dearest!

What do you hope to do differently in 2015?

No-Shave November Made Me Think About Femininity

I did No-Shave November this year. Not to raise money for anything (although I did contribute some dough to a family member’s Movember collection, in awe of his new beard). I just wanted to give it a shot.

I’ve been a pretty consistently clean-shaven lass ever since puberty. Ever the precocious child (and an early bloomer, hormones-wise), I wanted to know what shaving was like, so I started shaving the hair on my legs and pelvic mound almost immediately after it first came in. I have a vivid memory of my mom spotting my shaved mons in the bath (so I must’ve still been young enough that my mom was bathing me?!) and her saying disapprovingly, “That’s something adult ladies do.” But still, I continued to shave.

Like every girl, I was ushered into a world of brainwashed, media-hyped, sweet-and-sanitized femininity. There were no hairy-lady role models in my life, sexy or otherwise. As I grew into adolescence, the girls at my school became increasingly mean and judgmental, as middle-school girls are wont to do, and I never dared deviate from any norm for fear of social ostracization (which, sadly, happened anyway).

Throughout my first sexual relationship, I kept my pubes and pits shaved. My partner went through a phase where she was desperately curious to know what it would be like to go down on a bushy twat, but I would not grant her that favor. I found pubes insufferably itchy and they also noticeably cut down on my sexual sensitivity.

My second (and current) partner was surprised the first time he put his hand in my panties, having never encountered a hairless lady-garden before. This, in turn, surprised me when he told me later. I had thought of shaved pussies as the norm until then, perhaps due to the porn I sometimes watched.

These days, I’m hanging out in a lot of queer and feminist spaces, as usual, and these are the sort of environments where body hair is accepted and sometimes even encouraged. But even still, I tuck my legs under me to hide their stubble; I keep my cardigan buttoned so no one will see my fuzzy pits. Though I purposely fill my head with hairy-lady inspiration (Amanda Palmer and Sadie Lune, for example), I still feel… well, dysphoria isn’t quite the right word, but perhaps what I feel is a very mild form of it.

And the trouble is, I don’t know whether my feelings are media-influenced or whether my particular brand of girly/femme-y gender identity just doesn’t mesh with body hair. How can anyone ever know whether their feelings are culturally induced or personally valid or both?

During No-Shave November, I also grew out my bush, though I kept my labia shaved because they really do itch horribly when I let ‘em run wild. My partner has no qualms about any body hair configuration I choose – he always finds nice things to say about my body, no matter how much fur it has amassed or is missing – so that didn’t influence my decision. I grew out the longest bush I’ve ever had and spent a lot of time combing it with my fingers, marveling at how weird and unusual it felt in the context of my own body.

Ultimately, on December 2nd, after snapping the photos used in this post in my bathroom mirror, I shaved my pits. And then, earlier this week, I attacked my bush with scissors and then a razor. The smoothness feels odd after all this hairiness but it’s also reassuring; I feel more like me again. I don’t feel more attractive; I just feel less weird.

What’s your relationship to body hair?