Author Sarah Mirk never tells readers what they should do in bed, writes Glenn Fleishman, only what they might do.

Illustration: Natalie Nourigat

The title and subtitle of Sarah Mirk's new book, Sex from Scratch: Making Your Own Relationship Rules, have to be read together: the book is about intimate and romantic relationships, which almost, but not always, involve sex; it's not a diagrammatical approach to the latest bedroom maneuvers nor full of the pabulum of the usual sorts of "fix your relationship" and "rules" advice books. The book was officially released last week, and is available via her site and booksellers all over.


Rather, Sex from Scratch is a map of the territory and a set of potential paths to take for people who find themselves figuring out what they want from relationships with another or multiple other people when they don't subscribe to the strictures of religion or vague societal values of what's "right." Many people feel lost when it comes to what they want, how to communicate it, and how to know when they've arrived at their destination. Sarah's book will help. You can hear us talk in depth about some parts of the book in the accompanying podcast.

There's a lot that this book is about, but it's not about being an advocacy guide for a particular lifestyle or relationship structure. Sarah never tells readers what they should do, only what they might do. The book celebrates the diversity of the ways people have found what works for them. (Sarah and I are friends, a friendship that came about through my interest in the book while it was a work in progress.)

Sarah started down this path by recognizing in herself that a long-term boyfriend–girlfriend relationship she was in wasn't working and, even before it ended, she was toeing the line of beliefs she didn't hold for lack of better guidelines to follow. She interviewed over 100 people over the last few years, traveling around America and crashing on couches as well as talking to people by phone and Skype. She's frank about her own feelings and connections, but the book isn't about her.

Sex from Scratch charmingly interleaves interviews between chapters with several people — writers, artists, activists, pornographers, and others — to let them speak in their own words at length. Hands-down, the interview with Betty Dodson is my favorite. Dodson, going on 85, has experienced a vast swath of life, promoted sex positivism back before it was a term in common parlance, and has a gloriously filthy and frank way of speaking.

Sarah gathered a lot of intelligence about the sheer diversity of kinds of relationships people are engaged in without this turning into a sociological treatise or a statistical report. It's idiosyncratic, but so are relationships: no two are truly alike, and Sarah's book helps tease apart why. We are doing all kinds of stuff in our private lives that we weren't sure how many other people were engaged in, nor whether we'd face opprobrium if it became known. Our private lives are increasingly public, which leads people to fear exposure while also seeing how "normal" something is that they might think is outré or formerly unacceptable. The spread of marriage equality may have something to do with this as well.

Sex from Scratch is probably peculiarly American (although it may apply to Canadians, too). While some parts of the world adopt Sharia Law, others have had a long-standing tacit acceptance of some practices once seen as beyond the pale in Bible-thumping U.S. of A. Some countries outlaw practices — whether having multiple partners, specific kinds of sex, or specific gender-conjuncted marriages — with jail terms, beatings, and death. Other fully embrace them at a societal or state level. America is all over the board with state-by-state laws, but consenting adults can generally engage in any combination of intimate relationship they wish, although only certain forms may be consummated in state-sanctioned legal contracts (marriage). (Where children are involved, judges and family court officials may cite non-nuclear family structures or a lack of a marriage certificate as a basis for unfitness, of course, a separate issue.)

Sarah's travels and research uncovered what a lot of us know already: while many people are engaged in a serial string of two-person couples, with the end goal being a last and permanent partnership, a rather large number of others would put "it's complicated" down for their status — even if they're not seeing anyone or anyones. She breaks her book into seven chapters that address modes of living, relationship types, choices within relationships, and power dynamics.

One triad of chapters is "Loving Being Single," "Navigating Non-Monogamy," and "On Never Getting Married." These chapters share the experiences and insights of people who have made intentional choices, rather than being forced into them. For instance, while many people are single who want to be in a couple, plenty would like to define themselves outside singlehood, keeping it a continuous state, not a temporary one. One woman, another Sarah, has two romantic partners she sees once or twice a week — she screws one and makes out with the other — and a "cozy friend" she makes dinner and cuddles with. But she counts none as a boyfriend.

The area of non-monogamy — whether defined as polyamory, monogamish, open, or sometimes monogamous/sometimes not — is broad and well handled. As she writes, "I was surprised to find that people felt stable in a diverse variety of relationship types. It seems like every person I meet in an open relationship had a different set-up." As a poly person myself, I felt Sarah hit the points dead on that fall inside my life, and I gained a lot of new insight, too, from other points of view. (Sarah also defines herself, currently, as non-monogamous.) Her list of 20 lessons from folks in similar relationships includes basics, good for everyone (such as "be more honest"), and more particular to poly couples and groupings, like "meet your partner's other partners" and "only have safe sex."

Another chapter looks at "Building Feminist Relationships": how to create a relationship that, theme of the book, doesn't adhere to outdated notions you're going through by rote and can't defend, no matter your gender, orientation, or other factors. As with all sensible people, Sarah doesn't preach unthinking equality, either. Rather, she brings suggestions from all over on how to build a harmonious sense of equity, fairness, and respect though exposing assumptions and discussing them. Sarah has a wise aunt she quotes in this chapter:

I called up Paula. I told her I was upset by that voice in my brain that says my relationships would be better if I could just figure out how to make the guy happy. As much as I try to act the way I want to act, I'm haunted by the persistent mental version of that ubiquitous Cosmo headline, an irritating refrain that constantly prods, "Transform your love life by learning these 75 ways to please your man."

"That's depressing," Paula said. "Is dating really like that? I thought my generation made it so you wouldn't feel that way."

Other chapters address even more complicated and fraught aspects of relationships: "Gender Is Messy," "Staying Childless by Choice," and "Knowing When to Split." As in the rest of the book, Sarah reaches out to her interview subjects and beyond to paint a picture that stretches past her own life. The gender chapter would be good as a starting point for everyone to read because of the way in which she establishes the notions of respect and one's own personally space that work in romantic relationships and every other kind of interaction, too.

And while I and my wife chose to have kids (two lovely fellows), I know from so many friends the continuous grind it is for couples who have opted out of producing progeny to have demands put upon them to justify their decision. Sarah offers a lot of advice from others, including how to navigate choosing a vasectomy or tubal ligation — and how doctors try to subvert that choice!

Finally, while breaking up is hard to do, if one enters relationships intentionally and honestly, one can leave them that way, too, instead of letting unhappiness mount. Sarah suggests, "You deserve to be happy." While that sentiment appears in the chapter on splitting, it pervades the book, and rightly so. Sarah would like everyone to step into the joy that they want to embrace, instead of remaining bound in chains they didn't forge — and that aren't really there.