Toronto
3 min

Fast, funny & savage

But almost too fast for a book

POP GOES THE CULTURE. British journalist and essayist Mark Simpson, who coined the term metrosexual, is at his best examining Stephen Baldwin's dick. Credit: Xtra files

During an interview with Alexis Arquette, gay British journalist Mark Simpson asks, “How about Stephen Baldwin? Didn’t you make a movie with him which is basically all about his ass?” The movie, of course, was Threesome and Simpson goes on to ask for a description of Baldwin’s dick. To say more would be to give away the plot, but a full and complete answer is available on page 166 of the paperback edition of Sex Terror: Erotic Misadventures In Pop Culture.



That’s Simpson at his best, an irreverent bulldog who tears away at his subject – in this case, a straight guy strutting his ass – until the paradox shines through. In his new book, Simpson, who’s written for both the gay and straight press, is very much on form.



A collection of journalism from 1997 to 2001, Sex Terror is fast, funny and savage. Indeed, there are so many clever jokes that it’s hard to pick just one, although I did rather like the one about the Kinsey sexual scale, where “0 = exclusively heterosexual behaviour; 6 = exclusively homosexual (and 7 = Harvey Fierstein).”



But the collection is also frustratingly limited, and not just because the individual pieces are too short and diverse to form a coherent whole. Like many other second-generation gay journalists, Simpson, who contributes to Attitude, seems simultaneously fascinated and appalled by gay culture. Fascinated by its characters and contradictions; appalled by its cant, consumerism and conformity.



Anal sex is overrated, says Simpson, straight men make the best bottoms, SM is a bit of a con and gay life is a porn flick. “The distinction between porn and sex is gone,” writes Simpson. “In our pornolized world there’s nothing left to show… nothing left to feel. We’ve totally buffed sex and desire until there’s nothing left but our own reflection. And it ain’t pretty.”



Simpson is a bright boy, prone to quoting Foucault and dishing Edmund White, and you can’t help feeling he’s feeling a touch stymied by his chosen subject. What, after all, is there left to say at this very late stage of the gay game about things like wanking and oral sex – all topics that Simpson walks through and probably should have sprinted past.



Seven years ago, in the introduction to the slim gay anthology Anti-Gay, Simpson complained that the “gay thesis” was a trap. “As others have pointed out, the gay vs straight binary is a cul-de-sac without any turning space.” Well, seven years later, Simpson is still spinning his wheels in that same dead end.



His response has been to search farther and wider for the paradoxes and contradictions of sex. Having coined the term “metrosexual” way back in 1994, Simpson now seems obliged to ferret out the straight in gay and the gay in straight. The most famous piece in this collection, “The New Naff,” suggests that gay is now just as boring (and ubiquitous) as straight. Gay is now less an identity than a style. It’s a fashion accessory trumped up by consumer society to make you spend and it’s worn by homos and straights alike.



At its best, as in pieces on Marky Mark, Guy Ritchie, Eminem and the “sex terror” that toppled Bill Clinton, this approach yields some lovely, fine-tuned insights into contemporary sexual anxieties.



At its worst, it seems to send Simpson spinning in ever tighter circles, like a dog chasing its own tail. The jokes pile up and the insights accumulate but Simpson never seems to get any closer to a fulfilling philosophical goal.



Still, the professionally grumpy Mr Simpson is clearly having a good deal of fun here, and the best pieces (“God Save The Queen” and “The Return Of Metrosexuality” among others) are witty and suggestively layered.



Perhaps the last word should go to Simpson’s (fictional?) friend, Hans, a Dutch guy who plays innocent-in-homoland in two of these essays. A bisexual with a heavy Dutch accent, Hans has just discovered that anal sex is not all it’s, uh, cracked up to be. Still, he likes his Thai boyfriend. “At least I know he has no plans for a breakfasht bar, nurshery and mortgage hell,” says Hans. “Pusshies are nicer, but they can deshtroy you, Mark. The homoshexual univershe is completely empty and uncomfortable – but I like it that way.”



SEX TERROR: EROTIC MISADVENTURES IN POP CULTURE.

Mark Simpson.

Harrington Park Press.

245 pages. $25.44.