This Thing We Call Sex by David Steinberg: book review

David Steinberg has compiled a brilliant book of essays and erotic photographs in This Thing We Call Sex: A Radically Sensible Look at Sex in America.

Steinberg, now 71, has been writing about sex since 1985 and photographing couples being sexual at home since 1999. In This Thing We Call Sex, he describes many types of sexual awakenings and insights: his first swing party; his first sexual encounter with a trans woman, where he discovered how much he’s turned on by a woman possessing both feminine energy and a penis; the gift of a gang bang for his partner’s 52nd birthday; learning to slap a woman he loved because it excited her; and much more. Through Steinberg’s candor and beautifully crafted writing, I felt I was getting more than a window into his views and activities — I was experiencing them myself.

Steinberg grew up in the same era I did. We came of age when sexual repression was the norm, and we were foot soldiers in the sexual revolution (though I was far less adventurous, even in what I considered my wilder days). In 1963, when both he and I were in college, “rumblings of sexual change could be heard on the cultural landscape if you listened really hard, but they were distinctly muted to say the least.”

David Steinberg

Steinberg puts his experiences and reflections in the context of discovering our sexuality despite our society’s sex-negative view. Sexual acceptance has improved greatly since we were growing up, but sex negativity still persists. We’re shamed for wanting what we want, called perverts and worse if what we like is outside the very small box of what society condones. Here, I’ll let him say it his own way:

  • “Who are we. really, when it comes to sex? Do we ever really get to know the full range and depth of our sexual desires and possibilities for pleasure? If we could strip away the rules, the moralizing, the early antisexual childhood training, the internalized raised eyebrows, what might we find of ourselves underneath?”
  • “Sex is such a powerful and unpredictable arena for psychic discovery; it’s no wonder it scares us to death. When we let the proprieties drift out the window, when we face our individual menageries of urges and desires without the referees of reason and reasonability, we are apt to uncover the most surprising and disconcerting things about ourselves — things we don’t even begin to understand, things we may well not want to acknowledge.”
  • “We are told repeatedly, and we come to believe … that if we acknowledge, honor, and embrace the erotic impulses of our sensual selves we will destroy the order in our world and be cast into chaos. This terrifies us. We turn against desire itself, against our erotic impulses and feelings, as well as the erotic expressions of others. we set ourselves the task of keeping the erotic down at all cost.”

Copyright (c) David Steinberg, 2000

And the photos! Deliciously erotic and intensely personal photos of faces smiling, grimacing, laughing in ecstasy; intimate gazes; entwined bodies. The diversity of the people in the photos is startling because it’s so rare. As David told me in an email interview,

One of the core statements that I hope my
photographs of people being sexual makes is that we all can be vibrant, alive,
sexy, sexual people, despite the cultural biases that would restrict that
appreciation to people who are young, thin, physically fit, etc. I make a point
of including as wide a range of subjects as possible, including people of all
ages, body types, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender identities,
and sexual proclivities. I have photographed people ranging in age from 19 to
75, from 90 to 300 pounds, and over a dozen couples that include someone with a
physical disability.

Hopefully, when people see my photographs they think,
“Oh, look, this is someone like me being wonderfully sexual,” rather
than seeing someone whose sexuality confirms all the insecurities and self-doubts
that we are encouraged to have about ourselves almost from birth.

Copyright (c) David Steinberg, 2007

I’m a sex geek — I’m fascinated by all things sexual, and I love learning about how people think and express themselves sexually. In this book, Steinberg educates and fascinates me. I wholeheartedly recommend This Thing We Call Sex to my fellow sex geeks.


  1. on January 26, 2016 at 10:47 pm

    David is a true inspiration. Thanks for your article Joan! I really loved it.

  2. Dan on December 5, 2015 at 11:38 pm

    Bought the book at your recommendation, Joan; outstanding. I have his other books and have met David who is an interesting person. What a forward thinker; he lived for a while in my town. The book really is a walk thru of where we had to slog to last 30 yrs to get to almost sex positive land today. I've recommended it to a couple friends who ran out and bought a copy. Nice.

  3. Anonymous on November 7, 2015 at 3:31 am

    David Steinberg is a treasure.

  4. John U on November 7, 2015 at 1:16 am

    Joan, I'm so pleased to see you have reviewed David Steinberg's "This Thing We Call Sex". I treasure my copy, both because his subjects are so interesting and challenging, and because he speaks in such an intelligent, thoughtful, and compassionate voice. With so much sex negative vituperation in our political arena, David's book is great gift to all those who want to honor their sexuality.

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