Weird Old Books: Sex Tips for Girls

by Emily Darrell

One of the sadder parts of getting older — besides, of course, the decaying of the flesh and the knowledge that you are, each day, just that much closer to death — is when things that thrilled your younger self lose their ability to captivate. It can be downright depressing. For me this includes planetariums, Halloween, reckless driving, and drinking until I can’t stand up.

So when I bit the bullet recently and spent four bucks (one cent plus $3.99 in shipping and handling) to purchase a used copy of Sex Tips for Girls off Amazon, I was apprehensive. Would it measure up? Would the section titled “Sex on Drugs” still make me die with laughter, as it had at age 13? Would it seem as witty and worldly and wise as it had back then, and would Cynthia Heimel still seem like the best friend I hadn’t met yet?

The answers to these questions are, mercifully, “Yeses” all around.

I’m not sure what drove me to seek this book out, fifteen years after losing track of it. Maybe it was one of the small attacks of nostalgia that overtake us all from time to time, prompting us to recover something we’ve lost. Maybe I needed a good laugh. Maybe it was finding myself on the cusp of thirty, newly single, ready to move on from the small-town newspaper where I’d been working for almost two years, and considering a move to a new city. In particular, I hoped Heimel’s brand of cheerful, optimistic, grab-the-bull-by-the-horns brand of feminism could provide the push I needed to turn my life into what I dreamt it could be.

All this from a book of sex tips?

Sex Tips for Girls was published in 1983 and made its way into my hot little hands sometime in the mid-90’s. I won it during a game of Thieves Gift played one Christmas morning at one of the large family gatherings that used to take place at my grandparents’ house, in between sessions of eating country ham and listening to my elders discuss their physical ailments. I remember trying to look disappointed, or at least indifferent, to the fact that I, among all my other relatives, had, from a random assortment of unmarked packages, picked a book with the word “sex” in the title. In truth, I was a) embarrassed; b) terrified that someone would “steal” my gift and; and c) eager as all get-out to get home and read it.

Little did I know that my gag gift would turn out to be not merely a Cosmo-like list of ways to please a man, but rather a life and love-affirming masterpiece of comic literature.

Heimel, a one-time columnist at both the Village Voice and Playboy, was the real-life Carrie Bradshaw before there was a Carrie Bradshaw, and her first and most well-known book is every bit as laugh-out-loud as a classic Sex in the City episode — but with a lot more depth. The book, if you want to be all negative about it, is a little dated. Heimel gives advice on how to bribe “operators” at “answering services” into taking good messages. “Sometimes if an operator is feeling downright sadistic,” she writes, “she’ll make things up. Answering service operators have been known to tell an unsuspecting girl that her gynecologist called and said she’s got the clap, or that Richard called and never wants to see her again.

Heimel assumes that everybody takes Quaaludes, which she sometimes refers to as “ludes” (although she cautions women to steer clear of any man who calls them “disco biscuits.”) She also takes it as a given that Nick Nolte is every woman’s ideal dream hunk, and believes that condoms are a scourge of the earth and that no one should ever use them.

However, none of this matters because above all else Sex Tips for Girls is book with heart and soul. Heimel neither embraces nor condemns promiscuity, but offers the sage advice that “sleeping with a man you barely know is like licking the salty rim of the glass but forgetting to drink the margarita.” She makes a convincing argument that the best way to stay young and beautiful forever is to have a sense of humor and a taste for adventure — hundred dollar creams and potions can go to hell. She quotes, with equal aplomb, Richard Pryor, William Blake, and George Jones.

Heimel implores us to “eschew anything trivial” and “embrace all that is frivolous.” Her list of the trivial includes conceptual art, international politics, and Volvo station wagons; on the frivolous side we have dancing, kissing, planting tomatoes, lying on the beach, and drinking champagne. “All things trivial are objects,” she writes, “and all things frivolous are actions.”

When you read Sex Tips you are transported into another world: a magical, mythical New York of days-gone-by, a place where you can dance in honky-tonks to jukeboxes stocked with Merle Haggard and Hank Williams (perhaps my over-the-top admiration for Heimel is furthered by our mutual love for classic country) and where each day holds the possibility of running into Joey Ramone on a street corner. Her friends, who chime in frequently with their own wisdom, are the kind of friends any girl would want: Rita, a six-foot, redheaded Texan “who can spot a fool from a thousand paces,” Cleo, a petite, witty journalist, and Marta, a “seductive” clothing designer.

One of the most attractive aspects of Heimel’s voice is that despite her wonderfully upbeat attitude, you feel her optimism is hard-won. We don’t get the sense that she has famous parentage or a hefty trust fund. She’s never, so far as we can tell, worked as a model. She’s a divorced mom raising a son on her own who once gained forty pounds in an unhappy relationship and who knows the feeling of true heartbreak.

So many of the passages in this book have stuck with me for years and years, even the pieces of advice I’d never follow (that a woman needs only three pairs of shoes: black boots, red high heels, and white sneakers) and the facts I find suspect (that a woman only has nerve endings in the first three inches of her vagina.). In the chapter, “The Perils of Obsession,” Heimel writes that “obsessed people are notoriously thirsty” — it’s a beautiful, throwaway line, the sort where you both know exactly what the author talking about, and yet realize that it makes no sense. In her chapter, “Why Exercise?,” Heimel explains that “imitating Mick Jagger is the most sophisticated form of aerobics. To do it properly, you must be very careful not to lapse into being Keith Richards. Keith, although often more compelling than Mick, is not aerobically sound, since he mainly just stumbles.”

For the last couple of years, Sex Tips for Girls has re-earned its place in my library as one of a dozen or so books that I can pick up at any old time, flip to any old page, and find myself immediately engrossed — the true test of a personal classic. I won’t claim that re-discovering this book changed my life, or that it gave me the courage to make some bold but necessary changes in my life — reconnecting with (and marrying) a lost love, moving to a new continent, changing careers, setting about learning an excruciatingly difficult East European language — because I almost certainly would have done these things anyhow. Nevertheless, the book has become a trusted friend that never fails to cheer me up. After reading a few passages, I’m in a better mood, more energized, and feel somehow more attractive. I feel ready to go out and fulfill what Heimel calls the primary goal of humanity: “that of having a good time.”

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