The murky aims of She Comes First.

The murky aims of She Comes First.

The murky aims of She Comes First.

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 15 2004 11:32 AM

The Thinking Man's Guide to Sex

What could be wrong with She Comes First?

Book cover

While expert cunnilingus technique might well be a desirable trait in men, is there any trait more repulsive than the reading of sexual self-help books? This dark question emerges from the pages of She Comes First: The Thinking Man's Guide to Pleasuring a Woman, a new book that promises to "solve the mystery of female satisfaction." The answer may surprise you: Yes, there's something more repugnant than reading this book. The most repulsive act imaginable, in a strictly sexual sense, is to have written it. (Please note: Reviewing it in a reputable online publication is profoundly sexy.) I defy you to look at Dr. Ian Kerner, Ph.D.'s, author photo without imagining him smacking his lips. Author photos on self-help books like to present the self banished of its formerly obese, alcoholic, negative-thinking, low self-esteem, or in this case, cunnilingus-challenged, qualities. There's one heck of a satisfied woman in the background of this photo, just outside the frame. "Think Outside Her Box," Kerner looks to be reminding himself: Zero in on her "Inner Goddess." (The phrases in quotes are chapter titles.) "How Wet Is Wet?" Please, Madam—have some "Scent and Sensibility."

She Comes First is a conversion-narrative in the Augustinian sense—the story of a self-awakening. Dr. Kerner started life as a premature ejaculator, he tells us, with all the self-control of a tube of toothpaste being run over by a Mack truck. As in Augustine, self-discovery becomes a call not only to faith but to study: She Comes First is studded with references, some of them more, shall we say, motivational than strictly technical, to Balzac, Margaret Atwood, Freud, E.B. White, and the Taoist master Wu Hsien. "Karl Marx recognized that in order for words to become actions, the proper preconditions for success must be firmly in place," writes Kerner. Even Aristotle—not primarily famous for his writings on cunnilingus—makes an appearance here. "Try licking her the way Pollock painted," writes Dr. Kerner, "broad strokes, with pinpoint targeted precision." The redeemed Dr. Kerner finds his muse in postponement, quoting Thomas Wyatt, who (in another context assuredly) wrote, "Patience shall be all my song." The conclusion sends us forth with a little G.B. Shaw, via Kundera and Nietzsche, intoning, "When she comes first, she comes forever." This utopia of perpetually coming women sounds a little noisy to me, to be frank.

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You look up from this book with a weird revised sense of intellectual history. The thought of Karl Marx performing cunnilingus is somehow particularly nauseating. But, as with most self-help literature, the idea is that one somehow joins a rarified coterie by adhering to the principles here. Kerner's aims are not just motivational, they're aspirational—by the logic of syllogism. Aristotle was a great thinker; Aristotle performed cunnilingus; if I perform cunnilingus, I'm a great thinker, too. Or something like that.

The focus here is on manners, taste (no pun intended), class. There are more diagrams in this book than in Emily Post: the "Come Hither Clasp," the "Gum Clasp with Perineal Pinch." The guys in these line drawings seem refined, even cosmopolitan, which makes me think they've taken some of Dr. Kerner's advice to heart. Maybe they read the glossary, where entries like "Candles" (recommended) and "Beards" (not recommended) are listed in alphabetical order. If you're looking for some music to play, Dr. Kerner's suggestion (under "M" for "Music") is Ravel's Bolero, though I have personally found that Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, "Resurrection," is very nice.

Men of a certain class and position, it seems, simply can't afford not to give head. "I know all too well the humiliation, anxiety, and despair of not being able to satisfy a woman," writes Kerner. "This book was written in the sincere hope that men will … suffer less than I have." Giving head, in Kerner's world, is not an act of devotion; it's an expression of having healthily conquered one's own murky sexual terror.

However true this may be for many men, Kerner's tack—turn what terrorizes you into an art—doesn't seem that pleasing itself. I don't know about you, but I am not a native of the Pacific Island of Mangaia, where boys are trained from early adolescence in the cunnilingual arts. My culture, in some vague and vestigial way, still considers cunnilingus a no-no, which makes performing it feel like a little transgression. And transgression—I have this exclusively on others' word—is an excellent aphrodisiac. It's not going to feel very transgressive when guys start carrying Dr. Kerner's book around, or half-hiding it behind the Tom Clancy shrine on the cinderblock-and-pine bookcase next to the futon. It's going to feel like the latest dumb thing men do to prove their refinement, like drinking single-malt scotch or buying leather sofas for the apartment. (There are even images of upscale fruit on the book's cover, representing the female genitalia.) You can't make a canon of things done with the tongue and chin, in the dark, between somebody's legs, after an office party. It just drains the whole appeal right out of it.

But perhaps it's unlikely many guys will actually read this book. With its bold, declarative title and cover photo of a split papaya, maybe She Comes First ismeant just to be carried around as a babe-lure. * I used to do this in the Harvard Square T Station with a book called Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome. It didn't work—the only person who ever commented was a scary Goth man dressed a little like Percy Bysshe Shelley—but, hey, I tried. The same sort of thing might work in the case of She Comes First—the total dorks carrying it around might actually be revealing something touching about themselves and might attract mates who are touched by the whole ugly display. Some cunnilingus might well ensue—I have no idea.

If there is to be a therapeutic benefit to Kerner's book, my guess is that it will accrue not to cunnilingus but to old-fashioned coitus. If Kerner succeeds in making cunnilingus one of the cultivated arts, people will be dying to find something more essentially vagabond to do with their desires. The candles and Bolero will have to go, and cunnilingus will take its place beside Cuban cigars, 10-ounce martinis, and nappa leather golf bags in the pantheon of weird male indulgences. Then all those Kerner-influenced cunnilingus-connoisseur guys will need to find some way to perform their favorite pastime on each other.

Correction, Nov. 15, 2004: An earlier version of this piece misstated the name of the fruit on the cover of She Comes First. It is a papaya, not a pomegranate.

Dan Chiasson's poems appear in The New Yorker, Paris Review, Threepenny Review, and elsewhere.