January 2006

Eryn Loeb

Girl, Interrupting

Piece of CAKE

In her sharp but imperfect book Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy spends most of one chapter warily appraising CAKE, Melinda Gallagher and Emily Kramer's “female run, women’s sexuality enterprise.” Through a Web site and monthly parties, CAKE claims to be providing a “fresh vision of women’s sexuality,” one that will help us all “take the next step in achieving female sexual equality.” Some critics (Levy included) have alleged that despite good intentions, CAKE’s vision is actually pretty stale. Regardless, Gallagher and Kramer now have a book of their own. A Piece of Cake: Recipes for Female Sexual Pleasure is set up as a bible to female sexuality, an all-inclusive manual that will tell and teach a girl everything she needs to know. Theirs is a bold promise: CAKE will liberate you, CAKE will satisfy you. CAKE will get rid of your inhibitions. CAKE will set you free.

Gallagher and Kramer may be glad to have a hand in your liberation, but only if it arrives as part of their brand-centric program. No more than a couple of sentences are allowed to pass without some reminder that this is a CAKE production (yes, “CAKE,” all in caps, though it’s not an acronym). Readers are invited to imagine the "CAKE vibrator" (which would be distinguished from all other sex toys by such useful and totally inspired features as style, quality and versatility), and encouraged to buy "CAKE approved" items like pearl thongs. Perplexed about what to call a man who is open-minded about sex? "Welcome to the new, new kind of guy. Let's call him a CAKE Boy." Looking for an alternative to the "male gaze" critiqued in your Women's Studies classes? "We like to call this the CAKE Gaze." Curious about where your desire for women falls on some kind of continuum? "We like to call this the CAKE scale." Clumsy dessert metaphors also run rampant.

Like many writers struggling to set their work above and apart from feminism while relying on its foundations, Gallagher and Kramer can sound indignant when they think they're throwing feminist theory back in Gloria Steinem's face: "[Ashley] is an exhibitionist and a voyeur and a woman who believes in defining her fantasies however she chooses… Telling Ashley that the men watching have all the power and she is just a victim is demeaning" (italics original). But they also don't deny their own feminism, and in some places the rhetoric is almost painfully unfiltered: "The vibrator plays two overlapping but contradictory roles in today's culture -- one as a tool for sexual pleasure and empowerment, the other as a widget powering the billion dollar 'adult novelty' business." Explicit instructions for G-spot stimulation butt awkwardly up against the suddenly stone-faced “Sappho’s Riddle: The Evolution of Sexual Identity.”

Gallagher and Kramer are fond of dreamy statements like "Anonymity resolves the issues of consequences. There are no sacrifices. No one gets hurt." And, "Instead of silly headlines fitting [sic] babies against careers, we need to hear news flashes like 'First Female President Strips for a Cause, Pregnant! -- and Has Baby While in Office!'" Um, what? At the end of a true story about a 25-year-old women who jerks off in front of her boss (15 years her senior, but who was, to be fair, "a dead ringer for Bruce Willis"), they soothingly conclude, "The next day, they joked casually together about what they would tackle next. In this case, mutual masturbation kept things casual, erotic though it may have been." It's easy to imagine the CAKE response to someone expressing concern about how exhibitionism might affect a professional environment: Hey, it is my right to fuck a co-worker on the office copier! Such simplistic responses to feminism’s perceived shortcomings only make the authors sound careless, if not clueless.

CAKE’s blatantly consumerist vision of sex urges that women buy sex toys, lingerie and porn, attend elaborate parties and accessorize with expensive drinks. And here I thought sex was cheap recreation. Some pieces seem like they were written through giggles and a sugar high, like when a Brazilian wax is compared to an acid trip. Gallagher and Kramer can’t decide whether they think sex is hilarious or completely serious. This tension is one of the more honest things about the book -- after all, it’s both -- or would be, if its authors would quit the generalizations and admit that sex is complicated. Instead, their writing continually trips over its own contradictions, and their relentless cheerleading on behalf of the female orgasm proves that single-mindedness when it comes to sex is as irritating in women as it is in men. An abundance of first-person fantasies and stories are a welcome distraction from this self-help program (some even deserve repeat readings). But while a book of women's short sex stories told without narrative interference is a good idea, these snippets aren’t worth the price of the book. There’s something creepy about dirty stories being a literal ingredient in a recipe that yields “One Complete Woman,” and it’s not so difficult to find quality erotica these days that we need to rely on what’s between these pink velvet (yes, velvet) covers.

A Piece of Cake is not totally devoid of good qualities. The mission that drives CAKE -- to assure women that their pleasure is important, and that they need to take responsibility for having good sex -- is worthwhile. Showing women how to get themselves off is important. Some of the practical advice is useful, and hot. But it's not so new as the authors would like us to think. CAKE comes off as false marketing, sorority-style exclusivity promoted like some kind of revolution. The book’s relative inanity wouldn’t matter if it didn’t come packaged as deliverance.

General membership to CAKE is by application, and will cost you a hundred bucks. It would be more productive -- but surely less profitable -- for Gallagher and Kramer to focus on encouraging honest communication about sex instead of claiming it as their own personal discovery. Last time I checked, hot sex didn’t require a membership card. Why don’t you go see for yourself?