Book Review: Mind the Gap (Karen Gurney, 2020)

[photo from unsplash]

I didn’t really like this book, but because it was recommended to me by one of my closest friends who got a lot out of reading it, I won’t throw out the baby with the bath water, so I’ll attempt a balanced review. No promises, though.

My issue with the book is simply that the author, Karen Gurney, seems to be under the illusion that her book is going to help every woman with any issue with sex imaginable: “this book is for all women (or female identifying people) of any age”. Well, it isn’t. Setting aside “female identifying people” as the well-meaning but really confused response to the difference between sex and gender that it is, this is a lovely sentiment. She repeatedly asserts that she is speaking to all women (regardless of race, age, sexuality, queerness, trans/cis-ness, relationship status…) and reiterates that a wide range of women have come to see her in her practice, which in turn influenced her writing of the book. She makes promises which it is true that most people would likely be able to relate to: “I’m hoping that you picked up this book because you can see the potential for more satisfying sex life.” Sounds great, right?

However, it actually seems to be mainly aimed at cis women having sex with cis men in sexually and romantically exclusive long term relationships, who experience anxiety around their libido which they feel is low, may have pain with sex, and are worried about their capacity for fantasy and desire as compared to their boyfriend/husband/partner. This is an admirable topic for a book, and judging by the reviews, there is an enormous readership who have benefited from the author’s work. I just wish it had been marketed as being for this particular population, rather than #ALLWOMEN.

However, without going into too much detail into my own love and sex life, I couldn’t relate to vast quantities of the book. This is a huge shame because the book is designed to make women feel less anxiety around their relationship with sex and intimacy, and is meant to let us step away from the ideas of what is “normal”. And yet, many of the statistics and anecdotes designed to make me feel like I’m not alone actually left me feeling like an alien – left out of the world of the already left out.

Imagine being lactose intolerant and being told you will still get loads out of reading a book about cheese.

Imagine being someone who loves horror movies, reading a book that keeps telling you (in quite patronising language, to my taste) that “in a study, 9 out of 10 women actually said they hate horror movies so don’t feel bad about disliking them”.

Imagine being someone who loves dancing dog shows and is sad about the fact that there are so few dancing dog shows in your town, and then reading a book which tells you that if you like pirouetting pups, you have been brainwashed by society because “most women” actually don’t like watching canines do the can-can and if you think you do, it just means The Man has won and you need to reconsider your dance preferences in order to be truly happy because more hip-hopping hounds definitely won’t do the trick and if you keep buying tickets to the Beagle Ballet, you’re actually reinforcing the problem and making it harder for other women to get their dance rocks off.

And then the book tells you, paradoxically, that you shouldn’t let anyone tell you what kind of dance shows you should like. Massive eye roll.

[photo from unsplash]

Coming back from doggy dance land, this brings me to my next point: I found a lot of the book quite contradictory. How can we reconcile the idea that “all of us can, an should, strive for our sex life to get better and better over time” with the reassurance that “sex is not a competition in which your body needs to be trained to do more and more.” To be fair, she does try to settle this conundrum, but it didn’t satisfy me as an argument.

This is not to say that I got nothing at all out of this book. There were certainly some interesting factoids, such as about the ‘gap’ from the title. According to several studies of sexual behaviour, women and men orgasm at roughly the same rate from masturbation (95%), but “when women and men have sex with each other, the rate of men usually or always orgasming stays at 95%, and for women it drops to 65%, with much lower rates reported by women for casual sex (only a depressing 18% of women usually or often orgasming during casual sex)”, whereas “woman who have sex with other women do not see such a significant drop in orgasms … (85%)”.

I particularly liked some of the thought-provoking scenarios she draws out, like asking yourself what would happen if the male orgasm wasn’t assumed during sexual encounters, but the female orgasm was. Or asking yourself why it is that we idolize the idea of spontaneous sex, and balk at the idea of scheduling time to connect physically, when this lack of intentionality isn’t at all the attitude we bring to other things in our life (think of how we make time to see friends, plan our meals and physical exercise, and are intentional about the way we spend our money). As you can see, though, that last one doesn’t transfer particularly well onto single life and considering that I and approximately 50% of the UK’s population is single, that was pretty disappointing.

I also liked the exercises scattered throughout the book, which encourage self-reflection and conversation with partners about what arouses us psychologically (i.e. the sight of a naked body, the thrill of having sex in a public place) and physically (i.e. having your hair pulled, a certain style of kissing). She has some good advice, such as applying mindfulness techniques and making sure to pay positive attention to (i.e. seeking out) things that might turn you on.

But ultimately, I couldn’t get over the one basic flaw of the whole book: the obsession with orgasms. Despite saying several times throughout the book that orgasms aren’t and shouldn’t be all there is to sex, ascending to what sometimes struck me as outright hostility towards male orgasms and pleasure (honestly, I say as an ARDENT feminist that this struck me as misandrist as points), this is ultimately a book based on the idea that the number of orgasms a woman is having during sex with another person is directly representative of how good or bad their sex life is, or how happy they are with it. For an author who claims to not want to make women anxiously obsess about the number of orgasms, she’s done an impressive job at writing 400 pages about the female orgasm (and here I do mean female because it’s alllllll clit-talk).

I couldn’t finish it. I will be tearing out the exercises and keeping them for future partners, and that’s it.

This certainly became more of a condemnation of the book than I meant it to be, and that’s because this book made me feel really bad about myself while I was reading it. Some of my marginalia is really sad and dark, and I didn’t finish reading because it made me feel like such an outlandish creature. I haven’t been so disappointed in a book in a long time. Rightly or wrongly, I felt hurt by a lot of what she said, and so it was a matter of self-care and freedom to just put it down about 60% of the way through. That’s just me, though. Since my whole complaint is that she extrapolates too much from the specific to the general, it would be hypocritical of me to do the same. I  didn’t get on well with this book, but according to goodreads, about 80% of readers gave it four or five stars. On Amazon it was 90% and on Audible it was 94%. I’d give it two.

I genuinely believe that much of Karen Gurney’s knowledge can really, really help many people. I’d especially  recommend it to women who come from conservative and possibly religious social backgrounds, who wish they had more desire/libido/fantasies, who don’t know that their clitoris is the size of an orange, or who have never felt confident thinking much about their sexuality. I don’t mean to suggest that women who get something out of this book are less sexual, or cool, or exciting. I just mean this book wasn’t for me.

If I may suggest an alternative, head towards Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity. It’s a bit more dated, and focused on the US rather than the UK, but I think it does a more honest and generous job of allowing people in long-term relationships to make room for diverse ways of experiencing desire, arousal, intimacy, sexuality and romance. At the risk of sounding glib, I think the difference between Karen Gurney’s Mind the Gap and Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity is the difference between asking a psychologist and a psychotherapist for advice about your sex life. One will respond with statistics and studies about people who match your demographic profile, and the other will listen and respond to you.

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