Thirty five years ago, the brash and bestselling Sex Tips for Girls burst onto the popular cultural scene. Sadly, last week we learned that its author, Cynthia Heimel, died at age 70. (SEE OBITUARY AT END)
According to Wikipedia, Tips (1983) is a semi-satirical take on Cosmopolitan (and other “women’s” magazines) and their “how to please your man” approach to feminism based on Cynthia’s weekly Village Voice columns. Though she gives actual sex tips, Cynthia’s main focus is sexual self-confidence for women and the idea that women actually enjoy sex, as well as the rigors of dating.
Although possibly considered tame by contemporary standards of Sex in the City or this generation’s Cosmo, Tips was a sensation and cult classic. Heimel considered herself in between feminist worlds: too sexy to be an academic feminist and too angry for conventional women’s magazines. Nonetheless, in Tips, Cynthia created an icon of feminist humor.
I first discovered Tips in college at Brown University. 35 years ago, Brown was fertile ground for Cynthia’s hip how-to. At a hotbed for liberal feminists — especially those from Manhattan — Brown women were intent on enjoying the fruits of sexual liberation and revolution. On the other hand, as seen in The Pages of the Brighton Memorial Library, I — like most of my nerdy male peers at Brighton High School — was woefully, if not embarrassingly, inexperienced in the ways of love. Eager for any tips I could find, I bought the book and dove in. I was at least good at reading and taking notes.
To refresh my memory, I went to the Rochester Public Library’s Central Branch, the only local library to own Tips. The next closest is Drake Memorial Library at SUNY Brockport. With a large collection in its stacks, the RPL is well known for its diverse and broad offerings and helpful reference librarians.
A few passages I still remembered, and when finding the excerpts was still somewhat shocked — 35 years later — by Cynthia’s funny and fearless prose and topics (like “How to Get a Man to Perform Oral Sex” ¹). For example:
Here, Cynthia wittily lampoons conventional advice answers. And in the next pages, she offers times she really wanted to — and did. Cynthia gave me enticing — if mostly unrealistic — hopes for a date. But, of course, first I would need to get one.
Back then, I was entirely unused to a woman writer using the word “penis” in such an explicit — and apparently appreciative — way. Was it even legal? At the same time, the light tone is quintessential Cynthia as she demolishes thousands of years of guilt in a two part questionnaire.
Undisguised titillation aside, here Cynthia gives some common sense advice for our own times as we sift through sexual harassment. Guys, the above is how you know consent (and remember no means no). Girls, if you are interested, don’t send mixed messages.
Actually, once Cynthia gets past the sex, like in “Zen and the Art of Diaphragm Insertion,” her tips on what to do with all this sex still ring true. Both genders can find insight in “How to Cure a Broken Heart” or “The Great Boyfriend [Girlfriend] Crunch.”
On reflection, Tips helped me, if not my other male nerdy peers. Given its popularity, Tips became conversational fodder at parties as we — boys and girls — dissected Cynthia’s prose and arguments. Flirting through feminist literature. And eventually I did get a date. Thanks, Ms. Heimel.