Sex Camp—Book Reviews
by Jesse Monteagudo
SEX CAMP by Brian McNaught; Author House; 450 pages; $25.45. Brian McNaught is a gay icon. Though that term is used frequently these days, in McNaught's case it is well-deserved. He came out in 1974, before it became fashionable, and has since become the "godfather of gay sensitivity training" by his work as "a sexuality trainer and author whose primary focus are the issues facing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, and those who live or work with them." McNaught's books On Being Gay - Thoughts on Family, Faith and Love, Gay Issues in the Workplace and Now That I'm Out, What Do I Do? are classics that belong in every gay person's book collection.
For many years McNaught has been a staff member at "Sex Camp," which we are told is "an annual, week-long, intensive workshop in human sexuality that has, over the past 30 years, dramatically impacted the lives of hundreds of everyday people, me included." Properly named the Annual Workshop on Sexuality at Thornfield [New York], "Sex Camp" brings together many people from many different backgrounds and opinions, and is no doubt the setting for many a lively conversation and profound discussion. McNaught must have thought that too, since he used his memories and experiences of "Sex Camp" to write Sex Camp, a lighthearted, fictional look at a "typical" week at the Camp.
Sex Camp features the most diverse cast of characters this side of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Among the 32 campers are a nun, an "ex-gay man," a cross-dressing heterosexual church organist, a "queer" activist, a homophobic Planned Parenthood educator, a hunky straight man in a wheelchair, two football coaches, and a half a dozen ministers, just to name a few. Add to that a "Sex Camp" staff of 6 intelligent, opinionated men and women (including McNaught, who appears in this novel as himself) and you have the makings of a lively, inspiring, and explosive novel. Those who participated in "Sex Camp" (according to this book) leave with more knowledge of sex than is possessed by 90% of the U.S. population (no surprise there), not to mention a week's supply of life-altering experiences and insights.
During "Sex Camp" the campers and the staffers discuss such important issues as sexual values, body image, "self-pleasuring," gender identity, sexual orientation, seduction, abuse, theology, and "turn ons." McNaught used those conversations as launching pads to discuss those issues, from various perspectives; and the result is an exposition that is as informative and definitely more entertaining than what you would find in a scholarly dissertation. McNaught should be commended for his ability to write sympathetically about people whose views he does not agree with. (McNaught's portrayal of the "ex-gay" man, and other assorted homophobes, are good examples of his literary empathy.) Though there is much conflict and argument here, most of the campers eventually learn to respect each other and to listen to each other. If "real world" people could get along with each other the way these fictional campers do, the world would be a much better place.
Sex Camp is more than a seminar in human sexuality, of course. And it is more than an introduction to "the world's best kept secret." It is also an entertaining story; and a great way to spend a rainy afternoon, or a long train trip. You might even want to attend "Sex Camp" yourself, after reading McNaught's fascinating rendition of it. Every member of Congress and the Bush Administration (not to mention the Vatican) ought to be required to spend a week at "Sex Camp." I can dream, can I?
Jesse Monteagudo is a freelance writer and gay book worm who lives in South Florida. He has never been to "Sex Camp" (yet).
an electronic newsletter written & published by Marty Klein, Pd.D.
Way, way back in the mid-'70s, my first big break as a sexologist was coming to the attention of pioneer sex educator Sol Gordon. Having founded Syracuse University's Institute for Family Research & Education, Sol (issue #6) also created the Annual Workshop on Sexuality at Thornfield - the most magical, meaningful, life-changing summer week in which a rookie sex educator could ever hope to find himself.
While there I met many of the leaders of the Golden Age of American sex education, including Michael Carrera (issue #18), Lynn Leight, Mary Lee Tatum, and Brian McNaught. Brian wasn't the first gay man I ever met, but he was the first to help me understand two things: the pain of growing up gay in a culture that hated homosexuality, and why homophobia mattered fully as much to straights as to gays. (Many years later I'd write about one of those reasons for Playboy, titled To Anti-Sexuals, We're ALL Gay.)
Brian went on to become a corporate and university trainer on policy issues relating to sexual orientation, and is, according to The New York Times, "the godfather of gay sensitivity training." I still use an excerpt of Brian's video "On Being Gay" when I train social workers, and it always, always touches the hearts of those who see it.
Now Brian has written about the Thornfield experience in a wonderful book called Sex Camp. Please buy Sex Camp and read it. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll learn about sex - and you'll learn about learning about sex, which is even funnier and more moving. The book describes the Workshop just a few summers ago, with a fascinating cast of characters and a breezy, familiar style that perfectly matches the informality and unpredictable nature of the place.
This is also a wonderful book for high school and college students, who will identify with the curiosity, secrecy, concerns about self-image, and thrill of self-discovery that most of the participants wrestle with during the Workshop.
I'm proud to say that several dozen of my readers have attended or staffed a Thornfield Workshop. For those of you who weren't quite so lucky, this book is the next best thing.
ANN L. HANSON
Minister for Children, Families and Human Sexuality United Church of Christ - Cleveland, OH
Based on the experiences of thirty-two people (plus five top-notch sexuality educators) at a week-long 'sex camp' experience at an Episcopal retreat center in upstate New York, Brian McNaught in his book, "SEX CAMP", challenges readers to become engaged in provocative sexuality education experiences and the relationships of attendees that are established (and disestablished) during their stay.
The people who come together represent a cross-section of humanity - a nun, an "ex-gay" man, a cross-dressing heterosexual church organist, a 'queer' activist, a homophobic Planned Parenthood educator, a UCC minister (!), two football coaches, and many more diverse sexual beings. During the week these fictionalized characters, all based on the stories of real life participants, come face-to-face with their own sexual history that includes trauma, secrecy and ignorance. Each person is asked to identify the five events in their lives that have impacted their sexuality the most.
Under the watchful eyes and truth-filled hearts of the camp's leadership (including Pam Wilson who wrote the 7-9 grade Our Whole Lives resource!), participants become vulnerable and at their own pace, change their attitudes about sexuality and others in the group.
After reading the book, I was so disappointed that my name did not come up on their waiting list in time for me to attend the camp. It has been discontinued. However, because Our Whole Lives facilitator's training events do cover many of the subjects that are lifted up during the sex camp week, I am able to experience the transformative power of truth-telling.
This book is not for the uncourageous - it's for people who are open to new information and a willingness to dig deep within themselves in order to change some attitudes and become more sexually healthy.
by Mary Ann Horton
Summer Camp was never like this. Until now. Brian McNaught has broken new ground with his new novel, "Sex Camp."
A remarkably diverse cast of 32 campers comes together for a week of education about sex. They include sexuality educators, clergy, a man in a wheelchair, an ex-gay, and many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and most especially, realistic transgender characters. At the end of the week, they have changed in ways they never expected.
Even though the subject is sex, this is not porn. The book is frank, educational, and detailed. Only one sexual encounter is depicted, and it is integral to the story. The book feels like a week-long workshop, a chance to learn. The participants get to know one another and bond over the course of the week.
The author, Brian McNaught, is one of the best known sexuality educators in the US. He gives "Gay 101" training in Fortune 500 corporations, and while he's expensive, he's worth every penny. I've had the opportunity to get to know Brian when he trained departments and employee resource groups at AT&T and Lucent. Over time, his GLB training has become an outstanding GLBT course.
Sex Camp has been described as the worlds best kept secret, an opportunity to learn about all topics related to sex. The participants come based on strong recommendations from their friends and colleagues who went in previous years. Reading the book, I could picture myself going, but I knew it would be hard to afford. Now, for the cost of a book, you can be there, sharing the experience.
WHITE CRANE - GAY SPIRIT, WISDOM & CULTURE
Reviewed by Toby Johnson
Brian McNaught has been one of the leading lights in gay men's confrontation with religion and culture for decades now. A very openly gay man, formerly the Gay Community Liaison in the Boston Mayor's office, and author of several books including On Being Gay (1988), McNaught has been a sex educator and corporate diversity consultant dealing with gay issues in the workplace. One of his ongoing roles has been as a trainer in the Sexual Attitudes Reassessment (SAR) program held annually at an Episcopal Church owned retreat camp in the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
The book, titled "Sex Camp" (with the quotations marks in the title), is a fictionalized account of what has gone on over the years at that annual summer program, only half-jokingly referred to by the staff as "sex camp" (hence the quotation marks). Part novel, part sex education documentary, the book recounts one of the week-long trainings, complete with lectures on various aspects of human sexuality (including, of course, homosexuality, transsexuality, and all the variations), verbatim presentations of participants' sexual histories, and stories of their interpersonal relationships and clashes, both in the classroom and outside.
While reading this book would not exactly be a substitute for real sexual attitudes reassessment training, it comes awfully close. Reading about experience is never the same thing as having experience, but there are many experiences people have vicariously and/or are welcomed into by reading about them. Participating in a SAR program is something many of us will never actually do, so the account of somebody else's participation can be quite enlightening. AND because participation in a program like this can be threatening in prospect, reading about other people's experience can make it less intimidating.
Actually it's surprising to discover that reading about other people's participation can be as interesting as McNaught makes it. When I first ordered this book from Lambda Rising bookstore, I'd thought it was going to be a comedy novel; I was preparing to go up to the annual Gay Spirit Camp at Easton Mountain and thought a humorous novel would be appropriate airplane reading. I was surprised then to discover that it's not a comedy and not exactly a novel. But it held my attention as well or better than any humorous novel. And that is precisely because it was real.
McNaught has a great way of recounting the lectures and participant interactions so that they read like a drama. The reader gets the experience of being at the church camp, hearing these talks, and seeing into the lives of the semi-fictionalized participants. The author even manages to create a certain amount of suspense and drama. The book is delightfully readable.
As a novelist myself, I have one criticism of the plot - and if this were characterized as a piece of fiction, it would be a damning criticism - and that is that the author is the first-person narrator of the book, but he recounts events in narrative style at which he is not present. You really can't do that in a novel. It's a serious violation of narrative voice and perspective. But it works fine in "Sex Camp" because the book straddles genres so smoothly.
A neat gimmick of the book is that the cover shows a cartoon-like sketch of the participants all lined up for a group photo, inside is a key that identifies all the characters by name, so the reader can actually see what the principles look like. And within the narrative, there is even an explanation of how this sketch came to be made. Cute!
"Sex Camp" is easy reading, pleasantly educational, and entertaining despite its length (at 450 pages, it's a hefty volume). It's a treat to meet Brian McNaught - as author and as character of the narrative.
If you've never done a SAR, if you're going to do one for work or just personal growth, or if you've done such a training in the past and remember the experience with fondness, you'll likely enjoy and benefit from reading "Sex Camp."
Toby Johnson is Books & Culture Reviews Editor and a former Publisher of White Crane.