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Sex Outside the Lines: Authentic Sexuality in a Sexually Dysfunctional Culture Hardcover – July 14, 2015
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New York Journal of Books
About the Author
Dr. Donaghue is nationally recognized as a sex and relationship expert, lecturing at Universities, and appearing on Logo TV’s Bad Sex, and having been featured in Newsweek, and seen on CNN, OWN, Dr. Drew’s Lifechangers, and National Geographic.
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That picture, as represented by this book, is dismally disappointing.
Donaghue is eager to tear apart traditional sexual mores, and I applaud that. Unfortunately, in his zeal, he makes no effort to understand the history of sex and relationships. He repeatedly refers to monogamy and traditional marriage agreements, for example, as “arbitrary.” He seems to imagine some kind of reverse Garden of Eden, in which humans lived in complete sexual freedom before the dark agents of society came in and ruined all the fun. He demonstrates no understanding of the biological, physical and economic realities that shaped the relationship traditions of the past and present. Some of these traditions are damaging and outdated now that those realities have changed, for sure, but they’re not arbitrary. And I don’t see how we can create a new, functional, sex-positive culture if we don’t understand where the old one came from. Donaghue has no patience for this.
Scattered between Donaghue’s interesting insights are some alarmingly stupid assertions, such as one that monogamy is no longer a realistic goal because we’re living longer today than ever before. Really? So monogamy was fine when we were only living into our 60s, but once we get into our 70s and 80s we really need some sexual variety? Nonsense like this doesn’t reflect more than a moment’s thought, let alone scientific rigor. I would expect better than this from a “certified sex therapist.”
That brings me to a disheartening point. Donaghue brings up his professional credentials frequently, but I can't even find what school he went to. I resorted to a Google search and all I could turn up was a Reddit conversation with a producer for Dr. Drew, who listed Donaghue as one of his least favorite guests and added, “Found out he's not actually psychologist at all; he has a PhD in sexuality from a diploma mill.” I don’t know if that’s true or not, but given that Donaghue doesn’t think his school is worth listing—he does, however, list the TV networks he’s appeared on—and given his casual disregard for empirically-based information, I find myself less than assured about Dr. Donaghue’s credentials.
To be fair, Donaghue is pretty open about his disregard for science. He writes: “If psychology as a science were instead seen as theory and not truth or fact, psychology could return to its philosophical roots.” He essentially argues that, because there is bad science out there, science should be scrapped altogether and replaced with his shoot-from-the-hip style of sexual propaganda.
And propaganda, sadly, it is. Donaghue pretends to advocate for a judgment-free sexual society. But his prescription is filled with judgment. For example, he doesn’t just argue that we should be open to relationships that don’t fit the traditional model of lifelong monogamy—a noble goal. He takes the extra step of pathologizing any emotions that might constrain a partner’s sexual behavior. Instead of offering practical advice on how someone might handle jealousy when venturing into non-monogamy, he just moralizes that we’re not allowed to project our anxiety onto our relationships—and shame on anyone who does.
As an unmarried heterosexual, cisgendered male—at least three of these traits also describe Donaghue—I couldn’t help but recognize in Donaghue’s writing the kind of noble-sounding rhetoric we who fit that description might use to convince women to sleep with us. Sure, I’m totally concerned about sexual freedom for everybody, not just myself. Sex is no big deal, and we shouldn’t judge. So let’s get out of here and go to my place—oh, and I don’t mind that you have a boyfriend either.
Donaghue leaves out anything that might conflict with his worldview. He argues that there is no such thing as a sexual disorder, and actually makes interesting points about how one can have a satisfying sex life in spite of what is typically labeled erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation or sex addiction. But he conveniently ignores the question of bestiality or pedophilia (again, alarming for a “certified sex therapist”). He derides feminists who are quick to label male courting behaviors as “harassment,” but can’t even spare one sentence to acknowledge that sexual harassment (and assault) is a real problem, and probably a more pervasive one than feminism run amok.
I add a second star because Donaghue does stumble into some fairly decent advice (date people who challenge you rather than going for the “safe” option; relationships can be renegotiated over time; prioritize building friendships; don’t confine yourself to relationship models that don’t work for you; etc.), and because we need more alternative, sex-positive voices out there. It would be helpful, however, if those voices were at least passingly interested in social science and professional rigor. Donaghue clearly isn't.