I first heard about Thy Neighbor’s Wife when watching Netflix’s Voyeur, a documentary about author Gay Talese and a man who’d bought a motel solely so he could peep on the activities of those renting rooms. I found Voyeur fascinating, and so when I came across this on offer, I thought I’d give it a go.
Thy Neighbor’s Wife is a big, fat book, delving into the sexual mores of the American public, and the efforts of lawmakers to govern these, from the mid-twentieth century up until the seventies (before the spectre of AIDS). Talese charts the changing attitudes and some of the people challenging them – whether they were wife swappers, publishers, adulterers, club owners, sex gurus, lawyers, and so on – as American society swung from uptight and puritanical to permissive and free thinking, and back again (and so on, and so on). Talese does a good job of immersing you in his material, opening real windows into the lives and thoughts of his subjects, although at times this did lead to long stretches where it felt like I was reading a biography of Hugh Hefner – one of the people who clearly grabbed more of Talese’s interest, if not mine.
Instead I preferred the parts that dealt with the changing laws, and the arguments for those changes, although I did also find the sections on the gurus like John & Barbara Williamson, at whose houses and establishments people could come together and swap partners, fascinating from another perspective. I was interested to see how they went about recruiting and convincing people who seemed otherwise unsuited to that particular lifestyle to join them, as well as the reactions of the women in those partnerships in particular to these new arrangements (both women who were subjects, Barbara Williamson and recruit Judith Bullaro, spent nights alone sobbing whilst listening to their husbands sleep with other people, before emerging having apparently convinced themselves that they were up for it after all. I may be bringing my own biases to this – this would most likely unleash fury in me rather than a desire to fuck – but particularly in the case of Judith, I couldn’t help but feel that they weren’t perhaps being honest with themselves).
For a book purporting to look over the whole gamut of American sexuality, I did find that Thy Neighbor’s Wife had some rather large, glaring holes. It concentrates solely on the experiences of white, straight Americans, and when looking at sex workers goes no further than models, actresses and masseuses. If you’re going to claim to shine a light on American sex lives, then omitting every person of colour, anyone who enjoys the same sex, and anyone who solicits sex outside of a massage parlour, is a handicap that is too large to be ignored.
So, while Talese got points for his writing (which I really did enjoy), he gets them docked for failing to realise that America is and was so much more than white and straight.