Laurie Taylor reads a believe-it-or-not guide to sexual excess
What Wild Ecstasy: the rise and fall of the sexual revolution

by John Heidenry

Simon & Schuster, pounds 17.99

Are you ready? Are you sure you're ready? Because despite the genial warning in the preface that "some sexually explicit passages in this book border on the pornographic", it can still be rather alarming to turn to the first sentence of Heidenry's 450-page investigation into what he insists on calling " the sexual revolution" and find that you're already being led into remarkably intimate territory.

"She is completely nude, lying on her back on a narrow hospital bed, her legs spread wide, droplets of perspiration forming on her body as her right hand - the finger nails painted bright red - feverishly rubs her clitoris..." This is what Heidenry likes to call "accurate, detailed and unflinching" reporting on the world of sexuality: an essential prerequisite, as he sees it, for telling the story of the changes that occurred in (mainly) American sexual attitudes and practices in the years from 1965 to the present day.

But it's also indicative of many of the problems that lie at the heart of this sprawling, erratic, endearing, often hilarious, piece of pseudo- academic social history. Consider the nude woman on the narrow hospital bed. She is, as we quickly learn from Heidenry, one of the first subjects in the famous Masters and Johnson experimental studies of the female orgasm. "What she is about to provide for the laboratory camera is historic proof that a woman's orgasm is not penis dependent, but anatomically and psychosexually self-sufficient."

Ah, so that's why she's sprawled (and incidentally, capitalised) so tantalisingly across the first paragraph. She's there to illustrate a scientific point: the lady with the red fingernails was one of the 382 women who took part in what Heidenry goes on to describe as "the most ambitious, most incongruous, and most secretive exploration into sexual physiology ever undertaken".

Let's take another peep at our experimental subject. It's not an easy task because we further learn from Heidenry that, on the videotape, "the voice-over is almost inaudible and the colour is faded". How is it, then, that our intrepid chronicler can be quite so certain about the precise colour of the fingernails that rub away so feverishly at that historic clitoris?

It would hardly matter if this were the only example in the text of poetic licence. Over and over again, Heidenry, with all the cheery disingenuousness of a Sunday tabloid, spends so much of his time wallowing in the actual details of unusual and aberrant behaviour that it is difficult to regard the accompanying analysis of changing moral attitudes as anything much more than window-dressing.

The problem is compounded by the author's obsession with the biographical characteristics of all those who at one time or another laid claim to be in the vanguard of sexual liberation. Analysis is suspended entirely as we delve back into the largely mundane and often self-destructive lives of such figures as Bob Guccione, Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, Alfred Kinsey, and Masters and Johnson themselves. So when, for example, we turn in Chapter Four to the subject of transsexuality we are met not by an historical survey of the phenomenon, which might provide some comparative purchase, but with a sensational and elaborately detailed case study.

"One morning in September 1965, a warmly personable, broad-shouldered, rather tall young Indiana woman named Roberta White decided to iron her penis..." Then, as if the point about her gender dissatisfaction hadn't quite been made, we also learn that Roberta's penis was much smaller than average; that she usually wet herself while urinating unless she squatted; that one day she tried to cut off her foreskin with a kitchen knife, and later "experimented with trying to liquefy her testicles by dunking them in near-boiling water".

With all this (and much, much more) to be revealed about Roberta's penile predicament, it's not too surprising to find that historical precedents rate a single clumsy sentence: "In fact, the first modern sex-change operation had occurred in Germany, in 1931, and references to hermaphrodites could be found in Greek mythology, ancient Rome, and seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe, where several prominent hermaphrodites wrote their autobiographies."

Matters become easier if one abandons any attempt to follow Heidenry's skeletal argument - which doesn't amount to much more than the mundane claim that America became increasingly liberated in all kinds of sexual matters between the Sixties and the Nineties, but is now experiencing a backlash - and simply lies back and enjoys the text as a Ripley's Believe It Or Not Guide to sexual excess. Forget the analytical significance of the Spermathon which took place one rainy November evening "within the clammy precincts of New York's Plato's Retreat", and revel in the news that it involved an occasional porn actress named Tara Alexander who took on 86 men, four at a time, in a non-stop six-hour performance. "Overcoming her initial anxiety, she eventually reached 24 orgasms during the course of the evening."

And why trouble yourself with Heidenry's contentious announcement that we are now on the edge of the fourth "momentous phase" of the Sexual Revolution, which will "strike at the very heart of deeply ingrained antisexual traditions, whether cultural, tribal, or religious", when you can catch up on the important developments in the art of fist-fucking. "In 1975 this perhaps most difficult of all sexual feats was taken to its logical culmination when some three hundred men gathered for a fist-fucking convention sponsored by the Fist Fuckers of America at a resort near Ossining, New York..."

You have to hand it to Heidenry. There aren't that many people who can write so casually and uncritically about fist-fucking and the 101 other sexual aberrations that flit in and out of this text like so many recipes for exotic dishes. But, after a time, one's admiration for his capacity to embrace so many forms of sexual behaviour is overtaken by despair at his lack of discrimination.

Feminists, gay crusaders, hard-core film makers, run-of-the-mill pornographers, small town swingers, and coprophiliacs are all happily accommodated under his one banner of sexual liberation. All are assumed to be marching to a uniform progressive beat. (Even Heidenry, though, can't quite allow the paedophiles to join the merry throng.)

Not for a moment does he consider the ambiguities at the heart of any indiscriminate quest for sexual liberation, least of all the contention of Michel Foucault and his followers that all those who passionately devote their lives to sexual emancipation are locked in an unholy alliance with those who seek to repress or censor its manifestations: an alliance which rests on their mutual subscription to the idea that sex is an all powerful, all-conquering, primeval force of nature.

This means that the only real baddie in Heidenry's extensive bibliography is the sociologist John Gagnon, who had the audacity to set back the noble cause of sexual liberation by producing a comprehensive survey showing that many people in America were rather less inclined to be promiscuous, homosexual and multi-orgasmic than the liberationists had always liked to believe. All of a sudden, Heidenry, who in an earlier chapter was happily condoning the statistical inadequacies of fellow liberationist Shere Hite, is transformed into a crusading methodologist. "What really differentiated the Gagnon study from other surveys was... the appalling lengths to which the researcher went to wring answers from interviewees. Many respondents... were reluctant to be interviewed. Yet in some cases the researchers visited - or harassed - them with up to 15 home visits to get their answers, and the more recalcitrant were bribed with $100 fees." Someone with less of an axe to grind might feel called upon to commend the researchers' persistence.

It's probably a good thing that Gagnon's appearance is delayed until the last chapter of this extravagant (and essentially good-hearted) tour of erotic sense and nonsense. There is, after all, nothing that quite so effectively dispels illicit sexual arousal as a large bucket of cold water.