Like a lot of women who became women in the 1980s, Cynthia Heimel’s Sex Tips for Girls was my bible. It wasn’t my guide to having sex, but it lit the way for this female in figuring out how to be a savvy, sassy member of my sex. Cynthia died recently, at age 70, and a generation of nasty women mourned.
Studying how to navigate life as a woman has been my lifelong full-time job. Being one’s best, authentic self in a society that didn’t necessarily want or care about the best my gender could offer wasn’t always easy. Back in the 80s and 90s, Cynthia Heimel, the writer, made it a lot easier. More recently, Cynthia Heimel, the friend, added another layer of insight, compassion and humor to the books that had originally made me such a fan.
Cynthia always said she was a humorist, not a “sexpert”, but in the end she ended up being successful as both. It may be hard for young women to imagine, but there was a time before Broad City, Sex and the City, the Amys, Kims, and the Lil Kims, when women’s sex lives weren’t part of pop culture or the cultural narrative. Sex meant men and men’s desire. Women were involved chiefly as bikinis, boobs and butts. Their inner lives were relegated to lists of “turn-ons” and “turn-offs” in Playboy magazine. (These lists rarely included Tolstoy novels or man’s inhumanity to man.) Men were consumers; “chicks” were the consumed. (And these chicks looked a certain way, dressed and talked a certain way, and God forbid they should be over 30.)
I grew up practically memorizing every page of my mother’s Cosmopolitan magazines. Anyway, I was definitely mesmerized. In the 70s, Cosmo told you, in breathless and oft-italicized detail, how to look sexy, dress sexy, act sexy and have sex sex-y. The main idea was to craft, enhance, and use whatever sexual power a gal could muster. (It seemed to be the primary, if only, power a woman might leverage.) Helen Gurley Brown often referred to herself and any less than overtly bombshell-y female as a “mouseburger” — women “who had to work hard to make themselves be heard, seen and appreciated.” To 12-year-old me (and yes, to 17-year-old me), it all sounded glamorous. It also sounded like a lot of hard work.
Then Cynthia Heimel came along. She was cool, funny and a feminist. She made women the subjects, not the objects. Cynthia made being the sexy protagonist in your own life not sound like hard work. She made it sound like fun. (Well, most of the time.) Thanks to her books, like the seminal (no pun intended) Sex Tips for Girls,
I was able to write a piece about fellatio for BUST magazine. (It was later included in BUST’s book anthology, The BUST Guide to the New Girl Order. Ladies, you haven’t lived until you’ve done a reading of your blowjob essay at Barnes & Noble in front of an audience that included your boyfriend, mother and several co-workers.)
Again, to women under 40, writing about oral sex for a women’s magazine may not seem like a big deal. But this was way back in those halcyon days before Monica Lewinsky. (If you don’t know who that is, well, jeez.) You never really heard women talk about blow jobs, and when you did, it was usually in some context like, “Well, it was his birthday.” But it wasn’t just that my article was all, “Yay, blow jobs.” For me, what felt most freeing about my piece wasn’t just that I could write it and not be ashamed, it was that I could be funny. I could find fellatio not just fun but funny.
And I owed that to Cynthia Heimel. Cynthia’s tips included such pearls of wisdom as, “Do not laugh and point at the penile member”; don’t say, “My husband did it exactly the same way,” and she advised women not to imitate Joan Rivers in bed.
In a book review in The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “Like Dorothy Parker, Ms. Heimel is an urban romantic with a scathing X-ray vision that penetrates her most deeply cherished fantasies.” Like Ms. Parker, Cynthia’s humorous wisdom (or was it wise humor?) came from a deep well of experience familiar to intelligent, somewhat liberated women still self-aware enough to kid themselves about how chained they were to the pathos society’s paradigm imposed.
Heimel also came by her skill the old-fashioned way, by writing – and reading. Cynthia was a passionate reader, and like me, a huge P.G. Wodehouse and Robert Benchley fan. She wrote a lot, and wasn’t picky about for whom. She edited at The Soho Weekly News, left briefly to work at Penthouse magazine, returned to the paper, and later went on to pen her popular (and very funny) advice column — “Dear Problem Lady” for New York’s The Village Voice. (She also wrote a fashion column called “Tongue in Chic”.) When an incoming Village Voice editor fired her in 1997 Cynthia told the press, “I feel like I’ve walked into a Kafka novel where old stupid guys get to fire you.” No big whoop; Heimel went on to write for New York magazine, The Daily News, and Vogue.
For a while Cynthia was fairly prolific. After Sex Tips for Girls and Advanced Sex Tips for Girls, she published several more collections like If You Can’t Live Without Me, Why Aren’t You Dead Yet? in 1991, and in 1993 there was Get Your Tongue Out of My Mouth, I’m Kissing You Goodbye! Later, Ms. Heimel adapted Sex Tips and her 1986 collection, But Enough About You, into a theatrical piece called A Girl’s Guide to Chaos. Some of the material came from her column at Playboy, where she had gamely tried to womansplain women to publication’s less-than-lit readership. Cynthia once said she had been “in the missionary position” at Playboy, “holding high her feminist credentials amongst the stampeding bunnies.”
Most of Cynthia’s obits held that she was THE precursor to Candace Bushnell/Carrie Bradshaw, Bridget Jones, and more than a few storylines on HBO’s Girls. And while it’s certainly true that she laid (no pun intended) the foundation upon which modern-day sexually unapologetic heroines came and conquered, she was more.
Cynthia was instrumental in fashioning female funny that didn’t rely on self-deprecation or creating a dumb foil to make the humor palatable, as geniuses like Anita Loos and Gracie Allen have done before her. Cynthia didn’t just liberate libidos, she freed up females to go ahead and unabashedly strut their funny. Her savvy, sophistication and sass were just as big a deal as her sexy. And Cynthia, I hope you know that women, writers, readers, and mouseburgers everywhere are very indebted. Thank you.