My Non-Thing Holiday Gift Guide

Recently, two friends and a few readers have asked if I’m planning to pull together a sex-themed gift guide. We’ve done this in the past and may do so again this year. I’ve heard from people who have bought the books, art, and sex toys we’ve suggested and their relationships and/or orgasms have been the better for it, so that’s encouraging. Certainly, books and sex toys can make a difference in a person or a couple’s sex life, relationship, or marriage – especially when they are chosen with thought. But, these days, my heart and mind are elsewhere.

As holiday shopping emails arrive in my Inbox at an ever-feverish pace, my eyes scan for the “unsubscribe” link and I disengage from all but my favorite stores. I like the gift of fewer emails, and fewer “buy now” emails specifically, and it turns out that this is a gift that I can give to myself and I do. When I unsubscribe from emails I don’t want, my Inbox and mind are less cluttered and I have more time with friends and family. I also don’t get roped as easily into buying something I don’t want/need and thus I will hopefully have more money to use to visit far-flung friends and family. I unsubscribe from paper catalogs, too.

As for gifts, I want less glassware and more hugs. (An exception: I once received glassware that was full of thought and that makes all the difference.)

So, maybe less generic glassware and more hugs. And fewer gift cards and more lazy lunches with friends and family. In some ways, life is long and there’s much time to do the things we want to do. In other ways, life moves quickly when we’re busy working and running around. And, as some of us know from losing people we’ve loved, one rarely knows when someone’s time here is running out.

So, less glassware. More hugs. More lunches.

I’ll also take more walks in the woods, alone or with friends. I have a friend in California and neither of us are big phone talkers. But when work brings me to San Francisco, she takes me kayaking in Sausalito and hiking in Muir Woods or to the beach with her dog. When life brings her here, we sit on a friend’s porch, drink wine, and laugh a lot. I’m happy that, for 2013, we’ve already made plans to hang out. More wine, more walks sounds good.

And even though I’m not a big TV fan, every now and then a show catches my eye. Parks and Rec is a favorite for me and so is Girls, which I think captures sex and relationships for women in their 20s and 30s in a way I’ve never before seen. When I was in NYC last month for Glamour’s Women of the Year awards show and Girls writer/director Lena Dunham received one of the awards, I felt genuinely happy for her and for women and their partners everywhere. The women on Girls say things out loud that many of my female students think about sex/guys/penises/dirty talk/vaginas/bodies/fat but don’t always feel powerful enough in their lives or relationships to say. And here I’ll make an exception for this “non-thing” gift guide and say: Get Season 1 of Girls for women in your life who are in their 20s/30s or maybe get them a subscription to HBO so they can watch Season 2 when it starts (which is soon). Sit with your friends and watch Girls. Talk about it. Maybe you’ll hate the show or be bored by it, but perhaps you will like it. The show has resonated with many young and young-ish women and maybe it would be good for you to find out why, especially if you have a daughter in her 20s and want to connect with her about her life and relationships.

As for sex toys, you can search for many honest-to-goodness reviews of products here on My Sex Professor. If you have a partner and gift them with a sex toy, though, try to suggest that the gift you’re giving isn’t limited to the product itself. If you’re gifting someone with a sex toy, perhaps you’re also suggesting to them that you want to give more of yourself to your partner, sexually. Maybe you want to spend more time in bed together (less glassware, more hugs; and naked hugs are particularly satisfying to the soul when they’re with someone you care for). Maybe you’d like to create more intimacy, more connection, more time for your relationship and less time for the billion work or volunteer or civic responsibilities you or they have taken on.

I would also like to see more second chances this season, for everyone. Or more third chances as the case may be. Stewart’s Coat is a song I love and especially the part that goes “Just give me many chances, I’ll see you through it all, just give me time to learn to crawl.” Maybe I like these lines because I’m a sap. But I think I like them because no one is perfect. We all mess up. I’ve messed up more than I can say as has everyone around me and as have countless people who write to me for advice on their sex lives and relationships. Don’t be a doormat, but do give the people you love, and who love you back, time to learn to crawl. Most of us are well-intentioned people doing the best we can.

There are other ways to give this year. Some might suggest giving to Hurricane Sandy relief efforts and that’s a good idea. I went through Hurricane Andrew in Miami in 1992 and recovery takes days for some and years for others. And though we had it fairly bad (our house was destroyed), many people had it much worse than our family did. We always had a roof over our head, even if it wasn’t our own roof at first. Victims of natural disasters lose much in the blink of an eye. But there are likely people in your own community who are in great need, too, even if their stories don’t make the news. Some organizations (churches, temples, homeless shelters, children’s organizations, HIV/AIDS service organizations) run food or gift drives. You may be asked to buy clothes or shoes or household items for someone in need. This is a great way to meet someone’s basic needs or to give toys to a child to open during a holiday season in which they might otherwise not have a gift to open. You can also donate blood through the Red Cross.

I can’t seem to discuss gift giving without the gift of words, because words in the form of music, books, poetry, and talking with people I like mean a great deal to me. You don’t have to write a poem from scratch to bring poetry into someone’s life. You can find a book of poems (I’ve always liked Pablo Neruda and ee cummings) and gift that to your partner. Or you can search a site like Poetry Foundation and create your own custom compilation (it’s free!), print the poems you like, and bind them beautifully in a book you can read together at night before bed, or on the sofa while lounging around together.

You can spend more time cooking together, too. Buy a cookbook (new or used) and make it a point to try out a new recipe every week or every month together. If you like to shop locally and keep dollars in your community, shop at a used bookstore or see if a local school or (preferably sex-positive) church is selling cookbooks as a fundraiser.

Asking someone on a date is a nice holiday gift, too, in the spirit of spending more time together. Dates are fun! Humans need other humans. We may not always be good at figuring out how to be those humans, and that’s what practice is for. But be clear about what kind of dating you’re doing. The wrong kind of dating can be hurtful. If you’re seeing other people, let the person know. Honesty is a really good gift. It frees everyone from going down a path they’re not into. If you are only interested in one person at a time, say that too. As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote to his daughter, “I’m hopelessly monogamous”. Some of us only have room in our hearts for one passionate like or love at a time, and that’s okay. Other people date as if they’re window shopping. Just say what you’re doing with some honesty.

Now let’s talk cards. If you care very much about someone, why not write a message from your heart? There is no rule that says a card’s message has to be limited to pre-printed lines like “Happy Holidays!” with your name signed below. That’s fine for bulk mailings of cards, but to your closest of close? Come on, people.

A few last things to consider:

If you’re a parent, give your kids the gift of sex education. If they’re little, read them age-appropriate books like “It’s So Amazing!” and “It’s Not the Stork!” The new book, “What Makes a Baby?”, is terrific, too.

If you’re out there in the world having sex with potentially new partners or multiple partners, give yourself and them the gift of sexual health, or confidence about who they’re having sex with! Get tested for sexually transmitted infections (STI) like chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and HIV. And pick up some condoms and water-based lubricant while you’re at it.

If you’re in love, then love someone with all your might. Hug, kiss, and squeeze your partner with gusto. Let yourself be taken in by someone. Let someone else take you in, too. Eat soup together. Take a walk. Hold hands. Snuggle. Be tender with one another. I think these are among the lovelier gifts in the world, the kind that when you give them it feels – at the very same time – that you’re receiving them too. People and love break more easily than glassware, but I’d still choose people and love any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

PS With all of the above said, and meant, some people desperately need things, money, gift cards to make their lives easier, to stay warm, or to survive. Please do take care of your friends, family, and strangers in need with things as well as with your time and love.

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About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at