REVIEW: The Intimacy Experiment by Rosie Danan

Naomi Grant has built her life around going against the grain. After the sex-positive start-up she co-founded becomes an international sensation, she wants to extend her educational platform to live lecturing. Unfortunately, despite her long list of qualifications, higher ed won’t hire her.

Ethan Cohen has recently received two honors: LA Mag nominated him as one of the city’s hottest bachelors and he became rabbi of his own synagogue. Low on both funds and congregants, the executive board of Ethan’s new shul hired him with the hopes that his nontraditional background will attract more millennials to the faith. They’ve given him three months to turn things around or else they’ll close the doors of his synagogue for good.

Naomi and Ethan join forces to host a buzzy seminar series on Modern Intimacy, the perfect solution to their problems—until they discover a new one—their growing attraction to each other. They’ve built the syllabus for love’s latest experiment, but neither of them expected they’d be the ones putting it to the test.

My thoughts

Although I haven’t read Rosie Danan’s first book in her Modern Love series, The Roommate, it’s been on my TBR for a while now because it features a sex worker who is actually painted in a positive way. (Why is that so rare? More sex-positive books about sex workers, please!) Similarly, The Intimacy Experiment features Naomi Grant, a sex worker turned sex-ed startup founder, who is trying to break into in-person teaching gigs using her online multimedia empire as her unique selling point.

I immediately liked Naomi, who is both larger-than-life and outspoken about sex and sexuality – and everything else in her life. She’s truly an entrepreneur, much like the many talented and independent sex workers I’ve met in my own life, and she’s trying to put her knowledge to good use by helping people, young and old, get better acquainted with their own bodies and their capacity for pleasure. Of course, in Puritan America, those things go together like water and oil, and even colleges are reluctant to hire her because they equate sex workers with bad publicity and worse moral values.

Enter Ethan, a cute rabbi, who Naomi immediately likes based on his looks, but who begins pursuing her for a professional matter: he needs to put butts in seats in his LA synagogue, or risk it shutting down for good. At first Naomi is skeptical. Why would a rabbi want to hire a former sex worker to talk to a bunch of uptight religious folks? Luckily she’s wrong about Ethan and his congregation: they’re open to new ideas and to the concept of a “Modern Intimacy” course that can reach a younger audience.

Of course, nothing is ever that simple, and when word gets out that Naomi Grant is leading this course, it’s both a blessing and a curse. Star power draws curious onlookers, and sex negativity draws haters. Swirl in the usual antisemitic threats to a synagogue and there’s a powder keg ready to explode (thankfully not literally) as protestors converge on the seminar and security has to be beefed up.

I really enjoyed this book, both for the cute and quirky relationship between Naomi and Ethan and for its exploration of modern Judaism. Ethan leads a Reform synagogue, which offers a lot more leeway for this plot to develop than an Orthodox community might, but there’s still some will-they-or-won’t-they? back and forth when it comes to questions like “Are rabbis allowed to date?” and “Will people view this relationship as somehow breaking religious laws or customs?”

Naomi, herself, is a non-observant Jew at the start of the book but dives back into religious study (at a competing synagogue, no less!) in order to embrace her faith and get to know more about Ethan’s job and duties to his community, and ultimately the argument about whether or not she’s “really” Jewish (her mother isn’t, but her father is) is solved with just a few lines. I would’ve been interested to see this question explored a bit further, since this issue seems pretty important to lots of folks and doesn’t seem quite as cut and dried to me, as a non-Jewish reader. I’m sure many of the synagogue’s board members have plenty to say on the subject, not to mention Naomi herself, given her fraught relationship with her faith. I feel like Naomi’s exploration of her Jewish identity is a bit glossed over, given the central narrative of dating a rabbi (with the potential for marriage), but overall I found their struggles to overcome Naomi’s celebrity persona provided plenty of issues for the couple to tackle together, and lots of opportunities for Ethan to step up and show he really practices what he preaches: compassion, tolerance, solving problems with words rather than fists, and generally being a positive male role model with an open heart and mind.

If you’ve ever wondered what sex workers do when they retire from performing, or what kinds of people might date current or former sex workers, The Intimacy Experiment provides a good glimpse into the lives of two people who embrace their sexual selves as readily as their spiritual selves. Highly recommended for anyone looking for a unique California romance with a prickly heroine and a cinnamon roll hero.