Five, maybe six, excited by her return, wanting to share something with her—a bit of news, myself—I burst into her bedroom. The unexpected darkness there told me I had done something wrong. Faint evening light edged the closed venetian blinds. I sensed her presence in a corner to my left. There in a shadowy dark, my mother stood, undressing.
The underneath of her, the body below the protective clothing I had always known her through, was visible as if for the first time. Soft, fleshy parts of her I had felt but never remembered seeing now suddenly appeared, sickeningly alluring and, I somehow knew, to be avoided. Dark bits of underthings, flashes of metal and straps stretched tightly about her body held her in, covered up the rest of her. She seemed so complicated—disparate fragments of translucences and opacities, inviting pools and intimidating depths.
Her front leaned forward slightly. As if tied behind her back, her hands were awkwardly undoing one of the contraptions. She smiled uncomfortably. “You shouldn’t be in here,” she said in that strange tone I had only overheard from other rooms. We were confused. I blushed, wanting to look up at her again and being afraid to. For a moment I peeked and saw again the outlines of her broad curves, flecks of light and dark. I wanted and feared that fabric and skin in sharp contrast. I could not say something.
I was stopped. For some reason, I could not run into her arms and be held. The joy I ran into the room with had been replaced by spooky unease. How much I had wanted to kiss her ears, smell her powderiness, feel her fleshy presence and be lost in the infinite softness of her, making her laugh with my attentions. But now there was some boundary not to be crossed. My visual knowledge of her and her awareness of that knowledge of her and her awareness of that knowledge checked my desire. A unity had been destroyed. A formerly unqualified haven, she had suddenly developed limits the nature of which were still unclear but whose emergence into reality had been thunderous.
If you want to be a sex therapist, a certified sex therapist, the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists requires you to experience something called a Sexual Attitude Reassessment (SAR). In addition to small group discussions, the SAR workshop, which is also open to couples and singles who wish to enhance their understanding of human sexuality, includes—indeed, is notorious for—the viewing of sexually explicit films.
I am not a therapist (sex or otherwise), nor am I (currently) part of a couple, but the moment I first heard about SARs something in me clicked; I wanted to line up for one instantly. It felt like a challenge. The idea of watching dirty movies in a group was scary enough—sex is supposed to be private isn’t it? Isn't that the message that I, and almost everybody else I knew, had been given since childhood? But then to go on and talk about the dirty movies seemed startling: what would happen if you took an essentially private activity—sex—and made it shamelessly public? What secrets would come out?
The very existence of SARs implied that perhaps sex didn’t have to take place-as it had throughout my life—only behind closed doors. My family’s attitude about sex had always been clear: it simply didn't exist. Throughout adolescence I had constantly discussed sex with male friends, but there, too, something felt hidden. Often paradoxically prudish about explicit details, these conversations had a nudge-nudge, wink-wink quality, as if life took place only in a locker room, as if to talk about love, anxiety, or shame might leave a dangerous mark against one’s masculinity. And female friends generally seemed to focus almost exclusively on the feelings aroused by sex, as if to discuss its embarrassingly physical aspect might debase what they felt.
Why was all that so? What was it all so charged? Maybe the experienced professionals who designed SARs had something to teach about why talking about sex—what we feel about it, what we do when we engage in it— is so upsetting to people, me included, and why it therefore remains off limits. I wanted the secrecy of sex, the mystery of sex, revealed and explained.
And then I also wanted to test myself, to see what prejudices and fears would pop up on being exposed to what for me was an incredibly wide range of previously unseen sexual activities. What might others find erotic that I would see as only disgusting or repulsive? In other words, I suspected that the SAR might answer the question: what made sex so “unspeakable” in both senses of the word?
There were only 11 of us, all very straight, very middle class, not a weirdo or sleaze among us: five couples who were broken up for our discussion groups (by chance, four of the five women were housewives) —a 50ish salesman and his wife, in matching jogging suits; a sincere young minister and his wife; a black academic couple, both in their fifties; an attractive young lawyer and his attractive young wife; and an energetic small businessman and his somewhat younger wife; all in therapy, all sent to the SAR in the hopes of improving sexual communication (although only the salesman revealed why he was there)—and me, alien single on this tiny planet of couples. Exceptionally quiet at first, we all managed to affect an air of remarkably false calm.
Our leader, Frank, certified sexologist and former schoolteacher, opened the workshop by reading us an allegedly humorous passage about society’s long-standing queasiness about the word “F-U-C-K.” Then, our first film, a tame animated short, showed a Smurf-like Adam and Eve experiencing something like the shame and confusion of puberty as they are forced to confront new parts of themselves suddenly popping into view.
The film is so sweet and Frank so earnest that we mistakenly begin to entertain the idea that we know more than we thought we did and that this whole weekend may turn out to be a piece of cake. We smile in recognition the comic cries of our cartoon forebears—What are these things called God?” “What are they for?” – remind each of us of more innocent days.
“It’s when your dick gets hard.”
Tommy was defining “boner” for me, word I’d heard in a joke. We were walking down the steep hill to Arch Street on our way to school, a few blocks away.
“What?” I said. I’d heard him but somehow couldn’t understand. It was one of those times when one part of my brain was working so hard it prevented some other part from absorbing what my ears were hearing.
“It’s when your dick’s hard,” he repeated, a little impatiently. Two years older, he was as embarrassed teaching as I was asking. We had dropped our standard comic personas so that real information could be conveyed, but without them the subject matter was too intimate. There was something sticky in the air between us, as thick as the fog in my brain. Things felt improper. The faster I got it and the topic changed, the better for both of us.
He elucidated: “Like when you wake up in the morning, or you see a girl, and your dick’s hard.”
“Yeah,” I said, still confused.
“That’s a boner.”
“Oh,” I finally realized, “that”. A rush of shame and desire flooded my arms as I remembered something:
A travelling amusement ride had double-parked on the block, recorded calliope music blaring from its primitive speaker. Garish yellow and blue mesh fencing partially obscured the ride whose name-the “up-down” ride? The swing?—nobody knew. Two sets of fire-engine red stairs faced each other, like a letter V with setbacks, forming two sets of bleachers. The whole contraption was suspended from a bar and, when pushed and pulled by the ride man, would swing back and forth like a giant cradle.
I had sat huddles on the next-to-the-bottom row, hands gently cupping the safety bar, scared and excited as the arc increased. On the uppermost tier opposite me was Christine, her dungarees tight against her thighs, her precious breasts stretching her sweater, her long hair fanning out on the downswing, her arms outspread, her half-mocking, half-real screams, her smile, her legs, her hair, her self filling the air, filling my chest. I could not swallow. I wanted to envelop her, be enveloped by her. The exaltation of her presence and the butterfly excitement of the sight and the motion, the sunlight reflecting off the central suspending bar had produced in me a powerful resonance, a stiffening focus of excitement in a body filled with excitement.
That has a name, I’d just learned.
“Thanks, man,” I said to Tommy.
Incredible how everything has a name.
Frank starts the SAR’s first real films. The moment is ripe with anticipation. Will the secret of sex become apparent by watching films? There are lots: videos, photomontages, a 16-millimeter shorts, some put together by sex institute is), others clearly porn films.
What do we see?
First, a series of stills of...vaginas: opened, closed, shaved, natural; then a similar display of penises: limp, erect, ejaculating, detumescing. The room is quiet. Nobody jokes, nobody coughs. Nobody moves. Sex is serious.
A film of women masturbating then follows. They stroke only their clitorises; no breasts, no thighs are touched. This single-minded focus on genitality is in stark contrast to the next film in which a man who, after hygienically examining himself for testicular cancer (presumably the results were negative), lies down on a silk-sheeted bed, thoroughly oils his naked body and, in colorful close-up, masturbates while inserting a vibrator in his anus.
At the break, our group is a little stunned by what it has seen and its own reaction. Was he gay?, some of us wonder, as if that would explain something other than our own homophobia. The elaborateness of his pre-masturbatory ritual seemed to our conventional minds a strong indication of homosexuality. Frank assures us, nonetheless, of the star’s heterosexuality.
“I don[t even know what I think,” I say, very confused. “I just watched a movie of some guy jerking off, shoving a dildo up his ass. Is that okay? I mean, do I have to stick up a dildo up my ass now when I jerk off?”
No one has an answer.
“Are we ready for more?” Franks asks, rubbing his hands gleefully, the leer in his voice palpable. His joking manner—that we’re there to be titillated, that this is somehow the last place on earth you can see sex films (every video store in the country notwithstanding) – doesn’t work. The films unsettle us, but if anybody’s turned on by them, they’re certainly not saying.
Back to the screening room.
Grainy footage of two smiling lesbians on a playground swing, then naked on a bed, making love. A well-made, late ‘70s pre-AIDS documentary about the gay life in San Francisco depicting, among other things, two men happily engaged in anal intercourse.
The group is really uneasy at the break. Nobody seems to care about the lesbian film (did we even see it?), but for all of us, women included, male homosexuality has touched an uncomfortable nerve.
“Well,” says the salesman, shaking his head, having given it a lot of thought, “I can take the two women, no problem. But I just—I’m sorry—I just can’t accept two guys butt-fucking. I just don’t understand that.” Tight-lipped, the women gently nod.
We go on to theorize why male homosexuality is more troublesome to us than female homosexuality. We discuss the problems of penetration, the messiness of semen. We analyze penises and asses. We examine the lack of symmetry in our reactions: why aren’t the women as uneasy in confronting lesbians as men seem to be about male homosexuals?
Well-meaning, curious, prejudiced, we try, to the best of our analytic abilities, to understand what our limits of tolerance are. But we can’t figure out what’s at the root of our discomfort, even as we fail to take note that we are discussing matters most of us have never discussed before.
A long silence.
“I didn’t even know there were homosexuals when I was a kid.” It’s Frank helping us out. He’s speaking in that can-you-believe-this-kiddies?-aren’t-you-filled-with-wonder? tone of voice used by hosts of children’s cartoon shows. “My parents sure never told me anything about sex.”
Everyone in the group, from 28 to 58, agrees. We all grew up in families never talking about the one subject that obsessed us most.
“Do you want to know what my sex education was?” he asks. “My friend Bernie told me once that if you want to drive a girl wild, really wild, you just wiggle your tongue in her ear while you wiggle your pinky in her pussy. 'They go cra-a-a-z-y,' he said."
"That was my sex education. And don't you know that every time I ever made out with a girl after that I'd be right in there, wiggling my pinky and wiggling my tongue." Each time he says the word "wiggling" his voice travels up the musical scale while his pinky pantomimes the action.
"And as far as communication goes, what do you think I kept doing—for years—after I got married?" He holds up his pinky, moving it slightly. He's told this story before.
"After five years of marriage my wife turned to me in bed one night and said, "'Frank, would you please stop doing that. It doesn't do a damn thing and it drives me crazy.' Only she didn't mean 'crazy' the way Bernie did. So I stopped.... My sex education was complete."
Laughter abates our tension. We're relieved to learn that event he expert, deep down, has lived a life as riddled with ignorance and secret fears as is our own. Is this the secret of sex: nobody knows what they're doing?
When I was a kid, I'd sometimes crawl with exquisite furtiveness up to my parents' bedroom door. There on the floor I'd lie, barely breathing, proud of my stealth, and listen, waiting to hear, out of their muffled and throatier tones, a secret. Unmasked, their voices lacked the jovial faces with which I was familiar. From those different tones I expected to learn different facts, startling ones, about me and "the older one," my brother—that we were, for example, adopted or hated. The real facts never came.
The search for the real facts went on in my parents' absence as well. I'd hunt through dresser drawers that always seemed to contain my mother's things rather than my father's—the aroma of perfume, strangely soft garments, spangled pocketbooks and sequined scarves that spoke of a forgotten glamour and excitement.
On one such scavenger hunt through my mother's lingerie drawer one early teenage day, I discovered a gross of Trojans. A gross! Did that reflect a pattern of hyperactive coupling or merely a budget-minded lifetime's supply? I had no way of knowing.
I had discovered masturbation by then and stole one of the remaining 137, wondering, as I did, if my theft would prove as obvious as my pounding heart feared it might. I retrieved my treasure trove of hastily clipped-out photos from The Daily News and lay on my parents' bed. (In those days, cheesecake seemed more precious than today and therefore worthy of preservation. In the summer, though, bathing suit season, supply increased dramatically as the paper managed almost every day to print a shot of a beauty caught lounging on the beach at Coney or Orchard above a caption whose heading read something like "W-h-e-e-w!" While an editor somewhere might have been able to argue that such pictures were run solely to fulfill the noble journalistic obligation to report what a scorcher the day before had been, the not-so-subtle leer behind the inevitable pun that described the girl herself as capable of raising temperatures was not lost on my lascivious eyes.)
I examined some of my cherished but overly familiar (oh, how too quickly overly familiar) pictures for a while and when I got hard thinking of touching the soft, unattainable, swimsuited bodies (like Pavlov's dog, I may even have gotten hard on simply seeing the container in which my harem was kept—an empty reel-to-reel magnetic recording tape box), I opened the little metallic foil pack and pulled out the contents. A rubber. It was tightly rolled, and unlike its lubricated descendants, covered with a thin, powdery coat.
I unrolled the object down the length of my prick which, reaching for the new, swooningly ached with the novelty of the sensation, straining with delight and in its straining seeking to increase the delicate teasing eye-closing pleasure of being completely covered by a sheath so thin and light and which, most miraculous of all, was not my hand. Soon, too soon, my body began to arch, then pulled tight as I shot myself into what now, as I was returning to earth, had become merely an encapsulating device.
Crash-landed, I lay still for a moment, then checked for damage. Seeing none, I hid all signs of my trespass, certain my parents would eventually discover it. They never did. Or, if they did, they said nothing; Raskolnikov went unpunished.
A new era had dawned: a secret of theirs had been replaced by one of mine.
The films go on.
A bisexual narrates his split-screen life: we see him democratically have sex with, first, his girlfriend, and then, his boyfriend. A comic film about a first date—from pick-up to dinner to sexual advance and conquest to goodnights—in which roles are reversed and the woman acts out what we’ve traditionally come to expect as male behavior, produces titters from the audience for the first time.
But we’re quiet again as a mélange of hard-core slides of group sex flash before us while, on the soundtrack, Roberta Flack inappropriately and repeatedly sings “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Next a young black couple make love in an open field.
At the breaks we now talk only briefly about the films which, shocking as they may be, have become mere jumping off points. Our group discussions are turning more and more into public confessions. We seem compelled to aerate our twin sins of fear and ignorance and thereby, perhaps, dispel our shame forever. As for content, female orgasm, the onset of menstruation, and penis size tend to demand an inordinate amount of our attention.
As kids, we keep realizing, none of us got guidance about sex from our parents, and this single fact starts to grow in significance. (“Maybe that’s why we’re here this weekend,” someone observes.) In the midst of our families, we each maintained a hidden counterlife of proliferating fantasy and confusion, just as our parents must have done when they were kids. And everybody knew everybody else had secrets but everybody somehow also knew that to let them out of the bag would be impossible. And so everybody sneaked around a little, trying to uncover something, but basically everybody kept mum. And crazy as it all may be, that silence continues to be the way we approach sex today, as alleged adults. We don’t know how to talk to anybody either, let alone to our children.
Like Frank, we learned what little we did from the streets, picking up misguided information from slightly older friends who had learned whatever they knew in some similarly off-hand way and this garbled oral tradition wound up as gospel. And, incredibly enough, our kids are doing the same, only, of course, they have TV to help them.
We start to make generalizations which sound like sexist cliché’s, but which, our dues having now been paid by our film-watching, we somehow have the right to utter: Men see sex as an end; women, as a means. Men are trained by the culture from boyhood on to view women as objects; only lately has the culture been teaching women to view men as anything other than people. We make distinctions, we point out differences, we specify.
The group is on a roll, but to where is unclear. We’re like a P.T.A. or Concerned Citizens meeting, well-intentioned, but off the mark. We’re not getting anywhere near as graphic as the films we’ve been watching, and we’re not evoking deep feelings either. Unable to find the proper vocabulary to give voice to that hidden counterlife we’ve acknowledged exists, we still seem, as always, to be ignoring it. Our propriety keeps it all sanitized.
Tommy was our sexual pathfinder.
Growing up with two younger siblings in a one-bedroom apartment, Tommy kept the door firmly closed on the dissatisfaction he felt with his tight living quarters and his father’s abusive alcoholism by displaying a boisterous bravado. Slightly older, a lifeguard in the summer, concerned with clothes, strong, tall, funny, most of all loudly funny, he seemed, simply, unafraid. Everybody else had issues, fears. For some it was intelligence, or size, or parental occupation or their own possibilities in life. For most of us it was our would-be manhood, sex. Tommy, though, seemed to live in a special realm, beyond shame and fear.
While the rest of us on the block felt as comfortable around girls as we might around extra-terrestrials, Tommy, to our amazement and awe, began having real-life encounters with them. If an actual member of the opposite sex could be attracted to one of us, how could it be anyone other than Tommy? His journey down into the church basement with Judy Judge one hot August night was a landmark event in our consciousness, the first genuine sexual experience anyone could verify.
Judy had arrived one day from nowhere—no one knew exactly where she lived—as if in answer to a casting call. She was unkempt, her hair straggly long before that style was to become popular. She spoke with a mild lisp and, to top things off, her lazy left eye would gaze off into the distance whenever her right was brave enough to look at you head on. Defective, but a girl all right. Tommy managed to attract her gazes and before we knew it they had a “date” for Saturday.
The date had somehow become a public event. A bunch of us waited by the church with Tommy, who had dressed in new white dungarees for the occasion. At eight or so, Judy answered our question by showing up. Her usual messiness looked neater, as if arranged. Tommy invited her inside the church and the two of them made their way down into the darkness. Even though his mother was a principal member of the congregation, Tommy, true to form, was utterly unconcerned about any consequences from his sacrilegious trespass.
The rest of us hung out on the stoop, wondering what, if anything, was going on down there. We talked about how Mantle had been doing lately batting righty when one of us grabbed Howie’s wallet out of his back pocket. We tossed it back and forth for a while, outside his reach. “Fuckheads!” he shouted when the contents spilled onto the sidewalk. The old ladies sitting on beach chairs down the block turned at the sudden noise, shook their heads at what they saw, then resumed their obliviousness to us. Howie picked up his stuff as we waited for Tommy to come out.
At last, he did. Orpheus, he emerged, discovering under the bright glare of the streetlight how his fashionable white dungarees were now smeared with black grime. His loud whoops of laughter brought still further attention to himself while at the same time helping him to transcend the ridiculousness of the moment.
A minute later Judy appeared, her dishevelment worse than ever. When she and Tommy had descended she had been the focus of attention, the desired, mysterious, albeiet imperfect Female. While not very pretty, she had possessed an earthy allure. Now she was a used-up discarded, repulsive thing. Tommy’s grime was a comical badge of honor, Judy’s was a defilement. Red-faced, Tommy mocked her with laughter. He had conquered something at her expense and hid whatever doubts he harbored behind his pride.
Tommy went up to change his pants. We waited. Judy stood around confused. It was suddenly and awkwardly apparent that she had expected to be taken out and that she was still waiting for the “date” portion of the evening to begin.
No one spoke to her; no one even knew how. We waited for Tommy to come down, to show us the next step. But when, cleaned and refreshed, he reappeared, Tommy said nothing to her either. As he led us all down the hill to the pizza place, it was as if she were not there.
But she was. Judy followed ten steps behind the group, still magnetically drawn to Tommy, who was filling our incredulous ears with the story of how this being trailing behind us had gone down on the floor of the church basement amid the boxes of mimeograph materials and Christmas decorations and tried to give him a blow job, but, unable to position herself in the darkness, failed and, at his insistence, gave him a hand job instead.
Tommy shouted the comic details of his adventure into the night. We laughed in nervous disbelief, too afraid to turn around to actually look at his co-star. In town to our cruel contemptuousness, Judy followed, waiting to be told what, if anything, would come next.
The final films:
An older man picks up a young coed and, back in his apartment, for a mind-numbing eternity we see his penis enter her vagina, then leave, then enter, leave, etc., etc., intercut periodically with expressions of mutual ecstasy, i.e., heavy lids and slack jaws. This goes on so long we feel beaten.
With the next film a different note is struck: a Swedish couple in their seventies make love, and then a real-life quadriplegic narrates and extraordinarily touching film. We follow a day in his life from the science lab where he works back home by wheelchair to an afternoon tryst in bed, catheter and all, with his tender and patient girlfriend.
Some of us are disgusted by the again and inoperative bodies in these films, but most have been inspired by what we’ve seen.
“I never thought about handicapped people making love,” says the minister’s wife. “It was beautiful. It really shows you how sex is about bodies, but that it’s about more than bodies, too.”
“And the old people. That they were together all those years and still felt a physical connection. I thought that was great,” says the young lawyer.
What secret is coming out now? Everybody needs sex. Every body. No matter what that body looks like, even if it’s not young and beautiful. And the pleasure the old and the physically impaired derive from sex is no less than that taken by the young and the beautiful bodies we’ve been watching all weekend.
In a way this insight is so contrary to what we generally think about sex that it takes a while for the power of it to sink in. We all need this stuff, whether we’re fat, old, disabled, or playmate of the year. The more we are obsessed with how we look, in fact, the less chance we may have a connecting in as loving a way as the Swedes or the guy in the wheelchair.
Our spirits continue to rise with the last two films, no longer graphic. Gay senior citizens talk about the pioneer days of their sexual youth. And finally, a prim and pudgy Minnesota school teacher points out how prevalent are our cultural restrictions on touching each other and then goes on to preach the necessity and miracle of touch not only for the young but for all of us.
Who can keep track of what it all means? On the most cynical level, none of us could dispute the less explicit a film was, the more openly we received it; the less intimidating the characters on screen were—the less they made us feel inferior—the more we could admire them.
Thirty, divorced, I am driving to a family wedding with a girlfriend. We have spent the weekend together at a romantic country inn being romantic. It has been lovingly sexual. In the car we continue to kid around. She playfully lifts her skirt to reveal a flash of thigh, giggling with delight at the power she can exert over me simply by showing me parts of her body, the sight reminding me of past joys, promising future ones. We are in a cozy bubble of our own.
As we pull up to the catering hall, the bubble bursts. I notice how the lightness and playfulness of the past two days are slowly disappearing; my desire to hold and stroke and kiss her is ebbing away. I give her an almost grandfatherly embrace before we go in, a final hug before sentencing. I see my aunt observing us through the window.
By the time we’re inside, I am struck by how completely neutered I’ve become. The weekend’s spell is gone, a distant memory. If I were now to display sexuality in any way-even a light kiss—I would probably shock myself as much as my relatives. The same behavior that had gone unnoticed in other public places would, here, under the watchful eyes of my parents and aunts and uncles, be unthinkable. Exhibitions of affection are inappropriate in my family; they are embarrassing and must be hidden. The bubble has been replaced by a strait jacket.
Everybody knows (to the extent they ever think about it—and they have to, don’t they?— although they never say anything, it’s all implicit) that we’re sleeping together, but for some reason, that fact cannot be acknowledged; the subject is off-limits.
My girlfriend, too, is an awkward position. She must appear, if not virginal, at least not too sexual. She knows she’s being analyzed and compared. She doesn’t seem to mind that she’s forced to act in a certain way, that she can’t look like a “tramp.” On the contrary, she seems to be proud all these booby traps. Where did she pick up this skill on top of all others?
It’s not just the two of us who have been stripped of our sexual natures; as the night goes on, it is apparent that the room is filled with others like us. There are exceptions, but not many: a few effervescent women in low-cut dresses, dancing suggestively with escorts who look like Rory Calhoun. The only sanctioned references to sex are the tired double entendres about the wedding night. For the most part, however, it’s a party of celibates.
My aunt then has a brainstorm. She must get a picture of her nephew dancing with her sister. Refusal proves to be impossible and soon the marionettes are stiffly waltzing: I with my mother; my father, diplomatically, with my girlfriend. A few feet away on the dance floor, my girlfriend is at the end of an infinitely long tunnel I cannot traverse.
The four of us make jokes about the schmaltzy music as my aunt snaps away. Years later, the rarity of the configuration gives the photographs a doctored feel.
“There are two ‘theologies’ underlying our views about sex,” Frank tells us during the SAR wrap-up. We have seen and said things we’d never seen or said before and are now hoping he’ll be putting it all together for us.
“Where you stand on issues like promiscuity, abortion, homosexuality, really any sexual issue, is dictated by your implicit theology.”
‘Theology A,’ he writes on the flip chart. “The ‘A’ theology holds that sex is about reproduction. Exclusively. Accordingly, and ‘A’ person is really saying that sperm is sacred. It’s function is solely for procreation. Any sexual act or relationship which does not fulfill that mission—the ejaculation of a male’s sperm into a female’s vagina free of birth control; in a word, procreation—is wrong and should be condemned.
“B’ people feel that, in sex, relationships are of primary importance. They are more tolerant of variations in sexual behavior. Acts which may seem terribly wrong to an ‘A’ person, like oral intercourse, for example, are not in themselves evil to a ‘B,’ if, by engaging in the act, the participants are obtaining pleasure and furthering their relationship with each other.”
Great. We’re mastering our A’s and B’s, but why did we spend the weekend watching all those dirty movies?
“The purpose of the films was to make you educable. The only way we could do that in an area as anxiety-provoking as sex was to increase your anxiety through such an overexposure to sex that you became desensitized, bored, and therefore receptive.”
To what? To be B’s? Is that the secret secret?
He’s right, though, about one thing. The more we were exposed to sex, the more de-sexualized it became. But what did that prove? We had grown more comfortable with the topic and yet, in remembering the intensity of my own feelings about sex—the excitement and fear, the shame and lust, the mystery and passion—I realized they’d all been missing from the weekend. The wonder that has been inside me since childhood was nowhere to be seen. The comfort we felt, while a relief, was also a distortion.
Becoming blasé to the shocking, almost unearthly, experience of watching other people engage in sex had not helped me to better understand the mystery and joy I feel when I touch a woman or look into her eyes. In fact (except for the disabled and the elderly), the films tended to make it all seem tedious and a little disgusting. Our discussions as well became too comfortable, too safe and, as we echoed each other, our fears almost comical.
“It’s like we’re still in the family,” the salesman’s wife says, implying, as we asexually bear-hug each other good-bye, that we still haven’t found a way to talk about sex. After the weekend we’re no longer completely mute—we’ve been able to open the door and reveal that yes, Virginia, people do have sex—but having gone that far, we can go no further. We’re still tongue-tied, our unruly counterlives sentenced permanently to secrecy.
I am barreling out of the city, a straight line, driving north. A relationship with a woman, yet another, has just ended. I am anxious to get away from that hurricane of self-doubt and pain that marks the end of a love affair, the collapse of a world. Maybe the wind whizzing by will blow it all away. Where am I going and what’s the point? Thirty-five, I am travelling fast and standing still at the same time.
At a rest stop that boasts both a Coke machine and scenic overlook, I drown my obsessive need to review with a swig of soda and a vista of river valley. But the past—what was, what should have been, what could have been— will not rest. Moments of closeness jostle against flashes of betrayals and rejections. Issues of character and trust seem paramount in understanding why we broke up; sex, surprisingly, is secondary. Yet sex is at the core of the loss: if we had not been physically connected, the pain would not have been this acute; if we had been more connected physically, I painfully consider, perhaps we might not have broken up.
The memories of recent and more distant pasts line up for inspection. Certain moments stand out in such bold relief that they seem to be of another order than the rest.
It’s then that I realize that I have made love no more than five or six times in my life.
My mind stops. Does the number merit gratitude or more self-pity?
From the vantage point of the rest stop all the other times start to resemble masturbation except that whatever woman I was with substituted for my genitals, as I did, hers.
During sex, even with someone I love, it seems that in spite of everything I know or want or feel, I too often wind up in a mutual manipulation whose only ultimately understandable aim is orgasm. Touching and being touched, kissing and being kissed, sighs, smells, sights—the intimate murmuring presence of otherness, the excitement of difference—all of that wonder inevitably seems to boil down to the question, stated or not: “Did you come?” Two people become two objects.
I make her come. She makes me come. Our job is done. I have been macho enough to break through her wall of not-coming, to overpower her not-coming state, thereby proving my manhood and the wizardry of my technique. She has reconfirmed her own desirability through my erection and ejaculation. Through coming, our anxieties about not coming—of not pleasing and being pleased—ease. Relaxed, we can feel protective of the other. And protected: some private part of us has not been touched; some hidden part has remained hidden.
Then, the few havens in the heart of my memory rush forward, the half-dozen times when love and the transcendence of shame overshadowed the orgasms and power trips.
Those few times something broke, something very strong and ever-present, yet so invisible I am never aware of it— or what is behind it—except when it is broken. It is a wall behind which hides a self, adamantine in its refusal to emerge, a private self which seeks protection in remaining unseen. It is a primal, needy and desiring, and most of all, ashamed and oh so fearful of the pain it might encounter if, in revealing its need, it should be spurned.
The few times I have been brave enough to peer out from behind the wall a woman always showed me the way. Through a word or gesture she let a terribly private part of her be seen and I followed.
On those few occasions when the wall has broken I have felt myself spill into another person. It is a me I rarely see, the trusting desiring child-me. The threat, the competition—the ability to hurt—that other people represent, ceased needing to be defended against and I, I who was liquid—semen, sweat, sometimes tears—flowed without restraint. And she at those times became not just a doll to touch and rub in order to make come, but instead, a tender welcoming resonating bowl who in the course of holding me I held, her own private trembling self revealed, by me embraced. The magic of discovery, disclosure, and acceptance. Mutual acceptance of secret selves. We were separate yet entwined.
Looking back, I realize I should not complain: I shared one such magic experience with my most recent lost love.
We are living a connect-the-dots game. The dots are moments of contact, special intimate moments when we see ourselves and others see us, too. Most of our lives is spent in the passage of time between the dots. But when we recall what’s meaningful about our lives, we remember the dots, forget our lines.
Sex, the greatest opportunity for contact, makes for the boldest dots. It can also afford the most complex labyrinths in which to hide. The few times I haven’t hidden myself, something magical happened: the boy who entered his mother’s bedroom—able once more to bestow and take pleasure, unashamed—regained paradise.
I finish the Coke and walk back to the car. A fever has passed.
I start heading back home.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 1988 issue of Psychotherapy Networker.
Fred Wistow is a lawyer who lives in New York City.