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Sex For The Clueless

Following is the Introduction to my book, Sex For the Clueless, published in 2001 by Kensington Press. This poor little book never stood a chance: it was published almost simultaneously with the fall of the World Trade Center, when nobody wanted to read about sex. Then in February 2002 I had a health crisis that lasted over a year, and was in no shape to do readings or any other promo. My book landed in the bookstores with a deafening silence. The other day I was looking for sample writing to send to someone, read the Intro, and decided I like it enough to post. Some of my cultural references might be a little outdated, but the socio-political sentiment, unfortunately, is not. Anyone who wants to buy the book can still get it from Amazon. (I’m surprised they haven’t thrown it into Remainders by now!)

How I Went from Clueless to Clued-In

If someone had told me twenty or even ten years ago that I would one day be writing a book called “Sex For The Clueless,” I would have been astonished. Like most people raised in the 1950s and 60s, my sex education was, to say the least, inadequate. I don’t even recall any real sexual information coming my way until high school, when I gathered whispered bits of sometimes ominous folklore from my girlfriends, and more hands-on experience in the back seats of the boys’ Chevy Impalas.

And yet here I am, presuming to tell the world how to have a more exciting, satisfying, adventurous sex life. How did I get here?

As a teenage wife I was appalled by my husband’s girlie magazines. As a young mother I had no idea how to talk to my kids about sex. As a fairly militant feminist I was totally confused regarding sexual orientation, fantasies and behavior. Rarely was I able to speak honestly to lovers about my sexual desires, fantasies and needs. When I began writing porn/erotica I used a pseudonym and did not tell friends and family about it for a long, long time. Now all that is behind me. I’m finally comfortable with who I am, even when I’m around those who don’t heartily embrace what I do. This transformation did not happen overnight: It happened over the course of many years, as a result of being around like-minded people for whom sex talk is natural, challenging, and intelligent.

It all began with a story–a pornographic story, that is. I was lying in bed one night fantasizing about my upstairs neighbor, who was driving me nuts by warming up his truck at 5:00 every morning just outside my door. I imagined confronting him, and eventually my mind wandered into a sexual fantasy about the burly truck driver. It suddenly occurred to me to work off my feelings by writing about them.

It never would have occurred to me to write a pornographic story were it not for my friendship/romance with Marco Vassi, whom many consider to be the foremost erotic writer of our time. From Marco’s books I learned that sex writing could be not just hot, but  intelligent, moving, even profound.

And so I got out of bed, sat down at my desk, and simply wrote out my story, beginning with anger at the truck driver and ending with my fantasy of a sexual resolution. I was struck by the ease with which the words poured forth–though I’d been writing for years, it was always an agonizing process; now it seemed as if the freeing up of the sexual realm had also loosened my creativity.  The next morning I read my story, called “A Neighborly Compromise.” Though it wasn’t exactly profound, it was witty, hot and nearly perfect in its first draft.

Aiming high, I sent my story off to Penthouse. In a few weeks I received an offer of $350 and publication in Hot Talk, one of that empire’s many magazines. Let me tell you, after years of papering my walls with rejections from The New Yorker and Ms, I nearly fell off my chair.

“Writing,” said Moliere, “is a little bit like prostitution. First we do it for love. Then we do it for a few friends. Then we do it for money.”   During the course of the next year I sold four stories to Penthouse Forum at $1000 a shot. When the editor I’d been working with left, the gig was up, but by then I’d started to connect with others in the field, and eventually found more venues for my work.

I became a veritable erotic fountain, every sexual fantasy and life experience (usually somewhat altered) finding its way onto the page. By now I’ve written hundreds of erotic stories, some of which have been translated into Swedish, Danish and Norwegian. More important, my sex writing led me to a world I never could have imagined back in the cornfields and woods of my adolescence.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I eventually settled, I discovered a thriving culture of “sex-positive radicals,” people who wrote about, discussed, and even engaged in daring sexual adventures. Suddenly I found myself a part of the “sex industry”–writing and editing erotica as well as journalism about sexual behavior, dabbling in work as a phone sex operator, lending my voice (only my voice, thank you!)  for a women’s porn video, speaking on panels, being interviewed by the press.  More important than the work, though, was the acceptance I found among this group of people–I could talk about long-hidden thoughts, opinions, fantasies and desires without encountering shock and disapproval; in fact, most often my tales were greeted with laughter and/or a contract for a story.

I worked at the lesbian sex magazine On Our Backs for five years, two of them as Managing Editor. Daily life at the office was not as exotic as outsiders imagined. We worked in a typical office space in the Castro district of San Francisco, with computers, telephones, and a shipping department; we dealt with publishing deadlines, advertisers, and temperamental contributors. But the stuff of our editorial meetings was decidedly more risqué than discussions at the weekly small-town newspaper where I’d previously been an editor.  Story, article and photo selection generated conversations not normally heard around most publishing offices. Was it okay to run a story about a woman’s “daddy” fantasy? Were photos of bony, tattooed, head-shaven women too reminiscent of Holocaust victims? What were the sexual dynamics in physically abusive relationships, and how could we get someone to write honestly about that? What was the core difference between a butch lesbian and a woman who undergoes sex reassignment to become a man? Not to mention all the angst over what the printer might–and once actually did–refuse to reproduce.

Conversations like these were not confined to the weekly editorial meeting, nor were they strictly theoretical. We shared our own personal experiences in order to dig deep into the truth of sexual reality. We were a lesbian magazine, but in the world of sex writing, orientation knows few boundaries. For the first time in my life I could be openly bisexual without anyone batting an eye. When we talked about lesbian sex, particularly butch/femme relationships, my experiences with men were frequently as relevant as those between women.

Our two female publishers, who were lovers when they first launched the magazine, split up and remained friends and business partners, while one of them married a man in an elaborate ceremony on a boat. (Her Minnesota relatives thought we all worked with her in some kind of computer company.) Susie Bright, the magazine’s most prominent spokesperson, became pregnant the traditional way–and wrote about it.

My stint at On Our Backs was probably the greatest single factor contributing to my sexual liberation, but there were others:  monthly lunch salons sponsored by the publishers of Spectator, a Bay Area sex tabloid; reading my sex stories aloud in mixed company at bookstores; and reading about and watching all kinds of sex acts.

I always say that I never planned this “career,” that I just drifted into sex work–but the truth is, this drifting has been a very organic process. I do what I do because it interests me, because I’m good at it, and because I get paid for it. Unlike many sex radicals, I’m not in this as a political cause. I’m not on a mission to rescue the rest of the world from sexual ignorance, and I certainly don’t care to debate the subject with narrow-minded bigots.  Don’t get me wrong–I fully support the folks who are out there on the front lines defending sexual freedom; I’ve even done a bit of it myself in the natural course of my work. Our sex-negative culture tends to push those of us who dare seek and promote pleasure into an aggressive stance. But for me, it’s the discourse among sex radicals–the exchange of information and ideas–on which I thrive. It feels natural, the way things ought to be. My life is filled with a variety of activities, many of them having to do with sex, and many of them much more mundane. I don’t feel all that unusual, or think of my friends and our talks as extraordinary.

So if I’m not on a holy crusade to bring more orgasms and erections into America’s bedrooms,  what exactly are my motives for writing a book designed to do precisely that? Selfishness, I guess: I’m tired of feeling freakish or just plain lonely every time I step outside this little oasis of sexual sanity known as the Bay Area. Although I don’t socialize with the kind of people who call me and my kind amoral God-hating perverts, I do have friends and relatives from all walks of life who are ambivalent or embarrassed by my casual sexual attitudes. If I slip up and start talking about the G-spot at a dinner table, a deadly silence is likely to ensue. Most of the time, of course, I don’t slip up. Most of the time, those who don’t know what to make of this area of my life maintain a polite distance from it.

And that is why I’m writing this book–because I’m sick of hearing people talk about sex in hushed tones, not at all, or accompanied by childish giggles. My disgust with the American Way of Sex reached its zenith with the Clinton scandal, which, if Shakespeare were alive today, would be written as “The Tragedy of Monica and Bill.” That whole stinking mess was a tragedy–for them, for the country, and for the public discourse on sex. Yes, in some ways the affair generated much-needed conversation around sex, adultery and related issues. And, yes, the daily barrage of details forced parents to answer their kids’ questions about topics like oral sex, which was sometimes a good thing, and sometimes–particularly with younger children–not.

But the overall effect of the scandal was anything but sex-positive: in the public mind–certainly in children’s minds–a United States President was impeached for having had a sexual relationship, never mind all the nattering about perjury. Who can measure the depth of the confusion that young people experienced when the Starr “Report” plastered the Internet, newspapers and television? In a society where sexual literature is kept hidden from minors, suddenly they were confronted with sex in the most underhanded, shameful manner imaginable. Little distinction was made between sex per se and the circumstances particular to this situation The message delivered not only by politicians and the media, but also by the President himself, was that sex is dirty, inappropriate, and just plain wrong. Kids learned that sex can get you into a lot of trouble. You might even end up being questioned like a political prisoner in Turkey or Central America, threatened with jail if you don’t cooperate. As Monica Lewinsky said in her interview with Barbara Walters, “Things go on that I didn’t know went on in this country.”

We won’t know for another ten or twenty years the full effect of the lessons absorbed by children during this time, but seeing kids learn about sex from the Starr Report made me nostalgic for the sex education provided previous generations by Playboy.

My hope is that this book will, along with writings by others in the field, generate a more sane approach to sexual dialogue. Perhaps it will help some people grow up sexually: that’s what writing and thinking about sex, and the people I’ve met along the way, has done for me–helped me to grow up.

Just Why Are We Clueless?

Ours is a sex-negative culture. I say this without equivocation or doubt, despite the flagrant sexuality that permeates our society, from double entendre advertising to phone sex ads in mainstream publications. None of the ways in which sex is publicly presented is as a straightforward, normal, wholesome activity; rather, it is surrounded in an aura of darkness and sin.

Every time a new venue for communication is born, from the printing press to the Internet, a flood of sexual content is released, and a backlash of public hysteria follows. Both the proliferation of sexual material and the resulting hysteria are two sides of the same coin: sexual ignorance. The reason that pornography continues to be a multibillion dollar industry is that it’s the only place where people can see what others actually do in bed–even if it’s often distorted. And the reason pornography generates hysteria–usually in cries of “Protect the Children!”– is that ignorance breeds terror, in this case of a natural and powerful life force. Which came first, the ignorance or the terror? I don’t know–but no other area of life has as many taboos, rules, and controversies surrounding it as sexuality, whether we’re talking about a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy or sex education in the schools.

Much of this negativity comes from our Judeo-Christian heritage, but almost all religions take a dim view of pleasure for pleasure’s sake. (I recently heard about a Buddhist monk who was expelled from his order for sneaking off in the evenings to perform karaoke!) Sex is for reproduction, period. It’s also hesitantly conceded to be a valid expression of love between committed partners. Otherwise it’s dirty, shameful and destructive.

In such an atmosphere how could we help but be clueless? Kids pick up the facts of life on the street and in the schoolyard, if they manage to pick them up at all. They somehow know not to discuss what they’ve heard with the grown-ups; occasionally one will raise a question and it’s the rare adult who doesn’t get flustered.  With embarrassment I recall an incident when I was twenty-one and pregnant, and my eleven-year-old cousin asked, her face screwed up in confusion, “Marcy, is there a baby growing inside of me now?” I was so nervous about telling her things she hadn’t already been told that I ran and phoned her mother. (Today of course I would handle the situation quite differently.)

High school students, their bodies newly bombarded by raging hormones, their DNA encoded with the biological imperative to “Go forth and multiply,”  are told to “Just Say No.” When I was growing up all we got were gym teachers droning on about sperm and fallopian tubes: their feeble efforts weren’t all that harmful. But today’s poor babies are subjected to  heavy doses of moralistic jargon. Brainwashed and cowed, they form “Chastity Clubs,” for which they receive accolades on the nightly news.

When these kids reach adulthood, will they magically turn into guilt-free sexual sophisticates? Will sex become a natural part of their lives? Will their marriages and sexual relationships be trouble-free? How could they? We get precious little sex education even as adults, unless we actively seek it out. The brave furtively cruise shelves hidden in a corner of the local book emporium (if they’re lucky–many bookstores don’t carry sex information books at all.)  Most adults are uncomfortable walking up to a library or book counter and asking to see something even as mild as The Joy of Sex. I still cannot buy a copy of Penthouse without fidgeting at the cash register. (Perhaps using online bookstores will ease some of this discomfort.)

Most people, certainly the  great majority of women, have never been inside an adult sex store. And with good reason–these establishments are downright sinister in appearance and reputation. In most cities, zoning ordinances relegate adult stores to the fringes of town or the warehouse sections, where they do their best to attract customers by stringing the place with neon, creating an unintended intimidating effect. These shops display humongous plastic penile lookalikes in glass cases alongside scary looking leather objects, while men in trench coats or leather jackets peruse the videos and magazines. Any woman would have to be mighty brave–perhaps even foolhardy–to enter one of these establishments by herself, or even with a partner.

Men, on the other hand, have been encouraged, by dint of economics and a boys-will-be-boys resignation, to read porn, rent videos, frequent strip clubs and hire prostitutes–but they still feel pathetic or are made out to be perverts when they do so. I know a man who was arrested for being a “john,” set up by an undercover cop dressed as a prostitute, and was then humiliated and derided by the police. I know another who got beat up in a dark alley by neo-Nazis who were following him, according to a well thought-out plan, as he left a Swingers’ convention; they called him a pervert and child molestor as they punched and kicked him. I was in a movie theater shortly after actor Hugh Grant got “busted” for hiring prostitutes, and when the trailer appeared for his new movie, the audience hissed and booed.

Why Get Clued-In?

Not only do the kids hide their secret bits of knowledge from the grownups, but the grownups keep their sex lives hidden in plain brown wrappers. I know many married couples who watch porn videos and experiment with sex toys, and who go to great lengths to hide these activities from their kids. They’re well-intentioned: they share the belief that children are too young to “understand.” Has anyone ever bothered to ask, though: Understand what? That their parents enjoy each other physically? That our bodies are potential sources of pleasure, that sex is fun, life-enhancing, sacred? What’s the investment in keeping sex a dark dirty secret?

I don’t have the answer to that question, unless it’s that the more sex is forbidden, the more enticing it becomes. Maybe all this cover-up is a way of ensuring that sex remain as exciting and dangerous as it is. It’s true that in the “sex-positive” world, much of the forbidden loses its power: Marco Vassi, who died just as the “sex-positivity” movement was in its ascendancy, remarked, “These people don’t understand–sex is supposed to be dirty!”

Pscyhotherapist Jack Morin, in his book The Erotic Mind, (which I cannot recommend too highly), says much the same thing when he points out that “the erotic experience….is…energetic, interactive, and potentially dangerous…our most erotic moments are born of conflict…” (51)

Morin has come up with an equation for erotic intensity: Attraction + Obstacles = Excitement. Think about your most exciting moments or relationships and you’re likely to discover they fit into this equation. Everyone knows that teenage sex, hidden deep within the bushes or in a miraculously empty house, is exciting partly because it’s forbidden. Adultery is similarly exciting: I know women who’ve had affairs that were actually less fulfilling than sex with their husbands, yet they continued because the “sneakiness” factor enhanced the experience. Dalma Heyn, in The Erotic Silence of the American Wife, makes a convincing case for discreet adultery.

When someone asked Jerry Seinfeld for a joke about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, he said, “Everybody lies about sex. People lie during sex. If it weren’t for lies, there’d be no sex.”

But we pay too high a price for all this shame and secrecy. We grow up afraid of our bodies, hating and fighting normal human feelings; we feel awkward relating sexually to partners. We pay an even higher price than this, if one subscribes to the theory that repression breeds pathology. Is it going too far to say that raging hormones and confusing frustration might be a factor when adolescents torture cats or, lately,  gun down their schoolmates? I think not.

Many adults, of course, eventually do learn about sex, simply by virtue of doing what comes naturally. Well-matched spouses–the lucky ones–discover and explore their sexuality together. But at least as many people live in sexless marriages, or silently concede to unsatsifying, even distasteful, sex; others never learn what they like, never live up to their sexual potential, are frustrated, lonely and depressed. Many end up living their entire lives without any sexual partners–or few and far between–and feel ashamed of any self-pleasuring activities.

Women are supposed to hold onto their precious cherries until marriage, and even then are expected to turn on the siren switch mainly to please their husbands (and keep them away from all that underground filth). Any woman who steps outside the proscribed role is labeled a slut or a whore. I know, I know–this is changing. Sex manuals now tell us that sex is wholesome, natural, that we deserve pleasure, and “slut” has become, if not high praise, an eye-winking sitcom joke–among adults, that is. Walk into any high school and find the girl with the skintight pants or short skirt and halter top wearing gobs of eye make-up, and ask her if she’s endured nasty sexual epithets from her peers. Chances are, she has.

The glut of self-help books and articles on sexuality would seem to indicate an evolution toward greater sophistication. Some of these books are quite good, and contain helpful, practical information (I’ll be listing suggested reading at the end of each chapter). On the other hand, many are simplistic, if not utter hogwash. The popularity of these books proves that the public is positively starved for information, and willing to seek it out. Unfortunately, the cumulative effect of addressing sex as a problem to be solved helps to reinforce an atmosphere of anxiety.

Worse, some of these books, and more particularly self-help articles in magazines, have been steering us wrong for decades. Stand in front of any magazine display and let your eye rove over the titles listed on the covers. “Lust: Who’s Getting More Than You and How You Can Find It.” “101 Ways to Drive Him Wild in Bed.” “Are You Getting the Strokes You Need From Your Lover?” Most of these articles are nothing more than fluff, empty as a mouthful of cotton candy. More often than not, they emphasize technique and deceit. By telling us how to speak softly and massage gently, imparting “secret” tricks of the trade from professionals or therapists, they further pathologize sex. It’s no longer a natural instinct or outgrowth of a relationship, but an art form that must be cultivated. Readers of these articles are more likely to end up feeling inadequate than informed.

The cumulative effect of all this so-called advice from so-called experts is to exert a pressure on the sexually ignorant to just “get over it.” If you’re uptight today, it’s because of outmoded hang-ups, or perhaps you’ve forgotten how your father and his satanic cult molested you as an infant. Never mind that we all grew up in a  poisoned sexual atmosphere–you personally have a problem now, and you’d better buy this magazine, see that therapist, read this or that book, and get with the program.

The Clued-In Approach

If you’re looking for tips on sexual technique, look elsewhere. This book is not about performing startling acrobatics in bed, learning how to manipulate genitals, or engaging in tricks of seduction. My approach to sexual discovery involves exploration of the heart and mind as much as the genitals. You can learn all the fine nuances of oral sex, yet if you “perform” the act following specified techniques, it will be just that: a fine performance. You can wiggle around in bed and sigh and moan like Cosmopolitan tells you to, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’ll be fully living the experience. Attentiveness, openness, vulnerability, and passion will get you a lot farther than a skillful tongue or fancy physical contortions.

While this book is not a New Age tome or heavily geared toward the practice of tantric sex (see chapter 15), I do believe that deep sexual enjoyment and satisfaction is a lot more about developing a Zen-like atttitude than it is about “performance.” That is, it’s a matter of consciousness and attentiveness, of being fully in the moment. When you’re in that kind of focused state, the centers of energy in your body are open. Yoga practitioners have identified seven such centers, or chakras. In ascending order, they are:

• The root chakra, located between the anus and genitals
• The sex organs
• The stomach, around and/or above the navel
• The heart
• The base of the throat, or thyroid gland
• The “third eye” located just above and between the eyebrows
• The crown at the top of the head

In yoga practice, the journey through these chakras never ends; we open one only to realize that another one has become blocked. Similarly, the sexual journey never ends, because sexual discovery is endless. We peel back one layer of the onion only to reveal yet another.

I’ve divided the book into five sections: “Know Thyself,” “Show Thyself,” “Be Thyself,” Be Thy Selves,” “And Beyond.” These titles indicate a journey to sexual self-discovery. It’s been said that orgasms take place between the ears–I used to think this referred exclusively to one’s fantasies, but now I realize it means much more than that. It means that how one thinks about sex directly influences one’s experience.

While I’m an equal opportunity writer and have included anecdotes and tidbits about gays, lesbians and bisexuals, this book is primarily geared toward heterosexuals. But if you find yourself wondering about other orientations, or even slip over some arbitrary line in your imagination or actions, so much the better. Sexuality–in all its myriad, wondrous forms–is not a problem to be solved, but a realm to be explored.  If this book helps readers join the “sex-positive” folks who continue to peel back the layers of the sexual onion, even if it means shedding a few tears along the way, then it will have provided a service.


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