NOTE: This is a sexually explicit piece and may not be what some readers want to read. I originally wrote this for the magazine Body Talk, and it appeared in their October 2011 issue. I retained rights to it, and repost a revised version now.
What’s hotter? The sex we have, or the sex we remember having?
I was 12 when I discovered how to masturbate late one summer night in 1979. What began as accidental exploration was quickly revelatory, and then — as it is for so many kids that age — it became my private source of pleasure and comfort. My fantasies were simple, and genuinely vague: I’d lie in bed, thinking about pretty classmates, fantasizing that I was watching them undress. (I was unclear, to about what ought to happen next, but I knew it involved lots of hot naked kissing, which is what I thought about.)
I had a few dates, but was a shy kid. I’d kissed two girls by the start of my senior year of high school, but nothing more. I was, not unlike many of my classmates an awkward, dorky, twitching bundle of longing.
And then, thanks to some mutual friends with a discerning eye for matchmaking, I met Michaela. (Name changed.)
Michaela and I went to different high schools, and could only see each other on weekends. We’d have sex in her bedroom on Friday and Saturday nights (she had a blessedly liberal mother), go to the beach or to the movies on weekend afternoons, and spend Monday through Thursday talking on the phone. During our time apart, I’d masturbate every night to the visual memory of what she and I had done together the previous weekend. Sometimes we’d have phone sex, but more often, I’d get off to the arousing images in my mind.
These memories were more exciting than porn could ever be. Thoughts of Michaela’s naked body popped into my mind while walking to school or sitting in class, unbidden and almost unbearably arousing. Thinking about what we had done mixed with excitement about what we soon do when we saw each other again. The straight As I got my senior year says more about the lenience of my teachers than about my intellectual focus. My mind was elsewhere.
Michaela and I had been sleeping together for about two months when it happened. We were having sex in her bed on a Friday night, and I remember a thought suddenly popped into my head:
I’m gonna love getting off to this next week.
Huh? I didn’t stop what I was doing with my girlfriend, but I remember my own surprise at myself. Michaela and I were sexually inventive and open by the standards of American high school students in the mid-80s. I told my friends the sex was great, and I meant it. But at 17, as randy as could be, I realized I got more physical pleasure from masturbating to the memory than from the actual sex with this young woman I loved.
Sex with real people is messy, and not just physically. Michaela and I fumbled, as people do, and sometimes we hurt each other, and not in a good way. Like so many young men, during sex itself I spent a lot of time worrying about my own performance rather than focusing on connecting to the woman I was with. All of that detracted from my pleasure – and all of that could be “edited out” in my masturbatory recollections.
Michaela and I had a lot of hot sex with each other, and, eventually, with other people. I had my first ménage a trois with her and a guy from her work; later, she encouraged me to “do everything but” with one of her good girlfriends while she watched. Though I’d started senior year as a virgin, by the time graduation came, I’d had quite a rapid learning curve. And though Michaela and I broke up when I went away to college, I took with me my now-extensive collection of “movies” – all of which lived in my head.
For years and years, through one-night stands I can’t count and a half-dozen long-term relationships, through three marriages and three divorces, the pattern didn’t change. Whatever and whomever I did, the real thing was never as hot as the subsequent recollection. By the time I was in my later 20s, I had a term for what I did when I had sex: “shooting tape.”
Living in L.A., I got the term from my friends in the TV industry. It fit what I did perfectly. I realized that I thought of the actual sex with other people as “raw footage”, and I the director, the camera operator – and eventually, crucially, the editor. The finished product was what I had in my head when it came time to have sex with myself, free from pressure and anxiety. The fear and the fumbling were on the cutting room floor; what was left was an exquisite highlight reel better than any porn video – and better than any reality itself.
I think masturbation is wonderful, life-enhancing, healthy. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with fantasy. But… I will say that for so many years, my relationships suffered because I preferred both masturbation and fantasy to the messy, complicated reality of connecting with another human being. It was only at 35, divorced for the third time and scared that I lacked the tools to ever connect intimately, that I began to take a hard look at how “shooting tape” had impacted my life.
In my next relationship, with the woman who became my fourth and (God willin’) my final wife, I tried something different. I decided I’d only give myself “permission” to masturbate when I was sure that I wasn’t using sex with this woman I loved to create new material. The results were almost embarrassingly immediate. And predictably, I was more present and connected. Even if my wife didn’t notice, I did.
The tapes are all still in my head, of course. Outside of the movies and the tragic reality of brain trauma, most of us don’t have a delete button on our memories (the theme of the wonderful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). I’ve got decades worth of “video” that I “shot” with a great many sex partners. Some tapes are more memorable than others. But those tapes still exist, I don’t bring them out often. I know better.
Fantasy stops being healthy when it becomes something with which our real-life lovers can never compete. And no real lover can compete with the carefully edited erotic images in our minds. If I’m going to stay fully present with my partner when we’re sexual together, I need to be present in mind as well as body. That means not replaying old tapes of past lovers – and it means not seeing the present experience as a mere opportunity to produce a hot new video for future private consumption.
If I want a passionate now, I need to keep the images of the past tucked away. But I also need to remind myself not to bring a mental camera to bed. I’m the best lover I can be when I stop performing, directing, and editing. And start being present.