All the Horny Women, All the Overwhelmed Men

My column this week looks at the remarkable new book by Daniel Bergner that is shattering a lot of treasured old myths about gender and libido. An excerpt from Turns Out Women Have Really, Really Strong Sex Drives: Can Men Handle It?

The research suggests that though both men and women struggle to extricate themselves from traditional gender roles, women are generally doing a much better job of it than are men. From the workplace to the university, women are far more willing to move into traditionally male spaces and adopt traditionally male behaviors than men are to do the reverse. Too many men are still stuck in the “provide, protect, and perform” model that requires women to be passive, focused more on pleasing than on their own pleasure. The “catch-22″ in which women find themselves is largely a result of men’s fear of being unable to perform up to women’s expectations—and to satisfy desires that men have only just begun to realize are as intense and earthy as their own.

Freud’s famous question, “What do women want?” has always invited another query in return: “Can you handle the answer if we tell you?” The widespread coverage of Bergner’s book raises at least the possibility that some men are. And what is at the heart of that answer? Though some women surely still want to play at passivity while men protect, provide, and perform, plenty more women want another “p” word: partners. Flexible, unintimidated, and (as Bergner shows) playful partners in the bedroom, in the kitchen, and in public life.

Read the whole thing.

Sex and Self-Mutilation at Jewrotica

I’ve got a second contribution up at Jewrotica today: I Can Read You with My Fingertips: Scars, Ink, Sex, and Leviticus. It may be a little triggering to some who’ve had issues with self-mutilation.. and a little PG-13 in terms of sexual description. Here’s how it finishes:

My ex-lover Amy, one of the first women I slept with in my early sobriety, was the first to find evident erotic delight in my scars. I’m grateful that she didn’t turn out to be the last. As I learned to have sex without the crutch of drugs and alcohol, I also learned not to flinch from curious fingers and playful tongues as they explored the marks on my skin. “I can read you like Braille,” one woman said; “all these stories at my fingertips.” I shuddered in gratitude when I heard that.

My four year-old, Heloise likes to sit beside me as I read her a book, or as we watch Scooby-Doo. In recent months, she’s made it clear she wants to sit on my left side so that she can explore the scars on that forearm. While she listens to me read, or gazes at the television, her little fingers rhythmically and repetitively trace the bumps and raised lines. Heloise knows only that they are marks “where abba got hurt;” she’s years away from hearing how or why. There is of course nothing sexual about her caress. But my own ability to sit still and welcome that gentle touch from my child grew out of what I learned from the lovers who loved on my scars with their hands and mouths.

My face is weather-beaten and lined from years of running in the sun and the wind. My arms and torso carry the innumerable marks of a chaotic and hard-lived youth, and though they may not be beautiful to many, they are treasures to me. When I meet G-d at the end of things, I will meet him with this battered body. Returning to the faith of my ancestors, I will go down to the grave as a scarred, tattooed Jew.

Shooting Tape: Sex, Editing, Masturbation, and Memory

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.

Shooting Tape

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.

The addict checks out: sex, rage, rape, and Adam from Girls

 

Since Sunday’s airing of “On all Fours,” the darkest and most troubling Girls episode yet, there’s been plenty of debate about whether or not what happened between Adam and Natalia was rape, bad sex, or something else that’s difficult to name. (I liked what Amanda Hess and Emily Heist Moss have to say.)

Like so many, I found the episode emotionally triggering to watch. Witnessing anyone — whether they’re friends or fictional characters of whom one has grown fond — relapse into destructive, humiliating, or dangerous behavior is painful. I have always had a lot of sympathy for the darkly brooding Adam (played so well by the magnetic Adam Driver), not least because he’s in recovery, having struggled with alcoholism since his teens. In this most recent episode, we see Adam make the conscious choice to drink again. As an addict who has been clean nearly 15 years (and who was in and out of Twelve Step programs for 11 years before that) I’m captivated by relapse. I want to watch it up close, partly because I will always be drawn to the fantasy of going back to drugs and alcohol, and partly because studying the mechanics of another’s fall is a kind of prophylaxis against making a similar decision.

What haunts me about Adam isn’t just that he’s a fellow drunk with a compelling mix of social awkwardness and sexually-charged charisma. It’s the way in which he externalizes his own self-destructiveness. Driver is a good enough actor that he’s able to show us two Adams at once: the disconnected narcissist and the vulnerable boy who knows that he’s capable of empathy if he can only, only get out of his own way. We never doubt why women fall in love with him, and we never doubt why they will invariably leave.

I’ve been Adam, both with the alcohol and with the sex. Watching him assault Natalia (I’m not gonna quarrel about words), I remembered how easy it is for the addict to use sex to disappear into one’s own pain, one’s own rage.   And I remembered — as Girls will surely show Adam remembering -the mix of shock and fear and disgust on the face of a woman who trusted me.  “Where the fuck did you go?” one ex asked me in bewilderment and anger. I’d fumble with an apology, with remorse, with soothing words that always stood in painful contrast to what had just come before.  Like Adam, when I had sex high or drunk there was almost always this nearly instant post-ejaculatory regret, as if my orgasm had purged a demon and I could return to being present, empathetic, and tender.  (One reason I had to be celibate in early sobriety was to learn how to connect sexually, how to stay present even when my clothes came off.   That wasn’t an easy lesson to learn.)

It’s dangerous to over-identify with a fictional character. I’m not Adam.  But we’re similar enough that I was shaken to my core by the reminder of where it is I can go if I’m not “doing my work.”  I was also reminded that that destructive disappearing act, that vanishing into sexualized cruelty, had nothing to with the women I was with.  On Twitter, some of my friends were suggesting that what happened was partly Natalia’s fault for not understanding Adam’s peculiar kinks; “this is why Hannah was better for him,” they claimed.

Men don’t drink and disconnect and (yes) rape because they’re with the wrong partner.  It’s both a dangerous oversell of female power and a devaluation of men’s responsibility to suggest that a woman’s empathy — or sexual adventurousness — is enough to restore an addict to sanity.  Men like Adam (and the me that was) don’t need a particularly adventurous and understanding sex partner; we don’t drink and disappear into rage because we’re misunderstood.  The love of a kinky woman won’t save us for long.  We drink and disappear because we’re not working our program, because we’re not winning the fight every damn day against a disease that leaves us incapable of empathy, of sustained kindness.

The good news is that when we start to win that fight we change; we can become completely different people.  In sobriety, I learned how to be present, how to listen, how to play with humor and tenderness.  In the program, we’re reminded that we only have “a daily reprieve contingent on maintaining our spiritual condition.”  On Sunday night, I watched someone lose that “daily reprieve,” and inflict so much stupid, cruel, unnecessary pain as a consequence.

Monday morning, I called my sponsor.

“My sweet boy, my goy toy”: a debut piece of non-fiction at Jewrotica

From the confessional writing files: a true story about a brief grad school fling serves as my debut piece at Jewrotica. Check out My Sweet Boy, My Goy Toy and please note that the piece does contain sexually explicit scenes and may not be appropriate for all readers. AND NOT YOU, MOTHER.

Excerpt:

We ended up back in her apartment, kissing on the couch. She pulled my tucked polo shirt out of my jeans, her hands running up my torso, finding my nipples. I gasped, my own hand reaching up to cup her breast. Chana suddenly pulled back, pushed back her spectacularly tousled hair, and announced, “Wait. I need to ask you something.”

I was sure she was going to ask one of two things. Perhaps: was my divorce final? (It wasn’t.) Or: did I have a condom? (Not on me, but I was prepared to sprint to the nearest pharmacy.)

Instead: “Are you Jewish?”

I was stunned. My first thought was that she was trying to figure out if I was circumcised. But what an odd way and time to ask, I thought. “I’m half,” I replied, “my father is.” Chana nodded. “But not your mother?”

“No, she’s an atheist Episcopalian. Does it matter?”

Chana leaned forward, butting her head gently into my chest. I kissed her hair, waited. “This can never go anywhere serious,” she said, proceeding to explain – without ever raising her gaze to meet mine – that she was totally committed to her faith and her heritage and would only consider marrying a Jewish man. I stroked her hair while she talked, trying to figure out if I was flattered that this brilliant, gorgeous woman would consider marrying me – or if I was insulted that my mother’s background took me out of the running. Mostly, I was amazed. It was 1992! What serious academic (and Chana had extraordinary intellectual chops) made decisions based on religion?

I lifted Chana’s face to meet mine. I kissed her. “It’s okay if we can’t get serious,” I whispered, “I just want to enjoy this now.” She laughed. “I’m gonna hold you to that, baby; remember you said that.” She cocked her head to one side, studying me. I held her gaze, sensing that if I wavered, I’d be asked to leave. And then, without another word and in one fluid motion, she pulled my shirt up, over, and off.

Read the whole thing.

Going on August hiatus; a post on male voyeurism at Jezebel

Like shrinks everywhere, I’ll be on hiatus for the rest of August, taking a break from my regular columns at RoleReboot and Jezebel. My last post of the month at the latter site epiphed yesterday. In it, I look at the recent epidemic of hidden camera peeping tom incidents, and do some reflecting on what drives men’s voyeurism. The final paragraph:

But perhaps the most basic thing we can do is end once and for all the indulgent “boys will be boys” attitude towards voyeurism. Whether it’s staring up girls’ skirts (Putzie in the classic musical Grease) or greedily watching young women shower through peepholes (most of the male cast of Porky’s), we’ve grown up with a pop culture that portrays the urge to spy on unsuspecting women as a normal, healthy, inevitable part of a dude’s coming of age. But as the arrest reports make clear, plenty of guys aren’t growing out of this behavior –- coaches, pastors, and grandfathers are among those who’ve been charged with spying on unsuspecting women. The sooner we see even boyish voyeurism as having less to do with healthy sexual curiosity than with predatory, boundary-violating behavior, the better.

Read the whole thing.

Women’s Orgasms, Men’s Sense of Purpose: on OneTaste

My Genderal Interest column at Jezebel today looks at OneTaste (the so-called “orgasm cult”) and its growing focus on helping men find purpose through giving women pleasure. Excerpt:

But the real payoff of Orgasmic Meditation for a man goes beyond his delight in watching a woman orgasm beneath his fingertip. What OM offers, Daedone claims, is an opportunity for guys to break the familiar, depressing cycle of oscillating “between bravado and helplessness.” OM gives men a sense of mastery, not just of women’s bodies, but of themselves. If it’s true that there’s nothing straight men want to know more than to how to please a woman, then it follows that if they figure out how to do that well and consistently, they’ll receive a boost of confidence that will bleed over into every other aspect of their lives.

Ken Blackman, a 48 year-old former Apple software engineer who is now One Taste’s “senior stroker,” told me that One Taste had transformed his life. He came to the OM practice as a self-described “short nerd” who was desperate to learn tips for becoming great in bed. What he found instead was a whole new way of relating to women and to himself. According to Blackman, becoming a great stroker (Daedone praises him as among the very best she’s taught) has little to do with technique and more to do with cultivating “a talent for play.” “Women want men who have a demonstrated capacity for handling the truth,” he says; “OM teaches guys how not to be intimidated by the full intensity of women’s hunger.”

Read the whole thing.

A Preference for Bare Genitals Has Nothing to Do with Pedophilia: a Mea Culpa

A story, and an apology.

When I was 16, I spent a month visiting my grandmother in Vienna. Oma gave English lessons from her apartment, and asked one of her best students — Bettina, who was six months older than I was — to show me around. Over the course of four weeks, I fell head-over-heels in love and lust with this witty, mercurial, dark-haired beauty.

One hot June day, Bettina took me swimming in the Old Danube. Like many others, she went topless. (I wish I had a photo of my face the moment my first love stripped down.) And like so many other European women in the early 1980s, Bettina had no interest in body hair removal. She had light down on her upper lip, dark tufts under her armpits — and luxuriant pubic hair curling out around the sides of her bikini bottoms. I thought it was the sexiest thing I’d ever seen. From that moment forth, I became an ardent advocate for swearing off razors and wax. And over the next 30 years, though it would never be a deal-breaker with subsequent partners, I’ve always made it quietly clear that my own erotic preference is for an entirely unshaven pubic area.

Like a lot of people, I’m guilty of having made personal predilections into moral claims. In a 2005 post on the lamentable John Derbyshire, I connected the growing popularity for Brazilian waxes to pedophilia (a link that, of course, others have made too.) I wrote that the preference for hairlessness “symbolized a lack of maturity” and a dangerous sexual fixation on girlishness.

What changed my views was having a daughter. Until Heloise was born, I’d never examined an infant’s nether regions closely. But I was a quick study on the diaper changing and the bathing, and it soon became clear to me what so many other people already knew — a hairless infant vulva looks nothing like an adult woman’s bare hoo-hoo. Whatever forces lie behind the preference for a waxed vulva, a desire to make a woman who has gone through puberty look like a girl who hasn’t strikes me as highly unlikely.

I repent of the insistence that those men and women who are partial to smooth, unobscured genitalia (their own or their partners’) are evincing a “lack of maturity” and a fear of adult sexuality. I was wrong to make that charge and will dispute that claim when I hear it repeated.

But as for me, I still have the same preference that was sealed — irrevocably — on a hot central European summer day almost 30 years ago. Napoleon is said, apocryphally, to have written to Josephine whilst on a campaign, asking her to forego bathing for at least five days before his arrival home. Were I he, I’d have thrown in a humble request that I’d also like skin untouched by razor or wax.

Of vibrators, clitoridectomies, and the story behind the Hysteria movie

I’m back from baby hiatus with a new Genderal Interest column at Jezebel today: Vibrators and Clitoridectomies: How Victorian Doctors Took Control of Women’s Orgasms. Riffing on the popularity of the new movie Hysteria, the article looks at the different approaches to women’s bodies — and women’s pleasure — in Victorian England. Excerpt:

It’s as easy to celebrate Dr. Granville, the vibrator inventor and hero of the Hysteria movie, as it is to demonize his genital-mutilating contemporary, Dr. Baker-Brown. But the two Victorian physicians had much in common. Not only did both believe in hysteria as a legitimate medical condition, they both believed in men’s responsibility to exert complete mastery over women’s pleasure. One wanted to make women orgasm in his office, on his terms, and with his invention. The other wanted to ensure that women didn’t orgasm at all, thanks to his procedure. Their patients obviously experienced different results, and we’re rightly more outraged by Baker-Brown than by Granville. Those differences shouldn’t obscure the reality that each made his reputation by proposing new techniques to help men control women’s sexuality.

Granville and Baker-Brown agreed on something else: the dangers of female masturbation. It was only in the mid-19th century that medical texts began to discuss the clitoris and its evident purpose. Doctors were as troubled by its location as by its possibilities; why was the clitoris located within easy reach of the average woman’s fingers but not inside the vagina, where it would be more easily stimulated during intercourse? The obvious conclusion — that women are designed to experience sexual pleasure without relying on a man –- was enormously threatening to the medical establishment (and plenty of ordinary men as well.) Female masturbation (something that some male doctors had once considered impossible) represented women’s independence. Neither Granville nor Baker-Brown could countenance that.

Beauty and Sexuality at Relevant Magazine

It’s been years since I’ve written for a Christian audience, so I’m excited to have a post today at the progressive evangelical Relevant Magazine. Beauty and Sexuality revisits issues of grace, desire, community and aesthetic appreciation:

Because we refuse to take seriously men’s ability to not lust in the presence of loveliness, we shame the great many women who—whatever their other fabulous qualities—also want to be affirmed for their beauty. If every man is “fighting a battle” against lust, and if few men are capable of distinguishing appreciation for beauty from carnal longing, then every woman who dresses to be validated becomes a traitor to the cause of spiritual purity. The end result is devastating for too many. Lauren Lankford Dubinsky, founder of the Good Women Project, wrote in an email that “women are victimized by the soul-crushing weight of having your motives (or even personal worth) judged incorrectly on the basis of something as simple as an article of clothing. A huge percentage of women within the Church are silently battling eating disorders, self-harm, pornography addiction and depression—all stemming from misplaced shame, a shame they feel because fellow Christians have equated their beauty with intentional malice or deliberate seductiveness toward men.”

To put it another way, we shame men by insisting they’re fundamentally weak, constantly vulnerable to being overwhelmed by sexual impulses. We shame women for not being better stewards of that supposed weakness. That shame doesn’t just lead to unhealthy sexual relationships (including between husbands and wives); it leaves too many men feeling like potential predators and too many women feeling as if they’re vain, shallow temptresses.

After having written for the Good Men Project for so long, it’s fun to be affiliated with The Good Women Project. I’m grateful to founder Lauren Dubinsky for helping arrange the piece to appear at Relevant.

I can’t stress strongly enough that this article is written for a Christian audience that sees lust as problematic. I recognize that that’s not a universally held position, and if I were writing for secular readers, I’d frame the problem slightly differently. But whether one believes lust is a sin or not, the reality is that both the church and the wider world put the lion’s share of responsibility for male desire onto women. And that’s indefensibly unfair.