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About a week ago I started a series about nudity and sexuality in art. I published the first post which dealt primarily with nudity. Then, more recently, I tried to get to the second post, Sexuality in Art, but the WordPress editing software flaked on me and my text disappeared when I tried to save it. That was a real disappointment because, although I’d only written three paragraphs, it had taken quite a bit of time to organize my thoughts in a coherent and pleasantly readable manner. I was somewhat pleased with what I had written because it wasn’t one of the easier bits of writing that I’d done. I’d been hoping that I would remember pieces of it, but they simply have not come back to me. So, I’m just going to try to write what’s on my mind. Hopefully, it won’t be too incoherent.

Growing up, the aesthetic ideas of modernism still held sway in my little provincial world. Somewhere out there, the art world was already turning, or had already turned, to post modernism, but it hadn’t filtered down to my middle brow milieu. Art was mainly discussed in terms of formal or plastic properties, color, form, texture, line, composition and so on. It was received wisdom that only the unsophisticated thought much about the subject of a work of art. Nudes, consequently, were discussed in much the same way as a landscape or an abstraction. My own particular medium being painting, that is my main point of reference. A nude was considered more as a prompt for a formal composition than a subject itself. If nudes had any particular appeal, it was their very neutrality as a subject. No one ever expressed a particular interest in whether or not they painted or drew young models or old models, ugly models or pretty models. I always felt happy when a male model showed up, but that was only because most models in art classes are female and it was always nice to have a change.

In my last attempt to write this piece, I included a picture of a painting I had done thirty years ago. In my post on nudity, I described this painting.

One day, I happened to glance at myself in the bathroom mirror. The window was to one side and I found myself fascinated by the play of light across my torso, especially across my collar-bone. I painted it. It was an important moment for me because it was the beginning of the development of my own style. At the time, I was purely interested in formal aspects of painting, the color, the composition. The subject, my torso, was at the time beside the point. Eventually, however, the subject matter of my work would become more important.

At that time, I was still under the sway of the notion that what was important about a painting was its formal qualities. I left the head off of the torso for no reason other than it did not contain the elements that interested me. There was no particular message intended by that move. Eventually, though, I would rediscover an interest in subject matter.

Of course, throughout most of history, subject was far from irrelevant, although the artist might not always have much choice over what that subject might be.

Now, the subject of sexuality has always interested me. I’m almost tempted, with a wink and a jab to the rib, to ask who isn’t interested by it, but it seems to me that some of us have a broader and more general interest in it. Part of my interest, however, stems from the fact that most portrayals of female sexuality that I’ve seen have little to no resonance with me. Yet I don’t think I am inherently that odd. Sometimes, I suspect that it is due to a fortunate combination of circumstances. First of all, my parents were both atheists. My mother had been raised as a Catholic and she believe that the Catholic Church had taught her to be ashamed of her sexuality and her body. She consciously, because she has told us, did not want to pass those negative feelings onto me and my sister. At the same time, I came of age at the height of the sexual revolution. Somehow, all those received notions about how women were supposed to behave never filtered into my mind. I was never given an easy prescription about what was right or wrong. At the same time, I was a highly ethical person, even a bit of a prig, so I did spend a fair amount of time reflecting on what I believed to be right and wrong.

So, a great amount of what I see and read on the subject of female sexuality strikes me as simply wrong and I feel compelled to get my point of view out there. I know many people will think that I am wrong, which is why so often I write from a first person point of view.

Once it is accepted that the subject of art is important, then any aspect of human experience becomes a legitimate subject, and this includes sexuality.

One place where I can't show my work is right here on my own blog. WordPress does not allow images of genitalia. The left third of this painting has been cropped.

One place where I can’t show my work is right here on my own blog. WordPress does not allow images of genitalia. The left third of this painting has been cropped.

For me, if I have a coherent argument, I would rather write about something. I’m not personally fond of visual art which is too didactic. I tend to turn towards painting when words fail me. So, while I say that many of my paintings deal with sexuality, if you were to ask me specifically what a painting meant, I might not be able to tell you.

Sexuality has always been one of the many topics addressed by art. The beauty of the human body is another and that is not always sexual. There are many times that naked bodies appear in art. Sometimes they are sexual and sometimes they are not. It is not always easy to tell. However, historically, most artists have been men, as well as most art patrons, and a male perspective on sexuality has most certainly dominated. I think it is important to get my views out there. Yet, if my nudes in general are often barred from being displayed due to nudity alone, then my more sexual nudes are certainly unwelcome in many places. Quite of few of the exhibitions I have been in have been specifically exhibitions of erotic artwork.

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Goody Goody lived a few houses away from us when we were very little. She was my older sister’s age, but she was also a little immature and I was at least as close to her as my sister. Closer, perhaps. Her mother was divorced, with two children, didn’t work and had a live-in maid. She came from a wealthy family. I wouldn’t understand this for many years. She was different from the neighboring adults, but her children didn’t seem any different and I was far too young to see adults the way they saw one another. Why she lived in our lower-middle class neighborhood of small houses, I will never know. She didn’t stay very long. Soon, husband number three came along. This one would last. The first was a handsome, womanizing actor. The second was a mad genius mathematician, and the third was a grumpy accountant, a widower with three children of his own. They married and moved to nearby town where the houses were bigger and which had a reputation for snobbishness, anti-Semetic prejudice and academically excellent schools.

Despite the move, Goody Goody and I remained friends. Since she lived in another town, when we’d go to visit we’d usually stay over night. Her mother was always very welcoming and encouraging. Now, they were a family with five children, all in their teens except for the oldest who was about twenty, living in a sprawling house with many bedrooms and many parties. (Just to be clear, since the parents were welcoming and usually around, although the parties were lively, they weren’t the out-of-control parties some kids have when their parents are away.)

One weekend when we were staying with Goody Goody, she wanted to go see a movie at a theater in a town some distance away, at midnight. Her eldest brother would have to drive us. This struck me as unusual. Being a night owl since the day I was born, I didn’t care about the hour much, but why were we driving so far? She tried to explain to me the plot of the movie.

“These people go to this castle that makes everybody inside it horny!!!!” She balled her little hands up into even littler fists and pulled them into her body, her elbows held close to her side, and shook them excitedly.

“What does ‘horny’ mean?” I asked.

Goody Goody, with her large blue eyes and limp, wavy, dirty blond hair bore a faint resemblance to Susan Sarandon, a coincidence I was about three hours from noticing. “It means you want to have sseeexxxx!!!!!” She waved her hands back and forth even more excitedly, squeezing her tits into surprisingly ample, and quivering, cleavage in the process.

So Goody Goody, Sis and I piled into the back of the car and Goody Goody’s eldest brother, a cutie pie I haven’t yet named, and another person sat in the front as we drove some distance to see this Rocky Horror Picture Show.

How does a person describe a revelation? I wouldn’t have a similar experience watching a movie until I saw Scorpio Rising. (Is there anything hotter than a guy’s denim encased crotch with the song “Blue Velvet” in the background? – But I guess that’s another post.) How do you describe something that isn’t so much a matter of introducing new ideas as taking inchoate ideas that are already in your brain and giving them form?

When worlds collide

How does a person begin to explain living in a small, self-contained, suburban world and suddenly realizing that there is something more out there? “You are not alone.”

There’s a light, a light

In the darkness of everybody’s life

Truthfully, I wasn’t yet old enough to know much about life’s darkness, but if darkness can be a metaphor for ignorance, then certainly The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a light.

The first real jolt in the movie is when Richard O’Brien appears as Riff Raff.

I remember doing the Time Warp
Drinking those moments when
The blackness would hit me
And the void would be calling

This is where the oh-so-famous Time Warp begins. It’s just such a beautiful build up of tension and release.

Next we have what might be one of the most notable performance in film history, Tim Curry as Frankenfurter.

Don’t get strung out by the way I look
Don’t judge a book by its cover
I’m not much of a man by the light of day
But by night I’m one hell of a lover

That is fine advice for any young woman, and probably most young men as well.

Later in the movie, the sweet ingenue, played by Susan Sarandon, is making love to the “creature” created by Frankenfurter. Watching, on close circuit teevee are two female characters, Colombia and Magenta. This is the first that I recall seeing two women in a sexual situation with one another. It put ideas in my head. The ideas didn’t go very far as of yet… yet.

From the day he was born
All he wanted
Was Rock and Roll porn
And a motorbike

Where do I even start. I’ve described elsewhere how during my early adolescence, “serious” popular music had become a narrow genre of stultifying art rock. I’d seen some glimpses of other things around the edges, but they were not yet mainstream by any means. The music in this movie was a breath of fresh air.

The, ahem, if you will pardon me, climax of the film is a sequence called the “floorshow.” Four of the characters perform in corsets and feather boas. Finally, Frankenfurter takes the stage and sings,

Whatever happened to Fay Wray?
That delicate satin draped frame
As it clung to her thigh, how I started to cry
‘Cause I wanted to be dressed just the same

What could be more normal than that?

Give yourself over to absolute pleasure
Swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh
Erotic nightmares beyond any measure
And sensual daydreams to treasure forever

Then he jumps into a pool.

Don’t dream it, be it

I may have taken this part a bit too much to heart.

In the end, after the aliens have returned to their home planet, we see our protagonists lying on the ground.

And crawling on the planet’s face
Some insects called the human race
Lost in time, and lost in space
And meaning

That evening, I learned that men could look really hot in women’s clothes.  I learned that women could look hot in women’s clothes. The movie was fascinating for me in that it treated men as sex object. It definitely went a long way to making my sense of sexuality and gender more flexible.

And it would resurface in my life later.

Well, here we have another memory out of order. I really didn’t want to write about this so soon. There are certain events which I prefer to put in their proper order so they have a context. So often women and their sexuality are cast as two alternatives, directly opposed. The Madonna and the Whore is how these opposing images are usually named. Not only are they positioned at the extreme ends of sexual behavior, they have other characteristics that accompany the bare fact of sexual activity. The frequency with which a sexually active woman is portrayed as a party girl, a poor student, probably unintelligent and certainly unintellectual and sexual behavior is portrayed accompanied by drug or alcohol use and general loutish behavior is tiresome at best. It offers a false choice. We all know it’s a false choice, but our lives have been so saturated by these images we sometimes we link these unrelated activities together in our minds despite knowing better.

If you’ve been following along with my memories, you may already realized that I was in the process of turning from a nerdy girl into something very different. It is important for me to communicate that I never entirely shook off some of my characteristics that made me a nerd in the first place. I remained a little bit bookish and a good student. I followed my parents’ directions. I didn’t smoke pot or take any other drugs and I didn’t drink alcohol until I got to college. It seemed to me that my intellectual and sexual awakening went hand in hand, along with a social awakening. There was yet one more aspect to this period of my life and that was a spiritual awakening.

Paarsurrey left a question on my About page. I was at a loss about how to answer it. This is only the beginning of the answer.

The penthouse condo was dark when we walked in. I could see that hallway opened up into rooms a few yards away, but there were doors in the hallway starting only a few feet from the front door. We entered the first one on the right. The lights were out but the city lights filtered through the large modern windows and filled the room with a soft twilight. The bed was a platform placed directly under the windows. The top of the bed was almost flush with the window sill. We sat on the edge of the bed and kissed. He fondled me and I found myself hoping he would not leave it at that. I had made the decision to have sex with him that night and I feared that he might back out at the last minute.

He whispered in my ear, “Suck my cock.”

I think I first tried something awkward, like bending over from the waist. He took off his pants and he guided me onto my knees on the floor in front of him between his spread thighs. This was an incredibly intimidating moment and it would be a long time before I found fellatio to not be intimidating. There I was, confronted with his penis. Inches from my face, it and his abdomen filled my field of vision and I had barely a clue as to what to do. I’d heard the usually crude jokes about girls who tried to blow on it because the were confused by the word “blow job,” so I knew not to do that. I went with the other obvious word and tried sucking. He stopped me. “Have you done this before?” I shook my head no. “You’re not feeling pressured, are you? You’re okay with this?” I nodded my head no and then yes. He placed either hand on the side of my head and talked and guided me until he ejaculated into my mouth. It was a strange taste, entirely unlike anything I had tasted before, bitter but not unpleasant.

He pulled me back on to the bed with him. He took off the rest of his clothes and then undressed me and we lay on top of the bed embracing. He got a condom at the ready. He performed oral sex on me. After I had had my fill of that particular pleasure, he asked me to put the condom on him. I frankly told him that I didn’t know how and he showed me. Then he entered me. We fit together easily and moved through many different positions. I orgasmed several times and finally he ejaculated again as well. I lay there beside him on the damp sheets, my body feeling supple and soft. My mind was enveloped by a pleasant haze.

Eventually, he was ready again. He stroked me and petted me until I felt as pliable as kneaded butter. He rolled me onto my stomach, straddled me and began massaging my back. My head faced the window and I could see the lights of Honolulu below. He tried to enter me. When he met resistance, he kissed the back of my neck and whispered for me to relax. He told me to trust him, that he would be gentle.

It is difficult to describe what happened next because it all happened in my head, but it felt no less real for that. As I tried to relax and give into his movement the boundary between our bodies seemed to dissolve. I felt as if I was catapulted forward into the street lights which turned into stars and I rose up into space, but it was no longer me, it was we, and not just him, but an ever-expanding we. I felt as if I had become one with the universe and I was lost in a sea of stars, carried away on a rhythm like endless waves. Then he finished again and collapsed on top of me.

Eventually, as I felt as if I might drift off to sleep, I roused myself, cleaned myself up, dressed and left.

This was the first moment since I first felt at the age of eight that religion was a man-made sham that I entertained the notion that there might be something more to the universe than the material world. It was one of the deepest, most profound and most moving experiences I had ever had. It seemed so profound that I couldn’t believe it was just a simple emotional response. I didn’t launch onto a non-stop spiritual quest, but there was a new idea in the back of my mind, that maybe something else was out there. However, there was one thing of which I did feel certain, that this beautiful feeling was good and any religion that said it was bad or sinful had to be in error. The very experience that caused me to ask questions about spirituality ruled out orthodox versions of the Abrahamic religions as possibilities.

It would be nearly fifteen or so years before I started calling myself an atheist again, and that is too convoluted a journey to summarize here.

We pick our fights. Presumably, we pick them according to our priorities. Politics matters more to me than atheism, feminism matters more to me than other political issues, and sexuality matters more to me than all of the above. A dear friend of mine used to sport a button that bore a quote attributed to Emma Goldman, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” In my case, the quote could be, “If I can’t fuck, I won’t join your revolution, your religion, your social movement….”

Why sex and not something else? It’s hard to say why it’s so important to me, but I speak up about it because I’m always hearing people make broad pronouncements about sex and sexuality that don’t jive with my personal experience.

About a month or so ago, I put up a post that contained a quote from Holly of Love and Heretics.

I think the distinction was made that waiting for sex until you are older and more mature, and the realization that having sex does indeed do things like give an emotional bond between people, and is more than just “causally having a cup of coffee” as sometimes it is tried to be made out to be is an important observation.

There’s at least three incorrect statements in this one sentence. I feel a little bit like I’m picking on Holly and I don’t really mean to. If these weren’t commonplaces, I wouldn’t be addressing them. Holly has just happened to put them in a sentence that’s easy to quote. For now, I’m going to limit myself to the notion that there is something positive about waiting for sex until “you are older and more mature.”

The first problem with this idea is that I’ve never heard anyone give an approximate age that would be a good time to start having sex. In English grammar, “older” is a comparative but Holly uses it without a comparison, which is possible if the comparison is implied. It begs the question, “Older than what?” Should an individual wait for sex until he or she is eighteen, twenty-one, thirty, fifty?

Conveniently for this post, I lost my virginity at fourteen which I am quite sure is younger than most of the people who make statements like that would recommend. We’ll fast forward past the first three or four boys I fucked and move forward a year when I found myself in history class sitting next to an adorable boy. Better yet, he was one of those shy, sensitive types that hadn’t a clue about exactly how adorable he was.

After futile attempts to engage him in conversation, I shoved a piece a paper at him. “What’s this?”

“My phone number, and you had better use it.”

Quite a charmer, wasn’t I? Thus began the relationship with the boy that I believe I can legitimately call “my high school sweetheart.”

Considering his shyness and upbringing in a religion that frowned on extramarital sex, it was clear to me that I was going to have to take the lead, which I did. It wasn’t long, perhaps a month at most, before I led him through the various stages of sexual contact. We were not permitted to be alone in the bedroom he shared with his brother on the third floor of their father’s house. His bed was under the window which faced the street and it wasn’t long before we figured out that in the time it took his father to navigate his bright red car up the street, into the driveway, park, get out and walk to the door, we could go from naked on his bed to fully clothed, sitting on the sofa looking like the two most innocent things in the world. In the hour or two that would remain between walking to his place from school and the moment we sighted that little red car, boy, did we have fun.

Sex was fun, playful and affectionate. We got along well outside of bed. We shared an interest in art. My friends took a strong liking to him, although his friends, who never got girlfriends, seemed to resent me a little bit. In the end, those boys were polite enough and it never erupted into a real problem.

Frankly, we had a ton of sex. We went from buying those little three packs of condoms to getting those big boxes. We took turns buying them.

There was a really good side to starting young that I think few people ever acknowledge, we had few expectations about what sex was supposed to be like. Sure, we each had seen a bit of raunchy material, but at fifteen you just haven’t racked up a whole lot of hours looking at porn, or romance novels and r-rated movies for that matter. We explored one another’s bodies with an openness I don’t think would have been possible at a much later age. Finding out what we liked and didn’t like was a matter of trial and error, and we tried a lot of things.

We did things that, years later, I would find out were supposed to feel degrading to me, but neither of us knew because no one told us. To this day, I don’t feel that there’s anything degrading about them and it blows my mind when men think it is. At some point or another, it seems to me that we tried almost every kink imaginable without even knowing what we were doing was supposed to be kinky. It was fun, joyous, sometimes romantic, sometimes silly, affectionate, tender, wild and even occasionally clumsy. It was different things at different times.

Furthermore, I hadn’t yet entirely internalized being ashamed of my body. I thought nothing of stripping off my clothes and lying in broad daylight fully exposed on his bed. Eventually, men would tell me that my thighs were too full, by ass was too round, my tits too small, my skin to pale, my calves too muscular, my pubic hair too bushy, my body hair too dark… have I missed any body parts… my feet too flat. Although my high school sweetheart had certainly seen softcore porn like Playboy, he hadn’t yet become comfortable critiquing women’s bodies in the manner that makes me want to hide under the covers with the lights off.

Most importantly, I learned, and I believed he learned as well, what I liked and what I didn’t like, where my boundaries were, how to be giving and how to take, how to please and how to make sure I was pleased in turn. Somehow, all that playing and exploring left me feeling confident about communicating what I wanted as well as how to listen to what my partner wanted. Most of all, I developed a notion that sex is meant for mutual pleasure.

I’ve retained the postive attitude I developed about sex at that time. I wish I could be as confident and self-assured about my body as I was then. In any case, I know my life would have been much poorer without the sexual exploration my high school sweetheart and I had done. It’s enough of a shame that some people are simply not fortunate enough to meet the right person at that age. It’s even more of a shame that other people do meet the right person but don’t feel comfortable exploring one another’s bodies because they’ve been told it would be bad for them.

After my sister read part two of “Groping in the Dark,” we had a conversation in which we discussed her recollections of that time period and some of her own early experiences with boys. That conversation left me feeling that I needed to give some clarification. Moreover, there were several other things I wanted to say anyway.

First, although I make no claims for myself as a prose stylist, I’ve been trying to write in manner that might be enjoyable to read. I haven’t clung too closely to the dictum “Show; don’t tell,” but, still, where possible I’ve tried to avoid lengthy exposition in favor of events that illustrate the points I want to make. At the same time, I’ve tried to be true to my recollections rather than distorting the facts to make them clearer illustrations, which limits the effectiveness of “showing.” If I were writing a novel, I could probably jam everything I learned about boys and sex into one, unusually eventful, summer, a sort of Summer of ’79, with a cast of about half a dozen engaging characters and dramatically revealing moments. Instead, my family moves, a whole new set of teenagers come into my life and in each milieu I have more than one romantic interest. As a plot, it’s messy and lacks a good narrative arc.

I also feel as if I should address the explicitness my description of some of my early sexual exploration, which will probably continue. Exactly how I will handle future situations will be bridges I will cross when I get to each of them. It’s not in there for prurient reasons. One of the difficulties I’ve always found in discussing sex is that people shy away from saying exactly what happens or what happened. People fill these gaps with assumptions, clichés, stereotypes and bits of received wisdom. The result is that everyone’s preconceived notions are preserved. The reason I’m writing about sex and sexuality in the first place is because whenever I hear discussions of the subject I feel that my own experiences don’t confirm what people say. Furthermore, one of the reasons I’m concentrating so exclusively on my own experiences is because I don’t want to make statements about what anyone else may have, or may not have, experienced.

The first assumption I’d like to address is the notion, often subconscious, that only certain types of girls like sex. Throughout this time period, I continued to get good grades in school. The biggest black mark on my school record was gym. Eventually, I would graduate from high school early as would Suzy Q. We would both get scholarships to college. Among the others, Cherry Bomb was a reasonably good student, although not one of the top ones. Cat Eyes and Sour Puss were pretty ordinary as far as intelligence went and their grades, as far as I know, reflected that.

If I’ve neglected the alcohol and drugs, that’s because there weren’t any. I never really gave it a lot of thought before, but since I’ve decided to start discussing these things on the internet, which includes some months on forums before starting this blog, I’ve noticed the tendency for references to sex to bring up references to drinking even if it’s apropos to nothing else being said. This occurred in a comment Holly left on an earlier post. I didn’t bother to address the reference to drinking at the time, but after noticing the pairing in some other places I was going to make an entire post about it. Perhaps I never really made the association because alcohol tends to deaden my libido. Anything beyond, perhaps, two glasses of wine and I start to lose interest in sex. In my experience, if affects men the same way. Overeating isn’t great for sex in my experience either.

Now that I’ve written about it, I wish I had asked Sheep Dog how he felt about it, but I was under the impression he was embarrassed and I didn’t want to make him feel anymore uncomfortable than necessary. If it wasn’t obvious from my narrative, I’d like to emphasize that neither of us pushed the other into doing things we didn’t want to do. I’d also like to note that we held back from going further, although I’m sure we could have managed a time and place with a little more privacy if we had put our minds to it, for the simple reason that we weren’t ready for it. We weren’t resisting the impulse to do more. So many times when I hear and read things about teenage boys, they seem to be depicted as a bunch of callous louts that just want to put notches on their belt. My own experience when I was young just doesn’t conform to that. That said, I did tend to find myself drawn to the shy, sensitive boys, not the braggarts and the blowhards.

Finally, my sister couldn’t figure out from the nicknames who all the individuals were. That’s probably good. I’ve been slightly vague with exact names, places and dates in hopes of leaving people a shred of privacy.

Boy, do we live in a schizophrenic society or what? I’ve been trying to get a post out for most of today. After reading one by Holly over at Love and Heretics, I wanted to write something to the effect of “Speak for yourself. I love sex. It doesn’t have to be a big emotional thing at all.” That seemed a little too short, so I followed all the links in her post trying to find something more profound to say, or, failing that, at least interesting, or longer.

The first link led me to Holly’s initial post in which she discusses what she feels are the negative consequences of being a virgin on your wedding night. She discusses it pretty frankly and I have to give her a lot of credit for that. It of course put me in mind of my wedding night, which was some of the best sex I ever had. Despite the fact that I was far from a virgin, our wedding night was still pretty special. My now ex did one of my absolutely most favorite things which, as able as he was, he only managed to succeed in doing on a handful of occasions. It’s a real shame that he turned out to be an emotionally stunted mess, because he was great in bed. I can’t help thinking that that might be one of the drawbacks of “kicking the tires” first. Sometimes the tires are so damned good, you don’t notice that the rest of the car is non-functional. Of course, the real reason I made such an oversight is because we were having a long distance relationship. I used to joke that we got married on our fourth date. It was the fourth time we met in person, although we’d been writing letters for over a year and a couple of those visits lasted a week. The relationship reached a point where it was jump in with both feet or end it, and we jumped.

Afterwards, he held me in his arms and was crying and said, “That was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced.” That statement validated my own feelings. Sometimes after sex, when I’ve had a particularly intense experience of what I can only describe as being of a transcendental nature, I find myself wondering whether or not the other person experienced the same thing. Usually, they do. Still, sometimes you find yourself brought back down to earth wondering how much of what just happened was real. As a wiser man than I once said, the sexiest part of the body is the brain. Yes, there is physical stimulation, but a large part of what makes the experience so intense sometimes is in our heads. It can also ruin the experience.

It’s ironic that our wedding night was so intense because the first discussion I ever had with my soon-to-be husband when he was still a stranger on a park bench was about how neither of us believed in marriage. But governments do, so we got married.

After reading Holly’s initial post I followed her link to an article on the Huffington Post, which reminded me immediately of why I never read the Huffington Post. It’s so trashy that I feel like I need to take a shower afterwards. Beneath the article there was a painfully stupid “quiz” about which celebrities postponed sexual intercourse with their significant other until they got married. I was actually relieved that I’d never heard of half the people in the quiz. I don’t like to be totally clueless about popular culture, but I don’t want my head to be totally in the gutter either. The article itself was barely an article. It was a short video clip of interview with a woman who wrote about how taking a purity pledge as a teenager wrecked her marriage. There was a link to an article she wrote that appeared in Salon, which the Huffington Post with its usual low quality incorrectly identified as Slate.

This is where the world gets schizophrenic. Salon may not be as trashy as the Huffington Post, but it’s not exactly the New York Review of Books either. I could barely read the article that had brought me there with the title of another article staring out at me from the side bar. The Worst Porn Ever! Really! Ooooh. Don’t rush over there. It’s sounds pretty banal. Backdoor Teen Mom. Apparently there’s a television show that makes z-list celebrities out of women who have children at a young age and – don’t be too shocked now – one of them has cashed in on her celebrity by making a porn video. Guess what, the acting is bad. You’re shocked aren’t you. And here you thought that Backdoor Teen Mom would be the film that cements pornography as a legitimate art form.

Meanwhile, in our schizophrenic culture, Jessica Ciencin Henriquez was recounting her experience at a bible camp where she pledged herself to Jesus and received a purity ring.

And it wasn’t just the ring. This was a movement with T-shirts and hats and the added bonus of superiority over kids in school who couldn’t keep their clothes on, those sinners.

Missing out on sexual pleasure during her teen years made her feel “superior.” What can I say? It’s a big world and it takes all kinds.

She then goes on to say:

After an intense and very detailed sex talk with my mother , where she stuttered and I blushed and we both used the word “flower,” I was terrified of sex.

This reminded me of an incident that occurred the last time I went to the hairdresser’s. My sister came with me. The hairdresser is about my age and still absolutely beautiful. She is tall and thin, has a huge head of wild hair, rides a motorcycle and just has a look that you expect her to be pulling out a guitar rather than a pair of scissors. Unsurprisingly, she had a story about how the previous night she had gone with a friend to hear a band and ended the evening making love to the guitar player half her age. I said to her, “You say that as if there’s something wrong with that.”

“You don’t think so?” she asked with a leading high note on the last word.

“Well, was it good? Did you enjoy it?”

“Oh, it was great. He’s so good-looking, and he’s great in bed. And he’s funny. We just had such a good time. I haven’t had a night like that since I broke up with my girlfriend last year. It was just what I needed.”

“So, then what’s the problem,” I asked, sensing a negative note in her tone.

“Well, I’m not looking for a relationship with him.”

“So….”

“Well, it’s my precious flower.”

In perfect unison, the muscles controlling both my and my sister’s jaws relaxed and our mouths slowly opened hitting the bottommost position at exactly the same time. Together, our heads swiveled on our necks, hers to her left and mine to my right, and we said, “Your… flower?”

The hairdresser took a step backwards, visibly defensive. Later my sister told me that she felt bad about her reaction but she had just been so surprised to hear a grown woman talk that way. “Yes,” she stammered, “my mother told me not to give my precious flower to just anyone.”

“Look,” I spat out, “you’re divorced, with two kids. You just ended a relationship with another woman. Please tell me you’re not still thinking of the advice you mother gave you when you were thirteen and everyone’s biggest worry was that girls would have babies before graduating from high school. We’re both of us baring down hard on fifty. If you don’t want Mr. Twenty-Something Rock-n-Roll, send him my way. He sounds like what I need, too.”

I sat down in the chair. As she cut my hair, I tried to reassure her that there was nothing inherently wrong about casual sex. It seemed that her only qualms about the night before had to do with what she was told by her mother over thirty years ago.

Unfortunately, Ciencin Henriquez’s story lacks any truly satisfactory introspection. We learned that she married young, had boring sex for a few years, then got divorced. As a coda, she tells us that she has since had good sex, some casual and some with a new husband. I do believe, do to my own experience and discussions with both male and female friends, that our beliefs about sex shape our experience of it.

What prompted this post to begin with is that in Holly’s otherwise fine post she says:

I think the distinction was made that waiting for sex until you are older and more mature, and the realization that having sex does indeed do things like give an emotional bond between people, and is more than just “causally having a cup of coffee” as sometimes it is tried to be made out to be is an important observation.

Truthfully, I often feel like the sour note in the chorus when I talk about sex because I do think it can be great if it’s casual. Looking back from the perspective of a woman in middle age, I’m glad I first had sex when I was fourteen. I know other people think it’s irresponsible to say that out loud, but that is the truth. I agree with Anthony Bourdain that, “Your body isn’t a temple; it’s an amusement park.” True, sex can be an opportunity for an emotionally bonding moment, but so can sitting up and talking until dawn. Finding a man I can enjoy fucking is easy. Finding a man I like talking to is hard. Everything in society tells me that I’m supposed to be stingy with my body and generous with my heart. Sex, they seem to say, is never an end in itself.

So, everyone seems to worry whether or not being a virgin on your wedding night is good for, or bad for, your marriage. The presumption, of course, is that marriage is the goal – for everyone. To me, sexual pleasure is a good in and of itself. No one asks if this crazy pressure towards marriage has a negative effect on your sex life. It’s marriage that is everything. Your pleasure is nothing.

Towards the end of Ciencin Henriquez mentions that her wedding dress cost more than the family car. This put me in mind of another episode in my life. My sister was getting married. They did have a real wedding. They were even married by a minister since my brother-in-law’s brother was a minister and he agreed to perform a non-religious ceremony. My sister and I had both sometime earlier agreed that spending a huge amount of money on an official “wedding dress” made no sense. If you just go to your favorite store and buy the prettiest white dress you can find without checking the price tag, you will probably wind up buying something that costs a fraction of a dress marketed as a wedding dress. So, one day I went to the store and I saw a pretty dress. I phoned my sister and told her about it. She said buy a size 8. I put it in large envelope and mailed it to her. She looked as lovely as any bridezilla and was a lot more fun to be around. Despite her lack of concern about her dress and the details of the wedding, she’s still happily married.

After all, your wedding day is still just one day. Your wedding night is still just one night. Marriage isn’t for everyone. Sex isn’t even for everyone. I don’t think there’s any one right way to live. I know I’ve done things that I’m supposed to feel ashamed of, but I don’t. One day, I’m going to write all of them down. There’s something out there that lies between thinking sex is not an experience to be valued in its own right, but only a means to an end, and Backdoor Teen Mom.

Oh, yeah, and the hairdresser, as she finished cutting my hair the phone rang. It was that guitar player. Guess he’d had a good time too.

When I was young, I was a Cosmo Girl. I read Cosmopolitan magazine religiously. That means I can’t resist taking quizzes which promise, in ten short minutes, to reveal some hidden subconscious secret about yourself that you didn’t know. I took the quizzes whether they were relevant or not. So before I’d even been kissed, I learned that my marriage could, indeed, be saved. At thirteen, I was told to dump the loser and move on. So I hope you won’t use it as evidence against me that I took a sex addiction for women quiz the other day. Then I took the sex quiz addiction for men. Maybe I need a quiz addiction quiz.

Crocus buds that have not yet fully opened.I came across the quizzes after following a link from Jack Games over at Step 14. This led me to a criticism of Alcoholics Anonymous on A Healthy Place: Your Mental Health Channel. On the right hand side was a link to a psychological test page. Like the Cosmo Girl I once was, I thought, “Ooh, quizzes.” You will all be glad to know that I don’t have ADHD or OCD. Apparently, I suffer from anxiety and depression, but I already knew that. All the quizzes were for both genders except for the sex addiction quiz. I took them, both the “for men” and “for women” quizzes. I learned that I would have a much bigger problem with sexual addiction if I were a man. I confess, that wasn’t the result I was expecting. Of course, I don’t believe that there is such a thing as sexual addiction, so I shrugged my shoulders and did not make an appointment with a therapist.

Then I came across a post entitled “The Purity Myth” over at Critic of Christianity and I thought maybe our different expectations of men and women’s sexual behavior might be worth discussing.

All of the quizzes were followed by the disclaimer that you can’t diagnose mental illness with an online quiz. However, the sex addiction quizzes had an additional disclaimer.

There is a wide range of prevailing opinions as to what is acceptable sexual behavior.

The Sexual addiction entry in Wikipedia states:

Addiction is the state of behavior outside the boundaries of social norms which reduces an individual’s ability to function efficiently in general routine aspects of life or develop healthy relationships. (emphasis mine)

I’m not sure how social norms interact with, let’s say, heroin addiction, but in the case of sexual addiction, social norms strike me as everything. Despite never for a moment worrying about my sexual behavior or feeling self-destructive or out of control, I came out on both these tests as a sex addict.

Unsurprisingly, I am not the only one with skepticism about sex addiction. Back in 1988, when the idea of sex addiction was still relatively new, Martin P. Levine and Richard R. Troiden published a paper questioning whether such an illness existed. They note that as sexual mores have changed, the definition of sexual pathology has also changed.

…mental health professionals viewed nonmarital and nonprocreative sex as pathological. The first edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, for example, defined masturbation, fellatio, cunnilingus, homosexuality, and sexual promiscuity (e.g., “Don Juanism” and “nymphomania”) as forms of mental illness.

As the counter culture of the sixties and seventies changed the prevailing norms of sexual behavior, the mental health profession followed suit.

Against the backdrop of a (briefly) sex-positive culture, mental health professionals and sexologists re-evaluated professional definitions of erotic control and deviance. ….they depathologized nonmarital and nonprocreative sex. The DSM: III (1980) no longer listed masturbation, fellatio, cunnilingus, homosexuality, Don Juanism, and nymphomania as psychosexual disorders.

Sexually permissive values, however, also provided grounds for adding new psychosexual disorders to the DSM. “Not enough” sex and “inappropriate” sexual response became pathologized. A number of problems of living were transformed into sexual dysfunctions, and were regarded as clinical conditions amenable to therapeutic intervention.

The cusp of the nineteen eighties saw the rise of the AIDS epidemic, a growing dissatisfaction with the self-absorption of the “me decade”, and the rise politicized religious movements broadly known as the “religious right.”

Thus by the 1980s, “too much sex”rather than “not enough sex” began to emerge again as an issue of concern both to the lay public and to mental health professionals. In the permissive climate of the 1970s, it had been unthinkable to argue that there were people who were”addicted to sex” or “out of control sexually.” …. In the increasingly sex-negative 1980s, however, the time had come for the ideas of sexual addiction and compulsion.

In the context of national concern about drug use and addiction, sexually transmitted disease, teenaged pregnancy, and an ethic of commitment, “sex addicts” and “sexual compulsives” were mentioned increasingly in professional publications and in mass media. Nonrelational sexual conduct that had been legitimized in the 1970s was reclassified in the 1980s as a symptom of mental disorder.

The upshot is that “sexual addiction” is a term used to enforce conformity in sexual behavior. I don’t think that it’s too much of a stretch to say that society accepts a greater degree of sexual behavior from men than from women. Consequently, I expected that the separate male and female tests would reflect this and that a women’s behavior would be seen as pathological with at a lower level of activity. Boy, was I wrong. That might have been the case if the questions were the same, but they weren’t.

The most prominent difference between the two tests is the phrase “not related to sexual orientation” which appears repeatedly in the test for men but not once in the test for women. For instance, women are asked:

16 ) Do you hide some of your sexual behavior from others?

While men are asked:

9 ) Do you keep the extent or nature of your sexual activities hidden from your friends and/or partners? (not related to sexual orientation)

It’s hard to be certain what prompted this difference, but I’m inclined to think that, since dykes are viewed as sexless, gay women are not seen as having sexual behaviors that need to be hidden.

The women’s questions focused more on relationships while the men’s questions presumed casual sex. So one question on the women’s test that has no analogous question for the men is:

3 ) Have you stayed in romantic relationships after they become emotionally or physically abusive?

Meanwhile, an example of a question that is asked men and not women is:

12 ) Do you believe that anonymous or casual sex has kept you from having more long term intimate relationships or from reaching other personal goals?

Considering how differently I scored on the two tests, it’s not surprising that more men than women are diagnosed as sex addicts.

I don’t want to mock people who feel that they have harmful compulsions that they need to overcome to have the sort of lives they’d like to have. I just don’t want other people imposing their values, values that everyone does not share, on others. I feel that I was fairly fortunate in that I was raised by a mother who felt like she had been harmed by the Catholic Church’s attitudes to sexuality and intentionally tried to avoid passing negative attitudes about sex on to her daughters. I also came of age during the late seventies, that little window of time when our culture was sex positive. Sometimes, when it comes to sex, I feel like I’m living in a foreign culture these days.

The concept of sex addiction is based on values that everyone does not share. The following are some of the values that are implied by many definitions of sex addiction:

    • sex and sexual desire are dangerous
    • there is only one “best” way to express sexuality
    • sex that enhances “intimacy” is the best sex
    • imagination has no healthy role in sexuality
    • people need to be told what kinds of sex are wrong/bad
    • if you feel out of control, you are out of control
    • laws and social norms define sexual health

— From Marty Klein, a sexologist and therapist.

Intellectually, I have a lot of problems with the way society views sexuality these days. I don’t feel out of control, degraded or depressed about my sexual activity.

Unsurprisingly, sexual addiction was first conceived by a group of AA members.

Two titmice perched in an azalea bush.

The birds…

Two bloggers over at Patheos Blogs, Libby Ann and Daniel Finke, have started a project that they call “Forward Thinking.”  In Libby Ann’s words:

It is our hope that this series will serve as an invitation to readers and fellow bloggers big and small to participate in forming values and grappling with thorny questions. 

Like many other bloggers, I spend most of my time criticizing the ideas of others – toxic religious beliefs, patriarchal gender roles, the elevation of virginity, and the agenda of the religious right – and comparatively less time building positive alternatives. While it’s critical to contest values and ideas we find harmful, it’s also important to build up positive alternatives, and it’s that understanding that birthed Forward Thinking.

They describe it as a “values development project.” I already went on at enough length about Alain de Botton for any regular readers to know that I’m not jumping for joy at a “values development project.” I’ve had, as it has turned out, quite a few reversals of fortune in my life, enough to have questioned all the received wisdom I’ve ever heard and to make me scoff at people like Alain de Botton. Yes, I’m one of those miserable people who did all the “right” things and everything still wound up wrong. Are the well-intentioned bloggers participating in their project any wiser than the people they hope to advise? And once the values are developed, what are they going to do with them?

The exterior of a topbar beehive.

the bees…

Besides having my doubts about the project in general, I also didn’t participate because I didn’t feel like I had anything relevant to say about the first subject: civic responsibility. Sure, I could have blathered on for at least five hundred words on the topic, but who am I to tell anyone about civic responsibility. I have no special insight on the subject – at all. I’d just be another person thrusting my ill-considered beliefs on other people.

This month’s subject, however, is one that I feel strongly about, “what would you tell teenagers about sex.” Sex is right up there in my tag line. It’s a subject I’ve spent a huge amount of time thinking about. I really got very little guidance one way or another about sex and a tremendous amount of things people told me were self-evidently incorrect. My mother felt that everything she had been told about sex was infected with the shaming beliefs of the Catholic Church and tried hard to not pass them on to her daughters. The moment I lost my virginity, I discovered that sex is my single greatest pleasure. Period. Nothing even comes close. When I was younger, I spent a very large amount of time trying to develop my own ideas about how to think and act on the subject of sex. One of the primary reasons I started this blog was to talk about sex because I am in such strong disagreement with much of what I read on it. When I was in my early twenties, I wished there was a career option such as sex guru, that’s how strongly I felt about the subject. Now that I’m going on fifty, I have some perspective, I believe, to see what has gone right and what has gone wrong.

A three legged squirrel in a tree eating a peanut.

and a squirrel called Tripod.

Although they’re often written with a tone of voice that implies an objective perspective, in reality there’s always a personal bias in these sorts of advisories. So I want to acknowledge up front that my own personal experiences have informed my ideas, as well as things I read or was told by people in authority when I was young, though more often than not those authorities were wrong, whether they were teachers, preachers, moralizing parents of friends (I got a lot of this!), or feminists. Being female, at first I thought my statements applied to girls, but after thinking about it a bit, I realized that they apply to boys equally as well. In either case, take it where it comes from.

First, know that you have a right to your own body and your own thoughts. Sexual feelings are normal, healthy and natural. Pleasure is a good thing. We should enjoy pleasure without guilt. Many people will try to tell you otherwise. Some will tell you that any sexual thoughts are bad. Others will try to tell you that some thoughts are bad and some are good. Know that we cannot influence reality merely with our thoughts alone. We do not enter the realm of ethics until we start to act on our thoughts and involve other people in our actions.

It is important to get in touch with your feelings and your thoughts, to not be alienated from them. We are especially inclined to be alienated from our sexual thoughts because we are told from so many sources that certain impulses are good or bad. However, it is really important to be in touch with your thoughts. Consciously acknowledge your thoughts. Work on accepting them without feelings of guilt. Know that you are in control of your own actions, and thought and action are not identical. You can act, or not act, on your thoughts. That is a separate question. Do not feel uncomfortable for simply having sexual thoughts.

Accept that we are animals. We have desires and needs like food and shelter. These desires and needs are, in and of themselves, morally neutral. Before we can make good decisions about how to behave sexually, we need to acknowledge those desires, frankly.

Don’t let anyone tell you what you should feel.

If you are a young person, congratulations, you have years of fun times ahead of you. There are ecstasies in store for you of which you have not yet dreamed. All portrayals of the pleasures of sex, whether written, drawn or filmed, pale in comparison to what you can experience in real life.

For most of us, our desires involve other people.

First, you need to find an appropriate partner or partners. Unfortunately, all sorts of received wisdom, from religious prudes to people who think they’re being politically correct to people who think they’re saving you from disease by grossing you out and scaring you, will bombard you. It can be hard to find a partner who has not had his or her mind polluted with this nonsense. Try to engage with partners who are comfortable with their own sexuality. If you find yourself drawn to someone who isn’t, encourage him or her to become more comfortable. If that person tries to burden you with their own brainwashing about sex, you need to move on. Anyone that makes you feel uncomfortable with the fact that you are a sexual being with sexual desires is a bad partner. They will make you miserable in the long run.

Find someone with whom you can engage in sexual exploration. You must find someone with whom you feel comfortable being naked, someone who you feel is not sitting in judgement on you. You should try to empty your minds of preconceived notions of what sex is supposed to be. Try to explore one another’s bodies so you can find what is physically pleasurable to you and what is physically pleasurable to your partner. It may or may not  be what you expect.

Sex with another person needs to be about mutual pleasure. I like to think it’s called intercourse for a reason. Try to be generous with your partner and insist, really insist, on a having a partner who is generous to you. If your partner doesn’t have a genuine interest in giving you sexual pleasure, find a new partner. If you are a generous lover who treats his or her partners well, there will be a lot of potential partners out there for you.

Now that I am older, I can look back and say that my main regrets regarding sex when I was a teenager are all the times I didn’t indulge when I coud have. If I could go back, I would have lots more sex. Lots. Actually, that goes for just about any period of my life except when I was married, because we had tons of sex when we were married.

So take advantage of your youth. It’s going to be fun. Savor the moment. Most of the reasons to say “no” to sex when you’d like to say “yes” are fatuous. At fifty, you won’t give a damn about your high school reputation, but you can feel good about not have wasted your youth trying to live out someone else’s notion of what your life should be. You’ll never get these years back. Have all the fun you can manage.

Several elementary schools fed into our junior high, and that is where the sifting and sorting began. For our main academic classes, I found myself grouped with the same students. These were the students who, two years later in high school, would be funneled into the college preparatory classes. Another new development for us was the introduction of choice into our eduction. We had “electives” and we were granted the grand choice of deciding between French or Spanish.

An oversized chess set built from found metal objects on a painted cement floor in an empty warehouse building at the American Visionary Arts Museum.There were pros and cons to each choice, all relating to my twelve-year-old self’s petty social life. My two closest friends were set on Spanish. However, my older sister had taken Spanish and I wanted to distinguish myself from her and cease the constant comparisons between us that always fell unfavorably on me. “Your sister has such a good disposition. Why are you so moody?” was a refrain I heard from every elementary school teacher. I wasn’t a particularly troublesome child, nor was I especially unpopular. I was a touch shy, but not pathologically so. Yet, adults who had met my energetic, popular, cheerful older sister first, could never control the urge to tell me what a disappointment I was. I adored my older sister who was, in fact, cheerful, easygoing, popular and all that, yet I felt like something of a misshapen dwarf living in her shadow. Even my mother, I felt, adopted me with the expectation of getting another happy, bouncy bundle. Instead, she got a quiet, pensive, brooding, inquisitive child who could not be trusted with a screwdriver because I was exceedingly curious about the insides of things. I wasn’t troublesome, just different.

So taking French class instead of Spanish was my first opportunity to differentiate myself from my sister and that weighed at least as heavily as any desire to keep company with my two closest friends. However there was a third factor about which I told no one at the time. For now, I will just call him J-.

People are always referring to “hormones” as a veiled reference to sexual desire. Yet my body was evidence that those “hormones” had been running through my body in adult proportions for several years. Yet when I think back on my thoughts in fifth and sixth grade, I can’t find much evidence that I had any interest in sex. It wasn’t until seventh grade, when boys were starting to express an interest in me and other girls were starting to giggle about boys that I had any relevant thoughts that I can recall.

So, I not only chose French, but I succeeded in spending the next year seated next to J-. French class had wide tables that seated two people at each and J- and I shared one in the first row near the window. He made me feel slightly agitated in a way I didn’t quite understand. I want to say that I was too nervous to look at his face, but nervous isn’t quite the right word. He had always been nice to me and he never made fun of other students, which was common behavior at that age. There was nothing I feared from looking at him. However, I can recall wanting to look at him yet not doing so because I didn’t want him to ask me why. It was a question I couldn’t have answered.

What I remember most clearly was the sight of his forearms resting on the desk. They were noticeably different from those of other boys. His arms were covered with a light layer of dark hairs and they had a shape formed by his developing muscles. He was an athletic boy, a competitive wrestler who, in later years, would place second in a state competition. The shape of his veins were visible under the skin, and when he grasped his pen or turned a page, I was hypnotized by the movement of the muscles under the surface. His hands looked strong in a way other boys’ didn’t.

We sat shoulder to shoulder, close enough that I could detect a faint scent. I’m not talking about the foul body odor that comes from being unclean. J- was, as far as I could tell, as tidy as any of the boys with his person. It was a distinct sent, one that in later years I would come to associate with men, and it hit me between the eyes. It was a heady experience, almost like being a little drunk or a little high, although I wasn’t yet familiar with either of those states.

I had no idea what I wanted from him, but I wanted something.

Wanting him to notice me and like me, with all the grace a twelve-year-old girl can muster, when the teacher would return a test to us, I’d punch him in the arm and say, “What did you get!” He’d show me his paper and, as often as not, I’d slap mine down on top and say, “Beat you!” I thought my good grades would cause him to admire me and he would regard me as highly as I regarded him. He was a good student, and it took quite an effort to beat him on tests.

I never did learn what he thought of me. Other boys would grab my attention soon enough, but I would never forget the feeling I got sitting close to him. Predatory.