Department of Sex Ed
February 6, 2014 | by Susannah Hunnewell
What can the French teach Americans about sex?
Last month, as the New York Post went into paroxysms over the latest French presidential love triangle, we found a more academic comment on French habits of the heart, thanks to our attendance at a panel on “The Art of Sex and Seduction,” sponsored by the Alliance Française. On the first of its three nights, entitled “Did the French invent love?”, Catherine Cusset, a former professor of French literature at Yale, told a story:
A countess invites a young man to her house after running into him at the opera. After a stiff meal with her husband, who retires to his private apartments, the countess leads her guest down a secret passageway into a bedroom. The walls and ceiling are covered with gilded mirrors. Sexual frenzy ensues. At daybreak, the giddy, exhausted young man emerges from the den and runs into a marquis who has just arrived. The marquis thanks him profusely. The young man realizes that he has served merely as a decoy to distract the count from his wife’s true lover. The husband appears for breakfast and greets the marquis cordially. The last line of this story—Vivant Denon’s No Tomorrow, first published in 1777—reads, “I looked for some moral to this adventure and … I could find none.”
“There is no moral lesson,” Cusset said pointedly, and a communal gasp could be heard in Florence Gould Hall. Throughout the series, the audience was susceptible to gasps, audible stirring, and sudden eruptions of laughter. The French and American panelists, who included historians, scientists, sex therapists, and journalists, spoke about vaginas and orgasms in that purposefully blunt way one always expects and yet can seldom prepare for. Here’s what we learned about the difference between French and American sexual customs and attitudes, with a few startling facts about tout le monde. Read More »
July 9, 2013 | by Kate Levin
The last time I slept with Carolyn she pushed me off her in the midst of our lovemaking and turned away from me.
At first I did not understand what it was she wanted. But she bumped her behind against me until I realized that was what I was being offered, a marble peach.
No, I said.
Try it. She looked over her shoulder. Please.
I came up close behind her.
Just easy, she said. Just a little.
I went in too fast.
Not that much, she said.
She said, Oh.
I pressed in, remained, pumped. She arched, clearly in some pain.
And I found, suddenly, that I was thrilled.
I started raiding my parents’ library on the belief that reading their books would let me reproduce their thoughts. Same words in, same ideas out: the alchemy made sense to a middle schooler. When I started plucking novels from their shelves in an investigative frenzy, I was surprised that my parents didn’t seem more concerned about their privacy. Couldn’t they see that I was about to tunnel into their psyches? Wouldn’t their jig soon be up?
A nice theory, but a book or two later, the ominous fog of adult tension that drove me to espionage in the first place still pervaded our house, inscrutable as ever. If novels couldn’t help me decipher it, I consoled myself, at least they could help me escape it; that much I knew from an established history of total, meal-skipping absorption in the Lois Lowrys and L. M. Montgomerys on my own bookshelf. So I kept at my parents’ paperbacks with a shrug of “why not?”—feeling at times engaged and accomplished, at others bewildered and bored—until the day I picked up Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent and wandered into that passage, in which the narrator found, suddenly, that he was thrilled. Read More »
May 16, 2013 | by Paul La Farge
In the evening of his first day in Europe, Lambert Strether anxiously imagines sucking his friend Waymarsh’s cock. He hasn’t ever sucked anyone’s cock, and doesn’t want to. It’s just something he imagines when he is anxious. Waymarsh, meanwhile, is thinking about the young receptionist at the hotel. He’d like to fuck her standing up. From behind. Since his wife went mad, he only ever imagines fucking women from behind. Downstairs in her room at the same hotel, Maria Gostrey wonders if Lambert Strether is a homosexual. When they met, he couldn’t stop glancing at her breasts, but later, when they went for a walk in the public garden, he seemed positively afraid of her. Now Strether is alone with Waymarsh, that brute. Could they be fucking? How sad, she thinks, that two Americans should travel so far just to fuck. Don’t they fuck in America? she wonders.
July 26, 2012 | by Hannah Tennant-Moore
Henry Miller has just been laughed at for rhapsodizing about Walt Whitman. He’s sore. A woman enters the apartment. Henry drags her into the bathroom. He fastens his “lips to her red mouth.”
“Please, please,” she begged, trying to squirm out of my embrace. “You’ll disgrace me.” I knew I had to let her go. I worked fast and furiously. “I’ll let you go,” I said, “just one more kiss.” With that I backed her against the door and, without even bothering to lift her dress, I stabbed her again and again, shooting a heavy load all over her black silk front.
I closed my copy of Miller’s The Rosy Crucifixion restored my tray table to its upright position, and avoided eye contact with the gaunt elderly woman in the aisle seat as I squeezed past her legs. Read More »
February 16, 2012 | by Vanessa Blakeslee
The slim novel came my way quite by accident. I had stumbled across a review of the film The Lover and ordered a VHS copy through my movie-of-the-month club. The first Saturday I could secure a house free of hovering parents, my fellow honors English friends and I, as sex obsessed as we were lit geeks, watched, enraptured, Marguerite Duras’s autobiographical depiction of an adolescent girl in French Indochina who embarks on an affair with a wealthy Chinese man. The girl’s family is crass and impoverished, but she is a good student and wants to be a writer. Soon after, I got my hands on a paperback with a cinema-still cover and was not disappointed.
“I’m fifteen and a half,” the unnamed narrator repeats early in the book. “There are no seasons in that part of the world, we have just the one season, hot, monotonous, we’re in the long hot girdle of the earth, with no spring, no renewal.” Nothing suggested sex as much as sensual lyricism, warm, distant places, and anything French.
I was also fifteen and a half, a virgin consumed with the mysteries of sex, of forbidden encounters. I was also going to be a writer. I read the book and watched the film again and again. Just what was The Lover’s appeal? By then I had discovered Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Lolita, but Duras’s novel resonated more acutely, an exotic Lolita tale but told from the woman’s (if she could be called that) point of view.
My favorite section was where the narrator describes herself on the ferry, wearing gold lamé high heels and a man’s fedora: “Going to school in evening shoes decorated with little diamanté flowers. I insist on wearing them. I don’t like myself in any others, and to this day I still like myself in them.” It is the day she is about to meet the “Chinaman” for the first time. She is fixated on this particular, outlandish ensemble, as stubborn as a child playing dress up. But the faint hint of pedophilia, of prostitution, fell so far into the background that it became practically invisible to me then, obscured by the striking imagery and strange, lush atmosphere of colonial Saigon. Read More »
January 3, 2011 | by David Amsden
We were in a used bookstore, the girl and I.
We were there, roaming the dim, musty aisles on an early summer afternoon, because the girl loved books and because I had lied to her about loving books. I was fourteen years old, as dumb and desperate as countless fourteen-year-old boys before me, and I had been sucked into a black hole of obsession from the moment I first saw the girl sitting three seats in on the second row in my first-period geometry class. Those narrow, discerning brown eyes. Those plush, effortlessly taunting lips. The thrift-store ensemble that improbably fused the elegance of Jackie O. with the edge of Liz Phair. I was ruined then and there, and devoted that first year of high school to studying the girl from afar, confident that it was only a matter of time before we would “accidentally” collide in the hallway and end up making out as the sprinkler system inexplicably went haywire, drenching the clothes we would soon be tearing off one another.
By late spring, however, the one thing I had gleaned for certain about the girl was that she liked to read—an unfortunate discovery. My logic was simple: If you were reading a book it meant you were likely sitting alone somewhere, and if you were sitting alone somewhere it meant that you were not making out under any sprinkler systems, and if there wasn’t at least the prospect, however delusional, that any given activity would result in your making out under a sprinkler systems, what, really, was the point? Regardless, I did the only thing that made sense; I adopted a completely false personality, approached the girl as she was waiting for her bus on the last day of school, and asked what she was up to over the summer.
“Cause there’s, like, this used bookstore I love,” I lied.
“You should check it out sometime. With me.”
For whatever reason, she said yes. And now inside the store she pulled every other book from the rickety shelves, offering brief but eloquent commentaries on each one before asking if I’d read it. Sometimes I said yes. Sometimes I said no. Best to keep it vague, I figured. But after half an hour or so something happened that, in a bizarre, circuitous manner, would turn out to be arguably the most profound moment of my sexual coming of age.