Department of Sex Ed
February 18, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
A poet’s misadventures in erotica.
I’ve written prose. I’ve written several novels that no one has seen. Well, one was published.
My Mother Taught Me, an erotic novel, wasn’t it?
It’s about sexuality. You have to understand, people were writing sex books but no one was writing them well. I thought pornography should be as much of a genre as cowboy stories. But pornography is boring. Childish. Unhealthy. I thought, Why not have a novel of sexuality that’s not paralyzed by the need for orgasm? So I wrote a good pornographic novel to show it could be done. An enjoyment rather than a momentary excitement. There were so many pornographic novels written; why weren’t they effective? A momentary spasm. Some people will have an orgasm if you say a dirty word or say, What he did to her body was . . . But what if you approach it as a real novel? The idea of entertainment intrigued me at the time—so I wrote one.
—The Art of Poetry No. 91, 2005
Jack Gilbert, who would’ve been ninety today, actually published two erotic novels: My Mother Taught Me and Forever Ecstasy, both coauthored with Jean Maclean and published under the opaque nom de porn Tor Kung. Olympia Press, a short-lived purveyor of smut and other wonders, foisted both titles upon the unsuspecting public, and in time they became the most requested books in the publisher’s oeuvre.
The premise of My Mother Taught Me, which appeared in 1967, is absurd, even farcical—and in its outlandishness, it seems designed to effect what Gilbert called “an enjoyment rather than a momentary excitement.” But what kind of enjoyment? Our hero is Lars, a naive Swedish schoolboy who was raised in an all-male orphanage. The place was so strict, so straitlaced, that Lars in his nonage had never so much as laid eyes on a woman—not even a photograph of a woman. Read More »
February 12, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
Sex advice from 1861.
Let me be frank: Valentine’s Day is great if you’re getting laid. But there are, among the populace, a number of the “involuntarily celibate” for whom this “holiday” exists only to remind of isolation, rejection, and missed carnal opportunities. Where, in such times, can the lovelorn singleton turn for solace? There is but one place: the annals of sexual education.
There’s no better way to kill one’s sexual desire than to remember what it was like to learn about sex. Contemporary sex-ed is effective enough in this regard—we can all summon memories of high school filmstrips—but it turns out that the sex-ed of ages past was even more clinical, pedantic, and bloodless. All of which is to say it’s perfect if you’re looking to take the joy out of sex.
Proof positive: An 1861 work by one James Ashton, M.D.—a “lecturer on sexual physiology” who invented the “Reveil Nocturne,” which Google has thus far not elucidated—called The Book of Nature; Containing Information for Young People Who Think of Getting Married, on the Philosophy of Procreation and Sexual Intercourse; Showing How to Prevent Conception and to Avoid Child-Bearing. Also, Rules for Management During Labour and Child-birth. It is, in effect, the most abundantly unsexy sex-ed guide this side of What’s Happening to Me? A Guide to Puberty. Read More »
September 19, 2014 | by Ezra Glinter
Leonard Cohen in love.
“Desperation is the mother of poetry.”
Like most people, I remember the first time I had sex pretty well. I can recall the surprisingly adept flirting I carried off beforehand, and the moment of pleasant shock when she kissed me. I remember how we stayed in bed until three the next day and how when we finally got up, faint from hunger, we went to eat at a greasy spoon that had a little jukebox by each table. I have no idea what I ordered, but I do remember that she got a grilled cheese sandwich. In the next year and a half that we were together, I don’t know if she ever ate another one.
We all have memories like that, jumping out of oblivion like buoys in the water. The facts might be fuzzy, but the moments are clear. Leonard Cohen describes such a memory in his first novel, The Favorite Game, published in 1963, when he was twenty-nine:
What did she look like that important second?
She stands in my mind alone, unconnected to the petty narrative. The color of the skin was startling, like the white of a young branch when the green is thumb-nailed away. Nipples the color of bare lips. Wet hair a battalion of glistening spears laid on her shoulders.
She was made of flesh and eyelashes.
Cohen, who turns eighty on Sunday, is exceptionally good at drawing out those moments of sexual crystallization. It’s a skill that, along with his gravelly voice and poems about women’s bodies, has given him a reputation for being a “ladies’ man.” Judging by the adoring crowds at his shows, it’s a reputation he deserves.
Yet it isn’t success with women that accounts for Cohen’s particular vision, even if his fame as a lover may have, over time, borne the fruits of self-fulfilling prophecy. Rather, his work is shot through with fears of physical deficiency and sexual deprivation, loneliness and insecurity. “He could not help thinking that … he wasn’t tall enough or straight, that people didn’t turn to look at him in street-cars, that he didn’t command the glory of the flesh,” he writes of his autobiographical protagonist in The Favorite Game. Decades later, in his 2006 poetry collection Book of Longing, Cohen confessed: “My reputation as a ladies’ man was a joke / that caused me to laugh bitterly / through the ten thousand nights / I spent alone.” Read More »
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.