So, as they might say in a British bedroom farce: On to the sex.
I’ll skip over the unanswerable question of why we glory in other completely carnal acts, such as eating – sharing our meals, writing and talking freely about food, and elevating chefs into television stars – but treat sex as a the act that “dare not speak its name.” (Why violent criminals are simply released after being punished, while only sex offenders are branded for life, sounds like a future blog topic). So, suffice to say here that this blog post is about sex, and the squeamish should stop reading now.
It is unusual for a man to talk about sex. Although locker-room talk is full of hubba-hubba what-I’d-do-to-her wink-wink nudge-nudge say-no-more, men never talk candidly about sex. To us men, “talking about sex” means, at the most, spinning James Bond-like yarns of “what I did to her” conquests, in which we, the conquerors, are faceless, emotionless, and barely present. (Or, in a much more amusing variant, the “I never get any anymore” rant).
It may be that men don’t talk intimately about sex because there’s truly nothing to say. The stereotype, at least, is that sex is an automatic and uncomplicated act for men, driven blindly by instinct and hormones. There may therefore be no more to say about a man’s experience of sex than there is to say about a man’s experience of breathing. I don’t think so. Maybe that’s true for Stanley Kowalski; but, brother, it’s never been true for me. For me, at least for most of my adult life, sex has been 90% cerebellum and 10% genetellum (insert if you must a further rhyme for KY petroleum jellum). It has been anything but unconflicted instinct.
For me, sex has been as far removed from the simple carnal romp as My Dinner With Andre is removed from the Tantalizing Feast scene in the movie “Tom Jones.” Maybe I’m unusual in this way. Maybe I am a rare Wally Shawn in a sea of Albert Finneys….but I doubt it.
(At this point, you may want to view the 30-second version of My Dinner With Andre, re-enacted by bunnies. Go ahead. I’ll wait).
For even the least neurotic of men, sex is fraught with a weighty set of expectations and anxieties. Women, we are told at an early age, want a man who is “good in bed” (a standard to which 85% of men believe they measure up, but only 65% of their partners agree). We are never told, however, what this means. We, along with Randy Newman, quietly wonder if maybe we’re doing it wrong. (How else to explain the enduring success of that overstuffed Christmas turkey of a book, “How To Please A Woman Every Time,” which consists of two hundred pages of filler and one paragraph describing the author’s recommended gradual-insertion technique?). We are expected to be masterful lovers by instinct, with the cost of failure being emasculation and a steady hiss of whispers behind our backs. This dovetails with other male anxieties, from the tawdry and unwinnable quest to have a large-enough penis to the now-medically-reduced fear of impotence.
Early in my aduly life, I found what I thought was a reasonable solution to the “good in bed” question. In keeping with my nature and with the “sensitive new age guy” palaver of the time, I concluded that a man’s job is to be a pleaser: To ask nothing and to focus entirely on giving pleasure.
This sounds admirable in the abstract, but has at least two enormous drawbacks. First, making love to a man who asks for nothing must surely be like kissing your brother through a screen door. It lacks the ardor that comes from mutual selfishness. Second, this approach to sex feels more like a military maneuver than a pas de deux: It isn’t ever heedless, sloppy, or spontaneous. It is in essence, in the terminology of one quaint sexual fetish, CMNF – clothed male, naked female. Finally, and most important, having put aside my own desires for so long, I lost touch with exactly what those desires were.
Just as Ruth Reichl doesn’t lick bacon grease off of her fingers, my cerebral and studiedly unselfish approach to sex meant that I had no clue as to what sexual chemistry meant. I chose partners for their wit, or their mischief, or their mystery….and also with an eye toward whether they resembled the physical ideals that movies and magazines feature…but never for pure chemistry. This was not a sign of my catholic tastes in women, but rather was a sign of my being completely out of touch with my own moxie.
Other men might share some of this sangfroid with me. We are all bombarded with mainstream image of sex appeal. (And, with the advent of the Internet, that mainstream image can be combined at will with images of midgets, goats, or Cuban cigars). We are easily convinced that we are aroused by Cameron Diaz or Mila Kunis (ok, I don’t know who that is, but every month Esquire tells me that I should). We lose touch with that part of us that yearns instead for Queen Latifah or Adele.
For me, this disconnect was disconnected even farther by the “love the one you’re with” mandate of dating. By way of unappetizing metaphor, if you come home every night to a dinner of spinach souffle, it’s only natural to believe that your favorite meal is spinach souffle.
So, here’s my point. It took me most of my adult life to realize that sex is about chemistry and attraction, and not about accomplishment, performance, and magazine publishers’ ideas of sex appeal. Not to wax too rhapsodic here, but if I’d been at all mindful of my own hormones decades ago, I would have realized that there was a reason that I yearned to see Nigella Lawson cook knaidlach, or more recently why I paid complete attention to the Mad Men scenes with Christina Hendricks, and none at all to those with January Jones. I imagine that I am a late bloomer in this regard, and that this is a lesson that induces some amount of quease when delivered by a middle-aged Dad. But, because I wish every man his own Nigella Lawson, I am delivering it nonetheless.