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Plato's Retreat

Plato's Retreat

Meditations on the sex manual

Separate, if you will, the strands of your educational history from each other until you hold one that deals entirely with sex. Isolate two points. Good, good. Look closer. One will be the time you learned the basic math of intercourse (clearly or not, depending on the instructor), and in retrospect you may refer to this time as “The Talk,” and the horror of the original experience is glossed with an anecdotal whimsy and the implication of traveling great distances since you were young. The second point is likely not a point at all; it’s an amorphous blob, vast and deep, covering your entire hands-on sexual education: every room, partner and test of personal boundaries, right up to the last time you got laid.

For me, Point One occurred on a Saturday afternoon when I was thirteen. My lawyer father was home planning a trial, mapping a month’s strategy in erasable ink on a large whiteboard in the living room. Names, dates, bits of geometry revealing the position of the defendant. Dad asked about school. Absorbed in the cuneiform, I must have forgotten to be embarrassed and admitted our class had spent the previous week learning about sex. There was a pause.


“And what?”

“What did you learn?”

“You know . . . ”

“Did you learn how intercourse works?”

“Yes.” (A lie.)


Dad understood that I’d likely spent the week giggling and stifling a boner during videos on menstruation and hygiene—which I had, as well as learning how to mimic our guidance counselor’s pronunciation of the word “pubic”—and so he opened his briefcase to find an eraser. The trial disappeared. Swipe, swipe, all of it gone. On the board in its place appeared two smiling humanoid figures, woman and man, whose anatomical features erred on the side of clarity. He explained, with helpful arrows, how the two figures came together in congress. He even drew a close-up (a city detailed from a state map) of the man’s penis as it might navigate the mess of the woman’s vagina. Penis, vagina. Intercourse, intercourse. He narrated throughout, but I heard almost none of it.

“And that’s sex,” he said.

More than once I’ve placed myself back at the scene, not in the living room cringing each time my dear and loving father said the word “vagina,” but inside the big board with the heavily boobed woman, my body another outline in erasable ink. That’s where I’m drawn to be. For if all things have their Platonic ideals, then sex too has its double: the perfected ghost-form that teaches silently, through the faintest hint of existence, that there’s a proper way to do it. More than proper—learned. Just an awareness of that ideal, dim and wavering, was the start of my own Point Two. I sensed the cloud of knowing even then, as I assumed the scholarship of two wise and satisfied cartoons.

A variety of modern sex experts agree there’s always been something more essential in The Talk than just the brute facts, if only to convey to adolescents the honest face of sex. In the heat of actual coupling, adults have the option to treat each other not as objects but as human beings, trusting both their partners and themselves with a deep and often striking vulnerability. So the discomfort—or concern, or kindness, or possibly even pedantry—on that older instructor’s face might well have telegraphed more truths than he or she intended. Though I doubt any society has felt the need to organize interpersonal seminars on the basic knowledge (no secret-sharer societies, with men like Yves Montand standing before a roomful of novitiates and diagramming sexual-powerhouse secrets on a blackboard, or telling the boys to remember her needs as well as your own), The Talk has always carried an electrical force for those old enough to remember being on its receiving end. To me, it felt just the same as if my father had sat down and explained that, honestly, democracy doesn’t need your vote, keeping a 401(k) is like betting on the zodiac, social postures are no less confusing out of high school and eighty percent of your daily life will be performing tasks you don’t feel like doing.

The amorphous blob of sexual knowing—and my story’s relationship to it—came to me after speaking recently to a twenty-three-year-old woman who complained that the men (and boys) she’d shared a bed with over the years seemed to lack a thorough education in the art. This woman was smart, cute, très hip and fairly “active” if I knew what she meant. People her age never fail to creep me out. It’s a whole generation speaking Britney, Sex & The City, R. Kelly’s “love” jams, those Herbal Essences commercials and amateur Internet theater—a sound and video collage of magnified sexual awareness. Sex is an instinctual social posture for young people today, and yet this woman kept assuring me she wasn’t unique.

“Where do they learn this shit?” she asked. “No talking, first of all. Anything I say is like a distraction, it fucks up their concentration . . . and they’re just hitting it, over and over, though honestly once they start, they’ve already finished . . . one time, when I was figuring out how and when to tell him what I hoped he might try next time, he goes out and buys me a book.” Every partner, she claimed, performed exactly the same as his predecessor: arrogant, terrified and ridiculously trying to hide it, just like back in high school. She was saddened and wondered if she had a right to expect any better. She genuinely feared that the partners in her life—both previous and anticipated—learned everything they know about sex through the distorted tutelage of porn and the Internet: nothing but entitlement and aggression, an extended adolescence endlessly repeated, with a swanky male in charge of the goings-on. I knew of several young men who claimed they got their sex basics exclusively from porn. Apparently, not one of this young woman’s lovers thought to question whether he actually would fit inside scenarios like the ones depicted in pornography, but simply assumed the posture.

After listening to her story I felt the self-indulgent pity of one a little older, flattering his own knowledge: you are a victim of your own culture. What Philip Roth once called “the sincere performance”—knowing the right moves without necessarily experiencing their motivating forces—seems to have blossomed into a malaise, a colossal distortion of the imaginative act. Farther back, amid the postures of Victorian society, Oscar Wilde observed with a little sadness that one’s first duty in life is to assume a pose. What the second is, no one has yet discovered.

How does someone learn sex? A mini-history of the subject, from Mesopotamian prostitution to the invention of the Pill, is a survey of generations and some kind of refined knowledge moving—almost of its own accord—between them. There’s the whole biological-imperative aspect (and it’s the world’s oldest pastime besides), so countless written and pictorial texts survive, proof that thousands of years ago men and women experienced the same gazes, overtures and trysts as we do. Schools in ancient Sparta, interestingly, were known to feature “consensual sex” as a subject of adolescent study, but the Spartans were insane, the sort of people who attacked their house servants once a year just to practice combat skills, so it’s unclear whether sex was an actual part of the curriculum or if students just started doing it on the playground.

Sexual instruction has been around in book form forever. There was the Zhou dynasty’s texts on the yin and the yang—all about the power of withholding one essence (man’s yang) to more successfully penetrate the other (woman’s yin); Vatasyayana’s famed “love teachings” and contortionist poses of the Kama Sutra, created for the health and spiritual benefit of all Hindus; St. Paul’s lengthy letters to Corinth on the topics of love and celibacy; and within the same hardbound anthology, the writer of Proverbs’ advice on how foolish it is to waste money on a prostitute if loving is well known to you at home. In the accelerated living of the last century, we also have texts like the Kinsey Report, Our Bodies, Ourselves, “user guides” to the male and female anatomies and Dr. Alex Comfort’s agitating 1972 best-seller, The Joy of Sex.

Modeled on the previous generation’s bible of prim housewifery, The Joy of Cooking, Dr. Comfort’s manual featured interesting cross-cultural terminology, way more than two positions and (famously) no photographs, just pencil sketches of hairy young people having a good time. It was safe and liberating for lovers of all ages, all predilections. Aside from possessing the cultural weight of selling millions of copies in the movement-happy 1970s, The Joy of Sex imported something ancient and abiding. Dr. Comfort collapsed time and cultures into a single hardbound space, a small room hospitable enough for two lovers to realize the normalcy of what20they wanted to do, as well as realize the changeless traditions of secret things like the flanquette and the Viennese Oyster, placing them on the same level of intimate discussion as agape and fidelity.

The horribly comprehensive list of titles currently featured in any bookstore’s sexuality section—The Multi-Orgasmic Man, The Fine Art of Erotic Talk, Sex for One: The Joy of Self-Loving, 203 Ways to Drive a Man Wild in Bed, Different Loving, Extended Massive Orgasm, The Clitourist, How to Overcome Premature Ejaculation, Anal Pleasure & Health, I’m Not In The Mood: What Every Woman Should Know About Improving Her Libido, The Art of Erotic Massage, The Woman’s Guide to Sex on the Web, Sex for Dummies, Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man, and this is about .003 percent of what’s available in book form alone—owes a debt to Dr. Comfort. What many try to retain at the outset is the earlier book’s relevance, its authoritative mix of scholarship and sport, and perhaps even its reach into the larger culture. What the worst among them fail to present is hospitality, an atmosphere in which to easily imagine yourself.

No book gives instruction, not really. While it may be part of the intent, successful instruction depends more on the reader’s skill for self-extension. A book, for essayist Barry Lopez, merely “offers patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in those patterns, we might reimagine our lives.” Reading a text—with dirty pictures or without—is an imaginative act of self-extension into that text. No matter how strange or improbable or new the content is, if you can’t reimagine yourself inside a book, then what use is it? Linguistic theorists like Roland Barthes have long argued that while ideals and ideologies abound in books, they are things the average reader is “increasingly isolated from” and so they fail to properly “meet or destabilize” that reader’s expectations. But reading still fills a longing for self-extension. And if you can’t place yourself at the scene, in that bed, with this partner, then how alienated are you likely to be from the text—and from sex itself? What is missing from Internet porn, for example, is space: room for that invisible Platonic double to silently lead one out of surety and into curiosity, from expectations to the possibility of ideals. Pornography steals, and then destroys, the very imagination it came to please. Thus, in the absence of patient and experienced lovers, books—those sublime vessels of the imaginative act—may turn out to be the ablest method of private instruction. Consider, then, a random sampling (there are so goddamn many to choose from, honestly) of current manuals on the topic of learned sex.

Five Minutes to Orgasm Every Time You Make Love, a “bold but simple 3-step program” written by D. Claire Hutchins, is a work that examines—unscientifically—what the female orgasm is all about, yet one feels that if Hutchins had removed her own anecdotal philosophy the book could have been much, much shorter. Like, eight pages. Published on the cheap by some press in Grand Prairie, Texas, it posits a few theories as to why today’s society doesn’t value female orgasms, then why today’s men don’t much care to learn the techniques of arousal, and then, 114 pages later, instructs its female readers to do three things the next time they’re having sex: get on top, fantasize and rub where it feels good. Rub it a lot. The content is about as thin as the production values: spare, unfrilly, no color—though the cheapness lends the book a kind of underground, conspiracy-nut authority. How else is one supposed to feel reading pages that look fresh from a mimeograph, with random leaps into the capital: “ . . . for a significant number of us orgasm is JUST PLAIN DIFFICULT.” The author falls back on this shouting every other page (stimulation FEELS GOOD, the missionary position is for WIVES), especially in the second-person address (YOU can achieve it). The manual has the strangled, bitter taste of words desperate to be heard, spoken by an emissary from a lonely front. Then again, that emissary could be a disgruntled nut, which is exactly how you feel reading it. Each time a capitalized phrase appears, substitute some words about the Jewish-run media and mud people, and you’ve got a sex guide written by the authors of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. To place yourself within these pages is to reduce the imagination to a paranoiac’s unreality and systemic mistrust, which makes you feel like an immense sorehead who may only have sex with other immense soreheads, a long, long way from civilization.

The good news is that the original text of Vatasyayana’s Kama Sutra is still out there, though in “updated” versions like Anne Hooper’s Kama Sutra: Classic Lovemaking Techniques Reinterpreted for Today’s Lovers, which is not good news. Hooper, a longtime sex therapist and a former editor of Penthouse Forum, compresses all the positions of the Kama Sutra into a sleek, full-color, Palm Pilot–sized book that seems to have been designed to fit in a fanny pack, and after reading it you may feel it’s really for people who still like to wear fanny packs. Hooper takes the wit and clarity of the original’s exquisite line drawings and replaces them with airbrushed photographs of white people trying to look natural. Former Penthouse employee that she is, Hooper seems to fear that her work might be mistaken for actual pornography, which could be one reason why the models are so incredibly serious, lost in private raptures of incense and Tantric union; the result is that they all look like they’re trying to remember if they locked the front door. Her book is a curious bridge of cultures, largely unnecessary, with a killjoy’s lack of awareness—emotions seem to have no place here. Her0advice is for both of you to close your eyes and try the Congress of a Cow (without laughing) and once in this posture you will be initiated into an ancient circle of enlightened lovers. I dare anyone to imagine themselves in Hooper’s book without laughing. The book is a tremendous lie, taking the worst stereotypes of near-Asian “wisdom” and grafting them onto Western selfishness, then passing this exchange off as acumen. It’s an even bigger crock than the conspiracy-nut orgasm book, and twice as expensive.

One of the oddest and most compelling modern manuals (fondly reviewed in mainstream outlets like Rolling Stone and Details) is Paul Joannides’ Guide To Getting It On! The Guide is published by Goofy Foot Press—which Joannides founded after his book failed to find a publisher—and has developed a considerable following. Chosen as a selection by both the Quality Paperback Book Club as well as the Psychotherapy Book Club, it occasionally pops up on a college newspaper’s essential reading list, right next to Chuck Palahniuk. At almost seven hundred pages, it’s a one-stop multitasking atlas of youthful sex. Like an atlas, which features topographical info on every square mile of tundra, marsh, desert and fen you’ll never visit, the Guide to Getting It On! gets it on everywhere, in every way, with various partners and costumes and gadgets and sudden glances to the wayward muse (pregnant sex, zipless fucks, whether sixty-nining is illegal in Maryland, how to do it while driving a Dodge Neon on a highway, and chapter 44: “Sex When You Are Horny & Disabled”). If you wanted to see a few illustrations of circumcision varieties, or learn what “handballing” is all about, this is your manual. The book is a true oddity, a series of direct and unexpectedly funny short chapters that I found myself believing mainly because the production seems to be so uncool. You’ve got to see the artwork, for example, to get a sense of the book’s goofy agenda. (Artwork, not photographs—the imagination left to fend for itself.) Instead of photos, Joannides uses the thick-penned gloss of black and white comic art, specifically that from the 1980s, with a great emphasis on hairstyle. There are as many hairstyles as chapters, on the heads of people not demonstrating positions so much as glances stuffed with a particular suggestion (Hey! Let’s do it on the table!); these cartoons lose not an ounce of recognition for being artifice. It’s the boldness of that artifice you respond to, like a college professor whose unapologetic dorkiness balances his or her integrity. Nothing about the book feels insecure, which means it doesn’t try so hard to be expert—it is patient, curious and knows exactly what it wants to do. I’d like to go to bed with it.

Thankfully for novices of all ages, The Joy of Sex has never gone out of print. “Fully Revised & Completely Updated for the 21st Century” means that, since 1973, new strains of social disease have entered the realm of consideration, but Dr. Comfort’s general menu needed no tinkering to remain pertinent. Sections still wink at their original inspiration (the cooking manual) with titles like “Ingredients,” “Appetizers” and “Main Courses.” The biggest change has been in the pencil-sketched models, who have lost some armpit hair and trimmed their Afros down to manageable size; they look human, still, and this is important. The guys aren’t that well built, and the women lazily move with full hips and faces that aren’t gaunt with hunger; both sexes are matched as a couple, one thing that Comfort stressed the most: sex is a twosome activity, not individuals so much as an entity bound by—he wasn’t afraid to say it—love. Love in some form, especially tenderness. “What will not change,” he wrote in his last preface before passing away three years ago at age eighty, “is the central importance of unanxious, responsible, and happy sexuality in the lives of normal people. For what they need—in a culture which does not learn skills and comparisons in this area of living by watching—is accurate and unbothered information.” This beside a gently shaded etching of two people on a bed with the guy’s penis merrily ensconced between the woman’s breasts. They both look unbothered, I’ll tell you. Comfort, a lifelong anarchist and biologist, chose his modifiers with immense delicacy. As a reader, you savor sentences so classically constructed and balanced that you may feel the bother and anxiety of performance dissipating, falling away like the trimmed fat of a declarative statement. Comfort’s gentle authority recalls Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (that’s a compliment): both books ponder ideals, and hold fast to them in the structure as well as the content. The Joy of Sex is above all a really good book, both as a work of prose and an artifact. For thirty years it has been a remarkably hospitable environment in which to reimagine yourself and a partner who would, as Dr. Comfort prescribed, allow you to be yourself. No bother, no anxiety, just sex. No wonder it’s sold eight million copies.

All texts—best and worst alike—never mean to be one-sided. They are communications that ask for a reader’s response. No matter its quality, a book extends an invitation to enter a space where the reader is permitted to rethink the self; without it, the transaction between book and reader breaks down. Our eyes glaze, or we retreat into works where the imagination doesn’t have to glimpse its limits. The imagination, as playwright John Guare has said, was once our most vital link to ourselves, and God’s gift for making the act of self-examination bearable. And it's possible that in an age of “living by watching,” the ideals that fill our imaginations are in retreat, far from the madding culture, and headed for books. Even in the most embarrassing narrative, a Platonic ideal is lurking. Look at that strip of your own sexual history again. The truth will most likely be found where it has always been: between the lines.