"Why don't you write about sex?" my husband said to me one evening. I was making a list of what I needed to get done that week, a list that included the articles I would write, and he suggested that I add a racy one. Maybe it would get published, he said, and maybe not, but wouldn't it be fun to try?
I loved the idea. It would be a fun exercise, I thought. If nothing else, we could use it for foreplay — read the erotic prose to each other and see where it led. I'd been writing a lot of personal essays lately, so I decided to describe one of our hotter trysts — in spite of the fact that we're married, we have a few good stories. I sat down the following morning and got to it.
But when I wrote the first sentence — about a pair of yoga straps, that we'd yet to use, sitting on a shelf — I stopped writing. Instead, I took some time to choose a pen name under which to publish the piece. I like my parents, so thought I owed them that much. And, I felt, with a pen name I could feel free to "expose" myself.
Back I went to the yoga straps, but didn't get very far. As I wrote the first paragraph, I started blushing. I felt completely mortified by what I was doing. I breathed a few times, gathered my thoughts and tried again. My hands went clammy and I felt agitated, as if I'd just done something wrong. I wanted to do anything but write, and eventually I just spent the day cleaning the house.
This is ridiculous, I thought as I vacuumed. I was planning to use a pen name, and yet I was still unable to write about sex.
I'm no puritan. I talk about sex all the time — this is a matter of principle for me because I grew up in a religious environment where any mention of intimacy was strictly forbidden. When I left religion, I understood how harmful the silence was, how detrimental to sexual health. It didn't come naturally to me to talk about sex, but I made a conscious effort to release all the tension and repression that surrounded the subject. I learned how to talk about sex even before I had it.
But if I was so liberated, why couldn't I write about sex?
The failed exercise made me curious about my reaction. Why are we embarrassed about sex? When you search this question on the Internet, you get sites that offer "embarrassing sex stories" or "the ten most embarrassing things that can happen during sex." But I wasn't interested in watching a slideshow about "queefing" or penile dysfunction. I wanted a reasonable explanation for why sex itself is embarrassing.
Instead I refined my search omitting the evocative word and tried to ascertain, "Why do people get embarrassed?"
It turns out that embarrassment is one of our many "fight or flight" responses. "Fight or flight" is the way we react under stress, and we feel stress when we perceive a threat.
"Perceive" is key here, because this response evolved from prehistoric times, when there were actually predators threatening us. If we sensed one nearby, we had to make the quick "fight or flight" decision or be killed.
Today, humans still react with "fight or flight" even though the predators (most of them, anyway) are long gone. A person's heart rate might increase when she gets criticized, for example. There's no existential threat, but the prehistoric response kicks in.
It was all starting to make sense. Sex should of course be a relaxed activity, but too often, because of repression and hang-ups, it's both a subject and an activity that creates tension. I'd spent years working through this tension well enough to enjoy sex and talk about it freely, but something about writing about sex triggered the dormant stress response.
Realizing this doesn't necessarily mean I can get my article done. But at least I know how to get over this unexpected writer's block. The day after I tried to write the piece, my husband came into my office and asked me how it was going, his eyes filled with salacious hope.
"It didn't work," I told him, explaining what happened. He was very disappointed. I'll have to work on it.