The Oy of Sex

If I've learned anything in 27 years of making love with my partner, it's that sex doesn't go by the book

When I was 12, I found "The Joy of Sex" tucked between a fuzzy mille-feuille of sweaters in the dresser next to my parents' bed.

The book's sheer heft—large format, hardcover, with a dust jacket—made it seem authoritative. I already knew that intercourse was how babies were made and that adults sometimes did it just for fun. But here were pages and pages of instruction, complete with gentle line drawings. Did grown-ups tuck the book in bed with them? Was there homework? Did one person say to the other, "Honey, let's try page 53"?

My dad popped into the room just then, maybe to get a necktie or a pair of cufflinks, and I swiftly slid the book back where I'd found it. But not swiftly enough. "That isn't a book for children," he said simply, and left me kneeling there with my moist and guilty palms.

Years later, when I came out (pre-Ellen, pre-"L Word," waaaay pre-marriage equality), any self-respecting lesbian in my crunchy corner of the Pacific Northwest needed a few essential items: a plaid shirt, a labrys earring and a copy of "the pink book" (our code name for "Lesbian Sex," a flamingo-colored, $10 paperback by sexuality educator JoAnn Loulan).

I brought mine home in a brown paper bag and hid it behind a year's worth of Ms. magazines.

The cover held a line drawing of two women, one leaning into the other's lap, her head cradled on her partner's chest. Aside from the fact that they were sort of naked (no nipples in the drawing, nor pubic hair), the image might have appeared on a book about women's friendship, or perhaps recovery from grief.

No fingers ventured toward erogenous zones, no lips parted in ecstasy or desire. In fact, the sitting-up woman seemed to be comforting her friend. Had she been stuck in traffic? Left her wallet at the food co-op? If the image had borne a caption, it would be more "there, there" than "do me, babe."

And the book's contents? A couple of clinical drawings—"the clitoris," "internal view of a woman's pelvis"—punctuating chapters that included "What We Do in Bed," "The Tyranny of Orgasm," "Am I Really a Lesbian?" and "Sex and Sobriety."

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In the back of the book was a "homework" section, much of which seemed to involve talking, not touching, though a few exercises were more sex-specific: "Write a letter to your genitals telling them how much you love them" and "Masturbate for an hour." (An hour? Seriously? Did we all have more time back then?)

Overall, the book conveyed a kind of wary warmth: Yes, sex is a lovely way to connect, but all kinds of emotional baggage and cultural detritus will probably get in the way, and a healthy lesbian sex life takes a lot of work, and if you stay with your partner for a long time, you'll probably have fewer and fewer romps in the sheets as the years go on.

I skimmed the book, then shelved it.

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Just about that time, my sweetheart and I had finally shared a kiss in my bedroom after a two-year platonic courtship. We were actively defying the lesbian cliché of too-swift attachment (popular dyke joke at the time: "What does a lesbian bring on a first date?" Answer: "A U-Haul.") In fact, we exasperated our friends with our slowness. "You haven't kissed her yet?" Elissa's pals asked with an eye roll. "Are you two ever going to just do it?" my roommates sighed as I trotted off for one more writing date or stroll in the park.

The truth was that I'd fallen for Elissa the moment she strolled into the Oasis Café with her writer's notebook, leather jacket and spiked hair. The truth was that I'd wanted to kiss her for months.

It was on the autumn equinox of 1990, after bowls of mushroom fettuccine that neither of us touched, and following a game of Scrabble in which I felt violently distracted by Elissa's bare foot, that we finally peeled off one another's clothes in her basement bedroom on 29th Street.

If there was emotional baggage and cultural detritus, we shucked it aside in our thirst to know every inch of each other: toe-knuckle and shin-bend, earlobe and ticklish hairline, the surprisingly erogenous web between thumb and first finger. And though older women (couples who'd been together an unfathomable 12 or 14 years) joked about "lesbian bed death" and made the waning of sexual hunger sound inevitable as sunset, we ignored them, the way the young always ignore their elders, drunk on their own vitality, convinced they can rewrite any old tale.

Recently, perusing the "sex, family and parenting" shelf of our semi-organized bookcases, I found the pink book again. And though there is a chapter (10 pages, to be exact) on "Sex and Aging," with brief discussion of rollercoaster hormones, decreased lubrication and butch/femme dynamics, the text struck me as oddly unsexy: "Look through the homework section on genitals together and do all the exercises you both feel comfortable with. PG-2 is especially important, then try P-1 through P-5."

If I've learned anything in 27 years of making love with my partner, it's that sex doesn't go by the book. There was no text to tell us how to locate a flicker of lust in the sleep-slammed, milk-stained days of our daughter's infancy, when our primary late-night activity was arguing, in stubborn whispers, about how long to let her cry.

There was no instruction guide for intimacy in the weeks after Elissa's father died, when the stranglehold of grief was so profound that she couldn't even manage a lingering kiss. No book to let us know when it was time to reach toward each other or to note that every climax, for a long while, would also uncork a gush of tears.

There is no book, now, to navigate the welcome, clumsy entanglement between one body that ripples with hot flashes (fling that sheet, turn on that ceiling fan) and one that suffers year-round chilly feet. Between one body that is still bleeding after the official age of menopause and one whose left leg is locked in a hip-to-ankle brace due to a broken kneecap.

No sex text I've seen holds drawings of women who look like us: creased places that used to be firm, hard knots of muscle that once were pliant. A belly stretched for pregnancy and softened by time. Breasts that retreated after the nursing stopped. Veins that rise like cerulean cords under the skin.

As far as I know, "The Joy of Sex" still sits in my mother's dresser drawer. The pink book is jammed in the middle of our shelf, crowded by titles that speak more urgently to this era of our lives, this moment in time: "Mothers Who Think" and "The Limits to Union: Same-Sex Marriage and the Politics of Civil Rights."

People like to say, after long intimacy, "I know you like a book." But this is better. We roll toward one another in gratitude, in habit, in sorrow and hunger and uncertainty and love, sure of ourselves one moment and fumbling the next, still feeling our way in the dark.

Tags: sex