First time sex-writing
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I was a sophomore in high school the first time I ever wrote about sex. There was a girl — let’s call her Wanda — who was serving at the time as something of a lily-white beard to my ninety-pound homosexual carcass, a clumsy, rather malodorous suit of meat tailor-made for the manufacture of two speciality adolescent male products: sebum and semen. The first, I know now looking back, oozed out of my pores to lubricate the magnificent apish pelage that once covered my ancestors’ bodies, but which now pools impotently into pustules on the glistening faces of today’s teenagers. And semen, of course, has its obvious reproductive function that even at my most naive I understood perfectly well. But believe it or not, scientists are only now beginning to fully understand that our testicular output is about more than just baby-making. In fact, only about five percent of a seminal emission consists of spermatozoa; the rest is an incredibly rich, chemical-filled, psychopharmacological concoction that many scientists believe can tweak and manipulate the bodies, minds, and behaviors of those inseminated. These astonishing facts, and other scientific tidbits, I explore in some detail in my new book Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?
Back to lily-white Wanda. The gossip, at least, was that she was not as lily-white as she appeared, and I liked her as much for her sordid reputation as anything else. A scared, vigilant gay boy uses social algorithms of that sort (i.e. rumored promiscuous girlfriend as a signal of flagrant heterosexuality) so often that it becomes second nature to him — his first nature, of course, being aroused by boys alone. One day, in Drama, I decided to write Wanda a secret love note. Yet as I so often did in those days, I went overboard in my faux heterosexual enthusiasms.
My memory is good but not that good, so it would be a fabrication to reproduce the entirety of that letter for you now. Still, I do recall the gist of it, and one thing that I’m certain of is that it included several especially vivid lines about how my rareripe, cantankerous Wanda “looked like a model” that day and that it would be both an honor and, indeed, a pleasure if she allowed me to floss with her pubic hair. “Was that so much to ask?” I petitioned, pleadingly.
I didn’t really want to do such a thing, I assure you; I only wanted to make her giggle and smile at the jarring absurdity of it — to say, in effect, “what the hell?” or, “what the fuck?” just as you’re almost certainly doing right now. But even in my adolescent scribbles, there was an ambiguously dry tone to my turn of phrase. I wore a Cheshire grin but it was that of a sickly and fragile kitten, and, having no useful knowledge to speak of, I was witty as a spore of mould. So for an especially dull reader, my entirely playful, innocuous reason for writing the note would almost certainly be misinterpreted as, well, more than just a little creepy.
The good news is that I hadn’t, in fact, misjudged Wanda’s sense of humor. Smile she did — sometime later that day, in fact, she smiled and giggled all the long way to the faculty lounge and made several dozen Xerox copies of the letter for the rest of our classmates to share in her mirth. No matter. In sinking my pen into the stiff batter of sex and disgust that day, I had pulled out a shiny new style, a new way to make words. And I liked it a lot. It made people cringe and grimace and back away and laugh. But there were moral dullards then, just as there are now. And once Wanda and her pubescent comrades had finished decorating the school hallways that evening with my short and curly thoughts for all the world to see, it was inevitable that such literalists — who, let’s be honest, don’t know a double-entendre from a Double Whopper — would find them scandalous, and me an incipient pervert.
Without belabouring this coarse adolescent tale, one such dreary soul, a corpulent biology teacher with an even more corpulent mind, came upon the ridiculous note and passed it to the school’s stern vice principal. “What we have in our midst,” I imagine him saying contemptuously, “is a serial pubic-hair flosser. Shouldn’t we bring in the authorities? We must do something!”
The vice principal, in turn, immediately placed a phone call to my mother who was busy stuffing envelopes at a medical billing company up the road, proceeding to regale her with her son’s depravity by reading aloud the offending matter. But — and this is just hearsay, and she is long dead — from my mother’s perspective, the vice principal’s reading was not without some discernible pleasure and may have even been laced with, what, vague compliments? And so my parents, the rare breed who’d sincerely prefer a sexual deviant over an idiot for a son (not to imply that the two are mutually exclusive, but my father, a peripatetic glue salesman who’d majored in English and who had a peculiar penchant for bisexual poets, was uncommonly non-judgemental) praised me for the letter, then let me off with a half-hearted admonishment to never, ever again speak so impudently about a person’s pubic hair — a rule which, incidentally, I’ve happily violated many times in the many years since. In Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?, in fact, you can read about a six-month-old infant in Alabama who began sprouting a thick copse of pubic hair after crawling around on his bare-chested father; the man had unwittingly triggered his son’s precocious puberty by applying a testosterone gel to his own chest, back and shoulders at bedtime. You’ll also learn how we acquired our pesky genital crabs from gorillas, whose fur is not accidentally similar to human groinal pelts.
I suppose the moral to the story is this: Writing about sexual topics can go horribly, heinously wrong. What one has in mind when writing about penises, female ejaculation, zoophilia and pubic hair is not always understood by one’s readers. Still, this dance between the writer and the reader, with the ever-present threat that you’ll step on each others’ toes — maybe even break them irrecoverably — is, for me, what makes writing about such unspeakable topics so immensely pleasurable. Writers must deliberately and systematically toss aside the worst dancing partners to discover their best matches in the reading audience. The rest will limp off dazed, wounded, and cursing.
— Jesse Bering, PhD, is regular contributor to Scientific American and Slate magazines and other publications. He is the author of the recently released book, Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? And Other Reflections on Being Human and The Belief Instinct, which the American Library Association named one of the “25 Best Books of 2011.” You can find him here.