This is a true story.
In the dark, there’s a woman in bed. Her lover’s hand is between her thighs, and he is rubbing what he thinks is her clit, but in fact he’s almost an inch off, and she doesn’t know what to do. She wants to tell him, somehow, but it’s not an easy thing to communicate. She tries raising her hips a little, hoping that he will figure it out and slide his finger down that crucial inch, but instead he just rubs harder, undoubtedly thinking he is exciting her. She makes little sounds of frustration, but he doesn’t understand what they mean. She knows that she should just say something — even if it’s only "lower," but the word has gotten caught in her throat; it’s buried down somewhere deep. She can only say it in her head, over and over like a mantra: "lower lower lower lower . . . " She doesn’t know why she’s doing it. It’s not as if he can hear her thoughts, but she wishes he could, because, while it might cause problems, it would be easier than this. Finally, he gives up on getting her off this way and slides his finger inside her instead, gliding over her clit, accidentally, in the process. She gasps, but he thinks it’s because of the finger inside her, and she doesn’t know how to tell him what he’s missing.
At the San Francisco Barnes & Noble store, a woman is reading an erotic short story called "A Jewel of a Woman." She hasn’t read this story out loud before, and it’s a little more explicit than she remembered. "I once tried that trick you read about, where you stuff a bunch of pearls deep into your pussy and then pull the strand out slowly, one by one. It felt so good, so fucking good as those pearls came out, grinding against my clit one by one . . . " She thinks about dropping her voice a little when she says "pussy" or "fucking" or "clit," especially since the children’s section is just a few steps away. But the managers must have known what they were letting themselves in for when they scheduled an erotica reading, right? And they gave her a mike anyway. So what the hell! Instead of getting quieter, she gets louder, and sexier; she licks her lips and pauses before the forbidden words; she draws them out — she does her damnedest to seduce the people sitting in the metal folding chairs, seduce them with her voice and swaying body, and by the end of the story people are halted in the aisles across the store, listening, people who hustle away, embarrassed, when she stops. She doesn’t care because she knows that, for a few minutes, she had them. They were hers.
That’s me too.
Forgive the third person — it’s easier than saying "I". If I had to say "I couldn’t say that" or "I did this," then I’m not sure I’d be able to write this at all. But maybe I could — that’s what’s so odd. It’s a lot easier to write this stuff down than to say it out loud. I’ve been writing erotica for seven years now, and it still surprises me how easy it is to write, "She wanted to fuck him silly, until his eyes were bugging out . . . " or even "I took his thick cock in my mouth, licking it up and down . . . "
Maybe it’s because erotica is fiction. That would be one explanation — that even though there’s a little of myself in all my characters (even the gay men), it’s never quite me. My characters can often say and do things that would terrify me in real life; I can use them to explore all sorts of possibilities. They can have sex with strangers, or with their best friends. They can be blindfolded and beaten. They can do desperate, crazy things for love, or for a really good fuck. They’re just characters.
Even when I’m reading my stories out loud, my audience doesn’t know which ones, which parts are really me. Even if I tell them, "This one is autobiographical", they can’t really know where autobiography ends and fiction begins.
It’s different at night, in the dark, in bed.
He is kissing her, her cheeks, her neck, her throat. It feels good, but something is bothering her, something is making her more quiet than usual, not as responsive. He notices. He stops and asks, "What’s wrong?" She shakes her head. She wants to answer, to ask for something, a small thing, but she can’t. She is afraid of the words, and doesn’t know why. She is afraid of his answer to her simple request. She is a little reluctant to say anything at first. Then her silence makes this seem more important than it should be, and it becomes even more difficult to talk, to say the words. She feels paralyzed. He has dealt with this before. Silence, and the stillness of her body that signals distress. They have sometimes played twenty questions — him asking the questions, trying to guess what is bothering her. She can manage to nod or shake her head, but, too often, he can’t even come close to asking the right questions. Tonight, though, he has a new idea. He gets up, walks naked to the living room, gets a pencil and paper and brings them back. Turns on the nightstand light, hands her the paper and pencil, turns away while she scribbles a few sentences on the paper. She feels ridiculous, and almost doesn’t have the nerve to give him the paper, but she does. She buries her face in his chest while he reads her request. He doesn’t laugh. He reaches out, shuts off the light, turns back and tilts up her head and starts to kiss her again. This time, on her lips. He kisses her for a long time. He doesn’t say anything, and she is grateful.
See — it’s not just that fiction is easier to write than nonfiction. Writing it down is easier than speaking it. The writing lets me distance myself. The hand moving across the page is further away from the heart of me than the air in my throat, struggling to form words. If you read this, and then we meet some day, you will know these things about me, these things that I have written, that I have told you. Probably I’ll be embarrassed, but it will be an embarrassment I can live with. It will be so much easier than having said the words out loud.
She feels so silly having him get a pencil and paper that she tries to teach him the sign alphabet. It is all she knows of sign language — the shapes of letters, A, B, C — but it is enough to make small sentences, with patience. In bed, in the moonlight, she can spell out: W I L L Y O U G O D O W N O N M E? She usually doesn’t even have to spell out the whole thing; he figures it out around the D and takes her hand in his to still it and then smiles and slides his mouth down her body. What is funniest is that sometimes he forgets what letter a shape means, especially when she hasn’t done this for him in a while. Then she ends up sounding out half the letters as she says them, so that she feels like a grownup talking over the head of a little kid, spelling out the letters of words she doesn’t want her to hear. It’s silly, it’s ridiculous — but it’s working. It’s better than pencil and paper. It’s much better than nothing.
My lovers are always startled when they realize how much trouble I have talking in bed. They’re mostly quiet themselves — I like the quiet types, and so lovemaking tends not to be too talkative. For most things, body language and muffled sounds do well enough. Sometimes we go weeks before they figure it out. When they do, they almost always say the same thing — "But you write this stuff!"
"It’s not the same," I explain. After a while, they believe me, especially after they see me trying, and failing, to talk. Sometimes they accept it as yet another of my strange quirks. One or two have really wanted to know why. I’ve gotten frustrated enough with the whole business that I’ve tried to figure it out too.
The nearest I can come to figuring it out is that it has to do with being naked. Not just physically naked, though that’s part of it (I have no problems talking about sex while sitting on the couch, fully clothed, using sufficiently dry and clinical terms).
When I talk about sex in bed with a lover, I am physically and emotionally naked, open and vulnerable to someone whom I am inviting past the barriers, the boundaries, someone who has seen and touched all my private spaces. It’s intense, and scary. To put my real desires, my most intimate thoughts, into words, and to say them out loud in a private space where there is no possibility that I can pretend that I was just joking, reciting, performing — that’s just plain terrifying. It’s the most naked act I know.
It’s a lot easier to run away and hide.
She has been with him for years. She knows how to translate his code words; speech doesn’t always come easily to him either. So when he finishes, and asks her, "Are you okay?" she knows that he is really asking if she is satisfied, if that was enough, or if she’d like him to do something else. He is even trying to make it easy for her — all she has to say is, "No," and he will try to satisfy her. Sometimes when she needs to, she manages to say it, but this time, the thought of the conversation they might get into (as he tries to find out exactly what she wants) exhausts her. So she says "I’m fine," and pretends to herself that she’s answering another question entirely, because while she’s not really satisfied, not sated, she’s not really thrumming with tension either — she’s okay, she’s fine. It’s true enough, isn’t it?
You see, I was raised to be polite. I’m not someone who swears easily — it takes a real crisis to get "fuck!" or even "dammit!" out of my mouth. When upset, I am more likely to cry or be silent than shout. Being polite means not saying things, a lot of the time. Not saying things that might upset someone else, things that might make someone uncomfortable. I can hide my powerful naked emotions behind a sheltering, softening cloak of politeness; and that’s how I was raised — that’s how most of us are raised. That’s how you get along with people.
If I ask a lover for something, and he doesn’t really want to give it to me, we are both in an awkward position. Does he refuse, and deal with my disappointment? Does he agree, and do something he doesn’t really want to do? If he thinks my request is ridiculous, or disgusting, won’t we both just be embarrassed? It’s easier not to ask.
Yet I’m not sure that silence is ever a real solution. It’s just easier than speaking. But in the end, I don’t want to just be "polite" with my lover.
She has bought a copy of Exhibitionism for the Shy, though she has always distrusted self-help books. She is on the first exercise, where you stand alone in a room and say the forbidden words out loud. Just the words at first, disassociated.
Fuck. Cock. Pussy. Cunt.
Once she has practiced that for a while (it’s not so hard), she moves to the next step — owning the words.
My pussy. My cunt.
I like fucking.
This part is difficult. She almost gives up right here. But she is tired of not being able to say what she wants to say. She is tired of resorting to pieces of paper and letters hand-spelled out in dim light. It would be so much better to just be able to say it. She feels silly, stupid, ridiculous all over again, saying these words to an empty room — but she says them. It does get easier with practice.
I want you to lick me.
I want you to fuck my pussy, my cunt.
So why are those words so particularly difficult? There are lots of things I could ask for, lots of things that a lover might say no to, that might be upsetting or disappointing — yet they’re rarely as difficult to say as "Will you kiss my breasts?" (Try it. Go alone into the bathroom; close the door, and try saying the words out loud. I hope you have an easier time of it than I do.)
Is it because we’re not supposed to like sex? Is that a spectre of my mother, hovering in the background, listening as I say those scary words? Am I hearing the echoes of all those years of "don’t look, don’t touch, don’t do . . . " Whether said or unsaid, the message was clear; just don’t. So that if I do, I do it quietly in secret, in the dark, under the covers, soundlessly. Or, if overcome by passion, I might scream, and there’s an excuse, isn’t there? "I couldn’t help myself . . . " So whimpering and moaning might be okay; that’s just my body taking over.
But when I put the words to it, when I say, "I want you to fuck me, please . . . ", then I can’t pretend that I just happened to fall into this bed, oops!, or that I was simply overwhelmed by my body’s desires, ’cause there’s my mind forming those words, sending the message to my mouth to open up and say them out loud.
I have to admit to my lover and even worse, to myself, that I consciously choose to be here, having sex, and that goes against everything I was ever taught.
I know not all of you have my background, and I do wonder how much of my difficulty comes from the way I was raised (of conservative family, in a culture where sex came always after marriage and a woman’s needs were often subjugated to a man’s). It would be easy to put it all down to that; to being female and Asian and unmarried. That’s undoubtedly a lot of it, for me — but it can’t be all of it. More than a few of my lovers have had similar difficulties, and while they are also unmarried, they are neither female nor Asian. It seems to me that most cultures teach us to deny our sexuality, deny the strength of our desires.
Strong desires aren’t polite, aren’t civilized — it’s no wonder society wants to control, soften, silence them. But if everyone tries to silence their own desires — then no one gets what they want. We just end up all being polite, and deeply frustrated, together.
She has been with one lover for eight years now — long enough to trust him, a little. She has written him notes, said a few words in the darkest part of night, written messages with her finger on the skin of his back. He doesn’t always understand, but he has never laughed at her.
A few months ago she called him up and left a message on the machine.
"I wish you were here.
If you were here I would like to
go down on you."
There are long pauses between the phrases. When he listens to the message, he can tell that she is having trouble breathing, that her throat is tight and that she stopped partway through to bite her lip, to swallow.
"I would like
to go down on me."
She wanted to be more explicit, more detailed. She wanted to tell him how she loves the taste of him, how she longs to bury her face between his thighs, and then have him do the same to her, have him lick and suck and dig his fingers into her ass and lift her off the bed, but she couldn’t quite manage the words. Still, it’s more than she would have said to his face. She asks him later if he liked the message.
He says he did.
She is thinking of leaving another message sometime soon.
I could stop here, say nothing more than I already have, not push any further. The sex is pretty good at this point, after all. I’ve had a lot of practice, and I don’t really need the words.
But the desire is still there. The desire to speak, to be naked, to be known. To be honest about desire, to be able to trust someone that much, with something that scary.
It’s the same desire that drives me to write erotic stories, and to keep an online journal and to write this essay to you. I am trapped in my separate, often confused, head. And one of my deepest desires is to first know myself, and then be known for who I am, to be loved as I am. An entire being, sexuality included — however naked and embarrassing and ridiculous that may be.
Writing the stories, writing to you, scribbling notes or signing letters: each attempt is scary. Though exciting as well — you should understand that part. Writing down the words makes my throat tight; I was shaking as I typed some of the sections above. My breath came fast, and my fingers are still cold. I write best when I’m scared and sweating — and the satisfaction when I finish is sometimes just as good as being fucked really well. Sometimes better. And that satisfaction comes whether or not I ever show the piece to anyone else; I am admitting something to myself in the writing of it. But sharing it takes the writing a step further.
When I first started writing erotica, when I put those words on the screen and then sent them out over the net, to hundreds or thousands of readers, it was a huge relief, an opening that let me start exploring desires that I had no other access to, desires that had been deeply buried and unspoken. I could say so much more with my fingers than I could with my throat; it gave me a freedom that I had never known — a freedom that at the same time only went as far as I could handle, that I could take in small steps and stages, so it wasn’t quite so frightening.
When I write about sex, I can control how much I expose myself, my desires (just as I could in all of those intermediate stages above; I could always erase that machine message). I can hide, a little, behind the name of ‘fiction’, or limit how much truth I spill in nonfiction. (That’s not really me who wants to be tied down to a bed and spanked — that’s just an example, just a character. Right?)
I can hide behind the relative anonymity of the pages — and that protection lets me push myself further. My characters can be as exhibitionistic as they desire . . . and when they are, a part of my own truth steps out into the light. Every time I manage to communicate my desires to a lover, a reader, a friend — it gets harder to hide. I’ve spoken a scary truth, and it’s out there now, inescapable.
And when that trust is rewarded — every time a lover, reader, friend responds by accepting who I am (and sometimes sharing some of their own scary desires) — it’s the most intoxicating feeling I know. Like riding a rollercoaster up and up, nerves taut, the heartstopping pause at the stop, and then screaming all the way down. Every time it works (doesn’t fling me off, doesn’t crash and burn) makes me want to try again — and push a little harder, go a little faster and farther this time.
So that maybe, eventually, I can be completely naked and unafraid.
Every once in a while, if I speak very quickly and don’t think about it at all, I can just say what I want. That sounds so simple, doesn’t it? It should be easy.
I want to tell you what I want.