Let’s Talk About Sex. Or Not.

I haven’t had a conversation about sex for a long time.

This realization hit me while I was reading the collection of essays and stories put together by the inimitable Erica Jong, Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex (ecco, June 14, 2011). In these pages Gail Collins, perhaps my favorite New York Times columnist (because she’s so fuckin’ funny), muses about the effect of Catholic school on sexual awakening. (It was slow, but on the other hand, she was great at diagramming sentences.) Susan Cheever writes about a one-night stand and concludes that, “casual sex is excruciatingly hazardous. Those who are not ready to have their life changed should probably abstain.” Daphne Merkin (how did I miss you at Barnard?) teases out to full recognizable form “that” kind of guy, the manipulative, cruel but sexy man you should avoid at all costs, but don’t. J.A.K. Andres talks about her daughter the diddler with wit—and probably more patience than I had when my kids were little. Marisa Acocella Marchetto’s graphic fantasy is hilarious, and, oh, so true.

So if Erica Jong could get these well-known women to talk about sex so frankly, even Jean Hanff Korelitz who professes to be a prude, why don’t I talk about sex?

It isn’t if I never talked about sex. When I was ten and at overnight Girl Scout camp, Betty, in the sleeping bag next to mine, told me she listened to her brother have sex with his girlfriends of the front porch and he peed inside them. That, I thought, was gross. I remember when I was in Jr. High my sister’s friend Susan (who was something of a Grateful Dead groupie) tried to explain to me the difference between an erect and a flaccid penis. (She kept on saying “flat,” and as I had never seen a penis on a boy over two, I couldn’t visualize that at all.)

Then in high school and college it was all about sex. In a way. Looking back, I realize I knew graphic details of friends’ exploits. I knew where people did it and how they did it. But what were we talking about? How it made us feel? Our anxieties or pleasures? I don’t think so. Mostly the mechanics.

Report from a roommate: a boyfriend had made fun of a guy who performed oral sex on his menstruating girlfriend because he came up with “a red mustache.” Then same said boyfriend couldn’t wait to go down on her when she had her period. Report from guy friends: a roommate had a jar of lubricant by his bed. Never occurred to me at the time that he and his girlfriend might have been having anal sex. I just thought she had a lubrication problem—something quite usual when one is fucking like bunnies, which young people did in my time and probably still do. Still, I remember feeling about this guy that maybe he was gay, because this was in the 1970’s when straight women not involved in the arts knew relatively few gay men. Years later some guys I knew emerged from the closet, including a guy I dated who dropped out of college to become a ballet dancer. So maybe the guy with the KY-Jelly tub was maybe 1) having anal sex with his girlfriend, 2) having anal sex with men, or 3) having a girlfriend with a lubrication problem.

By the 1970’s, everyone was having sex. Even some Orthodox Jewish couples were “dry humping” to the point where the guy would have an orgasm. Did the girl? Funny, that’s what I mean about sticking to the mechanics. We knew he wiped himself with a handkerchief and then felt guilty. The girl very wisely told him, “God’s too busy to watch what you’re doing.” But what she got out of it? I don’t think we ever asked. Girls who had sex with many guys still sometimes “got a reputation.” Serial monogamy, with a three-month relationship being considered long-term, was more acceptable. Still, there was Jenny H. who had a Friday night boyfriend and a Saturday night boyfriend, and we all thought it was cool. Odd, but cool. The arrangement lasted less than a couple of semesters because when one of the boyfriends asked her to choose, she chose the other one. I supposed that Jenny spoke with friends who were closer about the whole thing, how if felt having sex with two different guys on consecutive nights, every week. I wondered about it, but I never asked.

More mechanics: A few years post college a guy friend reported to me a woman he knew said that her breasts were so sensitive, she had orgasms when she got felt up. I believed it then. Now I’m like, hmm, I doubt it. But maybe it was true?

AIDS came around in the ‘80s, and people had to be more careful. But by then most of my friends were getting married. A few years later we had babies, and then it was all about our kids. I remember a friend going on a “second honeymoon,” theater and an overnight stay at the Plaza Hotel, while her parents watched their young boys. She and her husband had sex four times during that 24-hour period. We were all envious. Sex had already become something that could be interrupted by a crying child, or just the mysterious appearance at your bedside of a sleepless child. Sex was something we sometimes wished were over already because we were soooo tired from working and being primary parent. Even the stay-at-home moms were soooo tired. Considering that most of my friends—since high school!—have been in marriages that are at least 30-years-long, and the ones who were divorced and then remarried are looking at 20-years or more . . . well, obviously we worked it out the sex thing with our partners. But it doesn’t really get talked about. These days, not even the mechanics. Maybe because we’re too married? Because we’re so rarely without our husbands socially? And when we are, it’s the important things that are top of our list: menopause and our grown kids.

Erica Jong did a wonderful thing for her accomplished daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, who has just published her third book, a novel, The Social Climbers Handbook (Villard). (Coming attractions—and that’s not a sex pun: I’ll be reviewing this on the “books” page of my site any day now.) Molly has an essay in Erica’s anthology discussing how, basically, when she was little, she just wanted her parents to put their clothes on. As part of the publicity for Erica’s book, she and Molly have been doing a mother/daughter tour. Monday 6/13 they’ll appear on the Gayle King radio show XM 201/SIRIUS 111 at 10:35 a.m. EDT and on Wednesday June 15 at the 92nd Street Y in New York City at 8 p.m.; visit 92y.org online for information. I can’t imagine this ever happening to me—I mean the mother/daughter tour—even if I ever managed to talk about, let alone write about, sex. When my daughter was about 10 and I tried to sit down and talk to her about sex, she said, “Don’t bother mom. I have a 14-year-old friend”—meaning the girl next door.  “I already know everything.” And that may be a good thing because evidently, judging by what Erica and her writers have done, I don’t know how to talk about sex.

As always, I’d love you to comment at the bottom of the page. Here’s what I’d like to know.

  • Do Boomers talk about sex? Are we prudes these days? Did we turn into prudes. If so, why?
  • Do Boomers talk to their kids about sex? Can you imagine pulling off the Erica and Molly show? My 28-year-old son still covers my eyes if we’re watching a movie and there’s a sex scene.
  • Do our kids have different attitudes about sex than we did? I think so. I think that they were actually more casual than we were and that there is still a horrible double standard.
  • Should we be talking about sex with our friends? With our partners, most definitely. With our friends, probably. But how, after 25 years, do we begin these conversations?

Sugar in My Bowl will be formally released on 6/14/11. Meanwhile, you can read excerpts at http://bit.ly/jNnjLs. For ordering and sale information, look at my book review page on this site: http://Generationbsquared.com/what-boomers-read. Also, Erica did a great job on “Hardball” with Chris Matthews talking about why men take sexual risks: http://t.co/G2Nw8uf.

Comments? Please, comments.