First Time’s a Charm

The piece I was originally going to post today went by the wayside (long story), so instead I’m putting up something from the archives.

This is a piece about bad sex. Specifically, it’s about the first time — well, more or less the first time — that I had sex with another woman. What with it being a story about bad sex, I feel compelled to say two things: (1) I’m very glad I stuck with the “having sex with women” project despite a laughably bad first experience (an important lesson to remember when you’re sexually experimenting), and (2) Yes, I’ve learned a lot since I was 24.

Please note: This piece discusses my personal sex life — in particular, my sexual history — in quite a bit of detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read that stuff, please don’t. This piece was originally published in 1997 on Fishnet.

First Time’s a Charm

Personal adsOkay. I was 24, which explains a lot. I had just broken up with my husband, I had just gotten into therapy, and the only time I’d ever had sex with another women had been at an orgy with my boyfriend when I was in college, which explains even more. So I answered this woman’s personal ad; I don’t remember now what it said, except that the headline was “Creamy Petite Asian” and the ad said she was looking for sex, not a relationship, which suited me just fine.

So we meet at the Mediterraneum, this quasi-beatnik cafe in Berkeley, and right away it’s awkward city. We have pretty much nothing to say to each other — she doesn’t read much, I don’t watch much TV — and while she’s reasonably attractive, she’s not exactly setting off the old sprinkler system, if you know what I mean. Plus, this is maybe my second time answering a personal ad in my life. Plus, I’m acutely and grotesquely self-conscious, hyperaware of the fact that “I’m dating a woman, I’m dating a woman, I’m dating a woman,” and way- hyperaware of my near- complete inexperience with said gender. Plus, this is a really shitty and difficult time in my life; I’m basically an aimless, passive, wounded bundle of neuroses, and I get awkward and tongue-tied at the drop of a hat. Plus, I want desperately to seem cool, and as we all know, wanting desperately to seem cool is pretty much an ironclad guarantee that you won’t.

Highway overpassSo there we are, drinking our coffees at the Mediterraneum, trying to find things to say to each other, with long awkward pauses in between blurts of failed communication, and lines of conversation whizzing past one another like cars on an overpass over the highway. At one point she says something about how she hasn’t done this very much before, and I blurt out in a flood of relief, “I’m so glad you said that, I’ve hardly ever had sex with women before either,” and she gives me this withering look and says, “I didn’t mean that I’d never had sex with women. I’ve been doing that for years. I meant dating women in public.” Great. Score one for Greta in the “seeming cool” portion of the competition.

Failing to find a hole in the floor of the cafe into which I can crawl and die, I sputter inanely for a bit instead and grasp for some other topic of conversation. We chat awkwardly for a bit longer, I’m trying to think of a graceful way to get the hell out of there, when she says casually:

“So, do you want to come home with me?”

HUH?

BatsThis catches me completely off guard — or would have if I had been even remotely composed and on-guard at the time. It’s definitely unexpected; with the possible exception of, “I am Anna Karenina, true ruler of the glorious Russian Empire, and there are bats in my underwear,” it is pretty much the last thing I expected to hear her say.

The thing is, an honest answer would have been, “No, actually, I don’t. You’re not really my type, and I feel totally ill-at-ease and like a complete moronic geek- dork with this whole situation in general and with you in particular, and if you don’t mind, I think I’d like to go home, bang my head against a wall for a few minutes, and then go make a big joke out of it with my housemates.” On the other hand, I’m 24 and a dyke virgin (well, almost), and if I don’t take her up on her offer I will never, ever, ever have another chance to have sex with another woman as long as I live. Besides, I want to seem cool — remember? — and saying “No” to a reasonably attractive woman you just met who wants to take you home and fuck you is definitely Not Cool. Besides, at this point in my life, I’m really bad at saying “No.”

So I say, “Um… yeah. Sure. Okay.”

“Great,” she says. “My motorcycle’s out front.”

MotorcycleWell, at least I get a motorcycle ride out of it. Truth is, I’m actually pretty excited — terrified of doing the wrong thing, and utterly clueless as to what the right thing might be, but excited nonetheless. It’s not really a sexual excitement per se — it’s more of a getting- on- a- bus- that- you- have- no- idea- where- it’s- going excitement — but it’ll certainly do for the moment. We get on her bike and head to her place in Oakland; she puts my hands down at the bottom of her belly, and I assume (wrongly, as it later turned out) that she wants me to feel her up, and I think that would be a pretty cool ‘n sexy thing to do, so I try to get my hands into her pants. She’s wearing skintight jeans, though, and I succeed only in working my right hand into her waistband, where it presses firmly against her bladder for the duration of the trip.

Christopher crossSo we get to her house, and the first thing she does is flip on the radio. Lite rock, less talk. Or maybe The Quiet Storm; I forget. Right away, whatever shreds of a mood I have are blown into hamburger. There is no way in hell I can get in the mood with Christopher Cross on the radio. I drop my purse and my jacket on the floor, and stand there paralyzed in the middle of her bedroom, wondering what the hell I’m supposed to do next.

I honestly have no memory of how we got our clothes off and got into bed. I assume she managed it somehow. There’s no way I could have made it happen; I was far too busy doing my imitation of a deer on the highway to have done anything so aggressive and forthright as taking my clothes off. And sadly, or perhaps mercifully, I have very little clear memory of what we actually did once we got there. I didn’t have the faintest idea what I was doing, and she was offering no clues. “Asking clearly for what you want” was obviously not in this woman’s vocabulary (to be fair, it obviously wasn’t in mine, either). She was more of the trial-and-error, “grab something and play with it and see what happens and hope for the best” school of thought. And I sure as hell wasn’t about to ask her. I wanted to seem cool — remember? — and saying “I feel kind of awkward and don’t know what you want, why don’t you tell me” seemed like the absolute pinnacle of uncool.

Hall and oatesAnd telling her what I wanted was definitely out of the question. Mostly what I wanted was for her to turn the damn radio off. My memory of that evening consists mainly of awkward, start-and-stop fumblings and an acute consciousness of my own incompetence, punctuated every now and then by the awareness that yes, indeed, that really was Hall and Oates on the radio.

The one vivid memory I have of the actual sexual encounter was of me going down on her. She was very close to coming, and she started pushing back hard on my forehead, a move that I interpreted to mean, “Stop, please.” So I stopped. I even patted myself on the back a little for having read her body language so well. Wrongo. Boy, howdy, was that ever the wrong thing to do. She sort of wound down, and a few minutes later she said in this kind of snide, frustrated voice, “Do you always do that?”

“Do what?” I asked.

“Stop right before someone’s about to come.”

“Uhhhhhh…” I retorted.

Car radioWe didn’t say much after that. She gave me a ride home in her truck; she kept her eyes firmly on the road, and I stared out the window and brooded. Christopher Cross came on the radio again, and she sang along as we pulled up into my driveway. “Ride, ride like the wind…” We parted with some conspicuously insincere noises about giving each other a call sometime; she vroomed away in her truck, and I hastily trotted up the stairs and into the living room where my housemates were playing gin rummy.

“So how’d your date go?” one of them asked.

I plopped down on the sofa, buried my head in my hands, and burst into giggles.

Sex, and the Difference between Jaded and Relaxed

Please note: This piece discusses my personal sex life: not at length or in great detail, but a little. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that stuff, use your judgment on this one. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Does familiarity with sex breed contempt?

Some years ago, I worked for a seven- year stretch for a mail-order sex products catalog. (The one I blog for now, in fact.) It’s a small company, and was even smaller when I was starting out there: the sort of company where everyone did a little bit of every job that needed doing.

TitanicSo in the years that I worked there, I packed orders, received shipments, argued with vendors, stocked shelves, talked with customers about their orders, did product reviews, and wrote product descriptions… of porn, sex ed materials, lube, and sex toys. I sat at a desk within a few feet of the stock shelves… fully stocked with porn, sex ed materials, lube, and sex toys. For eight hours a day, five days a week, my day- to- day working life was spent surrounded by — indeed immersed in — porn, sex ed materials, lube, and sex toys.

Almost everyone I knew was aware of my work. Most of them approved. But even among the ones who approved, a surprisingly large number asked me the same question:

“Don’t you get jaded working here?”

Packing_casesI remember, in particular, the time my brother asked me that. He was in town for a visit, and came by to see where I worked — right at the moment that I was unpacking a big box of dildos and buttplugs and receiving them into inventory. He wasn’t shocked, exactly, but he was definitely a bit startled. Partly by the big box of several dozen dildos and buttplugs… but more, I think, by the casual, matter- of- fact manner in which I was taking them out of the box and checking them off the invoice. And he asked me the question:

“Don’t you get jaded working here?”

It’s a question I got asked a lot when I worked at Blowfish. It’s a question I still get asked as a sex writer. And my answer is this:

No.

In the years that I’ve worked and written about sex products and sexual issues, I have not become jaded about sex.

I have become relaxed about sex.

And jaded and relaxed are not the same thing.

Theda baraBeing jaded means you’ve lost your capacity to be excited and moved by something. It means that you’ve been made dull, apathetic, or cynical by experience or by surfeit (to quote Merriam Webster). It means you’ve seen so much of something that you just don’t care about it anymore.

Gorey catBeing relaxed, on the other hand, simply means being at ease. It means being comfortable. It doesn’t mean that you’ve seen so much of something that you don’t care about it anymore. It means that you’ve seen so much of something that you think of it as normal.

I’m fascinated by the assumption that exposure to sex will make people bored with it. After all, sex is one of our deepest, most fundamental animal drives. Our interest in it is not going anywhere. I mean, we’re exposed to food every day, several times a day, and we’re not showing any signs of becoming jaded or bored with it. Why do we think being exposed to sex all day would make us jaded or bored with that?

Here’s what I think.

Britney.spears.catholic.school.outfitIn American society, our interest in sex is often very tied up with anxiety, and forbidden-ness, and secrecy. True, we have a popular culture that’s saturated in sexual imagery. But it’s sexual imagery that heightens our anxiety about sex instead of diminishing it. It’s sexual imagery that’s all about how sex is for the young and beautiful and fashionable, and none of the rest of us are good enough. And our popular culture also has the fucked-up paradox of being saturated in sexual imagery — while, at the same time, being pathetically lacking in sexual information. We have exposure… but I don’t think we really have what I would call familiarity.

So our interest in sex is often very tied up with anxiety, and forbidden-ness, and secrecy. Sex is seen as forbidden and bad; so exploring sex gets all tangled up with the thrill of crossing lines and exploring forbidden territory. Sex is seen as something that should be kept secret; so our fascination with sex gets all tangled up with our fascination with secrets and mysteries of all kinds. Sex is seen as something to be anxious and frightened about; so the excitement of sex gets all tangled up with the fear of it.

And I think a lot of people are afraid that if all these tangled threads get de-tangled, our passion for sex will vanish.

Tangled thread 1I think that for a lot of people, these tangled threads run so deep that they themselves are confused about which part is the mystery, and the frisson of fear, and the thrill of the forbidden… and which part is the pure, raw, animal libido, hard-wired into us through millions of years of evolution, via billions of ancestors who successfully reproduced because they were horny.

So I want to reassure these people:

Sex isn’t going anywhere.

First of all: I’ve been working and writing about sex for almost 20 years now. And my libido still has plenty of tangles with secrecy and shame, fear and the forbidden. (Anyone who’s read my more fucked-up porn will attest to that.) Those threads are woven in deep, and they’re not going away. I’ve just spun them into rebellion and kink, like straw spun into ornery, perverted gold.

But more to the point: As I’ve become more familiar with sex, more immersed in it, more informed about it, more accepting of my own desires, more understanding of other people’s… my libido has not diminished. If anything, it’s done the opposite. And that’s true for pretty much everyone I know who works with, or writes about, or is otherwise immersed in, sex and sexual culture.

Playing piano 1Being relaxed about sex is like being relaxed about playing the piano, or meditating, or playing golf. It doesn’t detract from the experience. It enhances it. It helps you focus, keeps you in touch with your body, makes you less prone to distraction, makes it easier to stay in the moment.

Being relaxed about sex doesn’t make sex boring. It makes it that much easier to fully experience just what it is that’s exciting about it.

Stupid Design: Rube Goldberg Brains and the Argument for Evolution

If you think the astonishing complexity and functionality and internal balance of living things is sure evidence for our design — if you think living bodies are intricately- tuned machines that simply had to have been put together by a conscious hand — then how do you account for the parts of the machine that are just… well, goofy?

KlugeI’ve just finished this book, Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind. Written by psychology professor Gary Marcus, this “evolutionary neuropsychology for the layperson” book explores how the human brain and mind evolved — not by looking at how the mind works, but by looking at how it doesn’t; by looking not at its astonishing achievements, but at its laughable failures. And along with being a fascinating and funny look at how the human mind works (always one of my favorite topics), it offers one of the best arguments for evolution — and against any sort of belief in intelligent design, or indeed any sort of interventionist god that tinkers with evolution — that I’ve read in a while.

The main point of the book: The human brain is a kluge.

And it’s a kluge because evolution is a kluge.

South_High_School_addition_1911Pronounced “kloodge” (it rhymes with “stooge”), a kluge is an engineering term for an ad hoc solution that’s inelegant and imperfect but basically functional. It’s a solution that’s required because you can’t start over from scratch: you have to work with an existing design. You need more space in your house, say, and you don’t want to tear the whole house down and start over — so you stick on an extra room at the side. It’s clumsy, it looks funny, it doesn’t have good access to the bathroom… but it’s cheaper and less disruptive than tearing down the house and building a whole new one with an extra room. And it’s fine. It’ll do.

Evolution is a kluge. It’s the klugiest kluge that ever kluged.

Human_evolution_schemeThe process of evolution happens gradually, with small changes being made on a previous arrangement. So it can’t wipe the slate clean and start again. It’s way more constrained even than an engineer. An engineer can say, “You know, it’ll be more expensive, but if you tear out these cabinets and move your stove to the other side of the kitchen, you’d have a much better setup. The basic shape of your kitchen is still gonna be weird… but it’ll be a lot better than if you leave the layout as is.” Evolution can only take the cabinets out one shelf at a time; it can only move the stove an inch at a time… and it can only do it if each step of the process, each removed shelf, each inch that the stove moves across the floor, confers a selective advantage over the previous step. (Or at least, doesn’t confer a disadvantage.) There are arguments among evolutionary biologists about exactly how big those steps can be (can the stove move one inch at a time or four inches at a time?)… but the basic principle is the same. Each generation is a modification of the previous one.

OCD_Knee_WalterReed-1So if evolutionary forces are pressuring a four-footed species to stand upright, for instance, it’ll have to happen by gradual alterations to the all-fours setup. And if that means bad backs and bad knees and bad feet… tough beans, pal. (I am somewhat bitter on this point, having just turned 47.) Evolution is both callous and lazy: if you survive long enough to reproduce with fertile offspring who can also survive long enough to reproduce, then evolution doesn’t give a shit about anything else. There’s no evidence of any guiding hand coming in and fixing things so they work a little better. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise.

And this isn’t just true of our knees and our backs and our feet. It isn’t just true of our eyes, wired backwards and upside-down; and our vagus nerve, wandering all over hell and gone before it gets where it’s going; and our vas deferens (well, not mine, but you know what I mean), ditto.

It’s true of our brains, and our minds.

Brain.svgYou have to read the book to get the full details. I’m not going to recount the whole thing here. But our memory, our language, our decision- making processes, our mental health, the way we pursue happiness and pleasure, the way we decide what to believe and what not to believe… none of these work optimally. We can remember a face from a 30- year- old yearbook, but we can’t remember what we had for breakfast yesterday. We make choices based on shoddy cost- benefit analysis, poor understanding of probability, and immediate satisfaction over long- term gain. Our languages are beautiful and expressive… but they are also imprecise and confusing, often wildly so, and sometimes with serious consequences. Our pursuits of pleasure and happiness are often not just counter- productive in the long run… they often don’t even give us much pleasure or happiness in the short run. Our mental health is fragile and easily disrupted.

And don’t even get me started on belief.

Cro-MagnonThese systems work pretty darned well, all things considered. We wouldn’t be such a thumping evolutionary success if they didn’t. But all of them show clear signs of having been kluged onto previously existing mental systems. We are living in a complicated, highly technical, deeply interconnected civilization… with minds that evolved on the African savannah, to find food and shelter, and have sex, and escape from predators, and generally survive just long enough to produce the next generation. Our minds evolved to escape from tigers, not to prevent global warming. And the minds on the African savannah evolved from previous forms, which also evolved from previous forms. The human mind was kluged onto the mind of its monkey ancestors, which was kluged onto the mind of its tetrapod ancestors, which was kluged onto the mind of its fish ancestors, and so on, and so on, and so on.

Which brings me back to intelligent design. And indeed to theistic evolution: the idea that evolution proceeded the way scientists describe it, but that this process was and is guided by the hand of God.

The klugey, ad-hoc, cobbled- together, Rube Goldberg nature of so many biological systems — including the systems of the human mind — throws the whole idea of any sort of all- powerful, all- knowing, interventionist god into a cocked hat.

God half bakedIf we really were designed by a perfect God, why would our bodies and minds be so klugey? If God is so magic that he can invisibly tinker with our DNA and make our legs just a skosh longer than our parent’s generation — or our minds just a skosh better at risk-benefit analysis — then why isn’t he magic enough to do a full-scale overhaul? Why wouldn’t God reach into the fetuses of the next generation and go, “You know, this generation isn’t having so much trouble with immediate survival, and at this point they really need better long-range planning abilities instead. Let’s just reach in there, and turn the volume way down on the short-sightedness. And while I’m at it, this vagus nerve is bugging me. I know it had to look like that for the fish, but… okay, there we go. Much better. And let’s seriously re-think those knees. For a quadruped, sure… but for a biped? What was I thinking? Makeover time!”

There is no evidence that this has ever happened. Even to the smallest degree.

There is, instead, ample evidence to the contrary. There is ample evidence for the idea that evolution is an entirely natural process: descent with modification, from one generation to the next, with each generation being a modification of the one before it.

Rube-goldberg-cartoonAnd the klugey, Rube Goldberg, “work with what you’ve got” nature of our bodies — including the part of our bodies that produces our minds — is Exhibit A.

Friday Cat Blogging on Saturday: Lydia

Lydia

Our camera hasn’t been working for a while, which is why I haven’t been doing any cat blogging for a while. But Ingrid and I got camera phones for our birthdays this year (thanks, moms- in- law!), which means I can start cat blogging again. Of course, the very first picture I took with my new camera phone was a picture of one of our cats.

This is Lydia, sitting next to me on the couch. I think it turned out well, especially for a first photo with a new phone. It’s a very classic Lydia expression: very intent, and at the same time very blank. Looking like she wants something very badly, but isn’t quite sure what. That’s our girl.

Sex, Moods, and a Wife’s Selfless Duty: And We Are in What Century Again?: The Blowfish Blog

HeadacheI have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s a… well, heck, let’s call a spade a spade. It’s the ripping of a new asshole of conservative writer/ radio host Dennis Prager, who recently wrote a pair of columns exhorting wives who aren’t in the mood for sex to show their husbands their wifely love by sucking it up and doing it anyway, pretty much whenever hubby wants.

And it’s a discussion of how simple the difference can be between a sane, reasonable piece of sex advice for couples with sexual differences… and a grotesque regurgitation of a retrograde sexual system that made sex and love a misery for centuries, for both women and men.

You don’t want to miss this one, people.

It’s titled Sex, Moods, and a Wife’s Selfless Duty: And We Are in What Century Again?, and here’s the teaser:

But the fascinating thing is this.

If you take out all the content about gender roles?

If you take out all the sexist, retrograde, “sex is an obligation that women owe to men,” “women’s sexual desires are less important than men’s,” “close your eyes and think of England,” Total Woman dreck? If you leave out the creepy, oft-repeated language about a woman “giving her body”? If you disregard the bizarre assumption that sex is always something men initiate and women either accept or reject? If you ignore the unsubstantiated at best, blatantly wrong at worst assertions about women’s and men’s sexualities… including the assertion that experiencing sex as a sign of love is somehow exclusive to men? If you overlook the idea that sex with a passive, compliant meat puppet will make men feel loved and satisfied? If you pass over the glaring omissions… such as the idea that men have an obligation to pay attention to women’s sexual pleasure, and if women are repeatedly saying “No” to sex, maybe it’s because their men are inconsiderate lovers who treat sex as something women do for them, instead of something they both do for each other?

If you can squint real hard and somehow ignore all that?

What he’s saying is not radically different from stuff I’ve said in this very blog.

To find out what this almost hilariously archaic piece of sexist dreck could possibly have in common with my own sage pieces of sex advice — and what the differences show about Prager’s real motivations — read the rest of the piece. Have fun!

Come See Greta Read! SF 1/16 and 1/29, Oakland 1/22, Marin 2/6

X erotic treasury Hi, all! It’s going to be a crazy month of literary porn readings for me. I have four different readings scheduled in the Bay Area for the next few weeks — in San Francisco, Oakland, and Marin County. Three out of four of these readings are for Susie Bright’s stunning new erotica anthology, X: The Erotic Treasury… and the fourth is the always astonishing, always inspiring Perverts Put Out!. So if you’re going to be in the Bay Area on any of these dates, come by and listen to me read my porn! And say howdy — I like to meet my readers whenever I can.

Here’s the schedule.

Friday, Jan. 16, 7:30 pm
Counterpulse, 1310 Mission St., San Francisco
Perverts Put Out!

Perverts Put Out!, San Francisco’s long-running pansexual performance series and its premier salon of dirty talk, has featured stellar line-ups of truly twisted, mega-talented artistes…and even an occasional naked mayoral candidate. Join us for the Bye-bye Bush edition, as we throw one last shoe at W. There will be the usual excellent array of delightfully pervy performers, including Charlie Anders, Greta Christina, Stephen Elliot, Shar Rednour, Kirk Reed, Thomas Roche, and horehound stillpoint, all emceed by your devoted servants Carol Queen and Simon Sheppard. A splendid (if somewhat disreputable) time is guaranteed for all.

Thursday, Jan. 22, 7 pm
X: The Erotic Treasury reading
Diesel, A Bookstore, 5433 College Ave., Oakland

The reigning mistress of erotica, Susie Bright, has expertly chosen 40 of the hottest stories ever written: breathtaking new stories as well as the most sought-after stories from the Best American Erotica series, which are sure to amuse, arouse, and twist your sheets. Elegantly designed in a “gotta-touch-it” die-cut slipcase with a stunning and sensual cloth-covered book, the package cultivates the quality and taboo satisfaction of the stories about all kinds of lovers: heartbreakers, foxes, maniacs, romanticists, hell-raisers, and utter bandits. This reading will feature Greta Christina, Donna George Storey, Pam Ward, and Susie Bright, with discussion time afterwards.

Thursday, Jan. 29, 7:30 pm
X: The Erotic Treasury reading
Books. Inc., 2275 Market St., San Francisco

See above about the book. This reading will feature Rachel Kramer Bussell, Greta Christina, Donna George Storey, Susie Hara, and Susie Bright, with discussion time afterwards.
Important note: This event is now at the Books Inc. on Market St. in the Castro, not at the one in the Opera Plaza. If you thought it was at the Opera Plaza… you thought wrong, pal.

Friday, Feb. 6, 7pm
X: The Erotic Treasury reading
Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera

See above about the book. This reading will feature Greta Christina, Bill Noble, and
Susie Bright, with discussion time afterwards.

So if you’re in the Bay Area, or you’re going to be visiting in late January or early February, come listen to me read, and say hi. Or if you’re shy, just come listen to me read, and then slink off into the night. In either case, hope to see you there!

On Writing Porn in Public

Please note: This piece discusses my personal sex life, in a fair amount of detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that stuff, please don’t read this one. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

ExhibitionismI’m not usually a fan of exhibitionism. Not the secret kind, anyway. I worked as a stripper years ago and enjoyed the work — erotically as well as professionally — and I’m perfectly happy to strip for a lover, pose and perform for them, etc. But the sort of sneaky, secretive, “fingering under the restaurant tablecloth/ fucking on the picnic table that you hope nobody can see” sort of exhibitionism has never done it for me. I’m not comfortable with the consent issues raised by involving people in my sex life who didn’t agree to be involved. And besides, the fear of being caught doesn’t make me excited. It makes me anxious, distracted, unable to concentrate on the business at hand. It’s one of those kinks that I more or less understand intellectually, while being totally baffled by it emotionally.

But I’ve been discovering an exception.

That exception is writing porn in public.

Seattle_B&O_5
Like countless other writers with laptops — and like countless writers with typewriters and pens before us — I’ve discovered the joy of writing in cafes. It’s a great way to avoid both the claustrophobia and the easy distraction of working at home all day.

And I’ve discovered that there’s something uniquely hot about sitting down at a cafe, opening up my laptop, and setting to work on a dirty story. Something that makes me finally get what it is that turns people on about secret exhibitionistic sex.

Part of it is that, without actually feeling unethical, it feels sort of naughty and bad. Like I’m getting away with something.

Breaking rules is almost always exciting… an excitement that can easily be turned sexual if you squint at it just right. And when you grow up in a culture that condemns almost anything sexual as wicked and forbidden, it’s hard not to think of the wicked and forbidden as naturally sexual. But when you live in San Francisco in the sex- positive community, it’s awfully hard to feel like anything you’re doing is wicked or forbidden. We’re all so damned accepting.

Laptop
But writing porn in my neighborhood cafe? That definitely feels naughty. I love writing about ex-Catholic women seducing their priests, and sex workers being drawn into sadomasochism by their customers, and high school slumber parties gone wrong… when, as far as anybody knows, I’m just working on my Ph.D., or my manifesto, or my screenplay, or whatever it is people do on their laptops in cafes. (Yes, I know. Some of them are probably writing porn, too. Don’t harsh my buzz. Anyway… that’s also kind of hot.)

Add to that the fact that I almost inevitably get turned on when I write porn. If I’m not, it’s a clue that I’m not doing it right. So you take the “secretly writing dirty dirty porn in broad daylight in a public place” aspect, and you add the “getting wetter and wetter by the minute in broad daylight in a public place” aspect… and it definitely makes me feel hyper-sexual, like an insatiable slut getting fingered in the back seat of a car because she can’t wait ’til she gets home.

There’s something else going on though, too. In an odd way, even though the public-ness of a public space is somewhat distracting, it also provides a curious focus.

Pulse right
See, when I’m writing porn at home alone, there’s nothing to stop me from reaching for the vibrator when I get turned on. Which is a good time, of course — writing porn puts my sex fantasies into sharp, intense focus, and I love jerking off when I do it — but it does tend to derail the writing pretty damned fast. My porn is always better if I can hold off on masturbating to it for as long as I can. It’s frustrating… but the frustration amps up the intensity of the scenario I’m trying to create, makes me focus extra-hard on the details and the motivations and the subtle emotional shadings.

And when I’m writing porn in public, I don’t have a choice. I can’t just jerk off as soon as I start getting turned on. (Not if I want to go back to that cafe, anyway.) I have to keep my attention on the writing. I have to channel my arousal away from my clit and into my story. Writing in public forces me to have the discipline that I don’t always have at home.

Cafe
Writing porn in public gives me focus in another way as well. When I get deeply involved in a raunchy fantasy, deeply turned on by it — and then remember where I am, and take a sip of coffee, and look around me at the barristas and the cafe art and the people playing chess — the contrast is like diving into a cold pool after sitting in a hot sauna. And getting back into my dirty story is like climbing back into the sauna. The shock of it wakes me up, makes me pay attention. It makes me feel intensely conscious of how I feel in my skin, intently present in the here and now.

And that’s always a good place to write from. Porn or otherwise.

So now I’m curious. Am I the only one? If you’re a sex writer — professional or amateur — do you ever write porn in public? And if so… what is that like for you? Is it harder than writing at home? Easier? Some of both?

And those of you who do like secret exhibitionism — the actual sex kind, not the “writing porn in cafes” kind — is this at all how you feel about it? Does it make you feel hyper-sexual and slutty? Intensely focused and conscious of the here and now? Frustrated in a way that winds up your arousal? Like you’re getting away with something naughty? Something else entirely?

Prurient minds want to know.

Is Hope Always a Good Thing?

Hope_street
“Religion offers people hope.”

I was having this argument recently with some of the theists in my head. (What — you don’t do that?) I was thinking about the way a lot of religious believers argue, on behalf of religion being a useful and positive force in human life, that religion offers people hope.

The usual atheist argument to this — and it’s one I’ve made myself, many times — is that atheists do so have hope. Do so, do so, do so. Infinity plus one more times than you could say that we don’t. We hope that our book will get published; that our children will go to college; that global warming will get handled before it’s too late; that the Cubs will win the World Series before we die; etc. Religion simply offers one particular kind of hope — hope for an afterlife. An atheist life can be filled with lots of hope, of all different kinds. We just don’t have that particular one.

All of which is true.

But something else occurred to me the other day:

Is hope always a good thing?

Let’s take a couple of non-religious analogies, so I can show you what I mean.

Heart in hands
Let’s say you have the hope that your ex will come back to you. Despite the fact that they’ve told you a dozen times they’re not coming back; despite the fact that they haven’t called you in six months; despite the fact that they’ve started dating someone else… you still sincerely hope that they’re going to show up on your doorstep, flowers in their hand and an apology on their lips.

Is that a good thing?

Is that hope going to make you happier, or help you make good decisions?

Yes, it may give you a reason to get up in the morning. But wouldn’t your life be better, in the long run and even in the medium run, if you let go of that particular hope, and got hold of some more realistic ones? The hope that you’ll meet someone else who you love even more, say? Or the hope that you’ll get over your broken heart soon and be able to be happy on your own?

Lottery
I could give a hundred examples. You might have hope that you’ll win millions in the lottery. That someday you’ll be a movie star. That someday everyone who ever looked down on you will realize just how much they misjudged you. That someday your blog about atheism and sex radicalism and progressive politics will get as much traffic as Cute Overload. I could go on and on. But I think you get the idea.

The idea is this: Hope isn’t necessarily a good thing.

False hope — hope for something that will never happen, for something that’s impossible or even just wildly improbable — is not a good thing. False hope leads to bad decisions. It keeps people hanging on to unrealistic goals and expectations, and stops them from pursuing goals and expectations that they might actually accomplish. It stops people from cutting their losses and starting over. It keeps people out of touch with reality.

Which, of course, leads me back to religion.

Paradiso_Canto_31
I think — for reasons I’ve discussed ad nauseum — that the hope religion offers is a false hope. I don’t think there is an afterlife in which our immaterial soul gets to live forever after we die. I don’t think there is an immaterial soul, period. I don’t think there’s a perfect, loving creator looking after us and guiding our actions and the things that happen to us. I don’t think any of this is likely, or even plausible.

And I think it’s a false hope that often leads to bad decisions. It leads people to focus on the next life, at the expense of this one. It leads people to pray or take part in religious rituals, at the expense of taking effective action. It leads people to put an excessive emphasis on unreliable forms of thinking that support their belief/hope in the afterlife, at the expense of learning skepticism and critical thinking skills that would help them avoid frauds and charlatans. It leads people to distort their moral compasses around imaginary crimes and imaginary virtues that they think will affect their afterlives, at the expense of focusing on crimes and virtues that might actually make a difference in this life. It leads people to focus on religious ideology at the expense of the real human lives in front of them: in ways that range from destroying ancient and beloved works of art to executing people for adultery, from voting against same- sex marriage to kicking their gay children out of the house.

Light end tunnel
Of course hope is a good thing. Hope is one of the main things that makes life worth living. Hope is what keeps us going through obstacles and setbacks, through pain and grief. But it’s much too simplistic to say that, because hope is a good thing, therefore all hope is always good in all circumstances. (Food is a good thing too, but that doesn’t mean all food in all situations is always good.)

Now. There is a really big “But” in this argument. It’s a “But” that I think atheists don’t acknowledge often enough, and I want to have the intellectual honesty to acknowledge them.

The “But” is this:

It is one thing to say, “Religion is a false hope, there are better and more likely things to hope for,” to people for whom that’s clearly true, to people who do have better things to hope for.

It is another thing entirely to say it to people who really, really don’t.

Somali_children_waiting
I am perfectly happy to say, “Why do you need an eternal afterlife? Isn’t this life enough?” to the Ted Haggards and Rick Warrens of the world. I am a lot less happy to say it to a starving child roaming the slums in Rio de Janeiro; a war orphan in Somalia; an AIDS orphan in Zimbabwe. The thought of saying, “Isn’t this life enough?” to any of these people fills me with horror.

I think that the “This life is enough, you’re incredibly lucky to have been born at all, what more could you possibly want?” philosophy of many atheists — including myself — is a philosophy that comes from a fair degree of privilege. There’s a reason that rates of atheism are much higher in countries with higher levels of prosperity and social health… and that rates of religious belief are much higher in countries that are riddled with poverty, oppression, and despair. And I think atheists — including myself — really, really need to remember that.

However. That being said.

Religion opium
I would argue that religion can, in some ways, actually make things worse for people whose lives are desperate. The false hope of religion can lead people to focus on making the afterlife better… at the expense of working to make this life better, for themselves and one another. At the risk of sounding like Karl Marx, the role of religion in justifying the wickedness of the oppressors — and helping the oppressed accept their oppression — is extensive and well- documented.

That principle is also true of the people trying to offer hope, as well as the hopeless people themselves. I know, for instance, that there are some missionaries who do actual practical work to improve people’s lives. But how much more could they accomplish if they took all that time and energy they put into saving people’s souls and put it into building vaccination programs and sewer systems?

And religion — especially the more extreme versions that seem to be so common among people with deeply fucked-up lives — can add even greater horrors to the lives of already desperate people. Can you say “clitoridectomies”? “Witch- hunting ministers”? “Execution of 13- year-old rape victims”? All inspired and justified by religion? I thought you could.

Internet
Also — at the risk of sounding totally crass — the people whose lives would offer nothing but despair if it weren’t for religion aren’t surfing the atheist blogosphere. If you’re reading this blog, then there is no way your life is so desperate that there is nothing at all left for you to hope for in this life but the possibility of eternal bliss at the end of it. (Go look at Cute Overload or the Spanking Blog. That’ll give you some reasons to live.) The “religion offers hope to people who’d otherwise have none” argument does, at the very least, need to be taken seriously… but it really only applies to the most deeply and intensely hopeless. Which kind of reveals how thin an argument it is.

And finally: Even if it’s true that religion offers hope to people who would otherwise have none, some shred of comfort in an otherwise comfortless existence? Well, okay, that’s an argument for its utility. But it’s hardly an argument for its accuracy. I am endlessly intrigued by the degree to which modern religious apologists focus on whether belief in God is useful to individuals and society… without regard for the question of whether that belief is, you know, correct. It might be of some utility to humanity for people to believe in dragons, too, but I don’t see anyone seriously advocating Dragonism on that account.

I_hope
My basic point still stands. My basic point is this: It is not enough for religious apologists to say, “Religion offers people hope, and hope is a good thing.” They need to make a case for why this particular hope is not false. They need to make a case for why this particular hope — the hope that death will not be final, the hope that a good life will be rewarded with a blissful and permanent afterlife — is true, or likely, or even remotely plausible.

Or, barring that, at the very least they need to make a case for why this particular hope — even if it’s not likely or plausible or true — is, on the whole, still beneficial.

Unlike pretty much every other unlikely, implausible, almost certainly untrue hope.

Comment Policy

Computer_keyboard
I’ve known for a while that I should write a comment policy for this blog. But I kept putting it off. Not out of any resistance to it, but simply out of laziness: I’m lazy about doing things that don’t need to be done immediately, and the blog seemed to be doing okay without an official comment policy. The overwhelming majority of commenters understood the “lively but respectful,” “listen to each other and cut each other slack,” “don’t treat each other like enemies” tone that I try to set here, without my needing to spell it out.

But it’s been borne upon me in recent weeks and months that I need a comment policy. This blog has been getting more heavily trafficked: and in what’s probably an inevitable result of that, comment threads have occasionally been getting more aggressive, and I’ve been having to intervene more than I usually like. I’ve had to ban my first commenters, and close my first comment thread. So to make it clear that I’m not doing these things on a mere whim, I’m posting my official comment policy. (I should have done this sooner; for that, you all have my apologies.)

Crown_of_Italy.svgI’m going to start with the all-important Reminder of Benevolent Autocracy: This is my blog.

Mine, mine, mine.

I ultimately have the right to moderate the comments here in any way I like. If I choose to ban all commenters whose names end in the letter W, or to delete all comments that post at 1:13 in the afternoon on any 17th of the month, I would be within my rights to do that.

Newspaper_boxes
And it would not be censorship or a restriction of free speech. Again, I refer you to the This Is My Blog principle. This is my free speech area, in which I am free to say whatever I want, and which I am free to moderate in any way I see fit. If I were a newspaper publisher, I would have the right to decide which letters to the editor I did and didn’t publish. Think of comments here as letters to the editor. My right of free speech means that I have the right to decide which letters get published in my newspaper, and which ones don’t.

Or think of it this way: Commenters in this blog are guests in my home. And I have the right to decide who I let into my home and who I don’t.

If you don’t like my comment policy, you’re free to visit other blogs… or indeed to start one of your own. Starting your own blog is cheap/ free. You can say whatever you want in your own blog, and you can set up whatever fickle, autocratic comment policy you like.

Now. That being said:

W
I’m not going to be fickle or autocratic, and I’m not going to ban all commenters whose names end in W. In fact, I generally moderate this blog with an extremely light touch. In three years of blogging, I have, as of this writing, banned only two people from commenting, and shut down only one comment thread. I don’t delete comments simply because I don’t agree with them; I don’t ban commenters simply because they disagree with me.

But I do moderate. This is my official comment policy. Violations will cause me to intervene, with varying degrees of severity, including warnings, editing or deletion of comments, disemvowelling of comments, closing of comment threads, and temporary or permanent banning from the blog.

Anticapitalismo2
No advertising in the comments. Comments with obvious commercial content will have their links stripped at best, and will be deleted and marked as spam at worst.

No flame
Be respectful of other commenters in this blog. No personal insults; no namecalling; no flame wars.

In this blog, I draw a distinction between criticism of public figures and criticism of other commenters in this blog. If you want to call Rick Warren a bigot or Richard Dawkins a fascist, Ted Haggard a hypocrite or Christopher Hitchens a fucking asshole, that’s more or less okay. (I prefer that people keep that sort of rhetoric to a minimum even about public figures, as it tends to shed more heat than light; but I’ve been known to indulge in it myself, so I’m not going to insist that other people consistently hold themselves to a higher standard. Excessive use of it may result in consequences. Occasional use of it is cool.)

But if Warren or Dawkins or Haggard or Hitchens were to show up in this blog and start commenting, I would ask people to stop that sort of language immediately. When you talk about public figures, think of yourself as an op-ed writer. When you talk about other commenters in this blog, think of yourself as a guest in my home, engaging in conversation with other guests. If you can’t be civil, then take it outside.

There’s a difference between criticizing ideas and actions and insulting people. When you make comments in this blog, please draw that distinction. Lively debate is fine, but keep it respectful. Listen to each other and cut each other slack. Don’t treat each other like enemies. If you prefer a more aggressive style of online conversation, there are other blogs where that’s considered standard and indeed desirable. This isn’t one of them.

Piggie
No comment hogging or hijacking of comment threads. When I moderate, I don’t just watch for things being said in individual comments. I also watch for patterns over multiple comments. And one of the patterns I watch for is comment hogging: excessive commenting by one person, to the point where that person’s conversation is dominating one or more threads. If you’re essentially using this blog as if it were your own, then maybe you should be starting your own blog. If you already have a blog, maybe you should be posting there.

Addendum: Posting extremely long comments is a form of comment hogging/ hijacking. I’m not yet going to put a hard upper limit on comments…. but if your comment is very long, please consider writing it as a post in your own blog instead, and posting a summary and a link in the comments here.

Blackboard
No repeated attempts to bring up the same topic over and over again. Again, when I moderate, I watch for objectionable patterns across comments as well as objectionable content in any given comment. And one of those patterns is bringing up the same topic of conversation again and again, in multiple comment threads, regardless of whether it’s relevant to the topic currently being discussed.

I get that a certain amount of topic drift does happen in comments, and I’m (grudgingly) okay with that. But bringing up the same topic again and again is potentially very problematic: especially if it’s a topic that’s irrelevant to the post at hand, and double especially if it’s a topic that’s proven fruitless and poisonous in the past.

Troll
No trolling. I am defining “trolling” as “deliberate attempts to pick fights.” Disagreements and debates are fine; trying to stir up shit and get people mad for your own entertainment is not.

RESPECT
Respect my right to moderate my blog. If I’m asking commenters in a thread to dial down the hostility, then please dial down the hostility, or take yourself out of the thread. If I’m asking commenters to stop feeding a troll, then please stop feeding the troll, or take yourself out of the thread. If I’ve had to shut down a comment thread, then please don’t try to revive the thread elsewhere: drop it, or take yourself out of the blog. If I’ve asked you to stop commenting, or to limit your comments to a specific nature (e.g., links to your own blog posts where you’ve replied to my posts), then please respect that request. Etc.

If you think the specifics of my moderation are unfair or inconsistent, email me and let me know. And if you’ve been put in the doghouse and want to be let out, email me and let me know. But don’t treat the very fact that I moderate my blog as censorship or a violation of your rights. It’ll result in you going straight to the top of my Think Hard About Banning This One list (not a long list, but I do have one), and may even get you banned immediately. And it’ll result in me giving you the giant horse laugh.

Law books
The usual legal stuff. No copyright violations, no threats, no incitement to violence, no slander.

I think that’s it. If I need to add anything later, I’ll let y’all know. Thanks, and have fun!

What I Learned About Sex in 2008: The Blowfish Blog

Back_to_school
I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s a Year in Review piece, summing up the things I learned about sex (or was reminded of about sex) from writing my column on the Blowfish Blog. It’s titled What I Learned About Sex in 2008, and here’s the teaser:

I learned that sadomasochism is starting — just starting — to be a no- big- deal part of the sexual landscape… at least as depicted in popular culture. Ditto gay sex, sex work, and — to a lesser extent — non-monogamy.

And I learned that, despite all that, mass culture can still have a pretty retrograde idea of what constitutes sexual liberation.

I learned that figuring out what kind of sex you do and don’t like is an ongoing process that lasts a lifetime… because your sexuality can change over time, so you’re trying to hit a moving target.

I learned — or was reminded — that the way people define sex and use language about it can have a huge impact on how they practice it.

I learned that working out is hot.

I learned that it’s really, really, really hard to talk about cheating in a way that doesn’t traffic in black- and- white moral absolutes, without seriously pissing a lot of people off.

To read more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!