“Sex is something I really don’t understand too hot,” confessed Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, and the honest among us are likely to agree. We have our Chinese menu of lifestyles—devoted celibacy, rampant promiscuity, dating, marriage, longtime partnership, and things rather more complex. But these options all require difficult negotiations between our desires and their fulfillment. After an average day’s media barrage of virtual sex and sexual innuendo, the pursuit of the erotic can seem like chasing after your shadow. No single lover matches the 101 flavors we’re trained to want, no one (least of all a man) is ever supposed to lack desire, and if you’re still figuring out what turns you on—like, what are you into?—you’re made to feel like you have been left in the dust on the sexual superhighway. Meanwhile, little AIDS spectres dance about with their scythes, and the question of who wraps what in latex won’t go away.
You don’t need to be a market analyst to see a large product niche here. Yet most current “better sex” videotapes make it seem like a narrow one. Take the Sinclair Institute’s three-volume Ordinary Couples, Extraordinary Sex series. Host Sandra Scantling—a sex therapist and clinical psychiatrist who wears the sensible suits and oversized eyeglasses endemic to her trade—is joined by Cully Carson, a urologist with a caterpillar moustache and a tendency toward pronouncements like “The mind is the most powerful sexual organ!” In between maxims, “real couples” speak politely about what turns them on (“I like flowers,” declares one woman, “the more the better”) and dramatize adventurous lovemaking techniques like “69” in absurdly posh settings.
There’s a certain charm to watching average folks—as opposed to models or movie stars—doin’ the do, and honest talk about realities like lack of desire is refreshing. Still, by the time my partner and I reached the third tape, a therapy dramatization with Dr. Scantling putting couples through their psychological paces (“Say it out loud, Fred: ‘Sam, you are not my mother’”), we were ready to go to sleep, and on opposite sides of the bed.
It’s no surprise that most of these videos—including the Sinclair tapes and the more explicit and mechanics-oriented Better Sex series—are exclusively hetero. Erotic Choices: Better Gay Sex is exclusively homo. As the disclaimer puts it, “this programme . . . has been made for, and should be viewed by, a gay male audience only.” But aside from the transgressive thrill it may offer female and straight male scofflaws who ignore the injunction, Erotic Choices outperforms the other two titles on a number of points. One is its high production values, which recall Levi’s ads rather than infomercials. Another is its techno sound track, a blessed relief after hours of New Age flute and synthesizer wheedling.
Its young model demonstrators don’t speak of first-person experiences (in fact, they barely speak at all), but the T-shirted, twentysomething narrator has a streetwise good humor that makes him far more appealing than the usual bunch of dour experts. And the tape’s observations about power balance in relationships (respecting your partner’s independence, swapping top and bottom roles as a way to understand your mate and your mate’s pleasure more fully) are worth some thought by folks of all dispositions.
All these videos stress the importance of taking your time in lovemaking and not rushing toward orgasm. This strategy becomes a spiritual route in the videos that offer modern takes on tantric sex. Ancient Secrets of Sexual Ecstasy shows some wacky chakra-jiggle dances and a lot of bad ‘70s haircuts but offers good pointers on orgasm building and the erotic gaze. Better still is The Secrets of Sacred Sex, which goes into greater detail on chakra energies and breath and muscle control. Among its more novel techniques is the “daily devotion,” a morning practice in which, following penetration, the couple lies motionless for 10 minutes, staring into each other’s eyes and breathing together in sync, before getting up to start their day. My partner and I were impressed enough to try it over the course of a few mornings. At first we’d only manage a few minutes before cracking up, or bickering over who messed up the breath rhythm. But when we got it right, it proved to be a much better eye-opener than decaf—and it showed us that while we may never understand sex so hot, there’s value in learning new ways to feel, and share, its power.