If I had to judge my sex life by how many times I've had an orgasm, I'd get a big fat F. Oh, I'm sure I have more notches than someone else, but I've had long, medium, and short stretches where I haven't buttered up to anybody else's body or even had my own private Jill-off. Yet this is the last thing I think of when I consider my erotic life. I say "erotic life" instead of "sex life" because when someone asks me about my sex life, it's code for "Are you getting laid?" So I need a code for my reply, which is, in effect, "Getting laid isn't the half of it."
My dreams are filled with sex; my work is inspired with sexual energy; my family and friendships are influenced in so many ways by my sexual creativity that I couldn't even pinpoint them all. Some therapists tell people to search for a sex life, to get out of the house and into the right singles love boat, but actually your sex life is rocking your boat every minute of every day. You never have to leave the house or make a single phone call.
I remember snooping in a neighbor's bookcase when I was a kid, discovering their garishly illustrated Kama Sutra with more than 100 pages featuring more than 100 pretzel shapes to screw your body into. It had all the appeal of a periodic table. This is what I had to learn to have sex? The book's title invoked erotic and spiritual symbols, but the spirit behind the presentation was chopped liver. I had been so excited to think that one day I was going to have a sex life—a real adult sex life, as inspiring as the music I heard on the radio, the romantic novels I read, or the passionate embraces I saw dissolve on the screen. This book was a bitter disappointment.
My childhood intuition was right. Those top-40 hits were more sexy than a hundred nudist diagrams, and so were the novels and movies I thrilled to, because they possessed sexual creativity.
Erotic experience is a wake-up call, the sign you're not only alive but bursting. As my friend Michael once said, "It doesn't matter whether you're cooking a meal or playing basketball or writing a chapter. Sometimes you get this rush of holistic energy, and you'd swear that you just got laid."
"But how come more people won't admit it?" I asked. "It's not like I can line up architects and rocket scientists to admit that, yes indeed, they built that atom, that bridge, and they owe it all to some serious erotic inspiration. Everyone thinks that if they admit how much sexual energy fuels their everyday life, they won't get any respect."
"Haven't they ever heard of a little thing called sublimation? You go to any museum, you look at the classic Renaissance paintings, where everyone is supposed to be praising God and fearing the devil, but what is it, after all? Naked bodies everywhere! You're going to tell me these painters didn't get off on that? Their faith, their painting, their sexual energy—it's all the same thing," said Michael.
People don't want to hear that their religious feeling is erotic; it's the ultimate insult. They bring that holier-than-sex attitude to any kind of scholarship, any profession or art that somehow needs to be unsullied by erotic feeling in order to be worthy.
The truth is this: Sex and art intersect from the moment we pick up pen or brush. I used to visit my friend Kimi in her art studio, where she made huge abstract expressionist paintings. She routinely had her vibrator plugged in, lying on the rug next to her latest canvas along with her brushes, rags, and paints. She caught me looking at it one day and said, "I can't help it, I get so excited sometimes! And other times I'm so tired, this is the only thing that gets me going again."
People have long debated whether eroticism saps their energy or lets it fly. A physical orgasm sometimes makes you feel more like taking a nap than creating a masterpiece. But an erotic inspiration never tires you out. Sexual creativity stems from living life as if you were making something of it—instead of letting life just happen. Why don't we recognize the erotic element in that passion? People defend their artistic and intellectual intentions by saying "This is not about sex." That's how you're supposed to be able to tell how grand and incredible their work is. If it's real love, then it's not about sex. If it's real art, it's not about sex. If it's real politics. . . the list goes on.
When people put faith, scholarship, and science in front of their sexual creativity like a large, impenetrable screen, they are trying to hide the power of sex, as if bright lights and colorful denunciations could make it disappear. They are chained to their superstitious fears and burdened by the assumption that sex is the dirtiest thing you can do.
We have no tradition in our culture for showing respect to anything sexual. We don't promote erotic education; gossips and preachers are our typical sex advisers. I used to be embarrassed that my sex knowledge came more from books than from experience, but by the time my experience caught up with my library, I realized that a great book was on a par with a great fuck, without disrespect to the lessons learned from either.
Clearly, guidelines for erotic living have to avoid matters of taste, and tolerance and knowledge are preconditions for candor. I was asked to teach a class about lesbian and gay social issues, substituting for teachers who had taught the course for years. They had students write hypothetical coming-out letters to their parents, friends, or work mates. I was struck by this gay phrase, since "coming out"—formerly used only by debutantes—has a bigger definition now. Gay? Lesbian? That's not the half of it! People make fun of organizations with names like "Gay-Bisexual-Lesbian-Transgendered-or-Wondering"; the "wondering" part is the most psychologically astute. We all wonder about who we are sexually.
Someday sexual "orientation" will bust open, just as notions of "race" have been torn apart in recent years, and it will become clear that we've only made these stupid categories so some people could fancy themselves superior. "Coming out" applies to all of us. It is the personal sword of truth that slices through the knotted vines choking off our erotic development. The hardest part is knowing yourself well enough to make the first cut.
The Body Electric
Last summer I hosted a bluegrass band at my house. The drummer was interested in my library, and before he left I gave him a suitcase of books on sexual politics, everything from anal intercourse to Clarence Thomas. He wrote me a month later, saying he liked my books and wanted to talk about them, but for now he had one question: "Have you ever experienced electricity during sex?"
He didn't define "electricity." He didn't say "Have you ever been really in love? Have you ever felt another presence?" When people feel an unexpected or extrasensory jolt during sex, they usually chalk it up to true love or a sign from their god, a romantic signal that they are with the "right" person doing the "right" thing—although some who have been around the block admit that sparks fly even with people they know they couldn't spend eight hours with, let alone their lives. Sexual "electricity" makes such a powerful impression that many people who report the sensation will describe with awe that when it happened, they weren't even touching genitals, stoking the conventional orgasm.
I first became interested in this sort of electricity while learning about the sexual re-education of lovers who had spinal cord injuries or paralysis that made their genital areas numb. One of the most erotic films I have ever seen was a documentary for disabled couples; on camera, they had undeniably powerful, expressive sex. The last thing I expected to feel was envy, but that's exactly what I felt. The camera showed no white lightning, but with one couple in particular, I felt like their every touch was completely off the ground.
People seek this kinetic experience avidly, studying books and applying themselves to meditation, prayer, or exhaustive searches for the perfect partner. Some of the most impressive stories I've heard about electricity, though, were in situations that were anything but high-minded or spiritually considered. Why do some people get their first jolt at a billiard parlor but others in a temple? If you feel electricity once with someone, why not forever, why not every time?
I cannot describe the chemistry of sexual electricity, though I've opened my ears to scientific, paranormal, and spiritual explanations. I am convinced that these bolts of body thunder are neither romantic halos nor fortune-telling advisories. They do, however, convey a sense of possibility and invention where there was nothing before. This electricity is not something you only feel while looking into the eyes of a lover; it can happen when you are alone—maybe while listening to a song that moves you or during a spell of strong weather that brings out something in you that you can't explain.
I've had every sort of supernatural sensation in my dreams, but I have not experienced a live-wire jolt in my waking moments. I have felt metaphorically on fire with sexual attraction, but I haven't seen lightning come out of my fingertips. Well, maybe once: When I was a young woman, I had a married lover I was mad for. One morning he announced—like a military briefing, one sentence, no questions—that our affair was over, as of that minute.
We were alone, preparing a room for a meeting. I kept unfolding chairs. He was fiddling with the podium.
"Plug in that lamp," he said, pointing to a loose cord near my foot.
I pressed the prong end into the wall outlet, only to get the shock of my life—blue sparks, smoke, a jolt from fingertips to jaw. I cried out; tears poured down my face, burning it almost as badly as the electric shock had scorched my arm.
My lover flew to my side. "I'm sorry, baby, please, I'm so sorry," he said. He held me; my arm was still shaking. I could feel his erection through my jeans. "This is so fucked up," I thought. I was so turned on. The affair did not end after that minute.
In my dreams afterward, I was in the same place again, and the current spiraled from my palms to my nipples to my cunt to the wall. I was sopping wet when I woke up. Right there, that deep blue shock, is the closest I've ever come to electricity during sex.
The Parent Trap
Even if you never write a love letter, speak publicly about your sexual opinions, or dress up for Halloween as a naughty French maid, there is one way you might unintentionally express your erotic disposition: by taking on a parenting role—birth mom or dad, or teacher, sister, baby-sitter. Your attitudes about sex, fantasy, privacy, and desire will sink into a child deeper than a tattoo.
Conventional thinking focuses only on the moment you tell your kids "the facts of life." It's discussed as an issue of religion and etiquette—how to say the right thing at the right moment. You implant, almost surgically, the values you want your offspring to absorb. If you have regrets later, it's always about your choice of words or timing.
Forget it, all of it. The most essential message is the simplest: the acknowledgment that (1) everyone in your family, from grandparents to toddlers, is a sexual being, and (2) the sexual nature of each family member is to be respected and appreciated.
When I hear people say "I can never imagine my parents having sex," I wince. If that's how you feel about them, you're on your way to becoming what you find so unimaginable—the parent who can't admit to sexuality.
Anguished parents also tell me that they have discovered that their kids are masturbating, that their kids have even joyfully told them they've found something that makes them "tingly" all over. Why are we still in the dark ages about this?
My daughter and I were watching TV the other day: A boy tries to kiss a girl and she protests, pushing him away. "They always do that," Aretha said. I thought I knew her next question; she also sees how that same darn girl ends up kissing that same boy in the end. I had my little spiel lined up, about how sexist movies are, and how women are played for virgin fools or whorish demons. But instead she asked, "Why does the girl always push the kisser away?" Aretha's question was deeper than my Hollywood critique. What do I want to tell her about being a woman, and about what women want from sex? I wanted her to know that I'm still answering that question for myself.
Want to see young people having responsible, healthy sex lives? Have a responsible, healthy sex life yourself—and let it be acknowledged by your family and friends. I'm not talking about doing a striptease at the dinner table; I mean a healthy sex life in the most basic sense. Stop lying. Show evidence of your own sexual health, rapport, and integrity.
I see many parents who go to tremendous lengths to convince their children that they don't have a sexual bone in their bodies. They won't be affectionate with their lovers; they won't admire something that strikes them as sexy or find humor in erotically vulnerable situations. If their kids catch them making out or making love, instead of saying "Close the door, we want to be alone," they invent some ridiculous fib.
If your worst nightmare is your kids asking "Why can't I watch?" just tell them the truth—your private life is not entertainment for them. Sometimes we all want to be alone, to play or dream, to connect with our own thoughts. Parents who aren't furtively hiding their sex life are spared the hypocritical humiliations their children will eventually unearth. They are blessed with the mental health that comes from honestly appreciating their sensuality.
Susie Bright is an artist and writer based in Santa Cruz, California. Excerpted with permission from Full Exposure: Opening Up to Sexual Creativity and Erotic Expression © 1999 by Susie Bright. Published by HarperSanFrancisco.