It is a large vibrator, the kind you
plug in. The woman spreads her labia with two fingers so that we
can see the lubrication, the swollen inner lips. We lean forward
as she presses the vibrator between her legs and moves it in a tight
circle. She arches her back. She cries out. Sitar music swells and
the screen fades to black.
The dean wheels out a white-erase board. "Alright ladies, let's
make a list of the benefits of masturbation!"
After a moment of nervous silence, answers popcorn out:
"It helps you get to sleep?"
"Um, sometimes when I have a paper to write, I, you know, masturbate?
And then I stop thinking about sex and I can write better."
"It feels good."
giggle nervously. Brown University is different than I expected.
It is less like an intellectual crucible and more like a State Fair.
There's food and prizes, I spend most of the time lost, and the
whole thing is slightly surreal.
The dean holds up an enormous diagram of the clitoris. "It's like
an iceberg," she says.
I am seventeen years old and have never really masturbated. I am
attending this workshop out of morbid curiosity and a vague feeling
that something is wrong with me.
The dean claims that when the whole iceberg is considered, the
clitoris is larger than some penises. We cheer. But the news is
not all good. We learn that the word masturbate comes from the Latin
mas for "male" and turbare "to stir up." We brainstorm
new, feminist terms, such as "patting the bunny" and "Jilling off."
I somehow miss the most important message of the workshop, which
is: buy a vibrator.
I go back to my dorm room and pat the bunny, without effect. Knowing
the etymology of the word masturbate is no help at all. I
think Goethe summed it up the best: "Dear friend, all theory is
gray, but green the golden tree of life."
What I don't realize is that I have never had an orgasm. The problem
is not that I can't masturbate; the problem is that I can't come.
I am still a virgin, but I have done everything else. I have had
two devoted boyfriends one of them an Eagle Scout
kneel between my legs and lick their jaws sore. I have been felt
up and felt down, but I have never felt much.
As a child, most of my sexual education came from my cousins Melissa
and Nikki, who were half-Latin and lived in New York City. They
spoke in a kind of gnomic rhyme:
Kiss my applejack
My soda crack
My beep beep beep
On Sesame Street
Got a greasy ass
Got a hole in your pants
Got a big behind
Was a tittie snatcher
And old King Kong
Had a big ding dong
Whenever they taught me a new piece of filthy information, I would
drag it back to my mother, like a dog with a dead bird.
At four years old: "Mom, Nikki and Melissa told me a boy puts his
penis in a girl's vagina and that's how babies are made."
To my horror, my mother confirmed this theory.
At five years old: "Mom, what's this?" (Holding up a condom in
My mother: "Adult medicine."
At seven: "Mom, Melissa told me to ask you what the word orgasm
My mother's answer It's the best feeling in the
world becomes one of two working definitions of orgasm
that I contemplate like Zen koans throughout my late teens. The
second definition is from my seventh grade health textbook: "An
orgasm is the accumulation of tension, followed by its release."
When I make out with boys, I keep watch for any sudden releases
in tension. I convince myself that I feel them. I decide that my
mother's definition was hyperbolic. At some point, I start telling
my partners that I have come. I'm not really lying, I'm just trying
to make everyone happy. If they lick my pussy for a long time or
touch me particularly passionately, I tell them, "ooh, I came a
lot that time."
The summer after my freshman year in college, I go to Martha's
Vineyard to work a nanny job I have accepted sight unseen. The family
turns out to be a horrible hybrid of old money WASPs and Pentecostal
Christians. I suspect I see swastikas in the three-year-old's drawings.
Then I meet Nat. He is a carpenter who lives on the island year-round,
and he is eleven years older than me. I go over his house for cocktails.
His aged grandfather resembles a P.G. Wodehouse character. We sit
at a table on the porch, drinking gin and tonics, eating cashews,
watching the songbirds come and go. I have never felt so happy.
When the nanny job ends, I move in with them for the month of August.
One sun-drunk day I lose my virginity. Nat is very sweet, and it
only hurts a little.
I go back to school and we keep dating. I travel via bus and ferry
to visit him: long trips over land and sea during which my body
aches with desire. We have a lot of sex and yet I always want more.
When we're done, he falls asleep and I stay awake, staring at the
Richard Pryor does a bit about fucking a woman so well she falls
right asleep. He crows, "I'm a macho MAAAN. I put your ass to sleep."
I wonder if Nat is not macho enough. He is six feet tall and works
with power tools for a living. He has a long cock. He knows where
my clitoris is and pays attention to it. But I never feel like I
want to go to sleep after fucking him. I feel like I want to hump
The porn star Annie Sprinkle comes to Brown to do a presentation
on female ejaculation. I attend, along with everyone I know. Annie
Sprinkle has the largest breasts I've ever seen. Her list of the
benefits of orgasm is ambitious: "cures PMS," "cures the common
cold," "promotes world peace."
Annie plays us a video in which she is spread eagled on a table
and serviced by a team of women in elf outfits. One fucks Annie
with a dildo, one palpates her mammoth breasts, one rubs her clit
with a gloved finger. Various permutations occur. Sometimes Annie
gets a finger in her pussy, sometimes a dildo, and for one
scary moment a fist.
Superimposed over this is a line graph that represents Annie's
level of arousal. This line mounts higher and higher, then spikes.
Annie comes, with great howlings and thrashings. The elves murmur
encouragement and redouble their efforts. Now the bar graph enters
a plateau phase, and a clock appears in the corner of the screen,
measuring the duration of orgasm. Annie sounds like a soprano doing
bizarre vocal exercises. The clock hits one minute, then two. This
has to be a world record. At some point, copious liquid shoots from
"Now I want to be very clear," she says. "That liquid is not urine.
We have had it scientifically tested."
The lecture is warmly received. I am haunted. Was Annie just acting,
or is pleasure on that scale possible? I want bliss like that. I
want to feel what Annie felt, only without the fist.
That winter Nat visits me in Providence. I am subletting the attic
of a biochemistry grad student, and the ceiling is so low Nat can't
stand up. We make love on a mattress on the floor. Nat fucks me
from behind and reaches around to play with my clit. Things are
going pretty much the way they always do, when something very strange
It feels like a massive release of tension. It leaves my heart
thundering. It happens too fast to be certain, but I suspect it
is the best feeling in the world.
"Stop," I tell him.
He pulls out. "What's the matter? Does it hurt?"
"No. I think I came."
It takes some time to convince Nat that this is my first orgasm.
After all, I have been crying wolf for some time. Finally he gets
it. The next morning we go out to Louie's Diner for bacon and eggs.
Nat raises his glass of orange juice.
"Cheers," he whispers. "To your first orgasm."
After that, I do not have an orgasm during intercourse for a long
time. But I do come from oral sex and from having my clit played
with. I can neither anticipate nor control these orgasms. They are
suddenly there, like vistas in hilly country.
My relationship with Nat begins going sour. My friends dislike
him. He embarrasses me in public. His screenplay is mediocre.
To create space, I sign up for a semester abroad in Morocco. It
is a bewildering, difficult experience. I get followed, groped,
and called a whore in three languages. I live with a Muslim family.
The eight-year-old boy barges in on me in the bathroom while I am
straddling the bidet. The mother tells me they use it for pre-prayer
Two good things come of the trip. I learn the beautiful, transformative
power of marijuana, which changes the city of Rabat into Disneyworld.
And el-hamdulillah! I learn to make myself
come. The family has given me a private room and I make use of it,
Jilling off like a fiend every evening.
Practice makes perfect. I soon learn to follow the line graph of
my arousal. I learn to feel the climax coming, to slow down right
before the spike, to make it last. I learn that pleasure is not
all about Nat.
When I come home, I break up with him and buy a vibrator.
"You don't treat me well enough," I tell him.
He is sad and generous. "My dad told me the same thing," he says.
We part ways, and the last thing he says to me is either: "I'll
have to find someone smarter than you, because I'll never find someone
better in bed." or "I'll have to find someone better in bed than
you, because I'll never find someone smarter."
I can't remember which it was, because I recall knowing with Tiresias-like
clarity that he would find neither.
Tiresias was a soothsayer from Greek mythology. While walking through
a field one day, he thrust his staff between two mating serpents.
They cursed him by turning him into a woman. In his new female form,
he became a courtesan of great fame. Seven years later, he saw the
same serpents, thrust his staff between them again, and changed
back to a man.
He was later called on to resolve an argument between the god Zeus
and his wife Hera about which gender gets more pleasure from sex.
Hera argued for men, Zeus for women. Tiresias, in a unique position
to know the answer, replied, "Out of ten parts of pleasure, women
get nine and men only one." Hera was infuriated by this answer and
struck poor Tiresias blind. Zeus, to lessen the blow, gave him the
gift of prophesy.
I wonder about poor Hera. Why was she so mad to hear Tiresias'
answer? She lost the argument, but didn't she win the war?
Doesn't she want to have nine times more pleasure than a
The conclusion is clear, yet bafflingly has escaped
classicists for years: Hera had never had an orgasm.
It explains her behavior throughout antiquity. Hera spends myth
after myth pursuing and punishing the lovers of Zeus, mostly poor
nymphs he has raped via devious methods like showers of gold. Why
is Hera so aggressive and angry? Why does she blame the victim?
Why is she even awake?
The fact is, it takes some of us longer than others to learn how
to come. For a woman there are always two kinds of sexual education.
There is the kind that happens in the classroom, bedroom, and backseat
of the Nissan. And then there is the kind that happens in the veins
and arteries, the slow thawing of the iceberg, the self-knowledge
that makes goddesses of us all. This is the real education, for
it requires full participation of the woman. Where there is nine
times the pleasure there is at least nine times the pursuit.
Fortunately for her, Hera was immortal. I'm sure she's figured
it out by now.