© Copyright 2020 by Roger Martin
What is it in this pornographic mind which would seek revenge against feeling?
—Susan Griffin, in Pornography and Silence
My first sexual memory comes from the post office. Cradled in Mother's arms, I poke a breast. She does nothing. I poke again. The removal of my hand is swift and harsh.
The first dirty word I remember: eros.
It is the 1950s, and my parents have received, in a plain, brown envelope, an invitation to subscribe to a new magazine, Eros. Are they ever hot. Why would the post office deliver such stuff? Do I remember, or do I imagine, that my mother uses the words "filth" and "smut"? Or is this my first experience of those words in the phrase "smut peddlers," human paramecia that, the Reader's Digest reported, were engulfing America?
My first dirty words: eight-page bible.
An eight-page bible is a small comic book, maybe 3 inches by 6. A famous cartoon character like Popeye, endowed with elephantine penis, might be poking Betty Boop. My mother found one in Brother's jeans pocket. Upset pocks this memory. Loving her, I joined her in hating the words eight-page bible. Sex, embarrassment and anger had begun to coalesce into a poisonous molecule.
Now I'm in the vacant lot, the one where they parked cars for the ball game, the one where we played stick ball and heaved dirt bombs, wrapped in newspaper, at each other. Jasper is there. Dennis Louvall, this crazy fucker with wide-gapped front teeth. My brother, who never stopped teasing me.
C'mon Rog, recite the poem, my brother is saying.
Don't want to.
He’s pleading, he’s smirking, he’s pushing me toward the moment when he knows I’ll collapse before the pressure. He’s eager for the words, eager for my innocent mouth to form these words. I’m their virgin, their little virgin. They’re all tall as trees, and I resist, knowing they will prevail, and then I surrender.
"Ding, dong, dell/Pussy's in the well." They start to titter.
"Can Little Johnny stout/Pull the pussy out?" Gales of laughter.
What's it mean?
You'll know when you grow up.
Aw, c’mon, tell me.
You’ll know when you grow up.
(I won't know what this signifies, even when I grow up.)
Roy Rogers, the singing cowboy, never lost a fight with a bad guy. But one peculiar Saturday, he not only lost but was gagged and bound and thrust into a closet by the bad guys. As he struggled against the ropes, I felt a delicious hardness below, a priapal stir. Maybe it was, as social scientists say, a case of correlation, not causation. Just happened to be watching Roy at the moment of first erection.
First sex book.
A Havelock Ellis volume about dream interpretation full of flashpoint words like erection, spontaneous emission, ejaculation and the hard-to-pronounce one: v-a-g-i-n-a. Even pop singer Pat Boone's 'Twixt Twelve and Twenty was titillating. But so was just about everything in those polymorphously perverse days.
I am 14, playing spin the bottle in some parent’s rathskeller. I’m so nervous that when I rise, then lean in to meet her lips, I bite and she lets out a small squeal. §
At most, he may touch himself but not the other. This is the essential pathos behind all pornographic spectacle.
—Phillip Lopate, in Men Confront Pornography
If only Brother had known what a little sneak I was, he’d have realized that he’d hidden his pornography carelessly, there among his model-railroading magazines. I waited until the house was empty to set upon the collection. The walk from the second floor, after everyone had left, to the third floor, where the magazines were stashed, was the most exciting staircase climb of my life. I was in the Jesus business at the time, vowing to be like Him, but the summons of the devil to Brother's office area was too much to resist.
Before I removed a magazine for ogling, I first studied its placement. I took note of how much its spine peeked out, at what angle to the magazines above and below, for the purpose of restoring it precisely to its place. This deception, too, was part of the thrill, part of the heat of the moment. Brother would never even know he’d been hit.
Lying on a bed with a magazine, half of me was bug-eyed. The other half was all ears, attuned to the minutest sound of a key sliding into a lock two floors down. To be caught like this would be death.
He had books of naughty cartoons and dirty jokes, but they held no interest. The cheap-looking, black-and-white, small-format mags, with their dark-nippled, large-bosomed women covered by acres of black girdle, black bars covering their eyes to preserve their anonymity, were good enough. But the Playboys were best, all color and high resolution and slick paper, real dolls who might live right next door (at least in somebody’s neighborhood), with large, red nipples, see-through nighties, pencils poised suggestively against pouty lower lips, as if she were some raucuous secretary who’d taken quite enough shorthand and was ready for better things.
I did not know there was more to sex than the warmth that I felt as I stared at these images, a warmth that stole up my thighs, through my penis and leaped into my belly. Thinking that that was sex, that that was the whole shooting match, I neither masturbated nor ejaculated. I knew nothing about sex, including, most poignantly, the endpoint. If a Playmate had stepped out of a page, I wouldn't have known what to do with her any more than if I had lifted the hood of a car and stared at the engine.
Unfortunately, Brother's office had neither physical walls nor boundaries of privacy to protect it, so the collection eventually was found. I remember my mother’s hysteria, my father’s angry shouts. No Eros in our house. The collection was flung in the ashpit, out by the alley, and burned. I was scared numb. I could not touch the women on those pages; my fellow family members, knowing nothing about my indulgence in the unseemly collection, could not touch me.
Brother rebuilt the collection, and I refound it, and I was grateful. Then, paging through a Playboy one day, a Polaroid snapshot fell out. A man's body dressed in women's things. No face. I felt a tingling on the back of my neck. The picture had been taken in our house. Wasn’t me. Sure wasn’t daddy. Riding together to the therapist’s office some years later, Brother would tell me of a long and eventually confusing involvement he had had in his past. He had become, for a few months, an escort to a fellow airline baggage handler and cross-dresser who, in his female guise, called herself Abby Normal. Met quite a few San Francisco drag queens. Daring stuff for Brother, with his high-school education and blue collar background. Finally, he said, he got scared of the world he had entered – Abby was beginning to hint at certain dark desires – so he left.
I am touched by this story, by Brother’s sexual confusion. His two wives have both been large women, and, in my mind, masculinized in certain other ways. I have not spoken to Brother about this in depth, but I suspect that his life has, much like mine, been no sexual Shangri-La.
My first girlfriend was a brain. We’d spar on the phone an hour a night. I'd talk Jesus, she, Buddha. I took her to art films: Last Year at Marienbad, Long Day's Journey into Night. We started out necking in her family's rathskellar, first vertically, enveloped in the quicksilver sound of Johnny Mathis, then horizontally, until her mother, sensing the danger in our lurid, overlong silences, called down to offer snacks. We graduated to the basement of a home owned by a sympathetic French teacher. He coached me to wear two pairs of underpants to desensitize myself and be able to last a long time without ejaculating.
My friends – all of them brains – and I never discussed sex. I still hadn't read a how-to manual or seen an eight-page bible. There was some vague sense of its being important not “to go all the way,” but I had no mental picture of that. I heard of something called "blue balls," yet I didn't suffer, physically, from petting for hours and without ejaculation. The pre-orgasmic activities alone seemed fulfilling. Sometimes, after we’d slowly worked our way down to underwear, we’d both stand. The basement floor was cold beneath our feet. We walked to where a little light shone in through a window cut into the foundation. There, I would stretch out the waistband of my underwear, until my dick stood hard and free from the cotton. I would guide her hand into the cradle I’d made, and her willingness to be led, to touch, melted everything in me. Who needed orgasm?
Sex became, for us, an exploration; we built an encyclopedia of each other’s bodies, wrote a whole anatomy of touches, strokes, caresses. Orgasm was not the goal, yet it was sometimes the prize of our hours of petting. “It was like an atom bomb going off inside me,” she said, the first time.
Who needed intercourse? Saving ourselves for marriage was a snap.
A fifteen-year-old boy sitting bored in a classroom notices the inner thigh of a girl sitting across the room; he is titillated and wants to look but feels socially prohibited from staring. . . . [He] scans his eyes in the direction of the girl's thighs, avoiding staring, allowing himself to catch an occasional glance. . . . Stealing images and glossing one's activity are deeply humiliating. . . . This activity is humiliating because it is desperate and outcast, because one works so hard for so little and, perhaps above all, because it shuts one out from social mutuality.
—Timothy Bentke, in Men Confront Pornography
In 1964, I became a university library rat. If a woman were sitting in a study carrel, reading a book, and I were on the opposite side of the carrel, sitting at a table, say, then I could stare at her legs all I wanted, gaze into the dark she pressed, like some invisible coin, between her thighs. A tickle of fear that someone might catch me in this act made it exciting. Guys at the dorm called this "shooting beaver."
Alone in my dorm room, 1965. I am 19. Lying on the bed, propped on an elbow, I am touching my penis when, suddenly, the semen splurts, dollops on throat, chest, belly. An epiphantic first masturbation — an explanation of why I'd sometimes wake from sex dreams with a wet belly. I'd never put it together before, the whole sequence. I feel that I have invented masturbation. After this, my invention is never idle long.
Summer of Love, Los Angeles peace march, three guys from the Midwest. A hairdresser and her friend pick us up. I'm lucky; I get to sleep in her bed. We are making out. There is only a blanket hung from a curtain rod to divide us from the others.
I whisper, "I'm saving my virginity for marriage."
She hisses, "Chickenshit."
The next night I sleep on the floor.
Back home in St. Louis, I talk to a minister, who also does some spare-time counseling, about the hairdresser. I tell him about my carefully preserved virginity. Maybe, he says, I should reconsider. Maybe I've made it too big a thing. My senior year is coming up. I'm almost 21.
My cherry goes to a summer-tanned and chunky Chi Omega in a lime-green, polyester dress. Without the ritual of a date, even, Susan and I return to my $5 a month basement room, walls festooned with posters brought back from the love summer (Peter Fonda, Allen Ginsberg), and we become bare acquaintances. I last about six seconds and come on her belly. The girl I've been dating for a couple of years (we've been saving ourselves for marriage) raps on the door. An unplanned visit. Has come to study. Fake yawns from me, as if I've been snoozing. The Chi O. is under me, very quiet. A scene in which everybody becomes, instantly, a fool, as in a 1960s Italian sex comedy. I tell my girlfriend I'll call later. She presses to come in, but I dismiss her. After she leaves, I whisk the Chi O. out and hurry off to the Kappa house, where I tell the girlfriend everything and, grieved by guilt, apologize a dozen times.
"It's OK," she says, "but if something like this ever happens again, just don't tell me."
To Susan, I never apologize.
In the course of writing this essay, I read a front page review, New York Times Book Review, August 30, 1992. In his Making Love, Richard Rhodes has detailed his sex life, writing, "Fiction is fine, but using fiction as a disguise makes both the uniqueness of intimate experience and its common humanity easy to dispute." To which reviewer Martin Amis retorts, "This argument turns out to be spectacularly mistaken. When fiction works, the individual and the universal are frictionlessly combined. In real life, sex demotes individuality, leaving us only with the usual sorry quiddity of various personal fetishes and taboos. What Mr. Rhodes gives us, in any event, is a cataract of embarrassment."
Poor Rhodes. I'm on his side, for speaking up. We speak so little of sex, and we suffer so much.
Last night's dream:
A man is being flogged by another man, or men. Meanwhile, a second victim is being restrained. His head is tilted back, and I see a bundle of straw at the back of his mouth. This has been shoved down his throat to keep him from crying out. I have no urge to intervene, but I fall to my knees, weeping.
One day early on in my sexual life, a fellow graduate student marveled to hear me say that I was a lousy lay. She'd never, she said, heard a man say that. In the quarter century after my first, accidental masturbation, I made love too frantically and too artlessly. I was so anxious about performance, so careless of pleasure-taking and so ignorant of such fundamentals as those laid down in the Tao of Love and Sex, a book of ancient sexual practices that in chapters with names like "A Thousand Loving Thrusts" counsels that "nine shallow and one deep seems a favored method with nearly all ancient Tao of Loving masters and equally popular with women of all ages." With sex fettered to shame, I didn't enjoy it. I dispensed with it, as one might a household chore.
My first marriage was less carnal than cognitive. It was a brave new match, the two of us independent to a fault. She wanted walks in nature, I wanted society. She wanted spontaneity, I wanted scheduled sex. We did not compromise, and we did not last beyond our 16th year together.
Along the way, my snores drove her to a separate bedroom. Alone, I would flip back the bedcovers and edge toward a laundry basket. Every small creak of the oak floor seemed as loud as a rifle report. Back in bed, a sock in my hand, I summoned friendly images, women known and unknown, picking one or more for sex. I tightened down on my breathing, aware of my wife in a distant room, but then, lost in the imaginary sex, would suddenly panic as I heard my bed frame squeak. I would know my breathing had been too loud and irregular — a giveaway to what was going on at my end of the house — and opened my mouth to make the inhaling and exhaling soundless. At the end of the sex I pitched the spent sock toward the laundry basket.
My sex life has mostly been solo. (Is it this way for most people? I'm immensely curious, but who talks about it? Nobody I know.) My first wife's cautious, respectful efforts to make me a slow-handed lover failed. I repaid those efforts with defensive resistance. And when we made love, I would imagine I was with fantasy women, my masturbation icons. I strained to conjure these women in my visual imagination, and, in so doing, I fell away from the kinesthetic and proprioceptive pleasures of sex — away, that is, from what sex is in essence. In making love to images of women, my body, itself, became an image, a flicker, unreal, absent. All this happened even as I was, in the conventional sense, entirely, technically faithful to my wife.
From the instant my car is carrying me toward pornography, I feel painfully visible, as if everyone who sees me knows from my expression, my body language, whatever, precisely where I'm going.
—Scott MacDonald, in Men Confront Pornography
I don't remember how deep into the marriage I was when I started stashing pornography in the dresser, for moments when the house was empty. I would buy at quick shops, after checking to see whether the clerk was male. I would, rarely, permit myself to buy from a woman; if I had to, it was never from a young and pretty one.
Once the thought of buying a Playboy or Penthouse had formed, it was tenacious as a burr, strong as a drunk's desire for hooch. The activity had two stages, the pre-purchase nervousness and shame and the post-purchase perusal that drowned the shame in those neurotransmitters released, by sex, across the synaptic cleft of nerve cells in the brain. Within the pages waited beautiful women, aching with desire, moist, ready for me now, without foreplay, without effort. (I never framed the absurdity of it in words because, like everyone else, I never spoke of it.) With these women, sex was ripped out of the familiar web of ritual and constraint, decoupled from personality and undiluted by repetition — the used-up images went to the city dump. In this haven were heard no mild complaints about sex enacted too hastily and no stumbling inquiries about the state of her orgasm. And, though I might flip through the magazine quickly to sample several women, I was, for the time I held any one in my gaze, wholly with her – a comforting unity of consciousness, albeit with four-color, two-dimensional women. When I was with one, I was with no other, imagined or real, and did not have to fight the resultant shame. But I did have to fight the reality that I was stealing sexual energy from my marriage, along with the deflation that comes of realizing I was in bed with smut peddlers.
I would periodically re-enact the pornography wars of my youth. I purged by slipping old magazines into a brown paper bag and throwing them into the dumpster of the corner grocery. No trash man was going to know my secrets.
Occasionally, my wife asked how often I masturbated. I mumbled something about once or twice a week, then changed the subject fast. I lied and lied.
What stands out is the humiliation that surrounds pornography: the presumption of the pornographic image that men's prior condition is one of humiliation, the humiliation of men sheepishly eyeing images, the humiliation of desperate women in ridiculous poses, of men hiding their humiliation under a false bravado — and so few men able or willing to acknowledge or talk about it.
—Timothy Benke in Men Confront Pornography
My current relationship, with a beautiful and warm-hearted woman, has led me back to the first tender sexual explorations that had occurred years before in the basement of my teacher's home. We make love slowly, consciously, and I feel more sexual with her than I have with any woman; at times, my spirit and body actually fuse, and I stop being a phantom. My two sexual lives have been partly integrated; she knows about the pornography. I still haven't turned away from it entirely, and this baffles and pains me. My glossy sex objects steal something from me and my wife, some readiness — even rapacity — that I might bring to our bed.
I write all this down because of a psychological workshop I attended, where I decided to talk openly about the pain of my sex life. In abbreviated form, I told the story you've been reading, in a small chapel at a Catholic retreat center outside Tucson, facing a therapist, encircled by seven or eight people, two of them close friends. After I'd finished, the therapist asked me to return, in imagination, to the memory of leafing through my brother's pornography as I lay in the silence of my home. He asked me to stare closely at all the elements in the scene and at the boy. What did I see?
I was there again, in the heavy quiet of that empty house, in that warm harbor of sexual excitement.
He was just trying to have a little pleasure, I thought.
Something hot came up my throat, and I wailed. I had never heard this sound come from me. Each monotonic blow emptied my lungs. And then I'd hear my lungs take in more air. I made that big sound but also was its witness.
I said to the therapist, That boy is lonely.
I cried some more and heard my voice say, But he has dignity. §
After, a woman said, "This was important work for me to be in on." At Christmas, she'd caught her brother, a heavy drinker, sitting in a truck, reading a pornographic magazine. (The brother's wife was in the house.) She'd been angry. Now she understood a little more.
The therapist talked about the anima — C.G. Jung's coinage for the eternal feminine that dwells in every man's soul — and about pornography as purveying some aspects of the anima. He also described a circular temple in India where devotees walk around and around a room lined with pornographic statuary until they achieve orgasm. They return to the temple many times in their lives, eyes traversing the same images. But they reach fulfillment at different stops, and the image that induces orgasm is thought to bear special significance.
Later, he said, "That was brave and incredible work." There were other comments, too, and, after they'd all been spoken, I felt like someone plucked from the drink after a plane crash.
Straight men don't talk about sex. We think they do in the locker room or the office, but they feel very uncomfortable talking about sex.
—Sallie Tisdale, in a New York Times Magazine interview
I think of Martin Amis' excoriation of Richard Rhodes. Have I simply mounted "the usual sorry quiddity of various personal fetishes and taboos"? I think, too, of a friend, a crazy macho guy who says, "Personally, I'm so tired of these people who are constantly unburdening themselves — 'sharing.'" And the therapist at the Arizona session, reading this essay, warned against publishing it, telling the story of a man cast out by his hometown after publishing a book on his addiction to drugs.
Just as withering are the figures inside me with their snickers and comments. One smirks, holding my confessions in contempt, saying, "So now you've decided to be a flasher, too?" Another, more stern, reminds me that a "jerkoff" is a contemptible person. A world-weary type comments that masturbation is simply a natural part of life, so what's the big deal? A gentle father says, "You shouldn't tell these things about yourself, because the other kids will tease you when they find out." Ding-dong-dell/Pussy's in the well.
But keeping these matters secret has fed my sorrow and has kindled a sense of isolation I suspect is illusory. The secrecy gutted my first marriage of intimacy. It has meant living as a hypocrite.
Besides, the machinery of sexual suffering in this country is so vast and well-oiled that I'm furious about it.
I write these words for all the grown-up boys who’ve fretted and grieved in isolation about their sexual inadequacies and addictions. Who were unable, in those first tender years, to defend themselves from all that wrath directed toward Eros, who turned in despair to the fleeting solace of pornography.
I write for all of us who, shamed out of our natural desires, skulked off to our rooms to be alone in our sexuality. We are struggling to find our way back to wholeness, to a unity of body and soul, of sex and spirit, that we can share with those who choose to love us. In our struggles, we ask for your understanding of our wounds and for your forgiveness.
In other words, I write for me and all the lonely boys out there struggling to pass for men.Roger Martin was a professional writer and editor at the University of Kansas for 25 years For the first 15 years, the magazine he founded and published, Explore, received 12 national and 30 regional awards. In 1990, a panel of Newsweek jurors named it one of the nation’s 10 best college/university magazines.
During the last 10 years of his career, ending in 2005, he wrote research commentaries broadcast on Kansas Public Radio. He won two national awards for these, one from Public Radio News Directors Inc. in 2001 in Commentary/Essay competition, when it was one of just six commentaries honored in that category.
Finally, he has had two books published. The first, issued by Watermark Press in Wichita, Kansas, in 1991 involved his co-editing with two other Lawrence residents, David Ohle and Sue Brosseau, tales shared by others living in and around Lawrence. Titled "Cows Are Freaky When They Look at You: An Oral History of the Kaw Valley Hemp Pickers," it documents countercultural life in Lawrence in the late '60s and early '70s.
In 2016, Woodley Press in Topeka, Kansas, published his spiritual memoir, "A Doubter's Guide to God."