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Remembering libidinous literature

Lots of readers are like dogs: into sniffing out the dirty parts. I know I am. I've enjoyed plenty of steamy writing over the years. But a special place in my heart will always belong to the book that gave me my first thrill between the covers. I was a 14-year-old high school freshman, and it was a purloined paperback edition of The Sensuous Man, hidden in a drawer behind my headboard. The volume was thin on character and plot but a treasure trove of useful instructions. Including, for example, certain exercises involving tongues and grapes -- guaranteed to make a guy a better bedmate.

I was curious about others' early experiences with written erotica, so I emailed an address-book-full of friends, relatives and casual acquaintances. I asked if they'd be willing to confide, anonymously, their memories of literary lust. A remarkable number was. What's more, some enthusiastic respondents couldn't seem to stop adding to their answers. Others divulged details about the smut their spouses and children scanned. I even received one unsolicited, face-to-face reply from a total stranger. I was standing in line at the circulation desk at the Fletcher Free Library, an armload of titillating titles piled up to my chin, when a white-haired woman beside me eyeballed my selection and commented, "You're going to be busy."

"I sure am," I replied happily, adding, "and what do all these books have in common?"

"Sex," she answered, not missing a beat. Then she went on to offer, "Mine was Lady Chatterley's Lover, a censored copy -- that tells you how old I am."

Reading for arousal is hardly new. In 1740s Northampton, Massachusetts, the fiery theologian Jonathan Edwards was so outraged about young church members snickering over suggestive books on popular medicine and midwifery that he called a special town meeting. His puritanical prosecution cost him his pulpit.

A century-and-a-half later, in the long-banned My Secret Life: The Sex Diary of a Victorian Gentleman, Henry Spencer Ashbee revealed, among other things, his adolescent literary licentiousness.

Before I had seen anyone frig, I had been permitted to read novels… My father used to select them for me at first, but soon left me to myself, and, now he was dead, I devoured what books I liked, hunting for the love passages, thinking of the beauty of the women, reading over and over again the description of their charms, and envying their lovers' meetings…

The hornier-than-thou anti-hero of Portnoy's Complaint doesn't need novels to stir his sensuous imagination. Under the heading "Wacking Off," Alex Portnoy riffs:

"Oh shove it in me, Big Boy," cried the cored apple that I banged silly on that picnic. "Big Boy, Big Boy, oh give me all you've got," begged the empty milk bottle that I kept hidden in our storage bin in the basement, to drive wild after school with my vaselined upright. "Come, Big Boy, come," screamed the maddened piece of liver that, in my own insanity, I bought one afternoon at a butcher shop and, believe it or not, violated behind a billboard on the way to a bar mitzvah lesson.

Philip Roth's controversial comedy loomed large in lots of fortysomethings' memories. If these readers followed the narrator's masturbatory model, they weren't telling.

Then again, I didn't ask. What I wanted was titles, and those came in aplenty -- occasionally slathered with enthusiastic expletives. Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique was "a revelation!!!!" gushed one 79-year-old grandmother who remembers reading it at 13. Dutch gynecologist Theodor Van de Velde's forward-looking 1928 manual suggests various "possible positions," including the "genital kiss."

A generation or so later, another young teen "was quite fond of" Hawaii, by James Michener. "There was a lovely section about a surfing instructor whose hands roamed under the bathing suits of his female clients during the surfing lessons, and afterwards in their hotel rooms," this respondent divulged. "Great stuff for a 13-year-old in 1961. Please do make this anonymous, though!"

Another man lamented, "Burlington in the '60s was still more like the late '50s. All I remember is that the copy of Catcher in the Rye at Fletcher Free had every ‘dirty' word underlined in heavy pencil. In case you missed that, there were bold exclamation marks in the margin. Really choice words got multiple exclamation marks and one to five stars. You could see the poor bugger's excitement building. Pathetic. This hard-used volume fell open to Holden's misadventure with the seedy pimp, ‘old crumby Maurice,' which was stained."

This same guy observed, "Sex education at Edmunds Junior High consisted of a movie like a driver's ed scare documentary that insisted you'd get pregnant and syphilis if you do it even once. Mostly we gleaned tidbits from R-rated movies, the National Lampoon, and what Frank Zappa called ‘that tacky little pamphlet in your daddy's bottom drawer.' It was a meager time."

Unless you knew where to look. Other adolescents of that era were enjoying the underwear ads in the Sears catalogue, or getting hot and bothered over their parents' copies of The Naked Ape. What zoologist Desmond Morris' "scientific" study of the human animal lacks in passion, it makes up for with specifics.

Copulation starts with the insertion of the male's penis into the female's vagina. This is most commonly performed with the couple face-to-face, the male over the female, both in a horizontal position, with the female's legs apart. There are many variations of this position, as we shall be discussing later, but this is the simplest and most typical one. The male then begins a series of rhythmic pelvic thrusts. These can vary considerably in strength and speed, but in an uninhibited situation they are rather rapid and deeply penetrating.

One enterprising fellow uncovered some choice verbiage in William Styron's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Heavy breasted, full-bellied, she stood naked before me in my mind's eye, thrusting at me her glossy brown midriff with its softly rounding belly-bulge and its nest of black hair. Try as I might I could not banish her, keep her away; my Bible availed me nothing. Does you want a l'il bit ob honeycomb, sweet pussy bee? She crooned to me with those words she had wheedled others, and as she ground her hips in my face, with delicate brown fingers stroking the pink lips of her sex, my own stiffened. In hot fancy my arms went out to encircle her slick haunch and ripe behind, my mouth was buried in her wet crotch, and godless mad words struggled on my tongue: Lap. Lick. Suck.

Seek and ye shall find. A woman now in her early forties described what she called a "very postmodern dirty-book-reading experience: thumbing through my mother's copy of Sexual Politics. I started reading Kate Millet's theory, but quickly became distracted by her quotations from Henry Miller, from Tropic of Cancer or Capricorn or whatever the hell he wrote. Millet would alternate between psychoanalyzing Miller's warped, misogynist perspective, and giving examples to support her argument -- and it was these really dirty quotations that were so riveting."

Less esoteric but equally arousing stuff turned up in the popular fiction of the 1960s and '70s. That may have been the golden age of dirty books, a time when reading about sex still shocked and lots of sexy books were being published. "Valley of the Dolls is that one that sticks out in my mind," one informant wrote. "I think I got it from a friend and I definitely kept it hidden under my bed while I was reading it. I don't remember the specific scenes or pages, just lots of foreplay descriptions that were definitely ‘steamy' for me at the time."

The Godfather showed up on several lists.

She felt something burning pass between her thighs. She let her right hand drop from his neck and reached down to guide him. Her hand closed around an enormous, blood-gorged pole of muscle. It pulsated in her hand like an animal and, almost weeping with grateful ecstasy she pointed it into her own wet, turgid flesh. The thrust of its entering, the unbelievable pleasure made her gasp, brought her legs up almost around his neck, and then like a quiver, her body received the savage arrows of his lightning-like thrusts; innumerable, torturing; arching her pelvis higher and higher until for the first time in her life she reached a shattering climax, felt his hardness break and then the crawly flood of semen over her thighs.

That's from the wedding scene, which was specifically referenced by everyone who mentioned Mario Puzo's best-seller. Fans of Sonny Corleone's muscular member also offered the actual page number on which it makes its tumescent appearance. But even if they hadn't, the essential scene would have been easy to find: The spine of the library's copy breaks exactly there. In fact, lots of the licentious literature I brought home from the library opened automatically to the good parts, the biblio-equivalent of a come-hither look.

This wouldn't surprise one correspondent who made good use of his position as a high school library page. "I learned that you could very easily find the dirty passages in a book by just letting it fall open naturally. Nine times out of 10, there they were. Presumably, those were the most read parts, or at least, the parts where people were most tightly gripping the cover."

Another perk: access to Anaïs Nin's Little Birds. My friend called that collection of 1930s erotica "one long dirty part to my teen sensibility." His assessment is right on. "The Woman On the Dunes," for example, includes this passage, narrated from a man's point of view, but clearly written by a woman.

He was sitting like a Buddha. She leaned over and took his small wilted penis in her mouth. She licked it softly, tenderly, lingering over the tip of it. It stirred.

He looked down at the sight of her wide red mouth so beautifully curved around his penis. With one hand she touched his balls, with the other she moved the head of the penis, enclosing it and pulling it gently.

Then, sitting against him, she took it and directed it between her legs. She rubbed the penis gently against her clitoris, over and over again.

"I think I took that one home from the library without checking it out," my friend admitted.

For many, the adventure of acquiring those first dirty books is a story in itself. "There were two books," a 40-year-old man reported, "unobtrusively displayed in the home of someone for whom babysitting services were performed… Flipping to the good parts helped while away the hours after the kids went to sleep. As I grew beyond the sitting age, the location of the books were passed along to my successor, and presumably beyond."

All that sneaking around still weighs on some consciences. A woman now expecting her first child remembered "scouring the few Anne Rice novels my mom had for some of the homoerotic scenes." She begged, "Please reassure me that you're not putting my name with this. I'm not sure that I'm ready for my father to know that about me."

But, like most people who came of age in the '80s, she didn't need to resort to her parents' bookshelves. All she had to do was go to the Judy Blume section of her local library's children's department. "I'm sure you'll get this answer from lots of gals," my informant commented, "but Forever by Judy Blume was the classic for my generation… I just remember that one of the male characters called his penis ‘Ralph.'" She's not the only one. The young adult novel about first love -- and the "character" of Ralph the penis -- was mentioned more than any other book.

We got into his bed and fell asleep for an hour and when we woke up Ralph was hard again. This time Michael made it last much, much longer and I got so carried away I grabbed his backside with both hands, trying to push him deeper and deeper into me -- and I spread my legs as far apart as I could -- and I raised my hips off the bed -- and I moved with him, again and again and again -- and at last, I came. I came right before Michael and as I did I made noises, just like my mother.

Forever is Blume's most sophisticated kids' book, but it's not the only one that persists in readers' memories.

"When I was a preteen I liked to read Tales of a Tenth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume," another thirtysomething woman recalled, "because the teenage boy in that book tells about getting an erection in algebra class and using his textbook to hide it. I found that fascinating because he had a penis and I didn't, and because then I thought, ‘Hmm… are the boys in my algebra class doing the same thing?'"

Other preteens of that era mentioned Blume's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, in which Margaret starts menstruating, and Then Again Maybe I Won't, in which a boy has a wet dream. They talked about these titles secretly being passed from kid to kid or hidden in a designated desk, their choicest passages highlighted.

More than 30 years after Blume revolutionized children's literature by writing about topics kids really want to read, her novels retain their appeal. When I staggered up to the library's circulation desk with my selection of smut, the clerk noted, "You're missing Forever."

"That's because it's missing," I explained. "I looked. It's not on the shelf."

"Never is," she acknowledged. "That's why we keep one in the office." Stepping away from the desk, she fetched me the librarians' copy. Although they've slipped out of the Fletcher's system, the missing copies of Forever are likely circulating very well, enlightening some underground network of enthusiastic readers.

What other books are kids getting their jollies from today? One high school student admitted to finding The Sophie Horowitz Story (no relation to me) among his mother's novels and showing his friends selected pages. He'd even memorized one sentence from a scene in which two women find themselves alone in the curtained-off female section of a synagogue.

As she pressed her body closer to mine, I felt her relax and I reached into her body, sliding over her asshole, vagina and slithery clitoris with first one finger, then two, then three.

But most of the under-30 crowd I queried responded with blank stares. "Dirty books?" they asked. "You mean magazines? Videos? I could show you some websites." When finding the "good" parts is so easy, why bother wading through books? Because, as with actual sex, getting there can be half the fun.

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