Toronto
3 min

Words give me a boner

Describe skin on skin can turn anyone on

Sometime in early adolescence, my father took me on a business trip to Ottawa. It was supposed to be one of those male-bonding things where my father did business and I stood in awe of the Parliament buildings.

Instead, I sat around the hotel room reading Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. It was a very cheesy novel, but I was enthralled, especially by the scene where the woman with a vagina so large that no man has ever been able to satisfy her meets the guy with a cock so large no woman has ever been able to accommodate him. It was a meeting of titans and, cartoonish or not, it grabbed my adolescent imagination.

Great art is supposed to be above the demands of mere utilitarianism, neither educating nor entertaining. But of course the good stuff does both. I got much of my early sex education from books my teachers didn’t recommend and not just the obvious stuff like how to have washroom sex (Edmund White’s The Beautiful Room Is Empty) or how to jerk off on a public bus (Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint) but also larger, and more unsettling ideas about the ferocity of human desire.

We live in such a visual culture that we tend to forget the virtues of print porn, virtues that are all too easy to overlook. It’s not easy to write well about sex and more people get it wrong than right. The most famous award in print erotica is not, say, the Big Climax, but the Bad Sex Award, given each year to the worst heavy breathing in lit-land.

Even a writer as skilled and uxorious as John Updike can occasionally kill your enthusiasm. In his 1986 novel Roger’s Version, he spent half a page describing an erect prick in such clinical detail that it sounded like some sort of engorged gadget encumbered by Latin names (“the corona glandis, overhanging the bluish stretched semi-epiderm where pagan foreskin once was….”). If he didn’t win the Bad Sex Award that year, he should have.

But when print gets it right, it expands your world. Visual porn is ultimately fascistic. It says turn on or turn away. There is no space for improvisation, the goods are too literally on display. You can take it or leave it, but you can’t alter the scenario for the sexier.

With print porn, on the other hand, there’s a lot of room to roam, imaginatively speaking, and you often find yourself in strange and distant lands. I consider myself a Kinsey six but reading print I’m an honorary straight or dyke. A few years back, I read Jane DeLynn’s Don Juan In The Village and was shocked to discover that an all-lesbian sex tour could be not just readable but arousing. I’m still not sure why exactly, except that the mind is its own place, as the poet once said, and given even the slightest of erotic cues, it will go its own way. Show people a picture of naked bodies coupling and they or may not find it appealing. Talk to them about skin touching skin and they can imagine what they like.

The famous hillbilly rape scene in the film version of Deliverance is a nasty piece of work; the original in the novel is something else entirely, at least in terms of its impact. Much as I hate to admit it, I found it a bit of a turn-on.

That’s what I like best about print porn, the uncertainty. You’re never quite sure what you’re reacting to, the scene on the page or the one in your head. Are you a dark deviant or merely a clever mental editor, finding your turn-ons where you may? With print porn, after all, it’s possible to edit out the disagreeable aspects and read-in your own pleasures.

One the funniest black comedies of all time is Gore Vidal’s 1968 masterpiece Myra Breckinridge and the key scene therein is chapter 29, where Myra seduces and humiliates the epitome of American manhood, a hunky but dim-witted country boy named Rusty. Over the course of 32 perfectly poised pages, Myra strips, dominates and violates her victim, all while playing doctor.

The scene is, by all objective standards, a violent rape and tender souls may be forgiven if they avert their eyes from the final pages wherein Myra, the avenging angel of American womanhood, ascends into the realm of myth with the aid of a 12-inch dildo. But it’s also very funny, the reader’s pleasure perpetually postponed by a series of sly jokes.

I haven’t seen and don’t want to see this epic battle of the sexes played out on the silver screen. The 1970 movie starring Raquel Welch is reportedly so bad I’m saving it for my old age. But my faded paperback copy still works for me. Don’t ask why. I certainly don’t intend to.