The P Word

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A year ago, I never would have characterized myself as a prude. Timid? Perhaps. An amateur at seduction? Possibly. A failure at procuring a stable of men? Definitely. But a prude I was not. I mean, I’d had sex — a lot of it. I liked sex. I liked talking about it. “Prude” was one of the last adjectives I’d have applied to myself. Then I started working at Nerve.
   There were the usual adjustments you face at any job: the logistics (do I need to dial nine before sending a fax?), the names (did he say Keith or Chris?), and the interoffice terminology (is “coprophagy” the consumption of feces or the mere worship of it?). But almost immediately, I was confronted by something completely new: the sexual anomie of my younger co-workers.


   At twenty-three, Carrie, the assistant editor, wrote about her sexuality with inexplicable ease and candor. She was “fifteen percent gay,” she liked to note, and the proud owner of one of the healthiest libidos in the tri-state area. She didn’t flinch when describing a night of girl-on-girl-on-guy action for a mass audience. Likewise, Sarah, the twenty-two year old intern, was writing a personal essay about auditioning for an escort service. While editing her piece, I learned that she had already been paid for sex (once), had engaged in a threesome and considered herself bisexual.

My life had turned into a bad sitcom plot: sexually repressed twenty-eight-year-old works at a sex magazine.

   What exactly was left for her to try I could only imagine, but I envied her and Carrie’s way of thinking. They were only half a decade younger than me but seemed to come from an entirely different generation. These girls rejected the term “slut” because, for them, it wasn’t a real expression. They didn’t seem to harbor any shame about who or how many people they’d slept with, or the things they had or hadn’t tried in bed. And, most notably, they seemed capable of separating physical pleasure from emotional angst. For them, the former (sex) didn’t necessarily precipitate the latter (meltdown).
   I, on the other hand, had recently placed myself in a timeout corner of sorts. In the past couple of years, at least three men had called my attention to what they deemed a sociopathic quirk: more often than not, I fucked with my eyes shut. Then came Jack, my shit boyfriend of eight months. With him, I kept my eyes wide open — think Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. When, after the breakup, my altruistic rebound guided me into his bedroom and asked me what I liked, I responded honestly: “I don’t know.”
   After that, I couldn’t be in the same room with a man and a bed without bursting into tears. I didn’t want a relationship. I didn’t want casual sex. And I didn’t ever want to be asked that question again. So, I embarked on an indefinite sexual hiatus and began working at Nerve.
   My life had turned into a bad sitcom plot: sexually repressed twenty-eight year old works at a sex magazine.

Technically — if one can get technical about these things, like it’s topography or bowling scores — I’m not a prude. I can’t count the number of people I’ve slept with on one hand. I’ve long since checked “one-night-stand” off my list of things to do before I die. I can register a Czech opera house and the Andaman Sea on the list of historic places I’ve had sex. And I’ve fooled around and/or slept with most of your basic monosyllables: Jim, Chad, John, Tim, Mike, Bill, Chris.
   But aside from the occasional slap on the ass, the sex has been basic, even if the locales were not. I would definitely not fare well in a game of “I never,” especially with certain younger members of the Nerve staff. Unless, of course, the rules were reversed and you were given points for things you’d never tried.

When I was seventeen, I nearly broke up with my first boyfriend after a night of intense dry humping. As faded denim rubbed against faded denim, his eighteen-year-old erection pressed against my zipper with enough force that it would leave a mark for days. While my fingers deliberated over the inch of exposed skin between his jeans and shirt, his slightly more experienced hands landed on my inner thigh. Then I came. Just like that.
   And I leapt off the bed and locked myself in the bathroom for the rest of the night, convinced my bladder had involuntarily exploded.
   The next day, crouching between two Chevys in my high school parking lot, I relayed the incident to my best friend, Liz. “Oh, honey,” she said in her saccharine south-Texas drawl, “you didn’t pee yourself. You just like him, that’s all. It’s normal.” Liz knew a lot more about sex than I did. She was from a small town where there wasn’t much else to do besides drink wine coolers in the woods and fornicate with people your daddy didn’t approve of.
   Fast-forward through eleven years (and quite a few sex partners), and I was still a little awkward when it came to sex. But instead of being ashamed of my body and its untimely functions, I was ashamed of my residual shame. Carrie and Sarah were from big cities and younger than me, but they were far more comfortable with their sexuality. I was reminded of this every time I edited their work, sat with them at an editorial meeting, or watched a replay of their previous evening in digital video on someone’s computer screen.
   Maybe their I-should-try-anything-and-everything-because-sex-is-not-only-ridiculously-fun-but-also-an-integral-part-of-who-I-am attitude was indicative of child-rearing techniques that didn’t become popular until the ’80s. Perhaps Dr. Spock’s parenting guides (“Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”) had lost their clout. Or maybe there was a progressive shift in sex education. Those girls were still in junior high when Clinton was first elected. But most of my peers were equally experimental. As much as I would have liked to blame the Republican Party for my sexual shortcomings, I couldn’t.

I became the office prig, crumpling in my seat while editing a story about lesbian fisting.

   I grew up in a household that didn’t talk about sex. My parents, who spent twenty-five years heading for divorce, were presumably not having it much. Or maybe they assumed their daughters would talk about it amongst themselves, which we didn’t. When I was a few weeks shy of eighteen, my mother found out I was having sex from a Tarot card reader. We went together as a post-divorce, mother-and-daughter bonding experience; as we sat side-by-side, staring down at images of fools and magicians, high priestesses and lovers, the reader looked at me and said, “Ten cuidado con su novio! NO WANT BABIES NOW!” My mother and I never discussed the incident. Instead, Liz made an appointment for me with her gynecologist, who immediately put me on the pill.
   I have no excuses. Plenty of people have gotten over a lot worse than Tarot turmoil and parents who didn’t talk to them about sex. Still, I carried sexual shame with me well into adulthood.

When it comes to sex, there is the shame of ignorance (innocence, if you’re a Blake fan) and the shame of experience. Shameful ignorance is not simply virginal naïveté. It is the weighted burden of knowing there are new things to try, but not knowing exactly what those things are. It’s wanting to try specific toys, games, or positions, but not knowing how to do so. It is feeling embarrassed and uncreative, and it can exacerbate or be exacerbated by shameful experience, also known as bad sex. Bad sex, the definition of which is immense — I didn’t come, he came too fast, he seemed bored, I was bored, he left as soon as it was over, I cried, he looked like he was about to, etc. — can aggravate old shame and lead to additional preoccupations that require concealment from friends and future lovers. And although you can recount your tales of intimacy-gone-wrong casually in the name of mental health or a good story, the physical and emotional ramifications will almost always come back to bite you in the ass.
   Yet there are some people who aren’t burdened by either type of shame. For them, either sex is great or the person they’re with is doing something wrong. They seem to have been born with an immediate understanding and appreciation of the way their bodies work. They seem to move differently then the rest of us. Maybe it’s because they get laid more. Maybe it’s a confidence-induced swagger. Either way, they’re magnetic — they possess information I need — and repellent — they know something I could never possibly understand.

A few years ago, my relationship to Nerve was very much like my relationship to The New York Times Book Review. I’d get the Review every Sunday and want to read it, but few things filled me with more self-loathing than reading about a book whose author I’d never heard of. I’d become an avid reader, just as I’d learned aboutsex, relatively late in life. And because there’s never enough time to play catch-up, at a certain point, the attempt seems futile. So I read Nerve as I read the Book Review, with teeth gritted and a bottle of wine within arm’s reach.
   When I was offered a job, I took it, figuring one of two things would happen: my self-imposed celibacy would be apparent as soon as I walked through the door, and my title would change from editor to pariah in all of two seconds. Or, by walking though that same door, I’d be granted all of the sexual acumen I’d wanted to possess. It would be waiting for me, on my desk, along with sex toys and a box of prophylactics.
   Neither was the case. My abstinence went undiscovered (although the photo editor did think I was married) and the editorial glossary of all things sex was nowhere to be found. Instead, I became the office prig, blushing during a group screening of the Paris Hilton video, crumpling in my seat at 10 a.m. while editing a story about lesbian fisting (I still believe that no one should have to edit an excerpt about fisting before noon) and giggling like a Tourettic child when, one morning, the editor-in-chief announced:
   “We’ve got new people in here, so we’re taking a poll! Who thinks the word pussy is offensive?”
   I didn’t have a problem with it, but I couldn’t say it without blushing.

I’d never dressed up as a sultry superhero or had sex with more than one person at one time.

   Then came the out-of-the-blue emails from former colleagues, former crushes and former acquaintances — all of them male. “Wow! I can’t believe you’re working at Nerve. We should grab a drink and catch up.” They assumed I had become a sexual expert by osmosis. But I’d never been blindfolded or beaten, dressed up as a sultry superhero or had sex with more than one person at one time. Hell, I’d never even kissed another girl. I felt inadequate and doomed to disappoint.
   Meanwhile, my female friends were thrilled. That one of us could land a job reading and writing about sex restored their faith in a just world. Most of us were single and in our late twenties, so we spent a good eighty percent of our time thinking and talking about sex. It seemed only fair that we should be able to profit from our preoccupation. Unfortunately, out of all of us, I was having the least — and least interesting — sex. While one friend playfully recounted a lunchtime “monkey fuck” with a married man in a bathroom at the Four Seasons, and another recalled a Valentine’s Day tryst involving a digital camera and panty removal, a third friend was lamenting the loss of one of the guys in her stable, a young Norwegian. (He was getting too attached, so she had to put him down.) “Sometimes it’s good to downsize,” the others assured her.
   But I wanted an excess of horses so grand I could discard one and still have half a dozen left from which to choose. I wanted to have tales of dirty monkey sex — whatever that was — to offer the group. Instead, tales of my sporadic exploits were generally so short and uneventful that they bored even me.

To put it simply, I was jealous — of my friends’ sex lives and those of my new colleagues and the writers whose work I was editing. But it wasn’t necessarily their experiences that I coveted so much as their imagined experiences. Or least the way I imagined them to be: exotic, enigmatic, unattainable.
   Then the unexpected happened. While reading and editing stories for work — about threesomes, foursomes, blindfolds and blind orgies — and mentally preparing myself for a long slide down a complex called inferiority, the experiences I’d imagined and envied started to become less exotic and unattainable. The discrepancy between my sex life and the average Nerve writer’s was vexing. However, it was becoming increasingly clear that much of what Nerve publishes seems sensational not because plain vanilla sex is passé or undesirable, but because part of what we aim to do is say what is often unsaid — whether it’s politically correct or not, relatable or not so much.
   The list of things I wanted to try did grow substantially during my first few months at work, but I’d also started a new roster as a result of my new job. It was a list of all the things I never wanted, needed, or intended to try in bed. And not only was it growing a lot faster than the “must try before I die” list, its existence assuaged my insecurities. The more I read about and discussed formerly shameful topics, the more diffused they became.

There’s something absurdly fun about being my kind of prude. It’s sort of like being bipolar.

    Seven months later, I no longer turn red in the face every time someone says “pussy.” My therapist says, with not-so-subtle hints of disapproval on her face, that I’ve become “immune” to such language, but I view the transformation as a triumph. And just as my sexual vocabulary phobia came to an end, so did my sexual nuclear winter. (He made a “Seduce Tobin” CD and built a flower box for me, how could I say no?)
   I’m still stumped when he asks me what I like. I continue to bite my lower lip and hide my face under the pillow at my lack of self-awareness. But I’ve found there’s something absurdly fun about being my kind of prude. It’s sort of like being bipolar. The small defeats — he asked me what I like and I don’t know what to tell him or fuck, I’m wearing cotton panties with an iron-on cat across the ass — feel devastating enough to a warrant a chastity belt. But the small victories — finding out that he actually finds the cat on my ass endearing or feeling comfortable enough one night to offer him a whispered hint of what works for me — are euphoric reminders that I’m not doomed to life of sexual frustration or conceptual frigidity. And, now — eight months into what my friends call “the best job ever,” my father considers mildly horrifying, and I just call the toughest thing I’ve ever done — I certainly know my options.  

Tobin Levy has worked at Nerve, Talk
magazine, Contents and a book-scouting firm that made her an expert
on post traumatic stress disorder. Her writing has appeared in Men’s Health,
, Time
Out New
and Teen People.

here to read other features from the Shame issue!

©2004 Tobin Levy and Nerve.com