I discovered sex in 1955, in a hatbox, in my father’s closet.

What a cache he kept there, beneath the gabardine business suits and woolen overcoats and wide flowering ties, draped like jungle foliage on a smart metal rack, the closet smelling vaguely of him, his cigars, his aftershave, and my mother’s mothballs, although the books crammed into that hatbox had a different smell entirely: funky, spicy, foreign (though written in English, they were published in France), and for years, I imagined sex would smell that way, too.

They were odd little books, crudely printed, as if on a press that hadn’t been cleaned in years, the letters fat and smudged, the photographs grainy. And the prices! I don’t know, when I first discovered them, what astounded me more: what was in them, or the fact that they cost at least ten dollars each. Why, I’d been amassing an enviable science fiction collection for fifty cents a book; it was inconceivable to me that anyone would charge, or my father pay, that much money for something like this.

But there was nothing like this, was there? These stories and pictures puzzled and enchanted me. I studied the photographs the way a botanist might look at a plant he had no idea existed. I mean, it didn’t seem quite real, though the evidence was compelling: all these naked bodies, joined hip to hip, or mouth to crotch, in threesomes, and foursomes, in beds, leaning over chairs — apparently enjoying themselves, though that was suggested more by the text than the often bored and distracted faces — all this hothouse groping and moaning, long-vowelled ahhs and ohhs. Unbelievable. But here it was. People actually did this — at least, they did it for the camera.

I was ten years old, and had just started the sixth grade, and had never been told a thing about sex. This was an era, remember, when “sex” and “education” did not roll off the tongue as if they were one word, but seemed to be at opposite ends of the universe, separated by worlds of ignorance and embarrassment and denial. Like the lens of a telescope, these books let me see (and in such detail!) undreamt planets — though I was still unsure it wasn’t just more science fiction. It took my classmate Eddie Goldman, a few weeks into the new term, to ignite the real rocket of my curiosity and hurl me out of innocence forever, with the casual disclosure, on the P.S. 244 schoolyard, that fucking makes babies.”

Oh the lightning leap my mind took, synapses quivering and bucking, revelation rolling in like a thunderclap: people really did do this; it wasn’t just something they dreamt up in France for my father’s amusement.

I soon discovered that the pleasures the books abundantly described were, after a fashion, available to me, too, if not at the crossroads of male and female (which would have required a bit of social engineering beyond my capacity), than at a different juncture, surely no less steamy, of my hand and my imagination.

For the first time since I was three, I started taking afternoon naps — in my parents’ bedroom. It was, I explained, “quieter’ up there. Of course, I hardly slept at all. I read and re-read; in a lifetime of reading have I ever come across anything so crude and compelling? There was no pretense here of literature, of feathery description, of artful erotica. The only artistry was that of my own touch: the book propped up on the bed so both hands could be free, my fingers making a music all their own. Never mind the hack lyrics; between my legs, the symphony swelled and moaned, lifting me high and higher. Teasing with a soft note. Bringing me down with a groan.

Amazingly, I was never discovered — or maybe it’s not so amazing, as we always learn what we must to survive, and in that household stealth was as necessary as it would be to a hunter, crouching in the woods, or, more to the point, to his prey. When it came to sex, none of us got downwind of each other. But that was true of most things: for all the arguing, the Old World histrionics, the unrelieved emotionalism, there was little real feeling expressed in my family. There were words, and more words, in two languages yet — my father’s parents, who spoke Yiddish, lived with us — but the language of pure emotion, the only language the heart understands, wasn’t spoken. Instead of hurt honestly stated, there was anger; instead of anger, there was envy; instead of doubt, there was debate. And instead of sex, there was secrecy and silence, so I covered my tracks — indeed, I did a better job than my father had — put back the books, wiped off the stains.

Thirty years later, I’m still covering my tracks, but from whom? And why? In a sexually enlightened age, why the secrecy about my longings, as if sex and pornography were the same, and my dirty thoughts were best kept in a closet? Why, after all the marriages and affairs, after all the sex — dry humps and sloppy wet reunions, puppy dog sex and shark sex, pinball sex, saintly sex, psychedelic melt-your-heart sex — why, after all this sex, am I still ashamed about sex? Why, when I look at a woman, does the guilt follow so quickly upon the desire that the two have become nearly indistinguishable? Indeed, after all the women I’ve seen, in the flesh and in photographs, and in the technicolor splendor of my own imagination, why am I looking at all? What am I looking for? And why is the looker always in shadows, stealthy and sad?

 

In the current debate over pornography, I would be an ideal witness for either side.

The civil libertarians could put me on the stand to wave the flag of freedom — and a patriot I am, ready to die for those jewels in the American crown, our first amendment rights. The book burners, on the other hand, could simply take judge and jury on a tour of my ruins, letting the facts speak for themselves, letting my false hungers and false gods betray me: Step closer, your honor. Oh sisters of mercy gather round. Justice, raise your blindfold, and look, if you can, at this sorry desolation — the mind turned into a Hollywood set, its windows taped over with stills: women in every possible pose, in every shade of desire, wanting him, or coyly pretending not to, showing him what he wants to see, or shimmering for a moment in the distance, always out of reach, a mirage. But isn’t it all illusion? Look at him, once a boy who stared in wonder at the stars — who knew before any of his friends the names of all the planets — look at him now trembling with anticipation over the darkened line where panties meet thigh. What does he see there with his tortured eyes? The violence, your honor! Not just to women — oh no — but to this young boy’s soul, his innocence drawn from him as surely as he dreams of his seed being drawn out by one of those fancy French tongues. And now he’s lived his dreams. He’s fully a man. And what licks at him, my judge — my dark judge, my stern judge — is fire. Isn’t he a victim, too?

Victim, oppressor — it’s a razor line between. A new friend, to whom I’d mentioned I was writing about pornography, tells me he buys men’s magazines so he can masturbate while looking at the pictures, but he feels guilty for supporting an industry that exploits women. It’s not trivial to him; he’s waited until everyone else has left the party so we can talk. I tell him that once in a while I buy those magazines, too — sneakily, with an alibi prepared should someone I know see me in the store. We laugh, and I wonder if this is how prisoners laugh, fingering the bars. But we’re the tower guards, too, aren’t we, peering down at the women in the yard, raping with our eyes? It’s a substitute for intimacy, he says. A sorry substitute, I reply. At least it’s safe, he says. Safe, I agree, but less interesting than the real thing. Even when there’s a woman in his life, he says, he buys the magazines. Well, I say, I can understand that — I’m happily married, and sometimes I masturbate, too, but never happily. If I’m not, in my fantasy, exploiting a Penthouse model, or a movie star, or a friend, I’m surely exploiting myself, turning sex once again into porn.

Ah, the guilt. It’s even more relentless than the horniness; like an eager lover, it prods all night at the heart. And what, exactly, am I so guilty about? Is it my desire — or is it my denial of my desire? Or both? One moment, I’ll berate myself for my insatiable sexual appetite. (Having been married, on and off, most of my adult life, I can easily remember all the women with whom I’ve made love, but I’d need a computer with a tireless memory to recall all the other women with whom I’ve wanted to.) The next moment, I’ll malign myself for my mousy heart, for laundering my dirty thoughts with spirituality or fidelity (“sex is wrong except with her”) instead of telling the world what I really worship and what I’m really married to: the pursuit of my own pleasure. But then I feel guilty for describing myself so crudely, and thus distorting my deeper longings, which sex only masks: isn’t that pornographic, too, to titillate myself with a version of Sy barren of soul, as if I were the centerfold — a staple through the navel, the pages of my days sticky with passion’s passionate lies — instead of the one who calls the shots?

I’m being too hard on myself, right? Nearly everyone makes a pornographic movie of the world, objectifying themselves, emphasizing fear instead of love, jerking off into images of comfort or fame or money — or sex. We’re all reading from the same lurid script: the newspapers airbrush reality, then package it in a formula not much different from the men’s magazines; the schools deny the joy in children’s bodies, using desks to tie them down, boredom to torture them; businessmen screw us. I mean, where do we find the high regard for human possibility so notoriously lacking in hard-core pornography? And where do I find the man or woman whose sexual imagination isn’t a little haunted, too? Even some of the gurus do it on the sly. So why this extra burden, this self-loathing, this exponential guilt? Who but me is booing me? And when I speak out, in my own defense, who but me is listening? It’s a one-man show, on an empty stage — words, and more words — an act as lonely as sex with myself. I know the soliloquy as intimately as the woman spread out on the page or in my mind or in my bed — how hard it is to keep them apart! — yet no woman, no matter how hurt by this, has been less forgiving of me than I am of myself.

 

I can’t remember why I looked inside my father’s closet that first time. Maybe my father himself led me there, not consciously, of course, but simply by being who he was. His life led me there, to the dank of him, the jungle where his father had led him and told him to make it on his own, there beneath the leafy canopy that blocked out the light, there on the spongy ground crawling with unnamed fears, there with his big naked body he never loved, his dirty books and his dirty jokes, his domineering mother’s dirty looks. He never made it out of the closet, out of the heat and stink of his mind — but with so much grief in there, he had to leave the door open just a crack. With so much confusion of jungle calls, he had to let out a little cry. Maybe I heard him.

It’s said we’re compelled to live out the unfulfilled dreams (and nightmares) of our parents.In this observation, there’s no blame, but no easy assurance, either. My father, like most men of his generation, dreamt of women’s bodies, not their souls, yet blushed if he talked in his sleep: the women weren’t to know. He feared women, but they weren’t to know that, either. He split himself down the middle: on one side was the responsihle, hard-working family man; on the other was everything wild, and, because it was untrusted, seemingly savage. A deep wound separated the two worlds, and pornography was a balm he rubbed along it. But it gave only temporary relief; nothing ever healed.

Perhaps the only difference between us is that I’ve taken a step out of the closet. Denying my own wound has never gotten me anywhere except into deeper denials, which always creates suffering, exaggerating the very separateness which is at the root of so much of modern life. Shall I say that pornography created my suffering, or that the suffering of the generations before me created the pornography? Can you end suffering by legislating against it? Can you legislate against the past? Can you transcend it? For a while, I tried that, too — making God into a pin-up, just one more unattainable object of desire. These days, I trust the questions my grief leads me to more than the answers I find in books. I trust the impulse to stop pretending that I’m drawn to pornography any more or less than I am.

— Sy