“To Be a Sexual Son” was supposed to be included in an anthology of essays about men’s relationships with their mothers. When the publisher insisted that this essay — as well as another dealing with the erotic bond between mother and son — be removed, the editor refused, and the book was never published. This is the first time the essay has appeared in print.
I was ten years old when my mother found the sexy letter that André and I had written to Celine. André was my best friend; Celine was his sister. She was fourteen, impossibly older than me, and the object of everything I could feel at the time in the way of sexual desire. My mother says I was in such a state about Celine that I once burst into anguished tears over my unrequited infatuation with her.
Celine was tall, French, and sophisticated, the incarnation of female sexual power and mystery. She smoked cigarettes, tossed her hair, and went out with boys even older than she was — boys she talked about in a way that I could feel throughout my body. Just being in Celine’s presence was a sexual experience for me. I knew that boys lusted after her, and that she liked being wanted in that way. My own feelings for her were less defined, but strong enough for me to experience an erotic charge whenever Celine would laugh and talk about flirting with boys, her eyes sparkling with that special gleam.
I had a dartboard in my room, and Celine liked to play darts. She was terrible at it, though, missing the board half the time and putting holes in the wall, which upset my mother. One day, I told Celine that if she missed the dartboard again she would have to let me feel her up. With a laugh, she agreed. She promptly missed, and there I was, poised on the brink of a rite of passage. With a combination of fear and excitement, I reached out and touched her breast, tentatively — reverently, even — through her blouse, through her bra.
“Not like that!” she chided playfully. “You have to push me up against the wall and squeeze me hard.” She backed up, and I leaned into her, trying to be like the older boys, the ones who knew how to “take” a woman.
I don’t remember what she felt like, only the pregnant expectation before touching her, and afterward thinking that I’d done it wrong, feeling sheepish about my clumsiness. Even so, the whole experience was unbearably exciting.
It was shortly after the dartboard incident that André and I wrote the letter my mother discovered. We had invented a fantasy involving some kind of three-way rendezvous among Celine, André, and me, which we proposed to Celine in the letter. I remember we wrote something about how Celine would, of course, be “appropriately dressed.” We never dreamed of actually sending the letter; just typing it was almost more intense than we could handle.
And then, for some unconscious reason or none, I made the mistake of leaving the letter where my mother could find it.
From down the hall, I heard my mother’s voice, careful and concerned: “David, I think I just found something I wasn’t supposed to see.” She came into my room carrying the letter. I did my best to conceal my embarrassment, and to convince her that it was just a joke. “But, David,” she stressed several times, “Celine is André’s sister!”
What did she mean? Was it wrong for André to have a fantasy about his sister? Or for me to have the fantasy with him? Or for me to have a fantasy about his sister at all? These subtleties were beyond me, as I was overcome by a tidal wave of humiliation. I had been caught in the act of being sexual — and, even worse, being sexual in a way that upset my mother.
From that day forward, I would have to choose between pleasing my mother and pleasing myself, between making sense to her and making sense to myself. It was the beginning for me of the split between what was socially acceptable and what I felt in my body, the split between my public and private sexual personae.
It was the birth in me of sexual shame.
I’m fortunate to have been raised in a household that was decidedly progressive — sexually as well as politically. My parents were Jewish Marxist humanists who had no interest in religious or antisexual moralism. I was taught that sex was natural and good, for both women and men — but definitely private. My mother believed strongly that sex belonged entirely in the bedroom. Although my parents were both highly sexual people, I never saw them so much as give each other a passionate kiss. So this thing that was so natural and good also remained very much a mystery to me.
As a child, I loved watching my mother get dressed up to go out to dinner or the theater or a party. Most of all, I liked watching her perform the elaborate ritual of putting on her makeup. I was fascinated by this definitely and intriguingly female process, which transformed my mother from an ordinary person into . . . what? Though I couldn’t have put it this way at the time, it sexualized her.
I would hover at her dressing table and watch her curl her eyelashes with a curious, curved tool, and meticulously apply mascara to them with a special brush. I would watch her tweeze and darken her thin eyebrows, spread rouge on her cheeks, and carefully blot her lipstick. And last was the tiny atomizer that misted the air with her exotic perfume, Shalimar.
Freud was wrong. The young boy does not want to displace or kill his father in order to have sex with his mother. Rather, he wants to have his own primary, prepubescent, erotic connection with his mother, expressed in ways like this — magical, mystical ways that are as exclusive to the mother-son relationship as sexual intercourse is to the marital bond.
When I was eleven, my mother took me to a psychologist to have my IQ tested, to see if I qualified for a “gifted” program in school. I scored well on the test, well enough that both the psychologist and my mother exulted over how intelligent I was.
Afterward, I was feeling proud, playful, and no doubt cocky. As my mother and I walked down the street, I reached up and snapped her bra strap against her back, through her blouse.
“David!” she said, shocked.
“What?” I asked, confused.
“That’s not something you do to your mother!”
The thought had never occurred to me.
According to poet and essayist Robert Bly, sons and mothers conspire to denigrate fathers, making fun of their foibles and shortcomings. I think there is another dimension to this mother-son conspiracy. Sons, acutely sensitive to the ways their fathers disappoint their mothers, seize these occasions as opportunities to give their mothers what their fathers can’t or won’t. And mothers, lonely for intimacy and attention, unconsciously turn to their sons for the closeness they desire. This was especially true for the sons and mothers of my generation — with fathers off working much of the time and mothers restricted to house and family.
I realize now that, as a boy, I worked hard to give my mother what she wanted but could not get from my father. I didn’t set out to “displace” my father in classic Oedipal fashion, but I did build a powerful emotional bond with my mother based on my father’s failure to fulfill her longings. In my case, it went something like this: He doesn’t understand the depth of your feelings, but I do. He doesn’t share your antimaterialist values, but I do. He is not a romantic like you, but I am. He is shallow; we are deep. He is practical; we are transcendental. He doesn’t understand what really matters in life; we do.
Later, I came to see how distorted this view of my father was, how it ignored his many important gifts and qualities. But as a child I paid close (if unconscious) attention to my father’s limitations, as defined by my mother, and used these limitations as best I could to build intimacy with her.
When I was sixteen, my family went into a crisis. My father, who had been having an affair, moved into an apartment of his own for several months while he decided whether to leave my mother. She was distraught. Again and again, I witnessed my ordinarily composed mother screaming and crying, either alone or while talking to my father on the telephone. She began drinking heavily.
One night, I came home to find her passed out naked, half hanging off her bed. I had never seen my mother naked before, and this was a particularly jagged vision — the twist of her body, the way her head and arm dangled toward the floor. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to lift her into bed to make her more comfortable (and also to rectify the disturbing picture), but if I did, she might realize in the morning that I had seen her naked, which would mortify her. I decided to leave her the way she was, and went uneasily to sleep.
My domestic world was crumbling under my feet. I was in a state of complete confusion and terror.
Although my father ultimately decided to come back, the experience of almost having lost him so frightened my mother that she resolved to become, in many ways, the wife he had always wanted her to be. We moved from a modest garden apartment in Queens to a lavish co-op on Manhattan’s fashionable East Side, with a sweeping view of the mayor’s mansion, the East River, and Long Island. My mother made a project of elaborately decorating the new place, spending exorbitant amounts of money (to punish my dad, she announced), and overall adopted the flamboyant style of life that meant so much to him then.
I felt abandoned. My mother had turned her back on the deep, important, soulful things in life and embraced the bourgeois superficiality she had always taught me to hate and reject. My special bond with my mother — the one my father could not possibly share — was shattered. On top of this, for many years thereafter my parents’ relationship was consumed by bitterness and guilt, leaving little room for them to relate to me on any more than a superficial level. At the dinner table, I could barely look up from my plate.
Over time, in place of our lost philosophical bond, I managed to construct another exclusive connection with my mother, this time around our shared interest in intellectual matters, especially the intricacies of psychology and human behavior. On my visits home from college, my mother and I would delight in long conversations that largely excluded my dad. I get a chill now, thinking how this must have made him feel.
In the late sixties and early seventies, after college and a year of graduate school, I became a full-time political activist working for civil rights and social change on a subsistence salary. I critically examined every established social institution: marriage, property, materialism, gender roles. My mom was embracing the American beast just as I was identifying it as the root of all the world’s misery. Power, money, and security (my dad) had won my mother away from warmth, passion, and adventure (me). I was angry and unforgiving. My parents were as critical of my lifestyle as I was of theirs. At one point I was ready never to see them again, and I told them so.
(Ten years later, my mother and I would argue about who abandoned whom during this time.)
In January 1969, my wife and I moved to San Francisco. I was twenty-four and she was twenty-three. We had been married just over a year, and went west to immerse ourselves in the great cultural upheaval that followed on the heels of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement and the Summer of Love. We had decided that radical political change was impossible without first challenging racism, sexism, materialism, and sexual repression.
Another newlywed couple came with us, and together we defined ourselves as one family, sharing a flat five blocks from the corner of Haight and Ashbury. We pooled our earnings and savings, made a commitment to raise our children in common, and jointly founded The Learning Place, San Francisco’s first alternative junior high school. We passionately questioned every cultural assumption we could identify; for us, being radical meant, among other things, addressing the elements of day-to-day life in radical ways. The personal, we believed, was inevitably political. It was within this context that we rejected sexual conventions like monogamy and heterosexuality, which seemed as wrongheaded as insisting that all women limit themselves to being dedicated wives and mothers, and men to being emotionless breadwinners. (Sexual exploration in practice, rather than in theory, came later.)
A year and a half after we moved to California, our intentional family dissolved, in part over my reluctance to become sexually involved with the other man. My wife and I had a son and moved to a rural community in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where we lived quite happily on very little money, raising goats, chickens, and vegetables.
The line between privacy and secrecy, between discretion and shame, is a thin one, and the emotional price we pay for keeping our sexual “deviations” to ourselves is much greater than we tend to believe.
I discovered sex as a profound, life-altering dimension of existence at just about the same time I discovered the profound, life-altering perspective offered by LSD. I made this discovery with a woman other than my wife, and its repercussions — even within the context of our open marriage — were a major factor in my wife and I eventually separating. Several years later, while involved in another nonmonogamous relationship, I discovered the surprising possibilities of intimacy with strangers at group-sex parties, and had a few tentative, generally uninspired sexual encounters with other men.
I also published my first article about sex, a piece called “Men and Pornography.” In it, I tried to examine nonjudgmentally why so many men found pornography compelling. I was both nervous and excited about putting my sexual thinking in the public eye. To my delight, the article was generally well received (although Santa Cruz’s leading antiporn activist branded me the “local pervert”). I was soon leading workshops on “Eroticism, Pornography, and Sexual Fantasy” at conferences of feminist men, helping men reconcile their sexual feelings and fantasies about women with their ongoing commitment to feminism.
During this time, I kept my personal sexual explorations from my parents, although I did show them “Men and Pornography” and tell them about my workshops. My father was interested in my work and openly proud of me; my mother was skeptical, but glad to see I was at least doing something with my life.
One day, while driving down a beautiful, traffic-free country road, slightly stoned, enjoying the sunshine and the blue-green ocean, I reached down absentmindedly to fondle my penis, a pleasant way to pass time on the road. At the moment I touched myself, a strong reflex made me pull back from the touch, a kind of pelvic folding inward. The reflex surprised me, but at the same time felt oddly familiar. What’s this? I wondered in a vague, stoned sort of way. Then I had a startling flashback:
I am in the bathroom of the garden apartment where I grew up. I have just gotten out of a long, hot bath, and my mother is drying me off. As she dries my crotch she comments that I must be tired.
“How can you tell?” I ask her, surprised.
“I can tell from your penis,” she answers.
I am bewildered — surprised that my mother can tell this from looking at my penis, and both flattered and disconcerted that she is paying such careful attention to it. My pelvis recoils (as it had just done in the car).
I didn’t know exactly how old I was in this memory: maybe eight, or ten. Why was my mother still drying me off at that age? I was sure she’d meant nothing overtly sexual by touching me in that way, nor by her comment. On the other hand, I had felt uncomfortable. Had she touched me like that often? If I was only now remembering this incident, what more might have happened that I couldn’t recall? Sexually, I was fully functional with my partner, but I did sometimes have trouble maintaining erections with other lovers — something I found embarrassing and frustrating. Was this problem related to some incestuous incident too traumatic for me to remember? I was dealing with the complexities of recovered-memory syndrome fifteen years before it became a national controversy.
I started going to meetings of Incest Survivors Anonymous to see if I could uncover any more memories. I said, “Hello, my name is David and I’m an incest survivor,” even though I didn’t know whether I was an incest survivor or not. I told the story of my mother and the hot bath. I listened to dozens of people tell about incest experiences that varied from pleasurable to uncomfortable to horrible. Week after week, I waited for some terrible sore from my past to burst open and reveal its vile contents — but nothing significant surfaced from the depths of my unconscious.
Finally, I looked around at the other people at the meetings, most of whom could barely hold their lives together, and decided that if I’d had any real incest in my past, I would have had much more serious problems than a sometimes reluctant penis. Maybe I had experienced some kind of emotional incest with my mom. But physical incest? Probably not.
When my son was six or seven years old, my mother was horrified to learn that my partner and I still let him cuddle with us in bed in the morning at his request — all of us naked. Pulling out her credentials as a clinical psychologist, she lectured me at length about what a terrible mistake we were making, and told me with great vehemence that I was ruining my son’s psyche for life, that I (and he) would regret this forever.
I was first surprised and then amused by the intensity of her reaction, being confident that such easygoing physical contact was as nourishing as it was innocent. But my mother was beside herself with fear, even more so at her inability to bring me around to her point of view. She was concerned that, by enjoying lying together skin to skin, we were in effect being incestuous. “There is a reason that every society has an incest taboo,” she warned darkly. I tried to explain the clear difference between lying naked together in bed and the kind of sexual contact — intended or unintended — that causes psychological damage. She would hear nothing of it.
Although I have looked to incest as a possible source of sexual discomfort, I think that whatever discomfort I feel comes from the reverse — call it “outcest”: the way most parents (mine included) refuse to acknowledge the emerging sexuality of their adolescent children. I believe this dissociation is often the parents’ phobic reaction to their own innocent, perhaps inevitable feelings of sexual attraction to their children. A father, say, gets even a little aroused when his teenage daughter sits on his lap, and is so ashamed he insists that she have no more affectionate physical contact with him whatsoever. Most often, no explanation is given beyond some vague statement like “You’re too old for that now.”
I have spoken to many adults — both men and women — who experienced this sudden, unexplained parental distancing as their adolescent sexuality emerged. They talk of having been mystified by their parents’ behavior. What did I do to be pushed away so harshly? they wondered. Subconsciously they knew it had something to do, not simply with their getting older, but more specifically with their sexuality. The more sexual adolescents become in their appearance and actions, the farther away the parents retreat. The unspoken message is often “You are bad for being sexual; you are bad for generating sexual feelings in others.”
Since 1988, I have made sexual issues the focus of my work. I have published a book of erotic photography and fiction that offers an alternative to the questionable values and aesthetics of commercial pornography. I have edited an anthology of essays on eroticism, and now write regularly on a wide spectrum of sex-related issues.
I see this work as the fruition of much of what my mother raised me to be: humanistic, politically aware, thoughtful, creative. Because my work deals with sex, however, my mother refuses to have anything to do with it. In ten years, she has not read a single book or article I’ve produced, even though my father proudly displays my work in their home and many of their friends enthusiastically appreciate it. She has not come to one talk or lecture I’ve given, nor taken pride in the minor degree of public recognition I’ve received. She believes, simply, that I am wasting my life because I am pathologically obsessed with sex. She wonders where she went wrong.
In addition to showing them my work, I have over the years gradually let my mother and father know about those aspects of my sex life that lie outside the mainstream. They know, for example, that I am not now, and have almost never been, monogamous. They know that, although I am primarily heterosexual, I have also had sexual experiences with men. They know that, with some of my primary partners, I have attended — and hosted — safe-sex parties. They know that I have on a number of occasions been photographed while being sexual, and that some of these photos have been published in erotic magazines and books. I have stopped taking down the erotic art in our home when my parents visit. I have stopped pretending that my partner and I are going to social functions when we are actually attending sex parties.
I think of this process as “heterosexual coming out” because it is similar to the coming out of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. The relief and wholeness I have felt from acknowledging who I am sexually — to my parents, to friends, to my son, to people in general — has been much greater than I ever would have expected. The line between privacy and secrecy, between discretion and shame, is a thin one, and the emotional price we pay for keeping our sexual “deviations” to ourselves is much greater than we tend to believe.
All you ever want to talk about is sex,” my mother blurts out.
We are sitting in my parents’ living room, and I have brought up the subject of a column I am writing. My mother is definitely not in the mood.
“There’s more to life than sex, for God’s sake!” she says.
“Of course there’s more to life than sex,” I agree. “But sex is an important part of my life, and it’s my work. So, yes, I want to be able to talk to you about it.”
“Well, I don’t like talking about sex so much.”
I feel sorry for her. I know it annoys her when I introduce sex into general family conversation, and there are many topics I am careful never to bring up, just to avoid upsetting her. But I don’t feel I should keep quiet about the various issues and frustrations of my work, just because my work happens to concern sex. How can I be close and genuine with my mother if so much that interests me is off-limits around her?
I have, reluctantly and with some bitterness, given up hoping that my mother will be interested in and proud of my work, that she might somehow share the pleasure I get from my admittedly atypical life. But to make this life invisible to her is more than I am willing to do. Somehow she is just going to have to deal with who I am, even if it makes her uncomfortable.
“So, are you still going to those sex parties?” my mother asks out of the blue. . . . It turns out she’s read an Op-Ed piece about swingers. We’ve been around this block many times before.
We are having dinner at an upscale restaurant in celebration of my mother’s birthday — me, the woman who was then my partner, my college-age son, my mom, and my dad. We are having a good time: good food, good wine, good conversation.
Somehow I take on the unlikely task of explaining to my parents the difference between safe, consensual S/M and the media misrepresentations of sadomasochism with which they have been besieged. I talk about the trust involved in explicitly giving over sexual control to a partner, and the special gift of having a loved one place him- or herself entirely in your hands. I talk about intimacy, focused attention, and the transformational potential of sexual theater and role-playing. I talk about some specific ways my partner and I have explored this kind of sexual play. My partner gives her own perspective, contributing her credibility as an acknowledged nonobsessive to the conversation. My son, who has heard all this many times before, is clearly comfortable with the subject, and vaguely amused at the drama he is witnessing.
For me, it is a magical moment. Some combination of the group dynamic, the food, the wine, and the festivity — together with a little courage — has for once made it possible to speak directly and be heard clearly about these usually misrepresented subjects. For a moment, my mother, as well as my more receptive father, is able to see an aspect of my sex life free of distortion or oversimplification, and therefore to better understand me as a sexual human being. I am exhilarated to have accomplished such a delicate bit of communication, and deeply appreciative of my mother’s willingness to put aside her usual judgments and biases. It is a moment of real intimacy between us, and, although neither of us speaks of it directly, I know that she, too, feels the connection. I also know that this moment will pass.
So, are you still going to those sex parties?” my mother asks out of the blue.
I am talking to her on the phone on a Sunday afternoon — until now having a friendly conversation. I take a deep breath before I answer.
“We go from time to time, Mom,” I say as evenly as I can,“not as often as we used to.”
“That’s so disgusting, David. I don’t understand how you can do that. All those pathetic people so afraid of real intimacy, trying to spice up their empty lives.”
It turns out she’s read an Op-Ed piece about swingers. We’ve been around this block many times before.
“Mom, let’s not go through this again. You have no idea what these parties are like. And you certainly know that, if anything, I’m an intimacy junkie.”
“Then why do you go to those things?”
I get annoyed, calm myself down, start to explain, and finally remind myself that it’s useless to try — all in the space of about half a second.
“Mom, I don’t want to get into this. We keep going around and around. What’s the point?” Usually I leave it at that, but this time something more comes out of my mouth:
“Tell me something, Mom. Is this really what you want to do with our time together? I mean, you can confront me about sexual issues every time we see each other, and I will either argue with you or pull back. We can go on like this until one of us dies, if that’s what you want. But arguing about sex isn’t what I’d most like to be doing with you.” I explain to her that, if she would accept who I am — whether or not she believes it makes me happy, whether or not she believes it makes me a productive member of society — we could have a much closer, richer relationship. “So you decide,” I tell her. “It’s really up to you.”
The silence when I stop talking is as huge as it is unusual. I feel foolish pushing her, but it’s good to have come right out and said it. Across the silence and the telephone lines, I can feel her taking my words in, digesting them. It is as if some long-standing obstacle is dropping away. Maybe she, too, wants to be closer, to break out of our ritual dance. I am flooded with deep appreciation for who she is. I am also suddenly uncomfortable with the silence. I want to say something, but I don’t know what. Several seconds pass.
“I love you, Mom,” I say finally.
“I love you, too, David,” she answers quietly.
Recently, although my mother is still quite critical of my work, she seems to feel more comfortable talking about sexual matters that interest her. She speaks with a candor and casualness I find both astounding and delightful. She seems to enjoy acknowledging to me that she, too, is a sexual person, and even admits to having positive feelings about my sexual life (though more often to my partner than to me directly).
I take great pleasure in this, and see it as a direct result of breaking the silence barrier with my mother. This is what I have wanted all along: for us to include sex as part of who we are with each other, rather than deny our sexual dimensions because of some exaggerated fear of being incestuously involved.
I enjoy thinking of my mom as a sexual person. I enjoy hearing about her sexual feelings and experiences (positive and negative). I like that she thinks of me as a sexual person and (from a safe distance) finds me sexually attractive. I like that she and my partner can now sit as two women and share an appreciation of that part of me.
These need not be forbidden appreciations between mother and son, or father and daughter. This is not a step toward parents and children becoming overtly sexual with each other. It is just the proper inclusion of sexuality in the definition of what it means to be full human beings.
My partner has thrown a big bash for my fiftieth birthday. Dozens of friends and acquaintances from various stages of my life have come together in a kind of cross-cultural potpourri: old friends and neighbors, ex-lovers, new friends from San Francisco’s burgeoning community of sex explorers — and my parents. Mingling with the hodgepodge of guests is like taking a trip through the various chapters of my past. Late in the afternoon, everyone gathers to watch me blow out fifty candles atop a huge cake. Suddenly, loud music blares from the stereo. From the hallway emerges a tall, attractive blonde in very high heels, tight denim shorts, and a leather jacket: a stripper my partner has hired for the affair. Smiling, the dancer struts in front of me, eyes me seductively, and starts taking off her clothes. Everyone backs off to watch.
I am sitting on the couch in the living room. My mother is seated in an armchair directly across the room from me. As I watch the woman lure me with her body, I can see my mother in the background. Although (I find out later) she was told about the stripper in advance, she looks uncomfortable. After a minute, though, she relaxes and just takes in the scene.
At first I’m self-conscious, but that passes even as I feel my mother’s discomfort passing. I decide to stop worrying and let myself have a good time. I openly welcome the woman as she straddles me on the couch, takes off her shorts and her string bikini, and rubs her naked body against me. It pleases me somehow to be playfully sexual in front of my mother, once I see that she has joined in the spirit of good-natured fun.
When the dancer puts whipped cream on her breasts and invites me to lick it off, my mother gets up from her chair and retreats to the other side of the room, deciding (she later explains) that “it isn’t right for a mother to watch someone sexually stimulating her son so much.” I take the stripper’s breast in my mouth. She shows me her shaved crotch, then wriggles on the floor with a dildo inside her. I enjoy it all, in front of my partner, my mother, a number of past and present lovers — in front of the whole world, it seems.
Later, everyone has a good laugh about it all. My mother drops whatever initial disapproval she may have felt, and laughs along with everyone else, about the moment itself and about her reaction to it. My friends are impressed with her open-mindedness, and tell her so. She basks in the praise and attention. I, too, make a point of appreciating her openness. Watching my mother participate in this event has a liberating effect on the entire party, confirming the sexuality of everyone present — from people who have never seen a stripper before, to those who are themselves strippers and porn actors.
As afternoon drifts into evening, some people start to leave. A dozen people will spend the night, rather than make long drives home. After a while, a wise and humorous friend — and accomplished dominatrix — gives my naked butt fifty intense birthday paddlings while everybody watches. From there, the party evolves into a friendly sexual affair.
My parents leave before any of this occurs, but are aware of what is likely to happen after they are gone. At the door, my mother tells me that she’s had a wonderful time, and that she considers my sexually adventurous friends — people she expected to find bizarre and distasteful — caring, delightful, intelligent, and even sensible. She hugs and kisses me warmly, and waves goodbye to the other guests scattered around the room. Then she gives me a knowing smile, followed by a momentary frown of obligatory disapproval, and tells my father to take her home.