To Be a Sexual Son

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To Be a Sexual Son
February 18, 1999
Copyright © 1999 David Steinberg


[This article was originally written for a book, "Like Mother, Like Son," an anthology of first person accounts of menís relationships with their mothers. The book, edited by Robert Blauner, was under contract to be published by the University of California Press in 1995. When Blauner submitted his completed manuscript, however, his editor insisted that this article, as well as another dealing with the erotic bond between mother and son, be deleted from the book. Blauner refused. "I simply could not put up with what was essentially censorship," he said. As a result, "Like Mother, Like Son" was never published.]

I think I was ten years old when my mother found the sexy letter that Andrť and I had written to Celine. Andrť was my best friend; Celine was his sister. She was fourteen, impossibly older than me, and the object of everything I could feel at that time in the way of sexual desire. My mother says I was in such a state about Celine then that I once burst into anguished tears over my unrequited infatuation with her.

Celine was tall, thin, French, and sophisticated -- the embodiment, literally, of female sexual power, and mystery. She smoked cigarettes, tossed her hair, walked the walk, and went out with boys even older than she was -- boys she talked about in a way that I could feel throughout my body. She was emerging into her own sexual existence, and embracing that emergence with excitement, anticipation, and delight.

Just being in Celineís 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 feeling for her was less defined, but strong enough to put me in a state of 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, really -- 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 donít remember what she felt like. I remember only the pregnant expectation before touching her, and afterward thinking that I'd done and feeling sheepish about my clumsiness. Even so, the whole experience was unbearably exciting.

It was shortly after the dartboard incident that Andrť and I wrote the letter my mother discovered. We had invented a fantasy involving some kind of three- way rendezvous -- Celine, Andrť, and me -- which we proposed to Celine in the letter. I remember that 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 exciting than we could bear. It was, as Spaulding Gray would say, a perfect moment.

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 motherís voice, careful and concerned: "David, I think I just found something I wasnít supposed to see." She came into my room carrying the letter. I did my best to contain my embarrassment, and to explain that it was just a joke. "But, David," she stressed several times, "Celine is Andrťís sister."

What did she mean? Was it wrong for Andrť 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 far beyond me, washed away as I was 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.

For me, this was the opening of the sexual split between what I would learn was socially acceptable and what I felt in my body, the split between public and private sexual personae, between admitted and hidden sexual feelings. It was the birth in me of sexual shame. From that day forward, to honor my sexuality I would have to separate it from my mother and all that she represented, from her opinions and judgments and misunderstandings. I would have to choose between pleasing my mother and pleasing myself, between making sense to her and making sense to myself.

* * * * *

Fortunately, when this split occurred, my loyalty to my sexuality was already well established. I was an only child, raised in a household that was decidedly progressive, sexually as well as politically. My parents were Jewish Marxist-humanists who had no interest in (or tolerance for) religious or antisexual moralism. I was taught that sex was natural and good, for women as well as for 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 theatre or a party. Most of all, I liked watching her perform the elaborate ritual of putting on her makeup. I was fascinated by this decidedly and intriguingly female process that transformed my mother from an ordinary person into something else. Although I would never have put it this way at the time, it sexualized her.

I would hover at her dressing table and watch her curl her eyelashes, pressing them 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, carefully blot her lipstick. Last was the tiny atomizer that misted the air with the exotic smell of her perfume, Shalimar.

Freud was wrong. The young boy does not want to displace or kill his father in order to have genital sex with his mother. Rather, he wants to have his own, primary, pre-pubescent, erotic connection with his mother, expressed in ways like this -- magical, mystical ways as exclusive to the boy-mother relationship as sexual intercourse is to the marital bond.

* * * * *

When I was eleven, when my mom took me to a psychologist to have my IQ tested, to see if I qualified for a "gifted" school program in school. I scored well on the test, well enough that both the psychologist and my mother exulted at how wonderful I was.

Afterwards, I was feeling proud of myself, playful, and no doubt cocky. As my mother and I were walking 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.

"Thatís 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 shared fun of the fathers' foibles and shortcomings. I think there is another aspect 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 didnít set out to "displace" my father in classical Oedipal fashion, but I did build a powerful emotional bond with my mother based on my father's inability or unwillingness to fulfill her longings. As I saw it at the time, my special mother-son bond went something like this: He doesnít understand the depth of your feelings, but I do. He doesnít share your anti-materialist values, but I do. He is not a romantic like you, but I am. 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 deeply it ignored his important gifts and qualities as a human being. But as a child I paid close, if unconscious, attention to my fatherís 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. My mother 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 my mother passed out on her back, naked, half hanging off the side of 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 off the mattress toward the floor. I didn't know what to do. I wanted to lift her into the bed to make her more comfortable, 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. I was also, suddenly and profoundly, very much alone.

* * * * *

Although my father ultimately decided to come back to my mother, the experience of almost having lost him so frightened her that she resolved to become, in many ways, the wife he wanted her to be. We moved from a modest garden apartment to a lavish co-op on Manhattanís fashionable East Side, with a sweeping view of the mayorís 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 a relatively flamboyant style of life.

I felt abandoned. My mother, it seemed to me, 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 her -- the one my father could not possibly share -- was shattered. In addition, for many years thereafter, my parents' relationship was consumed by bitterness and guilt that left little room for them to relate to me on 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 mutual 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.

It was the late sixties and then the 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 -- and then a California counterculturalist, critically examining every established social institution I could think of: marriage, family, property, career, materialism, gender roles, sexuality. My mom was embracing the American beast just as I was identifying it as the root of all the worldís misery. Power, money, and security (my dad) had won my mother away from warmth, passion, adventure, and art (me). I was hurt, 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 24 and she was 23. We had been married just over a year, and went west to immerse ourselves in the great California 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 not possible without first challenging the conservative cultural assumptions that were the basis of political decision- making -- racism, sexism, materialism, and sexual repression.

We made the transcontinental move with another couple, close friends with similar political perspectives who were also recently married. We defined ourselves as a single family, sharing a flat five blocks from the corner of Haight and Ashbury. We pooled our earnings and savings, talked earnestly about all being sexual with each other, 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 examined one cultural assumption after another, determined to make conscious choices about the institutions we had previously accepted without question. For us, being radical meant, among other things, addressing the elements of day-to-day life in radical ways. The personal, as we emphasized so often, was inevitably political. Surrounded by hundreds of friends and acquaintances, we were sure we could do much better than the American Dream. Our confidence was buoyed by a rich subcultural fabric positively bursting with passion, creative ingenuity, growing political power, and cocky optimism.

* * * * *

It was within this context that we collectively rejected such sexual conventions as heterosexuality and monogamy. Traditional gender roles suffered the same fate, as we welcomed and embraced the emerging insights of feminist writing and thinking. Restricting sexual experience to people of the opposite gender, or to a single primary partner, seemed as unnecessary and simply wrong-headed 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 and more hesitantly, over a period of several years.)

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.

I discovered sex as a profound and life-altering aspect of being alive with a woman other than my wife, and the repercussions of this discovery -- even in the context of our open marriage -- were a major factor in our eventual separation. Several years later, while involved in another nonmonogamous relationship, I discovered the surprisingly intricate possibilities of intimacy with strangers at group-sex parties, and had a few tentative, generally uninspiring, 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 find pornography compelling. I was both nervous and excited about putting my sexual thinking in the public eye. To my delight and relief, the article was well- received, although I was also branded "the local pervert" by Santa Cruz's leading anti-porn activist. I became increasingly involved in the growing feminist menís movement, and was soon leading workshops on "Eroticism, Pornography, and Sexual Fantasy" at local and national conferences, trying to help men reconcile their often politically incorrect sexual feelings and fantasies 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 doing something useful with my life.

* * * * *

One day -- while driving down a beautiful, traffic-free, country road, pleasantly stoned, enjoying the sunshine and the blue-green ocean, I reached down absent-mindedly to fondle my penis, a pleasant way of passing time on the road. At the moment I touched myself, a strong reflex pulled me back from the touch -- kind of a pelvic folding inward. The reflex surprised me, but at the same time felt oddly familiar. "Whatís 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 she can see that Iím 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 much about me from looking at my penis, and both flattered and disconcerted that she is paying such careful attention to it. My pelvis recoils, as it did just now in the car.

I donít know exactly how old I am in this memory. Maybe eight, maybe ten. Why was my mother still drying me off at that age? I was sure my mother meant nothing overtly sexual by touching me in that way, nor by her comment about my penis. On the other hand, I had felt uncomfortable. Did she touch me like that often? If I was only now remembering this incident, what more might have happened that I couldnít recall? Sexually, I was fully functional with my partner, but I did sometimes have trouble maintaining erections with other lovers. Was this related to some incestuous incident too traumatic for me to remember? I was dealing with the intricacies of Recovered Memory Syndrome fifteen years before it became a national preoccupation.

* * * * *

I started going to meetings of Incest Survivors Anonymous, a twelve-step program, to see if I would uncover any additional memories. I made myself say, "Hello, my name is David and Iím an incest survivor" even though I didnít 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 talk about incest experiences that varied from uncomfortable to pleasurable 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 these meetings, most of whom could barely hold the basic aspects of their lives together, and decided that if I had any serious incest in my past I would have 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 we still let him cuddle with us in bed in the mornings at his request -- all of us naked. Pulling out her credentials as a clinical psychologist, she lectured me at length on what a 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, confident that such easy-going physical contact was as nourishing as it was innocent. But my mother was beside herself with genuine fear, and with 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, if anything, I feel discomfort from the reverse -- call it "outcest" -- from the way most parents (mine included) refuse to acknowledge and confirm the emerging sexuality of their adolescent children. I believe this dissociation is essentially a phobic reaction by parents to the natural, generally innocent, perhaps inevitable, sexual attraction they feel to their children.

I have spoken to many adults, both men and women, who as adolescents experienced sudden parental distancing as their adolescent sexuality developed. A father, say, who gets even a little aroused when his teenage daughter sits on his lap, and is so ashamed that he insists that she have no more affectionate physical contact with him whatsoever. Or a mother who similarly distances herself from her adolescent son. Most often, no explanation is given beyond some vague statement like "You're too old for that now."

Universally, the sons and daughters speak 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 the adolescents become in their appearance and their actions, the farther away the parents retreat. The unspoken message is felt as a judgment: You are bad for being sexual; you are bad for generating sexual feeling in others."

* * * * *

Since 1988, I have made sexual issues the focus of my work. I have become interested in quality erotic writing and photography, and have edited and published a book of erotic and sexual photography and fiction that offers an alternative to the questionable values and aesthetics of commercial pornography. I have also edited an anthology of essays on eroticism, and now write regularly on a wide spectrum of sex-related issues -- sometimes as a journalist, sometimes as a storyteller, sometimes as a social commentator.

In many ways, my work is the fulfillment of much of what my mother raised me to be: humanistic, politically aware, thoughtful, creative, sex-affirming. Because my work deals with sex, however, my mother refuses to have anything to do with it. In ten years, she has never read any of my books and articles, even though my father proudly displays my work in their home and many of their friends enthusiastically appreciate it. She has never come to any of my presentations, 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 both my mother and my father know about those aspects of my sexual 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 occasionally 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 magazines and books. I have stopped taking down the erotic art in my home when my parents visit.

I think of this process as "heterosexual coming out" because it is so similar to the coming out that gays, lesbians, and bisexuals have been advocating for many years. 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. I have brought up the subject of a column I am writing. My mother is definitely not in the mood.

"Itís all you ever think about. Thereís more to life than sex, for Godís sake!" she says.

"Of course thereís more to life than sex," I agree. "But sex is an important part of my life, and itís my work. So, yes, I want to be able to talk to you about it."

"Well, I donít like talking about sex so much!"

I feel sorry for her. I know that my sexual work and lifestyle are a lot to ask her to understand. I know it annoys her when I bring sexual topics into general family conversation, and there is much of my life and work I never mention, just to avoid upsetting her. I have reluctantly given up the hope that my mother will be interested in and proud of the work I do, and the wish that she could share the pleasure I get from my admittedly unconventional life. But to make my work and my sexual interests entirely invisible to her is more than I am willing to do. How can I be close and genuine with my mother if so much of what intersts me is off-limits around her?

* * * * *

We are having dinner at an upscale restaurant, celebrating my motherís 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, a little 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 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 theatre 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 non-obsessive 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 feeling, 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 a usually misrepresented subject. For a moment, my mother as well as my more receptive father, is able to see an aspect of my sexuality free of distortion or oversimplification, and therefore to better understand me as a sexual human being. I am exhilarated to have accomplished this 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.

* * * * *

Recently, although my mother is still quite critical of my sexual life and 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 to 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 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-historical and cross-cultural potpourri: old friends and neighbors, ex-lovers, new friends from San Franciscoís 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 together 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: my partner has hired a stripper 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 this woman lure me with her body, and to watch my mother watch me as well.

I am sitting on the couch in the living room. My mother is seated in an armchair across the room from me. As I watch the dancer, 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 motherís 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. When the dancer puts whipped cream on her breasts and invites me to lick it off, my mother gets up from her chair and moves to the side of the room, deciding (she later explains) that "it isnít right for a mother to watch someone sexually stimulating her son so much."

Later, everyone has a good laugh about the moment. 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 everyone gives her. 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 people who are themselves strippers and porn actors.

As afternoon drifts into evening, my parents get ready to leave. At the door, my mother tells me warmly that sheís 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 people 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.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
P.O. Box 2992
Santa Cruz, CA 95063
(831) 426-7082
(831) 425-8825 (FAX)

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