Comes Naturally #101 (September 22, 2000):
Pornographic Rites of Passage

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September 22, 2000
Copyright © 2000 David Steinberg

PORNOGRAPHIC RITES OF PASSAGE: Three Adolescent Tales of Literary Discovery and the Power of Erotic Imagination

"Everything I know I learned from porn."
-- T-shirt slogan

1. The Rosy Crucifixion

"There now, there now," she said, pressing me to her and cooing. "Put your head on my shoulder. That's it. My, but you have a tender heart!"

Ridiculous as it was, it felt good to give way on her shoulder. I even felt a slight stirring of sex, locked in her motherly embrace.

Her sister now reappeared bearing a tray in which there was a decanter, three glasses and some biscuits,

"This will make you feel better," she said, pouring me a potion of schnapps.

"Lie down," they urged, and grasping me by the arms they lowered me on to the bed. I stretched out full length, helpless as a babe. They removed my coat, then my shirt, then my pants and shoes. I made no protest."

I'm guessing that I was about ten when I found a copy of Henry Miller's novel, "The Rosy Crucifixion," in the underwear drawer of my father's dresser. I'm not sure what I was doing in my father's dresser, but there I was and there "it" was -- a small, tidy, cream-colored paperback with red printing on the cover. I remember noticing that it was printed in Paris which, even before I found the sexual passages of Miller's text, made the book immediately exotic to me.

I had no way of knowing just how exotic it was that this particular book had found its way into a somewhat typical American home during the mid-1950's. It wasn't until several years later, 1961 to be exact, that Grove Press first published Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer," and then challenged the ensuing obscenity charges against the book all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was that precedent hat first made it legal for Miller's brilliant, blatant fiction to be published, read, and owned in the United States.

During the 50's, the only way someone in the U.S. could get access to Miller's fiction was to find a copy of an edition that had been published in Paris or Japan, and then smuggled into the country by hand or by mail. While there were more than a few copies of such contraband floating around the States, they were definitely both rare and underground. I still have no idea where my father got his particular copy.

Even possessing a copy of "The Rosy Crucifixion" was a crime (possession of obscene material) at the moment I held it in my excited young hands, somewhat bewildered, as I stood in front of my father's dresser. Whatever interesting journey this little volume had been on before it made its way to me was about to be rendered insignificant by the role it would play in my life: providing my introduction to what might be called the world of pornographic experience.

Since any language having to do with sex has a way of carrying with it all sorts of insinuating baggage, let me be clear that by "pornographic experience" I mean nothing more than the experience of looking at one or another kind of sexual material for the purpose of getting sexually turned on. I want to be purely descriptive here, with no value judgment -- positive or negative -- implied. I want to skip the whole question of whether Henry Miller's writing deserves to be respected as "real literature," though it is perfectly obvious to me that Miller is one of the great American authors and storytellers of the twentieth century. I most certainly want to avoid the tired and tiresome debate about the "difference between pornography and erotica" that is still wasting so many, many people's time and energy.

(People who need their mother's, friends' or minister's approval before they allow themselves to enjoy being turned on by certain sexual material are doomed to seek the Holy Grail of a universal way of distinguishing between sexual material that is morally tainted and sexual material that is morally pure. It seems clear to me that the great pornography/erotica debate as to how and where such an ethereal line should be drawn will continue throughout recorded time, while the use of sexually explicit material for self-gratification goes on unabated, albeit with its attendant emotional baggage of shame and guilt. The fact that Henry Miller is still scorned as "pornographic" by legions of legislators, librarians, school boards, and other small-minded erotophobes thirtysomething years after his writing was deemed unobscene by the United States Supreme Court is proof that one person's heat can always be condemned as someone else's hell.)

The issue of whether Miller is most accurately described as literature or tras h had, of course, nothing to do with how I experienced him once I discovered his words hidden away appropriately amongst my father's jockey shorts. As I pored excitedly over the now-twice-smuggled pages of "The Rosy Crucifixion," I became aware of something I had not known previously. I learned that it was possible to seek out sex-related material for the primary, if not the exclusive, purpose of getting one's sexual juices into high gear. I learned how pleasurable it was to be sexually turned on, just for the pure pleasure of that feeling. I also learned how in charge of my life it felt to have resources at hand that offered that experience any time I wanted it. I would learn later that there were many, many different ways of accomplishing this -- some intricately complex and surprising, others remarkably simple and predictable.

Entering the portal of intentional, externally-generated sexual stimulation was, at that stage of my sexual life, a significant sexual rite of passage -- a true coming-of-age exercise that helped mark my transition from childhood to adulthood, as it does for almost all boys (and an increasing number of girls) in American culture.

Given that our culture is unusually poor at ritualizing the process of becoming an adult (Robert Bly has noted that our most widely recognized adulthood ritual is obtaining one's first driver's license), the moment when a young man or woman discovers that it is possible to arouse oneself with books, magazines, films, or whatever, should be righteously noted and celebrated in some elaborate, public, and joyous way. But, as we well know, in a culture as antisexual as ours is, that exuberant recognition of sexual discovery is denied to most all adolescents. Even those who are able to hold on to feeling delighted about the wonders of sexual initiation almost always do so alone.

First sexual experiences, whatever their particular natures, have an uncanny way of defining, almost deterministically, what and whom we will find sexually exciting for the rest of our lives. Whether the first object of our flowering sexual desire was light-haired or dark, heavy or thin; whether s/he smiled at us appreciatively or looked at us with humiliating disdain; whether s/he was wearing pink or black, mohair or rayon, cotton or leather; whether s/he smelled of Obsession, English Leather, garlic, cigarettes, or sweat; whether s/he was elegant or street-wise, prim or lewd; whether the sun was bright or we were enveloped in total darkness; whether there was the smell of weeds or beer or chocolate chip cookies in the background; whether we were in the basement, on the roof, or at the beach -- all of these details take on permanent Special Status in our psyches if they happen to coincide with powerful first exposures to some new and exciting aspect of what it means to be sexually alive.

I feel fortunate, therefore, that my introduction to externally-generated, intentionally-sought sexual stimulants happened to be Miller's writing, rather than any of the formula sex novels that were far more common in the sexual underground of the Eisenhower years. By the good fortune of my father's taste in sexual literature (with a generous dose of serendipity undoubtedly also at work), my first exposure to sexually explicit writing was not only deliciously titillating and exciting, but also life-affirming, sex-positive, filled with humor and good cheer, and relatively free of guilt-ridden sexual snickering.

2. Seventy-Nine Park Avenue

He pulled her to him and they sank back on the couch. He closed his eyes. There was the rustle of their clothing in his ears, then her breast, warm and strong, was in his hand. The pain inside him was intense and agonizing. He pressed her head against his chest. "Help me, Marja," he cried. "Please help me."

He looked down at her. Her white-blond hair shimmered against him. Her whisper came softly to his ears. "I'll help you, Ross, baby. Lie still."

Henry Miller had whetted my appetite for sexual material, and when other sexual stimuli crossed my path I was quick to seek them out. While I was in junior high, a rumor swept through our circle of boys that there was an unbelievably racy novel that you could actually take out from the public library. The title of novel, we told each other in breathless tones, was "79 Park Avenue." It was, as I would soon find out, a potboiler about a sexually-abused working-class girl who became a high-priced call girl, and the prosecutor who both took her to trial and fell in love with her.

It seemed impossible in 1956 that anything as venerable as the New York Public Library would deign to carry a sex novel. Nevertheless, the address "79 Park Avenue" was etched indelibly into the erotic fabric of my imagination, so it became inevitable that I would at least go to the library to check out the rumor for myself. I took the long bus ride to the main branch of the Queensborough Library. Rather skeptically, I looked the title up in the hue oak card catalog. Amazingly, the book was listed: "'79 Park Avenue'" by Harold Robbins." More amazingly, when I tracked down "R" in the fiction section, the book was actually sitting on the shelf. It looked for all the world like any other library book. Keeping what I imagined to be a deadpan look on my face, I leafed through the pages to see if it was as steamy as we had all been told. By the standards of my twelve-year-old mind, it was indeed.

(Thirty years later, I found a cheap paperback copy of "79 Park Avenue" at a used book store and bought the book to see if its erotic power would transcend decades of societal changes, not to mention my theoretically maturing personal point of view. To my surprise, I found that it still had the power to grab me by the gut of my libido, even as I laughed at myself for being so responsive to what I could tell were really nothing more than slightly suggestive words and scenes. There was little question that the special libidinal place I once created for this book's particular images and dialog had taken on a life of its own. To this day there is something special to me about blondes, tough girls, prostitutes, and women whose name begins with the letter "m".)

Standing with the book in my twelve-year-old hands, I could not believe that writing as arousing as this was available to any and all in the hallowed halls of the public library. Maybe you had to be a certain age before you would be allowed to take this sexually subversive book home. If so, that age would certainly be more than twelve. But the pocket at the back of the book didn't seem to have any sort of special "adults only" designation. It was mine for the asking.

But how in the world could I be so bold as to present this smoldering book to the woman at the check out desk without collapsing in embarrassment? I could barely imagine doing such a thing. On the other hand, if I did pull off this supreme act of emotional self-control -- and if I didn't set off some imperceptible emergency kid alarm in the process -- I would have the very book that everyone had been talking about to provide a full 28 days of unimped ed, unregulated sexual pleasure.

I pulled myself together, took a deep breath, and put the most adult, nonchalant look I could manage onto my face. I walked with simulated calmness up to the check out desk. I pushed the book, together with the library card that (I noticed too late) loudly trumpeted my name, address, and phone number, across the smooth oak surface. I held my breath, figuratively, and probably literally as well. I carefully avoided looking the librarian in the eye.

To my utter amazement, she returned both the book and my library card to me without a word of reproach, without so much as a questioning stare. My courage had been rewarded; "79 Park Avenue" was mine. I had performed one more rite of passage into erotic adulthood. With the book tucked casually but securely under my arm, I walked carefully out of the library, before hurrying home as quickly as I could.

3. The Fifty-Minute Hour

It wasn't long before she took to undressing before me -- exhibiting herself, I guess you'd call it -- and being provocative in a way I had never seen any woman behave. I soon understood that Miss Lilian was urging me on -- and she succeeded. She didn't just take her clothes off those nights when she undressed in my room; she peeled herself like a strip-teaser, standing in front of the mirror of my bureau where she could see me lying naked on my bed.

Well, it worked. One night after she had been there a few months she did her little act in front of the mirror and, watching her, I got an erection. Needless to say, Miss Lilian spotted my aroused state before I could hide it -- and that was that. Her eyes got big and her chest heaved, and the next thing I knew she was crawling all over me.

The next book that came along to tweak my sexual imagination was not a novel, but a collection of true psychoanalytic case studies compiled by Robert Lindner, a prominent Baltimore psychotherapist. The book, "The Fifty-Minute Hour," came to me through my mother, who was at that time studying to become a psychotherapist herself. As far as I know, it was never psychoanalyst Lindner's intent to sexually arouse his readers. His goal was to explain the arcane workings of the psychological mind and to proselytize for psychoanalysis as an effective tool for overcoming fear and trauma and pursuing a full and fulfilling life. I can't help but wonder, however, if Lindner, or at least his publisher, was unaware of the melodramatic potential of his case studies of five convicted criminals.

The book jacket, though not specifically erotic in its focus, is certainly erotically prophetic in its tone. "The reader," it promises with baited breath, "will experience the violent impulses of a murderer, the illnesses of a bulimic woman bent on self-destruction and a psychotic scientist so overwhelmed by his fantasy world that he can no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy. Who among us would not find some aspect of his or her own emotional problems here? Who would not empathize with these patients' struggle for mental health and equilibrium? Who would not be touched by their primitive urges, relentless guilt, failing defenses, breaks with reality, and complex interaction with their analyst?"

Who indeed. These stories of emotional trauma so extreme as to drive their subjects to criminal psychosis were fascinating to me, as was the psychoanalytic process by which Lindner unraveled the histories of each of his patients. At least one of the case studies was also intensely sexually exciting to me. Lindner's special gift of portraying the inner workings of the psyche as high drama certainly helped set the stage, but it was I who turned a story of one young man's sexual trauma into one of my favorite fantasies. The power of a young, creative erotic mind is not to be underestimated.

The story that so excited me was about a sexually precocious 11-year-old boy whose governess seduced him by posing in front of a mirror in his bedroom, playing with her hair, moving her body in a series of sexually provocative gestures. As soon as the boy responded by getting an embarrassing erection, she leaped on him for sex, initiating a relationship in which they would have sex several times every day. In reality, this hypersexual experience helped drive the boy into what was to become a perpetual state of delusional fantasy from which he would be unable to escape. But the fantasy I constructed from the ashes of his pain, the fantasy of being pre-adolescent and being seduced by an attractive, oversexed woman who wanted nothing more than to have sex with me all the time, was powerful enough to become a masturbatory favorite for a long, long time.

That "The Fifty-Minute Hour" did not have even the relatively literate erotic intent of a work by Henry Miller or Harold Robbins was irrelevant to the erotic fertility of my adolescent mind. I had no trouble separating the erotic triggers that affected me so strongly from their contexts of psychological pain and trauma. Let those who would try to protect adolescent minds from the supposedly damaging effects of explicit sexual description take note: the range of raw material that has the potential of being fodder for young erotic expression is vast indeed. The potential for sexual stimulus exists everywhere. The only question is how far young minds will have to go before they find imaginative crystals that will precipitate their accelerating sexual desires.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at 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
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