Comes Naturally #98 (June 30, 2000):
Where I Leave Off, Where You Begin

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June 30, 2000
Copyright © 2000 David Steinberg


"I am not sure where I leave off, where you begin is there a difference, here in these soft permeable membranes?"
- Lenore Kandel

"In the end, we are all really making love to ourselves."
- Marco Vassi


"I don't know how girls can stand it. If I had breasts, I'd be playing with myself all day."

I'm not sure how far back in time this tidbit got recorded in my memory. I'm sure I heard similar words in both college and high school. But I think it must have been in junior high that the topic first came up among a group of friends.

Maybe I was the person who said it; maybe it was one of the other boys. What I remember most is that we all nodded in unison, laughed, and got collectively dreamy, as we imagined what it would be like to have our very own female breasts to touch, stroke, hold, press, squeeze, caress. We certainly didn't think anything complicated about it. It was just what we took to be a universal and unquestionable truth, accepted without hesitation or embarrassment: Having girls' breasts would be something wonderful indeed.

Back in the land of reality, of course, we knew that we would never have our own female breasts to play with. If we wanted to get lost in the ecstatic wonder of soft, smooth, round breasts, they would have to be someone else's breasts. And so, those of us who were heterosexually inclined gained new motivation to venture across the gender divide, to learn about girls and what made them tick -- to find our way, awkwardly or gracefully, reliably or haphazardly, to the first of what would be many related erotic Holy Grails. Getting to play with breasts was, of course, not the only reason to be interested in girls, even in junior high school. But it was definitely up there on the list.

The erotic sensibility of how we felt about girls' breasts was as clear as it was compelling: Breasts were magnificent. We wanted to be near them, to experience them, to touch them, taste them, smell them, know them, bathe in the mysterious otherness of them. Later on, as our budding sexual feelings gave us more courage, we would feel the same way about the wonder of women's genitals. "An intricate cave explored by dim yellow light," I would exult in one poetically inspired moment. As men, I think we all had a desire to know, experience, surround ourselves as much as possible with womanliness -- with that which was other than us, with what we could not experience through our own bodies. Breasts, vulvas, the different feel of female skin, the look and smell of women's hair. Everything that proclaimed the otherness of women, everything that manifested Not-Us, Not-Male, was alluring and fascinating.

Of course, sex (more accurately, heterosex) was the designated arena for boys and men to make intimate connection with Not-Maleness. Sex was a way to express our male identities and also, ironically, sometimes a way to transcend those identities. One of the things I came to love most about sex was the way the membrane that separated my maleness from the femaleness of my partner would often grow porous, sometimes even melt away. It wasn't just that I was intimately close to, pressed up against, a woman and all her femaleness. There was something more. In sex I could often actually experience some of my partner's femaleness myself.

I have heard a number of people, both men and women, talk about being so close to their partners in sex that it was if they knew exactly what the other person was feeling. I have certainly often felt that way myself -- that I am experiencing a touch, a movement, a connection, not only from my own perspective, but also from the perspective of the other person. And I have had that feeling even about sensations in body parts I don't even have and thus can really know nothing about personally. It is the sense that my experience merges with that of my partner to the point that I experience her body, even as I continue to experience my own. Of course, maybe it's all just a figment of my imagination, a fantasy, an illusion, an omnipotent hallucination. But when I am able to check with my partner afterwards -- to the extent that we can communicate these sorts of things with mere words -- I feel confirmed more often than not. Yes, she had indeed been feeling what I thought she was feeling, what I had felt her feel.


Some 15 years ago, information started surfacing about women's g-spots, and about the dramatic differences women felt between the orgasms they experienced from g-spot stimulation and those that came primarily from clitoral play. Suddenly there were all sorts of women affirming the discredited Freudian notions that women could have orgasms from vaginal stimulation, and that there were important differences between these "vaginal" orgasms and the orgasms centered in women's clitorises.

This was a big shake-up among professional biologists and sexologists, most of whom had insisted until that time that the clitoris was the one and only real organ of female sexual gratification. (Freud, in his typically patriarchal fashion, had insisted on the opposite: that only vaginal orgasms were expressions of mature sexuality.) For me, the affirmation of vaginal orgasms was anything but surprising. I felt that I had experienced those orgasms, and their qualitatively difference from clitoral release, through any number of sexual partners. Indeed, I felt that I had experienced the difference between "vaginal" and "clitoral" orgasms so physically that I had come to think of my own orgasms in parallel ways, both the orgasms I would experience during partner sex and those that came from masturbation.

I knew that most of my masturbatory orgasms, as well as some orgasms that came quickly during partner sex, were what women were describing as "clitoral" -- sharp, intense, brilliant, superficial. On the other hand, orgasms that I had after more extended stimulation, particularly during long, slow intercourse, had the kind of feeling that women were now describing as "vaginal" -- rounder, fuller, deeper releases -- what Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh had once described as "valley orgasms," in contrast to more commonly acknowledged "peak" experiences.

Now, how can I, as a man, know the difference between how a g-spot orgasm and a clitoral orgasm feels to a woman? Anatomically, of course, it's impossible. But it certainly seems to me that there is something about sex that is so ego- and gender-transcending that it becomes possible to physically experience those differences (not to mention a wide range of other sexual feelings as well) across the ego boundaries that separate one person from another, and also across the physical gender boundaries that separate women from men. It is, to me, one of the great mysteries, and one of the great potentials, of sex: the way sex allows a person to experience something so intimate about the other gender, indeed almost to inhabit for a moment what it's like on the other side of the gender divide.


There is a term -- autogynephilia -- that was introduced into the psychological literature in the late 1980's by a clinical psychologist named Ray Blanchard. Blanchard was trying to understand what led some gender dysphoric men (men who were in severely distressed about being men) to take the radical step of becoming transgendered women. Blanchard knew and acknowledged that many men choose to become transgendered women for non-sexual reasons. But he also believed that some men wanted to become women, at least in part, because the idea of having a woman's body was sexually exciting to them.

Blanchard coined the term autogynephilia -- the propensity to be sexually aroused by the thought or image of oneself as a woman -- to describe what these men were feeling. For the last twenty years, Blanchard and others have been trying to understand the psychology of men whose sexual excitement centers on various ways of thinking about themselves as women.

Some autogynephilic men are aroused by the idea of themselves having women's bodies, particularly a vagina or breasts. Others are aroused by the idea of wearing women's clothing, by fantasies of engaging in traditionally female activities, or by fantasies of performing women's biological functions, such as being pregnant or nursing. Michael Bailey, a psychologist at Northwestern University who has written about the issue, sees autogynephiles as men who are essentially heterosexual, but whose erotic focus stays inside the self, rather than being directed toward an outside woman.

Now, it's obviously a long way from Blanchard's clinically autogynephilic men to a group of pubescent boys, like my junior high school pals, getting off on fantasies of what it would be like to have breasts like a girl. I don't think any of us at Parsons Junior High School was experiencing significant gender dissonance or experienced any serious gender dissatisfaction in later life. I don't think we were particularly different from any other group of boys at the same stage of life. But it seems clear to me that in our reveries about having breasts we were what might be called "a little autogynephilic." We were certainly rather intensely turned on, in the moment at least, by the thought of what it would be like to have women's bodies ourselves.

It's often the case that something being felt intensely or painfully by a small group of people is also at work in more subtle ways in a larger group -- sometimes even everyone. There are relatively few people who are so bisexual that they act out their bisexual desires and self-identify as bisexual. But it must be clear to everyone by now that less powerful bisexual feelings and fantasies are quite common -- some would even say universal. Similarly, although only a minority of people engage in sexually explicit role play that involves dominance and submission, almost everyone has experienced some dimension of pleasure from giving oneself over to one's partner during sex.

If there are only a small number of men who are importantly or clinically autogynephilic, maybe there are lots of other men whose sexual feelings are more subtly colored by thoughts or fantasies that have to do with transcending the strict separation between male and female. Maybe there are more than a few men who have, as one thread in the fabric of their sexual experience, some excitement at being able to feel something of what their female partner feels during sex. Maybe there are more than a few men who delight in sex as a way of breaking through not only the ego separation that divides self from other, but also the gender separation that divides being a man from being a woman.

Maybe there is an aspect of heterosexual sex, that draws its power from an underlying desire to in some way become the other gender, or take on the body of the other gender. Maybe men (some men? all men?) enjoy sex with women in part because it gives them a way to experience what it is like to be a woman, to feel what a woman's body feels more intimately than would otherwise be possible.

Putting the shoe on the other foot, maybe there are a significant number of women who are sexually attracted to men, in part, out of a desire to experience what it is like to be a man or to have a man's body. Maybe some women enjoy sex with men, in part, because sex gives them a way to intimately experience men's bodies and men's sexual feelings. (I think of one sexual partner in particular who would often insist excitedly that she knew exactly what I was feeling as we were being sexual in various ways. This woman also definitely enjoyed playing with my penis as if it were her own.) If there are a significant number of men who could be called a little autogynephilic, maybe there are also a significant number of women who might be called a bit "autoandrophilic."

Maybe it's not so uncommon to feel just a little frustrated at being completely limited to one side of the gender divide. Maybe a significant number of us enjoy getting a taste of how the other half lives, how the other half experiences their bodies, how the most otherly aspect of the other half feels, through sex. Maybe one of the multiple wonders of sex is that it provides an opportunity to indulge, consciously or unconsciously, majorly or minorly, in a bit of temporary, playful gender inversion.

[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
P.O. Box 2992
Santa Cruz, CA 95063
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