Fornicating is like parenting: no matter how you do it, you have the guilty sense that somewhere other people are doing it more correctly. Myself, I wonder if I am lasting long enough. With all due attention to foreplay, penetration, and the bliss that follows, it is still usually over in half an hour so that if my wife and I start going at it by ten-thirty, even with the reverential postcoital snuggle and love-you exchange, one of us still has time to say, “You wanna watch the news?”
Of course, a marriage going on fifteen years, with a little one sleeping down the hall, may hardly be optimal conditions for sustaining the heights of lust. Still, I can’t help wondering: If making love for a half hour is pleasurable, wouldn’t making love for two hours be four times as pleasurable? And then there is the “all night long” boast that Casanova and so many rhythm-and-blues singers have claimed. I have never done it all night long: with the best intentions, even in my youth, when I was more inclined to show off by going at it more than once, afterward I would feel woozily satiated, preferring to drift off or talk rather than keep banging away.
When I watch pornography, I am amazed at the variety and duration of those partners as they rotate front to back, top to bottom, with one orgasm after another. I take my hat off to their appetites as much as to their stamina. Even knowing that filmmaking is a fragmented process, with time off for camera repositioning, I can’t help believing on some level that pornography constitutes the norm for Homo sapiens of another, sturdier disposition. As for me, if I am stroking intently for fifteen minutes, there comes a point when I begin to think, “Okay, I’ve got the message, I’ve had my fun, it’s time to bring this thing to a conclusion.”
What is wrong with me?
Henry Miller wrote in one of his novels that he kept a bowl of ice by his bedside so that he could withdraw when he felt close to ejaculation and plunge his balls into ice, to prolong the act. That strikes me as so…industrious! O.J. Simpson was widely reported to have contracted a hugely expensive coke habit, mainly in order to fuck longer. Not that either of these worthy gentlemen are my role models in other respects, but I cannot help wondering if they were onto something – if their almost puritanically conscientious focus on sexual duration may have brought them closer to a spiritual truth than I, with my laissez-faire approach.
I recently asked a few women friends what they thought of the matter. One woman said, “I get bladder infections, so I really wouldn’t want to be pounded for more than ten or fifteen minutes.” Good: I can do that. Another woman offered, “Great sex tends to be quick or long. Most sex is medium-length. Obviously, most sex is not great sex.” Women characteristically say that what matters to them is the quality of connection, not longevity. In the sixties, the feminist Germaine Greer wrote that she preferred men to express genuine passion, however short-lived, to the calculated marathons that seemed to arise from performance anxiety, and that suggested the man was dulling his brain by remembering train schedules in order not to come. Indeed, though the Kama Sutra and other Eastern sex manuals often stress the importance of a man’s learning to defer his ejaculation for the woman’s sake, it often seems that a man’s desire to go long has little to do with a woman’s pleasure, and more with his own competition to better his personal best.
It’s fair to assume that emotions affect a man’s capacity to sustain himself in sex. But rarely is love the determining factor. First-time excitement and romantic ardor with someone frequently shorten the act. Tenderness, from long familiarity or long-term commitment, tends toward medium-length coital embraces. A disengaged, blasé mood may enable you to feel you can continue indefinitely. Similarly, anger: there was one lover who made me frequently outraged, whom I used to screw for a long, long time. On the other hand, unacknowledged hostility or alienation can sometime make it difficult to keep an erection.
Clearly, Viagra and other potency-ensuring drugs have thrown a wrench into that age-old suspense about whether or how long you will be able to keep it up. For the very reason that they rob the sex act of one of its quintessential dimensions – anxiety – and pump up the performances of ordinary shlubs, who come to have a distorted idea of their amatory capacities, they should be avoided whenever it is possible to do so.
I remember one woman I dated who stretched me to the limits in bed. She was a petite, pretty, rather reserved graduate student in architecture named Nina. I was teaching at the time in Houston: Nina was not my student or even in my field, but an advantage of a city like Houston is that even minor writers such as I assume an aura of celebrity. Nina let it be known through mutual friends that she had this crush on me. I took her on a date and thought her winsome and very appealing in her cashmere sweater, though conversation did not exactly flow. She seemed too frightened around me to do anything more than ask an endless series of questions; it was like being interviewed on the radio.
There was no question but that we would go back to her house that first night. In bed, she lost her shyness and became the one in charge, the metteur en scène. Everything had to be done in a certain manner. She first asked me to help put her diaphragm into her. I was fascinated that she had such definite ideas about sexual procedure, most of which I’ve forgotten, except I recall that in the middle of our doing it she had me pull out, so that we could repair to the living room. There she brought me a dish of raspberry sherbet and sat on my lap. She had a wonderfully curvaceous body, and in my lap the difference between our heights (I am fairly tall) was minimized. After what seemed to her the proper amount of eating, fondling, and kissing, she let me back into her bedroom and we went at it again. Each time I showed signs of starting to come, however, she would ask me to pull out to defer ejaculation. I tried to assure her that even if I came, I would be able to get hard again, but she seemed not to trust that or else somehow felt only my first ejaculation counted, and she was determined to put that off as long as possible. Hours passed this way; I was increasingly baffled, though glad for the experience of having sex with a self-styled expert – until finally, rebelliously, and I must say, more than a bit bored with the old in-and-out, I let myself come. She didn’t.
Which is not surprising: many women don’t feel comfortable enough to have an orgasm with a man the first time. But over our next several dates, for all my efforts – hand, mouth and member – she still didn’t come. Obviously she could have orgasms and had in the past – just not with me. I remember she would vary the setups, the positions, the entr’actes. She also carefully planned a picnic, with oysters, red wine, and other appropriately aphrodisiac fare. Everything related to the art of love had a ritual character for Nina: sensuality was her religion, and she took it very seriously, even solemnly, much more than I could. Meanwhile, we had only gotten slightly better at talking with each other; and the lack of conversational rapport only added to my claustrophobic impression that the ever stimulating world was shrinking to this one hothouse area, her bedroom.
I went away for the summer, to New York City, and broke up with her pusillanimously by mail. At the time I told myself that I had not wanted to string her along, and that it should be obvious ours was a short-term, doomed experiment in lust. Or so it seemed to me. Maybe not to her. A year later, I received a phone call from Nina, inviting me to a popular upscale cafeteria, Butera’s, near the museum. I gratefully accepted. It was a beautiful day. I was on spring break. I’d been misusing my vacation, and thought how wonderful it would be to have an adventure – maybe we’d even go back to her house after lunch and make love in the afternoon.
At the restaurant, she was already sitting at an outdoor table on the terrace when I arrived. She looked diminutive from a distance, but as I approached I saw again how voluptuous her body was. Why had I been so stupid as to break up with her? I reviewed the various reasons, the problems and incompatibilities, but still, her face looked so pretty! Especially in the sunlight, her green eyes sparkled in the most enchanting way. We selected our food and settled in. the conversation bubbled along for an hour: this time she spoke amusingly and articulately, as we both caught up with each other’s lives. I took off my jacket, rolled up my sleeves – was in fact demonstrating for her a kind of projected undressing, when she looked at her watch. She said she had to return to the university library, as she was in the middle of a research project.
I felt disappointed, but intrigued: Why had she asked me to lunch? Though I could not bring myself to inquire outright, I provided a helpful silence, and she took it. She said she had called because the last time we had seen each other she had been left with such an unresolved, unsettled feeling that she “needed a sense of closure.” I now realized that, with unintentional gallantry, I had been sitting here all this time, helping to erase myself from her troubled heart. She confessed that it had been difficult for her to make the phone call inviting me to lunch, but that it had worked out surprisingly well.
“And,” I asked, trying to keep the irony out of my voice, “do you feel – closure?”
“Yes, I feel much better.” She went on to explain blithely that she no longer had a crush on me. Since one of our problems in the past had been her tongue-tiedness, you might say she was now giving me a chance to see what a fun gal I had passed up, what a resourceful conversationalist, once her infatuated feelings for me were extinguished.
She seemed so happy to have brought off this pleasant hour. I, for my part, was burning to make love to her one more time, but was not entirely discontented to have performed my part so well. I had deactivated my charm, had provided “closure.” I had finally gone long enough.
Drawing by Rembrandt van Rijn: The French-style bed or Happy position (thought to be the artist and his wife), c. 1640