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I don’t know where I got the idea that I shouldn’t talk about what I wanted sexually. Same place everyone does, I guess: pop culture. The music I listened to in the mid-80s definitely had sex in it, but if the girl in the songs went after what she wanted, she was a tiger, she was an animal, she was dangerous, and ultimately not trustworthy. I read voraciously, but the books I huddled up with in the stacks didn’t help; they told me that sex was mysterious if not actually surreal, with frequently upsetting aftermaths, maybe eating disorders or teen pregnancy, or possibly an alien invasion (I read a lot of sci-fi, what can I say?). And my Mormon upbringing meant that I had no way of talking about it at all; there were no words, only shitty metaphors like defiling a temple or crushing a rose.
Somehow I continued to not really talk about sex through high school and college, well into adulthood, in spite of the fact that I fucked a lot during some of that time. I had boyfriends, and later, a couple of girlfriends. I had partners, and we fucked. So there must have been communicating, right?
But there wasn’t. I can’t remember asking my high-school boyfriend if he would finger me or reciprocate oral. I can’t remember talking with my long-term lesbian partner about whether she liked my oral sex skills or not. I think she did, I mean, she let me do it for a long time, but maybe she was just putting up with it.
I definitely don’t recall talking with anyone else about what I felt when I read Patrick Califia’s Doc and Fluff, and wanked repeatedly to the gay-male extreme fisting scenes and came so hard that I nearly fell off the Murphy bed. I didn’t tell anyone about that. I just hid the book under my pillow, never returned it to the Gay and Lesbian Association library—they added “bisexual” to the name a year later—and I never mentioned it to anyone. I went through all that time not talking, just absorbing ideas about sex and my own behavior from various books. I “made moves” and hoped I was making the right ones, or had moves made on me, but saying anything out loud about sex and my desire was never something I learned how to do.
Eventually, I learned to speak up as a survival response. I cheated on my female partner with a dude at a conference, and I realized how fucked up that was to her, and also how fucked up I was being to me. I felt that I was slipping off the deep end, into a spiral of endless shame and blame, so I decided to see a counselor once a week for a year. With her was the first time that I really got to say, out loud, what I wanted sexually.
It was actually pretty simple: I want dick. I remember saying that to my counselor and getting SO ANGRY at myself. It sounded so shallow and ridiculous, so greedy. It sounded, even to my inexperienced ear, like bad dirty talk. I burst into tears at how stupid it sounded, what a pitiable excuse for sending my 10-year relationship through the wringer. And yet there it was. When I said it, there was no going back. Taking it back, pretending that it was a slip of the tongue, was not possible. The truth will out.
Feeling that realness, at the ripe old age of 30, was the catalyst for my power. I'll call it power, maybe even a superpower, because saying what I wanted changed things. Not immediately, not like magic, but the change happened. At first I was terrified of this new-found force; how not, when it had so utterly up-ended my existence and identity and all of it? But then I saw how it made things better; I saw that I didn’t have to feel isolated by my own desires anymore, and I started asking more and more for what I wanted. I want this kind of sex. I want an open relationship. I like doing this sort of thing. I like the way that feels. Can we try playing with that? No, I’d rather not do that. Wait. Stop here. May I kiss you? And things did change. They continue to change. I speak my desire, and oh god, I love where it is leading me. But it wouldn't have happened without that long year of pain.
When people ask me for advice, on how to have those challenging conversations, the ones that seem to push back against everything you think you know about how you're supposed to behave, well... I can tell you what I've learned. I can give you some ideas. But you have to be paying enough attention to know when the pain of holding something in outweighs any possible risks of letting it out.
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When I was still working as a phone sex operator—lo these four months ago—I would frequently fall back on a game with new callers. The game, I said, was called “Top Three”; I would tell the caller my (supposed) top three favorite things to do in bed, and then they had to tell me theirs, and then we would see where our interests overlapped.
I called it a game, to keep the tone light, but it was more of a conversational gambit, a way to get to the point of the call with callers who either didn’t intend to give a shit about time limits, enjoyed hearing a woman exert herself in vain, didn’t really know what they wanted from the encounter, OR knew what they wanted, but were afraid to say it. I encountered all four types of callers in phone sex—drastically more of the latter two categories—and frankly, they were all tiring, if not actually tiresome to handle, especially if I was trying to be in any way suave or sophisticated about the conversation, you know, “letting it emerge organically.” If I tried to let it emerge organically with these guys, we would never, ever reach the fucking point.
So, I would say to my caller, “Let’s play Top Three!” and explain the game, really excitedly, of course, like oh my god, I have been waiting all day to play this game with someone! Sometimes they would approve of one or more of my faves, and then go on to share some of theirs; occasionally they’d jump the rails and throw some other thing at me—“how do you feel about (X thing)?” with the answer always needing to be oooh, I love (X thing)!
Usually they’d respond so clearly to one of my faves that I knew we could just run with that. In any case, Top Three was a starting point for a conversation, a gimmick to help both of us get clear on the purpose of the phone call, e.g. getting the caller off. I needed the gimmick, because a lot of my callers were inexperienced at verbal sexy times, and some were struggling with their own kinks. Faced with their loaded silence, I deployed Top Three over and over.
It was my job to open them up, yes. But I’ve also used Top Three, or some variant thereof, with my own new lovers, face-to-face lovers, people who had the same fears and resistance to stepping up first. Look, I have those same fears, too! But someone has to speak first to these fears and desires, or else you just wind up circling around each other, making ineffective or off-putting moves because both parties are lacking crucial pieces of information.
And so, I would speak. What are your favorite things? I like X, Y, and Z, and I might call you daddy if the mood is right, is that okay?
As it did with my phone clients, the gambit worked. It started the conversation, it broke the ice. I gave my partners something to respond to, to embrace or just as enthusiastically bounce their own ideas into. In spite of my own fears, I modeled the openness that I want and need in conversations about sex.
Another great aspect of the Top Three direct approach is that it works even beyond that initial conversation. As a relationship develops and you have some history and context together, you will still have desires or activities or experiences that feel harder to handle, for whatever reason. Can we talk about [X thing], because when that happened last night, these were the three things I liked about it.
Whether at the very beginning of an encounter, or further on in a relationship, there are a few things you can do to help get those Top Three-type conversations going:
- Ask for consent to even have the conversation. I’d like to talk a little more about that. Can I ask you some questions about your experience with this? If someone doesn’t want to talk about a thing, the more you push at them, even in a sexy way, the more they close down.
- Set the dial at 80 percent, max, to start with. On phone calls, I never stated my Top Three at their hardest-core option. For example, to introduce the idea of female-dominant activity I would say, If you want to fuck my pussy, then I’m going to want to be on top, instead of I’m going to sit on your face until you drown. This way keeps the fear factor lower, and it leaves them room to join me in creating the path to, well, pussy-induced drowning, if that’s what they want.
- Ask follow-up questions. These can be yes-no, if the person seems really shy, or they can be open-ended, if you’ve got a lover who is willing to spill the beans, but once you’ve said your Top Three, you have to leave room for a conversation to develop, and a conversation, a good one, is back-and-forthing and asking questions and really listening to the answers.
If Top Three seems too brazen for you, I get it. There are other games and more subtle ways of starting a sexy conversation. I know how to use those, too; it's not all lust bombs in my backpack. But there is something solid and liberating to be gained about being the one to initiate the conversation, and saying up front what you'd like the conversation to be about.
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Believe it or not, I am NOT a fan of public sex, for myself. Sure, the occasional ass squeeze or crotch grope with a lover is in my repertoire, and I have been known to get pretty damn steamy down a dark alleyway or country lane. But the point is to Not Get Caught.
My public sex is semi-public, at best; I want to find and use those hidden corners in the collective consciousness, but the second someone sees, I will hurriedly disentangle, pull my panties back in place and walk on with an attempt at nonchalance I’m not embarrassed. I just have no interest in pressing my sexual displays on unwilling passersby. Besides, one should only involve other people in one’s sex scenes if those other people have given consent.
And yet, sometimes the spirit moves me. Sometimes, for example, I'll be sitting with my lover at a table at the train station and I look at him and a five-second GIF flashes up in my mind, of grabbing him by the hand and dragging him off somewhere, anywhere right then, and doing all the things we just did two hours earlier, the things we didn’t have time for this weekend, but will get a chance to do in two weeks when I see him again. That memory/vision is powerful, definitely visceral—I can feel it in my gut, and a little lower too—and yet, public mores being what they are, there is not a goddamn thing I can do about it.
Except actually, there is something I can do. I can tell him, right there, in a low enough undertone that the people sitting behind us can’t hear, in a small enough sound bite that I will finish my dirty description before the server comes with our tea, but enough to make his spine weaken sideways for a moment and his fingers convulsively clench at mine, and his eyes roll momentarily before he scrunches them shut and then takes a deep breath and open his eyes and sit up straight because, whoops, here’s the server and he may have seen my lover blink his eyes open, but he has no idea what I said to get my lover like that.
This is my favorite application of dirty talk: public sleaze. When you and your lover’s minds are dirty enough, and you know how to communicate at least some portion of that filth, out loud, you can go a long, LOOONG way in public. You can “do” things in public with dirty talk that you can’t actually do anywhere. And if tease/torment is at all a part of your play dynamic, then public sleaze is the BEST. That added constraint of “what people might think” is DELICIOUS.
Not used to bringing your sleaze out in public? Some tips from a dedicated dirty talker:
- Keep it simple. “What I want to do to you (in appreciative detail),” “what you did to me this morning was AMAZING (and here's why),” and “what my body feels like right now, in the aftermath” are all good sleaze-starters.
- Keep it to yourselves. If it’s obviously dirty talk, lean in close, or just take a good look around you to see where possible listeners lurk. The more likely it is that others might hear, the more you should keep your innuendo abstract or "in-joke."
- Use ambient noise to your advantage. Train stations, airports, malls, busy bars… these are good options because the noise will always stay above a certain level.
- Beware the false din. We've all been places where the decibel level can rise and fall a little more abruptly. You don’t want your crude confession to come out when suddenly and inexplicably everyone in the coffee shop falls silent at once.
- Practice your poker face. I love leering and winking and a well-raised eyebrow as much as anyone, but keeping a neutral expression when you’re launching into a really crude description is devastatingly effective. The contrast can be mind-blowing.
- Give your partner feedback. As with any sex, you want to let them know that what they're doing is working. Do your part freely in a dirty conversation, or show your response in body language (eye rolls, butt squirms, running your finger around the rim of a glass, footsies under the table, unbuttoning another button of your sweater or blouse.
If you want to keep your response totally buttoned down, just look at your partner, right in the eyes, while they or you talk. Put all your sleaze in that look. Remember, though: you might feel like this is the most discreet way of responding, but if the conversation is that hot, people around you will be able to tell. But that’s okay. All you’re doing is talking and looking at each other.
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