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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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I picked the subject for this Smut Slam—“True Lust”—out of the air a month ago and only yesterday—the day of the slam, whoops!—did I sit down and think, what the hell does this even mean? What makes an encounter or experience qualify as “true lust,” anyway? What makes it that for me?
In my world, in my body, lust has to do with physical craving, a sense of wanting that is actually viscerally felt. I want to have that, says my suddenly hollow stomach, my tightened throat, my tingly cunt. It feels electric, and it comes seemingly out of nowhere, usually in response to eye contact, often combined with a touch or something said.
I had always considered myself driven by true lust at the beginning of all of my relationships, but when I sat down to consider my freshly articulated definition, and measured my actual, historical sex experiences against that… it’s just not true. Lust is not what grabs me.Frequently my long-term relationships have gotten started in what might now be called a demi-sexual way, after a longer period of getting to know someone, either online or in person, and so the comfort and enjoyment was there. And I have had more casual sex for many reasons: I was drunk and the person was there; it felt like something I was expected to do; I abstractly wanted to do it because of the experience; I felt fine with going along with what the other person wanted because they seemed to really want it. In many of these cases, eventually I got into it, but… you see what I mean?
Actual True Lust moments, as far as I can remember, have been few, as in… two. Twice have I been struck through, without forethought, without a whole lot of conversation. And oddly enough those two times were on opposite ends of the “serious intent” spectrum.
The first time was after I had spent a year feeling terrible about wanting to be with cismen after 10 years of identifying as a lesbian. I wanted cock, in other words. After I had talked with a therapist long and hard about all this, I asked my long-term female partner about opening the relationship. She agreed, upon terms, one of those being that I not “do it in her territory.”
And so I went to Burning Man, and watched the sexy times unfold all around me, and felt like I didn’t know what I was doing and never would. I didn’t know how to approach men anymore, or how to be approached. But the night of the Burn, two nights before I left, a gentle man sat next to me on a couch in the middle of the desert, while a 40-foot-tall wooden effigy caught fire in the distance. The man placed his hand on my thigh as the flames leapt upward, and he said, “Those panties you have on are really cute.”
It all came down to the one crackling touch of his palm against my skin. What we did later that night is another story, and I never saw him again.
The second time I felt true lust was something else entirely. Again I met this guy offline, face to face, the traditional way, at a bar. Seriously, in the UK that feels like the traditional way. I liked the way he looked all right, but we hadn’t really talked before he beat me at Bananagrams. People who know me, know how I tend to bring this game out at the drop of a hat, and that I’m very good at it, and that I really love it when I find people who are good at it.
But I didn’t know how turned on I would be when this guy BEAT ME. It had rarely happened; I can count the times on one hand. When this guy won, and we had scanned each other’s word grids, I looked up at him and our eyes locked for a moment, and I can’t say what he was feeling at that moment, but I felt it zing into the back of my brain and drop down to the pit of my stomach and I got a little blurry, it was electric again, and I knew that I wanted to kiss him, more than I had wanted anything in years.
It all came down to that moment, seeing how smart he was and joyful in the game. The lust this time originated in my brain, and the one who struck that spark is now my life partner.
I know, of course, that following lust unthinking, or building one’s future around it, can be a shitty foundation for a life. You can never know, in those electric moments of no thought, just pull, what is actually there. It can be castles in the air, lava underfoot, broken hearts, broken homes.
You can’t rely on the immediate chemistry, the instant heat, whatever the sensation of true lust is for you. (This is the danger inherent in New Relationship Energy.) And it is unwise to place any more meaning on it than the meaning that emerges on its own.
But I think true lust is, besides that spark, a divining rod, showing you something that you need more of in your life. And that can start with anything, and lead to anywhere.
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I have performed Phone Whore probably close to 200 times, if not more. I have performed it a lot, in packed 100-seat theatres and in the basement of a pub with three people watching. For a frowny, arms-crossed crowd in a women’s bookstore, and for a room that was half-full of sex workers. I have a lot of experience to draw from, in terms of assessing audiences, but the show this past Saturday night was something special, and by special, I mean, AWKWARD AS FUCK.
All’s well that ends well, and I am here to tell the tale. We pulled it back from the brink, and it was a nice, tight show, performance-wise. But it started like a smoldering trash heap, oh Christ.
To start with, my front-of-house volunteer, a bright-eyed young theatre person who had checked in with me on the two previous nights when he arrived 15 minutes before house opening… well, he didn’t check in with me this time. I texted him at 20 minutes to show: no answer. I peeked out the doors at 15 minutes to show—when the house was supposed to open—and he wasn’t out there. I couldn’t understand it, he had been talking the whole weekend about bringing his dad, and then the night before he said he was bringing his mum, too, they were huge theatre fans, “don’t worry about it,” he said. And he had just pushed the show on Facebook. What happened?
I came back into the theatre and said to my technician, right, if he’s not here by five minutes before show, we lock the doors and have the drunkest, most leisurely load-out in theatre history. I was fully ready to cancel. I had already clocked out. It had been a challenging weekend, and if nobody showed, not even my door person, that would be the perfect icing on the bad, bad cake.
As I was getting ready to lock the doors, I looked out one last time and… there he was, smiling and leaning against the desk out there, and waving out me. And there were people out there. Not just his mom and dad, but, like, three other people.
I turned to the technician. There are people out there, I whispered. We have to do the show. And then I whirled back around to the volunteer, with my eyebrows lifted significantly. Can you come in here for a second? He walked in, and his family followed him in. By yourself, I hissed at him. They can’t come in yet. He hastily gestured his family back out into the lobby, I gave him a quick pointed briefing about CHECKING IN with your BOSS when you arrive for your volunteer shift, and told him to let the audience in.
It was a small house—six people, including the volunteer and his mom and dad—but not the smallest I’ve ever had. Not noticeably more awkward until I started doing my normal pre-show crowd work. You’re Joseph’s mom? Oh, you are? Okay, and you’re also his relative? You’re his AUNT. Excellent!
I extricated myself from that as quickly as I could, and slid down the row to chat with the straight couple a few seats down. And how did you find out about the show?
“We saw the poster.”
It wasn’t as bad as that: they were visiting from Glasgow and staying at a friend’s flat nearby for the weekend. They had swung by the pub the previous night because they heard it was a good one with good entertainment upstairs. Nothing on this week except Phone Whore, so they looked me up and decided to come on closing night. “Yeah, when we googled it, a bunch of 4- and 5-star reviews came up, so we thought we’d take a chance.”
So, okay. At least 33 percent of the audience was informed about the upcoming work.
Joseph finally closed the doors and the first phone call came on. The audience missed the first laugh checkpoint, so I was prepared, but damn, they were quiet. So very quiet. It was the quiet of paying attention, not the quiet of “we’re hating this,” so I plunged on ahead, but still AWKWARD, and about to get more so. In between calls 1 and 2, my character talks about a couple of clients, including one guy, “he’s an ass men, he’s a real sweetie, a real Southern gentleman.” Whose name is JOSEPH.
FUUUUUU…. It didn’t even hit me until I spoke that paragraph out loud, and then I was like, oh. Right. I wonder if his family will ever let him live that down? I wonder if his family will ever talk about this play, ever, was actually what I was thinking, because they saw the whole thing. They stuck it out. His mom, dad, and maternal uncle were sitting right next to him and I did that full-out mommy-fucker call, and then of course Call 4.
I did say I survived, right? And so did they. Everyone in the house hung around for the Q&A; the energy was fine in there, good questions, etc. Afterward, though, I asked my tech how the show felt from up in the god box, and he said, “It was a good run, but I had to stop watching toward the end.”
What, the play?
“No, the audience. During Call 3, I started covering my eyes, and I hid behind the desk for all of Call 4.”
Folks, when the tech says it’s awkward, it’s AWWWWWKWARD.
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