DID YOU SEE: “Prince’s Holy Lust”

Among the outpouring of tributes to the musical genius Prince, who died Friday morning at age 57, two in particular caught my attention.  One is the CNN interview with community organizer Van Jones, who talked about all the ways that Prince quietly used his money and his fame to help people all over the world, an inspiring model of selfless service. You can watch that online here.

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More to the point of this blog, in the Sunday NY Times, music critic Touré wrote an op-ed piece about how from the very beginning Prince embodied, articulated, and championed healing the split between sexuality and spirituality.

The piece begins:

“Let me tell you why ‘Adore’ is the central song in the Prince canon. Because in ‘Adore’ you get the commingling of two keys to understanding the man and his music: his sexuality and his spirituality. In the second verse he paints the picture: ‘When we be making love / I only hear the sounds / Heavenly angels crying up above / Tears of joy pouring down on us / They know we need each other.’ They’re having sex under a sprinkling of angel tears, which are flowing because of the angels’ admiration of their love.

“This is the erotic intertwined with the divine. The Judeo-Christian ethic seems to demand that sexuality and spirituality be walled off from each other, but in Prince’s personal cosmology, they were one. Sex to him was part of a spiritual life. The God he worshiped wants us to have passionate and meaningful sex.”

Read the whole piece online here and let me know what you think.

DID YOU SEE: “When Did Porn Become Sex Ed?” in the New York Times

Peggy Orenstein has written very well for many years about the issues confronting young women in American culture. An excerpt from her new book, Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, was published in the Sunday New York Times today that directly addresses the question “When Did Porn Become Sex Ed?” While much has been written and discussed about the impact of pornography on how young men learn about and practice sex, not so much has been said about the same subject as it applies to young women.

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A passage that stood out for me:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than half of high schools and only a fifth of middle schools teach all 16 components the agency recommends as essential to sex education. Only 23 states mandate sex ed at all; 13 require it to be medically accurate.

Even the most comprehensive classes generally stick with a woman’s internal parts: uteruses, fallopian tubes, ovaries. Those classic diagrams of a woman’s reproductive system, the ones shaped like the head of a steer, blur into a gray Y between the legs, as if the vulva and the labia, let alone the clitoris, don’t exist. And whereas males’ puberty is often characterized in terms of erections, ejaculation and the emergence of a near-unstoppable sex drive, females’ is defined by periods. And the possibility of unwanted pregnancy. When do we explain the miraculous nuances of their anatomy? When do we address exploration, self-knowledge?

No wonder that according to the largest survey on American sexual behavior conducted in decades, published in 2010 in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, researchers at Indiana University found only about a third of girls between 14 and 17 reported masturbating regularly and fewer than half have even tried once. When I asked about the subject, girls would tell me, “I have a boyfriend to do that,” though, in addition to placing their pleasure in someone else’s hands, few had ever climaxed with a partner.

Boys, meanwhile, used masturbating on their own as a reason girls should perform oral sex, which was typically not reciprocated. As one of a group of college sophomores informed me, “Guys will say, ‘A hand job is a man job, a blow job is yo’ job.’ ” The other women nodded their heads in agreement.

I love that Orenstein is calling attention to the discrepancy between the sex education that schools offer kids and what porn teaches them. And I love that enlightened sex educators like Carol Queen, who co-founded the women’s sex-toy emporium Good Vibrations in San Francisco, take it as their mission to teach people not just about sex but about pleasure. Her newly published The Sex and Pleasure Book, co-written with Shar Rednour, is a valuable resource for anyone’s sexual health bookshelf alongside Erika Moen’s web comic (collected into two book-length volumes so far) Oh Joy, Sex Toy.

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DID YOU SEE: Out Magazine on sex work as health care

The latest issue of Out magazine contains an honest, open essay by Andrew Gurza called “Price of Intimacy” in which the author describes his quest for nurturing erotic contact and his nourishing experience with a sacred intimate practitioner.

price of intimacy illo                                                              Illustration by Emiliano Ponzi

“I’d never considered the price of intimacy until I hired a sex worker,” Gurza begins. “Though I’d been learning to embrace my life in a wheelchair—a result of cerebral palsy—going without touch, or even access to my own body, was taking a toll. Even so, I didn’t come to my decision lightly. I was worried about shame, stigma, and fear, and concerned I’d pay for time and still not get what I needed. I spent weeks quieting the voices in my head telling me that using the services of a sex worker was not a good idea. Would this be the only way I could find intimacy? Would someone even want to do this with me, or would he only view it as a charitable opportunity to help a cripple? Despite all these questions, I sat in my apartment reflecting on my nearly year-long celibacy. It was time to take care of myself.”

The encounter he describes sound moving and hot. It reminded me of the movie The Sessions, based on a similar article by Mark O’Brien, a man living with cystic fibrosis who engages the services of a sexual surrogate partner.

It takes a lot of courage for anybody — whether well-bodied or differently abled — to see sexual healing from a professional. And although sex workers come in many sizes and shapes, skills and motivations, there are practitioners who know what they’re doing and can facilitate transformative pleasurable encounters.

Check out Gurza’s article here and let me know what you think. You can also check out the article I wrote on “Sex Work as Health Care,” adapted from a talk I gave at one of several Gay Men’s Health Summits in Boulder, Colorado.

DID YOU SEE: NY Times Magazine on sex education

Bless Julie Metzger. The former pediatric nurse (originally from Pittsburgh, now based in Portland OR) has found a smart and effective way to educate adolescents about their sexual bodies. Bonnie Rochman’s terrific article in the New York Times Magazine March 29, “Rewriting ‘The Talk’,” describes the two-part course on puberty Metzger designed and has taken around the country. Each class lasts two hours, and there are separate classes “For Girls Only” and “For Boys Only,” attended by kids and their parents.

On a recent winter evening, Metzger stood at the door to the hospital auditorium and greeted every mother-daughter pair with animation, as if she’d known them for years, and told each girl to take an index card and a ballpoint pen with the name of her company, Great Conversations, on it. The first hour of each class amounts to an informative stand-up routine — Metzger sticks a sanitary pad on her shoulder to show that it won’t slip around — but the second hour is devoted to answering the girls’ questions. Metzger believes that having kids pose questions fosters intimacy and allows parents to hear for themselves what their children’s concerns are. In the first class, when the focus is on the physical changes caused by puberty, Metzger tends to be asked: Why do we have pubic hair? What does it feel like to have a growth spurt? How do I know when I’m getting my period?

As the girls scribbled on their index cards, some used their elbows to block an inquisitive mother’s gaze. (Bolder girls will sometimes go so far as to write things like “This is from Susan in the third row, in the red shirt.”) After intermission, during which Metzger collected the cards into a disorderly pile, she put on a pair of thick red reading glasses and began.

Can boys stick a tampon in their penis?” she read. “Absolutely not. They can try, but I wouldn’t recommend it.” She flung the card to the floor.

Do you always get a baby from having sex?” she read. “My husband and I have been married 28 years. We may have had sex over 1,000 times. I am happy to report we do not have 1,000 children. There are ways to show and share your love without having a baby.” Another card flew out of her hand.

Metzger’s company represents a distinct shift from the usual approach to sex education. She believes that adolescence and puberty should be the purview of children and their parents, not solely that of children and their teachers. “The idea that we are talking to two generations at the same time is at the core of this,” she says. Because they are voluntary, Great Conversations courses are free to be more frank than school-based sex ed; they can sidestep detractors who think kids shouldn’t be taught about masturbation, for example.

Check out the whole article online here and let me know what you think.

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DID YOU SEE…? New York Times essay on sexual desire

I’ve had a number of men and women, both friends and clients, confide in me privately about their concern about never feeling “horny.” They’ve heard people talk about this phenomenon, and perhaps looking at porn has given them the impression that most people are hot to trot at the spur of the moment, all hours of the day and night. And they worry that there’s something wrong with them, Men often think it’s their masculine duty to pop a boner on command, and that’s one of the perceptions that leads men to succumb to the “low-T” industry and take testosterone supplements or injections. Women fret that if they’re not sufficiently orgasmic, they will be perceived as frigid, unfeminine, unsexy. As a sex therapist, a big part of my job is helping people get to the place of accepting that your sexuality is your sexuality — it can be as individual as your fingerprint, and it doesn’t have to match anybody else’s, though it may take working through a lot of fears, assumptions, and social/cultural pressures to get there. Emily Nagoski’s op-ed piece in today’s New York Times gave me some new language to articulate a particular concern about sexual desire. Nagoski, a sex educator and the author of a forthcoming book called Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, takes as her starting point the effort of a company called Sprout Pharmaceuticals to get the Food and Drug Administration to approve a drug called flibanserin to treat low sexual desire in women.

“Researchers have begun to understand that sexual response is not the linear mechanism they once thought it was,” she writes. “The previous model, originating in the late ’70s, described a lack of ‘sexual fantasies and desire for sexual activity.’ It placed sexual desire first, as if it were a hunger, motivating an individual to pursue satisfaction. Desire was conceptualized as emerging more or less ‘spontaneously.’ And some people do feel they experience desire that way. Desire first, then arousal. But it turns out many people (perhaps especially women) often experience desire as responsive, emerging in response to, rather than in anticipation of, erotic stimulation. Arousal first, then desire. Both desire styles are normal and healthy. Neither is associated with pain or any disorder of arousal or orgasm.”

come-as-you-are-9781476762098_hr Nagoski acknowledges that medical or psychiatric treatment may be warranted for women who lack both spontaneous and responsive desire and are distressed by this. For these women, research has found that nonpharmaceutical treatments like sex therapy can be effective.

“But I can’t count the number of women I’ve talked with who assume that because their desire is responsive, rather than spontaneous, they have ‘low desire’; that their ability to enjoy sex with their partner is meaningless if they don’t also feel a persistent urge for it; in short, that they are broken, because their desire isn’t what it’s ‘supposed’ to be. What these women need is not medical treatment, but a thoughtful exploration of what creates desire between them and their partners. This is likely to include confidence in their bodies, feeling accepted, and (not least) explicitly erotic stimulation. Feeling judged or broken for their sexuality is exactly what they don’t need — and what will make their desire for sex genuinely shut down.”

I can attest that it’s not just women who have these concerns. While it is definitely an observable fact that plenty of men register the thought “Hey, I’m horny” and then go looking for a partner to satisfy the craving for sexual satisfaction (hello, Grindr!), it’s equally true that for other men that is a completely alien experience. Gay men who have that particular sexual temperament can feel completely inept and dysfunctional in many contemporary social environments, including social media, sex parties, cruising situations, even cocktail parties where single guys mix and mingle. It’s not uncommon for guys, whether strangers just meeting or people in established relationships, to engage in “checking” behavior — subtly or not so subtly reaching for the other guy’s crotch to see if he has a boner and if he doesn’t interpreting that to signal lack of interest. And yet, for each person, there are almost certainly specific circumstances under which their hearts and bodies get turned on — it’s probably in private, one-on-one, with a partner who has taken the risk of expressing desire or at least a context where mutual acceptance, appreciation, and flirty attraction have made themselves evident. Maybe it takes affectionate touching, or making out, or direct physical contact for arousal to happen, rather than waiting for an erection before making the first move. I’m happy to have Nagoski’s term “responsive desire” to describe that phenomenon.

Think about how your erotic body works. Do you experience spontaneous desire frequently, seldom, or never? Are you someone whose desire emerges in response to someone else’s stimulation? Check out the complete article online here and let me know what you think.

DID YOU SEE: NY Times column on grief

Patrick O’Malley’s sensitive column “Getting Grief Right” in yesterday’s New York Times Sunday Review reinforced what I myself know from both personal and professional experience: grief knows no timetable. Mourning the loss of a loved one takes as long as it takes. It is not at all unusual for a bereaved person to fret that “it’s taking too long” or to worry that other people will think they’re crazy for still feeling consumed with unpredictable waves of sorrowful tears. Grieving people often accuse themselves of “wallowing” in their misery. And there are plenty of guidebooks and bereavement counselors out there who mean well — by applying Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s theory about the stages of death and dying to the experience of grieving, or by suggesting that the first year is the worst and that things get better after the first round of anniversaries. But often that sort of “designer grief” doesn’t really help. Just as often, it makes the person who’s mourning feel worse, misunderstood, or enraged. Nor does medicating a bereaved person with antidepressants make sense. Grieving is a normal and healthy process for which there is no shortcut or substitute.

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I resonated most with O’Malley’s suggestion that the story of loss has three chapters, and they look different and roll out in time a different way for each person. “Chapter 1 has to do with attachment: the strength of the bond with the person who has been lost. Understanding the relationship between degree of attachment and intensity of grief brings great relief for most patients. I often tell them that the size of their grief corresponds to the depth of their love.” Chapter 2 has to do with the death event itself. The impact of a sudden death, a freak accident, or a young child will automatically have an entirely different magnitude from the death, however painful, of an elderly parent or someone who has been ill for a long time. Chapter 3, says O’Malley, “is the long road that begins after the last casserole dish is picked up — when the outside world stops grieving with you.” This is when a support group or therapy can be helpful in providing a space where you don’t have to explain or make excuses for the feelings of drift, disorientation, and sadness that go with the territory of grief.

Check out O’Malley’s column here and let me know what you think.

DID YOU SEE: the Atlantic on Michael Kimmel

Stonybrook professor Michael Kimmel has a long distinguished career as an author, activist, and educator about men and masculinity. (His anthology The Politics of Manhood includes an essay by me.) So I was glad to see this article about him, “The Bro Whisperer,” in the online version of The Atlantic. The work he’s been doing for years has laid the groundwork for the movement to address rape and sexual assault on college campuses.

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A key passage in the article: “Much of the national conversation has focused on reducing binge drinking and prosecuting perpetrators. A more overlooked problem, according to Kimmel, is that many college men are insecure, unprepared for sex, and desperate to prove themselves to their friends. He says many of them approach hookups with the mentality that “sex is a battle: I have to conquer you, I have to break down your resistance.” The challenge, then, is to make men want sex that’s less like a battle and more like an unusually satisfying UN meeting, where everybody understands the proceedings and gets a vote.”

You can read the whole story online here. Check it out and let me know what you think.

DID YOU SEE: Richard Kearney on touch in the Sunday NY Times

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Almost every day I have at least one session with a client that confirms two of the basic principles underlying my Body and Soul Work practice: “Touch Heals” and “Healing Through Pleasure.” For people who live with chronic pain, either emotional or physical, the nervous system constructs a four-lane highway between the brain and the cells that signal pain and suffering, so that virtually all other perceptions get left in the dust. But even just an hour of skillful, safe, loving touch can shift someone’s experience entirely, serving as a reminder that alongside pain and suffering, even a chronically ill body is capable of joy, pleasure, and relief.

In a fascinating and thoughtful essay published today in the New York Times’ Sunday Review, philosopher Richard Kearney, who teaches classes about the history of eros at Boston College, discusses the place of touch in our digital culture. He notes that we are much more likely to touch screens these days than each other, even when negotiating sexual connections via social media. Scholar that he is, he looks back to the ancient Greeks for similar dialogue about the rivalry between the sense of touch and the sense of sight:

In perhaps the first great works of human psychology, the “De Anima,” Aristotle pronounced touch the most universal of the senses. Even when we are asleep we are susceptible to changes in temperature and noise. Our bodies are always “on.” And touch is the most intelligent sense, Aristotle explained, because it is the most sensitive. When we touch someone or something we are exposed to what we touch. We are responsive to others because we are constantly in touch with them…

Aristotle was challenging the dominant prejudice of his time, one he himself embraced in earlier works. The Platonic doctrine of the Academy held that sight was the highest sense, because it is the most distant and mediated; hence most theoretical, holding things at bay, mastering meaning from above. Touch, by contrast, was deemed the lowest sense because it is ostensibly immediate and thus subject to intrusions and pressures from the material world. Against this, Aristotle made his radical counterclaim that touch did indeed have a medium, namely “flesh.” And he insisted that flesh was not just some material organ but a complex mediating membrane that accounts for our primary sensings and evaluations.

Consider for yourself what you touch on a daily basis. How much flesh do you make contact with in your life? How do you perceive it in relation to touching other surfaces? Do you appreciate it more, or do you notice any distinction at all?

Check out Kearney’s essay in full here and let me know what you think.

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DID YOU SEE: Katy Butler interview on death and dying in The Sun

Life in a body goes right up to and includes everything around the experience of dying. I agree with Katy Butler, author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door, that we don’t have enough conversations about our hopes, fears, desires, and wishes related to our own deaths. I just caught up with a long and engrossing interview with Butler by Sam Mowe in the April 2014 issue of The Sun, the exemplary literary magazine published monthly in Chapel Hill, NC. I paid particular attention to a passage where she talks about what happens if you’re unprepared: “You may find yourself calling 911 in a panic, which means a trip to the ER and often the ICU.”  It brought me into vivid contact with the memory of one of the most important days of my life, when I was caring for my friend Bob in the last stages of AIDS-related lymphoma. I had never been present for someone else’s death, and when it was clear the time was coming, as his primary caregiver I couldn’t think of what else to do but exactly that, call 911. In the emergency room at St. Luke’s Roosevelt, a doctor said to me bluntly, “Why did you bring him here? There’s nothing we can do. You should have kept him at home.” He was right. I wished later that I had, but at the time I was completely unprepared, practically and psychologically, to manage a home death.

Have you thought about these questions? I really encourage you to. In this passage from the interview, Butler gives some very helpful guidelines for how those conversations might go.

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What are some of the barriers in our culture to talking openly about death?

Number one is that Americans love technology and have too much faith in it. We live with the illusion that our technologies will always save us.

Number two is that we’re unfamiliar with death. There was a time when it would have been rare for a person in middle age not to have lost a child, a parent, or a sibling. People are unpracticed at seeing death and coping with death, because we’ve pushed it to extreme old age and hidden it away in the hospital.

Number three is that we’re just embarrassed to talk about death, even more so than we are to talk about sex. An eighty-five-year-old might say to her kids, “I probably don’t have more than another five years,” and the kids will say, “Oh, Mom, don’t be morbid. You’ve got lots of time. You’re healthy.” We act as though it’s unloving to talk about the reality of death, as if it means we are trying to throw our parents under the bus. We think that we’re being loving when we’re optimistic, but optimism is one of our problems. Americans have a misguided sense of how much, or what sort of, hope is appropriate.

What do you mean?

I mean it’s honest to hope that you might heal your relationships before you die. It’s dishonest to say to a dying person, “We have very good results from this treatment,” when it might mean a 17 percent chance of surviving an extra three months.

In this culture everybody’s trying to put the best spin on reality all the time. Americans feel like failures if they can’t control and manage everything, but death is uncontrollable and unmanageable.

How can we have end-of-life discussions? What should they consist of?

We need to start the discussion way upstream. You have one discussion when you’re totally healthy and the only thing you’re worried about is an accident that leaves you with major brain damage. When you’re in your seventies and eighties and you have multiple chronic illnesses, you have a different conversation with your healthcare provider. At that point you might welcome a relatively peaceful and sudden death and obtain a Do Not Resuscitate bracelet, since your odds of surviving CPR intact are slim anyway. You might want to refuse dialysis or open-heart surgery.

When you’re within a year of dying or you have terminal dementia and have to be locked up, the conversation changes again. Maybe you want comfort care only. Maybe you want to refuse antibiotics or a feeding tube – anything that causes you stress and prolongs your life. You may have come to the point where you see pneumonia as the “old person’s friend,” as doctors used to call it. So long as your pain is addressed, you’re ready to die.

In my family we were blunt. I could ask my dad in the months following his stroke, “Is your life still worth living?” and he didn’t take offense. I could say to my mother, “I think we’re grasping at straws.” Not all families are like this. One good way to start is to ask, “Have you thought about who you want to make medical decisions for you when you can’t make your own?” and “What do you want that person to know?” I can think of no better legacy to leave the next generation than to give them clarity on this. “Just take me out to the field and shoot me” is not an end-of-life plan. Nor is “You’ll know what to do when the time comes,” because loved ones often don’t. Older people should have clear directives in place so they don’t leave their children conflicted and heartbroken and guilty about, say, discontinuing life support.

Likewise, I can think of no greater gift to give a dying parent or spouse than to put him or her on the pathway to a peaceful and timely death free of unnecessary suffering, even if this means opposing the advice of doctors or having intense discussions with other family members. For many people the best death is still a home death. And getting on the pathway to a home death means facing the fact that death is coming long before it knocks on the door. It means bringing in palliative care and then hospice. Otherwise you may find yourself calling 911 in a panic, which means a trip to the ER and often the ICU.

I don’t think we should see these discussions as strictly medical or legal. They’re not just pieces of paper. They are discussions about your deepest values. Whom do I love and trust? What makes my life worth living? Do I have a right to say, “Enough”? How do I want to die? What do I owe my descendants? When is it OK to let go?

 

DID YOU SEE: New York Magazine on butt-licking

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I admire Maureen O’Connor, New York magazine’s current sex columnist, for having the lady-balls to address the subject of rimming in a major mainstream publication. At the same time, I’m kind of appalled at her ignorance and misinformation about the intersection of pleasure and hygiene in this department. It’s one thing to start off with a certain amount of squeamishness about merging the hole you eat with and the hole someone else poops with – we’ve all been there. But O’Connor’s column begins and ends without making any distinction between butt-munching and shit-eating. The latter is a fetish that has its adherents – the clinical word for the practice is coprophagia – but they are very few and far between, virtually all of them “mentally ill, retarded, or otherwise missing a few teeth off the main sprocket.” Analingus is a whole other story, and its enthusiasts know perfectly well how to make a tasty meal out of eating ass without unwanted guests showing up for the feast.

Of course, as with every sexual practice under the sun, not all practitioners apply the same standards. For instance, not every heterosexual man loves to perform oral sex on women (nor is every guy equally adept at it), and although there may be some pussy-eaters who will go down on a woman who is menstruating, I think it’s fair to say that’s not the majority. Similarly, I think it’s fair to say that most people who are into eating ass take steps to make sure their partners are reasonably clean. Not everyone is that meticulous. My friend Eric had a knack for picking up macho construction workers, and he loved burying his face in their musky buttholes. The way he dealt with the hygiene issue was to ration his rimming – he only allowed himself four analingus episodes per calendar year. That worked for him. For me, that’s way too risky. I would prefer the option of unlimited butt-licking, as long as the butt is clean.

How do you determine cleanliness? Some people employ the smell test, either sneaking a finger down there and discreetly sniffing it or waiting until your face is close enough to get a good whiff. You can usually tell. Sometimes I will ask my partner, “Is your ass clean enough to eat off of?” You have to know your partner well enough to know if those words mean the same thing to both of you. I’m always happiest rimming someone who has just stepped out of the shower. (Certainly, that is the best way to engage in butt-licking with close to zero risks to your health. See Cecil Adams’ frank and characteristically informative Straight Dope column for the list of possible diseases that you can get from ingesting fecal matter.)

I want to mention something about rimming scenes in porn. Nowadays you can spend all day watching rimming scenes online, some of it pretty hot. Some commercial porn producers make it a point to model safer sex practices, but many don’t. Maybe especially because it’s ridiculous to expect porn film to take responsibility for educating the public about sexual hygiene, I want to mention that as a sex educator myself, I cringe when I see scenes in porn where someone is rimming, then plays with the partner’s asshole, sticks his finger(s) inside, and then goes back to eating ass again. People do it all the time, but it’s not advisable – even a rectum that’s been recently cleaned out can have traces of fecal matter sloshing around inside, and you don’t want to pull what’s inside out to where it can get in your mouth. If you do, you run the risk of picking up parasites or hepatitis. That’s probably why some people abstain from ass-eating altogether. The closest thing to completely risk-free rimming is covering your partner’s ass in Saran Wrap – you’ll never see it in any porn film, because it’s not especially photogenic, but it can feel fantastic for both partners, and it has the added appeal of removing the possibility of unwanted smells and tastes, not to mention any health risk.

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I wasn’t always an aficionado of ass-eating. When I was a young gay guy in my twenties, I couldn’t imagine doing it or enjoying it, partly because anal eroticism was not my strongest interest and partly because of the poopy connotations. It was a mid-‘70s porn film that changed my mind completely, I can’t remember the name of the mustachioed performer or the film I was watching, but his tender ardent tonguing made rimming look like kissing, which was a revelation for me. I’ll always be grateful for that life-changing celluloid moment of adult sex education. If you approach rimming the way you approach kissing – that is, if everybody makes sure to freshen up in advance — it can’t help but be sweet, tender, juicy, exploratory, and intimate.