More Bang for the Buck

Our intrepid reporter assesses Viagra, sex toys, and instructional videos.

A friend of mine offers a theory about why Bill Clinton’s poll numbers stayed so high throughout the Lewinsky scandal: The news made it possible for serious-minded people to spend lots of time–at the office and over lunch–talking about semen stains, vaginal insertions, and blow jobs. And the people were grateful.

That’s probably because they’re not getting all that much themselves. A recent University of Chicago survey of 10,000 adults found that Americans are having considerably less sex than was generally thought. Only one American in 20 has sex three times a week. One in five didn’t score at all last year.

If that’s true, many of us could use a little sexual self-improvement. Not me, of course. I have been happily married for 26 years, since the age of 21. Deb and I have what seems to us to be a perfectly fine amorous life, yet everywhere I turn the culture tells me–almost mocks me–you can do better! What would happen to our sex life then, if Deb (who participated in this story because she loves me and because she has tenure) and I tried for the first time to make something happen to it?

And so it was that we found ourselves for the first time ever in a sex-toy store, A Touch of Romance, located near our home in Los Angeles, across the street from a Macy’s. The idea behind shops like these is to make obtaining the materials of sexual experimentation as ordinary as purchasing plumbing supplies or housewares.

Which sort of works–the only sexual thrill I got from the visit was knowing that Microsoft just bought a cock ring. Choosing it wasn’t easy. Most of them came in presized sets of three. I couldn’t figure out which would fit right and intuited that try-ons weren’t an option. So I opted instead for an adjustable circumference version, a little strip of vinyl with snaps for $11.95. Man, what a rip-off! Unless it works.

It doesn’t. Back home, I derived a certain depraved buzz in cinching the device on, but that was soon eclipsed. The thing works on the Roach Motel principle–your blood gets in but it can’t get out. But then I got to thinking: Under battlefield conditions it doesn’t get out anyway. And while I should have been paying more attention to other things, this led to thinking about the old joke with the punch line “… and right ball go POW.” My wife hadn’t noticed any difference at all.

Overall rating, on a scale of 1 to 10: 2 toes curled.

A woman I know says women’s magazines are the best places in America to find sex tips. She’s right–go ahead, just try to find a sewing pattern in Redbook. You’re much more likely to land on “Try phone sex, dirty notes, porn videos, fantasy games and sex in new places. … Try lingerie and no underwear. … Try talking dirty and silk scarves. Try anything at all,” or articles such as “Eight New Games for the Foreplay Challenged.”

An article in the April Cosmopolitan, “The Six Best Sex Positions,” seemed more promising than the Redbook playbook. Each position was accompanied by a succinct write-up and a stick-figure diagram. The position we settled on was “The Butterfly,” which we had to read three times to comprehend. The man stands, the woman remains supine on a bed or counter-top with her feet up on his shoulders. The whole idea is to produce a pelvic tilt for better access to the G spot. Instead, we experienced an uncomfortable pretzel feeling that stick figures must be immune to. And in general, Cosmopolitan’s exotic sex positions require the sort of body placement you can’t remember in the moment of passion and even if you could, for proper alignment, you still might need mood-killing accessories such as a plumb line and a laser pen.

Rating: 3 toes curled.

Next we tried those “Better Sex” instructional videos advertised in the New York TimesBook Review. I ordered Better Sexual Techniques, Advanced Sexual Techniques, Making Sex Fun, and Advanced Oral Sex Techniques (priced about $11.95 each, not including shipping and handling). My wife couldn’t bear to watch them; I persevered but must admit it was a chore. The oral-sex tape starts with “well-known sex therapist” Diana Wiley, in her poofy hair and broad-shouldered blue power suit, looking like she was about to explain how the sales force could increase its third-quarter productivity. Instead she runs through all the euphemisms for oral sex and then the video cuts to XXX action with gratuitous commentary.

Wiley’s overexplanation of everything two people can do to each other with their mouths raises this question: Do you really need a five-minute video segment on whether or not to swallow? In the great tradition of hotel and travel ads, the guys tend to be markedly less attractive than the women. No way he’d be with her if this wasn’t an instructional sex video! The inanity of the experts and the dubious casting make these films about as erotic as … well, as the New York Times. You could learn more from any randomly selected porn video.

Rating: 0 toes curled.

A nother approach is food. The notion that certain foods, such as oysters or rhino horn, are aphrodisiacs has been pretty much discounted. But it’s plausible to think that cooking a meal together and then dining on it, just the two of you, could be erotic. Especially if (like me) your schedule frequently forces you to eat alone and you often find yourself standing in front of the microwave, screaming, “Come on, goddammit!”Intercourses, by Martha Hopkins and Randall Lockridge ($24.95, Terrace Publishing, 1997), preaches that for every time of day and every phase of a relationship there is a type of eating experience that will heighten sexual response. (There’s also a chart showing which foods are good for eating off which body parts.) Deb and I blocked off a whole Saturday afternoon and evening for the Intercourses experiment, settling on rosemary-scented lamb over pasta (Page 87) followed by frozen coffee almond dessert (Page 31). According to the book, rosemary is sexy because of its fragrance (used in many perfumes) and because of its texture, which, so the text assured, tickles nerve endings. The dessert was mostly coffee, rum, and Kahlua, which has worked before.

We shopped for the food together and cooked together, drinking wine and beer along the way. At one point while I was working on the dessert, I asked my wife how long to beat the heavy cream mixture. “Till it’s stiff–it’s an aphrodisiac,” she said. Preparation took less than an hour, and everything came out perfectly. Eating at our dining room table for the first time ever without guests, we were having fun by candlelight. But the mood was romantic, not erotic.

Overall rating: 4 toes curled.

That’s when we went for the Viagra ($212.50 for 10 doses, which includes a “consultation” fee). The drug was prescribed by a doctor, whom I’ve never met, and ordered from a pharmacy in Miami Beach, Fla., where I’ve never been. I completed the transaction via the Internet after filling out a cover-their-ass questionnaire in three minutes.

We each decided to take one pill, clinked our glasses, and gulped. And then what? It felt awkward sitting in our bedroom, knowing that it could take up to an hour for Viagra to “work.” I suggested that we play strip poker, something I’d never done. Deb had never even played poker, so I had to explain the rules. I won in about six hands, auspiciously I thought, with three aces. But we still weren’t really in the mood yet.

So then I got out the other purchase I’d made at A Touch of Romance–“Dirty Dice” ($4.95). One of the two pink cubes is marked with these words instead of dots: “lips,” “above waist,” “ear,” “breast,” “below waist,” and “?”. The other cube is labeled “kiss,” “squeeze,” “lick,” “blow,” “suck,” and “eat.” We took turns throwing the dice, but the activities generated seemed forced and arbitrary. Finally, as they say at NASA, there was word from the pad that the launch sequence was initiating. It was pretty much like all other sex, except for a slight lightheadedness. Deb said she noticed a remote tingling sensation. On the plus side, there was no priapism and neither of us experienced disruption of our color vision nor a fatal heart attack, which was nice.

Overall rating: 5 toes curled.

St. Augustine held lust to be a fitting punishment for man’s disobedience to God: the body’s disobeying of the mind, the will, the spirit, and even of itself. (The paradigm of this for him is the unbidden hard-on.) Jean-Paul Sartre discovered something similar, although celebrating it rather than deploring it: Essential to the erotic is the body’s defiance of design and control. (The paradigm of this for him is the jiggle.) Sartre’s view yields a sort of sexual Heisenberg principle: There is an inherent tension between physically abandoning yourself to another on the one hand and sexual planning on the other. The more of the one, the less of the other. And this, I discovered, is the chief obstacle to sexual self-help. Getting an erection is sexy. Making one is not. As my wife said about Viagra, “You start to have a new feeling and then you realize where it came from and then you don’t have it so much. … Anything that makes you think about it like that is just creepy.”

This is not to say there isn’t a way out of this conflict between desire and design. With homage to our potent POTUS, there is, I think, a Third Way that’s neither sexual complacency nor standard self-help. If the intrusion of consciousness is the problem, then maybe the answer is to block it out. Sure, you could do this the old-fashioned way: with alcohol and drugs. But then you have all the traditional drawbacks, including diminished physical attractiveness and degraded sexual performance.

So how about this instead? Go for all the sexual self-help you can, but do it covertly. Watch a sex video (or porn flick) if you want–but by yourself, and then try to share what you learned without sharing how you learned it. Don’t tell your partner you took Viagra. Or give each other standing permission to slip it into the odd after-dinner drink, saying nothing. (Of course, when you do it you’ll still know, but having an unselfconsciously turned-on partner is a real compensation for that, and next time, your partner can surprise you. And yes, this requires trust. But why would you be having sex with someone you don’t trust?) My main conclusion is that contrary to our blabby culture, the key to a better sex life is less communication.