Reading a female colleague’s stories and a book in which women reflect on their erotic lives, I am reminded of how sexy trains are. We might generalize that if in a given book people are going to have sex in a transportation vehicle, it will be on one of the old-style European trains, and if we read a book of erotic stories, particularly if they are written by women, like as not there will be at least one story in which people have sex on such a train (with the old-style compartments). Notwithstanding Fear of Flying, which I believe featured sex in an airplane bathroom, and the now faded stereotype of the comely and willing stewardess, the sexiness of air travel would seem to be limited by the cramped quarters and the shortage of compartments, gentle rocking or passing view. In second place after trains, at least in stories by American women, might come women traveling on the highways exposing themselves to passing truck drivers. There is also, of course, a vast literature and film library of teenagers making out and having sex in parked cars, but such stories are rarely presented as erotic. They are memories of youth, often nostalgic, sometimes humorous, generally focused on the rites of passage and the hard lessons of youthful sex: the first kiss, the humiliations of inexperience, the loss of innocence.
In a book in which women reflect on their erotic lives, a 56-year-old teacher in France tells a not so unusual story. “When I was 10 years old I was in a train with my family. I was alone with different people in a compartment, when suddenly I felt the hand of a man caressing my thigh. I didn’t want to move because it felt so good. At the same time I knew it was not right. It was forbidden and at the same time very exciting. His hand was under a newspaper because there were a lot of people—and it was exciting to know that there were people around us. Maybe they looked at me and I was like that—it was very exciting. I then became afraid because my father was on the train in another compartment and sometimes he came to see if I was okay. And I was very anxious that he would see the man with the newspaper.”
In her later youth, this woman recognized few sexual boundaries. She had erotic experiences with men and women, including her twin sister. Perhaps as a twin this woman never had the same sense of boundaries that the non-twin majority has claimed for normal. She says that she never felt guilty, though one wonders if, as with the train experience, she often felt guilty—or felt that what she was doing was taboo—and this was the source of her pleasure. Her persistent adult fantasy was to have sex in public without other people realizing what she was doing.
One hates to have to set aside life in order to draw conclusions about it. The twin detail is intriguing, but nonetheless . . . I am also intrigued by the extent to which it is transgression that is erotic and by how dependent one’s adult sexual life is on one’s childhood transgressions. Thus, for example, while to have been improperly seduced in childhood may later prove vexing or worse, it may also prove a source of great pleasure and excitement (and accompanying vexation and repression).
Here is an aspect of Western sexuality that a whole gamut of American moralizers deny. Even myself, while I am all for adults enjoying themselves, I am also opposed, for example, to adults, on trains and elsewhere, taking liberties with 10-year-olds. And I am also aware that in my youth I engaged in a series of transgressions with a girl who was somewhat younger than me. And while I was certainly aroused—magnetized—by the games and explorations, which I initiated, I don’t recall experiencing what I would now call erotic pleasure. I remember above all the sense of doing something I wasn’t supposed to. OR WAIT: THAT IS EROTIC PLEASURE??!! And yet it is clear now that I owe many of the most intense and wonderful pleasures of my own adult life to this brief experience. If I had known how inspiring it was going to be, I might have done more, gone further!
“I grew up with two brothers and was always keeping my clothes on in front of them. I was told to,” reports another of the women featured in the book. “When I was about eight years old my father had invited a family to come over to go swimming. . . . I remember thinking that I didn’t want to go swimming because I didn’t want to put my bathing suit on.” (Intriguing, too, is the role fathers play in both these stories; without Dad, it would seem, nothing memorable would have happened. Transgression would be impossible.)
“Everyone else was already in the water. I went back up to the house, because my father wanted me to get in too, to put my bathing suit on. I was taking a really long time. I just didn’t want to go down there with the other kids with a bathing suit on. I was in the bathroom and was changing into my bathing suit. I was completely naked. Suddenly the door opened and it was one of the—it was a boy. . . . And he just looked at me and I felt so totally exposed.”
And then as an adult she is particularly aroused when a boyfriend insists on examining her clitoris. She has fantasies about doctors and, above all, about young boys—wanting to learn what a woman’s body is like—looking her over.
Given how important the exploration of limits and sexuality are in childhood, and given that our society, like all societies, has its rules about sex, it must be impossible to grow up without having experiences that can be classified as naughty, transgressive. We might wonder, nonetheless, whether certain kinds of transgressions are not more radiant, or radioactive, than others. Could we construct some sort of utility curve, charting the psychological risks involved in certain transgressions (e.g., the sense of lack of control that comes from being forced or seduced into doing things that one, inevitably, will regret having done; the sense of guilt of having forced or seduced another) versus the pleasure to be later found in reprising the event?
The image used here is a photograph by fashion photographer Enokae which appeared in a portfolio (title: Transgression) in the first issue of Wylde, a UK bi-annual fashion, image and interview magazine.
The colleague’s stories I was reading were by Sybil Kollar, who was in the Two Bridges writing group with me and many others years ago. Some of Sybil’s poems are collected in A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women. Among her stories available on-line: Freud’s Throat.
The Erotic Lives of Women, photographs by Linda Troeller, interviews by Marion Schneider (Scalo, 1998).