Spicing It Up

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Don't try to spice up your marriage. If you've got one maybe one and a half chili peppers on the Mexican menu of sex, just be happy with that. Because trying to spice up your marriage is one of the most depressing, sex-drive-suppressing experiences possible. Being assigned this story was the best form of birth control I have ever tried.

Perhaps I made things even worse by talking to my mother, who is a family therapist and therefore, I figured, must have great, sensible advice she doles out to struggling clients. I approached the subject gingerly. Mom did not. She apparently has a whole list of things she recommends: a book called 52 Invitations to Grrreat Sex, two Nancy Friday books (My Secret Garden and Forbidden Flowers), the movies 9 1/2 Weeks and Swept Away, and two "instructional" tapes from the Better Sex video series: Making Sex Fun and Advanced Sexual Techniques. Her final suggestion, "renting pornography or whatever works," was followed by the advice: "Women relate less to the hard porn, while men tend to be turned on by visuals and Deep Throat." I estimate that this conversation postponed her becoming a grandmother by seven years.

I ordered Mom's recommendations from Amazon, which, upon checkout, asked me if I wanted "to let my friends know about my order." Amazon is as sensitive to my embarrassment as my mother.

Feeling brash, I began with the Advanced Sexual Techniques tape. Even if I hadn't known that my mother had seen this barely veiled porn tape, I would have been grossed out. The idea of showing average-looking people having real sex sounds admirable until you actually see bald, fat people from the '80s going at it like quaaluded marsupials in bad lighting. While it made my lovely wife Cassandra feel good about her body, it made me feel bad about bodies in general. The academic experts' voice-overs backfired to make sex seem even more animalistic and desperate. Furthermore, the term advanced sexual techniques was being used loosely. There was an entire scene on male masturbation. If masturbating was advanced, I wondered what the simple sexual techniques were. Rubbing up and down on someone's leg?

I threw the rest of the Amazon package into the garbage—except for the Nancy Friday books. At least once a week from when I was 13 until I turned 15, I used to remove My Secret Garden from the family-room bookshelf, peruse the jaunty literary tales of women's sexual fantasies and carefully replace the book in exactly the same spot. Rereading the book, I realized that Friday was the one responsible for my inability to judge what is appropriate, by nonjudgmentally equating all sexual behavior. At one point, Friday writes that not thinking about bestiality when seeing a large animal is "like looking at a racing car and ignoring the thrill of speed." As far as heating up a marriage, this woman is the whole spice rack.

Friday may be the only smart person to take sexuality seriously, the only one who could give me marital tips without all that cuteness and overanalysis that depress me by outing just how difficult it is for most couples to communicate. But unfortunately, Friday is the wife of my boss's boss, Time Inc. editor-in-chief Norman Pearlstine. A smarter man would not call her and confess her role in shaping my sexuality. Then again, a smarter man wouldn't have called his mom for sex advice.

Friday told me I was "funny," which I was psyched on until she told me I was "self-accepting," at which point I realized she didn't know what she was talking about. But she did have some great sex advice. She thought the books of "sex coupons" and grrreat invitations I saw on Amazon were stupid. "The minute you start playing games with sex, what do you do the next night? If it works, she is going to say, 'What do you have in mind next?'" Just the idea of that kind of pressure scared me, mostly because it sounded suspiciously like tricking me into foreplay. Instead, Friday suggested that I read Cassandra some of the stories from her book that had given me the most Aristotelian catharsis in my youth. She even suggested that, as my wife's birthday gift, I read them to her while I was naked.

The only way to improve your sex life, Friday argued, is by being honest and open. So I figured Cassandra and I would boldly seek advice in a public forum. We called in to Playboy TV's Night Calls Live, whose hosts are former adult-film star Juli Ashton and formerly less-well-endowed Tiffany Granath. About halfway into our call, when Ashton looked into the camera and asked Cassandra and me what kind of sex toys we owned, I realized that people usually use pseudonyms when they call in to sex shows. Not only was I stuttering, but I had sweat pooling on my T shirt, which, if I had had a better attitude toward this project, I probably shouldn't have been wearing. After some questioning, Ashton recommended that I learn some finesse: "That's when you become a great lover instead of a competent lover." I told her I'd be pretty happy with competent. "That's so sad," Ashton, whose top had somehow dropped off, said.

Granath suggested we spice up our marriage with a threesome. I expressed concern that this would cause jealousy and destabilize our relationship. "Do it with someone you don't see every day," Ashton suggested. I explained that it wasn't the third person who might resent me for the rest of my life. Granath, in what I suspect was a ratings ploy, offered herself as a third party, at which time Cassandra proved my point about these situations causing tension and threatened a catfight. Despite all of this, Ashton pushed the menage a trois: "Afterward, you'll fantasize about it. You'll laugh about it," she said reassuringly, to which I responded, "One day we'll tell our children about it." With that thought, my lifelong obsession about being with two women was cured. Thanks, Playboy TV.

It was becoming clear that the way to spice up my marriage wasn't by bringing in more people but by listening to Cassandra, given that my attitude toward sex is about as subtle as my attitude toward writing, only without bothering with that introductory-paragraph part. So I signed up for a seminar at Toys in Babeland, a sex shop run by lesbians in Manhattan. Thirty other men in their 20s and 30s showed up for "Sex Tips for Straight Men." It turned out lesbians know a lot about how to have sex with a woman. They suggested conning your partner into doing things by making a dinner date to talk about your sex life, or, if that is too difficult, earmarking a dirty story with a plot you want to try and leaving it on her bed stand. This all sounded reasonable until I realized that the instructors were holding a giant vagina hand puppet and standing next to a giant sign that said HOW TO PICK YOUR HARNESS!

Basically, I learned that women think of sex as some strange form of relaxation therapy instead of as the rigorous sport it's meant to be. Also, I learned that there's nothing in the world funnier than 30 guys licking their palms to see what it feels like.

To learn more about Cassandra, I had to find out what women say about sex when they're alone. To do that, I sat quietly in the back of a Bronx, N.Y., apartment, shopping for sex toys with 30 young women, many of whom were drunk elementary school teachers. In a 21st century twist on Tupperware parties, women invite their friends to buy X-rated products at home events. Passion Parties is a 10-year-old company with $20 million in sales whose slogan is Where Every Day Is Valentine's Day. Every day also seems to require a package of AA batteries that would make Costco blush. I quickly learned some very unspicing lessons, like that women hate to give oral sex and aren't all that fond of men in general, which is ironic, since they like absolutely anything vaguely shaped like a man's genitals. There was a lot of giggling and passing stuff around. I never got tired of tapping the woman in front of me with a vibrator. Eager to continue tapping, I checked out Passion's competitor, Temptations Parties, where company founder and November 1982 Playmate Marlene Janssen taught a dozen women in a Manhattan apartment how to test vibrators on the tips of their noses. Apparently, if it makes you sneeze, you won't be able to tolerate it. Although that information was surprising, the most shocking revelation was that it takes a group of women 45 minutes before someone starts using a sex toy as a fake microphone.

Through all of this, I learned that our society has a long way to go before it will be able to confront sexuality seriously, and that I have a lot further to go than that. The entire, Redbooky marriage-spicing industry is skewed to make couples feel better about their lame sex lives. Sure, it's hard to tell your spouse what you really want—especially because for many women it seems to be eight hours of bathtub back massage as foreplay—but honesty is better than getting to the point where you have to watch that Advanced Sexual Techniques tape. We'd all be a lot better off if my mom just told people that. Especially me.