I was in my late twenties when I read Nine and a Half Weeks (1978), the memoir published by Ingeborg Day under the pseudonym of Elizabeth O'Neill. I had seen the movie, of course. We had all seen the movie. But it wasn't until I came upon the book in my local bookstore, used and well worn, that I understood the ways in which the story had the potential to reveal parts of myself I may have been uncomfortable with at the time. As I read the memoir, taken with the lyrical prose, with the thoughtful reflection, I began to understand that this could be my life as well, that I too could, that I would, let a man control me sexually, that I, too, would find out something about who I was by doing so. Of course this is what memoirs are for. It is easy to stay removed from the light glide of Hollywood movies' stories.
But words take us much deeper. They help us see who we are in our darkest, most private places.
There are few memoirs this is truer for than sex memoirs, for nothing elicits vulnerability quite the way sex can. The act, and one's behavior during the act, is intensely personal and private. Part of this is due to our continued Victorian-like taboo about sex in our culture and its stepchild, pornography. Part of it, though, is also due to the intense vulnerability required. Nowhere will we find out more about ourselves than during sex, and nowhere too will we find out more about our characters than in sex scenes.
So, when a memoirist devotes his/her entire story to sex—his/her behavior surrounding it and during the act itself—we, the readers, get the rare opportunity to peep at one's most private life. And in doing so, we get insight into ourselves as well.
Cheryl T. Cohen Greene, with co-author Lorna Garano, has written about sex in a most interesting and surprising way in An Intimate Life (2012). Where sex writing is often riddled with attention to its lasciviousness and shock value, Cohen Greene speaks of her forty years of work as a sex surrogate in unadorned, fact-based language, reminding us that sex is more than just spank bank material. Her story is most notable for its adaption to screen in the movie The Sessions (2012), in which writer Mark O'Brien, a journalist and poet who lived his life in an iron lung due to childhood polio, tells his story of having used Cohen Greene as a sex surrogate to finally experience sexual experiences with another person.
Cohen Greene tracks the story of her own sexual coming-of-age amid a repressed Catholic upbringing and how she became a sex surrogate. She clarifies more than once that sex surrogacy work is often misunderstood as prostitution, but a colleague helped her think about it in cooking terms. If prostitution is serving a meal, then surrogacy is teaching you how to cook. And, indeed, there were times when sex itself wasn't even involved. Instead, the sessions were about teaching comfort with the body, or belief in one's ability to maintain an erection, or just basic self-esteem in the bedroom. While Cohen Greene's memoir was not particularly lyrical or moving in language, I was relieved that it wasn't. She reminds us that sex is a complicated avenue to intimacy. If one isn't sexually realized, then that person isn't living as a whole person.
Ophira Eisenberg has a very different message in Screw Everyone (2013). Her memoir is a humorous romp through the simple truth that many women want sex, and they will do whatever they want...