Michael Downs is the award-winning author of House of Good Hope and the newly-released and highly-acclaimed The Greatest Show. His short stories have been widely published and have been listed in Best American Short Stories many times. Michael also writes a blog with his wife, the journalist Sheri Venema, who is 17 years older than he. The blog is called, aptly, HimPlus17. I asked Michael if instead of doing the usual writer-on-tour-book-interview we could do the Six Question Sex Interview. Thankfully, he and Sheri agreed!

“The human imagination is inexhaustible, and why should we expect the creative vision that invented astronaut ice cream and God to settle for standard penis/vagina fare? Once you have the basics down, you’ll find there’s a whole world of erotic variations for you to explore–all it takes is an open mind and a junior-high-school (or equivalent) education.

Take fetishes, for example–sexuality’s big tent. Show a man with a shoe fetish a woman in high heels, and he will drop to his knees to kiss the patent leather. Remove the shoe, and a foot fetishist will jump in to worship every little piggy on that most intoxicating of extremities. Remove the foot and an acrotomophile stands ready to play tribute to that heavenly absence, the amputation. In fact, there isn’t a body part, inanimate object, or idea that someone hasn’t found a way to eroticize–one person’s excuse to park in the handicapped spot is another person’s masturbatory temple.”–Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk by the Association for the Betterment of Sex (Scott Jacobson, Todd Levin, Jason Roeder, Mike Sacks and Ted Travelstead), p.126

“The boys and girls are one tonight.

They unbutton blouses.  They unzip flies.

They take off shoes.  They turn off the light.

The glimmering creatures are full of lies.

They are eating each other.  They are overfed.

Tonight, alone, I marry the bed.”

-“The Ballad of a Lonely Masturbator” by Anne Sexton

There’s a masturbator in the preschool class my friend Kat teaches.  She fondles herself at nap time and sometimes at the little round table where the class eats graham crackers and sips apple juice.  The child’s two-and-a-half and she’s getting it regular.  She’s taking matters into her own hands and she’s getting the job done.  Satisfaction?  Absolutely.

Color me impressed.

Kat has promised to ask the masturbator for some tips.  I wait with bated breath.

* * *

I like masturbation in theory.  It’s efficient.  It’s self-sufficient.  No messy interpersonal drama.  No emotional entanglement.  Just good aerobic fun.  And there’s opportunity to accessorize.  To dress up your pleasure with a vibrator or a dildo.  The choices!  Silicone, latex, pastels, neon: the kinky catalog of possibilities is endless.

The thing is, I’ve never quite gotten the hang of it.  Orgasm- clitoral, vaginal, mental- has remained tantalizingly out-of-reach.

And believe me, I’ve reached.

* * *

Jay knew that I was orgasmically challenged and he took it upon himself to rectify the situation.  It was a vanity project.  He would be the man to break through my defenses.  He’d be the man to storm the castle.  And so he poked.  He prodded, he sucked, he licked.  He bobbed up and down like a seal at Sea World.  For my part, I made what I hoped were sexy, satisfied moans.  “Oh.  O-oh.  Oh!”  I tried to arrange my face in a simulacrum of blissed-out beauty.  I sucked in my stomach.  I worried that I had not waxed enough.  I noted with displeasure the dark little patch of hair I’d neglected on my thigh.  Jay fingered.  Jay rubbed.  Jay stroked and Jay dug his stubby fingers deeper into my unyielding spinster’s vagina.

I appreciated his efforts.  Really I did.  I showed my gratitude with half a blow job and a complimentary appraisal of his manhood.  “I’m no expert,” I said, “but it looks big to me.”

I wanted to please him.  My pleasure was secondary.  An afterthought.

* * *

Freud would have things to say about me.  Krafft-Ebbing, too.  I’d be pronounced frigid and my unnaturalness would be studied and written up.  Cosmo would suggest 97 fail-safe tips.

But the problem- for me anyway- can be found in Woody Allen’s famous pronouncement on the subject: “Don’t knock masturbation.  It’s sex with someone I love.”   What happens if masturbation is sex with someone you loathe?  Can you ever make love to yourself if you don’t even like yourself?  Or do your ladyparts wither and die on the vine?  Are you left always wanting?

* * *

I envy that masturbating moppet.  I envy her lack of inhibitions and I envy her unabashed embrace of pleasure.  More, I envy her innocence.  At two, she hasn’t yet learned that she’s fat and ugly and wrong.  She hasn’t learned to pluck and tweeze and groom herself into someone else.  She doesn’t yet know that, if she knows what’s good for her, she’ll play dumb and act coy.  That boys don’t like girls who talk too much.  Who have opinions.  Wants.  Need.s  She doesn’t know to say that math is hard and sure, we can do it on my parents’ bed.  She has no idea that she’ll fake it to spare his feelings.

She is joyful and she is free.  Tickle me Elmo?  You bet your ass.