Scene from a Sex Conference


October 1, 1974

SCENE ONE: Saturday morning. The Women’s Speak-Out. Thirteen women take the stage, one by one, in a darkened auditorium, and discuss their sexuality. They range from a Viv, a slim, dark-haired woman in her 30s, who describes herself as a heterosexual monogamist (“I am a token, here to let you know we still exist.”), to Pauline, an earthy, forceful woman who says she has tried everything, including sadomasochism (her description of taking a bullwhip to a man in his suite at the Plaza brings cheers from the audience) and urolania. An urolaniac, according to Pauline, is someone who likes to be pissed on, preferably about the face and in the mouth. She says she met one last year and obliged him. Later, out of curiosity, she took a swig from her urine sample the next time she was at her doctor’s. (“It tasted like Gatorade, but then I know a lot of people who say that Gatorade tastes just like piss.”) Urolaniacs call being pissed on “golden showers,” for which they should get Euphemism of the Year Prize.

The audience at the Speak-Out, several hundred women, is extremely enthusiastic. They cheer Viv, for example, but they also cheer Pauline and everyone else in between. Everyone else in between covers a wide range. There is Robin, who has an open marriage, has taken Betty Dodson’s Advanced Workshop in masturbation, is currently working on a series of photographs of erections for Viva, and has recently participated in an orgy, which, she said, didn’t turn her on bit was “an interesting experience.” And Margaret, black, lesbian, and amused, who remarks that “everyone thinks lesbians know what they’re doing” and adds that they don’t always, pointing out that she didn’t learn to masturbate successful until eight months ago. And Madeleine, who tells a scarifying tale of incest with her father, whose insistent fondling frightened and pleased her as a child, who tried to fuck her when she was nine years old and who finally left the house when she was 12. The audience applauds at this point. “Well, you can applaud,” says Margaret in a strained voice, “but in some mixed-up way, I felt a great sense of loss.” And for one moment the audience is still, confronted with the unanswerable complexity of sex.

As the Women’s Speak-Out goes on, men gather at the entrance to the auditorium. Two men, then three, then 10, cluster in the hall like curious, solemn locusts. Some angry women chase them away. “Go to your own speak-out,” one woman says to a middle-aged long-haired man who keeps coming into the hall. “This is for women only.” “I’m for women only,” he says, irritably, and finally leaves.

Just as well. He misses the conclusion of the Speak-Out, which features Andrea Dworkin, the author of a new book called “Woman Hating.” Dworkin begins her talk with dictionary definitions of quality, freedom, and justice. she argues that for women to achieve quality with men is this society “is to become the richer instead of the poor, the raper instead of the rapee, the murderer instead of the murdered.” She then says men must give up “the phallocentric” mentality,” must give up erections, in fact, learn to “make love as women do” and abandon everything they think of as distinctly male. And the audience, which has cheered heterosexual monogamy, lesbianism, celibacy, controlled open marriage, uncontrolled open marriage, group sex, group masturbation, individual masturbation with or without mechanical aids, and autourolania, now cheers Dworkin’s call for what sounds to this boggled mind, at least, like a severe case of self-imposed blue balls on the part of the male populace. My only conclusion is that large groups pf people who are being talked to about sex tend to cheer a lot.

SCENE TWO. Saturday afternoon. A women’s workshop entitled “Intimacy, Friendship, and Sexuality,” which includes the following trialogue:

First woman: A woman wanted to sleep with me. I didn’t want to.

Second woman: Are you sure you weren’t sending her double messages?

First woman: I wasn’t attracted to her.

Third woman: How do you know? Maybe you were.

First woman: I wasn’t.

Second woman: Well, what do you want?

First woman: A friend.

SCENE THREE. A women’s workshop entitled “The Double Standard and Romantic Love,” in which the following remark is made: “I feel more alive when I’m in love.”

SCENE FOUR. A women’s workshop entitled “Rape and Child Molestation.” All but two of the 30 women in the room have been raped, or molested as children, or both. The other two are mothers concerned about their children. We exchange horror stories, while a men’s workshop goes on boisterously in a room above our heads. This creates some weird effects, as when one young woman is describing a gang rape in Mexico, and her story is punctuated by loud bursts of male laughter.

“I went to this house where there was supposed to be a party; these men locked me in a room” . . . HA HA HA! “They individually came in and raped me” . . . HOOO!

I tell my story, startled to discover that, after years of women’s-group intimacy, I feel self-conscious because, I realize, it is a story I have told almost no one. Five years old. My grandmother’s kitchen. Alone with the family friend who babysat for me that night. A sweet, quiet man, who usually took me to the park. Not that day. That day, the red face, the stertorous breath, the hands lifting me up. Hands suddenly huge and strong and inexorable as I chattered like a parakeet. “Please don’t. This isn’t any fun, please. Put me down, please, down, please . . . And then screamed, so loud it didn’t seem to come from me. It seemed the walls of my grandmother’s kitchen screamed, filling the room. He dropped me, and I ran out into the front yard, where I waited in the cold all afternoon until my grandmother came home. I didn’t tell her, told no one, in fact, until I was 15 and told my mother, who went quite pale with shock.

We discuss the effects of our experiences, we raped and molested liberated women. They vary. One woman, a 20-year old virgin when she was raped while on holiday in Europe, found it was several years before she could be alone with a man again. Another says she feels an instant rage at street hasslers that startles her with its ferocity. There is one feeling we all share. “When I’m with a guy. and he comes on too strong, I just flip,” says one woman, and eyes meet around the room. For the first time, I understand why I’ve never had a rape fantasy, why the whole notion of the female rape fantasy, supposedly so common, has always seemed alien and absurd to me. There’s nothing like being raped or mauled to give you a taste for gentle men.

SCENE FIVE. Sunday morning. Sex movies. Mixed audience. I get there late, rush in to see two men on the screen making love while romantic music plays in the background. Birds twitter, flutes wail softly, and the two men, who are lean and young and curly-haired, gambol about in a woods, smiling and kissing and patting each other’s bare chests. Somehow, from one shot to the next, their jeans come off, and as the screen grows misty, one man lovingly pulls down the other man’s jockey shorts. My mind boggles again. Jockey shorts?

SCENE SIX. The lobby, where everything from Billie Jean King t-shirts to bumper stickers that say Castrate Rapists is on sale. I go to the Eve’s garden table (“We grow pleasurable things for women”) where a pleasant-looking woman is selling vibrators. Several times the day before. women have mentioned vibrators in laudatory terms. Furthermore, several of my friends have vibrators; they also speak of them laudatory terms. At last, a chance to buy a vibrator without having to go into a drugstore and get leered at. The following dialogue ensues between me and the pleasant-looking woman:

Me: Where is the part you put inside you? (I can’t figure it out. This vibrator looks like a small portable hairdryer with a small blue knob on the end, a very small blue knob. There are other attachments beside the knob, but none of them looks like a penis.)

Pleasant-looking woman: Oh, you don’t put this inside. This is for clitorial massage. Best to use a towel – the vibrations get a little heavy. (She demonstrates the vibrator on my hand, and I understand she’s not talking like a hippie; the vibrations are a little heavy.)

Me: You don’t sell penis-shaped vibrators? (I say this with some trepidation, wondering if she will tell me I’m phallocentric.)

PLW: Frankly, they don’t work very well. The vibrations are too weak for vaginal use, and the battery’s always conking out when you need it most.

The woman is extremely nice. So I take an order form and say I’ll think about it. I don’t know; the vibrator, which has attachments for use on scalp, back, and feet, as well as the small blue knob, nevertheless costs $17.95, and for $17.95, I think I want a vibrator that does everything.

SCENE SEVEN. Sunday afternoon. A mixed workshop on intimacy, friendship, and sexuality. The turn-out is high; perhaps 70 people are crowded into the room, sitting on chairs and desks and tabletops. There are more women than men (a conference gatekeeper later estimated attendance for the weekend at about 1600, with 300 men). There are two black women in the room, a black man, an Oriental woman; everyone else is white. Ages range from late teens to mid-50’s. The atmosphere is relaxed, the conversation surprisingly unconstrained. A woman says, “It’s nice to hear men’s voices.” “We’ll see,” another adds. and everyone laughs. A gray-haired man says that friendships with women are new to him, that they never seemed possible before. The conversation has a slight Esalen flavor; people talk about “working through relationships.” Still, it all feels friendly and pleasant.

As I leave, a handsome woman with graying hair comes up and peers at the handwritten sign posted on the workshop door.


“Ah,” she says in a Middle-European accent, “zat’s vot I vant.”