At least five stories
A few of my Baby Boom generation may recall that one of the less expected and perhaps more titillating aspects of Nancy Friday’s 1972 Secret Garden collection of women’s sexual fantasies was all the attention that this book, and a dozen of its women, gave to dogs. In the story that has stuck in my mind, a woman—putatively real, possibly made up, likely edited—suggested that, when she was growing up, her parents had, behind the closed master-bedroom door, been experimenting with the family’s female boxer. The girl and her sister and brother had done some modest experimenting with the family’s other, male dog. And so now, as an adult, not only did she fantasize about having sex with dogs, she had a pictures of a German shepherd that so turned her on, she would get her husband to mount her, simulating the actions of the dog.
I dug out this book—to reassure myself that some sort of female human sexuality lives on—after I overheard a woman in a café make a remark, a joke, about sleeping with dogs. At the time, I was writing on my laptop. The woman, in her forties, and a female companion of a similar age were enjoying their coffees and conversation ten feet from me. Because of a previous conversation I will soon describe, I had half an ear cocked to their conversation—about snuggling with dogs.
The other woman was very attached to a certain dog. And her friend, the woman who ended up delivering the line that provoked me, seemed to be trying to be a good friend, agreeing that the dog was wonderful, to include for snuggling with. And not only was the dog a good snuggler, she said with a smile, “she’s not bugging me for sex.”
I couldn’t help laughing, looking up and smiling admiringly at the woman who had delivered this line.
“You shut up!” with a big smile she cracked at me. I again appreciated her good humor.
But at the same time, and particularly afterward, I found the not-bugging-me-for-sex comment depressing. It re-opened a window on a bleak landscape of female-male sexual relations in the United States. The man begging for sex, and the woman occasionally—aided by alcohol, love, a lack of will, a desire to get along or cement a relationship—not saying no, more or less enthusiastically. In such a landscape, and outside the sex a woman might engage in so as to have a child, there might be no sexual pleasure. Or there would only be pleasure for men who enjoyed feeling that they could get women—like prostitutes—to do things they didn’t particularly care to do, but would do for “me,” because “I” am a man or have money or charisma or anger.
I am thinking now—because tomorrow I am going to go see her, play with her—of quite another “woman,” a girl ten years old, the granddaughter of a friend of mine. She, I have been told, is quite looking forward to seeing me, and this because last year at this time we had so much fun, playing various made-up games, tag and the like—while her grandmother was doing the shopping, and on the lawn while her parents and other adults were drinking and talking, and in a swimming pool with her younger sister and male cousin. I would not deny that there was something latently sexual in these amusements, though they did not involve intersections commonly referred to as sexual. Above all there was the fun of having fun together, and there was an enthusiasm—hers and mine—that stemmed from the fact that we had found ways of relating that were fun for both of us.
Over the course of a long and at times too-celibate life, I have had a variety of sexual relationships with women more or less my age. These have certainly included relations with women who did not need to be bugged to have sex. Some brought to our sexual relations puppy-ish eagerness or the pleasure they had already found in physical pleasure. Some came with a psychological need, for repeated transgression. Although the not-bugging-me friend and I did not exchange any more words, I got the impression that she had at times enjoyed having sex with men. Perhaps at the moment she had a good partner. Her bugging line reflected half a truth, we might say, and it was also—like all our statements, like the present text—made in response to a particular context. She was trying to be a good friend to a woman who had become inordinately attached to a dog.
Before moving on to the third dog-sex or dog-snuggling story, which is a sadder story, I would pause to say a few things about the sexual life that my friends and I enjoyed, coming of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I have long thought that, as regards sex, we were extraordinarily lucky to have come of age at this time. Dare I say that we lived in a golden age in which dogs were more possibility than necessity? When there was a fairly direct line from wanting to enjoy sex with another person and indeed enjoying it, with another person who was more or less equally eager.
I would not ignore that we were young; we came together and apart relatively easily. Nor would I ignore the strength of the American economy in the post-war period and the amount of “disposable income” that middle-class Americans then enjoyed, and the senses of possibility and freedom thus inspired. But more specifically I am thinking of the fact that we had relatively easy access to contraception and to penicillin; we had Kinsey and his colleagues temporarily de-Puritanizing sex in America, stressing its healthfulness, pleasures and potential variety. It was slowly but surely becoming possible to be gay. Even straight people, we might say, could be a little gay.
Though we did have Playboy, Anne Bancroft, Mick Jagger and plenty of other media junk, mass sex culture was just warming up, or continuing to lay its tacky foundations so that Madonna, Beyoncé, Sex in the City and all the rest might have direct access through women’s panties, and men’s pants, to their wallets. And we did not have AIDS, and we did not have the kind of sex education to which my teenage son has been subject, in which the dangers of sex are—once again—stressed and its mysteries denied through the rigorous presentation and memorization of sciento-gynecological information. In addition, my friends and I, though many of us had Protestant ancestors, also often had some Jewish ancestors, and we were growing up in university communities which included Jews. And Jews, even in the United States, have preserved an idea that a woman is entitled to sexual pleasure; indeed one of a husband’s duties is to provide this on a regular basis.
Did we also know heartbreak and frustration and confusion, did we at times do things we wished we had not done, or wish we had done things we did not do? Certainly. Were there differences between the sexes, to include in the fact that young women bore much more of the responsibility for contraception than men did? Yes, certainly. One of the odd features of our sex lives that has most stuck in my mind is our mutual focus on the need for the woman to have a clitoral orgasm—her particular sexual preferences be damned (or, more likely, simply left unexplored). Insofar as my female partners and I were besieged by sex, it may have been, above all, by this vaguely feminist demand: clitoral orgasm! Hours could be devoted not so much to having sex, “making love,” or to sexual pleasure as to zeroing in on this tiny, tucked away, slippery tissue; to meeting this demand of our time and place.
N.B.: Much longer ago, female and male sex organs and processes were considered homologous, and thus, for example, women released their sperm much as men did, in a spasm of pleasure. No female pleasure, no baby. But thanks to the Enlightenment (should we say?), it came to be decided that women did not have sperm, but eggs, which descended periodically, quite independently of any pleasures or lack of lack pleasures. So female sexual pleasure came to be seen as useless or worse. A bottom line: we rarely even glimpse how in the throes of our culture and our times we are. It is they who teach us what we should feel and why.)
So now I return to 2016 and to a conversation I had, one afternoon over tea, with a young Vietnamese immigrant, a slight young woman. She was the type of person for whom life reverberates with significance; people don’t just fall in with one another, they are fated to meet, etc. And so she had decided, or was hoping, that she and I were destined to be friends, if not more than that. And so on this, the second time we had ever met, she wanted, or needed, to tell me about the most significant thing that had happened in her life.
At the time she was a student—20 perhaps—living with her family in Ho Chi Minh City. Her older brother had a dog with whom he slept, and he urged her to get a dog and do the same thing. He seemed to have presented this as a kind of solution. Although the young woman did not say this, my sense is that the dog was supposed to be a solution to the problem of sexual desire, or of desire for warm, intimate companionship, something which, for social and economic reasons—customs and living arrangements—was otherwise difficult to obtain.
It has occurred to me that the brother’s suggestion may have also born some relation to the incest taboo. He and his sister—desires and earlier youthful play notwithstanding—could not, as young adults, sleep together or have sexual relations, but they could share in this idea, this fact of sleeping nearby, each with his or her own dog. And for a Vietnamese person, it should be noted, the brother’s suggestion had an added psychological dimension, because Vietnamese people have traditionally eaten dog meat; my friend had herself eaten dog meat.
But, at her brother’s suggestion, she got a dog and took him to bed with her. I believe she told me it was a large dog. In my mind it has been a golden retriever. She certainly did not tell me that she had an erotic relationship with the dog. She did not seem the type of person who would speak of the erotic or the sexual, but this does not mean she wasn’t a human being, that she didn’t have drives and needs and hormones and curiosities. Above all, she gave me the impression that she had been building a close affectionate, intimate relationship with her dog, at night, in her bed. But it was a young dog, a puppy, in its first year of life, and it got some sort of infection and died.
A large loss, obviously. But the story was not told to me as just a sad story, though sad it certainly was. It was told to me as the story, what you need to know about me, what I need to tell you, what I can’t get off my chest. I might have eaten this other being; instead I slept with him. And whatever illicit things I did with him—perhaps just the fact of taking him into my bed, into my arms, rather than eating him—they killed him. I killed him.
The young woman wasn’t stupid; she understood the dog had died of natural causes. Though perhaps if she had really loved him, or if her love had been less selfish . . .
Long ago I wrote a little about sexual transgressions of childhood and how they could, at least in some cases, provide the fuel and fire for a whole life of particular, vibrant sexual pleasures. It is also of course the case, sadly, that some sexual transgressions—some experiences of incest or sexual abuse—can end at a very early stage a young human being’s sexual life or chance of sexual pleasure. I cannot speak for the Vietnamese young woman—and certainly I would not dictate her fate even if I could!—but that afternoon when our paths crossed over tea, I had the sense that the experience with the dog had come at just the wrong time. If she had been younger or older, it might not have had such significance. But she had been in the first flush of womanhood, feeling urges and powers she had never quite felt before, and responding to them as her older brother had suggested: by taking a dog to bed with her. And so now, it seemed, her desires were murderous.
Insofar as, from this woman’s perspective, she and I were fated to spend a good deal of our remaining lives together (something that has yet to happen), it was certainly important that I know about the important things that had happened in her life and that were affecting who she now was. But perhaps her story was also a kind of warning? “Be careful because my desires are so strong, they can kill”?
I find myself reminded of quite another story, of quite another woman, a professional colleague, an American, and a beauty in a classic, tall-blonde-and-blue-eyed way. She once told me that in her youth, already decades past, she had been a great lover of bacon. Bacon—rather than oysters, mushrooms, soft-boiled eggs, steak tartare, juicy peaches, Hollandaise-sauced asparagus shoots (long and thin or short and thick?)—bacon is the greatest gustatory object of Americans’ erotic urges and perhaps the greatest source of uninhibited sensual pleasure for Americans. In adolescence, however, this woman had, though not without a certain ongoing remorse, renounced this pleasure, first refusing herself bacon and then meat altogether.
When my colleague told me this story, I had the sense that there was a sexual connection—in adolescence a dawning sexual desire which needed to be completely snuffed out, sexuality’s or desire’s or carnal pleasures’ hold on her completely renounced, through this—hardly only symbolic!—renunciation of bacon. Of pigs, piggishness, voraciousness. (I have come back to an observation of Adam Phillips’s: there is something very frightening about our appetites, our desires.)
The woman, who was not only beautiful, but capable, professional and as nice as nice could be, had never married, but she had developed a great attachment to a particular breed of dog. (A website tells me that it’s “an athletic breed known for its intelligence and large personality . . . Its hunter instincts makes it susceptible to digging, chewing, and barking, but for the right owner, . . . an affectionate, loyal companion.”)
One story leading to the next, connected by a thread, however fine or breakable—can I say that such a piece is best left without a conclusion, with a door left open for the next story and the one after that? A conclusion would also require me to have a point to make beyond this simple, Freudian reminder: we, women and men, have animal urges, and, in our civilized world, with its various taboos and other impingements, sleeping with dogs is often easier than finding and enjoying similar human companionship and intimacy. Pictures in a magazine or on-line of a well-endowed German shepherd may help; a warm and furry, affectionate and loyal companion can help; but is this quite all we have wanted, or all we need?
As I write about other people and the ideas they bring out of me, I try to keep an eye out for more personal sources—of my projections, if such they are. And thus, to close, I will not write about my sisters (which is not to say I was lacking in desires or curiosity). I will note that my family had first one pet male dog and then a second, female. Both were basset hounds, which are likely neither the sexiest of dogs nor the best adapted, architecturally, to carnal relations with humans. I never slept with either one of them; however, I do now recall that the second of these dogs was given the name of my father’s first girlfriend: Isabelle. And I do remember that Isabelle loved having her belly rubbed, low down as well as over her rib cage. Ten years old or so, I was perfectly happy when Isabelle turned on her back, legs in the air, son ventre dévoilé—the locus of her desires hardly disguised.
— Wm. Eaton, August 2016
Credits and Links
Adam Phillips, interviewed by Paul Holdengräber for The Paris Review, The Art of Nonfiction No. 7, Spring 2014.
Thomas Laqueur, “Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology,” in The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality and Society in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Catherine Gallagher and Thomas Laqueur (University of California Press, 1987), 1-41. From an article originally published in Representations, Vol. 14 Spring, 1986, 1-41.
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway. First published 1925.
Photo of German Shepherd is from YouTube video. Hard to find in this video many signs of sexual pleasure, and particularly not in the chained bitch, but also not in the sire.
Photo of woman with arms wrapped around a golden retriever appeared in Psychology Today. The accompanying article—Is That a Dog in Your Bed?, by Stanley Coren, September 23, 2014—states:
The highest percentage of people found sleeping with their dogs are single females between the ages of 18 and 34. Nearly 6 out of 10 women in this group allow the dog on the bed. The group with the largest likelihood of booting the dog out of the bed are married men over 45 years of age. However, even for this class of people, just shy of 40 percent still sleep with their dog.
Earlier Montaigbakhtinian piece on Transgression.
Some readers may also be interested in:
- Sex, Sex, Celibacy, Diversity
- Morandi, Bonnard, and Silences Within (which touches on incest)
- My Best Friend