I have been an avid and somewhat precocious reader for as long as I can remember. To my fevered brow I lay a hand when I was home from kindergarten sick one day, as I struggled with the seemingly endless perk of Anne, who resided at Green Gables.
Not long after, I tackled The Hobbit, whose murky sentences and dense plot so challenged my young mind that to this day I have never been able to return to to the altar of Tolkien and to be brutally honest, I’m not certain I’m missing much. I am not one for such unproblematic sincerity.
Despite the rule that we had to choose one book a term from the local Angus & Robertson, I ran out of things to read, and into my hand my mother pressed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when I was about 14. While it set me off on a particular literary bent for decades to follow, unbeknownst to Mum, I had another reading path I was pursuing in secret: around this time, I was also determined to hunt out the dirtiest passages in her impressively vast book collection.
It was tough going. Cold Comfort Farm has some frisky moments, but my speed reading meant I was always confused about whether the frisk was with outsiders or between family members (Wikipedia has confirmed my fear: it was between family members.), thus ruling out my interest in it.
There was another novel, which I think I incorrectly remember being titled Warm Hearts and Gentle People, which I thought suggested some tender lovin’ might have taken place within its pages, but it turned out to be nothing more than another in a long line of historic society and class pieces. Why did these gentle people not want to press their warm hearts against one another to fulfil my juvenile curiosity?
Just as I was about to give up, I hit the mother load, so to speak. Coverless, buried in a pile of lesser books, which were not even considered for a place in the lounge room bookcases was a novel by John Updike, called Couples. And so it was: my first explicit sex scenes in literature were penned by a hand of a man oft accused of being misogynist.
The basic plot centred around a group of swingers, who were under the spell of a dastardly man called Felix. Feel-ix. All sorts of sexual goings on go on, there were things I didn’t even know people did to other people and I’d read the rude parts of Mother & Child heaps of times before that.
When I was in my 20s I told my mum that I’d found a copy of Couples at a local second-hand book store and bought for a laugh and she was horrified that as a 20-something-year-old I knew what Couples was. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that as a 14-year-old I could probably have quoted page and paragraph references to her.
These days literature has long since returned to merely fulfilling my less base mental curiosities; however, I have recently noticed two disturbing trends in memoirs, trends I will call The Two ‘M’s: masturbation and menstruation.
Almost without fail, memoirs contain mention of one or the other, almost always mutually exclusive, depending on the sex of the author, within the first two chapters of the book.
Masturbation tends to fall within the realm of male-penned memoirs and is almost always discovered as follows: the protagonist has somehow reached puberty without ever hearing of the phenomenon of masturbation and alone in their room one day they realise that certain kinds of touch feel nice. So they do that, repeatedly, allegedly completely innocent to the consequences that they discover only after they have plastered their bedroom walls, an event which, unless they are Jonathan Ames, they immediately realise they must hide from their parents. They also realise this is the greatest discover they are ever likely to make, and they therefore must do it at every opportunity.
Such explosive moments are repeatedly frequently in the years that follow, until they find a willing partner for the two-backed beast, and then masturbation is rarely mentioned again until middle-age, where after a failed marriage, they return to their formative pastime only to discover now that they can’t perform without imagining how sad they look with their paunch and compulsive fantasies of much younger women and then they can’t perform at all.
Still. At least for a little while, masturbation is fun. Menstruation on the other hand, is not.
The female-penned memoir is follows a similar path when it comes to body fluids. Our heroines have somehow missed every sealed section of Dolly magazine and every sex ed class known to man and so when they discover they are having their first period, they assume they are dying, but they don’t tell anyone, which doesn’t seem like a particularly obvious response when you suspect you might be slowly bleeding out.
When they finally tell someone, the event is already steeped in shame. Everything that happens afterwards is conducted in hushed whispers and involves scary women’s only products, which are hidden at the back of underwear drawers and every month for the rest of their adolescence becomes a dreaded countdown to the reappearance of their period.
So consumed with fear are they, that there’s rarely a mention of the discovery of masturbation: the whole area between navel and knees is touched only in life or death situations … until they find a willing partner for the two-backed beast and suddenly focus shifts to the potential terror of a period which does not reappear.
The couples in Couples may have been morally void, but at least everyone seemed to know how to make themselves feel good, even if it were only for a few seconds. Just once, I would like to read a memoir where someone approaches at least one of The Two ‘M’s with a sense of weary wisdom, and devotes a mere paragraph to it, unless they have discovered a brilliant way to get off, in which case a chapter should definitely be devoted to it, possibly with diagrams.