“…isn’t desire always the same, whether the object is present or absent?”
– Roland Barthes
XX: Nice to see you again, XY. Shall we get started?
XY: After you, XX.
XX: Now the first story, “The Girl and the Penis-Bush”. It’s wonderful, isn’t it, to be curious and want to explore sex? To blur… get rid of the boundaries that some people think should exist when it comes to what is acceptable.
XX: What is ‘acceptable’ or ‘normal’ after all? It becomes a question of mutual pleasure. And there is definitely a wonder to it, being a woman and trying on a strap-on cock for the first time. I can’t imagine anyone who didn’t also pretend they could piss standing up, or put clothes on over it and feel it, imagining they were a man. But there is a certain feeling of duality — you feel aspects of what it must be like as a man, but also fully aware — perhaps even more so — of your femininity at the same time. You become excited, and your mind is briefly but pleasurably confused, almost as if it could transfer those sensations — the very physical traits of arousal — into that length of silicone and make it come alive. Pygmalion…
XY: … or Pinocchio!
XX: Indeed. There’s a line in the first story: “They say dick-owners think about sex every seven seconds… In any case it made dull meetings tolerable.” I have to laugh.
XY: Laugh if you like. It’s true.
XX: If we could walk around for a day with a cock, how many of us would become more attuned to desire? Would we think it was because of it and reject it as a male view of the world, or would we realise that it was always there, that desire that is strangely sexless … and by that I mean desire can and does exist without assigning it a male or female label.
XY: Without the XX or XY?
XX: Precisely. The dynamic changes as well, although it’s rather sad that Susana rejects the dick completely. Honest desires can be superficial (in the best sense of the word) or they can be deeply rooted in emotion. The beauty of a free flowing, completely trusting relationship, whether purely sexual or otherwise, is that desire has a clarity and transparency to it. In this story the penis is just that — an honest extension (no pun intended) of the girl’s desire for Susana, not some strange thing that acts of its own will, although Susana sees it as exactly that, something that is literally a violator.
XY: But it does have a will of its own! Listen: “the dick jigged a little in her pants, in anticipation“; “the dick rested in a state of semi-hardness: interested, but waiting for the real action.”
XX: Hmm. And I wonder if in this case it is because the penis has become, like Pinocchio, ‘a real boy’ rather than a toy-object, something that can be played with and discarded. It is a strange third party in the relationship, something that to Susana introduces the fear of turning her into something she is not. A cock, even though usually attached to a man, does not necessarily make a man. I suppose it’s the intention, the way one wears it. Why should a cock attached to a woman make her a man, or transform the lover?
XX: “Suddenly the girl was cross, feeling a special kind of rejection that only penis-owners feel.” Do you think that’s true — is there some sort of alienation that comes with cock? I think it exists with anyone who is highly sexual. Why isn’t it valid to talk about it matter-of-factly, the way you would about work or any other thing in life? I think it is still one of the things that set people apart, once it is spoken of. You can just see it, sometimes — the way people have decided to categorise you for it, perhaps especially so with a woman. There is still that stereotype that a high sex drive is expected or assumed of men. What transforms you in the eyes of others is a surprise. The people you think will accept you shy away, and then others appear who understand you perfectly. You are you, and no toy or word alters that.
XY: The last line in that story rings true. Having a dick means feeling rejected (unless you’re having sex constantly), since it just wants to fuck all the time — it is, in the words of the story, always “waiting for the real action”. The book works well on cock and brain alike, I think. I’m happy to admit that I was slightly hard reading it last night — not uncomfortably or overwhelmingly, just pleasantly so. The arousal added an extra sensory note, without shutting down my brain as so often happens. I did find myself thinking about my cock in the terms Walsh describes: as a mischievous creature, a semi-autonomous presence with its own desires and agenda. Strangely enough, reading about this character being hyperaware of her brand-new penis made me more aware of my own, and because I was aware I walked around most of the day in a semi-erect state, as if the poor thing was expecting some kind of action.
XX: When I first started reading the book, I told myself I wouldn’t read it in bed so as to have a clearer mind to write about it. But I ended up taking it to bed as well the other night, and now I think it was an appropriate choice to have done so. “The Princess and the Penis” especially has some wonderful imagery to it that rather sends the mind racing. I will also admit to having been aroused reading it … the combination of having your mind stimulated along with your body, and the humour — which in places is wonderful — it’s an interesting feeling. Humour is a strong aphrodisiac.
XY: I’ve always thought so.
XX: There were lines that I read and my immediate wish was to read them to a lover, whisper them in their ear as I was fucked. Like this:
“until one night the penis belonging to the man who was glad to be rid of it bored a hole through all the mattresses until it found her. After a little thrashing, she went to sleep, knowing that this was definitely the proper cock she had been looking for.”
“he sucked his finger and gently poked it into the cunt’s centre, to find that, yes, it yielded softly until his finger really did fit through its parted wings all the way into his body. The cunt was already wet from the honey it had been carrying.”
XY: I remember the “wet from the honey” line.
XX: Words about sex alongside the act have the effect of an echo. You feel them in your core, vibrating and yielding a more intense kind of pleasure. Maybe this is something only book-lovers experience. But to be that kind of a person and have a lover that is the same? How could you ever pick up a book or read a line again without experiencing that familiar electricity, each word weighted with alternate, almost illicit possibilities?
What you said about rejection … does it really feel — when you are aroused and can’t fulfil that desire — like that? Do you think it is because that physical arousal is so visible? I never really thought of it as rejection, but for me it feels wasted, disappointing — fleetingly so, but it still has a sadness to it — even though I don’t show the physical signs that you do as a man. But to feel that arousal take over the body, knowing every sign — swollen lips, widened eyes — means to want, to lavish affections … there is a feeling sometimes that you are a stranger in your own body, you know?
XX: Of course none of us act on every single sexual impulse — if nothing else, sex would eventually become meaningless and uninteresting. There is something to be said about restraint making pleasure all the more vivid. But for the girl in the first story, can you imagine what those new feelings of rejection must feel like? I would imagine something like your first heartbreak, when you are so full of love and desire and it is turned away.
XY: It does feel like a rejection to have it turned away, but in the minor key, a sort of melancholy. Waste is a good word for it. And you’re right that it’s universal. With a penis it’s just more obvious, isn’t it? Left hanging. A wet cunt — if you’ll excuse my affectionately blunt language — is more like a wonderful secret … Whereas a wasted erection, especially between lovers, is such a public snub, it looks so foolish hanging there — maybe also because there is something inherently comical about penises?
XX: I’m trying not to laugh right now.
XY: Please don’t.
XY: The flitting from one fairytale template to the next so quickly was good, especially in “The Princess and the Penis”. It was The “Princess and the Pea”, obviously, but also “Cinderella” (“if she could find the man who possessed the other glove, he would surely have the perfect cock to match“) — and many others, some of which I’m sure I missed. What does this restlessness mean? I suppose it reflects the frantic search for a suitable lover … Sadly, or not, in that story she doesn’t find a lover, just a cock who turns out to be a real dick, and finally ends up going back to her well worn suede glove.
XX: Oh, that glove! But now — tell me what turned you on.
XY: Well, I loved the passage you mentioned earlier with the, uh, butterfly-cunt. “In Another Part of the Forest”, with the remote-control sex, was also pretty hot. Which stories turned you on? Was it more intellectual or physical, or a combination of both? Obviously it’s all words, but sometimes reading words like cock and cunt has its own immediate effect, versus the slower burn of erotic ideas unfolding.
XX: Well, there are degrees of excitement — certainly a pleasant, immediate one on reading a story that clearly enjoys its freedom and playfulness. You are made at ease with the subject by the bold language (cunt, cock, pussy), so you have the luxury of thinking about what turns you on, and I don’t think we usually consider that so much. Taking that passage again we both like — there is a beautiful lightness to that description. As I read the words, I can imagine the softness of warm flesh, a finger probing delicately and curiously, the first new and delightful sensation of wetness. He — soon to be she — is discovering a new body, a new self. Butterflies, metamorphosis. There is so much complexity in the eroticism of that sentence, and that is what turns me on. It was the perfect example of baser and more elegant words coming together. And that’s what — at least for me — creates perfect sex, when the intellectual and the physical feed off of one another.
And I’m sorry — I want to laugh, again — what you said before about the cock just “hanging there”. Of course you’re right, it is sad, because you physically see a cock that is excited but that can’t have what it wants. There is a touch of lost puppy about it, the poor thing drooped and needing love. That phrase “wearing your heart on your sleeve” — the cock does much the same. Whereas we women carry that rejection secretly, mysteriously. We all know real life has its ways of frustrating us, making us tired — not tonight — both men and women, but real life and logical emotion aside, I want to be wanted. If someone I am with shows me that bodily desire, it is hard for me not to respond in kind. In my head it is like a flower opening or turning when it feels the sun.
XY: That’s a nice image, the penis/vagina flower.
XX: Moving on. In “Grow a Pair”, at the end of the book, you have the conclusion to “The Girl and the Penis-Bush”, and the girl finally has some satisfaction with her new penis. Susana does touch it: “She took the dick in her hands and began to pull it gently towards her, then stop, then the same thing again. It felt good with all those feelings that are usually on the inside transferred to the outside.”
I find that sentence highly erotic. There is no memory quite like a sexual memory. Reading it brings back ghosts of lovers, how it feels to take them in your hands, between your lips, inside you. Each is different, but reading something like this recalls all feelings at once, and it overwhelms the senses. As I’m the kind of person who carries a lot of emotions that don’t necessarily get shown, it comes out in certain ways, with certain people only — but with sex, I let it all flood out. Every emotion is mingled together and released in actions. It’s actually quite difficult to say to someone during — for instance, asking what is it like — because your emotions are being transferred into the physical. It renders you a bit speechless beyond the eloquence you might use to prolong sensations.
XY: There are some beautiful scenes in Grow a Pair that depict a magical change of genitalia and the new sensations that brings — the one you mentioned being a good example. And yes, it’s hot! But the passage doesn’t stop there, does it? Walsh captures the strange pleasure of owning a penis, but also the comic disappointment:
“Susana was facing me now and she took the dick in her hands and began to pull it gently towards her, then stop, then the same thing again. It felt good with all those feelings that are usually on the inside transferred to the outside, like a glove turned inside out. And when I came, instead of the usual contracting and pulling in, there was a feeling of expanding and pushing out, like the dick wanted to fill all the space in the room. By the time I looked down it was already flaccid, and lay there resting in a little pool of gloop like an empty rubber thumb.”
After using it once, the owner decides she’s had enough of penises:
“I wasn’t wearing it any more. I left it for a while on the sideboard but it got dusty and also a little flattened when I put a pile of books down on it without noticing. I tried to pull it back into shape but it never looked quite the same… the dick got dustier and once I thought we’d lost it altogether but I found it in the bottom of a bag of stuff I was going to take to Goodwill.”
XY: So the penis, for all the curiosity it invites, finally gets its comeuppance. What did you think of the book’s ending?
XX: I found it quite melancholy, and not just the passing reference to characters like Daphne in mythology. The idea of becoming multiple beings, all used for love and then seeing her stripped; her furs on other women, that unspoken sense of jealousy, how we sometimes see our worth and attraction reflected in other women — when we feel they are taken from us by lovers. But I thought in all, the book was a fantastic mix of wonder, darkness and reality… the different facets of sex captured beautifully.
XY: Yes. It also must be said that this book has the best acknowledgements page ever.
XX: You mean “all the people who’ve had sex with me“? Pretty brilliant.
XY: This has been fun! We should do it again.
XX: Well, to take from that Henry Miller quote, all I ask of life, she says, is a bunch of books, a bunch of dreams… and you can figure out the rest.
Joanna Walsh – has published work with Dalkey (Best European Fiction 2015), Granta, Salt (Best British Short Stories, 2014 and 2015), and others. Her books include Fractals (2013, Blue Pavilion), Hotel (2015, Bloomsbury) and Vertigo (2015, Dorothy, A Publishing Project). She writes criticism for The Guardian, The New Statesman and The National (UAE). She is fiction editor at 3:AM Magazine, and she runs #readwomen, described by the New York Times as ‘a rallying cry for equal treatment for women writers.’ She is also an illustrator. Grow a Pair is published by Readux Books.
XX and XY – are both previous contributors to Minor Literature[s].