"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Life News
In contrast to the hordes of Viagra fans who battle nightly with erectile dysfunction, sexologist and author Ian Kerner once considered himself a “sexual cripple” of a different sort. It wasn’t getting it up that troubled him — it was sustaining sexual enthusiasm long enough to please his partner (and himself). Starting in adolescence and persisting throughout his 20s and early 30s, Kerner struggled with premature ejaculation. The mere sight of a woman’s naked body could make Kerner lose control, and as he put it, “foreplay quickly led to the end of play.”
Today, a happily married Kerner is relatively free from premature-ejaculation problems; in fact, he has taken the pressure off his penis completely. Armed with a doctorate in clinical sexology, Kerner has devoted his life to the study and practice of good sex. And awkward as it may sound, Kerner credits his success at home and at work to cunnilingus. Going down helped Ian Kerner get back on top.
But Kerner isn’t keeping his sex tips to himself. In an effort to educate men and women about female sexual response, Kerner has written “She Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman.”
You know those big illustrated charts that hang on the wall of the gynecologist’s examination room, the ones with the detailed cross-section of women’s sexual anatomy? “She Comes First” is like the audio track to those charts, as narrated by an everymanish Tom Hanks type. This straightforward guide to cunnilingus explains everything from odor to orgasms with earnest, educated wit. And while the vulva-savvy woman may already know that “the female orgasm is a complicated affair … requiring persistent stimulation, concentration, and relaxation,” there are few men that wouldn’t benefit from the female-centric philosophy and techniques that Kerner advocates.
Kerner hopes that “She Comes First” will lead to the “next sexual revolution” and pave the way for a sexual world where cunnilingus is not considered foreplay, but recognized as “coreplay” that eventually culminates in orgasm. For all its earnestness, the book lacks the fire to ignite a true revolution, but it certainly provides a blueprint for a new model of female-centric sexual play.
Salon met with Kerner at a cozy teahouse in New York, where a flash rainstorm fortunately drowned out much of our conversation — at least to the ears of the curious patrons seated nearby.
How do you think readers will react to the fact that you’re male? Have you gotten a lot of “What do you know about the female orgasm?”
There is really a lack of understanding in female sexual response in this culture, and a greater understanding of male sexual response. My perspective is that female sexuality is just as understandable, and can be navigated just as consistently, as male sexuality — if we choose to.
How would you suggest that men “get to know” women — their bodies, their sexuality?
We can learn a lot simply from learning about and practicing techniques. I’m trying to educate men about the female sexual anatomy and how to attune themselves more effectively to female sexual response. It’s amazing to me that even with all the scientific biological knowledge about female sexual anatomy that we have today, we are still having the clitoral vs. vaginal orgasm debate. That really stems back to the legacy of Freud and his interest in vanquishing the clitoris in order to promote his own theories and ideas about sexuality, which really ran counter to a lot of the biological information we had at that time. That legacy is somewhat firmly ensconced in our culture even in light of the sexual revolution, even in light of feminist sexual understanding.
Sure, but no matter how much a man educates himself or learns techniques, he can never really understand what a female orgasm actually feels like. What kind of research is the book based on?
The book is based on three dimensions: the first is my own personal experience — my own personal battles with sexual dysfunction and my own desire to understand female sexual response. So that dimension is rather subjective, because in the end I’m just one person, one man. The second dimension is based on my clinical work with couples to help them resolve sexual issues in their relationship. The third level was the research that I did, which included a lot of primary surveys, interviewing people frankly and honestly about their sexual experiences, desires and attitudes. I talked to about a hundred people.
I read that you’re happily married. Did your wife play a role in the book?
My wife is a wonderful woman, and she has been a bastion of enthusiasm and support.
OK, but not everyone has a husband who is a sexologist, especially one who has written a book about oral sex. How did your wife feel about your research for the book?
I’m a private writer. I like to get everything down on the page before showing it to anybody, even my wife. So I think there probably was some initial shock on her part, as in “Oh boy! This is going to be an interesting ride!” Now that the book is finished, my wife likes to joke that she is going on the book tour with me.
What about the sexual routines at the end? Did your wife have any input? Did you test them on her?
Sure! All of the routines at the end have been put to the test, not just by me and my wife, but by patients, friends, some of the survey participants, and people who read advance copies of the book.
Speaking of those routines, were they your own? How did you come up with them?
The routines explained in the book are based on techniques that have been proven to help a woman consistently experience an orgasm, whether it’s a result of intercourse or different forms of stimulation. Of course, I also rely on my own experience. In addition, I spoke to a lot of women about what works and what doesn’t work for them. That helped me get into the mindset of a woman, which you were asking about earlier.
Did you speak with any lesbians about cunnilingus? Girl-girl sex doesn’t really come up in the book.
No, it doesn’t come up. Frankly, a lot of sex books that are written from a bisexual or lesbian or alternative perspective face the danger that they may alienate the average heterosexual guy or the average heterosexual couple. I was really conscious of bringing my message to mainstream America. There are already books out there, written by women, that deal with cunnilingus: “The Ultimate Guide to Cunnilingus: How to Go Down on a Woman and Give Her Exquisite Pleasure,” by Violet Blue; “Box Lunch: The Layperson’s Guide to Cunnilingus,” by Diana Cage, coming out later this summer. I am a straight man and I deal clinically with straight couples. I think if this book were written from an alternative viewpoint, it might give men an excuse not to read it or not to take it seriously.
Where do you think men go to get useful information and instruction about sex today?
A lot of men like to read women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan and Jane for sex advice because they feel that many of the men’s magazines are too glib, too lad-oriented. With Maxim, for example, you often get five or 10 tips that are more funny than practical and truly useful.
Many men get their advice — unfortunately, in my opinion– from porn, which just reinforces a lot of false conceptions about female sexuality. And a lot of information comes from the locker room, which has more to do with myth making and tall tales than reality. From the research I’ve done in this area, women are much more likely to talk to other women about sexuality and sexual techniques — siblings and other family members — whereas men are not.
The Playboy Advisor does have a lot of great sex advice and is written by sex journalists and sexologists.
Sure, but not many people are reading Playboy — much less the Playboy Advisor — anymore.
So what’s filling that “Advisor” role now?
Well, a couple of things. In the spirit of “Sex and the City,” there is in general a spirit of female sexual entitlement, and that is leading to a new generation of female-centric porn, magazines like Sweet Action, organizations like Cake that sponsor female-oriented pleasure parties, the Suicide Girls, so I think there is more of those sorts of things going on that are starting to fill the gap.
For women, sure. But for men?
I think there’s a real void in the market in terms of books. Men often get inhibited and even a little defensive when it comes to sexuality and sex instruction. I’ve had any number of male friends tell me, “I don’t need your book.” But what’s funny is that when I give it to the girlfriends or the wives, all the guys end up stealing it.
I’m in my late 20s, and I’ve got to be honest with you: Guys in my generation are not squeamish about oral sex. In fact, my girlfriends and I have noticed that many men use their willingness to perform cunnilingus almost as a badge of honor, as a virtue.
I think men are much more receptive to giving now than they ever have been. That might have a lot to do with that spirit of female entitlement, and the fact that there’s no shame today in being a feminized guy, a sensitive guy. In general, I think that men really do enjoy pleasuring women — they find it intensely gratifying. They crave feedback and instruction but are often reluctant to ask their partners for it. So I think what you get is a bunch of guys with a whole lot of enthusiasm and energy, which is genuine, but a lack of experience and, especially, a lack of technique. I think if this book were published five or six years ago, there would be even fewer men who would be receptive to it. Today, I’m sure there are a lot of guys who say, Of course she comes first, and of course I want to give and provide pleasure, and of course I’m looking to become a better and more proficient lover. But they don’t really know what they’re doing, and they’re not really comfortable talking about it.
There was one part in the book where you mentioned how people get a lot of false notions of sexuality from porn.
Often in porn movies, when you see a man going down on a woman, his tongue is flicking like a cobra. The characters are obsessed with changes and are constantly morphing into new positions. As a result, there are a lot of men, and couples, who get caught up in the theatricality of positions that are not very conducive to stimulating sexual response. To me, part of the beautiful thing about oral sex is that it is an intensely intimate act where a man can really focus on the process of giving — he can enhance his own arousal while allowing his partner to focus on the act of receiving. Many sexual positions that you see in porn miss the simple elegance of giving and receiving.
Men tend to think that when it comes to cunnilingus, they need to do all the work. I think they would really benefit from allowing women to take the lead, let the woman apply the resistance, the friction and pace that works for her — to adopt a real “less is more” strategy.
Why should the woman come first? Why should that be the primary objective of partner intimacy?
The No. 1 question that the editors of Cosmopolitan magazine receive, year after year, from their female readers is, “What can I do to have an orgasm during intercourse?” I would challenge you to find a man who would ask that same question. Clearly, our model of sexual contentment, which is based on intercourse and enshrines the simultaneous orgasm as the apogee of sexual pleasure, does not vouchsafe female pleasure. That has largely to do with the differences in male and female sexual response. Men heat up quickly and cool down quickly, and women tend to heat up more slowly and cool down more slowly. The average man does not maintain penetrative thrusting for more than two and a half to three minutes and is able to achieve an orgasm, whereas women often require 15 to 17 minutes of persistent clitoral stimulation in order to reach an orgasm. We’re looking at a gap, and that gap unfortunately often becomes a raging abyss.
I think it makes a lot of sense for men to focus on pleasuring the woman first. Also, all women have the innate capacity to experience multiple orgasms, so just because she’s had her first orgasm, potentially via cunnilingus, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a chance for them both to experience the intimacy of intercourse. She comes first, but she can also come again and again.
So basically what you’re saying is that if the man comes first, the likelihood of pleasing the woman is diminished?
I think there are very few men, who, upon having reached their orgasm, will continue to pleasure their woman to her orgasm. And you also have a lot of women who will fake their own orgasms in order to a) not continue with an activity that is not necessarily enjoyable, b) avoid bruising the male ego, and c) understand that criticism can often be destructive to a relationship if not approached and framed properly.
What about women who are able (and prefer) to come through standard intercourse?
I may have written the Cunnilingus Manifesto, but that doesn’t mean I’m proposing a Stalinist purge of the penis! I love my penis as much as the next guy. I’m not anti-intercourse. I’m pro-outercourse. I’m in favor of embracing a model of sexuality that might be less male-centric and more female-centric. I am perfectly comfortable advising men to use their tongues, their hands, sex toys, whatever, to bring women closer to the point of orgasmic inevitability and then potentially transitioning into intercourse. What I am simply against is an uneven playing field in which men are consistently pleasured and women are not.
How did you get to be so vocally female-centric? Have you always felt this way?
Oh, where do I begin… Like a lot of adolescent boys, I wanted to get through all the heavy petting and make the mad rush to experience intercourse, adult sex, “real” sex. Well, I eventually got there, and after a while, I realized that I had a sexual problem and I wasn’t satisfying women. My struggles with premature ejaculation really bruised me and damaged me and led me to feel like a sexual cripple. That led me to want to pleasure women and open myself up to other models of sexual contentment beyond just intercourse. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy going down on women, but I think I thought of it as something that’s optional — not necessarily a must-have, must-do. Through analyzing my own experience, and also through reading and studying human sexuality, I was able to come up with an approach that led me down the path to sexual health and contentment. My own personal shortcomings (pun intended) really led me to become sensitive to female pleasure.
I want men to understand, respect and appreciate female sexuality, which I find awesome and inspiring. The female clitoris has twice as many nerve endings as the male penis, the innate capacity to produce multiple orgasms with no known purpose other than to provide pleasure — you can’t say that about the penis. But I don’t think most men approach female sexuality with that level of understanding or appreciation.
There’s a lot of hype around female ejaculation, but in the book you appear to be pretty annoyed with that discussion. What’s your gripe?
For a lot of people, from a cultural or feminist perspective, what female ejaculation says is that a woman can come like a man. To some extent, we all come from the same embryonic tissue — there are lots of similarities in our sexual anatomy and in the way men and women deal with sexual response. But female ejaculation has never been conclusively linked to physiological pleasure. Research has shown that most women don’t even know whether they’re ejaculating or not. There are female ejaculation sites that enthuse about women spouting a bucket of water across the room. Often, that is just simply a result of bearing down on the pelvis and — well, peeing. Now I want to be clear here: technically, female ejaculation is not urine. It is more similar to a male prostatic fluid. However research has shown that if a woman is consciously trying to ejaculate, that ejaculate is more likely to contain elements of urine than when it’s just happening spontaneously and involuntarily.
In my opinion, one of the beautiful aspects of sexual response is that it allows us to just sort of let go and slip into an involuntary state. When you tell women to focus intensely on ejaculation at the point of orgasm, you’re really introducing a voluntary element to an involuntary process. It can end up diminishing pleasure rather than enhancing it. That’s why I prefer not to dwell on female ejaculation and I urge my readers not to get too hung up on it, either.
Why did you decide to take such a neutral, clinical tone and not spice things or use sexier language that might increase the book’s appeal to men?
The No. 2 reason for divorce in this country is sexual dissatisfaction, and I take that intensely seriously. The philosophy I put forth in the book has true value to me. I’m not trying to turn it into entertainment. The voice in the book is my voice. I use terms like “cunnilingus,” “vulva,” “sexual response.” I had a lot of women say to me, “Why didn’t you just use the word ‘pussy’? It’s a cool, hip, female-centric term.” My response to that is, to you. But I guarantee that to someone else, it’s not.
These aren’t the terms I use in the bedroom, trust me. Then again, the terms I use in the bedroom are probably different from the terms used by your boyfriend or your husband. Everyone experiences sex differently, everyone talks about it differently and everyone gets turned on by different things. Turning people on wasn’t my focus.
I wasn’t setting out to write the great American novel. In the end I was writing a guide that was part philosophical and part practical. I want to change behavior. I want to improve people’s sex lives.
Did your own sex life change with the book or afterward?
I don’t think it did, but my wife says it has. Sometimes she’s like, “Is that in your book? That’s different!” Or, “You’ve got this down better!”
In the book you suggest that men should be willing to go down on their partner as long as it takes to bring her to orgasm, which can be anywhere from 15 minutes to 45 minutes. And that’s even before getting to intercourse.
If you’re enjoying yourself and you’re stimulated, I think you should postpone that enjoyment as long as possible. If a guy says it’s too long or it’s boring, either he’s not doing something right or he’s with the wrong person.
We tend to talk a lot about sex ruts and what happens when people are together for too long and the sex becomes boring. But what we don’t focus on is that familiarity also leads to knowing and understanding each other’s sexuality. Clinical studies have shown that women who are married are often able to achieve orgasms much more easily than women who are single or dating. The more committed you are to knowing someone sexually, the more familiar you are and the less time it potentially takes.
I think a lot of people are going to approach the book as the definitive guide to oral sex or the definitive guide to cunnilingus. While I do believe that the tongue is mightier than the sword, it’s not a means unto itself. It’s a means unto an end. A study of female sexuality shows us that women require persistent clitoral stimulation in order to reach orgasm and very often don’t get that stimulation. That’s why so many women are able to achieve orgasm via masturbation and tell themselves, “Well, when I’m with my guy, it’s not about the orgasm. Orgasms are for me and my vibrator.” I’m trying to get people to move outside of the intercourse discourse and embrace a new model of female sexuality that does not exclude male gratification but ensures mutual gratification. That’s why the book is called “She Comes First” and not “Tongue Tips.”
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)