You wouldn't expect to find Suzy Spencer -- a mostly celibate, middle-aged Southern Baptist with a self-described "terror of touch" -- on Craigslist's "casual encounters." But for a year, the true crime writer and New York Times bestselling author took to the site, along with Adult Friend Finder, to interview kinky strangers about their most intimate moments for the book "Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality."
Spencer, who felt sexually "dead inside," figured her detachment made her just the person to write a sober, unbiased assessment of American sexuality -- but her journalistic remove quickly dissolved. She found herself flattered by her subjects' come-ons, titillated by dirty photos they had sent her and, by the end of the book, becoming more participant than observer. (Spoiler alert: The final chapter features her surprising sexual encounter with a swinger couple.)
Although Spencer fondly refers to her interview subjects as "my sex freaks," it's her personal journey that really shows just what lovable freaks we all are -- whether it's our taste for leather or our fear of intimacy. She shares detailed stories from her sources about everything from heterosexual male fantasies about gay sex to a BDSM session with a bullwhip that left 9-inch gashes -- but there is one common thread: loneliness. Everyone just wants to be loved, accepted and understood -- and they're terrified that they won't be if others find out the truth about them.
I spoke to Spencer by phone from her home in Austin, Texas, about religious guilt, seeing God during sex, finally admitting to her mom that she isn't a middle-aged virgin and why people should read her book before getting married.
You start the book off by writing about your "terror of touch." You hated to be tickled or even hugged as a child. You state flat-out that you don't know whether this arose from abuse in your past, of which you have no memory, or whether you had simply been around so many people who has been molested that you "absorbed" their feelings. Have you come to any greater clarity about this terror through writing the book?
Unfortunately, no. I wish I had. That would have been a wonderful ending, but the honest truth is I haven't. I guess I've come to a peace that I'll never know, and that's OK.
How does someone with a "terror of touch" end up writing a book that requires her to spend a year on the "fringes of American sexuality"?
I dunno, stupidity? I feel like writers have to do what scares them, to be challenged. To some degree I've gotten a little bit better at touch but it depends on who it's coming from. I'm probably jumping ahead in the conversation a little bit, but the book forced me to talk to my mother about my sex life.
Dare I ask how that conversation went?
It was very difficult, and I actually did it in two parts because it was so difficult. The first time, and I know this is going to sound so stupid coming from someone my age, it's almost unbelievable, but the first conversation was telling my mother, "I'm not a virgin." She was so upset that she was dysfunctional for the next two or three days. It was also rather humorous because she said, "You mean you've had relationships?" And I said, "No, I haven't had relationships, I've had relations." She goes, "How can you have relations without relationships? With men or with women?" Then my sister said, "With both?" And I went, "Yes, that one."
And then I had to tell her about the ending of the book.
Yes, can we talk about the ending of the book?
I prefer not to, but, you know, you're going to do what you want!
Well, do you feel uncomfortable with what happened in the ending?
I feel uncomfortable with my family reading it and with my neighbors reading it. I don't want the people in my neighborhood to know this.
Beyond just the public revelation of it, how do you feel about what actually happened?
I still have mixed emotions about it, because, yes, it was so great to know that I wasn't dead inside, to know that I have that ability [to be turned on] and it opened me up to other things that I don't want to go into. To know that I have the capacity to not be dead inside, because I thought I would be dead inside for eternity. And I know I can resurrect that side of me.
Why were you able to access that part of yourself at that particular point?
I guess to have someone say, "You're so beautiful, you're so sexy," it was sort of like a balm for all these hurts and embarrassments or shames I've been carrying all these years. Because I always think of myself as the ultimate geek, nerd and unattractive, and to have someone think I'm attractive it was just like, "Whoa!"
It sounds like in general some of the sexual attention from your male subjects felt really good -- you admit to being flattered when they ask for your photo -- and that you were conflicted about that.
Yeah, because a journalist is supposed to stay arm's length away. I also thought I was immune to all that.
Right. You really thought of yourself as coming to this project as the perfect impartial judge, because you felt so very removed and sort of irrelevant to the conversation, right?
Exactly. I've had so many people say, "Oh Suzy, you really knew you were going to have sex." No, I didn't. It was a complete shock. Even when I think back to it now, I'm still in shock. If I had been drinking that night, OK. But I had been drinking water and Diet Coke.
Personally, I do sometimes wonder about the "cover" that being a journalist gives me to ask about or see things that maybe I have a personal interest in but am too embarrassed to explore without the excuse of "it's for work." Do you ever feel that?
Of course. I knew I was really bad at sex and I thought maybe I could learn. I don't think even watching porn movies teaches you how to do it. So I thought talking to real human beings, maybe I would learn something. But, yes, there was also the curiosity factor, because for decades people have insisted that I'm lesbian and in denial about it. This was a way, sort of, to feel out the situation. It taught me some things about myself.
I definitely have the capability to be bi, which I'm OK with and at peace with at this point. Before, I wasn't. As the years have gone on, I've found out that I'm much more hetero than I expected, too. Talk about the continuum -- yeah, I've been sliding back and forth on that.
How did your mom react to the book's ending?
She doesn't know the full ending, even though I said, "Hey, there's this couple in [the book], I do have sex." She's, like, terrified that I was raped. I told her I wasn't raped, these are very nice people, it wasn't like that. But the good news is we each got something we needed: I heard from her for the first time, "I love you no matter what. I'm not going to reject you. I accept you, I love you." She told me that over and over.
Have you always felt like religion and sex are in conflict?
Oh yes. One time when I was living in L.A. and I was having sex with this guy and I'm lying there looking at the ceiling and over to the right filling up practically the entire ceiling, just like Woody Allen in "New York Stories" with his mother filling up the New York skyline, I'm seeing my mother's face and she's so upset and saying, "This is wrong! How can you be doing this?" Then I look over to the left and in a teeny tiny corner of the ceiling there is God going, "It's OK. I don't like this, but I understand. It's OK." I'm still confused about premarital sex, whether it's right or wrong, but I know God understands and it's OK.
You identified loneliness as a common theme among your subjects. How would you describe that loneliness? How did it manifest itself?
Well, to me, it kind of goes back to the Christianity thing and my own family. People have these secret desires that some of them really need to fulfill -- for example, the cross-dresser in the book. He talked about how he really needed to cross-dress as a stress reliever -- but he is terrified to tell his wife about this. It builds a wall between them, because he has this secret life that he's hiding. Plus, I think he has some anger and resentment at her that he can't tell her this. So that's where the loneliness comes in, because to me the people desperately want the person they most love to know all of them and accept all of them.
You're so judgmental of yourself when it comes to your own sexual feelings, but you're pretty accepting of these people who are very much on the sexual fringe. Why are you able to afford that sort of sympathy for them and not for yourself?
I need more years of therapy to find that out [laughs]. I guess maybe I'm trying to do what I want people to do with me. Also, I want people to understand that not all of our Christians are like the ones you see shouting and screaming on TV.
You found that the male BDSMers that you spoke with had been abused by their fathers. But is that representative of the community at large?
I can't answer that. I know it's representative of the people I talked with. That's why I went to psychiatrists and asked them, and like I say in the book, some of them said, "Yes, it's true" and others said, "It's definitely not."
What were you most surprised by in terms of what you found in your interviews?
I wish I could think of something that's really happy, but the thing that did just blow me away was the loneliness. I just did not expect that. And the other thing that shocked me so was the amount of happily married, madly in love, basically heterosexual men who fantasized about being with men. We're all taught women have these bisexual fantasies and I did not find that among the women I interviewed, but I found it among the men -- all the Texas, good ol' boy, military men who wanted that.
How did they frame those fantasies?
Most of them wanted a woman directing it, to tell them, "You have to do this." I loved [one subject's] explanation that the first time he got a blow job from a man it was so great because, one, the guy didn't have any teeth [laughs], but two, men understand what a man wants. I found that fascinating.
What do you hope that people will take from the book?
When I go out and talk about the book, I sit there and almost shake it like a preacher would a Bible and say, "If you're talking about getting married, read the book!" Read it with the one you love and talk about it so that if you desperately need to be whipped or to whip someone that it's not a surprise and that you're not going out on the side to fill this need that's imperative. And if you're in a marriage and you want to talk about it, use the book to talk about it, because that's where I see the loneliness. These people want to be so accepted and they're terrified they won't be. I want to say, "Hey, look at my life with my mom." She accepted me after all and I didn't expect that.