If a parent raising teenaged boys never has to address the subject of porn, it’s because they aren’t paying close attention.

If that parent makes her living as a creator and publisher of explicitly sexual material, willful blindness is not an option.

The day I took a deep breath and nosedived into this particular aspect of raising kids in a sex-positive environment was the day I was gathering dirty bedding from the Dudes’ room and discovered a copy of Penthouse Variations[1] under Miles’s mattress.

A copy he had filched from my nightstand.

I could have left it there – it was fairly tame, with no explicit photos and no nonconsent. (I feel for today’s parents who have to contend with an Internet full of every imaginable kind of raunch.) And had it not been my magazine, I’d probably have done just that. But when I thought about it, what bothered me was not the porn, but the theft.

There was no way to confront the situation without embarrassing Miles, but I did my best to keep it short and direct, to the tune of “Read what you want, dude, but stay the fuck out of my nightstand.”

What he didn’t know, and is probably reading here for the first time, is that the reason I had the magazine in my nightstand was that it featured my very first published article, under an editor-assigned pen name. Talking about that would have been not just a bridge too far, but a bridge on the other side of the planet.

I think Ben was twelve or thirteen when I found a folder full of hentai on my hard drive. My reaction, after a few minutes to cool down, was pretty much the same one I’d used with Miles, only updated for the electronic era: “I’m not dumb enough to think I can prevent a teenaged boy from looking at porn, but this is my computer and there was a box of floppy disks in your Christmas stocking. Use them.” Not too long afterward, he got his own computer and I stopped worrying about his viewing, as it was no longer my business.

Jay and I had decided to be extremely careful to protect the Dudes from our various goings-on – not so much because we thought they’d be harmed by anything we were up to, as because at that point in our lives we were becoming public figures, and the last thing we needed was to be attacked for contributing for the delinquency of a couple of minors.

That was great in theory. In practice, however, I remember chatting to Ben one day and then noticing that he was standing in my office, on a floor where I’d scattered numerous pieces of line art for Greenery’s upcoming A Hand in the Bush: The Fine Art of Vaginal Fisting.

Needless to say, when I formally came out to each of the Dudes on their eighteenth birthdays, they were not flabbergasted by the news.

(When parents in my workshops ask me about coming out to their teenagers, I assure them that they should not kid themselves – the spawn already know. They may, however, get things wrong, so that’s why you still need to talk to them.)

In general, my approach to the Dudes’ sex education was to be as straightforward as possible without embarrassing any of us too much. I did a basic birds and the bees talk – which I have since been informed was way too much information for a single sitting[2] – and made a habit of keeping an open box of condoms in the medicine cabinet of their bathroom, with an assurance that I would keep it filled and available. As far as I know, none of the condoms were ever used, but I hoped that putting them there was an implicit message that I was supportive of whatever consensual sexual choices the two of them made.

I completed the basics on my sex-ed obligations by suggesting several male friends who could answer questions that they didn’t feel right asking their mother (and notifying those friends that they were to feel free to answer such questions), and providing the telephone number to the San Francisco Sex Information hot line. Later, I bought them a copy of The Guide to Getting It On, which was at the time – maybe still is; I don’t follow that market anymore – the best sexuality guide for adolescents.  

That was all I had for them. Except whatever they picked up from their environment, which was plenty.

During the Jay years, I lived in several different places: first, a two-bedroom townhouse (one bedroom for Jay and me, the other for Miles and Ben); then, a suburban house that Jay and I shared with my play partner Tim; then, a big pink house near the ocean in San Francisco; and finally, a duplex that I bought with Tim’s partner Kathy.

It was the big pink house that shaped our lives for the future. On the main floor, Tim had a bedroom at the end of the hall, with a second room beyond it that started out as my office – but after a couple of months of tiptoeing past him while he was napping or masturbating, we decided it would be better for me to work from the dining room. Sharing a wall with Tim’s room at the end of the hall was the Dudes’ room. Upstairs, in what we called the Crow’s Nest, lay a small bedroom surrounded by windows, where Jay and I slept and played.

Under the house was a two-bedroom mother-in-law unit. When we first moved in, it was occupied by a Brazilian dancer and her boyfriend, pleasant people who kept out of our way. Then, however, our insane Russian landlady lost her living situation and moved in with them, without their consent and to their vast annoyance. Needless to say, that didn’t last long, and within a few months all three of them were gone. Tim, Jay and I stretched our budget beyond the max and took on what became known as the Lifeboat as part of our household. Over the several years of our residence, the Lifeboat was occupied nearly constantly by friends, friends of friends, lovers, family members, and other folks who needed short-term lodging.

Our record for total number of people under our roof at a time maxed out at seventeen. So we had this enormous, busy house that was fully pervert-occupied, except for my kids[3].

That worked out pretty much exactly the way you’d expect.

The first big change came when Tim, who had been playing the field, met Kathy, his dream sadist.[4] Kathy moved in, which meant that my kids were awakened many mornings by her breathless soprano orgasm-voice – ah, the joys of new love – through the shared wall. I figured that for most of human history, young humans had been exposed to the sounds of adult lovemaking, with no serious harm done. And as far as I know, no serious harm came from Tim and Kathy’s concert performances either, although I guess you’d have to ask Miles and Ben to find out for sure.

And once the two were adult or near-adult, the gloves were off. Miles came with me to BookExpo America when he was nineteen, the year we premiered the first edition of The Ethical Slut[5], to help stock our booth and act as a general dogsbody. It turned out that he did us the most good by putting on an Ethical Slut t-shirt a size too small with our booth number in big Sharpie letters on the back, and walking his handsome young self around the show. We couldn’t afford the mascots or other showy stuff that established publishers take to BookExpo, but putting my DNA to work as a booth babe turned out to be a good strategy for all concerned.

The year Ben got pressed into service helping with Greenery Press outreach, we had a booth at Folsom Street Fair[6], but my employee was down with the flu and I couldn’t manage the booth by myself (I had a two-hour block marked out to sign copies of Radical Ecstasy, Dossie’s and my latest book). I asked Ben if he would like to earn some dough by keeping the shelves and table stocked with books all day, and he was delighted to help. What I didn’t account for was the Greenery author I’d drafted to cover my shift during my signing, who decided to attract booth traffic by stripping out of her shirt and bra and selling books tits, and tats[7], to the wind. Ben, barely past his age of majority, dealt with it pretty well, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that it was his first encounter with boobs in the wild.

A lot of events that would probably have gotten us looked at with some concern simply got chalked up to “Mom’s weird friends.” For many years, we hosted an informal potluck on Christmas afternoon for all our Christmas orphan friends (as in all queer-flavored communities, many of our beloveds were not on speaking terms with their families of origin). Miles and Ben enjoyed mingling with the group and helping perform party-host functions like making sure empty dishes were whisked away and keeping little bowls of nuts and M&Ms filled, but I can’t vouch for the conversations they must have overheard. I do remember the year Tim gave Kathy fancy lingerie for Christmas, and she debuted it by doing a striptease for the assorted guests: the Dudes, as far as I could tell, watched with the same tangle of enjoyment and embarrassment as everyone else at the party.

Our dedicated moviegoing let us in for a few inappropriate experiences as well. I’d been brought up with the dictum that if I was interested enough to explore sexy material, I was mature enough to read it, and that was pretty much my attitude toward the Dudes. But the world seemed to have gotten a lot smuttier in the quarter century between my adolescence and theirs. The day I took them to a matinee of “adult cartoons” at the Red Vic[8] I was expecting something pretty racy, along the lines of some of the less inhibited Betty Boop cartoons – and there were plenty of those, and we enjoyed them. As the afternoon’s program went on, though, it got more and more graphic, to the point that even I was a bit shocked. I couldn’t see much point in storming out, so I white-knuckled our way through explicit animated penetration of various orifices. As we left the theater, though, all three of us we were uncharacteristically silent.

Even if I’d been stricter in our viewing choices, mistakes would have been made. I rented The Grifters one afternoon, remembering only that it was a movie about con men, and who doesn’t love con men movies? Somehow the mother/son incest theme had escaped my memory. Once again, by the time I realized my error, it was too late.

And yet, somehow, both Dudes seem to have grown up to be mature, feminist, nonviolent men. Their boundaries are arguably better than mine, in that I know very little about either of their sexuality: they keep that private, which is both understandable[9] and appropriate. But I’ve heard no complaints so far.

And, no, I’m not putting myself up as any exemplar of sex-positive parenting. All I can say is that this is the way I did it, and everything seems to have turned out pretty much okay. The moral to this story, if it has one, is that watching or reading sexual material is not inherently damaging to kids. So don’t panic when you discover your adolescent with his hand in his or her pants and a skin flick on the computer.

Because someday you will. I promise.

[1] A kinky iteration of Penthouse Lettters, which published (ostensibly) true letters submitted by readers.

[2] As always, I was way better at talking than I was at shutting up.

[3] As far as I know.

[4] They would go on to marry, and are still together twenty-plus years later.

[5] Just in case you’ve read this far and still don’t know about this book, it’s Dossie’s and my book about polyamory. Coming up on its quarter century mark and its third edition, it outsells all our other books put together, by a large margin.

[6] An enormous celebration of leather, BDSM and fetish culture that draws tens of thousands of people to San Francisco every year.

[7] The first time this author came to our house, I wasn’t going to be able to be there when she arrived. I asked Ben and Miles to please let her in and get her something to drink. “She’s nearly six feet tall with a whole lot of black hair, and everything that isn’t tattooed is pierced,” I told them. Ben’s response, utterly deadpan: “Okay, but how will we recognize her?”

[8] An old hippie movie theater in the Haight.

[9] In the British show Sex Education, Gillian Anderson plays a famous sex-author mom. I actually find her slightly reassuring: at least my boundaries are better than someone’s.

drawings of the three principals at various points in their lives

Us: An Introduction – 4/4/2021

Given that you’re about to read a whole book about Miles, Ben and me, you’ll probably want to start with some sense of who the hell we are.

I’ll go first, because my name is on the cover. I turned 66 this year. Most folks who have ever heard of me associate me with a book I coauthored, The Ethical Slut[1], which has been in print for nearly thirty years and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. But I’ve actually written a lot of books, mostly about kink/BDSM – including three memoirs, of which this is the latest.

I grew up in suburban Philadelphia, but my family moved to California when I was thirteen, where I spent my life till my spouse Edward and I moved to Oregon in 2009. If I had to choose the place that felt most like home to me, it’d be Oakland, CA, but who can afford to live in the Bay Area forever?

I’m bisexual, but tend to nest with men. You’ll read here about all three of the men I’ve lived with – Frank, with whom I raised our kids; Jay, who was an inextricable part of my rise to prominence as a kink and polyamory author; and Edward, to whom I am now married, and with whom I’m braving the imminent experience of old age. You’ll also meet several women who have been dear to me as lovers and friends, including Dossie, my coauthor, co-collaborator, sometime lover and longtime dear friend, as well as a host of other lovers, play partners and sweeties both long-term and incidental.

Miles, my older son, was born on Christmas Eve, 1977. He was the kind of easy baby that makes parents cocky about having more kids. (You think it’s because you’re such a remarkable parent that you’ve conquered all the usual parenting woes. Hah.) He slept through the night on our first night home from the hospital, and taught himself how to read at three by watching Sesame Street. The closest we ever came to disciplining him was counting to three, and we never reached three.[2]

Miles’s career ambitions started in his early teens, when our family’s frequent attendance at plays and movies crystallized into a desire to act. That desire multiplied through the years into a cluster of theater-adjacent skills and experiences: these days he’s an actor/puppeteer/writer/cartoonist/stagehand/mask-builder/filmmaker/merch guy, and I suspect I’ve forgotten to include six or seven more slashes.

Right about when I was abandoning all hopes of grandparenthood – he’d had several steady girlfriends, but none who shared his desire to start a family – Miles met and married Destiny. The two of them are beautifully in love; I suspect that they’re that rarest of phenomena, a true couple. (I’m cynical enough that I’d like to believe such things don’t exist, but I’ve met a few of them. I’ve never counted myself among their number, though.) Early this year, after a couple of false starts, they welcomed Felix, who appears to be following in his dad’s perfect-baby footsteps – or so I’m told, as COVID-19 has so far prevented me from meeting him in person. They live in Southern California, although I nurture a small bright hope of getting them to move up here one of these days. Keep your fingers crossed.

Ben came along five and a half years after Miles, mostly because I find preschoolers trying enough that it took that long before I was ready for a second round. Ben was the pint-sized antidote to parental hubris: all the first-child ease I’d thought was due to our excellent parenting – well, apparently it wasn’t.

I think if I were raising Ben now, he’d probably meet the criteria for Asperger’s – but of course that diagnosis didn’t exist then, so mostly I spent those early years pushing back against doctors and teachers who wanted him put on Ritalin. I maintained (and still do) that except in the most extreme cases, rather than drugging a kid into conforming with the schoolroom, we should find schoolrooms that adapt to the kid.

When he was in fourth grade, bringing home complaint after complaint from a rigidly unsympathetic teacher, I went to observe him one day. From my place behind the door, I watched the rest of the class doing flash cards on “rough” vs. “smooth,” while Ben was nose-deep in a fat fantasy novel he’d picked off his father’s bookshelves.

Frank and I were separated by then, but we were a lean mean team for the project of getting Ben out of there. After surveying various schools to find the right combination of a sympathetic philosophy, a manageable location and an affordable tuition, we agreed on Sacramento Valley School, an “unschooling” environment based on the famous Sudbury School. There, Ben could read to his heart’s content, experiment with making art and music, and form a few lifelong friendships with other oddball public-school refugees.

From the day Ben learned that there were people who made a living creating video games, he’d never wanted to do anything else. While SVS offered plenty of scope for research and experimentation with the arts, he knew he wasn’t getting the necessary grounding in math and science – so at fourteen he started attending community college to fill in the gaps, and got his GED at sixteen. He went on to get a bachelor’s in game design (from, unfortunately, a for-profit school which has since lost its certification), and has been following that career path ever since.

After a year programming for an animation-and-custom-games studio, he took off on his own, and has been working on an enormous solo game project (he’s doing the art, the music, the writing, the programming – the whole shebang) for years now. His discipline is fearsome and I don’t know where he inherited it: not from me, anyway.

Ben has never had a girlfriend (yet), mostly because he very rarely does anything that involves going to a place where women are. Like many geeks in his age bracket, his social life takes place almost entirely on-line, but it’s a busy one, with correspondents all over the world. He also does a weekly blog about gaming and the creative life, and creates custom illustrations as a side gig.

Ben lives less than a mile from me, and we see each other a few times a week for shopping, for him helping out with household stuff I’m not strong enough or willing enough to do anymore, and for our regular weekly writing/art-making get-together. We travel together easily and often (or did pre-quarantine, anyway), and he’s my regular moviegoing companion (ditto).

So, that’s us: three weirdos, leading our weird lives, together and separately. You can spend the rest of the book getting to know us better.

[1] Hence the title of this book.

[2] Which was fortunate, because we had no idea of what we’d do if the dreaded “three” ever crossed our lips.