By Molly Freedenberg
I've recently realized that Ellen Sussman's Dirty Words: An Encyclopedia of Sex (Bloomsbury, 2008) was a strange (good? bad?) choice as the first book I would read on the bus during my first month of car-free living in San Francisco. And not simply because the subject matter of an anthology of essays inspired by words like "cunt," "fuck," and "dirty sanchez" might have the potential to turn me on, which could either lead to embarrassingly obvious physical symptoms (flushed cheeks, unusual frequency of crossing and uncrossing legs), or simply the frustrating reality of wanting to do something (get off) somewhere I can't (the bus).
No, the main issue, I discovered, is the chapter heads. Each new section starts with the word in question, big and bold and impossible to miss. CUM! HAND JOB! VAGINAL EJACULATION! It's as though the designers wanted its visual impression to say, "Hey! Look at me! I'm a dirty book!"
I bought the book at the fantastic Quimby's in Chicago, as consolation for having just given up my car for a life of bikes and buses. (The logic went like this: So what if I can't get everywhere in 10 minutes? Haul dance costumes with ease? Sleep in my Scion if I ever become homeless? At least I can get some reading done!) But when I purchased the book, with its slick, hard, black cover shouting words like "blow jobs" and "clitoris" in red and orange fonts, I didn't imagine what it would be like to actually read this book in public.
And so. I return from Chicago. I start riding the 22 every morning and every evening. And I start reading my book. I'm immediately aware of those big bold chapter heads. BDSM! BESTIALITY! BISEXUALITY! Could the little Asian woman who boarded at 16th and Mission see the pages? The art students who rode all the way to 17th and Wisconsin? Was the kid in the orange tennis shoes old enough to read, and if he was, did he know what a CLITORIS was?
Part of the time, I found myself hiding the section openers with my arm, or holding the book cover-side down while getting on and off the MUNI, as though to save myself or others some embarrassment or shame I didn't think I should have. Other times, I'd purposely do the opposite, to prove my lack of said embarrassment and shame. Ho hum. Look at me. Reading my book. Just like any other book. I don't have issues about sex and shame. Nope, not me. Either way, I was always half engaged in the book and half aware of how I looked reading it.
It was only once that anyone said anything. I'd taken the 22 further than usual, past my house to a friend's apartment for dinner. A dreadlocked man with a rasta hat and a bright yellow shirt boarded at the stop where I usually disembark, and sat right next to me. I'd just gotten to CUNNILINGUS, and he noticed. Asked about the book. And then proceeded to ask me out.
I was flattered, but not interested. And I wondered if he was interested in me because of my wit and charm, or because I seemed to be so open/comfortable/obsessed with sex. Which made me realize the funny reality that if anyone on the bus every day noticed what I was reading, they'd probably assume the wrong thing about it - and me.
Which is, that it's porn. And that I'm a girl who reads porn on the bus. Not that the book isn't titillating, nor that I wouldn't read erotica in public (which, I imagine, could be more visually discrete than this tome's screaming bold type). But it turns out Dirty Words is much more about words - their meaning, their context - than about being dirty. Each of the different authors explores the meaning of sex and the concepts we use to define it. There are confessional accounts of first encounters. Fictionalized interpretations of sexual ideas. Definitions and explanations of an almost academic - if not scientific - nature. There are poems and essays and bits of genre-defying prose. Awkward moments captured. Confusing concepts examined.
Almost all the stories are entertaining. Some are nearly revelatory in their authenticity - particularly those describing childhood or pre-pubescent impressions of what sex means. But few inspired the flush of desire that most people who looked at the book's subheads might expect. And the stories that did excite me most? Those were the ones about language, about how "6 and 9 swim with the help of their fine tails, they flip with those perfect circles tucked inside them," or how the word "cock" is so satisfying because of the sharp "c" sound combined with the "c" and "k" at the end, making it a word that "stand up tall and proud" and "gives it that extra kick off the back of the throat."
Which I guess means it is porn, after all. Just not the kind one might expect. Too bad I'm done with the book now, as I wish I could still take it on the bus, flaunt it to the passengers in the next aisle. And if anyone asked me if I was reading porn, I'd have my answer ready: "Yes," I'd say, the page turned to FIST FUCK or ORGY. "It's word porn.