I Learned About Sex From Jokey Porn Books — Written By My Dad

There is sex appeal in secrecy. That’s why Pandora opened that box, why Alice drank all of those potions from those bottles, and why children rifle through closets and drawers when they think nobody will catch them. It’s also why, as a child, whenever my parents left the house, I’d clamber up the big, white, built-in bookcase in the living room to poke around the “off-limits” shelves and see what naughty treasures I could find.
Photo: Courtesy of Sara Faith Alterman.
The author as a child with her parents.
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I had very protective, strict parents, who monitored and censored everything. No music with swears. No movies with love scenes. My dad even fast-forwarded through the kissing parts of VHS tapes. And if a TV scene suddenly turned steamy, he’d change the channel, or if he couldn’t get there in time, he'd try to create a distraction. Naturally, this frenzy around special grown-up hugging and kissing time made me curious.

During one particularly fruitful bookcase climb, I found a super sweet score of thin paperbacks, jammed in at the very end of the highest shelf. I selected one with an orange cartoon cat on the cover, and jumped to the floor, settling into my favorite hiding spot behind Mom’s pink armchair to check out my prize:

Games You Can Play with Your Pussy.

Because I was nine, I didn’t get it right away that this was not a book about cats. I idly flipped through chapters like "Naming Your Pussy" and "How to Feed Your Pussy" until I heard the garage door rumble open, and my parents' station wagon pull in. While scrambling to put the book back on the off-limits shelf, I noticed that my father’s name appeared on the title page. Not handwritten, to denote ownership. But printed, to denote authorship.

Over time and many more bookcase recon missions, I was able to piece together the icky truth about Dad: Before I was born (and even slightly thereafter), he’d had a fairly successful career as a porny joke book/jokey porn book writer.
Photo: Courtesy of Sara Faith Alterman.

And that’s how I learned about sex — stealing cheap moments with my father’s sleazy stories. Sex Manual For People Over 30. How To Pick Up Girls. An entire series about a zaftig and enthusiastic woman named Bridget. This wasn’t sneaking a peek at your dad’s dirty magazines, this was spelunking along the twisted perv nerves of your dad’s dirty brain.

It was thanks to Bridget’s Sex Manual that I really began to understand the nuance of innuendo. I learned, for example, that when you interview for a job at a lollipop factory and the hiring manager wants to assess your sucking skills, he’s not too concerned with how many licks it’ll take you to get to the center. Or maybe he is. I don’t know. Depends on the manager, I guess.

I was old enough to feel both turned on and repulsed by these stories, but too young to understand the shame that washed over me any time I thought about my own body. As I aged and sex became attainable, and then available, I was haunted by these stories. And haunted by my father, really. Sex was the naughty thing he wrote about that I wasn’t supposed to know about, and because Dad was an indirect part of my formative sex education, I couldn’t help but associate the two.

And that’s how I learned about sex — stealing cheap moments with my father’s sleazy stories.

It’s so gross. It’s SO GROSS. It’s so gross to think about your father when you think about sex. I’m 35, and I’m still trying to compartmentalize an assortment of Freudian core beliefs. Maybe the biggest development is that now when I look at Dad’s books, I don’t see cartoon cats and funny naked ladies, I see fat-shaming and slut-shaming. I see misogyny in its ugliest guise. It makes me sad. Because I understand that in fast-forwarding through kissing scenes and intercepting sexual sounding Bon Jovi cassettes on their way from my hand to a cashier’s conveyor belt, my dad was trying to protect me from the creeps and chauvinists of the world. Because he knew they were out there. And because he was one of them, or, at least, he wrote to an audience of them.

I think if I picked up one of these books now, without context or familial association, I’d think they were benign. Kind of boring. I might chuckle once or twice. Maybe not. After all, they were published in the '70s, and most of the jokes don’t have staying power. They just seem kind of hokey.

My dad died this year after a battle with Alzheimer's, and I miss him so much. In a way, though, his death feels like a breakthrough in my own sexuality, perhaps because I no longer harbor a neurotic paranoia that he has a Santa-like ability to know when I’ve been naughty or nice. Although, maybe his ghost does. I wonder if he’s up there drafting ghosty porn jokes/jokey ghost porn right now.
Photo: Christopher Padgett.
The author with her father at her wedding.
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