When I attended the New York “masturbation master class” thrown by 86-year-old rock and roll feminist Betty Dodson in April 2015, I had no idea that the experience would be so mind-blowing that it would set me off on a road trip across America.
Betty’s message is that masturbation is the foundation of every woman’s sexuality and my goal was to gain more of this wisdom by meeting more of the sex-positive legends from the 1970s and 1980s. To begin with, I wasn’t sure of my itinerary, but I’d been told that former porn-star-turned-cult-sex-artist Annie Sprinkle had christened San Francisco “The Clitoris of America,” so that was where I was headed.
#MeToo was yet to happen, but these incredible women were waiting in the wings. Their message that female pleasure is political and that shame-free love of your body is the ultimate road to true “female empowerment” now seems very timely. Every night of my 3,000-mile journey I did my solo sex “homework” to keep my mojo rising. I had twenty $100 bills in my suitcase to last me for my three-month trip, so while the physical realities of my lodgings were often stark, the kinky movies I invented in my head could take me anywhere.
What started as a search for the ultimate auto-erotic experience became a fantastic voyage into my own body. Sex Drive: On The Road To A Pleasure Revolution is my account of that journey. In this passage, I have just left the Arkansas home of Joycelyn Elders, 82, the notorious African-American Surgeon General who was fired by Bill Clinton in 1994 for saying that masturbation should be talked about in schools.
I spend that night in Hope, Arkansas, the birthplace of Bill Clinton. There doesn’t seem to be much hope in Hope. My motel is called the Village Inn, although there are no garland-festooned maypoles or jaunty hanging baskets of geraniums. Still, the smell inside my room makes me feel at home. I’ve not been in a cheap American motel ($42 including tax) since I made a road trip across the US with a friend of mine fifteen years ago. The police-station lighting, the whiff that hits you when you walk through the door: high-octane air freshener fighting a battle with something dirty and seedy. And plastic curtains. Are they worried about men ejaculating on the windows?
A particularly heavy Tex Mex meal (the El Caballero Dinner: a tamale, a chicken burrito, a beef burrito and a hard-shell taco for $11.95) just outside Hope has put paid to any thoughts of solo sexual activity tonight. The meal tasted of warm foam and I knew it was my lucky day when the tax on the bill came to $1.11 (more on that later). So I curl up with my bellyache and watch a TV show called Lock Up: Extended Stay, a program about life inside different American prisons. I watch the San Antonio, Texas, episode (concentrating mostly on Latino criminals and young gay men) and then the episode in the prison in Cleveland, Ohio. This focuses on the all-black Heartless gang also known as “the Family.” It’s great TV for a foreigner like me. The stress proves too much for one Family member and he goes crazy, smearing himself with his own feces. I finish the night with the TLC channel, which has great shows about fat people, and drop off watching My 600-lb Life.
The next morning, I see that my door has been open all night because the lock is broken. Outside is a damp, grey vista: wet concrete, an abandoned swimming pool, the sound of thundering traffic, a few brave trees soldiering on. Still, I’m excited to make porridge in my $14 Sunbeam kettle from Target. Inside is a black hotplate you can make toast on. Or heat water or beans or porridge. It’s genius. I get very excited by the idea of self-sufficiency. I mix oats and linseed and let it bubble for ten minutes. It’s pretty disgusting, but at least it’s hot. I eat it, wandering around by the front of the Village Inn, wondering if I should have gone to the Yellow Top Smokery Barbeque with a sign saying “Breakfast. Dollar Menu. Trucker Special. Be Happy.” There’s a green Art Nouveau-style lamp by the derelict swimming pool. It’s a replica of one of Hector Guimard’s 1920s réverbères for the Paris Metro.
Maybe someone apart from Bill Clinton did have hope once in Hope. But then a man throwing junk into a dumpster starts looking at me like I’m weird. I get in the car and get the hell out of Arkansas.
I make a brief stop-off in the adjacent state of Texas to pick up some weed from a friend of a friend who lives in a self-sufficient rural compound in the middle of nowhere. Christina turns out to be a stoner conspiracy-theorist internet French teacher and she’s a great hostess. I’ve forgotten how vast America is. I’m exhausted after my five-hour drive and her welcome and her weed make me feel very happy.
When I hit the road the next morning, I finally experience that “Woo hoo! I’m driving west!” feeling. The sun’s out, I’m down to a T-shirt and Prince is blasting out a tune about a sex fiend called Nikki, who he meets in a motel lobby masturbating with a magazine.
As the immensity of America unrolls before my eyes, I listen to songs on my newly burned CD. By the time I hit the entrance to the 290, the sex fiend from “Darling Nikki” has captured Prince and taken him to her device-filled castle. Here, the lights go out, and Nikki starts to grind.
“Darling Nikki” turns into “A Little Respect,” Erasure’s 1988 synth-pop classic, which is by turns elegiac and euphoric. It climbs to a massively high note, which I can never quite reach, but here in the car it doesn’t matter if I’m a terrible singer. That’s the great thing about a solo drive: you can let yourself go and not care what anyone else thinks. “To-oo, oo- oo meeeee!” I miss the high note again and laugh as the blue skies and green trees whizz along outside the window. Then “Yellow” by Coldplay comes on. I know this is the thin end of the wedge of good musical taste, but I don’t care, because nobody else can hear it. It’s like masturbation. Your dirty thoughts could be the equivalent of Barry Manilow and The Teletubbies theme tune rolled into one, but if they hold you spellbound, it doesn’t matter.
By 2 p.m. the land has become desert. It’s so hot that I stop off in a desolate place called Ozona, where the only sign of life is a gas station. I pump some gas and go inside to pay. It’s wonderfully cool and I spend a while perusing the impressive jerky selection: beef jerky, BBQ jerky, green lime jerky, cowboy-style jerky and, my favorite, teriyaki jerky. At the cash desk, a man with glossy black hair is being short with one of the snowbirds, as they term the old people who drive west for the winter. It’s quite unusual to hear rudeness in Texas. When it’s my turn, the man narrows his eyes and asks me if I’m on my own. When I was hitch-hiking around France one summer in my early twenties, I would reply “Je suis mariée” to the truck drivers who picked me up and invariably asked me this same question. But now I’m nearly fifty, so I tell the man that yes, I am alone. Whereupon, without any trace of humor he says, “When you drive back this way, stop off and we can have a meal together,” with the brass of some toff back in London saying, “Darling, shall we do lunch at the Wolseley next Tuesday?”
I get back in the car and don’t really enjoy the jerky because of the man with glossy hair. And then as I drive on, the heat turns to really hot heat. This is the part of Texas where things become arid. I’m soon driving through miles of burned, scrubby land framed by ugly flat mountains and a relentless glassy blue sky. I’ve got the window open because someone told me that air con uses up petrol, but the outside air feels like hairdryer air and the noise means I can’t even hear my music any more. I try and call some friends but nobody picks up. This is the reality of a solo road trip: driving through a dry, repetitive terrain for hours on end and you’re all on your own.
I stop for the night in a place called Van Horn. It’s where Central Time becomes Mountain Time. You are literally on the edge of time. I spark up some Texan happy weed in my new motel room at the Desert Inn. It’s a no-smoking room, but one joint isn’t going to change the lemon-tinged low-income smell. When I go for a sunset wander, everything is collapsed or crumbled. La Cocina de Maria is boarded up next to a deserted welding shop. A dilapidated sign offers “Liquor and Beer” to nobody any more, but thanks to the sky, everything man-made can be forgiven. This is the part of America where the desert spell begins. An eerie pink and baby blue light bathes everything at this hour. What a show. It becomes a spectacular finale when there’s a long, plaintive wail and an endless freight train rushes across the plains. Trains make America feel like the oldest, most romantic place in the whole world, as if cowboys or brigands might leap on at any minute to hitch a free ride west.
Back in the room, Virginia and her Windex spray bottle cross my mind. I wish I’d brought the scented candle she offered me back in New York. I sit cross-legged on my hoodie on top of the polyester bedcover eating some quinoa with black bits in that I boiled up in the Sunbeam kettle. My back’s killing me and my tummy’s bloated from my imminent period, but my luxury is that I’ve come up with the idea of putting a white T-shirt over the nylon pillowcase so my face doesn’t get contaminated in the night.
I fall asleep but jerk awake at six, pre-period horny. I try and forget about the cigarette burns in the Desert Inn sheet and get down to some homework. I think, Oh God, I hope it’s not going to be the horrible glossy- haired man at the gas station. But when I close my eyes, there he is, being rude to the friendly snowbird. Then he’s in the motel with me, making me suck his dick. Virginia is in the back of my mind in all this. The sucking gets boring so I lie on top of him, but that reminds me of what I do with Hadji. And then something lights up. A red and silver chrome Kenworth truck. Three steps up into the leather passenger seat. A driver sits next to me with his ratty ponytail. A flash of calloused hands and a red velvet curtain. It feels glamorous to be sitting up here, high in a black capsule with a dashboard of glittering lights. There’s a blur of gearsticks, a jangle of buckles, the tug of old leather and a cock that feels like velvet as it knocks against my growing clit. The truck driver pulls me to the mattress behind the cab’s red curtains and luckily there’s no sense of smell in this trucker dream world. In the Desert Inn motel, I’m lying on my front, head in my white T-shirt over the pillow, the right side of my face drooling onto a sheet whose whiff I’m not aware of any more.
Sex Drive: On The Road To A Pleasure Revolution by Stephanie Theobald is published by Unbound.