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The Pussy Whisperer

Bro Bibles: ‘She Comes First’ by Ian Kerner, Ph.D.

Greetings and welcome to Bro Bibles, a series in which I ruin my summer by reading the books your worst ex-boyfriend holds dear to his heart. It’s my hope that by engaging with these often problematic and rarely rewarding texts, I will save everybody else the trouble — and perhaps learn why they are so popular among my cursed gender.

About cunnilingus, one fact is not in dispute: dudes could stand to be better at it.

(Here I’ll pause for anyone who wants to jump into the comments with a furious “Not All Men” statement on how you’re awesome at giving head. All done? Great.)

As I was saying, guys are known for letting women down in this respect. Maybe they don’t do it at all, or don’t do it enough, or don’t do it to completion. Maybe he loves eating pussy but never quite figured out the mechanics or hot spots. But as Socrates taught, humble ignorance is a prerequisite of wisdom — you must first know that you know nothing. A couple thousand years later, Seinfeld summarized male ambivalence toward oral sex when Jerry assured a less-than-confident George: “Nobody knows what to do. You just close your eyes; you hope for the best.” And then, to clearly excuse the destined failure that lies ahead: “I really think they’re happy if you just make an effort.”

She Comes First, a nobly intentioned guide to stimulating female genitalia by sex therapist Ian Kerner, Ph.D., starts by correcting that idea: Your brief minutes of performative floundering in the dark, he writes, are nowhere near satisfactory. Nor should we view cunnilingus as mere appetizer to the entreé that is genital intercourse — it is not foreplay but “coreplay,” the most reliable path to female orgasm. Kerner laments that so few heterosexual guys understand this, then offers the first of many disastrous literary allusions: “Flannery O’Connor was right: a good man is hard to find.” Sure, he’s referring to a short story wherein an entire family is murdered by a serial killer, but it’s not as bad as his advice for “writing” letters on a partner’s vulva with your tongue, which quotes the alveolar first lines of Vladimir Nabokov’s “classic work Lolita,” a novel that narrates the grooming of a young girl by a pedophile. Sexy!

Yet Kerner’s reading comprehension is among the least of his problems — we ought to be concerned with what his readers take away from his writing. I picked out She Comes First because a friend reported hooking up with a dude who believed this book was his key to oral success but then seemed as lost between her legs as a total novice; after this disappointment, he remarked that his “grand plan” for her ecstasy had “gone awry.” If he was thinking of giving head as some military campaign or shadowy coup, that could be thanks to Kerner’s own bizarre language and metaphors, the kind of try-hard prose that in every possible sense betrays his heroes, Strunk and White. Did he not notice that The Elements of Style — his stated template for this handbook — clocks in at around a quarter the length? He could have saved us a lot of confusion by condensing somewhat, or at least cutting the “Let’s Review” section for every page-long chapter.

A patronizing attitude is baked into the notes on a man’s role in bed. He “ushers” and “lulls” the woman into orgasm; he must “properly guide” her “through the stages of arousal.” Toward the conclusion, Kerner clarifies that oral sex “is not something you do to her; it’s something you do with her.” But the 181 previous pages wholly contradict this morsel of truth, beginning with the depiction of his partner as an instrument. “[I]t wasn’t until I met my wife that I found my Stradivarius — unique, beautiful, and priceless. If she is my violin, then I am her bow.” Even as we take solace in the fact that he didn’t compare her to a trumpet and himself to Miles Davis, that’s some objectifying shit, and things do not improve from there. Soon he moves on to ghastlier modes of dominance: “Like Christopher Columbus sallying forth into the unknown,” he writes, “your exploration of the clitoral network will lead to the discovery of a whole new world.” And the genocide of any indigenous peoples living in the vagina, presumably.

What you’d assume to be Kerner’s most important, or helpful, contributions on this subject — maps and fine details of female genital anatomy — wind up adding to his puzzlebox theory of women. He’s still framing pussy as a device (“Most men can more easily identify what’s under the hood of a car than what’s under the clitoris”) and delights in repeating trivia that intimidates where it means to inform. Did you know that the glans of the clitoral network has “more than eight thousand nerve endings”? Well, you can expect to be reminded of it roughly eight thousand times. After all this compelling science, we get to learn how Kerner sets the mood for love. With no irony, he recommends reading steamy passages from James Salter or Henry Miller aloud and lighting a bunch of candles. Then he tells us, in what I see as a vindication for the oft-maligned position, that 69ing is inherently bad. I won’t make any judgments if you nod along for that bit, though what comes next is unforgivable: Kerner has the audacity to say the same of face-sitting, which he inexplicably calls “SOMF (Sit on My Face),” claiming that a woman situated this way is “highly unlikely” to “get very far in the process of sexual response.” To crudely paraphrase Wikipedia: citation fucking needed.

Finally, we arrived at the essential maneuvers — and that’s where this leaky ship runs ashore. It’s not that all of Kerner’s instructions are wrong; on the contrary, he covers the familiar tongue strokes and “come hither” fingerings and various applications of rhythmic pressure that no doubt form the basis of most dudes’ repertoire, skipping much of the trial-and-error guesswork you may recall from teenage trysts. Rather swiftly, however, he overburdens the apprentice with what an experienced cunnilinguist will recognize as oddly specific, superfluous, and suspiciously robotic moves, leaving little room for improvisation, let alone attention to whether the woman is enjoying any of this. He wants you to mumble Shakespearean lines of iambic pentameter into her labia. He has you counting a lot — five of these licks, ten of those, fifteen sets of another, each set lasting about ten seconds. He says to “pinch” her inner lips, “tap” her frenulum, and even “nibble” at one point, none of which sounds advisable. I was weirded out by his suggestion to probe the perineum (the area between vulva and anus) but downright horrified by illustrations of his “Gum-Press” technique, in which you “raise your upper lip by making an ‘Elvis Presley’ snarl and press your gum against her front commissure, the sensitive area just about the head.” In these passages, She Comes First abandons its tone of broadly applicable counsel for something more like How to Get My Wife Off.

Or perhaps all that stuff is normal, and Kerner’s violin-spouse lives in constant carnal bliss. Mentioning that he had long struggled with premature ejaculation (and tastelessly declaring his younger self “a sexual cripple”), he contends that the craft of cunnilingus was for him a romantic necessity, and I see no grounds to question his practical expertise. What’s actually at stake here is the idea that artistic skill can be taught. For each instance of Kerner treating pussy like a math equation to be solved with complex lingual passwords, he’ll also invoke a creative figure — everyone from Henry David Thoreau to Jackson Pollock makes an appearance — hinting that his directions are not only narrow and inadequate but laughably counter to the open, inventive play of sex.

This wouldn’t be such an issue if Kerner didn’t sow distrust of the female perspective at literally every stage of the game. A woman who fails to come as a result of his methods may be “unable to reach orgasm via cunnilingus,” or she “simply hasn’t ‘trained’ her body to experience an orgasm in this manner,” he argues. “Who knows for sure what emotional baggage she may carry,” he asks, especially regarding “a part of her body that she herself may find unfamiliar and mysterious.” Worried that your girlfriend is faking it? Kerner will help you ferret out those phony “screamers and thrashers” with this handy trick: “If you’re wondering whether her orgasm was the real McCoy, look for the increased prominence of her nipples.”

Ultimately, Kerner doesn’t trust women to know what they want, or why, or how to get it, or when they’ve had it; thus the chivalric expectation that men will have to consistently escort them to “Orgasmopolis” with a one-size-fits-all solution laid out in a muddled text that features subheadings like “Her Clitoris: The Little Engine That Could,” includes a worksheet for writing out and memorizing “routines,” and advises that while safe cunnilingus involves both latex gloves(!) and a dental dam, “a sheet of Saran Wrap will do.” There is no hope for a man who attempts to hold the sum of this nonsense in mind while going down on a woman, and no shortage of ways he might blame her when it does not go according to plan.

After all, he read the user’s manual.