Shy Couple

I am not a prude. I like sex. But I would never say that to your face, and I'm actually cringing here at my computer at the thought that somebody could walk in... Well, you see where I'm heading. My own sexuality embarrasses me. When I was a young teenager, my mother used to tell me that the world was divided into breast men and leg men, and that I would attract the leg men. I don't remember being upset. Or pleased. I remember thinking, Well, that's it for shorts. In college I wore flowing, ankle-length skirts and beginning in my 30s, long pants. I'm the only person I know who can imagine adding a burqa to my wardrobe. I never want to be obvious, so when I'm feeling sexy I try to hide it—to the point where my husband can't always tell that I'm turned on; he once asked if I'd consider holding up a sign.

Okay, so I'm a little shy. That wouldn't have seemed so strange 50 years ago, when Victoria still had secrets, a kiss was still a kiss rather than an IOU, and holding back was still a viable sexual strategy. Today you're supposed to tell your partner exactly what will satisfy you. ("Excuse me, could you pass the multiple orgasms?") The very thought of it makes me blush.

Please don't get me wrong: I admire a woman who is sexually confident. I love it when movie stars strut and preen—not Gwyneth Paltrow bending like a willow, but Catherine Zeta-Jones leading with her chest. If you show up in four-inch heels and a see-through dress, I'll think you're hot. But I'll be more intrigued by the woman next to you who smolders quietly. In grad school my Victorian literature professor read us a scene in which a woman rolled up her sleeve, revealing to her suitor a seductive white arm. I thought the professor would faint, and who could blame him? When the boy I was dating brought over his favorite hard-core porno books for me to learn from, I put them aside in favor of A Man with a Maid, in which the innocent virgin is outraged by her captor's lewd behavior. Of course I got bored as soon as the lady became a libertine. I liked the Kama Sutra because it made sex seem ornate, exotic; words like penis and vagina were clinical, but lingam and yoni came (so to speak) with a little mystery. Sex toys—always gifts from men who wanted to make me less inhibited—went to a top shelf and stayed there. Only last week my husband reached for something on the top of a wardrobe and came back with an ancient vibrator. Did I want to dust it off and try it? What do you think?

Sometimes I break through my shyness. Sometimes the sun shines in Seattle. More often, though, I accept the way I am and work around it because, to tell you the truth, I really don't want to change. I don't want to be more aggressive. I don't want to turn myself on. Pick up any sex manual (something I'd never do in public—what would the bookstore clerk think?) and you'll find instructions on learning to love your own body. Asks one guide, "When was the last time you took a good look at your vulva?" Um, never? The idea of lying on my back, spreading my legs like a frog, and inspecting myself through a hand mirror has always seemed ludicrous to me. I don't have to look to know what's there, and if you tell me it's as lovely as a lotus flower, I won't believe you. (I wouldn't enter the penis in a beauty contest, either.) To quote the old Volkswagen ads, "It's ugly, but it works."

I guess getting naked can be fun, but I'd rather keep my body under wraps. I don't mind being secretly sensuous, the woman who lets down her hair when she wants to and afterward pins it right back up again. And if I'm buttoned up in bed, that's not indifference: That's being so turned on that I don't know what to do—yet. But I'm in no hurry. If I did hold up a sign (well, dear, you asked), it would say: GIVE ME TIME, AND SPACE. HOLD BACK A LITTLE, MAKE ME GO AFTER YOU. When a shy girl and a shy guy get together, anything can happen.

Your Sex Questions Answered