Take the Downtown Train

If more men know what’s under the hood of a car than the hood of a clitoris, surely a revolution is needed. Enthusiast Paul Ford interviews Ian Kerner, sex therapist and author of She Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman.

In 1997, Ian Kerner was my supervisor at an ‘internet strategy’ firm that evaporated in the dot-com crash. I hadn’t heard from him in years, but a few months ago, I asked a mutual friend what Ian was up to.

Ian, I learned, had left the internet behind to become a sex therapist (Ph.D. Sexology, American Academy of Clinical Sexologists). He’d married, had a son, and was also about to publish the definitive guide to the theory and practice of cunnilingus. My friend had just read a draft. ‘I thought I was skilled,’ my friend said. He looked into the middle distance. ‘But I learned a lot.’

She Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman (HarperCollins) is billed as a ‘sexual manifesto that inspires men to give and empowers women to receive.’ It’s Kerner’s attempt to seed a new sexual revolution, one with a focus on female sexual entitlement. In 47 short chapters with titles like ‘The Cunnilinguist Manifesto’ and ‘Think Outside Her Box,’ the book seeks to be the first mass-market philosophical, cultural, and scientific guide to the clitoris. (And make no mistake, it’s all about the clitoris.) I caught up with Ian at Terra 47 on 12th Street in Manhattan to discuss his career shift, and followed up via email.


The Morning News: Why The Thinking Man’s Guide? This implies that men can think when it comes to sex, which is at best a hypothesis.

Ian Kerner: I think most guys know more about what’s under the hood of a car than under the hood of a clitoris. I want to see men shift their behaviors and become ‘cliterate.’

TMN: Isn’t this kind of Our Bodies, Ourselves? Do women really want men who are vagina-centric? The sort of men who wear sweaters and have little beards and cry?

IK: All right, yes, I draw a lot from pioneers in feminist thought and sexual understanding. But most feminist thinking about sexuality circulates within a narrow circle of influence. It’s often stereotyped as being shrill, but there are many powerful ideas that I think men will get excited about, which is one of the reasons I wrote the book.

TMN: So men will get better play if they change their approach.

IK: Yes. Knowledge and technique can demystify the female orgasm, which is good for everyone. But to get there, guys have to break through the ‘intercourse-discourse’ and start thinking in new ways about sexual pleasure. If I could, I’d declare June Sexual Cliteracy Month, make a holiday out of it.

TMN: We could have a parade down Broadway to celebrate, right? Mayor Bloomberg is wearing a pink fedora, and you have these huge vulva floats, and the fire department is keeping everything wet.

IK: [waits patiently]

TMN: I’d hate to clean up after, though. Anyway, OK. This started with your struggle with premature ejaculation.

IK: Yes. I’m a premature ejaculator. Was, am—it’s sort of like being an alcoholic. You can manage it, and achieve sexual health and contentment, but it’s always tempered with self-control.

TMN: But you were fighting it.

IK: At first my problem was that of the average teenager—early sexual encounters led to over-excitement. I tried to deal with PE in all the usual ways: masturbating before going out on a date—

TMN: The Ben Stiller approach.

IK: Yes, or letting myself come during foreplay and then postponing sex until I could muster another erection; downing beers and wrapping my cock in double, even triple condoms. But honestly, you could have had my cock laminated and hermetically sealed and I still would’ve had a hair-trigger. In college I graduated to herbal remedies, topical ointments, and miracle creams advertised in the backs of porn magazines.

TMN: And it wouldn’t behave?

IK: It got far, far worse. I was experimenting on myself like Dr. Mengele. One experiment led to acid-burn and near-disintegration of my penis in the men’s room of a Japanese restaurant. And once I put the ‘Errol Flynn method’ to the test—a dab of coke on the tip of glans, which led to my implication in a campus-wide drug bust, complete with photos of me dipping and rolling my cock in a bag of coke like it was a piece of chicken getting Shake ‘N Baked.

TMN: How did they get pictures?

IK: It was an interrogation tactic—they threatened, I caved.

TMN: Do you still have these pictures?

IK: Anyway, later in life, I learned from my study of pioneering sex-researcher Alfred Kinsey that the typical male sustains penetrative thrusting, on average, for about two and a half minutes. That provided some comfort, but at the time I felt terribly alone. Throughout the many years of quiet desperation I felt that PE was my tragic fate. I thought I’d been cursed with an Achilles cock.

TMN: And the whole time you were my boss, you were a premature ejaculator? I’m seeing that year in a different light, now.

IK: Yeah—lots of initial enthusiasm, no follow-through, a whole lot of starting and stopping. The whole internet economy was nothing more than one big premature ejaculation. I was well suited to it.

TMN: So, your own issues with PE brought you to sex therapy.

IK: First, it brought me to cunnilingus. I was a sexual cripple, and oral sex became my crutch. If I couldn’t satisfy a woman with my penis, then I’d sure as hell satisfy her with my mouth. I can still remember all the fears, preconceptions and blunders of my early experiences in college. I learned through trial and error, but eventually came to realize that cunnilingus was much more than just an arbitrary, or optional, aspect of foreplay; it was ‘coreplay.’

TMN: Like foreplay, but with a ‘c,’ which stands for…

IK: It’s my attempt to get people thinking past the ‘foreplay, then intercourse’ sexual strategy. Coreplay is an essential process—with a beginning, middle and end—for leading a woman through the many stages of arousal that eventually culminate in climax. Cunnilingus allowed me to pleasure a woman, and allowed me to stop worrying about sex and start enjoying it. It certainly saved my sex life and, when I think about all the depression and heartache I suffered as a result of my battles with PE, it’s not so far off to say that it saved my entire life.

TMN: So premature ejaculation can kill you. Readers, be warned!

IK: PE is a huge issue in this country that’s swept under the carpet. Kim Cattrall said in her book Satisfaction that premature ejaculators were the bane of her existence. It’s the no. 1 male sexual dysfunction in this country, and is a very under-researched field. The numbers are huge. Probably one out of three men deal with ‘involuntary ejaculation,’ at least from time to time. Maybe even two out of three. But no one brings it up. Impotence affects far fewer people, but there’s more money in it, so thanks to Pfizer, to the pharma industry, we hear about it constantly. It’s hip to be impotent. But premature ejaculation…

TMN: Why so many?

IK: Bad masturbation habits. You learn from a young age that sex is quick, furtive. Porn reinforces this, it teaches guys to focus purely on their own orgasm, not on mutual gratification. Even if they know it should be different, many men can’t fight their own training. It goes incredibly deep.

TMN: There was an article in Talk a few years ago by Martin Amis where he interviewed a porn director, and the director said, ‘pussy is bullshit.’ Which is a sad way to view sex.

IK: I’m very interested in this next generation of female-centric porn—made by women for women. And stuff like Suicide Girls, Sweet Action, and CAKE, which is not porn, but celebrates female sexuality, they’re all great influencers. I think there’s a difference—this is from John Berger, who wrote Ways of Seeing—between a naked woman and a nude. To be naked is to be yourself; nudity is on display. And with Suicide Girls, the photos capture something about the girls’ personalities. They’re nudes, yes, but naked first. They’re in control.

There’s no need to quibble over semantics when it comes to identifying orgasms. The clitoris encompasses them all. The tongue is far better used to produce orgasms than waste time naming them.

TMN: I often wonder what it would be like to be a 13-year-old today, getting constant spam about women sucking horse cock. If I’d had email at 13, there’s no way I wouldn’t have looked, and it would have completely given me the wrong signal about women, and about horses.

IK: I agree, there’s a lot of crap on the web, but there’s also a lot of real information. I can’t tell you how many emails I get from guys about PE—and these guys would never be comfortable talking out loud about the issue.

TMN: So what do you do? What did you do?

IK: Getting older helps, for obvious reasons. There are also exercises you can do, on your own or with a partner, to help you become more attuned to your process of sexual response and pull back before the point of ejaculatory inevitability. But it takes time. I remember one girlfriend wanted to try the ‘stop-start method’ and soon rued her suggestion—what with so much stopping and so little starting, not to mention all my directions—‘slow down, easy, easy, go ahead, stop, stop’—sex was, in her words, more like parking a car than making love.

TMN: This is extraordinarily frustrating for her, and for you.

IK: Yes. What I’ve learned is, the most important thing is to learn to focus on your partner. By committing to oral sex you’re committing to female sexual response. It forces you to slow down, to appreciate your partner. So, for me, basically, I let my tongue became the mentor to my penis. I used my tongue to learn about what made my partner tick, to figure out how sex worked, and then, when I did have intercourse, I brought that understanding into play—it was an education that I’d never allowed myself to have as a teenager in the mad adolescent rush to intercourse.

TMN: Back to ‘parking the car,’ men and women often talk about sex in different ways.

IK: In the locker room you say, ‘I gave it to her good, fucked her senseless. I was like an animal.’ But you don’t ram an orgasm out of a woman. If men were serious about pleasing women, you’d never hear anything like that. But it’s hard to imagine a guy coming out of the showers, ‘I was like a delicate butterfly, like a hummingbird, and I gently brushed her vulva, teasing and playing, until she had a terrific orgasm.’ One of my goals in writing the book is to get men to discuss the orgasm with more acknowledgement of what it really is, for the woman, not what it means to the man.

TMN: There’s that scene in Manhattan, where a woman says to Woody Allen, ‘I finally had an orgasm, and my doctor said it was the wrong kind.’

IK: And Woody says he’s never had the wrong kind. But that’s true for women too, not just men. There isn’t a wrong kind, because it’s all one big collection of nerves. The clitoris has 8,000 nerve fibers and interacts with 15,000 more nerve fibers that service the entire pelvic area. It’s not a bump, or a —

TMN: I like ‘the little man in the boat.’

IK: But it’s not. It’s the pleasure dome. You set one nerve moving and they all start moving. The clitoris has 18 separate parts that contribute to the experience of pleasure, twice as many nerve fibers as the penis (over 8,000), the uncanny ability to produce multiple orgasms and no known purpose other than pleasure. [Sex therapists William Howell] Masters and [Virginia Eshelman] Johnson called the clitoris a unique organ in the total of humanity. But alas, during intercourse, the clitoris is often neglected entirely. Most women know this, but are reluctant to speak out on their own behalf.

TMN: What’s your favorite part?

IK: They’re all wonderful in their own unique way.

TMN: You know, they really are. Who can choose just one?

IK: But…if I had to pick one I’d say the front commissure. The smooth area just above the clitoral head and protective hood, this area contains nerve fibers and covers the clitoral shaft, a sensitive cord-like structure that can be seen protruding from the skin of the front commissure when aroused. Like the clitoral head, the front commissure/shaft responds at first to tongue strokes, but, once aroused, craves the firmer pressure of the upper lip and gum, or a fingertip massage. But getting back to the ‘kind of orgasm’ question, the idea of the vaginal versus the clitoral orgasm is nonsense. It’s the same orgasm. A lot of this comes out of Freudian theory, which is crap. I titled a chapter of the book ‘Avoid Freud,’ because he single-handedly set the precedent for annihilating the clit. He ignored the science of the era, which was figuring out quite a bit about the orgasm, and more or less invented the vaginal orgasm and made it the ‘real’ orgasm. The no. 1 question Cosmo gets from its readers, still, is ‘What can I do to have an orgasm during intercourse,’ because women feel that the ‘other’ orgasms are somehow inferior, or they aren’t having orgasms at all. But the question really should be, why doesn’t intercourse lead to orgasm?

TMN: Which brings me to my next question. Why doesn’t intercourse lead to orgasm?

IK: The interior walls of the vagina have comparatively few nerve endings. On many women, you can rub them all day without much happening. Look, 1 in 10,000 women are born with a condition called vaginal agenesis, which means that they literally don’t have a vagina. And they can’t have children without surgery, but they can still have orgasms through the clitoris.

TMN: Orgasms are orgasms.

IK: Just use Occam’s razor: ‘Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.’ ‘One should not make more assumptions than are absolutely necessary.’ Eliminate the concepts that aren’t needed to explain the phenomenon. There’s no need to quibble over semantics when it comes to identifying orgasms. The clitoris encompasses them all. The tongue is far better used to produce orgasms than waste time naming them.

TMN: And are people doing it? By doing it, I mean clam lapping.

IK: I surveyed a lot of people for my book, and while there’s some truth in the stereotypes, there were also a lot of surprises. As an example, there are still guys out there who are freaked out by cunnilingus and maintain a double standard when it comes to oral sex—no quid pro quo. But surprisingly, or not surprisingly when you consider that our culture is insanely fixated on body image, women seem to have the worst problems with it—they feel that their genitalia are ugly, or they have this stereotype that men don’t like it. But a lot of men, most men I spoke with, they love to go down, love to give and move beyond their penises. And women have these messed-up body images.

TMN: Sex and the City didn’t change all that, huh?

IK: Even on that show, the women still exist primarily, sexually, within the context of the male gaze. The cues as to what’s desirable still come from men. The idea is that men have to be pleased, and women create their sexual identities in response to that. I’ve heard over and over from women about cunnilingus that they’re worried that they’re taking too long, worried he finds it distasteful. Plus we have a media that focuses on genital hygiene, menstrual symptoms. You’ll still find that most women prefer to have sex in the dark or candlelight because they think their bodies are ugly. So sometimes, as a man, you have to assure your partner that this is something you want to do, that it’s OK if it takes a while.

TMN: Sometimes it can be a little ripe. Not at all in my current relationship, of course, because my girlfriend is like a daisy. But in the past.

IK: Yes. Gertrude Stein aside, a rose is a rose isn’t always a rose. Usually a bad scent or taste is a sign of an imbalance. Women’s genitals are a self-cleaning system. Cleaner than most other parts of the body, including the mouth. If there’s an imbalance, yogurt and antibiotic treatments can help. One other thing about odor is, sperm is highly alkaline. So if a woman is promiscuous, and has frequent unprotected sex with different partners, the pH level of the vagina rises and unhealthy bacteria can gain an advantage for a time, until things balance out again.

TMN: What about menstruation? Yea, or nea?

IK: That’s appendix six in the book, ‘The Scarlet Kiss.’

TMN: And your verdict? All systems go? Earn your redwings?

IK: Absolutely. You want to use a fresh tampon and a washcloth. The tampon not only restricts any blood flow, but also applies pressure against the clitoral cluster (what’s typically known as the G-spot, but please would you want a part of your sexual anatomy named after a dead German physician?), which enhances sensation. This can be a great thing. But watch it if you’re practicing safe sex—there’s an increased rate of STD transmittal when a woman is menstruating.

TMN: All right. We’re clean, we’re tidy, and we’ve inserted a tampon. Actually, maybe ‘we’ haven’t, although I’m sure there’s a chat room for that. In any case, set the scene.

IK: First, there are different comfort levels with light. Men tend to like seeing what’s going on, and women like the dark. Candlelight is a good compromise.

TMN: Smooths out the wrinkles, hides the missing limbs.

IK: The position that works best is flat on the back, legs six to nine inches apart, not too far. Not too much arch in the back, because arching the back inhibits blood flow and cuts off breathing. A pillow under the ass makes it easier to find things.

TMN: And for him?

IK: A pillow under the forearms. You want your bodies in a straight line, and comfortable. You should be able to lick for a long stretch.

TMN: You advise using the gums, which was news.

IK: You want to think about Elvis Presley and snarl. Your upper gum is firmer than your lip, so she can press into it and maintain the persistent clitoral contact necessary for orgasm. There are different parts of the mouth that work better on different parts of the genitals. I’ve got a breakdown of the 10 hot spots and what to do in the book.

TMN: How should one address the taint?

IK: The perineum, Paul, between the fourchette and the anus. Tongue strokes, fingertip pressure, and fingertip squeezes. Use your thumb and index finger.

TMN: And going further down, there’s this little thing you can do with your thumb, I call it the ‘tub stopper.’

IK: Indeed, indeed. The anus is connected to the clitoris through nerve fibers and tissue and contracts as well during orgasm. A little anal stimulation goes a long way. Let me be clear, we’re not talking about anal sex but a wee bit of the finger. But make sure to use a clean finger and keep it away from her vulva—you don’t want to introduce any bacteria from the anal region into her vagina.

TMN: Is there a downside to all this going down?

IK: You may lose a bit of the enamel on your teeth—you know, from erosion—but thinning teeth aside, no, there’s no real risk.

TMN: I think that’ll get everybody started.

IK: Just remember to think clitorally rather than vaginally, and to focus on stimulation rather than penetration.

TMN: Will do. Overall, I noticed this very literary approach in the book to eating pussy.

IK: The book’s structure is loosely based on Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. I like to think of myself as a grammarian—sorting out the rules of what should be every man’s native tongue.

TMN: Ouch. And you suggest going down to poetry.

IK: Yes, I suggest ‘literary licks’ as a creative exercise. Shakespeare, for example. There is no better audience for the Great Bard than a vulva. Most of his plays are in verse, specifically in iambic pentameter. The rhythm is simple and straightforward: da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, as in ‘Shall I/com-pare/thee to/a sum/mer’s day?’

TMN: This idea could transform high school English. Not to mention reader-response theory.

IK: Faulkner and Joyce are also worth considering.

TMN: Probably not so much Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath. I can’t really imagine reciting ‘Daddy’ to my girlfriend’s precious flower. ‘A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen… Daddy, you can lie back now.’

IK: Well, probably not, but the principle holds. I’d love to hear from readers about any creative cunnilingus techniques based on literary styles. They can email me at

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and I’ll put the submissions up on my site. Maybe we’ll do a reading. Things are getting showy these days at places like KGB—we can put the ‘happy ending’ in the Happy Ending Series.

TMN: Now, as a man, I like to bring everything back to the penis. But you seem to be saying to forget about it.

IK: Even if I did write the Cunnilinguist Manifesto, I’m not promoting a Stalinist purge on the penis. And it’s not like men will ever forget about their penises. The point is, she doesn’t just come first, she comes again and again. There’s plenty of time for the penis to get into the action.

TMN: Thank God. And you’re out here preaching to the tongue-tied proletariat.

IK: Sort of. Unfortunately, the new sexual revolution won’t be televised, if the FCC has anything to do with it. Everyone’s a bit confused about what can and can’t be said. I had been booked on the Sharon Osbourne show, but then her producers called to say that given the current climate they couldn’t even say the title of my book on their show. Which is sort of absurd when you think that the first words out of my son’s mouth will likely be ‘erectile disorder,’ based on all the commercials for Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra that have been propagating the airwaves.

TMN: Is your wife worried about your book tour? I’d be concerned to let my husband travel the country as a cunnilingus expert.

IK: I have a fantastic relationship with my wife. If cunnilingus is ‘mouth music,’ she’s my Stradivarius. I dedicated the book to her, and quote a line from Gone With the Wind that I think every man should make a mantra of—‘You should be kissed, and often, and by someone who knows how.’ Vive la Vulva!

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TMN Contributing Writer Paul Ford is the author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, a novel that was originally serialized here on TMN. He was formerly an editor at Harper’s Magazine, was an occasional commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered, and is now sole proprietor of (which has a Facebook group). More by Paul Ford