What Does a Man Really Want? Alexandra Penney Prescribes Banana Bread and Boldness
It is not a literary masterpiece, but Penney takes pains to point out that it's not a dirty book either. "It's an informative, useful guide to help women understand male sexuality," she says. That is arguable, but its public appeal is plain: 125,000 copies have been sold to date. Though its audience was obviously expected to be women, many of the buyers have been men. "They're giving it to the women in their lives," says Penney, a former magazine editor in her late 30s who has also written on health and beauty for the New York Times. "Men want to give their women the message that they wish to be seduced. One man even gave it to his girlfriend with certain parts underlined."
The natural suspicion is that the book has crossed over to the gay market, but Penney insists it is "too puerile and tame" for that—and with some reason. Her advice, packaged in a slim volume with a discreet mauve jacket, might make Marabel Morgan blush, but Xaviera Hollander would only wince. Much of it is very familiar. Penney advises readers, for example, to welcome the old man home with "you in a steamy bubble bath," to model black bikini panties and cut-out bras, and try sex in new places, such as the bathroom floor. To keep Mr. Right thinking of you always, writes Penney, "dab some of your perfume on the lightbulbs. Or send him something personal, like freshly baked banana bread dropped off at his office in time for the midmorning coffee break."
None too soon she moves on to The Act. "Keep your caresses fluid. No fast or sudden moves. And no faking, please." She also describes different positions and urges a daily regime of pelvic tilt and tuck exercises to get in shape for bedroom gymnastics. To get the right ambience, Penney prescribes lighted candles, flowers and appropriate music (Ravel's "Bolero", Edith Piaf's "La Vie en Rose", Puccini's "Tosca").
The book, Penney says, was inspired by a friend who told her about one particularly ardent suitor. "He gave her baths," Penney relates. "He filled the bedroom with candles and fresh flowers, and he asked her why women didn't know how to make love like that to men." To find out if other men felt similarly shortchanged, the author interviewed 200 of them, beginning with the muscle builders who work out at her Greenwich Village gym. The enthusiastic support of her husband (as well as a $75,000 advance) helped her overcome some initial shyness. She found her subjects eager to assist as well. The majority opinion was voiced by a 6'2" construction engineer named Herb. "Once in a while," Herb told Penney, "I want to lie back and be a sex object."
What was a nice girl like Alexandra doing in a project like this? Nothing un-seemly, to be sure. "I'm a firm believer in monogamy and all those disgustingly normal things," she says. The daughter of a lawyer in Darien, Conn., she graduated from Smith College with a degree in European history. After working at Vogue, she left in 1973 to get a master's degree in art criticism from Hunter College. From then on she made her living as a free-lance journalist while playing wife and mother to industrial designer Richard Penney and their son, John, now 16.
That marriage broke up in 1979, and last February she married her current husband, photographer Norman F. Stevens Jr., 36, who now shares her SoHo loft. Gamely, he is her book's biggest booster, a live-in testimonial. "We're not exactly swinging from the chandeliers," he says, "but we have a wonderful, intimate relationship." Thanks to her profits on How to Make Love, Penney is now finishing her first novel, having spurned her publisher's request for another sex book. "They wanted me to write a sequel, How to Make Love to a Woman," she reports. "I said no. It would have been a rip-off. I don't know how to make love to a woman, and I don't want to know."
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