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Menstuff® has compiled information and books on the issue of Sexuality. This column is written by long-term activist David Steinberg. David is a photographer, author, editor, and publisher. His previous books include Photo Sex: Fine art sexual photography comes of age; Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies, The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self and his most recent book Divas of San Francisco: Portraits of transsexual women. He is currently working on two books of couples photography, This Thing We Call Sex, and Sex and Disability. He lives in San Francisco. If you would like to receive Comes Naturally and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email (free and confidential), send your name and email address to David at eronat@aol.com. Past columns are available at the Society for Human Sexuality's "David Steinberg Archives": www.sexuality.org/davids.html .

A Different America
The Art of Sex
Don't Worry: Everything's Under Control
Exploring the Gender Frontier
Faces of Ecstasy
Fine Art Sexual Photography Comes of Age
Lap Dancing in San Francisco and the Evolving Face of Sex Work in America 0r Why so many People Leave their Hearts, Minds, Inhibitions, Fears, Virginity and Heterosexuality in the City the the Bay
Jamison Green, Sex, Gender and the Question of What it means to be a Real Man
Life to Hold on to While Death is Passing
A Massive Disruption of the Current Social Order
Not Playing by the Rules
Masturbating the Month of May
Photographing Sex
R.I.P Gwen Araujo
A Romantic View of Sadomasochism
Sexual Photography Beyond the Sex Ghetto
Sex Work for Couples: Three is Not Always a Crowd
Sex Worker Self-Determination: The Lusty Lady Workers' Coop After One Year
Sluts Unite: The politics and art of the third San Francisco Sex Worker Film Festival
Spirit Made Flesh
Strip Club Guys: Who are Those Masked Men
Two Hundred Pounds of Fun
Under Nude Management
As Universal as it Gets

Masturbating the Month of May


Well, it's all over but the shouting, but in case you haven't heard, May has been National Masturbation Month. Indeed, May 2005 marks National Masturbation Month's tenth anniversary, which is to say it's become something of a national institution. In this young, ever-reinventing-itself country of ours, where history is measured in weeks instead of centuries, and three-month-old news events have already dropped out of national consciousness and politics, something that's going strong after ten years is a force to be reckoned with.

National Masturbation Month was proclaimed in May 1995 by the folks at Good Vibrations. Good Vibrations is San Francisco's pioneering sex-education and women-friendly sex-product emporium. In the spring of 1995, Surgeon-General Joycelyn Elders had just been fired by otherwise generally sex-friendly President Bill Clinton (remember Bill Clinton?) because Dr. Elders had said, in public, that teaching adolescents about the joys of masturbation might be a good idea in the safe sex era. Somehow that was enough, all by itself, to cost her her job. And that's when the Democrats were running things.

Good Vibrations decided that if promoting masturbation had become sufficient cause to be banished from Washington politics, then it was time for some masturbation advocacy, specifically to "raise awareness and highlight the importance" of masturbation, of self-pleasuring, of solo sex, of jacking off. (For a list of no fewer than one thousand terms for masturbation, check out www.masturbationlist.com.)

It's either odd or completely to be expected (you decide which) that a sexual act which is arguably the most common of all sexual acts is also an act that is hidden, lied about, and twisted into a mere shadow of being everything it could be, under the weight of a nearly universal blanket of shame and embarrassment.

What started out as an amusing, celebratory semi-political jaunt -- and , perhaps a clever marketing angle as well -- has taken wings over the last ten years and become something of a countercultural tradition and observance, with increasing tendrils into mainstream culture as well. This morning, a Google search for National Masturbation Month produced no fewer than 48,500 postings. This year, New York's Toys in Babeland sex store kicked off Masturbation Month by convening what is called a "National Summit Press Conference" on masturbation, May 4th. National Masturbation Day came three days later (May 7th), proclaimed by sex pioneer Betty Dodson (author of the groundbreaking 1974 book, "Liberating Masturbation," later republished as "Sex for One").

Masturbate-A-Thon's (fund-raising events for which people solicit pledges of contributions to sex-related charities for every minute they masturbate, either at home or at a special masturbation party thrown for just that purpose) were held this year not only in San Francisco (on May 28th, San Francisco's seventh such event -- www.masturbate-a-thon.com), but also in Portland, Oregon, on May 14th (www.masturbate-a-thon.com), and in Toronto, Ontario, on May 28th (www.comeasyouare.com/masturbate) -- making the Masturbate-A-Thon an international vent for the first time. Not to be outdone, Seattle held its own "JO-Palooza," also a group (though not fund-raising) celebration of masturbation via mass participation on May 22nd.

Lest you think that celebrating masturbation for a month, or coming together in large groups for communal masturbation rituals is only for the fringe of heart, take note that during last year's Masturbate-A-Thon in San Francisco, no fewer than 1700 people participated by turning in pledge forms and checks (though only a fraction of that number attended the central group event). The fund-raiser came up with close to $5,000 for San Francisco's fledgling Center for Sex and Culture. Records were set and records were kept, as befits a sex-cultural center, perhaps with an eye to goading greater-than-ever exuberance from this year's Masturbate-A-Thon participants. (Longest time masturbating: 6 hours, 32 minutes. Most money raised by one individual: $1,000. Most documented orgasms: 36.)

Now there's even an article (www.vgg.com/tp/tp_053101_nmm.html) online decrying the "crass commercialization" of National Masturbation Month, meaning the use of same to sell increasingly complicated and expensive sex gadgets, in place of what author T. Mike esteems as the traditional, tried-and-true, organic, and expense-free mainstays of "my imagination and my trusty right hand."

"The decorations go up earlier and earlier every year [at] my cosy local mom 'n' pop sex shop," complains T. Mike. What is the world coming to, he laments, when National Masturbation Month has been reduced to what he calls a "hollow sham and a mockery."

Ten years of history, and now a plump target for commercial exploitation! National Masturbation Month has truly arrived. In America, you know you're culturally relevant when you've got enough market share to become worthy of corporate co-optation. First Gay Pride, now National Masturbation Month. Of course, it's true that being promoted by stores the likes of Good Vibrations and Toys in Babeland is not the same thing as being sponsored by Toyota. But now that National Masturbation Month is being promulgated by virtually every politically-conscious sex-positive boutique from coast to international coast, can the influx of corporate logos from Bud Light, Phillip Morris, Hitachi, and Liquid Silk be far behind?

There are people who, in the process of redeeming masturbation from the junk heap of "losers' sex," are inclined to raise it to the level of the ultimate sexual experience. Good Vibrations sells t-shirts that read, "If you want something done right, do it yourself," and I've often heard it argued that skillful masturbation can produce more intense and more satisfying orgasms than partner sex can ever hope to match.

As much as I stand ready to mount the barricades that would liberate masturbation from centuries of embarrassment and shame -- as much as I enjoy elaborate solo sex sessions that slowly build to truly powerful ecstatic orgasmic releases -- as much as I have always masturbated regularly, whether I had an ongoing sexual partner or not -- still, I have to say that, when it comes to ultimate sexual experiences, my mind (and body, and, dare I say, soul) have a way of turning to something other than masturbation, something that goes beyond myself into the world of interpersonal connectivity. I like a good orgasm as much as anyone else, but for me, the heart of the sexual matter is not about achieving reliable and powerful orgasms, but about mixing something down deep inside me with something down deep inside someone else, about interpersonal intimacy, about transcending the boundaries of self.

So maybe it's not surprising that, when I sat down to make a list of personal masturbatory experiences worth writing about in a column -- masturbation events that stand out from every day, business-as-usual fare -- what kept coming to mind were experiences that involved other people, one way or another.

I don't remember the first time I masturbated. I don't even remember the first time I ejaculated. I forgive myself the first bit of forgetfulness, especially since I have reason to believe that I masturbated regularly as an infant, as a way of dealing with starvation panic. But the second memory lapse strikes me as both strange and disturbing.

I've heard all kinds of stories from other men (more often frightening than pleasurable for people who grew up in relative sexual ignorance) about first ejaculation surprises. You'd certainly think a person would remember something as dramatic as liquid spurting unexpectedly from his penis. But for the life of me, I have no memory whatsoever of that coming-of-age event, the boy's equivalent of first menstruation, my physiological emergence into the possibility of propagating the species.

The earliest masturbation routine I remember involved kneeling by the side of my bed (a posture that other kids used to say their prayers, I suppose) and playing with myself while looking at sexy pictures of busty movie stars in tight angora sweaters. (I know I'm dating myself here, but you'll have to do your own math.) There were a host of tacky little magazines published back then, truly miniature in size (maybe five inches high and three inches wide), with titillating stories about movie stars and other celebrities, and even more titillating pictures of the sex sirens of the day. The magazines were called things like Pix and Vue, and they wouldn't raise an eyebrow even among the Religious Right these days, but each era has its own boundary where things get risqué, and these magazines were on the edge of mine. I would steal them from the corner store because I was too young to buy magazines with sexy pictures (I would have been too embarrassed to buy them, even if Mrs. Meyer would have sold them to me, which she wouldn't have), and these were the only ones I could easily stuff into my pockets. I'm not sure how old I was. Maybe ten.

I'm sorry to say that I don't remember any particularly noteworthy masturbational events while I was growing up. Nothing particularly ecstatic, nothing particularly humiliating. (My dad would always whistle as he was walking up the stairs, toward my room, so that I would have time to conceal anything I didn't want him to see.) No circle jerks, no masturbating in front of other people, no seeing other people masturbate. (I'm taking masturbation to be what my dictionary says it is -- sex you do by and to yourself, rather than the other meaning that some people give it -- sex you do with your hand. In my book, "mutual masturbation," while a distinctly pleasurable activity, is also simply a contradiction in terms....) For me, masturbation was ubiquitous, to be sure, but hardly inspiring of poetry.

There was lots of masturbating to porn. Masturbating silently in college so as not to wake up my roommates. Masturbating while driving -- enjoying the discipline of controlled surrender, giving myself over to orgasms (even big orgasms) while paying attention to keeping the car on the road, and not weaving enough to get pulled over by some cop. ("I'm not drunk, officer, I was just masturbating.") Is it illegal to masturbate while driving, if you keep your seat belt on?

The masturbation memories I have that are most interesting to me all seem to involve masturbating in front of other people, or watching other people masturbate -- something I got to do frequently later in my life at sex parties of various stripes.

In my mid-thirties I encountered swingers parties for the first time -- parties where people got together in groups for the explicit purpose of having sex with people who were not their primary partners. Masturbation at mainstream swingers parties, however, at least at the parties that I discovered in my early swinger days, was generally quite subdued, at least for men. People were either having sex or watching people have sex, but not doing both at the same time. Watching and playing with yourself just didn't seem to happen very much, which carried the implicit message, typical for masturbation, that it was vaguely, if unspokenly, an uncool thing to do, or to do openly.

But then the magnificent Jack-and-Jill-Off parties came to San Francisco, bringing with them a completely different sexual culture and a whole new set of sexual rules and norms. The pansexual Jack-and-Jill-Off parties grew out of masturbation parties sponsored by the San Francisco Jacks, a group of gay men who wanted to eroticize safe sex at a time when AIDS awareness was first coming to the surface. At Jacks parties, groups of gay men came together to masturbate -- themselves and each other (contradictions in terms be damned) -- and the word was out around town that the whole thing was extremely hot. Women and heterosexual men who wanted to come and just watch were politely turned away.

Eventually David Talbot (founder and editor-in-chief of Salon Magazine), Jerry Zientara, and a small group of friends, decided to organize the "World's First Jack-&-Jill-Off Party," a truly revolutionary event which came to pass on November 7, 1987. The party, attended by about 150 people encompassing a broad array of genders and sexual orientations, was a smashing success. Unprotected sex was strictly outlawed (monitors circulated to ensure compliance) and, much more significantly in terms of inspiring sexual creativity, intercourse of any kind, vaginal or anal, even with latex protection, was also forbidden.

No intercourse?!? What were people to do??? Denied the straight and narrow road to the same-old-same-old, people were forced to use their imaginations. "Just imagine a party of women and men using their heads as well as their hands to reinvent sex! Making whoopee while making history!" declared the invitation to the World's First Jack-and-Jill-Off Party. The result was the explosion of what JJO promoter Jerry Zientara brilliantly and accurately has described as a psychosexual laboratory of sexual invention -- a culture of sexual experimentation that managed to span, blur, and in many cases entirely obliterate previously sacrosanct distinctions of sexual orientations, tastes, practices, and preferences.

"We made whoopee! We made history! At the world's first J&J party hot Jills and sexy Jacks came together using imagination, minds and hands to prove that safe sex can make the earth move!" exulted Zientara's invitation, three months later, to the sequel Jack-and-Jill-Off Party, "The Second Cumming," a party that turned out to be even larger, even more imaginative, and even more fun than the first. To the delight and sexual edification of hundreds of grateful people, myself included, a long succession of JJO parties followed, becoming a significant feature of San Francisco's multifaceted sexual scene through 1995.

At the Jack-and-Jill-Off parties, masturbation was not only respected without reservation, but was revered as a truly first-rate sexual activity of preference. As a result, couple or group sexual activity took place, more often than not, surrounded by rings of intense observers, many or most masturbating openly with great enthusiasm.

Among other things, the openness about masturbation provided an opportunity for people of all sexual persuasions and orientations to experiment with new sexual roles and personas that they might have been much more reluctant to enter into with a partner. I remember watching a close gay male friend avidly masturbating while attentively watching two women who were engrossed in heated sex on a mattress at his feet. He explained that he wanted to see if he could get excited by women, by watching women being sexual, something he had never tried before. (It turned out that he could, indeed.)

Many men who steadfastly identified as heterosexual nevertheless experimented with jerking off while watching pairs or groups of men being sexual. For many of these men, it was a significant step in overcoming their own homophobia. For more than a few, this became a first step toward opening to more direct sexual contact with other men.

(At the other end of the homophobia spectrum, men whose homophobia was decidedly more entrenched could be seen at every party, discreetly wending their ways to the door early in the evening.)

So what are the experiences that stand out for me personally? I remember one very glamorous, dramatic woman, obviously enjoying being the center of attention of a large circle of men, all masturbating, while she danced and moved seductively among them, sometimes turning her attention to one or another of the men, sometimes to the whole group. The scene culminated with the men hoisting the woman off the floor entirely, suspending her in the center of the tight circle of male bodies with one hand, while masturbating with the other until all the men had ejaculated onto her belly, to the cheers and laughter of everyone, especially the glistening epicenter of the scene.

I remember another time, when I was masturbating rather absent-mindedly, leaning up against the wall while watching a couple, maybe several couples, maybe a group of people, having sex on mattresses in the center of the floor. At one point I became aware of a woman on the opposite side of the room, also leaning up against the wall, also masturbating. At first we were both watching the people in the center of the room, but after a while we caught into each other's eyes, and before long we were masturbating directly to each other. Gradually, the energy grew, and eventually we both came, exchanging warm smiles but without ever saying a word,.

There was another, somewhat similar, encounter, that I remember as being exceptionally powerful, also at a sex party. I was watching a couple playing with each other in a casual, light-hearted way, the two of them standing against a wall in a large roomful of people with lots of different couples and groups being sexual in various ways. The man stood behind the woman, both of them facing outward, and I loved watching while he played with her breasts, her legs, her belly, her pussy, the two of them gradually getting more and more excited. Not wanting to intrude, I kept my distance, masturbating quietly, as if my masturbation had nothing to do with them. Eventually the woman noticed me, then looked away, noticed me again, looked away again. Each time we made eye contact, I felt permission to move a little closer to them, until I was standing right in front of them, masturbating more and more vigorously as they got more and more excited themselves.

They clearly enjoyed being watched, but said nothing to me, made no overt recognition that I was there at all, certainly made no invitation for me to join them. If it weren't for the fact that I was standing only about two feet in front of them, I might have thought they hadn't noticed me at all. The unspoken agreement was that I could watch and masturbate as much as I wanted, as long as there was no physical contact between them and me, which is how we continued until both the woman and I came. (Maybe the man came too; I really don't remember.) Afterwards, we all smiled, more to ourselves than to each other. No one said anything to acknowledge the connection we had just had. I wandered off, thoroughly delighted, and never saw them again.

There are others, but these are the stories that come to mind. I'm sure that everyone who reads this has dozens of masturbation stories too -- pleasurable stories, painful stories, mundane stories, exotic stories. Hopefully you have someone you can (or could) tell your masturbation stories to -- a partner, a lover, a family member, a friend.

Maybe that's something to add to the mix in May, 2006, when National Masturbation Month will come again -- a gathering of appreciative friends, a time and place for people to come together, sip good wine, eat good cheese, sit around the fireplace, tell a bunch of their long-unspoken, long-neglected masturbation stories, and affirm together the goodness of sexual pleasure in all its forms.

Jamison Green, Sex, Gender and the Question of What it means to be a Real Man


I first met Jamison Green at a party in San Francisco. I was introduced to him by my good friend, journalist Marcy Sheiner. Marcy had interviewed Jamison a year or so earlier for a feature story she was writing. The two of them were so taken with each other that they had quickly moved into a powerful primary relationship that would last for seven years.

I could see immediately why Marcy was so taken with Jamison. He was attractive, soulful, and perceptive, with quiet, watchful eyes, a playful smile, and a relaxed social manner that projected an appealing mix of confidence and vulnerability. He and I both had roots in the then-thriving California pro-feminist men's movement, and we made a strong and immediate connection with each other, comparing notes on the ins and outs of moving beyond mainstream perceptions of male roles and masculinity. Within an hour we managed to tell each other how we felt about everything from being devoted fathers to the dilemmas of being distinctly shorter than the average guy, from relationship quandries to feminist politics, from the importance of building community with like-minded men to what mattered most to each of us about sex.

Because Marcy had told me the story of how she and Jamison met before I met him in person, I never had the experience of knowing Jamison without also knowing that he was transgendered. I certainly never would have guessed any such thing had I not been told. Even with the cognitive information that Jamison had spent the first forty years of his life in a female body, and even though we were quickly talking about personal issues that related directly to his being transgendered, talking with Jamison felt very much like talking to many of my other male friends. Indeed, what struck me most about Jamison was not how different he was from me, but how much the two of us were alike: Two men sorting out what it means to be male in this particular society at this particular point in history. Two men trying to understand who we most genuinely are, and who we most deeply want to be, as men. Two men trying to resolve the conflicts from having notions of masculinity that clashed with so much of what we had ingested from the world around us about men, masculinity, and male gender roles.

Most significantly, I think, I felt comradeship with Jamison because we shared a firm belief that it was profoundly important for people to remain true to their innermost sense of self and personhood, even when such fierce insistence on personal integrity threatens being misunderstood, condemned, marginalized, isolated, and even punished -- by loved ones, family, friends, and more distant acquaintances, not to mention society at large.

It was only gradually that I came to understand how important a person Jamison was in the then-emerging movement for female-to-male (FTM) transgender visibility, public understanding, and political equality. For years, Jamison was president of the largest and most influential FTM organization, FTM International, broadening that organization's outreach and ability to provide a broad range of resources to transgendered people throughout the U.S. and the world. As long as I've known him, Jamison has traveled the world (continuously, it seems to me, though I know he has also managed to fulfill the duties of a full-time day job and maintained important relationships with his partner -- now wife -- and daughter), speaking about transgender issues and being a political advocate for transgender rights. At his 50th birthday celebration several years ago, I came to understand how influential a person could be in other people's lives as was moved as one person after another spoke of how Jamison had impacted their lives. Several people said quietly that, were it not for Jamison, they doubted whether they would still be alive.

Now Jamison has published his first book, Becoming a Visible Man -- a thoughtful, powerful, moving work that addresses the issues of gender, personal choice, self-validation, and political action on a broad range of different levels.

Most fundamentally, perhaps, Becoming a Visible Man is an immediate and personal account of Jamison's personal odyssey through the tangles of gender roles and gender identity, the story of how he came to understand that he was not a tomboy, not a lesbian, but actually a man who happened to be living in a woman's body. But Becoming a Visible Man is much more than just an account of one person's gender identity journey. It is also a perceptive, complex analysis of how gender identity and gender expectations function in society, and an opportunity for Jamison to discuss his philosophy and political perspective about what it means to be a man, about sexuality, about dealing with family conflicts, about how best to work for political and social change, about the dance of staying true to oneself while being buffeted by the expectations and emotions of the people most near and dear to us. Jamison takes his readers through this wide spectrum of issues with a combination of insight, emotional vulnerability, and remarkable compassion for the difficulties that non-transgendered people face when trying to understand such a basic challenge to what most of us grew up believing was a simple, bipolar, either-or, male or female universe.

It's appropriate that Becoming a Visible Man is all at once a transgender history, political manual, biomedical textbook, interpersonal relationships guide, and philosophy treatise. Stepping outside of societal gender norms is a fundamental act of civil disobedience, such a challenge to conventional notions of how people and society are (and should be) constructed. Coming to the realization that your body and your inner sense of gender do not coincide, and deciding to act to bring those two parts of yourself into congruence, requires a person to question him/herself, life, relationships, and society at the deepest levels. Stepping outside assumed notions of how things are supposed to be also gives a person the opportunity to see both themselves and the world around them with unique clarity and perspective.

Happily, Jamison Green has been able to use his personal history to arrive at complex, thoughtful perspectives on the variety of issues raised by sexual mutability, and he is able to write about those issues in ways that can be enlightening to people both within and outside the transgender community.

A few samples, from Becoming a Visible Man:

On the nature of arriving at a clear notion of one's gender: "A gender quest is... a kind of spiritual quest. It is our willful destiny to find that balance, that strength, that peace and logic of the soul, that underlies the agony, the frustration, the desperation and anxiety of living on this earthly plane."

On the use of gender as a tool of social control: "Somebody's got us by the balls and they don't want to let go. Who is that somebody? Who is so afraid of losing control? Of what are they going to lose control if people are allowed to freely express their gender(s)? What is preserved by denying the legitimacy of transsexual and transgendered people? What is destroyed if we are acknowledged?... Are we really so unsure of our gender identities that we think everyone would want to change their sex if they could?"

On the myth that transsexual people want to change their gender: "I am a man who lived forty years in a female body. But I was not a woman. I am not a woman who became man. I am not a woman who lives as a man. I am not nor was I ever a woman, though I lived in a female body, and certainly tried, whenever I felt up to it, to be a woman. But it was never in me to be a woman."

On what it means to be a man: "What makes a man a man? His penis? His beard? His receding hairline? His lack of breasts? His sense of himself as a man? Some men have no beard, some have no penis, some never lose their hair, some have breasts; all have a sense of themselves as men.... Transsexual men may appear feminine, androgynous or masculine. Any man may appear feminine, androgynous or masculine.... The crux of the matter of gender for anyone is their own visibility and sufficient external confirmation of their gender identity."

On sex and masculinity: "I relish my erections and crave release from them the same as any other man. But it is not a penis that makes me (or anyone else who has one) a man.... Without [a penis], a man would still be a man. With it, if he's lucky, he's a man who can urinate in a standing position, deposit sperm close to a cervix, and enjoy orgasm -- important activities, no doubt, but there are other ways to do all of those important things. These are not the requirements for being a man."

On the relationship between the movement for transgender rights and the movements for equality of all sexual orientations: "The inclusion of transgendered and transsexual people in the civil rights efforts of all the national gay and lesbian groups in only a few years, and the willingness of these groups to realize that the discrimination against them extends beyond the bedroom and beyond their sexual object of choice is a significant evolutionary achievement that will continue to transform the way society on the whole things about sexuality and about difference."

On the emotional risks, and possibilities, of being a gender outlaw: "Loneliness is the mark of difference. Breaking gender boundaries can make us into proud rebels, defiant contraries, or rugged individualists for whom loneliness is an emblem of courage and determination.... Once people can look beyond surfaces, once they learn to see the qualities that make us who we are... it's possible to let go of preconceptions and see valuable human beings."

On the importance of being true to oneself: "Being true to oneself creates the integrity and self-respect we need to have if we are to extend that respect to others.... If society can learn to incorporate and value transpeople in all their variation, most if not all of the other social problems that arise from intolerance and mininformation may be manageable [as well]."

The issues raised by transgender people are important, not just because it's important to extend equal rights and respectability to all people, but also because the questions raised by the possibilities of gender mutability are relevant to all of us, even those of us whose bodies coincide nicely with our internal sense of gender. Growing transgender visibility and political activity gives us all a chance to notice how deeply and powerfully we turn to bi-polar gender distinction as a way of ordering our world and our relationships.

Even more fundamentally, transgendered people can be way-showers to all of us about the importance of maintaining personal integrity in a world that asks us to compromise core aspects of ourselves in the name of everything from sexual morality to financial success, from social acceptance to familial approval.

Becoming a Visible Man is a wonderful, thoughtful, and complex exploration of all these issues -- an important read for transgendered and traditionally gendered people alike. (Becoming a Visible Man, by Jamison Green, Vanderbilt University Press, 2004, 222 pages, ISBN 0-8265-1456-1, $24.95.)

Sex Worker Self-Determination: The Lusty Lady Workers' Coop After One Year


Being part of a worker-owned, democratically-run business collective is an empowering, freeing, liberating, even revolutionary experience.

It's also emotionally complicated, time consuming, psychologically confusing, interpersonally demanding, and a lot of just plain hard work.

Especially if the people in your collective are exceptionally headstrong, independently-minded, rebellious, suspicious of authority, and generally opposed to rules and regulations.

Especially if the business of the collective involves taking off your clothes and displaying your naked body for the sexual gratification of your customers.

Just ask the women (and the support staff men) who work at San Francisco's Lusty Lady peep show theatre -- the nation's one and only cooperatively-run, worker-owned, democratically-governed sex entertainment enterprise.

On June 1, 2003, the workers at the Lusty Lady bought the theatre they had been working at and set up their collective. After a year as their own bosses, the Lusty dancers are alive and kicking, one-fifth of the way through their purchase payments, and still full of spirit, determination, and fierce independence. But they are also distinctly sobered by the nuts-and-bolts details of running their own sexually-charged show, and the complexities of building a culture of community within the highly individualized, nobody's going-to-tell-me-what-to-do sex work subculture.

Perhaps you know about the Lusty Lady Theatre from your own erotic wanderings. Perhaps you know about it from Julia Query's award-winning documentary, "Live Nude Girls Unite!" For the benefit of the uninitiated, the Lusty Lady is San Francisco's unique, long-standing private-booth "peep show" venue. Every day from nine a.m. until three the next morning, three or four nude (or nearly nude) dancers move about the theatre's mirrored main stage while customers watch from behind glass windows in a semi-circle of a dozen private booths. Dancers alternate between pressing up close to the individual windows and performing for the gallery-at large. While a respectable number of couples and women comprise an increasing portion of the Lusty's clientele, men and masturbation are still the main show in the booths. For those who want custom shows and are willing to pay a little more, there is also one (larger) Private Pleasures booth, where patrons can converse with their private dancer by telephone across the glass and request shows tailored to their particular sexual tastes and fantasies.

Over the last seven years, the erotic dancers at the Lusty Lady have repeatedly established themselves as groundbreaking pioneers in the nether world of sexual entertainment. In 1997, they persuaded Service Employees International Union Local 790 to represent them and became the only unionized sexual workplace in the country. From 1997 to 2003, they successfully negotiated annual labor contracts that brought them increased pay, health benefits, guaranteed work shifts, protection against arbitrary discipline and termination, and a general sense of power and control over their work environment.

In the Spring of 2003, when the theatre's owners responded to the latest contract negotiation by announcing they were simply going to close up shop, the dancers and support staff at the Lusty banded together and decided to buy the business and run it themselves. After negotiating a purchase with the Lusty's surprisingly cooperative owners, the dancers at the Lusty found themselves the collective owners of one of San Francisco's oldest sex entertainment institutions.

Giddy with their back-to-back successes, the dancers looked to the future with unbridled creativity and enthusiasm. "We're about to see a new Golden Era at the Lusty Lady," Board Member Pepper (her stage name) predicted last summer. "Now that we're working for ourselves, everyone feels fresh and friendly, and that affects how we relate to each other and how we relate to the customers. The quality of everyone's performance is going up. The theatre is cleaner than ever, and we're considering a number of capital improvements."

Innovative ideas for reorganization and performance events blossomed like flowers in the Spring. A series of Women's Nights were organized to expand the Lusty's welcome beyond its traditionally male customer base -- with dancers greeting nervous new women customers at the door, giving them guided tours, helping them become comfortable in a new environment. Men were barred for the night (unless accompanied by a woman). One set of viewing booths was reserved for women, and interested women could even get showgirl makeovers from dancers, borrow some sexy lingerie, and take a shot at being erotic dancers for a day -- for the enjoyment of their partners, or the general public, as they wished. A Valentine's Day special event came six months later. "Girl Storm Night" -- a big sexy sleepover on stage -- is coming soon. On May 14, the Lusty will celebrate it's first anniversary of sex worker self-determination with an all day (11 am-3 am) "May Day Play Day," complete with backstage tours, a variety of special stage shows, topless shoe-shines, shower shows in the dressing room, makeovers for women, and what Board Member Donna Delinqua describes as "lots of shenanigans."

But even Cinderella and Prince (or Princess) Charming have to deal with the realities of married life once the magic of pumpkins and glass slippers wears off.

"It's been a hard year," Delinqua acknowledges, as we meet for lunch at an inexpensive Chinese restaurant a block from the theatre. "We've been hurt by the downturn in the local economy, just like everyone else. And we've found that the skills and attitude that it takes to hold together when you're fighting a common enemy are not the same skills it takes to run a business when there's no outside focus to supply a shared sense of purpose and perspective."

Delinqua, a graduate student in English Literature who's about to complete her doctorate, notes that we live in a culture oriented to hierarchies of authority, rather than to institutions with a more democratic distribution of power and responsibility. "We were all used to relating to the theatre management as the boss," she explains. "After we became a collective, it was easy to think of the Board of Directors as the new bosses and relate to them as such."

In the absence of imposed outside authority, it was up to the dancers to decide how they wanted to deal with potentially explosive issues of conflict and discipline. "Everyone thought, 'Great, now we're free to do what we want,'" Delinqua remembers. "But when people were habitually late for work, or just didn't show up, we began to realize that we needed systems of discipline to hold the whole thing together. At the beginning, people were excited about the privileges of working for ourselves, but they didn't always want to step up to the responsibilities."

An elected Board of seven directors, together with a Lead Team of four dancers and two support staff, took charge of developing rules to ensure that the business functioned properly. "Some people feel that everyone should get to make every decision," Delinqua notes. "But if we did that we'd be meeting all the time."

Records were kept of times when people were late to work, and those who were late repeatedly were disciplined. "The difference [from before] is that where people used to be fired for being late, now they're just suspended, at least at first." Board and Lead Team members don't receive financial or disciplinary privileges, and are treated the same as everyone else. Delinqua notes that Board members have themselves been suspended at times.

Beyond simply showing up to work, dancers are expected to be "professional" about their hair, their make-up, and their costumes. They're also expected to make good eye contact with customers, to help customers feel welcomed and appreciated, and to stay creative and bring variety to their dance routines.

The most difficult issue, says Delinqua, is evaluating the performances of the dancers. An initial system of broad peer evaluation was abandoned as too time-consuming. Now evaluations are done by the members of the dancers' Lead Team. It's a sensitive process, and Delinqua notes that it's easy for dancers to become defensive about criticism of their shows or their appearance.

"After so many bad experiences with management trying to make people fit into a specific mode, we try to stay away from judging people's bodies or their shows, but we do expect dancers to be professional about their appearance and to have a positive attitude about their work," she explains.

The four Lead Team dancers (elected for six-month terms) are responsible for scheduling, hiring, firing, and discipline. Dancers typically work three or four four-hour shifts per week. Many are artists or students and happy to work only 12-16 hours a week, but some want additional shifts and there is some competition for work shifts. Shortages in available shifts are spread through the group as evenly as possible, Delinqua says.

Dancers presently earn $20-23 an hour, and keep 55% of receipts when they work the Private Pleasures booth. Dancer turnover, notoriously high throughout the sex entertainment industry, has dropped to a trickle. Of the 40 dancers who worked at the Lusty when the theatre went coop a year ago, about 30 are still there. New dancers are hired through "amateur night" auditions, held twice over the last year.

The collective has just completed its first annual review of the union contract negotiated last Spring with the theatre's old management, a process that put them in the odd position of effectively negotiating a contract with themselves. The proposed new contract incorporates provisions suggested at meetings by participating dancers and staff. Changes include a pay increase for start-up support staff, mandatory coop and union membership for all workers and, most significantly, a new revenue-based pay system in place of fixed hourly wages, that will pass the ups and downs of revenue receipts directly along to the dancers. "Everyone will have a clear sense of how the quality of their work has direct financial consequences," Delinqua points out.

The new contract will be voted on in the weeks ahead, and a new Board of Directors is to be elected at the membership meeting in May. I ask Delinqua if she's going to run for a second term on the Board. "Hell no," she says, shaking her head with a laugh. "I'm tired." Significantly, none of the current Board members are running for re-election, though a full slate of new candidates has been nominated to take their place.

There have been disputes and hurt feelings, but the general feeling among the dancers is far more positive than it was before the collective was formed. "The ongoing internal challenge is for us to change how we think about work and our jobs," says Delinqua. "It's something we're going to be struggling with for a long time."

Two Hundred Pounds of Fun


Candye Kane is a marvelous blues singer whose recordings and stage shows unapologetically celebrate the sexuality of many people marginalized by mainstream culture -- most notably large women, bisexuals, and sex workers. Candye, who is herself both large and bisexual, supported herself financially while her music career was getting off the ground by modeling nude for porn magazines, stripping, making porn videos, and doing phone sex. Never ashamed or embarrassed about her sexual desires or her sex work, she would proudly show her music industry friends the latest issue of Juggs or Hefty Mamas that featured her photos, or talk proudly about her latest video. Her refusal to "tone down" her sexuality cost her her first big record contract and her relationship with her first major agent. Stunned and bereft, but never one to hide her sexual core, Candye shifted her music from country to blues, where she found a musical home and a musical tradition that allowed her to be her full sexual self and be successful at the same time.

She has played with such blues greats as B. B. King, Etta James, Albert Collins and Dr. John. Her recordings include "The Toughest Girl Alive," "Any Woman's Blues," "Swango," "Diva La Grande," and her latest release, "Whole Lotta Love." Her songs include such sexy, sexual favorites as "Two Hundred Pounds of Fun," "I'm in Love with a Girl," "Let's Commit Adultery," "Seven Men a Week," "Fit, Fat and Fine," "You Need A Great Big Woman," "Let's Put the X Back in Xmas," and "All You Can Eat (and You Can Eat It All Night Long)." Her shows, which have been described as "a revival meeting in the parking lot of a porn store," are opportunities for sexual outlaws of all kinds to come together, dance, and celebrate sexual existence in all its forms.

I recently had an opportunity to interview Candye about the sexual themes in her music and her sex work background.

DS: I know that before you became a singer, you had done stripping and modeling and so on. Was there anything positive you took away from that experience that affected your decision to become a professional singer?

CK: Being on the covers of magazines like Hefty Mamas and Whoppers was the first time ever I felt like, hey, maybe my big body's okay, maybe there are people who think my big body is attractive. Up until that time, I thought that my career in music was hopeless because I would never be thin. That was an extremely powerful experience for a chubby teenage mom, not only from a self-image standpoint, but also from a financial standpoint.

DS: Did your work in the sex industry directly inspire you to pursue a music career?

CK: I've wanted to be a singer all my life. But the sex industry directly encouraged my transition into music. There was one time in particular when I picked up my guitar at Market Street Cinema [a San Francisco strip club] and sang to the audience while I was talking to them. The audience was really into it. Of course the management came over the loudspeaker like the voice of God and said, "Put down the guitar and show us your g-string." It became very clear that the management was not supportive of strippers expressing themselves in creative ways. That was a real eye-opener, and the last time I ever stripped on-stage.

DS: You mentioned that you have just done a vigil for a murdered sex worker in San Diego.

CK: Yes, I just did a vigil Wednesday night [12/17/03]. It was the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. I lost a friend here in San Diego who was a great person -- Robert Gibson (we called him Tiny), a transgendered performer who was turning tricks on the side. He was stabbed 25 times by a guy named Sean Wilson who stabbed him to death when he found out Tiny was a man. He couldn't handle that he had just had sex with a man, so he killed Tiny. It was a horrible, horrible loss. So when I heard that internationally many of my sex worker friends were organizing memorials for the Green River women [in Seattle] and other women who had been killed in the line of sex work, it really struck a chord with me. I was happy I was not on tour and able to organize this vigil. The vigil was really wonderful. It was very emotional.

DS: You mentioned earlier that the vigil got coverage in mainstream media.

CK: Yeah, they put me on the news. It's funny, though -- the way they described me in the news just goes to show how ignorant the mainstream media is about sex work. I told the newsman that I had been a sex worker twenty years ago, and that I had been in many situations where I felt my safety was compromised, and that because of that I felt strongly for these women who had been brutalized and murdered -- because it could have been me. So the newsman went on the news and said "Candye Kane hasn't turned a trick in twenty years, but tonight in Balboa Park she held this vigil blah, blah, blah." Well, I never said that I had turned a trick, nor that I'd been a streetwalker. I said I'd been a sex worker, but if you say you're a sex worker, everyone in mainstream media assumes you're a streetwalker. That shows how much people need to be educated about this issue. I'm not going to sit here and give all the definitions of what sex work can be, but my dad was a layout artist years ago for Adam's Film World, which is a porn magazine, and I think my dad qualifies as a sex worker. I think anyone who has worked with sex, or is an educator, or a sex therapist, or any other kind of sex advocate, is a sex worker -- including strippers and prostitutes. We're all in this together.

DS: Are you nervous about publicly supporting sex workers the way you do? Has your connection to sex work affected your music career?

CK: It's been a double-edged sword. Being a sex worker and being vocal about my background has forged an audience for me that is very wonderful -- kind of a disenfranchised audience, an audience that appreciates my candor and honesty on the subject of sex work, people who understand that it takes a certain amount of courage to speak out about this issue because people are so prejudiced about sex work and stereotype sex workers. But I'm not just vocal about my sex work background. I'm also vocal about sizeism and how that's impacted my life. So big women and large-size people, or any women who have body issues, also come out to my shows and appreciate that level of honesty.

But being open about sex work has impacted my career in negative ways too. I get to play blues festivals in cities that tend to be progressive -- I've played the San Francisco Blues Festival, the Santa Cruz Blues Festival, and Monterey. I'm very popular there and have a great following. But I still have to fight to be acknowledged by the mainstream blues community, and I wonder if one of the reasons I'm not more acknowledged by them is because I'm vocal about sex work. Of course it could be because I'm vocal about being a bisexual. Or it could be because I make a point of doing songs about big women, like "Fit, Fat and Fine" or "You Need A Great Big Woman." It could be for a variety of reasons.

At festivals or street fairs where there are children, people are sometimes reluctant to hire me. Or if they do, they do it with a caveat. We want you to play the Carlsbad Jazz Series, but we don't want you to be controversial. When somebody says to me, "Don't be controversial," it's hard for me to understand exactly what that means. My sensibilities are from the Candye Kane perspective, and Candye Kane was a teenage gang banger who got pregnant young, a girl who wanted to be a singer her whole life and became a sex worker and a porn star, and then became a punk rock anarchist and used sex work to further her musical career. I've been topless in public and play the piano with my boobs, so it's not a big deal for me to do things that other people may think are outrageous.

So when I'm asked to play a festival with kids and tone it down and not be controversial, I agree to do that, but then sometimes I get on stage and I see 300 or 500 people dancing and having a great time. I spot some teenage kids, I spot some little kids, and I think, you know, these people would benefit from hearing my story. There are people here who have dreams themselves. Maybe their dream is to ride a Harley or open a flower shop. Maybe their dream is to be a sex worker too, or to be a singer. So I feel compelled to tell my story. I was a porn star. I did appear on the cover of Floppers. I did use that money to subsidize my career. And when I got to the record companies, the record guys all said the same thing -- renounce your past, lose weight, be a born-again Christian, and if you blow me we'll give you a record deal. So then I launch into a song I do called "Love 'Em and Forgive 'Em." It's all about keeping your dream and not listening to people. "You can't change their minds, or make them wise, all the changes we do, love em and forgive em and let your light shine through." Those are the words to the song.

So it's a song that's extremely powerful and I've had so many people come up after the show and thank me for doing the song and thank me for telling my story because it makes them feel powerful. But at festivals like that you're always going to have one or two crotchety people who complain that you were offensive. At this particular festival, the Carlsbad Jazz Series, I had a lady say that she wasn't going to allow me to go back on stage after my break because I was offensive, because I said "blow me" on stage. It's really astounding to me. It's 2003, where kids are watching television all the time and seeing violence on America's Most Wanted and people getting their heads blown off on every other channel, and people on MTV like Britney Spears and Christina Agulera barely dressed and making sexual overtures constantly in every song, and seeing Gap ads where little kids are exploited and turned into sex objects. With all that going on, how is me playing piano with my breasts and saying "blow me" in the context of a story offensive?

DS: Didn't you lose your first big record contract over the issue of whether you would tone down your sexuality?

CK: That's what that whole song is about. I was a country singer in the beginning of my career and, in 1986, I signed a big record deal with CBS/Epic. I had a manager, Sherman Halsey, who really felt strongly about me covering up my past. He gave me lectures over lunch that I needed to lose weight and not be so controversial -- all of those lines that I use in "Love 'Em and Forgive 'Em" were lines directly from Sherman. Don't say the F word on stage. Don't let people know that you're smoking pot. Don't talk about sex work. Don't talk about your past -- in fact say you're ashamed of your past, that you just did it to survive as a teenage mom and that it's behind you now, that you're a serious vocalist and you don't want to discuss it any more.

I think his approach was a valid one. Perhaps if I'd done it his way and done all the things he said I would be a big country star by now. But there was something dishonest about it and I wasn't committed to doing it, even though I paid him lip service and said I would. I just thought I could continue to keep my sex work life and my musical life separate, which is what I'd always done. Unfortunately for me, Sherman was really watching me. The day I was supposed to sign a $150,000 deal with CBS/Epic, Sherman took me aside and said, "Look, you haven't done anything I've said. You haven't lost any weight. You're on the cover of Gent this month. You're cussing like a truck driver. We're going into this big meeting and I've completely sold you as something you're not. I can't in good conscience follow through with this meeting when you haven't done any of the things I've asked you to do. Because you haven't changed, I'm calling off the meeting." I was hysterical, of course, and crying, and begging him to go through with the meeting, that once we signed the contract he could drop me I could find someone else. But he refused and so I lost my big record deal with CBS/Epic because I wasn't willing to lie about my background and cover up who I was.

That moment was real tragedy for me. I was devastated. I thought I would give up singing completely and never go back. I didn't have anywhere to turn. I didn't know a lot of other sex workers. I didn't have friends who were both musicians and sex workers. I had a solid group of punk rock musicians in LA who were my friends -- the guys from Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, and The Blasters, and Los Lobos. At that time in LA, the early 80s, you could see punk rock bands and Los Lobos and Dwight Yoakum, everybody on one stage. Because I was a sex worker, I was considered a punk rock anarchist, doing it my own way. Everyone said, "Candye be yourself. Be honest." Dwight Yoakum said to me, "Candye, don't hide who you are. That's what makes you unique, what makes you great."

It took a lot for me to get back on my feet after that experience. I didn't want to be a singer any more. But then I discovered blues, and blues changed my life. In blues I discovered a place where I could be myself, where I could be big and brassy and flamboyant and bisexual -- where there was a long history of women just like me. That was extremely vindicating.

DS: Is that when you began putting more directly sexual material into your music?

CK: Well, yes, I saw that it could be done. If you go back and start listening to the old blues songs, there are so many that are laced with sexual innuendo. Memphis Minnie's song, "Won't You Be My Chauffeur," has nothing to do with driving a car. "Won't you be my chauffeur, I want you to drive me, I want you to drive me downtown." She's not talking about driving, she's talking about something else. There were a lot of songs like, "Press My Buttons" and "Give My Bell a Ring," "Put that Hot Dog in My Bun," the Bessie Smith song "I Want Some Sugar in My Bowl." All of those songs were sexual innuendo songs.

I started reading about these blues women. Memphis Minnie wrote all kinds of songs about street walkers and prostitution. "Street Walking Blues." "Hustling Blues." In her autobiography it says that she was turning tricks on the side, between her shows. It was rumored that Bessie Smith would sing downstairs in the foyer of the brothels while the men were drinking their whiskey and selecting their women, and that she would go upstairs and turn a trick now and then herself. There were plenty of women in the blues who were gay or bisexual, like Big Momma Thornton and Alberta Hunter. Billie Holiday was rumored to be bisexual and have affairs with women.

All of a sudden I found this place in blues where women were large-sized, where they were singing about sexual experiences, where they were bisexual, and it was ok. And I said, wait a minute, I fit perfectly into this group. So it was natural to take the experience and the background that I had from being a sex worker and put it into my music. And it was so freeing and liberating to be able to do that. All of a sudden, I didn't have to hide who I was. I could freely sing about it. I also started covering the sexy songs of some of those early blues women. I named the first recording I made "Burlesque Swing," and that became a description of my music because it was titillating and nasty and teasing like the old burlesque, but it was also swing style so you could dance to it. And, of course, "swing" also has a double meaning, about swingers. I recorded "Press My Buttons" and "Give My Bell a Ring" and "That's My Daddy with the Big Long Sliding Thing" and "Put It All in There," a song I still do now. Now the writer of that song, George "Wild Child" Butler, says it's about putting money in the bank. But when I sing it, it becomes about something totally different.

I felt like I had found my home, a place where I could completely be myself. It's ironic that I now get shunned by some of the blues community for doing the very thing that the early blues women were doing. I don't think they get it. Because I'm young and white and also talk about political issues like legalizing prostitution, people get offended, instead of seeing how I'm carrying on a proud tradition of women in the blues.

DS: I've seen people at your shows get tremendous confirmation -- whether it's about being big women, about being dykes, about being bisexual, or just about being openly sexual people in general. I think that's one of the special things you do that contributes to people having a really good time at your shows. Do you see yourself as a sexual evangelist? As a campaigner and advocate for open sexuality, for unconventional sexuality?

CK: Well, my show's been described as a revival meeting in the parking lot of an x-rated book store. I think it does have a revival meeting feel to it. I've taken all the different parts of my life and put them together in one big melting pot of sexual celebration and size celebration. I mean, the body and sexuality are impossibly linked. There's no way you can have sex without a body, and there's no way you can really enjoy sex, I don't think, if you don't accept and love your body, if you don't let your body do what it's supposed to do. So I think those issues are really connected.

Am I a sexual libertine? I guess I am. I don't think of myself as being a big role model for anything. I think of myself as just sharing my experience with people, and hoping that the experience rubs off on them. When people respond to my honesty, when they respond to the songs and the content of the songs, it's really rewarding. It all comes together at that moment. Their energy and their love empowers me too. I have issues about sexuality and about my body like everyone does, issues I struggle with every day. But when I sing a song like "Fit, Fat and Fine" or "Two Hundred Pounds of Fun" or "I'm the Toughest Girl Alive" -- when people respond it feeds my own sense of well-being -- even though I'm not the toughest girl alive, even though I don't think my body is beautiful 100% of the time. So the support is mutual. It's like mutual masturbation. Let's do this all together and we'll all feel good and it will free all of us.

DS: Have you always been open and uninhibited and unapologetic about your sexuality?

CK: When I was a kid I was kind of a tomboy, but there was a sexual element to my life too. My dad was a graphic artist for Adam's Film World, a men's magazine, and he was also a body painter. It was the 60s. He would take me with him to the beach and they'd have these paint-ins where they'd sit and rope off an area and women would come and be topless and my dad and his friend would paint daisies and peace signs on these women. So I was around a lot of nudity as a little kid.

One time, when my dad was working as a graphic artist, he took me to work with him. Every time I went into his cubicle he would cover up his drafting board with newspapers, so I couldn't see what he was working on. Of course, being a precocious 9-year-old, as soon as he left I lifted up the newspapers and saw all these pictures of people having sex, and all kinds of group pictures of nude people. My dad's other gig was being an illustrator for Bible coloring books. I was always coloring Jesus on the cross and Moses parting the Red Sea.

So I got an interesting, unconscious message from my dad that it was ok to have fun and make money with nudity, and also with religion. I got the message early on that you could integrate religion and sexuality. It was sort of destiny for me to end up doing that. I don't think my dad knew that he was encouraging me in such a strange way, but that's definitely what ended up happening.

Was I sexual? I fell in love at 16, and had a baby at 17. I think I was bisexual even then. I had a crush on my track coach. She was awesome and I used to go early to class to see her prance around in her little white shorts with her tan body. I was in love with her, but I didn't know there was a name for that, for bisexuality. It wasn't until years later, when I did my first video with Christy Canyon, that I realized that I like this, that this is a good thing.

So I didn't really accept myself and come into my sexual persona, feel at home in my sexual being, until I was in my 20s. I always knew that the sex business was a good thing for me. I always felt proud when I was on the cover of magazines. All the punk rockers in Hollywood knew about my sex work because I'd bring copies of my magazines -- Gent or Juggs or Velvet, whatever current issue I was on -- to show everybody. I also had a column I wrote for a while, an advice column called "Candye's Corner" in Gent magazine. By virtue of posing naked I suddenly became a sex expert, sort of the Dr. Ruth of the big tits set.

It was incredibly powerful for me. I was proud of what I was doing. I was the first celebrity in my family. I raced home and showed my first cover to my mom. I didn't have the sense of shame that a lot of people have. It wasn't until later that I realized that some people weren't as thrilled as I was about seeing me on the cover of men's magazines. But I was proud of what I was doing. I just knew it was good for me, that it was good for my self-esteem, that it was making me money, that it was enabling me to do what I really wanted to do, which was to make music. I was already a sex-positive feminist, even though I had never heard that term.

I didn't know there was anyone else like me. I had met some sex workers in my early days of modeling. I met Annie Sprinkle in New York. I did Montel Williams and some other talk shows with Hyapatia Lee. But I didn't have a solid network of sex work friends. I'd go do my job as a sex worker and then hang out in Hollywood with musicians. I didn't find about the sex worker network until much later, when I took a women's studies class in junior college. All of a sudden I saw that there were other women who also felt good about being sex workers. It was a huge eye opener. I was no longer an island. I started networking with people like Carol Queen and Annie Sprinkle. It was incredible to find out that there was actually a name for what I was. I was a sex-positive, feminist, bisexual, former-illegitimate-teenage-welfare-mom from East LA. I could name myself. I know a lot of people want to shy away from labels, but for me it felt good to be able to fit into a group and have a label. It said, ok, this is what I am and it's all right.

DS: What's the bottom line about sex that you would like to tell the world? If you were going to make a statement to your audience about sex -- yours, theirs, everybody's -- what you want them to get from your work and your music, what would that be?

CK: Well, my first goal would be about body image. There's a lot of pressure in our culture to look a certain way and be a certain way. There's a lot of money spent making us feel like we're not good enough the way we are. It's all over advertising, on television, in magazines. You don't smell good enough, cover it up with this. You're too hairy, take it off with this. You're too fat, diet this way. You could go crazy if you took these advertising images seriously. Everyone has issues about their body. Everyone's got not enough in the right place, or too much in the wrong place, or something that used to be in one place but has shifted to another place. Well, that's just age and the way that our bodies work.

So number one, I think that body acceptance is super super important. It's very much linked to sexuality and feeling good sexually. I believe in positive affirmation -- taking the parts of your body that you don't like and -- I do this on stage sometimes, rub my belly or my ass and say, You're ok. You're beautiful and soft. You're a wonderful place to grab on to during sex.

Secondly, I think that sexuality and life are intrinsically linked. If you're sexually adventurous, then you can be adventurous in life. Life is short and unpredictable. I learned that after losing my friend, Tiny, the way I did -- one day he was here, the next day he was dead. People don't know when their time is up and when they're going to be gone. So to spend your life in fear, worrying about how you look, or about what's going to happen next, or about whether you should try what you've always wanted to but you're afraid, is just impossibly limiting. If you can be sexually adventurous, if you can start off being sexually adventurous with a partner in a safe environment, try new things that maybe you're afraid to try -- I think that will carry over into the rest of your life. Maybe next time you'll try sushi even though you've never eaten it before. Maybe next time you'll try buying a fast convertible even though you've always been a four-door-sedan kind of guy.

I think it's important to be adventurous in life and not be afraid to try new things. Maybe you won't like it. It's ok to try something and say, you know, I tried that and it wasn't for me. I think the main problem with American culture is that fear is dictated to us from every angle -- fear of ourselves, fear of the unknown, fear of anything different or foreign to us. Sex is a good way to move past that. Look at the difference between Europe and the United States. In the United States, men aren't affectionate and demonstrative with each other. You go to Italy or to many countries in Europe and men are kissing each other all over, hugging and having a great time. There's no threat to their masculinity over it. American men have been robbed of the opportunity and the experience and the ability to be affectionate with each other. They're afraid of that. They're afraid that maybe they might like it, or that somebody might think they're gay, oh my god! That fear carries over everywhere.

DS: Women even more, I think.

CK: I think so too, although women's fear is different. Women's fear tends to be I'm afraid to show my body, what will someone think. Or, oh my god, if I go experience sex with two guys at once somebody might say I'm a slut. It's a different kind of fear.

If we can just teach ourselves to be a little more adventurous, and a little more accepting of other people, we'll learn how to accept ourselves, too. And what better gift can you give yourself than to accept yourself the way you are.

To receive mailings about Candye's concerts and tours, send an email to candyekane-subscribe@onelist.com. You can also contact Candye directly at candye@candyekane.com.

The Art of Sex


"Art is the search for meaning, the experience of meaning made visible. In a work of art, soul meets soul; essence meets essence. Art is... the continuous removal of veils in order to expose the soul -- the individual soul, the common soul, the universal soul." -- Tom Millea, photographer

"Poetry... is the manifestation/translation of a vision, an illumination, an experience.... One primary responsibility on the part of the poet [is] that he tell the truth... as beautifully, as amazingly, as he can; that he ignite his own sense of wonder; that he work alchemy within the language." -- Lenore Kandel, poet

Art and sex. Together. The mixture of the two. Think about it.

What happens when we apply the language of art, the language of fine art, to the subject of sex? Hard to imagine, isn't it? We don't generally put art and sex in the same breath, in the same sentence, in the same room, in the same part of town. Indeed, some say that sex and fine art are antithetical by their very natures and therefore should be kept apart, that the introduction of sex -- which is low and unclean -- somehow sullies anything in the realm of fine art -- which is high and virtuous. In 2002, the New York State Board of

Regents, responding to a petition from the Museum of Sex for recognition as a non-profit artistic institution, proclaimed that the very name "Museum of Sex" was ludicrous, that the subject of sex would "defame" and "ridicule" the essential concept of what a museum was all about.

Why does our culture keep the idea of sex and the idea of fine art so far apart? All the other grand aspects of life -- the other grand dilemmas of life -- are familiar and well-respected subjects for artists of all disciplines.

Love, traditionally so close to sex, is a veritable home base for artistic inspiration. What more appropriate subject could there be for art than love? Great paintings, great novels, great poetry, great sculpture, great photography -- there are dozens, hundreds, of examples of each that address one aspect or another of love, inspiring praise and wonder from all strata of society.

The same is true of art and beauty, whose interface we take for granted -- a time-honored artistic convention, beyond question, beyond reproach. Art and joy, art and tragedy, art and religion, art and death -- all of these connections we honor and encourage.

We apply the language of art to all the fundamental issues of being alive, all the great wonders of life, all the great mysteries. We invite art to offer us insight into the complexity of what it means to be alive and to be human, and we are enriched, expanded, and grateful when it does. Art helps us to understand ourselves, our place in the world, our place in the universe. It adds depth and subtlety, complexity and nuance, to how we see ourselves, our lives, and the people around us. It lifts us beyond the mundane, beyond the temptation to be simplistic, beyond kitsch. It reminds us about what is important, about the questions that the noise of daily life and the assault of facile media too easily shout into the background.

Indeed, it's the desire to say something meaningful about life's big issues, to express some deep feeling, to convey some vital experience, that inspires the creation of most great art, and these artistic expressions speak to us in ways that are simply not available through other means of communication. We learn things from art -- whether it be visual or verbal, paintings or novels, photos or poems -- that we cannot learn from scientific treatises, from newspaper reports, from documentary narratives, from statistical analyses of quantifiable data, even from counselors and therapists.

All of this vital insight, all of this enlightening perspective, all of this subtle wisdom, is denied us in relation to sex when we decree, formally or informally, that fine art and sex must have nothing to do with each other. Without a cultural base of true sexual art -- work that is genuinely both sexual an artistic -- the ways we think about sex and the ways we think about ourselves as sexual people become stale, repetitive, and trivialized.

Because we live in a culture that is obsessed with sex, a culture that is loaded to the gills with flip sexual references and innuendoes, we are flooded with messages that collectively encourage us to believe that sex is trivial and superficial, that sex is nothing more than a compulsion (at worst), or an amusement (at best). Advertising, television, Hollywood, and commercial pornography all share this light-hearted, uncomplicated view of sex. It is the view of sex that most people want to hear. It is the view of sex that sells a seemingly infinite range of commercial products. It is the view of sex that fits most comfortably into our sexual fantasies, and therefore is most pleasing and effective when we want to masturbate.

But art is not about selling commercial products and art is not primarily about turning us on and getting us off. Not that there's anything wrong with sexual material whose main intent is to make our times of masturbation more enjoyable. But this is a different function from what we generally ask of art.

What we want from art is that it tell the truth about its subject, and tell that truth in an illuminating way -- as both photographer Tom Millea and poet

Lenore Kandel suggest in the quotes above. We don't ask a photograph or a novel about grief to help us grieve better, faster, or more intensely. We ask it to convey something about grief, to tell us something about grief, that we don't already know. Or, perhaps, to portray grief in a way that is so clear, so powerful, so accurate, that the portrayal resonates with something inside us and therefore helps us see something that we didn't know was there, or see something differently from how we saw it before. We read a story or a poem, we see a painting or a photograph, and it gives us language that we didn't have before to understand what we have been experiencing. "Yes," we say, "that's it. That's what I feel. That's what I have felt." And as a result we grow.

God knows, we can use all the help we can get to see and understand our sexuality more thoroughly, which makes the presence -- and the absence -- of artful examination of sex -- all the more important.

Even though it has always been, and continues to be, an uphill battle socially and politically, the last fifty years have seen the slow, painful emergence of some truly illuminating artistic perspectives on sex. In literature, there was the groundbreaking work of D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller, two writers who directly and truthfully portrayed sex, not as some idealized fantasy, but in the matrix of the real confusions, fears, and conflicts that were at the core of their respective sexual worlds.

For telling the truth about sex, for refusing to dilute either the importance of sex or its complexity, both Miller and Lawrence were attacked as immoral, and ridiculed as insignificant hacks. For decades, this writing, now acknowledged as among the finest English prose of the twentieth century, could not be published in the U.S. for fear of subjecting its publishers to obscenity prosecution. Eventually, of course, the work of both Miller and Lawrence was indeed published and successfully defended in court, and the idea that it was artistically legitimate to write so frankly and directly about sex became accepted in even the most established literary circles.

As a result, many others have written eloquently and perceptively about sex, speaking their own sexual truths, confirming the sexual realities of thousands, millions, of readers. Gore Vidal, Lenore Kandel, Dorothy Allison, Marco Vassi, John Berger, Monique Vittig come to mind, but there are hundreds of others. Collectively, these writers about sex have built a sex-literary foundation from which truly thoughtful, complex sexual fiction continues to spring.

In the world of visual art, it has been more difficult for sex and fine art to establish widely accepted cultural ground. In 1968, Betty Dodson pioneered a monumental show of powerful sexual drawings -- an exhibit of beautiful images that depicted couples being sexual in no uncertain terms. Her drawings were exhibited in the heart of New York's respectable Madison Avenue gallery world, and well received by critics and the public alike. A subsequent show of her work, however, celebrating women masturbating, proved more than the established New York art world could handle. The show was condemned critically, a blow from which both Dodson and mainstream New York art have yet to recover.

In the realm of fine art sexual photography, there has been an even stronger objection to the idea of sexual fine art. Although there has been a truly monumental outpouring of thoughtful, brilliant work by dozens of skilled photographers, particularly in the last ten or fifteen years, little of this photography has been shown in mainstream galleries and museums, or published by mainstream presses. As a result, the contribution this work could be offering toward our understanding and appreciation of sex has been extremely limited.

A pioneering retrospective of celebrity photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's work, including a generous sampling of Mapplethorpe's intensely explicit homoerotic s/sexual imagery, was shown at New York's respected Whitney Museum in 1988 without major fuss or critical condemnation. A similar Mapplethorpe retrospective in 1990, however, became the subject of intense political controversy, and even police intervention. The Corcoran Museum in Washington, D.C. canceled a scheduled Mapplethorpe exhibit under the heat of right-wing Congressional criticism, setting off a national debate about Mapplethorpe's work and, more generally, about publicly-funded art that deals directly with sex.

The Mapplethorpe exhibit did find homes in respected museums in Boston, Berkeley, and Cincinnati, but seven of the exhibit's photos were physically seized by police when the show opened in Cincinnati, and the curator of the museum was arrested and charged with obscenity. (He was later acquitted.) So, while the Whitney Museum's courage in showing Mapplethorpe's sexual work was a real breakthrough in legitimizing the intersection of fine art photography and sex, the subsequent controversies served to warn other galleries and museums of potentially dire consequences if they ever dared to exhibit equally sexual work, regardless of how artful or thoughtful that work might be. In the wake of the Mapplethorpe flap, and in the increasingly antisexual political climate of the 1990s, fine art sexual photography remained most decidedly outside the boundaries of anything resembling mainstream legitimacy.

In an attempt to draw attention to marginalized, but beautiful and important, fine art sexual photography, I began work five years ago on a book that I hoped would be a testimonial to the possibilities and the importance of this body of work. That book, "Photo Sex: Fine Art Sexual Photography Comes of Age," has just been published by Down There Press. "Photo Sex" brings 115 sexual photographs by 31 photographers together in one volume in the hope that the collective power and beauty of these images can demonstrate to the non-sexual art world that it is indeed possible to combine unambiguous sexual focus with high artistic quality and intent in the photographic medium. Note: Mark I. Chester, one of the book's contributors, has posted information about Photo Sex -- including short notes about each of the photographers and a gallery of 31 images from the book -- on his website at mchester.best.vwh.net/ps.html

The verdict is still out on how our culture feels about the integration of art and sex in the visual realm, and most pointedly in the realm of photography. One thing is sure, however: As long as we continue to dismiss and punish artists who choose to honor sex as an important, fascinating, and complex aspect of life, the more impoverished all of our sexual perspectives and sexual lives will be.

Bits and Pieces: Sexual Signs of the Times


Sexual signs of the times show up just about every day. Stories that are hardly major news, but that cast a little light on the grand collage we could call American Sexual Culture -- that huge umbrella no one can quite see, but everyone wants to measure themselves against.

The stories pour in from any number of sources -- reading the papers, emails from friends, postings on listserves, notes from Comes Naturally subscribers and from other people in the sex-curious network. Sometimes they're humorous, sometimes upsetting, sometimes inspiring, in the way of thousands of unacclaimed every-day heroes -- people who stand up for their sexual rights and preferences, even when it means taking a risk, emotional or otherwise.

I gather the stories in a file folder that grows increasingly heavy, week after week, where it sits at the back of my desk -- fodder, I think hopefully, for future columns.

Here are a few samples from that file. Nothing earth-shaking, really. But collectively they may just have something to say about where we are and where we're going with sex and sex-related issues in these uncertain times.

*     *     *

New scanning technology for passengers passing through airport security may well test how far people are willing to go in the name of protection against potential terrorist attacks. The Transportation Security Administration is testing a new "backscatter" system that scatters X-rays to detect plastic weapons and explosive materials invisible to devices currently used at airport security gates.

The backscatter system, however, also has the effect of projecting naked black-and-white images of each passenger it scans. Backscatter X-rays are reflected by skin and, more darkly, by dense material like metal or plastic, but not by fabrics. Instead of seeing inside the luggage of the person in front of you as you pass through airport security, you'll see inside their clothes. We used to wonder what Superman saw when he looked at Lois Lane with his X-ray vision. With backscatter, every airport security guard would get to play Superman.

Susan Hallowell, director of TSA's security lab, admits that submitting to backscattering "basically makes you look fat and naked." On the other hand, she notes, it adds a protection against someone smuggling plastic explosives onto a plane.

Backscatter generators cost something between $100,000 and $200,000 per unit. They use small amounts of radiation, about the same as standing in the sun. But is the American General Public ready be seen naked by other passengers and security guards in the name of air travel safety? Maybe they are. Maybe personal modesty is a small price to play for security in the post-9/11 world. Maybe this is the historic moment that naturists have long been dreaming of, when people will finally realize that there's nothing shameful about the naked human body.

TSA is not so sure. This is America, after all, not Old Europe. They're trying to develop technology that will recognize and blur certain "private" (and certainly unnamed) parts of the body -- kind of an electronic fig leaf.

Reports that there has been an upsurge in applications among young men, gay, straight, and bi, for security checker positions at airports could not be confirmed. Nor could reports be confirmed that terrorists are working frantically to develop ways of disguising explosive devices as body piercings.

*     *     *

As the New World Order of trading self-revelation for the privilege of flying settles into the collective consciousness, less extensive invasions of the personal privacy of air travel passengers are becoming increasingly common and increasingly accepted as routine. Checked baggage is now routinely opened and inspected, and claims against airlines for theft of articles from luggage has reached levels unheard of in pre-9/11 days. How does this affect the sex lives of air travelers? Are people choosing to leave their sex toys, videos, and other entertainments at home when they fly, lest their personal articles be inspected, questioned, fondled, and possibly retained by airport personnel? What equipment do people bring or leave home when they fly to large s/m gatherings like the annual Black Rose Leather Retreat in Washington, D.C.? What does happen to people with genital body piercings when they go through airport security?

Most air travelers seem to be putting up with the increased presence of Big Brother with a shrug and a sigh. Not so Renee Koutsouradis. Koutsouradis is suing Delta Air Lines for being, she says, publicly humiliated when she was whisked out of a Delta flight from Dallas-Forth Worth airport and questioned about a sex toy she had packed in one of her bags.

Koutsouradis's flight was about to take off when her name was called over the plane's loudspeaker. A security agent informed her that something was vibrating in one of her checked bags. She explained that it was just a vibrator, but the agent insisted that she accompany him to where her bag had been laid out on the tarmac alongside the plane. She says he then made her open the bag, take out the vibrator, and hold it up for all to see -- other passengers in the plane, baggage handlers, and security inspectors alike. She says Delta employees "began laughing hysterically" and made a number of "obnoxious and sexually harassing comments."

Koutsouradis was neither amused nor intimidated by the incident. She is suing Delta for negligence, intentional infliction of distress, and gender discrimination.

Renee Koutsouradis has an ally and fellow spirit in Tamie Dragone of Salina, Kansas, who is also refusing to accept that intrusions into personal lives are just part and parcel of everyday life in 21st century America. Dragone is suing her local Wal-Mart Supercenter for humiliating her and invading her family's privacy by turning a series of innocent photos of her 3-year-old daughter in to Salina police. The photos are of Dragone's daughter playing in a backyard swimming pool and lying around naked on the living room floor.

Dragone says she and her children were detained at the Wal-Mart store for 45 minutes while she was questioned by police officers about the photos. She was eventually allowed to leave, but not to keep her photos. No criminal charges were filed against her.

"There was nothing inappropriate about [the photos]," Dragone told the Salina Journal. "This was a child being a child. They totally invaded my privacy and made me feel like a criminal."

"This is about the most humiliating experience I've ever been through," she added. "I've shopped [at that store] on a regular basis, two or three times a week, for the last couple of years. There are employees there who know me by my face."

Dragone is seeking $75,000 in actual damages, and unspecified punitive damages as well.

*     *     *

Edward Law, a quadriplegic who uses an electric wheelchair, is not afraid to insist that he have the same sexual rights and opportunities as anyone else, including the right to have a lap dance in relative privacy.

Law has sued the Wildside Adult Sports Cabaret in West Palm Beach, Florida, because, he says, the areas in the club for private lap dances are not wheelchair accessible. The manager of the club argues that Law has other areas in the club where he can have a lap dance, but Law's lawyer, Anthony J. Brady, Jr., says that "forcing Mr. Law to endure a lap dance in the open would be the equivalent of requiring him to go to the bathroom in public," according to The New York Times. "It's really about freedom," Brady told the Times. "Separate but equal is not good enough."

Mark Foley, the Republican who represents West Palm Beach in Congress, is far from sympathetic to his constituent's sexual outspokenness. Foley dismissed as "silly" the idea that the Americans with Disabilities Act be used to insure that people with disabilities can have sex on an equal basis with people who are not disabled -- at least as far as lap dances are concerned. Foley did not specify exactly which sexual desires he thought were legitimate for people with disabilities to pursue.

*     *     *

Kathleen Faye Ball, a woman with muscular dystrophy, is also insisting that her sexual rights not be restricted to the monogamous straight and narrow. Ball is suing Club Jacaranda, a Melbourne, Australia swingers club, after she was told not to return because she uses a wheelchair. When told she would not be welcome at future club parties, Ball refused to leave and demanded a written guarantee that she could participate in future sex parties, just like all the other paying customers. She was eventually removed from the club by police.

Ball says that Club Jacaranda was "horrified" when she showed up at their swingers party in a wheelchair and that they tried to make her stay in a corner away from other people. When she said she intended to come back for more, she was told to stay away. As a result of her treatment, Ball says, she suffered a panic attack and felt "completely demoralized, ugly, asexualized, and dehumanized."

"This is a political stand for the rights of all people with disabilities," says Ball. "We have the right to access goods and services within the sex industry under the same terms and conditions as any other person. We are not freaks and we are not perpetual children. We have exactly the same feelings, urges, needs and desires as anyone else."

*     *     *

When 17-year-old Mary Loeffler posted a life-size painting of herself in a red dress with her left breast exposed outside the Wheeling (Illinois) High School cafeteria, school administrators told her she had to take the painting down.

Loeffler, a senior art student who will be attending Chicago Art Institute this Fall, responded by reposting the painting the next day, this time with the bare breast covered by a patch of fluorescent green construction paper. Loeffler, dressed all in black, wore a matching patch of bright green construction paper over her own left breast as well. Dozens of other students wore bright green patches over their breasts in support of Loeffler. A number of boys put bright green patches over their crotches as well

"Censoring me was a ridiculous act," Loeffler explained to the Chicago Tribune, "so I countered with an equally ridiculous act."

Some 40 students demonstrated their support for Loeffler in front of the school, carrying signs that read "Wheeling Censors Art." Principal Dottie Sievert put up with the protests (as long as students stayed off the grass, out of the street, and didn't miss any classes), but stood by her refusal to allow the bare breast to be shown at the school. "It may be a wonderful picture," Sievert said, "but it is not appropriate for a school."

"I thought people here were more honest and accepting," Loeffler told a Tribune reporter. "Obviously they aren't."

*     *     *

A strip club in Western Pennsylvania is offering drive-through shows for customers who don't want to get out of their cars in pursuit of sexual entertainment. Customers drive up to a window at the back of the Climax Gentlemen's Club in Delmont, where they show proof that they're over 18 and pay $5 per minute. Then they pull forward to a second window where they watch a nude dancer for as long as they've paid for. Most customers pay for just a few minutes, though some have paid as much as $100 for a 20-minute show.

The drive-through set-up has become popular with couples, groups of women, and college students -- people who may not want to spend $15 or $20 for admission to the club, or who feel more comfortable in their cars than in the group environment of a strip club. And, of course, there's more privacy in a car than in a club -- an advantage to couples and singles alike.

A Massive Disruption of the Current Social Order


"What a massive disruption of the current social order... This effectively decrees the end of all morals legislation. If, as the Court asserts, the promotion of majoritarian sexual morality is not even a legitimate state interest, none of the above-mentioned laws [laws against fornication, bigamy, masturbation, adultery, prostitution, adult incest, bestiality, and obscenity] can survive rational-basis review." -- Justice Antonin Scalia, dissenting from the majority ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, June 26, 2003

It could have been "just" a gay rights decision. It could have been nothing more than a decision ordering that homosexuals be treated equally with heterosexuals when it comes to state regulation of sexual practices. It could have been a ruling that the state of Texas could only outlaw sodomy between homosexuals if it applied those restrictions to heterosexuals as well.

That in itself would have been historic, a major victory for gay and lesbian rights after 17 years of legal campaigning, a cause for special celebration in gay pride events across the country.

But that's not what the Supreme Court chose to say on June 26 when it issued its anxiously awaited decision in Lawrence v. Texas. Instead, the Court chose to go much further than affirming the right of gays and lesbians to have sex on an equal basis with heterosexuals. Instead, the Court decided to challenge the very idea that government has any right whatsoever to tell consenting adults of all sexual orientations and all sexual inclinations how they may or may not have sex in the privacy of their homes.

"Were we to hold the [Texas prohibition of sodomy] invalid under the Equal Protection Clause," Justice Anthony Kennedy writes in his remarkable majority opinion, "some might question whether a prohibition would be valid if drawn differently, say, to prohibit [sodomy] both between same-sex and different-sex participants."

No, says Kennedy for the Court. The state has no business attempting "to define the meaning of the [sexual] relationship or set its boundaries." None at all, for consenting adults, unless there is "injury to a person or abuse of an institution the law protects." Why? Because, Kennedy says with more sexual appreciation than anyone could possibly expect from the inner sanctums of established government, it is essential that adults be able to "choose to enter upon this relationship [sex] in the confines of their homes and their own private lives and still retain their dignity as free persons." The venerable Sexual Freedom League could not have said it better.

Kennedy goes on to issue a veritable treatise on the importance of sex in human relations, and the history of sexual attitudes and legal constraints in this country. He cites the brilliant and radical work of John D'Emilio and Estelle Freedman ("Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America"). He notes that 19th-century sodomy prosecutions typically involved sex between adults and children, "predatory acts against those who could not or did not consent," not oral or anal sex between adults. He emphasizes that, prior to the 1970s, homosexuals were never singled out for criminal prosecution, that the very "concept of the homosexual as a distinct category of person did not emerge until the late 19th century." He notes the dramatic changes in sexual attitudes that have occurred since the 1960s and cites these in defense of his ruling. "Our laws and traditions in the past half century are of most relevance here," says Kennedy -- the "emerging awareness that liberty gives substantial protection to adult persons in deciding how to conduct their private lives in matters pertaining to sex."

Laws that "purport to do no more than prohibit a sexual act" actually "have more far-reaching consequences," Kennedy observes, "touching upon the most private human conduct, sexual behavior, and in the most private of places, the home." Sex is so fundamental a part of human relationships, says Kennedy, that, in the name of basic liberty, the state must leave individuals free to pursue it however they please. To do otherwise subjects individuals to a stigma that is "not trivial," he says, including the requirement that they register as sex offenders in at least four states.

Sex, Kennedy philosophizes in the passage most widely cited in media reports, is much more significant than the performance of a specific act. "When sexuality finds overt expression in intimate conduct with another person, the conduct can be but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring." The issue of sexual freedom, he says, is nothing less than one's "right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."

Then Kennedy really gets down to brass tacks. "The issue is whether the majority may use the power of the State to enforce [its 'religious beliefs, conceptions of right and acceptable behavior, and respect for the traditional family'] on the whole society through operation of criminal law." It may not, Kennedy declares unequivocally. "Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code."

John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Garner, the publicity-shunning appellants in Lawrence v. Texas, have the right to engage in sex however they please, without the intrusion of the state, says Kennedy, not only because homosexuals should be equal in standing to heterosexuals, but more fundamentally because "individual decisions by [both married and unmarried] persons, concerning the intimacies of their physical relationship, even when not intended to produce offspring, are a form of liberty protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment."

"Keep Your Laws Off My Body" reads the decades-old slogan that gay rights activists and sexual crusaders of all stripes have emblazoned on hundreds of thousands of protest signs, t-shirts, and bumper stickers. Anthony Kennedy could appropriately have been wearing just such a t-shirt under his judicial robes when he delivered his majority opinion, speaking for five of the nine Supreme Court Justices. (Sandra Day O'Connor, the sixth vote in the Court's 6-3 decision, restricted her concurrence to the issue of equal rights for homosexuals.)

Just as Brown v. Board of Education profoundly changed the legal standing of African-Americans in 1954, just as Roe v. Wade radically altered the circumstances of women in 1973, so does Lawrence v. Texas completely redefine the ongoing struggle for sexual freedom, autonomy, and self-determination in this country. The ruling is unambiguous, unrelenting, unqualified, and crystal clear. No group in society -- no matter how fervent, no matter how large -- has the right to impose its views about how people should and should not have sex on everyone else.

Scalia is right. All laws prohibiting fornication, masturbation, adultery, playing with sex toys, attending private swingers parties and s/m clubs, prostitution, bigamy, adult incest, bestiality, and obscenity must now be called into question and arguably overturned. Everyone who has long believed something along those lines need no longer feel the slightest bit hesitant to say so. It's not just a bunch of fringe perverts who believe in the importance of sexual freedom and self-determination, it's the majority of a very conservative United States Supreme Court. "Two adults who, with full and mutual consent from each other [engage in sex] are entitled to respect for their private lives. The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime."

Social conservatives from Antonin Scalia to Jerry Falwell are stunned and angered by the Court's decision, as well they ought to be. Just when they thought they had the Supreme Court in their hip pocket, look what happens. "This is probably as bad a day as the court has had on social issues since Roe v. Wade," Falwell told The New York Times. "A grand-slam homer for the other side," bemoaned Jay Sekulow of Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), who created a major conundrum for George Bush with his remarks about the case prior to the June 26 decision, was quick to say I-told-you-so. Tom Minnery of Focus on the Family, accused the Court of "pillaging its way through the moral norms of our country."

But while social conservatives go apoplectic and scurry around drafting constitutional amendments to prevent Lawrence v. Texas from turning the tables in the ongoing debate about gay marriage, libertarian conservatives like William Safire are unapologetically delighted with the ruling. "The Supreme Court has just slammed America's bedroom door," Safire wrote in his nationally syndicated column. "Libertarian conservatives like me who place a high value on personal freedom consider Lawrence v. Texas a victory in the war to defend everyone's privacy."

Indeed, Lawrence v. Texas places the social conservatives of the Religious Right in direct opposition to the libertarians who are often their political allies. Conservative politicians from George Bush down to your local Congressperson and State Representative are going to have to do some fancy footwork to hold their newly-divergent constituencies together. Meanwhile, everyone in America gets to be reminded that sexual diversity is as patriotically American as flying the stars and stripes. Ben Franklin is, without doubt, grinning from his grave.
Source: This article first appeared in Spectator Magazine.

Sluts Unite: The politics and art of the third San Francisco Sex Worker Film Festival


"It's easy to marginalize people who are unlike you, until you look them in the eye, eat a meal with them, and see that they are real, live, breathing human beings who are just trying to be happy." -- Marco Porsia, documentary cameraman

"The desire to live was desperate in my belly, and the stories I had hidden all those years were the blood and bone of it. To get it down, to tell it again, to make sense of something -- by god just once -- to be real in the world, without lies or evasions or sweet-talking nonsense." -- Dorothy Allison

"The truth will make you free." -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

There's something important about telling your story. About telling your story your own way, in your own voice, the way you feel it, the way you really feel it, down under the layers of other people's expectations, down under the desire to please, under the desire to be accepted and acceptable, respected and respectable.

When it comes to sex, where the rules are multiple, fierce, and ridiculously arbitrary, telling one's true story becomes especially important -- liberatory, even. The more a person's sexual reality deviates from The Way It Spozed to Be the more important telling the truth about sex becomes.

Imagine, then, the energy released and stereotypes challenged when a group of sexually scorned, marginalized, and deeply misunderstood people -- sex workers from around the world -- begin to creatively and passionately tell the truth about their lives, especially when their creative outpouring reaches critical mass and can be assembled into anthologies of writings, exhibits of paintings and photographs, and festival screenings of films and videos.

This is exactly what is happening within the rapidly expanding international movement for prostitutes' rights. In countries as diverse as India and Italy, Taiwan and the United States, sex workers are coming together to campaign for respect, improved working conditions, and equal rights with other workers. And, alongside more traditional political and legislative efforts, sex workers are increasingly using a full spectrum of art forms to tell the real stories of who they are and how they lead their lives, to articulate their political demands, and to call on the public to acknowledge and respect their fundamental humanity.

As the 51 films recently shown at the Third San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Video Festival demonstrate, there are many ways to use film and video to contrast the reality of prostitutes' lives with the presumptions most non-sex workers have about who sex workers are and how they live. Even more importantly, the films collected by Festival organizer and long-time prostitute rights advocate Carol Leigh (Scarlot Harlot) illustrate the wide variety of sex worker stories that are socially hidden and just waiting to be told -- ranging from transgendered women working the streets of Milan to mothers supporting themselves and their children in the red light district of Calcutta; from suburban women happily working in massage parlors to runaway teenagers trying to pay for basic food and shelter without being forced to return to their parents.

Indeed, the most striking thing about this collection of films by and about sex workers -- aside from their universally refreshing honesty and straightforwardness about the business of sex -- is the panoramic vision they paint of sex work. If you ever thought the lives, personalities, motivations, struggles, and joys of sex workers around the world (or around the corner) could be lumped into two or three (or ten or twelve) categorizable "types," the Festival's two-day cram course in sex worker cinematography will forever disabuse of you such simplistic notions. And if you think sex workers are nothing more than a pitiful band of powerless, confused, and abused women needing to be saved from themselves by condescending big brothers and moralizing older sisters, the fiery, articulate, and often politically astute women who are the subjects (and often the creators) of these films will quickly rid you of those misconceptions as well.

Much like sex work itself, the films of the latest San Francisco Sex Worker Film Festival are at once enlightening and disorienting, inspiring and disturbing, an emotional and informational whirlwind of the first order. At one moment, we happily watch ex-sex-worker-now-college-film-instructor Julianna Piccillo tell the story ("I Was a Teenage Prostitute") of how she lied about her age to get a job at a massage parlor in suburban Levittown, Pennsylvania, naively thinking she would be rubbing people's backs. When she discovered that she was expected to rub the cocks of her customers as well as their backs, and that she could make a good deal more than minimum wage doing it, she was surprised, but hardly distressed. "I was a teenage prostitute," Piccillo prints on screen at the start of her film. "And I didn't have a pimp or a drug problem," she adds. "And I liked it," she finally affirms.

"Jerking off guys for a few hours a week -- there are a lot worse things you can do in life," Piccillo tells an appreciative audience largely composed of fellow sex workers and friends of the family, in the discussion following her film. "I was being rewarded for being a slut and it was really quite fun." For Piccillo, sex work was an avenue for sexual exploration, personal empowerment, and a way to make a lot more money than working at Burger King.

Moments later, however, in her films "Deconstructing Crack Ho" and "Swallow," Ariel Lightningchild is telling quite a different story -- what it's like to run away from an abusive, drug-ridden home and try to survive on the street with the harsh realities of crack cocaine, racism, negative body image, and the being intensely marginalized by "respectable" society. "My story is not represented by the celebratism of the sex-positive prostitutes movement," Lightningchild insists harshly.

When, in much the same spirit, Maria Beatty and Margie Schnibbe's "Let the Punishment Fit the Child" takes viewers on a wrenchingly surreal journey through the emotional horror of an abusive, eroticized mother-child relationship, the painful tale is soon balanced by a bevy of short films ("Scrub," "Mashed Potatoes and Gravy Meditation," "A Woman's Place Is in the Kitchen") that playfully depict cooking and even the most mundane housework as delightfully erotic when approached with the proper attitude and imagination.

Sex and sex work can be fun, fulfilling, lucrative, and delightfully transgressive we are told by some Sex Worker Film Festival contributors. Sex and sex work can be painful, destructive, and dangerous, we are told by others. The realities of sex work, it would seem, cannot be reduced to simple polarities of good/bad, empowerment/degradation, or enlightenment/abuse. Forget the anti-prostitution crusaders and the Broadway-show romantics. Here are the realities of sex work, straight from sex workers' mouths, eyes, ears, cocks, and cunts. Joy one minute, pain the next, not unlike the lives of people who earn their livings in more socially acceptable ways, except that sex workers must also deal with the consequences of being legally and socially under the table.

Not surprisingly, many of the Festival's films focus on that important exception -- issues of violence, illegality, and the consequences of being socially ostracized. These are, after all, primary issues for sex workers, even if they're generally ignored by mainstream films that use sex work backdrops. "NHI: No Humans Involved" documents an art show organized to protest the refusal of San Diego police to diligently investigate a rash of sexual assaults and the murder of 45 sex workers between 1985 and 1992. ("No humans involved" was the term used by the police for the cases they dismissed as "misdemeanor murders" of biker women and sex workers.)

"aka Kathe" tells a brutal story of family violence surrounding the murder of a Tucson Mexican-American sex worker. "Adventures in the Sin Trade" addresses issues of feminism, personal empowerment, class, and race, through the eyes of articulate San Francisco sex work activists Veronica Monet and Siobahn Brooks, among others. "1-900-ASIANPRINCESS" is an amusing tale of how one very clearheaded, no-nonsense outcall sex worker takes very effective charge of three progressively rowdy, abusive, and threateningly dangerous young clients. "Miss Erochica's Burlesque Diary" depicts a Japanese erotic dancer's determination to incorporate the art of classic burlesque into her exotic performances.

In addition to this array of short subjects, several artfully-produced feature-length dramas and documentaries at the Festival dealt with a number of sex work issues in more depth Two extraordinary films, "Tales of the Night Fairies" and "Licensed Prostitutes: Apocalypse," bring word of powerful sex worker political movements in India and Taiwan not widely known in the U.S. "Tales of the Night Fairies" is the remarkable story of the Durbar Women's Collaborative Committee (DMSC), an organization of 60,000 sex workers in Calcutta and West Bengal, India. In addition to actively campaigning for the decriminalization of prostitution in India, DMSC (run entirely by sex workers and their children) operates a network of 33 health clinics and a cooperative banking system. The group sponsors a cultural troupe that uses elaborate dramatic and dance productions to bring issues of prostitute rights to the public, a "companions collective" of outspoken and supportive regular clients, and a network of self-regulatory oversight boards that work to keep minors and unwilling adults out of the sex work trade. Watching a series of DMSC women (and one man) of all ages adamantly argue their case in rapid-fire Bengali, mixing humor and playfulness with obvious strength and determination, one can only be inspired by the combination of personal strength and political clout these previously disenfranchised people have achieved through persistent and passionate political organizing.

"Licensed Prostitutes: Apocalypse" is the equally impressive story of Taiwan's Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters (COSWAS) and its two-year campaign to maintain a long-standing system of prostitute licensing in the city of Taipei when the system is attacked by conservative business interests. Striking footage of thousands of sex workers and supporters marching in the streets, confronting police, and demanding to be heard by mainstream politicians demonstrates the possibilities of prostitutes achieving real political power through collective action. And, alongside the outspoken women of Calcutta, the scene in which one prostitute advocate refuses to be cowed by the moral indignity of an irate housewife ("Your marriage is a long-term rice bowl; mine is a temporary one," she shouts back at the scowling woman) provides a model of standing up to antisexual moralists everywhere.

The Festival's feature-length dramatic films provided equally enlightening portrayals of the emotional aspects of sex work, noticeably distinct from the standard depictions of Hollywood sex worker fare. "Princesa" is Director Henrique Goldman's moving true story of a young Brazilian transsexual who moves to Italy and becomes involved in the circus-like transgendered streetworker sex scene of Milan. Francesca's sometimes friendly, sometimes competitive, interactions with other street workers, her affectionate but troubled relationship with the woman she works for, and her attempt to maintain a traditional live-in relationship when a client falls in love with her, are portrayed with sympathy and complexity. Ingrid de Souza, a non-professional actor, plays the title role magnificently.

"Rub and Tug," a lower-budget drama about three women who work at a massage parlor, their relationships with each other, and their dealings with the parlor's owner and manager, effectively dramatizes the situation of many women who do this type of sex work. One woman is trying to put enough money together to open a massage parlor of her own, another is dealing with a boyfriend who has trouble accepting her work, the third is an immigrant who is desperately searching to find a man she can marry before she has to go back to the family she is supporting in Asia. Again, in contrast with the deprecating or romanticized oversimplifications of mainstream sex work dramas, the women and their concerns are portrayed with subtlety and compassion.

By providing a venue where realistic work by and about sex workers can be shown, by offering the public insight into the real issues and concerns of sex workers around the world, by publicizing the real political power being attained by organized sex workers in some countries, and by simply serving as a gathering place for dozens of articulate and creative sex workers, the Third San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Video Festival takes a big step forward in giving voice to a group of people whose issues and concerns have been widely ignored by a misunderstanding and disapproving populace. Perhaps, as more and more sex workers tell their stories in film, in written stories, and in visual art, their lives, their concerns, and their basic humanity will come to be better understood and respected in the years ahead.

Source: This article first appeared in Spectator Magazine.

The Art of Sex


"Art is the search for meaning, the experience of meaning made visible. In a work of art, soul meets soul; essence meets essence. Art is... the continuous removal of veils in order to expose the soul -- the individual soul, the common soul, the universal soul." -- Tom Millea, photographer

"Poetry... is the manifestation/translation of a vision, an illumination, an experience.... One primary responsibility on the part of the poet [is] that he tell the truth... as beautifully, as amazingly, as he can; that he ignite his own sense of wonder; that he work alchemy within the language." -- Lenore Kandel, poet

Art and sex. Together. The mixture of the two. Think about it.

What happens when we apply the language of art, the language of fine art, to the subject of sex? Hard to imagine, isn't it? We don't generally put art and sex in the same breath, in the same sentence, in the same room, in the same part of town. Indeed, some say that sex and fine art are antithetical by their very natures and therefore should be kept apart, that the introduction of sex -- which is low and unclean -- somehow sullies anything in the realm of fine art -- which is high and virtuous. In 2002, the New York State Board of

Regents, responding to a petition from the Museum of Sex for recognition as a non-profit artistic institution, proclaimed that the very name "Museum of Sex" was ludicrous, that the subject of sex would "defame" and "ridicule" the essential concept of what a museum was all about.

Why does our culture keep the idea of sex and the idea of fine art so far apart? All the other grand aspects of life -- the other grand dilemmas of life -- are familiar and well-respected subjects for artists of all disciplines.

Love, traditionally so close to sex, is a veritable home base for artistic inspiration. What more appropriate subject could there be for art than love? Great paintings, great novels, great poetry, great sculpture, great photography -- there are dozens, hundreds, of examples of each that address one aspect or another of love, inspiring praise and wonder from all strata of society.

The same is true of art and beauty, whose interface we take for granted -- a time-honored artistic convention, beyond question, beyond reproach. Art and joy, art and tragedy, art and religion, art and death -- all of these connections we honor and encourage.

We apply the language of art to all the fundamental issues of being alive, all the great wonders of life, all the great mysteries. We invite art to offer us insight into the complexity of what it means to be alive and to be human, and we are enriched, expanded, and grateful when it does. Art helps us to understand ourselves, our place in the world, our place in the universe. It adds depth and subtlety, complexity and nuance, to how we see ourselves, our lives, and the people around us. It lifts us beyond the mundane, beyond the temptation to be simplistic, beyond kitsch. It reminds us about what is important, about the questions that the noise of daily life and the assault of facile media too easily shout into the background.

Indeed, it's the desire to say something meaningful about life's big issues, to express some deep feeling, to convey some vital experience, that inspires the creation of most great art, and these artistic expressions speak to us in ways that are simply not available through other means of communication. We learn things from art -- whether it be visual or verbal, paintings or novels, photos or poems -- that we cannot learn from scientific treatises, from newspaper reports, from documentary narratives, from statistical analyses of quantifiable data, even from counselors and therapists.

All of this vital insight, all of this enlightening perspective, all of this subtle wisdom, is denied us in relation to sex when we decree, formally or informally, that fine art and sex must have nothing to do with each other. Without a cultural base of true sexual art -- work that is genuinely both sexual an artistic -- the ways we think about sex and the ways we think about ourselves as sexual people become stale, repetitive, and trivialized.

Because we live in a culture that is obsessed with sex, a culture that is loaded to the gills with flip sexual references and innuendoes, we are flooded with messages that collectively encourage us to believe that sex is trivial and superficial, that sex is nothing more than a compulsion (at worst), or an amusement (at best). Advertising, television, Hollywood, and commercial pornography all share this light-hearted, uncomplicated view of sex. It is the view of sex that most people want to hear. It is the view of sex that sells a seemingly infinite range of commercial products. It is the view of sex that fits most comfortably into our sexual fantasies, and therefore is most pleasing and effective when we want to masturbate.

But art is not about selling commercial products and art is not primarily about turning us on and getting us off. Not that there's anything wrong with sexual material whose main intent is to make our times of masturbation more enjoyable. But this is a different function from what we generally ask of art.

What we want from art is that it tell the truth about its subject, and tell that truth in an illuminating way -- as both photographer Tom Millea and poet

Lenore Kandel suggest in the quotes above. We don't ask a photograph or a novel about grief to help us grieve better, faster, or more intensely. We ask it to convey something about grief, to tell us something about grief, that we don't already know. Or, perhaps, to portray grief in a way that is so clear, so powerful, so accurate, that the portrayal resonates with something inside us and therefore helps us see something that we didn't know was there, or see something differently from how we saw it before. We read a story or a poem, we see a painting or a photograph, and it gives us language that we didn't have before to understand what we have been experiencing. "Yes," we say, "that's it. That's what I feel. That's what I have felt." And as a result we grow.

God knows, we can use all the help we can get to see and understand our sexuality more thoroughly, which makes the presence -- and the absence -- of artful examination of sex -- all the more important.

Even though it has always been, and continues to be, an uphill battle socially and politically, the last fifty years have seen the slow, painful emergence of some truly illuminating artistic perspectives on sex. In literature, there was the groundbreaking work of D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller, two writers who directly and truthfully portrayed sex, not as some idealized fantasy, but in the matrix of the real confusions, fears, and conflicts that were at the core of their respective sexual worlds.

For telling the truth about sex, for refusing to dilute either the importance of sex or its complexity, both Miller and Lawrence were attacked as immoral, and ridiculed as insignificant hacks. For decades, this writing, now acknowledged as among the finest English prose of the twentieth century, could not be published in the U.S. for fear of subjecting its publishers to obscenity prosecution. Eventually, of course, the work of both Miller and Lawrence was indeed published and successfully defended in court, and the idea that it was artistically legitimate to write so frankly and directly about sex became accepted in even the most established literary circles.

As a result, many others have written eloquently and perceptively about sex, speaking their own sexual truths, confirming the sexual realities of thousands, millions, of readers. Gore Vidal, Lenore Kandel, Dorothy Allison, Marco Vassi, John Berger, Monique Vittig come to mind, but there are hundreds of others. Collectively, these writers about sex have built a sex-literary foundation from which truly thoughtful, complex sexual fiction continues to spring.

In the world of visual art, it has been more difficult for sex and fine art to establish widely accepted cultural ground. In 1968, Betty Dodson pioneered a monumental show of powerful sexual drawings -- an exhibit of beautiful images that depicted couples being sexual in no uncertain terms. Her drawings were exhibited in the heart of New York's respectable Madison Avenue gallery world, and well received by critics and the public alike. A subsequent show of her work, however, celebrating women masturbating, proved more than the established New York art world could handle. The show was condemned critically, a blow from which both Dodson and mainstream New York art have yet to recover.

In the realm of fine art sexual photography, there has been an even stronger objection to the idea of sexual fine art. Although there has been a truly monumental outpouring of thoughtful, brilliant work by dozens of skilled photographers, particularly in the last ten or fifteen years, little of this photography has been shown in mainstream galleries and museums, or published by mainstream presses. As a result, the contribution this work could be offering toward our understanding and appreciation of sex has been extremely limited.

A pioneering retrospective of celebrity photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's work, including a generous sampling of Mapplethorpe's intensely explicit homoerotic s/sexual imagery, was shown at New York's respected Whitney Museum in 1988 without major fuss or critical condemnation. A similar Mapplethorpe retrospective in 1990, however, became the subject of intense political controversy, and even police intervention. The Corcoran Museum in Washington, D.C. canceled a scheduled Mapplethorpe exhibit under the heat of right-wing Congressional criticism, setting off a national debate about Mapplethorpe's work and, more generally, about publicly-funded art that deals directly with sex.

The Mapplethorpe exhibit did find homes in respected museums in Boston, Berkeley, and Cincinnati, but seven of the exhibit's photos were physically seized by police when the show opened in Cincinnati, and the curator of the museum was arrested and charged with obscenity. (He was later acquitted.) So, while the Whitney Museum's courage in showing Mapplethorpe's sexual work was a real breakthrough in legitimizing the intersection of fine art photography and sex, the subsequent controversies served to warn other galleries and museums of potentially dire consequences if they ever dared to exhibit equally sexual work, regardless of how artful or thoughtful that work might be. In the wake of the Mapplethorpe flap, and in the increasingly antisexual political climate of the 1990s, fine art sexual photography remained most decidedly outside the boundaries of anything resembling mainstream legitimacy.

In an attempt to draw attention to marginalized, but beautiful and important, fine art sexual photography, I began work five years ago on a book that I hoped would be a testimonial to the possibilities and the importance of this body of work. That book, "Photo Sex: Fine Art Sexual Photography Comes of Age," has just been published by Down There Press. "Photo Sex" brings 115 sexual photographs by 31 photographers together in one volume in the hope that the collective power and beauty of these images can demonstrate to the non-sexual art world that it is indeed possible to combine unambiguous sexual focus with high artistic quality and intent in the photographic medium. Note: Mark I. Chester, one of the book's contributors, has posted information about Photo Sex -- including short notes about each of the photographers and a gallery of 31 images from the book -- on his website at mchester.best.vwh.net/ps.html

The verdict is still out on how our culture feels about the integration of art and sex in the visual realm, and most pointedly in the realm of photography. One thing is sure, however: As long as we continue to dismiss and punish artists who choose to honor sex as an important, fascinating, and complex aspect of life, the more impoverished all of our sexual perspectives and sexual lives will be.

Sex Work for Couples: Three is Not Always a Crowd


There was a time when pornography was exclusively, or almost exclusively, for men. It was men who bought the magazines, who watched the movies. Women, it was thought, weren't interested in that kind of sexual stimulation, at least not interested enough to actually go out and pay for it.

Over the past ten or fifteen years, as women began to claim and celebrate their sexual desires more openly, the nature of the pornography market has changed. Couples, as well as single men, now rent and buy porn frequently, and not just a few couples out there on the fringe. Porn producers know that they have a significant "couples market," and many produce films with a couples audience in mind. Candida Royalle's Femme Productions has been quite successful producing films intended to appeal primarily to women. Magazines like On Our Backs and Girlfriends have demonstrated that there is significant interest in lesbian porn as well.

The shift from "men only" to "men and couples" now seems to be occurring in the world of sex work as well. Over the past few years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of couples who are ready to take the step of actually going out and hiring a sex worker. Sometimes it's the woman who has the fantasy of being with another woman, or seeing her partner with another woman. More often, it's the man who wants to see his partner with a woman, or wants to be with two women at the same time. Sometimes it's both the man and the woman who are drawn to the idea of a threesome. Wherever the initiative lies, more and more couples are taking the leap of turning the "other woman" fantasy into reality by actually picking up the phone and arranging a paid rendezvous.

Trinity is a 30-year-old sex worker in San Francisco. She advertises for customers online, and specifically notes that she is available to work with couples. She charges $350 for the first hour, $250 per hour after that. Per person. She prefers to work with clients, both couples and individuals, for several hours at a time, so a couple that wants to get together with her has to be ready to back up their fantasy with a real financial investment. Nevertheless she says that "lately most of the people who contact me are looking for couples work."

Veronica Monet, also from San Francisco, is an experienced sex worker, lecturer, and prostitute rights activist. She, too, gets calls regularly from couples. "I've worked with couples in their 50s and 60s; I've worked with a couple who were 19," she says. Most of her couple clients are in their 30s or 40s.

"I get all these loving couples," she beams appreciatively. "The degree of devotion they have for each other, and the honesty between them is enough to bring tears to your eyes."

Both Trinity and Veronica say that there has been a dramatic increase in demand for sex work from couples over the last few years. "A year or two ago," says Trinity, "there were only six or seven other people advertising for couples. Now most people realize there are couples who want sex workers."

Sex work with couples, says Trinity, is much more demanding than working with individual clients. "It takes a lot of time, a lot of work, to make sure that everything feels right. Couples may say, 'Oh, let's have a ménage-à-trois because it's cool,' but the reality of it isn't always that pleasurable if people haven't thought clearly about what they're doing."

Sex work or no sex work, three is a tricky number when sex is involved. In any threesome, it's easy for the energy between two people to take off, with the third person feeling excluded and left behind. Maintaining emotional balance, maintaining some kind of sexual balance, dealing with underlying feelings of jealousy and competition -- all these take a good deal of sensitivity and awareness in a sexually charged situation. In fantasy, of course, everything proceeds blissfully. But reality is much more difficult to manage. What does it take for a paid encounter between a couple and a sex worker to be a positive experience?

For both Trinity and Veronica, the first step is making sure that it's both the woman and the man who want this experience. "I talk to both the man and the woman on the phone before we meet," Trinity explains. "I definitely want to talk to the woman, to make sure there's a connection, that she's really involved and not just being dragged along. I want to know that she's an active participant, that it's not a forced situation. If possible I try to meet the couple over drinks or a snack first so that we can become familiar with each other and each other's energies. I give couples the opportunity to say this is not what they want to do, even though that's a financial risk for me. I wouldn't want to be involved in something with people who are not attracted to me or not clear that they really want to do this. After we meet, I ask if they want to go forward, and I have to have a yes from both of them."

Veronica, likewise, screens couples for what she calls the "coercion factor." "The woman who's really on board with this," she notes, "needs to have a high level of confidence in herself, otherwise there's going to be a lot of jealousy and competition. Typically, the women I work with are more attractive and more confident than the men."

Aside from clear consent, a second element essential for a successful threesome is that everyone's clear about their needs and their limits.

"I tell couples up front that they need to know what their boundaries are," says Trinity. "Am I allowed to fuck your husband? Are you allowed to go down on me? Am I allowed to go down on you? What are your safe sex concerns? I need to know what's allowed before I walk into a situation with two people I've never met before. Most couples haven't thought about any of that beforehand."

Most commonly, it's the man who's most excited about the threesome, and the woman who needs to be drawn out, to be made comfortable, at least the first time around. Maybe she's never been sexual with a woman before. Almost certainly, she's never hired a sex worker before. It's easy for a woman in this situation to feel intimidated or nervous.

Veronica is very clear about how the scenario needs to proceed. "I tell the guy, look, the way you handle this is going to determine whether you ever get to do this again, so here's how we're going to do it: She's the queen; you're peripheral. I'm going to be into her. You're going to be into her. Everything else is secondary."

"I like to take charge," Veronica explains, "so the woman can be in a familiar, receptive role. I might start with a hug, with some kisses on her neck. I might pick her up and lie her down on the bed. I might do some light finger-stroking to eroticize her whole body. It starts out just between me and her, with the guy watching." Once the woman relaxes and starts to enjoy herself, then the man can be brought into the scene. Even then, it's important that no one feel pressured, and that everyone's limits be respected."

Trinity agrees. She talks about her favorite couple, a man and woman in their 40s, married for 22 years, with two kids. The man was much more interested in having sex outside the marriage than the woman. "The arrangement they had," Trinity explains, "was that he's allowed to have sex with other women, but only if he pays for it. She knows when he has sex with other women for money. He comes home and shares his experience with his wife, and they use that as erotic candy for their own sexual experiences. It's brilliant. It's honest. It's clear. They're both satisfied, and they're really in love after 22 years. I hold that as one of the highest relationships I've seen."

Trinity's connection with this couple was, she says, "one of the most positive threesomes I've ever experienced. The woman began by wearing a mask, but after twenty minutes, she felt comfortable enough to take it off. She kissed me on the mouth. Her husband was amazed." Later, the husband became involved, had "full-on sex" with both Trinity and with his wife. Trinity remembers both her and the man going down on the woman at the same time. "She was a little nervous, though, not fully into it, so we didn't push her. Mostly I did light brushing touches all over her body, her labia.

"They clearly had discussed what was allowed and what they each could handle. They knew their boundaries which made it easy for me to just be myself. There was a lot of honesty between them. The whole encounter felt whole, felt complete. Nobody was demanding. Everybody just let it flow. It was like a dance between all three of us."

"I still get emails from both of them," Trinity laughs, "saying that they're thinking of me." The man says that seeing Trinity brought him and his wife closer together. The woman says she still smiles whenever she thinks about their time together.

A session with an experienced sex worker can also be a chance to learn new sexual possibilities. Trinity tells how she showed one woman how to do anal sex with her husband. "We bent him over and were both playing that this is how we do anal sex on your husband. I was teaching her and she was fascinated. She was getting that I was a professional and was in awe. I showed her how to massage the area, to stimulate everything, to use lots of lube. How to enter, how to find the prostate. I showed her how to jack him off while being behind him, all that kind of stuff."

Not all of Trinity's experience with couples has been so idyllic, however. She tells the story of another couple that she saw several times before she decided to break off the connection.

"The man called initially. He had everything all lined up. He talked to me on the phone for an hour and a half, explaining everything they wanted to do, what he wanted me to do to his wife. He had every detail figured out, which should have been a red flag for me, but it wasn't.

"It was a fun time, but after I left I felt really exhausted. There was so much going on in the room that night. The man was very invested in his wife being with a woman and liking it. It felt like he was pushing me off on her, and pushing her off on me. She and I had a good time, but I also had the impression that she was acting a lot. The man was watching the whole time, but it was almost like he was the conductor. The husband was much more into it than his wife. Each time we got together, we would kind of perform for him. He would watch, and sometimes direct. Then I would do him and go home.

"I began to feel very uncomfortable with this couple. I felt there were a lot of secrets going on, desires the man had that his wife couldn't satisfy. After a while, I think I became a threatening presence in their relationship. He was trying to open up their sexual world, and she was trying to figure out how to deal with him, trying to find things to please him."

"Working with couples can wear me out," Trinity says. She's decided to stop doing couples work, at least for the time being. "I make a lot of money, but not enough to have to deal with all the emotional material that can be flying around. If all my couples had their issues figured out it would be different. Often the outsider catches a lot of things that the people deep inside the relationship aren't seeing, and that can make it challenging to not interfere. You have to just be there, keep your mouth shut, and let people follow their own paths, unless they solicit your advice."

The gender imbalance, between the men's fantasies and the women's, also bothers Trinity. "A lot of couples work centers around the men getting off and getting their fantasies brought to life," Trinity notes. "I'd like to see women get more of their own fantasies acted out. The women are almost at the altar, worshipping their men's pleasure and not paying a lot of attention to their own."

As women feel increasingly entitled to have and to satisfy their own sexual fantasies and desires, threesomes with a female sex worker may be only the first of many steps toward wider possibilities. What about the woman in a couple who wants to be with two men, or the woman who fantasizes about watching her husband be sexual with another man? What about women hiring sex workers, male or female, on their own?

A growing women's and couples' market seems to exist for sex work, even as it does for pornography. The next step is for sex providers to take notice of that fact. There are, indeed, increasing numbers of male sex workers who advertise for women and couple clients. In the words of Chairman Mao, let a thousand flowers bloom.

As Universal as it Gets


"Security is mostly a superstition; it does not occur in nature. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing." -- Helen Keller

Over five years ago, in November 1999, I wrote a Comes Naturally column noting that serious discussions of transgender issues had begun to appear regularly in mainstream media. "It seems that every time I turn around there's something new in the mainstream media about transsexuals," I said then. "I'm not talking about transsexual hookers showing up on TV talk shows. I'm talking about newspaper articles, TV news features, and films addressing the real issues raised by transgendered people in serious, respectful, even positive ways."

Since that time, awareness and discussion of issues related to gender mutability have become a common part of the American cultural landscape. Films like "The Crying Game" and "Boys Don't Cry" have enjoyed widespread distribution throughout the U.S. Hilary Swank received an Academy Award for her portrayal of Brandon Teena in "Boys Don't Cry." A TV series "The Education of Max Bickford," included a central transgender character, while less pivotal transgender characters have made their appearance in such popular TV serials as "Ally McBeal," "NYPD Blue," and Law & Order." Gender issues have even penetrated the arcane world of reality TV. In A&E's recent "Role Reversal," two men and two women, coached by a team of gender experts, were filmed living as the opposite sex for one month, both within the safe confines of their New York apartment and in the outside world. "The experience teaches our subjects about themselves and the world around them," A&E notes in its promotion of the two-hour show, "including the darker side of gender bias and social expectation."

But even as there has been increasing attention and genuine concern for people who find that their physical bodies don't conform with their core gender identities, little attention has been paid to the feelings and dilemmas of the people most closely connected to transgender men and women -- their spouses, lovers, children, parents, and extended families.

The issues faced by the families of people undergoing gender transition are almost archetypal in their depth. There are few aspects of how we see ourselves, how we see the people around us -- indeed, how we see the entire world -- that are as fundamental to our sense of basic order and stability as gender. Gender assumptions and expectations permeate every aspect of our daily existence so thoroughly that we don't even notice their presence until something comes along that throws those assumptions and expectations into question. In a world where so many traditions are in flux, the urge to hold onto gender as one last bastion of safety, one presumably unassailable edifice of fixed reality in a rapidly changing world, is in many ways more compelling than ever.

When something assaults that notion of gender predictability -- out there in the world or, infinitely more powerfully, within the sanctity of our homes and families -- we are thrown into a very primary form of upheaval -- the same sort of fundamental fear, confusion, and cognitive dissonance we all know so well from watching the World Trade Center towers crumble to the ground. "This cannot possibly be happening," we think, even as events force us to acknowledge that they are happening very much indeed. Reality has penetrated years, decades, generations, of denial. We are going to have to deal with issues we would do anything to sweep under the rug. In a real and powerful way, nothing will ever be the same again.

These are the issues at the heart of "Normal," HBO's recent film for TV that premiered on March 16. Written and directed by Jane Anderson (an adaptation of her play, "Looking for Normal"), "Normal" features Tom Wilkinson as Roy Applewood, a very proper, church-going, mid-Western factory worker and family man who decides to resolve his conflicted gender identity issues by transitioning into a woman. Jessica Lange costars as Roy's wife, Irma, who struggles to deal with this radical and totally unexpected change in the man who has been her beloved husband for 25 years. Hayden Panettiere as Roy and Irma's pubescent daughter, and Joseph Sikora as their rock roadie son, complete the family that is brought face-to-face with all its gender issues -- and, more fundamentally, with the question of what happens when life-as-we-know-it, life-as-we-always-thought-it-would-be, is radically and suddenly overthrown..

To its credit, "Normal" presents these issues as complex and deserving of respect, rather than trivializing them, or titillating us with the peculiar pleasure of watching people lost in dilemmas that (we imagine) will never be our own. Anderson pointedly refuses to reduce the conflicts of the Applewood family to moral issues of what's right and what's wrong (the pastor who addresses the transgender issue in that light is portrayed as a simpleton), or to emotional issues of who's right and who's wrong. We are not asked to choose between Roy's desire to have the woman's body and identity he has wanted for so long, and Irma's desire not to lose the man she has loved for so many years. We are not asked to side with one of them against the other. We are asked instead to care about both of them, equally -- to acknowledge that, when fundamental needs conflict within a family, great pain results, not because anyone is doing anything wrong, but simply because deep pain is a fundamental part of living life in a genuine way.

While the film's early scenes play almost as soap opera caricatures and the main characters outside the Applewood family (their clueless pastor and Roy's pathetic boss) are disappointingly two-dimensional, "Normal" develops admirable subtlety, complexity, and depth as we witness the upsets, confusions, and conflicts of the Applewood family in increasing detail. Irma, initially so horrified at what Roy is doing that she throws him out of the house, wrestles with her conflicts over time, eventually coming to understand, respect, and even appreciate Roy's changes, despite the fact that they remain intensely painful and disappointing for her. Her ability to do this is directly tied to Roy's ability and willingness to give Irma the understanding and respect that she initially cannot give to him, to appreciate how deeply Irma is traumatized by his profound life decision, and to be emotionally generous with her as she goes through her own profound gender-related transition.

Daughter Patty Ann, immediately and enthusiastically supportive of her dad ("I think it's cool," she responds after he belatedly tells her of his plans), becomes something of a role model of acceptance to her mother (a situation not uncommon in real families dealing with gender transition). Angry, arrogant, insolent son Wayne comes around to accept his "freak" of a dad and to open to a kinder, more human side of himself, though not before going through his own wrenching, violent struggle.

It's a story of the triumph of deep love over trauma, prejudice, and fear, but not in some simplified, happily-ever-after way. Irma comes to accept and appreciate Roy/Ruth, but not because her deep feelings of loss and pain disappear. They simply become emotions she is able to carry without crippling resentment because she accepts them as a part of real life, as necessary if she wants to keep the person she loves central to her life. When Wayne archly asks her what she gets for herself out of standing by Roy, she answers simply, "what I get is his love for me."

"Normal" pointedly contrasts the struggles, conflicts, and complex emotional interactions of the Applewoods with the rigid, superficial, happy-face veneer that the other members of their community enforce on each other with great vigor. The difficulties that Roy's gender shift has brought to his family have clearly raised them above empty gestures into a connection with each other far more meaningful and emotionally rewarding than what they had before. The message is not only that great pain can be endured with the help of great love and generosity, but also that fundamental life upheavals can transform us for the better by forcing us to become genuine -- genuine with ourselves, and genuine with the people who are closest to us.

As one woman (whose husband came out as a crossdresser at the age of 57) notes in "Trans Forming Families," Mary Boenke's exceptional collection of stories about families dealing with transgender issues, "the experience of dealing with any special circumstance has the potential for difficulties, but also possibility for many positive results. The Chinese character for crisis also means opportunity."

Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of "Normal" is that it presents the issues of a family undergoing gender transition as being not so different from the issues that face the rest of us. The specific issue of dealing with gender shift in an intimate and radical way may be limited to a relatively small number of families, but the underlying questions of how to deal with deep personal conflict, cataclysmic change, respect for personal differences, disappointment, and loss -- how to balance being true to ourselves with not wanting to bring unnecessary pain to the people around us -- these are matters that confront all families, all people, at one time or another. And the issue of breaking through artificiality to become our most authentic selves and to build deep, meaningful connections with the people who matter most to us -- complete with hardship, conflict, confusion, and pain -- is about as universal as it gets.

Source: This article first appeared in Spectator Magazine.

Fine Art Sexual Photography Comes of Age


Think of this book as both an announcement and an invitation.

It is an announcement that sex has come to be recognized by growing numbers of skilled and thoughtful photographers as an aspect of life fully deserving the attention and nuanced perspectives of fine art.

And it is an invitation to you, the viewer of these photographs, to experience some of the work that has been generated by that intersection of sexual awareness, artful insight, and photographic technique—an experience that may change what you think of both sex and photography, perhaps even what you think of yourself.

Given that more and more people see sex as an important and complex celebration of what it means to be fully alive, it's hardly surprising that increasing numbers of artists—photographers, perhaps, foremost among them—want to say something significant about that kind of sex through their art. If sex is about something much larger than a bunch of nerve endings in pursuit of physical release, if sex is not some devilish force threatening to overturn moral decency and social propriety, then sex begins to look like precisely the sort of profound human experience that has always been the subject of true artistic exploration, the sort of human experience that, indeed, needs the language and insight of artistic reflection to help us better understand both life and ourselves.

Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but gathering real momentum only in the 1990s, dozens of skilled and perceptive photographers have been producing a wide diversity of magnificent images of people engaged in sexual activity. These are images that have nothing to do with the repetitive, clichéd formulas of commercial pornography. Rather they are images that invite us to look at sex with wonder, laughter, passion, and tears, from a place of deep appreciation and respect.

That so little is known about this growing body of work is a testament to the sexual phobias of American culture in general, and the political, cultural, and sexual conservatism of gallery owners, book and magazine publishers, and museum curators in particular. Photographers whose work addresses sex respectfully are spurned by mainstream art venues for their sexual focus even as they are equally rejected by the sexual marketplace for their emotional and aesthetic depth.

Until recently, these sex art photographers have been largely isolated from one another—one of the unfortunate side-effects of social and artistic ostracism. But recently so many different photographers have begun to produce a wealth of thoughtful sexual imagery that they have begun to breach the barriers of social opprobrium, to view each others' work, and to gain inspiration and insight from each others' photographic experiments and explorations. Indeed, the growing body of sex-photographic work has already taken on the character of a distinct and significant new genre—work that builds and defines its own subculture of cohesive interests, styles, mannerisms, and photographic forms.

To be sure, there's nothing new or noteworthy about the simple act of taking photos of sex, or about publishing sexual images per se. Explicit images of sex have been popular and lucrative contraband from the very first days of photography, and these days it seems the entire world is positively abuzz over the abundance of sexual imagery available to one and all—children as well as adults, fundamentalists as well as unabashed hedonists, villagers in third-world countries as well as big-city cosmopolitans—at literally tens of thousands of unfathomably popular, hopelessly boilerplate, sex websites.

But fine art sexual photography is something else again, as unfamiliar an idea as the idea of pornography is commonplace. "Sex photos as fine art?" you may ask. "What could that possibly mean?" Or, perhaps, less politely: "You've got to be kidding!"

We so completely associate sexual photography with "adult" media that we have trouble even imagining that sexual photography can exist outside pornography's glitzy, titillating, rebellious glare. The idea that the thoughtful, complex sensibilities we associate with truly fine art can be directed unapologetically toward sex, through as dramatic and powerful a medium as photography, is alien enough to throw most of us into veritable fits of cognitive dissonance.

After all, art is high; sex is low. Art is subtle; sex is blatant. Art is refined; sex is crude. Art is public; sex is private. Art is beautiful; sex is, well... embarrassing. Or so we've been told by the cultural and moral gatekeepers of our society—a social order as frightened and confused by sex as it is obsessed and intrigued with it.

But over the last thirty years or so, the powerful antisexual subtext of our peculiarly pleasure-fearing U.S. worldview has been challenged, both publicly and privately, by literally tens of millions of increasingly explorative and outspoken everyday people—people whose sexual attitudes and experiences are noticeably more positive and friendly than those of the dour traditionalists. While the antisexualists continue to think of sex predominantly as an arena fraught with danger, shame, trauma, and disease, for more and more of us, sex is, first and foremost, a source of pleasure, joy, intimacy, tenderness, personal discovery, beauty, self-realization, wonder, and even transcendence. The old Calvinist notion that righteousness belongs to those who reject pleasure in favor of sacrifice, hard work, and reward in the Hereafter may be alive and well among the extremists of the Religious Right, but among mainstream Americans, this stern view of life has generally been displaced by the psychologically more sensible, more intuitively verifiable, philosophy that the truly Good Life welcomes and honors pleasure rather than pushing it aside—welcomes and honors, specifically, the pleasures of the body—welcomes and honors, more specifically yet, the deeply fulfilling pleasures of untrivialized sex.

It is from the soil of this positive, embracing relationship to sex that the new explosion of fine art sexual photography has sprung.

"Photo Sex" was conceived as a forum to bring some of this new sexual photography out of seclusion—to offer contemporary sexual photographers a respectful and appropriate venue through which to present their work to the world at large. By collecting a substantial sampling of fine art sexual imagery into a single volume, I wanted to call attention to both the existence and the quality of this new photographic form, to argue for the legitimacy and value of directly sexual art photography, and to challenge the cultural proscription that explicit photographic depiction of sex be restricted to, and constrained by, the unfortunate biases that dominate and distort the underground sexual marketplace.

The basic premise of this book is simple: that each of its images is a photo of sex in one form or another—a sexual photograph, rather than one that is more generally erotic or sensual. The sex in a given image may involve a single person, a couple, or a group; it may show kissing, dancing, touching, or sexual intercourse; it may be graphic or muted, passionate, tender, or humorous. But it is a photo of sex first and foremost, without obfuscation and without apology.

A second criterion for inclusion in this volume was that each photograph have something meaningful to say about sex, something more than simply documenting the fact that sex is happening and that we, as viewers, get to watch. Each photographer brings his or her own critical eye and sexual sensibility to the task of deciding what of sex to try to capture on film, and how that task should be accomplished. The intent and style of the 31 photographers represented here differ as dramatically from each other as Picasso differs from Monet. But they each have a point of view, something they want to say about the sexual moment they are freezing in time, even if that point of view might be difficult (or impossible) to put into words.

The final basic demand of each photograph included here was that the image have strong aesthetic impact—that the visual aspect of the image be significant and effective, aside from the image's sexual and emotional content.

I have made a point of having the images in "Photo Sex," collectively, be as inclusive and diverse as possible—both in the range of the people who are their subjects, and in the range of sexualities and sexual tastes they portray. The 115 images include images of middle-aged and older people as well as youth, heavy people as well as thin, disabled people as well as able-bodied, people representing a broad range of ages, genders, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and sexual interests. In general, I have avoided glamorized images in favor of photographs that show unpretentious people being sexual in genuine ways.

I think of these photographs as a testament to the fact that all sorts of "ordinary" people are truly sexy and sexual, not just the designated sexual icons of television, Hollywood, and commercial advertising, whose subliminal purpose is to convince the rest of us that we are not sexually adequate just the way we are. I hope these photos document, as well, the frequently-denied reality that the ways people choose to express their sexual natures—what gives them pleasure, what arouses them, what brings them joy and personal fulfillment—are as diverse as people themselves, a diversity that should be cause for celebration rather than fear.

Hopefully you will be able to identify with many of the subjects of these images, to see them as people who are, in many ways, very much like yourself, even if the ways they express themselves sexually may be quite different from your own sexual preferences and practices. Some of the images in this book will undoubtedly affect you more strongly than others. Some may confront or even offend you. It is not my intent to shock anyone with images of sexual practices that may be unfamiliar and therefore uncomfortable to view. On the other hand, I could not, with any sense of sexual or intellectual integrity, restrict the content of this book to images that everyone could view without any danger of discomfort—as if, in this culture, there's ever emotional safety in looking at photos of sex.

How we think of sex, and how we think of ourselves as sexual people, is shaped to no small degree by the images of sex and sexual attractiveness we see around us. Images that trivialize sex encourage us to relate to sex in simplistic ways. Images that portray sex as naughty and forbidden encourage us to think of sexual desire as inherently suspect and dangerous. Images that portray sex as joyous, loving, intimate, and ecstatic encourage us to think of sex as a source of warmth, pleasure, and emotional satisfaction. Images that portray sex as complex, intimate, profound, and mysterious encourage us to open ourselves to sex in all its depth and power.

Hopefully, the images collected here fall into the latter categories, calling us to respect, honor, and appreciate the very best of our own sexual selves, the potentially quite different sexual expressions of the people around us, and the almost unfathomable wonder and delight available to all of us when we embrace and celebrate our core sexual natures.

A Different America


Well, George Bush, John Ashcroft, Donald Wildmon, and Pat Robertson be damned, there are some pretty amazing and wonderful sexual things going on in this country -- enough to give this old sex evangelist real hope and encouragement. If my travels of the past two months are indicative of anything at all, sexual freedom, unorthodoxy, and creative self-expression are alive and thriving in nooks and crannies ranging from Oregon to Arizona, from Philadelphia to Seattle -- not to mention such mainstay haunts as New York, San Francisco, and the halls of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

I've spent the last two months on the road, publicizing my new book, "Photo Sex: Fine Art Sexual Photography Comes of Age." My little book tour, distinctly self-arranged and self-financed, has taken me to New York, Philadelphia, Tucson, Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland (Oregon). I've done signings at book stores, an art gallery, and various smart sex shops. I've spoken about Photo Sex and presented a slide show on fine art sexual photography at stores, a conference, a film festival, several sex-related lecture series, a benefit for medical marijuana, a dungeon, and a pan-sexual play party.

It was a wonderful series of trips and, for me, a much-needed shot in the arm about the state of sex in America. Here are some of the remarkable people and places I found on my deliciously sex-positive, decidedly all-American mini-tour:

John meets me at the airport in Tucson. He is one of the prime organizers of the Third Annual Tucson Sex Worker Arts Festival and my host in Tucson. John is a male escort. His clients include men, women, and couples. Recently, he tells me, his clients have been mostly men, which he attributes to women having less money as a result of the downturn in the economy.

John is 21, smart, organized, energetic, friendly, unpretentious. He likes Tucson and has made his peace with living there while he takes care of his prematurely senile grandmother, but all in all he'd rather be back in Montana, where he combined work as a cowboy with sex work and was very happy with his life. He's excited about the Festival and about the ways that sex workers are beginning to find community and get politically organized around the country. He informs me that sex workers in Las Vegas have recently organized a union It's something he'd like to see happen in Tucson. He says relations are pretty good between sex workers and the Tucson police, who generally leave sex workers alone as long as they don't make real nuisances of themselves. "We've helped them with some people who were doing really bad stuff, and they appreciate that," John explains. Bad stuff means things like robbing or cheating clients, or dealing heavy drugs.

John makes a decent living doing sex work, enough to cover his bills, although things get tight when his truck comes due for major repairs. As we're driving he gets a call from a new client who wants to know about rates, what he looks like, what he does. He gives out the information in a practiced, cheerful, matter-of-fact voice. He makes an appointment for 4:00 that afternoon, gives the caller directions to the apartment he uses for work, calls the two other people who share the apartment for sex work to tell them he's got a 4:00. He gives me a smile and a thumbs up, glad to have the work. His truck's been draining him financially lately, and November is a slow time of year. I ask him if he thinks the guy will show up. "Oh yeah," he nods. "Sounds like a scared kid. He'll be there."

We stop at a porn shop where John subs for other people a couple days a week and pick up condoms, porn movies, and lube for the party the Festival is throwing that night. He gives me a couple tubes of Eros, a German lube that he says is better than any other -- slippery, tasteless, water-based, and doesn't get sticky like the other water-based lubricants. When we get to his grandmother's place he gives me the master bedroom (his grandmother is away) which has its own bathroom attached. John sleeps in the guest room. A friend who's crashing is camped in the living room. John also gives me his grandmother's car to use for the three days I'm in town, and detailed directions to all the Festival events.

* * * * *

Carmen is a smart, exceptionally beautiful, 24-year-old pro-domme from Chicago. She performs a magnificent erotic fire dance at the big public Festival party on Saturday night, to the delight of hundreds of revelers who range from Festival attendees to staggering, wild-eyed UA students. She has paid her own air fare to Tucson and doesn't charge the Festival for her performance (knowing the Festival will be lucky if it can cover its basic expenses) because she's excited by the idea of a sex worker arts festival and was inspired when she attended the Festival in 2002. At a panel discussion on sex-related publishing that I give with Annie Sprinkle and prostitute rights activist Carol Leigh, Carmen challenges both Annie and Carol for offering what she thinks is an overly rosy portrait of sex work. She is keenly aware of the issues of race and class in the prostitutes rights movement and articulate about her concerns

After her performance at the big party, I go back to the house where she's staying and take gritty, flash-on-camera photos of her topping her boyish and appropriately devoted lover who has also flown to Tucson from Chicago for the festival. Carmen tells me that, before she goes back to Chicago, she's going down to LA. where a friend runs a dungeon where she can work for a couple of days to pay for her trip. She knows she can make good money pretty much wherever she goes, doing work that she enjoys and that leaves her feeling strong and in control of her life.

* * * * *

Darklady, a mainstay of the Portland BDSM and play party scene, offers to host a sex party while I'm in town, so I can give my slide show and tell people about Photo Sex. The party is at a big house in the country, about an hour's drive from town. The party's in the evening, but people have been told that if they want to hear me talk and show slides about fine art sexual photography, about Photo Sex, and about my own sexual photography with couples, they can come in the late afternoon. About forty people do just that. It's a friendly, smart, sexy group, mostly couples in their 40s. Many know each other from previous parties, which Darklady hosts regularly. I have given this presentation a number of times now, and can tell when an audience understands and appreciates what I'm saying about the importance of fine art sexual photography. This group of people does. They pay close attention to the images I show and ask interested, interesting questions about them. Quite a few buy copies of Photo Sex.

Later, the hot tub behind the house is crammed to capacity with people and playful conversation. The host couple, their 23-year-old daughter, Amanda, Amanda's husband, Tom, and eight or nine other people, are all hip to hip in the tub, laughing, gossiping, and telling stories about their various sexual and sex party experiences. It's all so natural and straightforward that it takes me a minute to remember that most families don't sit around naked -- parents and adult kids together -- celebrating their sexual high times together with a group of friends. The spirit is unmistakably wholesome, and the freedom and openness that results is infectious. I remind myself that all this is happening in a very conventional, very small town in rural southern Washington.

Amanda and Tom are dying for me to photograph them being sexual, but the party is on my last day in Portland, and I don't have any free time before I leave. "We live just a mile up the road," Tom presses. "What if we took photos tonight, after the party?" His excitement, in the context of the evening's general spirit of sexual expansion, is too strong to resist. At midnight I follow his car up the road and we do a delightfully sexy photo shoot that lasts until five in the morning. Afterwards, they invite me to crash on their couch, which I gratefully accept, sleeping until early morning when Amanda comes in with their two adorable kids who have spent the night with a baby sitter. Victor shows me his new gun and gives his baby sister a big hug. The kids settle in to watch cartoons on the big flat-screen tv and I have a quick cup of coffee before driving through the rain back to Portland and then home.

* * * * *

Juliana Piccillo, the driving force behind the Tucson Sex Worker Arts Festivals, has been teaching filmmaking as an adjunct faculty member of the University of Arizona in Tucson for four years. Her film, "I Was a Teenage Prostitute," documents how she began doing sex work at the age of 17, lying about her age to get a job at a massage parlor in suburban Pennsylvania. The opening frames of her film summarize her feelings about that job. "I was a teenage prostitute," she says, "and I didn't have a pimp or a drug problem, and I liked it." As she said, when receiving an award at the San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Video Festival, "there are a lot worse things you can do in life than jerking off guys for a few hours a week."

Inspired by Carol Leigh's sex worker film festivals in San Francisco, Juliana decided to organize her own festival in Tucson in 2001. Last year, at the second festival, local religious groups, Dr. Laura, Focus on the Family, and a Christian wire service mounted a publicity campaign protesting the use of University of Arizona facilities by the festival, where two "academically oriented" panel discussions were held on campus. Juliana points out that no University funds went to the festival, and that UA facilities are available to any group that wants to use them, but the political storm about "using university resources for a festival on sex" was sufficient to generate national coverage by CNN and the Associated Press.

Despite the political fire storm, Juliana continues to enjoy the support of both her department and the university, and her commitment to continuing the festivals as a way of celebrating both film and sex work is undaunted. the Fourth Tucson Sex Worker Arts Festival, she promises, will take place, better than ever, in the Fall of 2004.

* * * * *

The Rose City Discussion Club is a group of BDSM people in Portland who meet once a month to hear presentations on a variety of BDSM- and other sex-related subjects. RCDC started because George, its organizer, felt that it would be supportive and educational for BDSM people to meet together occasionally. From those simple beginnings, the group has continued to meet monthly for over ten years.

About eighty people show up to hear my talk on fine art sexual photography and watch the slides. It's as light-hearted a group as you could imagine -- nothing dark and devilish in this group of kinky folks. Before my talk there are group announcements and a party game. Everyone has put a favorite sexual fantasy into a hat and George theatrically reads one card after another, prompting much laughter, catcalls, and playful banter. People listen attentively to my talk, particularly when I emphasize the importance of photographs that show it's not just young, thin, glamorous people who are sexy and sexual. Later people thank me for the historical context that the slide show offers. They also buy a lot of books.

Looking over the group, I think that this could easily be a Rotary Club, a church group, or a meeting of the local PTA, except perhaps that these people seem happier, more relaxed, and generally more at peace with themselves than the average man or woman on the street.

* * * * *

Judith is one of the main organizational volunteers for BIO-Logical 2003, an annual BDSM conference in Vancouver that has invited me to give my talk and slide show as one of the conference's workshops. Judith explains to me that she is happily married to Charles, but given that Charles doesn't share her interest in BDSM, she also has an on-going dominant-submissive relationship with Jim. It's an arrangement that seems to satisfy and delight all three of them. I watch Jim tie an ecstatic Judith to a chair during a workshop on fundamental techniques of rope bondage and deeply regret that cameras are strictly prohibited at the conference.

Judith explains that her husband is not usually interested in her BDSM events, but is coming to this conference because he's interested specifically in my workshop -- the only workshop at the conference not specifically related to BDSM. Charles asks thoughtful questions about sexual photography, and looks carefully through Photo Sex when my workshop ends. (Judith later secretly buys the book to give Charles for his upcoming birthday.)

A week after the conference, Judith calls to tell me that she and Charles have been talking a lot about sexual photography and that they want me to photograph them being sexual. We make plans to do a photo shoot when they come to San Francisco in February to celebrate Judith's completion of her bachelor's degree.

* * * * *

Vanessa is a lap dancer at one of Tucson's many strip clubs. She is also one of the Tucson Sex Worker Arts Festival organizers, and active in the Tucson sex worker movement. She sells tickets as people come to hear Annie Sprinkle at the Festival's big Saturday night event, dressed in a revealing black mesh top, snug black pants, and bright pink platform heels that lace high up her legs. Later, at the crowded Saturday night party, she offers lap dances on the club's one and only distinctly overpopulated couch. She pushes back one oglers hands with a harsh "Did you pay for this lap dance? I don't think you paid for this lap dance!" and jumps up when someone else takes her picture without asking, insisting that he delete the image from his digital camera. Resuming her lap dance smoothly, she raises her hands high over her head and shouts proudly, "I am a sex worker!" at the top of her lungs, to no one in particular.

* * * * *

Paula is a 52-year-old sex worker and massage therapist. She runs workshops for women on tantra and on sexual spirituality, and addresses her work with her male clients as an important form of sexual healing. She lives in a beautiful house in southwest Portland, the up-scale part of town. She puts me up in her guest room which is also where she gives some of her workshops. It is a lovely room with a large bed, a slanting ceiling, a thick soft carpet, and a lovely altar under the window.

When I arrive, Paula's boyfriend, Jack, welcomes me enthusiastically, helps me with my suitcase, introduces me to the various women who are in the house as one of Paula's women's groups disperses. There are lots of long, full-body hugs, and people who I have never seen before great me by kissing me on the lips. Later in the evening, a plan develops for me to photograph Paula with her girlfriend Megan in the morning. Eventually Megan and the other women leave, and Jack and Paula go to bed after showing me the way to the lovely hot tub out behind the house. I sit in the hot water in the dark under big trees, and let the night, the freeflowing physical contact, and the unapologetic sensuality of these people and this place sink into me. It feels like I have entered another country, another culture -- but also very much like coming home.

* * * * *

Stephanie and Martine are so excited about the idea of me photographing them that they can hardly sit still. They are 29 and 30, and palpably in love. Stephanie is introducing Martine to the wonders of SM play, and Martine is thanking all the goddesses for her good fortune. We have lunch in an historic Portland restaurant that they like. I show Stephanie and Martine prints of other couples I have photographed and we talk about what we might want to do with this shoot. Stephanie is as large as Martine is wiry, and she emphasizes to me that she wants me to show, not hide, her size, that she wants to stand as an example of a large, passionate, sexy woman.

When I show up at their small apartment, they have moved all of their furniture around to clear enough open space in the living room for a mattress (imported from the bedroom) and all my lights. The couches, end tables, and lamps are piled up in the dining area; the rest of the living room furniture fills the hallway. Stephanie and Martine play for hours while I shoot roll after roll of film, getting dozens of wonderful pictures that show their complete delight with each other, and their freeflowing sexual passion.

Both Stephanie and Martine are completely matter-of-fact both about their woman-to-woman love and partnership, and about their fascination with BDSM. They take for granted their right to pursue their sexuality however they like, wherever it may lead. They are the next generation, the people who get to enjoy the sexual diversity that other people have been struggling to legitimize for decades. Their celebratory openness -- together with our own -- is what those of us who think of sexual openness and diversity as political issues have been campaigning for all this time. If there was ever any question in my mind about whether this work was important, or whether we are making real progress toward open sexuality over the years, the easy joy of these two women sweeps away all doubt.

Strip Club Guys: Who are Those Masked Men


Over the past ten or fifteen years there has been some wonderfully thoughtful, insightful, provocative writing by and about sex workers of various stripes and persuasions. Dozens of prostitutes, escorts, strip dancers, lap dancers, dominatrices, porn actors and actresses, erotic massage workers, and sexual healers -- sex workers sacred and profane -- have written scores of revealing articles and books, analyses and memoirs, offering personal accounts of what it's really like to be in the business of exchanging sex for money.

These accounts -- some of them outrageously opportunistic and sensational, but many others thoughtful and complex -- have collectively begun to challenge the broad range of popular misconceptions and stereotypes about sex work and sex workers, and to provide some honest information so that people with more than a titillated or moralistic interest in sex work can begin to understand the complex realities of working in what has come to be called the sex industry.

Not coincidentally, over this same period of time, mainstream perceptions of sex work and sex workers have begun to change. While the average American is far from ready to accept the fact that doing sex work can be a legitimate, intelligent, humane, and moral career decision, the social stigma assigned to sex work is a far cry from what it was twenty or thirty years ago, and the growing movements for respect, improved working conditions, and even decriminalization of various forms of sex work receive increasingly sympathetic exposure in both progressive and mainstream media.

What has been noticeably absent from the growing documentation and commentary on sex work, however, has been reliable information about the people (predominantly men, but increasingly adventuresome women and couples as well) who form the consumer base of the sex industry -- the millions (probably tens of millions) of customers of prostitutes and escorts, the masses of guys who keep the number (and the quality) of strip clubs and lap dancing theaters increasing, coast to coast, in big towns and small, year after year, decade after decade.

Who are these guys? What is it about having sex with prostitutes, about sitting with women in lap dancing clubs, about watching women in strip clubs, that makes them eager to spend millions of hours and hundreds of millions of dollars every year on an expanding array of paid sexual outlets? What are they looking for in their varied sexual and sexualized interactions with different kinds of sex workers? How do they feel about the whole idea of paying for sex? About the women (and men) they give their money to? About themselves in their role as sex customers? How do they feel about sex in general? About women in general? About marriage? About intimacy? About gender roles, traditional and otherwise?

Given the stigma and guilt associated not only with being a sex worker but also with paying for sex in any form, it's hardly surprising that little is known about any of these questions. It's not like you can call people on the phone and conduct a poll about how customers feel about sex work. Sadly, in the absence of reliable information about this huge section of the American population, what passes for shared wisdom is a confusing and distorted amalgam of moralistic, dismissive, stigmatizing, and grossly misconstructed stereotypes -- entertainment for the Jerry Springer set, but useless for any real understanding of this bulging underbelly of American sexual culture.

In "G-Strings and Sympathy," Katherine Frank takes an important first step in investigating, reporting on, and beginning to truly understand one segment of these paid-sex consumers -- men who are regular customers at non-contact strip clubs. Frank, when she was a graduate student in anthropology, worked as a stripper at six different strip clubs in a large Southeastern city (she refuses to identify which one) over a period of six years, "both as a means of earning extra cash for graduate school and as part of a feminism theory project investigating female objectification and body image."

She began as an anti-porn activist, a student of feminist anthropology "interested in the links between power, gender, and sexuality, and concerned about the 'culture of objectification' that [she] believed influenced women's experiences." When she began working as a stripper, however, Frank quickly found that her preconceptions about the dynamics and power relations involved in that work were contradicted by her experiences at both upscale "gentlemen's" clubs and lower-tier "dive" bars. She became interested in the men who she met at the clubs, particularly her regulars, and decided to do an extended study of them for her doctoral dissertation in cultural anthropology at Duke University. "G-Strings and Sympathy" is the product of that study.

Finding willing subjects among both her own regular customers and those of other dancers, Frank conducted a series of extensive interviews over a 14-month period with 30 male customers from five of the clubs where she danced. She asked probing questions about what these men liked and didn't like about the clubs, what they made of the sexualized (but not sexual) possibilities there, what they found most significant about their interactions with dancers, and how their regular visits to the clubs fit into the context of their outside lives, marriages, and other primary relationships. Her status as a dancer clearly helped the men move beyond potential defensiveness and embarrassment and enabled them to be more forthcoming in how they talked about themselves, their experiences, and their feelings than they would have been with a researcher more removed from, and potentially more judgmental of, the strip club scene.

Both in the way she structured her interviews and in her sophisticated interpretation of her subjects' responses, Frank's blend of anthropological, political, and professional dancer's insight reaches well beyond obvious, superficial issues to paint a complex portrait of these men and the psychological, cultural, and political dynamics that affect them, their interactions with dancers, and the meanings they assign to this significant ongoing aspect of their sexual lives.

Politically, Frank brings a developed awareness of the significance of the power dynamics, colored by gender and class discrepancies, that are inherent in sexualized interactions between men with money to spend and women with money to earn. Happily, Frank holds these political perspectives in a thoughtful, non-simplistic way, recognizing that the interactions between customers and dancers are cannot be reduced to a bunch of privileged, wealthy men unilaterally controlling and manipulating disprivileged, financially disadvantaged women. Indeed, she explores in some depth the complex power dynamics, status concerns, and potential manipulations that are very much a two-way street between customers and dancers at strip clubs. She is both critical of and respectful toward her subjects, neither taking their perspectives at face value nor pathologizing them for their substantial involvement with the clubs.

Culturally and psychologically, Frank focuses on issues of perceived masculinity, sexual identity, sexual self-image, and leisure; on the sexual excitement the men experience in these circumstances of bounded sexual transgression (going to stigmatized clubs, but not actually engaging in sexual contact with the dancers there); on the men's desire for adventure and escape from routinized daily lives and marriages (what Frank addresses interestingly as "touristic practice" -- stepping out of daily life into a world that is distinctly, even mythologically, "other," even as international tourists do when visiting foreign cultures); on the men's visits to strip clubs as an outlet for the aggression common to primary relationships; and on the men's search for various forms of sexualized authenticity that contrast with not only the inherent artificiality of paid sexualized interaction, but with the increasingly artificial nature of their outside lives as well. She also looks in detail at her subjects' conceptualizations of marriage, monogamy, and emotional commitment to their primary partners, evaluating the complex ways these men integrate their frequent, generally secretive visits to strip clubs with their continuing belief that they are being true to their monogamous commitments to wives and primary partners.

These are complicated issues and, to her credit, it is not Frank's goal to find convenient pigeon-holes for her subjects, nor simple answers to the question of what motivates them to frequent and spend large amounts of money at strip clubs. Instead she offers complex, multi-layered, sometimes paradoxical, explanations of what is at work, emotionally and culturally, for these men.

One area that Frank examines in great detail is the question of authenticity in the interactions between customers and dancers. Frank notes that the issue of authenticity is primary to almost all of the men she interviews. She quotes them extensively as they explain the complex systems they have devised to distinguish dancers they believe relate to them in a genuine manner from those who, they believe, do not. The question of how and to what degree dancers are authentic with their customers is a complex one, especially when viewed from both sides of the dancer-customer divide. As a dancer, Frank is in a perfect position to explicate in detail the ways that dancer-customer interactions are manifestly inauthentic. She recounts a long list of strategies dancers use to convince their customers that they are being more authentic than they really are, in the interest of selling more dances and generating greater tips while maintaining relatively strict (and psychologically necessary) boundaries around their personal identities and lives. (Having two different stage names is one such device -- the announced stage name that each dancer uses, plus a second invented name to offer customers in conversation to give them the sense that they are being offered the privilege of knowing the dancers beyond their public personae.) Often, these sophisticated strategies are in stark contrast to the positively naive beliefs of many of the men about how they have gotten to know the real dancers that stand behind their generated stage images.

But Frank also details the ways that dancer-customer interactions also often generate a genuine level of authenticity, separate from the primary theatrical performance. She notes that dancers do genuinely look forward to seeing their regulars (as an opportunity to make more money or relieve the boredom of interacting with other customers, if nothing else), do come to care about them to some degree (though generally not as much as they pretend), do get increasingly familiar with the psychological quirks, traits, and lives of their regulars over time, which often gives rise to a degree of real intimacy and affection. She also points to the ways that the unusual context of dancer-customer interaction often provides an opportunity for the men to become more genuine and less self-conscious than they are in the rest of their lives, generating an interpersonal authenticity that they may lack in daily lives increasingly consumed with artifice, pretense, and multi-layered posturing.

Frank's writing style invitingly combines academic and analytical rigor with an easy accessibility that is unusual in academically oriented work. She brings to her subject a sophisticated background in cultural theory, political analysis, and feminist perspective, but she carries these constructs lightly and critically -- explaining terms and concepts that might be unfamiliar to lay readers, and pointedly noting the limitations of each analytical framework as a tool for explaining the complex psychological, political, and cultural workings of real people in real social situations. Frank uses a variety of writing forms and styles, shedding light on her subjects from a different vantage points -- analysis of the qualitative data in her interviews, direct commentary about and notes from her experiences as a dancer, a delightful section of her preface that is a verbatim transcript of the orientation she received as a new dancer from a club DJ, even four delightful fictional "interludes" -- well-written, enlightening short stories related to stripping that provide yet an additional, refreshingly alternative perspective all their own.

"G-Strings and Sympathy" offers a unique, intelligent, sympathetic, politically-aware look behind the curtain of secrecy and shame that shrouds the thriving culture of strip (and lap dancing) clubs across the nation. If you've ever wondered who the other guys are when you're at one of the clubs, or wondered why your guy might enjoy going there, a cruise through its pages is an enjoyable way to find out.

This article first appeared in Spectator Magazine. G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire by Katherine Frank, 2002, Duke University Press, ISBN 0-8223-2972-7, 331 pages, $19.95.

Under Nude Management


The strippers and support staff at San Francisco's Lusty Lady peep show theater had done it again.

After months of hard-nosed negotiations -- including three days of eye-catching informational pickets and full preparation for a strike -- the workers at the only unionized sex club in the nation got just about everything they wanted from the theater's owners -- restoration of an earlier $3-an-hour pay cut, a cap on the number of dancers working at the theater, an end to videotaping dancers while they worked, and no back-tracking on sick days and health insurance.

It was a hard fight, and the dancers were heady with victory. For the sixth time since they joined Service Employees International Union Local 790 in 1997, the dancers had held their own in a contentious labor dispute and proved to the theater's owners, to themselves, and to the world at large that women who dance naked for a living could stand together, fight for what they wanted, and win. Coming down to the wire about calling a strike (contract agreement was reached three days before the strike deadline) had forced everyone to pull together, get organized, get clear about their priorities, and get efficient. If they had doubts before, the dancers and support staff at the Lusty knew now that, when the chips were down, they could meet, make decisions, and pull together to do what needed to be done.

If you think that women who strip naked for the sexual pleasure of others -- who display their bodies only inches and a thin sheet of plexiglas away from hundreds of masturbating men each day -- must be pitiful souls devoid of pride or self-esteem, think again. The 60 dancers and 15 support staff at the Lusty Lady Theater are a strong, energetic, and creative crew. And they've discovered that, with a union to back them up, they don't have to accept wages and working conditions dictated by the people they work for. They may not get everything they want, but they usually get pretty close. Most significantly, they know that they can be active players in the workplace, rather than powerless pawns being moved around the chessboard by people and interests far more powerful than themselves.

In this case, however, despite their contract victory, it soon became apparent that all was not well in paradise for the Lusty dancers. Less than two months after the new contract was signed, dancers and staff at the Lusty were notified by the owners that the theater was going to close up shop in three months. Darrell Davis, the company's general manager, tired of flying from Seattle to San Francisco to deal with labor issues, had resigned and, perhaps as a result, the owners had decided to dump their San Francisco franchise and relax into the more placid business of managing their Seattle theater, where non-union dancers accepted management's rules without serious question and kept any grievances they might have to themselves.

The owners had warned during contract negotiations that, if they gave the dancers what they wanted, the theater would no longer be profitable. But the owners had said the same thing each year during contract talks, and the dancers didn't believe them, especially when the owners refused to let negotiators examine the company books. But this time the owners weren't bluffing and everyone's worst-case scenario had become a reality. The owners wanted out, there were no buyers who wanted to take on the "liability" of dealing with a union, and everyone was about to be out of a job.

During negotiations, Donna Delinqua (her stage name) -- a graduate student in English Literature who's completing her dissertation on the depiction of sex between women in pornography -- had not entirely dismissed the owners' claim of impending financial insolvency. But Delinqua wasn't intimidated by the possibility of a shut down. "If they close the theater," she thought, "we can just take it over."

It wasn't the first time the idea of dancers running the theater had crossed someone's mind. Three years earlier, a group of dancers considered buying the theater if the owners made good on their threat to close the place down. Now it was time to see if the idea of a dancer-run strip club was just a pipe dream, or if the idea could be transformed into workable reality.

Delinqua called a general meeting of dancers and staff. Rainbow Light, a well-established local grocery cooperative, and Good Vibrations, the nationally-known, women-friendly, worker-owned sex toy store, sent people to explain the nuts and bolts of structuring and operating a worker-run business. The idea of actually owning the place where they worked was exciting and infectious, and the we-can-do-anything feeling from the triumphant contract negotiation was still very much in the air. The group decided to put together a plan to buy and operate the Lusty Lady themselves.

"If we hadn't just come through the negotiations," says Ruby, who has danced at the Lusty Lady for a year and a half, "I don't know if we could have made this happen. But we had become a strong group, we had gotten used to working together, and we just believed that it was possible to buy the business and make it work."

Plans were developed, organizational and operational structures hammered out, committees formed. Pepper was in charge of negotiating the purchase with the owners. Tony would come up with a financial overview. Miss Muffy would coordinate signing people up as owners. Ruby would deal with the city, the police, and the fire department about licensing. Havana would take charge of getting the new business incorporated. Rapture and Cayenne would write the new corporation's by-laws.

In less than three months, everything had come together and on June 1 the Lusty Lady became the nation's first worker-owned strip club. General manager Davis, who had stirred intense anger among dancers during contract negotiations, became noticeably cooperative when it came to negotiating a buyout. It didn't hurt that the dancers' was the only offer on the table. A selling price -- confidential, but substantial -- was agreed to and, if all goes well, will be paid off over the next five years. There was no down payment.

Anyone who works at the theater can become an owner for $300, regardless of how many hours they work. "We wanted to make the amount people paid to become owners large enough that it be a real commitment," Delinqua explains, but not so much that it was out of reach." To make becoming an owner accessible to as many people as possible, the $300 can be paid over time. At the end of each fiscal year, any profits above money reserved for working capital is to be distributed to owners, based on how many hours they've worked. Of 60 dancers, 45 have already become owners, with more expected to sign up over time.

The company's Board of Directors is made up of five dancers and two support staff. After years of feeling pushed around, the dominating ethos is a commitment to fairness, cooperation, and equality. Decisions are made by majority vote, "but we use a consensus-building process to try to make sure that everyone's concerns are dealt with," Delinqua explains. The Lusty's ground-breaking union, however, has not been disbanded. "There's no guarantee that, down the road, people will be as committed to fairness as we are," Board-member Pepper notes. "Also," she adds, "we want to continue our outreach to other strip clubs about the possibilities of unionization."

As it turned out, many of the dancers had skills that proved useful in pulling the new cooperative together. Some had worked as paralegals. Others had managerial experience. Mostly, though, it was a matter of rolling up your sleeves and discovering that you could do things you'd never done before.

"It's been a huge learning curve," says Ruby. "Before this I didn't know anything about running a business. We're all learning about accounting procedures, about insurance -- things I never thought I'd be doing when I signed on as a stripper."

The difference between working for someone else and working for yourself is like the difference between night and day, especially in a service business that rises or falls on the personal appeal of its workers. Two months into their experiment, the dancers at the Lusty seem almost universally excited about their new possibilities.

"We're about to see a new Golden Era at the Lusty Lady," Pepper predicts. "The importance of worker incentive should not be underestimated. Now that we're working for ourselves, everyone feels fresh and friendly, and that affects how we relate to each other and how we relate to the customers. Now everyone has new reasons to be present with customers, to give good shows. The quality of everyone's performance is going up. The theater is cleaner than ever, and we're considering a number of capital improvements, like new carpeting."

"All the stuff that used to be secret and shrouded in mystery," says Ruby, "now it's posted every week, open for everyone to see. How much money we brought in, each check that was written, how the Private Pleasures booth did."

"People seem to be getting into being more glamorous, getting more elaborate with their costumes, paying more attention to their appearance than they were before," Delinqua notices. "Now everyone has to consider the financial consequences of what they do, how they act, how they look."

Delinqua points to the new system of dancer evaluation as one concrete example of how things have changed with worker ownership. "Before," she says, "dancers were evaluated by managers who were not dancers themselves. Now, it's all peer evaluation. Each week a new group of five dancers evaluate the other people on their shifts -- their general appearance, being pleasant with the customers, making eye contact, paying attention to the customers, making them feel welcome. There are no managers, only team leaders -- we call them Madams of the House -- elected for six-month terms. Everyone dances."

Ruby likens the new spirit at the Lusty to the pioneering example of Good Vibrations. "Good Vibrations totally changed the world of sex toy shops," she notes. "Before Good Vibes, sex shops were seedy places. Women didn't go there. Good Vibes changed all that. It's clean, it's not creepy, so going there is no big deal.

"We're trying to do the same thing. We want to show that it's ok to view adult entertainment, that it doesn't have to be something you're ashamed of, something you do in secret. We hope to include women customers more, and to make everyone feel more comfortable coming to the theater."

The sense of new beginning is tangible everywhere around the Lusty. People are realizing that, now that they own their own business, they can do what they want with it, a new ideas are cropping up everywhere. The first major innovation was the establishment of Women's Night, which will be the last Wednesday of every month. The first Women's Night in July was a huge success -- grossing 20% more than usual for a Wednesday. (Men were allowed, if accompanied by women, but they had to pay $10 at the door, and stay with the women who brought them.)

"We set aside half the booths for women only," Delinqua explains. "We made sure that everything was very clean. We had dancers meeting women at the door, acting as their Lusty Lady Tour Guides, helping ease their transition. About a hundred women came. The dancers were so excited to be bringing women in. Good Vibrations and S.I.R. Productions sent gifts of lube, porn, and condoms. The evening was co-sponsored by the Sex Worker Film and Video Festival. Everyone had a great time."

Another new idea being considered is having a couples night, where a woman could come with her husband, boyfriend, or girlfriend, go backstage, get glammed up with the help of regular Lusty dancers, and then dance on stage for her partner -- a chance for women to act out the fantasy of being stripper for a night. A perfect birthday gift for a partner, or for yourself.

"We want to be innovative," Delinqua says. "We want to try new things and see what works. There's the sense that we don't have to be bound by how things have been done before."

So far the new system seems to be working well. Delinqua estimates that about a third of the new owners are actively involved in running the business. Some potentially difficult issues -- discipline, hiring new people, long-range financial decisions -- have yet to come up, but Delinqua feels confident that these issues can be dealt with constructively, in the spirit of cooperatively working together.

"Most people feel vested," says Ruby, "and that makes all the difference. It's our show now. It's a really exciting time for all of us. We're all here doing it together and we're really proud of what we're doing. We're trying to make the Lusty Lady a safe and fun place for everyone -- dancers and customers alike. And we hope that we can inspire other sex workers to know that you really can do it yourself, especially if you have a strong group of people committed to working together."
Source: This article first appeared in Spectator Magazine

Life to Hold on to While Death is Passing


"In the heaving crowd, now all she could feel was a penis slowly being slipped into the opening of her skirt.... The condemned man stood on the scaffold now and the noose was put around his neck. The pain of watching him was so great that it made this touch of flesh a relief, a human, warm, consoling thing. It seemed to her then that this penis quivering between her buttocks was something wonderful to hold on to -- life, life to hold whole death was passing.... She was palpitating with fear, and it was like the palpitation of desire. As the condemned man was flung into space and death, the penis gave a great leap inside her, gushing out its warm life. The crowd crushed the man against her. She almost ceased breathing. And as her fear became pleasure, wild pleasure at feeling life while a man was dying, she fainted." -- Anais Nin, "Woman on the Dunes"

Buffalo Bill's
defunct
Who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
stallion
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
Jesus
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death
-- e. e. cummings

It's been a month now -- this time of death spinning out of control.

Death sprayed everywhere, day after day after day after day, in triumph, in celebration -- a display of raw killing power such as the world has never seen before, according to the wild-eyed Secretary of Offense.

We see only a few of the pictures -- the ones that Daddy thinks we children will be able to handle -- but enough that we know, in our bones if nowhere else, that something horrible and unnatural is happening halfway around the globe, where the people are opposite from us -- upside-down, left-handed, Islamic, whatever -- and therefore easier to obliterate than the folks next door.

It's the folks next door, boys and girls not unlike us (though generally younger), who have been cast as Archangels of Death, who will come home with images in their brain that no human being should have to carry for a lifetime, who year after year will not talk truthfully to their wives and grandchildren about what they have seen, no matter how many times they are asked.

All this in our name, no matter how many signs we carry saying Not.

It's never easy to look Death in the eye, and the times of mass, collective death -- when death awareness is forced on all of us at the same time, unrelentingly, from every direction, it seems -- are the hardest times of all. This even if we insistently maintain what Europeans call our Terminal American Cheerfulness -- even if we buy groceries, and clean the house, and pack the kids off to school, and celebrate the Giants winning 13 of their first 14 games -- as if we are not being deeply affected by what is happening so far away.

But I daresay we are all being deeply affected by the reality of the American Killing Fields, by the sudden and persistent foregrounding of death that is one inevitable corollary of war. For the moment -- as after 9/11, as in some communities at the height of the AIDS crisis, as in all Europe during the time of Bubonic Plague -- it's not easy to sweep conscious awareness of death under the rug of our collective unconscious, not as easy as it was in more innocent times.

We are, all of us, being radically altered by witnessing and, to a certain extent, participating in this mass destruction of life, even if we don't know any of the 123 People Like Us acknowledged to have died in Iraq so far, even if we are extremely unlikely to know any of the tens of thousands of People Unlike Us who the People Like Us have undoubtedly killed -- even, that is to say, if the current episode of Great Intentional Death is happening by us, rather than to us.

Death, separate from war, is the ultimate exercise in powerlessness, the ultimately humbling reality. No matter how intelligent or well-adjusted we are, no matter how much we learn in school or in therapy, no matter how much money we make, Death always wins in the end. It is the awareness of death, awareness of our own impending death, that makes us different from all other species of animal, and this awareness shapes our lives profoundly, for better and for worse.

And these days, for many of us, over and above the simple existential powerlessness we feel facing death, there is the additional deep confusion and hopelessness we feel because we are so pathetically unable to prevent, or even mediate, the massive, casual, even careless spewing of death and destruction that is tearing through the lives of 23 million people, and destroying the artifacts of thousands of years of history in the place that gave birth to civilization as we know it.

It's hardly surprising that we are powerfully drawn to sex during death-ridden times such as these. If death is the ultimate expression of the limitation and powerlessness of the human condition, sex is just the opposite -- the ultimate expression of human expansiveness and personal power.

When there are so many arenas in which we feel afraid, where we are lacking the power to make the world be what we want it to be, it becomes especially important that we affirm and exercise the real power we still hold. Sex is one way to do that. The right and ability to be deeply sexual in satisfying ways is a profound source of personal empowerment. That's why so many governments and religious institutions try to control that most personal part of our lives, and God knows their antisexual efforts do take a toll on us. But, despite the debilitating effects of sex-repressive attitudes and prohibitions, most of us retain the ability to turn to sex as a way of reminding ourselves that we are vibrant, effectual, repositories of the power of life.

Each time we have sex in meaningful ways we make that statement -- to ourselves and to the world outside of ourselves.

Many people experience a striking increase in sexual desire at times when Death raises its ugly head, personally or collectively. After the World Trade Center attacks, for example, tales of people's powerful urges to be sexual (especially in New York) circulated everywhere, a virtual media phenomenon. So much so that hospitals throughout the country prepared for an anticipated surge in births during the early summer of 2002. (The birth surge ended up being much smaller than expected, a testimony, perhaps, to the power of birth control.)

In the past, during times of extended war -- World War I, World War II, the Korean War -- there was likewise a noticeable overflowing of sexual activity, activity that often transgressed the contemporary boundaries of social propriety. It was as if everyone understood that when Death was at the door, the usual rules about sex needed to be loosened. Perhaps the most noted reshaping of traditional sexual mores during past wars was the prevalence of extra-marital affairs among women. Of course, women had an easier time having affairs when their regular sexual partners were overseas and they had needs for sexual outlets because their husbands and boyfriends were simply unavailable.

But the phenomenon was remarkably widespread, especially for times when sex outside of marriage was condemned much more vociferously than it is today. Something more than convenience and lack of available partner sex was going on, and it seems likely that one significant dynamic motivating women who carried on war-affairs was a need to be sexual as a way of responding to the painful reality that they might learn any day that their husbands or boyfriends had been killed or maimed in battle. "Fuck me now because tomorrow I may die" may be the oldest line in history, but it's effectiveness speaks to the need people feel to affirm their sexuality when they come face-to-face with danger and death. Perhaps the more pointed (if less opportunistic) dictum would be "Fuck someone now because tomorrow you may have to deal with the death of a loved one."

When Death suddenly appears at the window, we have a strong and sensible urge to reach for Life. We cannot ultimately vanquish death, but we can counter the reality of our pending personal death (and the reality of our government's mass perpetration of death) by making our own, personal declaration of life as strongly and deeply and soulfully as we can. Sex is not the only way to do that, but being sexual -- especially being sexual in deeply connective, loving, soulful ways -- may well be the most basic affirmation of life available to us, day in and day out.

We may not be able to get George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld to choose life over death, but we can choose life in our personal worlds, in our most important and intimate relationships, in our significant interpersonal interactions. We may not have the power to insist that the elite who run this country makes love, not war. But we do have the power to make love ourselves in response to the horror of war. When we do so, the act of sex becomes an act of personal resistance to both the war and the death that have been inflicted on our lives and psyches. Perhaps, in the long run, it can also be a viable antidote to the general dehumanizing war/death mentality that now threatens to pollute the essence of our human kindness and generosity both as individuals and as a nation.

This article first appeared in Spectator Magazine.

Spirit Made Flesh


Fakir Musafar might well be called the grandfather of the body modification movement. In 1944, decades before tattooing, piercing, and other forms of body decoration were to become both a spiritual movement and a popular fad, Fakir (then 14-year-old Roland Loomis living in Aberdeen, South Dakota) began to explore the possibilities of his body in a way that was radically different from the body explorations of the adolescent boys and girls around him.

Like most adolescents, Roland was obsessively fascinated with the emerging potentials of his body. Like most adolescents, he explored those bodily potentials in secret -- safe from the interpretations and potential judgments of parents and other adults, of friends and peers. But while most boys and girls his age were content to preoccupy themselves with the exciting worlds of masturbation and athletics, Roland's process of discovering the possibilities of his body took him far beyond the realms of explicit sexual arousal, baseball, and football. Young Roland was fascinated less by what he could do with his body than by what he could to his body, and by the emotional, sensory, and trans-sensory places he quickly discovered he could reach through what he could do to his body. By Roland's accounts, he even found worlds to explore that took him out of his physical body entirely.

Adapting many of the body-altering rituals he learned were common in other cultures, Roland related to his body as a combination of laboratory and playground, submitting himself to a wide variety of elaborate and imaginative ritual exercises to test what his body was capable of, and where it was capable of taking him -- not only physically, but emotionally, psychically, and spiritually as well. He lashed himself to a frame of staples he had hammered into the basement wall of his family's coal bin, and hung there until all sensation left his body and he began to have visions. He gave himself tattoos by dipping bundles of sewing needles in india ink and using them to dye his skin. He put various holes in his skin, small at first, larger later, and began embedding increasingly massive objects in those holes. He cinched his waist down, incrementally over time, until he could reduce it to a fraction of its initial diameter. He spent hours walking around, weighted down by a hundred pounds of chains, to see what would happen as a result.

What Roland quickly discovered was that his body was capable of much more than he might have expected. More importantly, he found that through various forms of body alteration he could alter his mental state as radically as he was altering himself physically. He was as intrigued with the physical and psychic worlds he was discovering as any 21st-century adolescent is drawn to the magical new worlds he or she discovers through marijuana or LSD.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Roland discovered the immense personal power that comes from taking ownership of one's body back from the rules and expectations of the people and the society around us -- the power that comes when we realize our bodies are our own to do with as we please, to use as we want, to take us on whatever journeys of pleasure and pain we choose, whatever comforts or challenges call to us, to teach us about ourselves, about life, about the vast possibilities of being fully alive, much more than the culture that divides flesh from spirit can ever imagine possible.

Eventually Roland chose the name Fakir Musafar for the adventuresome explorer he had discovered in himself, after a twelfth-century Sufi who wandered Persia altering his body and trying unsuccessfully to interest the people around him in the wonders he found. In the late 1970s, Fakir made his way to San Francisco where widespread interest in paganism, personal transformation, sexual exploration, and body adornment were coming together in an explosive mix destined to shatter the cultural boundaries of a nation in upheaval. He met photographer Charles Gatewood, and the publishers of Re/Search magazine who featured him prominently in a book-length issue titled "Modern Primitives: An Investigation of Contemporary Adornment and Ritual." Perhaps more than any other single publication, that issue of Re/Search spread the word about the body modification far and wide, igniting widespread popular interest in body play that ranged from serious spiritual pursuit to the most superficial quest to get in on the latest hip fashion.

For Fakir, the connection between body alteration and serious spirituality was unbreakable. He began to offer classes and workshops in body modification of all sorts. He founded Body Play magazine as an ongoing outlet for information on the possibilities of all forms of body alteration. He had found his community, his calling, his contribution to the world, all of which continue to this day. Fakir will turn 73 in August. Thousands have participated personally in his workshops and classes, and many times that number have been exposed to his ideas in print.

From the beginning, Fakir/Roland made a point of photographing his increasingly ambitious experiments on himself, delighting in the possibilities of visually documenting the logistical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of his journeys in physical alteration. One hundred and forty of these photographs have now been put together as "Spirit + Flesh," an astounding array of Fakir's images collected in an elegant, oversized, hardcover volume, recently published by Arena Editions.

Covering a span of more than fifty years -- from 1948 through 2001 -- the duotone reproductions in "Spirit + Flesh" take the viewer on a visual journey into the myriad possibilities of body alteration and adornment. Most are photos of Fakir himself -- ranging from primitive early experiments with delayed-shutter-release self-portraits to later, more experienced documentations of rituals and altered body states. Some are photos of other explorers in the body modification community, pursuing their own forms of transcendence, often with Fakir's guidance and assistance.

We see photos of Fakir's waist, dramatically compressed to a mere 19 inches. We see dozens of weighted balls hooked to and hanging from his chest in a replication of the Native American tradition of ball dancing. We see him lying on a bed of nails (a means of entering a trance state), and lowering his full weight across a series of half a dozen parallel machete blades. We see Fakir as the "perfect gentleman" of the late 1950s -- neatly trimmed hair, horn-rimmed glasses, starched white shirt, slender necktie, tailored slacks, cigarette held casually between two fingers. Only his minuscule waist announces that this is anything but your typical mid-American. mid-20th-century businessman. And then we see him with his clothes removed, bold tattoos covering his back and groin, large metal rings transsecting enlarged holes in his nipples, heavy spears passing through the deep piercings in his chest that have become a permanent feature of his anatomy.

We see photos of Fakir suspended above the ground in any number of configurations. In one photo he is upright, hanging from a sturdy wooden frame, supported only by the broad belt that girdles his shrunken waist. In another he is hanging horizontally, his full weight pulling against hooks through his skin that run all the way down his body, from chest to thighs to shins. In a third he is entranced by a variation of the Mandan O-Kee-Pa ritual, the full weight of his body hanging on the two broad hooks that enter and leave the deep piercings in his chest, while his hands lay peacefully crossed over his belly.

The photos are surprising, shocking at first. How can such things be possible? Is what we are seeing pleasure or pain? Why would anyone want to do such things to their body? The contraptions seem grotesque; the activities easier to associate with abuse than with spiritual pursuit.

But the looks on Fakir's face, and on the faces of the other ritualists he photographs, belie our initial frightened reactions. If we take the time to look carefully, it becomes clear that these are people at peace, not in turmoil, people in states of transcendence not to be confused with the sensations of a stubbed toe or an accidentally punctured finger. Curiosity replaces shock. What are these photos really about? Something is going on here that lies beyond what most of us experience in our daily lives. The effect of the photographic images is cumulative, the building of a collective expansion in our notion of what is possible. The photographs offer windows into worlds beyond what is known and obvious, worlds that might be interesting to experience and explore for ourselves, worlds that might go so far as to radically change our view of ourselves, of life, and of what we see around us -- worlds waiting to be entered through the magic of the body. Spirit made flesh indeed.

And that, as Fakir emphasizes repeatedly in his workshops, his writing, and his photography, is precisely the point. "The subject matter of my photography is people," he notes in his short afterword to "Spirit + Flesh." "Human beings. Bodies in transition. My joy comes from encouraging human metamorphosis. My bliss comes from watching, recording, and sharing these transitions with others."

Signed copies of "Spirit +Flesh" are available from Fakir at his website: www.bodyplay.com/fakirart/index.htm

Source: This article first appeared in Spectator Magazine.

R.I.P Gwen Araujo


It's a story that's both news and not news.

On October 3, according to police reports, Gwen Araujo, an attractive 17-year-old with a radiant smile and a zest for life, went to a party in Newark, California, a suburban town in the San Francisco Bay Area. She drank a fair amount of beer. She flirted with 24-year-old Jose Merel, a boy she had something of a crush on. She had anal sex with him, and perhaps with Jose's friend, 22-year-old Michael Magidson, as well.

Maybe something about the sex suggested to Jose or to Michael that there was something different about Gwen. For some reason, Jose's brother's girlfriend, Nicole Brown, followed or took Gwen into the bathroom where she discovered that, biologically speaking, Gwen wasn't a girl at all.

"It's a man; let's go," Nicole called out and all hell broke loose.

Gwen was knocked to the floor, her skirt pulled up. Jose was the first to attack her, but Michael and 19-year-old Jaron Nabors quickly joined in. Someone asked for a knife and Jaron offered the knife from his pocket. Gwen was stabbed and gashed in the face. Jose and Michael then dragged semi-conscious Gwen into a garage where Gwen was strangled with a rope. The two boys later put Gwen's body in the back of Michael's truck and, together with Jaron, drove 150 miles into the Sierra Nevada foothills, where they dug a hole and buried Gwen's body, still bound hand and foot and wrapped in a sheet.

For almost two weeks, no one at the party said anything to police about what had happened, although dark rumors circulated that eventually got back to Gwen's frantic mother and aunt. On October 16, Jaron Nabors contacted Newark police and took them to where Gwen's body was buried. Jose, Michael, and Jaron were arrested and charged with murder. Since California is one of only five states that include gender identity as a hate crime category, the three were charged with committing a hate crime as well.

What's not news is that a transgendered person was brutally murdered for daring to be herself. Gwen Araujo was the 25th transgendered person to be murdered so far this year, according to the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition. That makes 2002 the deadliest year yet for transgenders. Violence against transgendered people is widespread, though severely underreported in mainstream media. In a study by the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition, two-thirds of transgender respondents said they had been physically or sexually assaulted at one time or another. In June, 2001, the murder of Fredericka (F.C.) Martinez, a 16-year-old Navajo from Cortez, Colorado, who considered herself two-spirited, or "nadleeh," received typically scant attention in the national press.

But the murder of Gwen Araujo has generated a response significantly different from responses to previous acts of violence against transgenders. Maybe it's because Gwen was attractive, relatively well-adjusted, and just 17 years old. Maybe it's because her murder occurred in the proudly open-minded, relatively diversity-accepting San Francisco Bay Area, where personal and political support for transgendered people and transgender issues is well organized. Maybe it's because Gwen Araujo had strong support from her family as she struggled with her issues of gender identification and how to carry her gender into the world around her.

Whatever the reason, reaction to Gwen's murder by police, press, family, and community groups has been immediate and overwhelmingly positive. The response of the Newark Police Department has been direct, forceful, and sympathetic, in contrast to widespread police neglect in cases involving violence against transgenders.

"This is a child of our community, a human being," Newark Police Lt. Lance Morrison told transgender activist Tina D'Elia, who was struck by Morrison's heartfelt concern. Speaking to The Los Angeles Times, Morrison was even more outspoken. "Someone was dumped like a piece of trash on the side of a mountain," he indignantly told the Times. "A number of people could have helped, stepped in, prevented, or reported this. None of them did."

Newark police have pursued the case diligently, even arranging for a friend of Jaron Nabors to wear a concealed microphone to record a conversation that proved pivotal in the investigation. When virulently homophobic Rev. Fred Phelps threatened to picket the funeral of "cross-dressing teen pervert Eddie Araujo," Newark police immediately put both the funeral and an earlier wake under police protection to insure that no disruption of services would take place. Perhaps as a result, neither the picket of the funeral nor a threatened picket in support of the men accused of the murder, materialized.

Coverage of the story has been widespread in the mainstream press, including extensive stories in The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Jose Mercury-News, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Associated Press, as well as stories on CNN, ABC, and NBC network television. News reports, while far from ideal, have been relatively thoughtful and free of typical media sensationalism.

On the one hand, reporters and editors still stubbornly insist on referring to Gwen as "Eddie, who called himself Gwen" or the "boy who lived as a girl," and on using male pronoun identifiers for Gwen, even when they acknowledge requests from the transgender community that female pronouns be used instead. On the other hand, even mainstream stories of the murder have for the most part been straightforward, respectful, and thankfully free of suggestions that Gwen was in effect asking to be murdered by identifying as a girl, by dressing as a girl, by going to a party, by drinking beer, or by having sex with people she didn't know very well.

Long stories with headlines like "Slain 17-Year-Old Struggled with Intolerance in School" and "Transgender Teen's Slaying Shakes Nation" have stressed the difficulty Gwen experienced as a transgendered youth who was constantly teased and harassed about her feminine appearance and demeanor. Coverage has also stressed the strong support she received from both family and friends. Profiles of Gwen portray her as lively and likable, rather than as one of those teenagers bound to get into trouble because of the attitude they carry on their shoulders.

Press reports have also emphasized the solid support that Gwen has received from her family. And indeed, the commitment of Gwen's family to respect and defend Gwen's gender expression has been exceptional. Gwen's mother, Sylvia Guerrero, makes clear that she understood the difficulties her son faced transitioning into a young woman, and that she supported Gwen's decision to live more and more openly as female, at home and at school, even as she admits the difficulty she has had in adjusting to Gwen's emerging female identity.

"Being who he was was very painful," Guerrero told The Los Angeles Times. "He felt like a freak." While worried about what would become of "her angel," Guerrero was also clearly proud of her transitioning son. Going out into the world as a young woman "took guts," she told the Times, "especially in this town."

Imelda Guerrero, Gwen's aunt, also stood squarely behind Gwen in press interviews and at memorial services after her death, admiring Gwen's cooking ability, and especially her developing skill with makeup. "He was a beautiful person, inside and out," she emphasized. "Nobody deserves to take his young life." Both Imelda and Sylvia Guerrero supported Gwen in her dream of going to school and becoming a professional Hollywood makeup artist.

As press and public attention grew in the weeks after Gwen's body was found, Sylvia Guerrero became determined that the world would see her child as the young woman she knew herself to be. At the wake before Gwen's funeral, hundreds of supporters filed by her open casket where Gwen could be seen, unabashedly feminine in her long hair, necklace, blouse, black lace gloves, and long metallic fingernails. Over 750 people attended the subsequent memorial service at St. Edward's Catholic Church in Newark, and several hundred others gathered outside the overflowing church. As one final gesture of support, Sylvia Guerrero decided that she wanted the tombstone to be inscribed with the name Gwen, rather than Eddie, even though she had never been able to call her child by her preferred female name before her death.

"He was my baby. He was my son," Guerrero told well-wishers at the service. "When you see someone like Eddie, smile at him."

Other stories have focused on the psychology of the three men charged with the murder. According to relatives, friends, and neighbors, the three, all high school athletes, were anything but flaming homophobes. A neighbor of Jose and Paul Merel describes the brothers as "nice, pleasant, well-mannered boys." A friend of Jaron Nabors calls him responsible and bright. "There's no bias in him," says Nabors attorney Robert Beles, denying that Nabors "would actively participate in any type of homophobic activity."

By making clear that Gwen Araujo's murder was not the act of a few crazy bigots, press reports have usefully directed attention on the more widespread homophobic and transphobic attitudes that are the real roots of anti-transgender violence. Reports note that other students at Newark Memorial High School said they might have attacked Gwen, even as Merel, Magidson, and Nabors did, if they had been in similar circumstances. Jose Merel's mother, while trying to express sympathy for Sylvia Guerrero, saw no irony in commenting to The Los Angeles Times that "if you find out the beautiful woman you're with is really a man, I think it would make any man go crazy." If something is to be done about violence against transgenders, these are the attitudes that need to be addressed and changed through education and increased awareness.

Response to the murder from Bay Area transgender activist groups has been far-reaching. Some 500 people held a march and candlelight vigil for Araujo in San Francisco on October 25, the day of her funeral. Activists who attended Gwen's funeral that day were received with enthusiastic applause. A day later, a second candlelight vigil was organized in nearby Palo Alto by the Gunn High School Gay and Straight Alliance. A service of lamentation at one local Presbyterian church was dedicated to the memory of Gwen Araujo, and a large vigil was organized for the opening performance of "The Laramie Project," a play about the Wyoming murder of Matthew Shepard being coincidentally produced by students at Newark High.

Instead of being swept under the rug, the murder of Gwen Araujo is causing a broad spectrum of people to ask how such a thing can happen, generating new understanding of the difficulties that transgendered people face in a hostile, unaccepting world, and bringing to public consciousness the need for more effective education around public acceptance of gender and sexual diversity.

Happily, even as violence against transgendered people seems to be on the rise, awareness and outtrage over incidents like Gwen Araujo's murder is also rising, around the country, and around the world. In 1999, a first Transgender Day of Remembrance, a candlelit vigil to memorialize those who had been killed due to anti-transgender hatred or prejudice, was organized in San Francisco. The following year, Remembrance events spread to 14 cities around the country. In 2001, the number of participating cities grew to 23, and this year, on November 20th, there will be Transgender Days of Remembrance in 38 cities and four countries.

Information on Days of Rememberance is available online at www.rememberingourdead.org/day/where.html

Photographing Sex


"Depart not from the path which fate has you assigned." -- fortune cookie message

I have always thought of myself as a word person. I love words. I love language. I love the ways that carefully chosen language can communicate nuances about everything from objective logic to the most subjective of emotions.

But I have also always been fascinated by the visual world, by the eloquent power images have to communicate complicated realities that words seem doomed to distort them into jumbles. Particularly when it comes to sex, verbal description often misses what I think of as the heart of the matter. There are some photos, on the other hand, that go right to the subtleties and power of sexual connection, holding these up for all to see, ponder, and appreciate.

Thirteen years ago, I collected and published 122 such photos in a book of erotic photography and fiction, "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies." Since that time, I have been the U.S. photo representative for Cupido magazine, an intelligent erotic journal published in Norway and Denmark. Reviewing the erotic and sexual work of hundreds of photographers over the years has impressed upon me just how articulate artistic images of sex can be, and how many different perspectives on sex they can express. Even though sex has long been neglected as a subject for fine art photography, there are now dozens of skilled, perceptive photographers directing their artistic attentions to different aspects of sex and sexual behavior. Their collective work offers a wonderful range of insight into sexual experience, perspectives that fall completely outside the more familiar conventions of commercial pornography.

A year and a half ago, I decided that I wanted to try my own hand at photographing sex. Although I knew little about the technical aspects of photography, I had a strong sense of what I wanted to see in sexual photographs, and I had gotten tired of trying to persuade the sexual photographers who had become my closest friends to incorporate my sexual sensibilities into their work. (Not surprisingly, they wanted to photograph their sexual point of view, not mine.) I realized that if I wanted to see pictures that embodied what was most important to me about sex, I would have to take them myself.

I began floating the idea of photographing couples having sex among the circle of sex writers, artists, publishers, and general explorers that make up my community of fellow travelers in and around San Francisco. To my delight, one couple that I knew through the network associated with the Bay Area's Spectator magazine enthusiastically volunteered as guinea pigs. I borrowed some lights, bought lots of film, and the three of us got together at their home one Wednesday afternoon to see what we could come up with.

I couldn't have asked for a more ideal pair of subjects for my first sexual experiment behind the camera. They were full of exuberant sexual energy, totally adoring of each other, and absolutely loved having sex in front of a camera. They played and I took pictures all afternoon.

It was just about a perfect situation for me to find myself in. I've always enjoyed watching other people be sexual, and the role of photographer gave me a context to watch people being sexual with unapologetic intensity and minute attention to detail. Most of all, the challenge of translating the emotional and sexual intensity of someone's sexuality into the language of still images merged sex and creativity together in what was for me a very powerful combination.

I shuffled lights incessantly, climbed up and down my handy step ladder, searching instant by instant for the moment, the look, the angle, the touch, that would communicate most strongly what I saw going on between these two people. Fortunately, these particular people were completely comfortable having sex in front of a third person, under hot lights, and while I did everything from standing over them on their bed to holding my camera inches from their faces as they were coming to orgasm.

We went from one sexual time to another, from one set of clothes to another, for four exhilarating, overheated hours before we admitted to exhaustion and stopped for dinner. After dinner, to my complete surprise, my friends suggested they were ready for more if I was willing to continue and so we continued for two hours more. By the time the session was over, I had shot an indulgent 19 rolls of film, over 600 photos.

I went home excited by the experience of playing sexual photographer, but completely uncertain about what I had or had not managed to get on film. The next day, as I poured all the film canisters onto the counter of my friendly neighborhood photo lab, I also wondered what these people who had been developing my snapshots for years would think of the images I was giving them to develop and process. I decided it was best to openly put the sexual issue on the table.

"You should know that these are sexual pictures," I told the manager as he wrote up my order. "Is that going to be a problem?"

"Consenting adults?" he asked.

"Definitely."

"No problem, then," he shrugged. I hadn't expected a problem, but I was palpably relieved.

"How sensible," I laughed, sending the two of us into a long mutual rant about chain store labs like Long's, Walgreens, or Costco that consistently refuse to print even sexy photos of nude individuals, not to mention photos of people actually having sex.

A day later I carried home a heavy box full of folder after folder of 4x6 prints. As I looked through them, I was delighted to find first one, then another, then another, that I thought might have some real potential. Choosing about 25 that I liked the most, I spent hours going over them with L-shaped cutouts of black paper, deciding how each image should best be cropped to bring out what was happening in the picture, and to present it with the greatest visual appeal. It was an almost magical process. Over and over again, there was one particular cropping that made all the elements of a given picture fall into place. It was like having a musical instrument come into precise tuning, like placing a picture on a wall in just the right place. Ah yes, that's it, that's it right there. In a world full of imperfection and compromise, it was remarkably satisfying to find one little thing that could be made just exactly right or, more accurately, just the way I wanted it to be.

Knowing next to nothing about darkroom technique, I sent my meticulously cropped images out to a local photo lab that had been recommended for its quality work and for being completely comfortable with this sort of sexual material. As I went over proof after proof with the woman behind the counter, I was delighted to be treated with complete respect and professionalism. And a week later, when I picked up the finished prints, I was even more surprised and delighted with what I saw.

The lab had transformed my awkward, harsh machine proofs into finished images that struck me as real and even beautiful, both emotionally and visually. Looking at them made me feel warm and happy -- happy with what I was seeing in the pictures, and happy to have somehow channeled these people's experience into static images that, it seemed, could now be seen and appreciated by other people. For the first time I felt that, despite my photographic ignorance, I might just be onto something useful. On the other hand, it occurred to me that I might very well just be projecting my delight at taking the photos onto my perception of the prints. The fact that they spoke to me didn't necessarily mean that they would say anything significant to anyone else. It was time to see what other people would make of them.

A week or so later, I nervously passed the pictures among a dozen or so people at what we call the Spectator salon, a monthly gathering of people loosely related to Spectator magazine. The response was enthusiastic. Two couples asked me on the spot if I would photograph them next. One couple wanted to buy copies of some prints to add to their collection of erotic photography. Hoping for a little positive encouragement, I came away with more response than I knew how to absorb. I'm not a photographer, I kept saying in my head; I'm a writer. But a new creative outlet was clearly rearing its seductive head, calling me in a way that I could hardly ignore.

I photographed both of the new couples who volunteered at the salon, two photo sessions that were very different from the first, but each with its own special feel and magic. Again, I was pleased with the results, as were the people who I had photographed. With an expanding portfolio to show prospective subjects, other couples turned up who also wanted to be recorded on film. Friends began recommending me to friends. Importantly, Cupido, the magazine I work for in Norway, began publishing many of my photos (they even put me on the cover of one issue), providing a way for me to finance the $500-1000 cost of each shoot. In some cases, I even managed to earn something over and above expenses.

As clichéd as it may sound, it is absolutely true that the power of any work of this kind is completely dependent on the people being photographed. It is they who choose to be real, to be vulnerable, to reveal so much of themselves to me and to the camera that it becomes possible to make worthwhile images from that raw material. I am always touched when people welcome me and the publicity of a camera into what is essentially the intensely personal, vulnerable, traditionally private world of their real sexual feelings. What I can offer them in return is the experience of the session itself and, most significantly, a set of prints that give them an opportunity to see something about themselves that really cannot be seen in any other way -- not by looking in the mirror during sex, not by setting up a camcorder to impersonally record some sexual act or encounter. Before I ever thought of taking sexual photographs myself, I had the experience of being photographed with several different partners, by several different photographers, and I know how deeply I cherish each of the images I now have that came out of those sessions.

In the last year and a half I have had the opportunity to photograph twenty different couples being sexual. Each session has been unique, but all have been remarkable experiences, both for me and for the people I have photographed. Happily, everyone I've worked with to date has been able to transcend any initial reluctance or nervousness and to thoroughly enjoy both the experience of the session and the photos that came from them. Many have said that being photographed in this way has been an important confirmation for them about both their physical appearance and their feelings about themselves as sexual people. One woman, confronting deep issues of how she felt about her body, even called the experience of the photo session one of the most important days of her life.

The bottom line of a successful sexual photo session, I believe, is that the people in it somehow come to feel comfortable with me and comfortable with the idea of being photographed while they are having sex. Only then can they possibly feel free to be their real sexual selves in front of the camera. Toward that end, I always meet with people, separate from the photo session, so that we can get to know each other, talk about what the session might be like, and go over any questions people may have that will help put them at ease. I ask people to let go of any notions they have about sexual performance, about whether or not they are conventionally attractive, about anything remotely related to glamour. What I'm looking for is not some preconceived notion of beauty or "sexiness" but a sense of real connection between lovers.

I make a point of acknowledging without apology that taking sexual photos is a sexually exciting experience for me. But I also make very clear that I there is no way I would ever try to insinuate my sexual feelings into a photo session in any way. I want the people I am working with to feel safe, sexually and emotionally, to know that they will be able to set whatever boundaries they want as the session proceeds. I encourage people to tell me immediately if I do anything that makes them uncomfortable, if I get closer to them than they want me to be, if they want me to stop taking pictures for a while, even if they want me to leave them completely alone for some time. I ask everyone, myself included, to try to leave all expectations at the door, to treat the session as a complete experiment, a venture into the unknown and the unknowable. Most of all, I put out he hope that we are all going to simply have fun with the entire experience.

Some sessions have been warm and cuddly, some hot and passionate. Some have wandered all over the emotional map. Sessions have lasted all day, or been as short as 45 minutes. Some people are openly exhibitionistic and find the presence of the camera to be an instant turn-on rather than an inhibition they have to overcome. Others begin feeling shy and awkward, unsure where or how to begin -- although even the most tentative people I've worked with have very quickly gotten past their uncertainty once we get started. Some people go into the cocoon their sexual world and ignore me almost completely. Others remain highly conscious of the camera and openly interact with me throughout the session. Half the fun for me is seeing how each session finds its own rhythm and spirit and watching how that energy shifts and changes over time.

In general, I prefer to follow the energy of the people I'm photographing rather than trying to lead or direct it. Sometimes I ask people to shift position so I can see them better; sometimes I suggest that they do something new. But mostly I try to leave people alone so they can show me who they are rather than having them try to fulfill any notion they may have of who they think I want them to be.

I'm constantly amazed at how intimate people are willing to be in my presence and in the presence of the camera. It's not just that they're willing to have sex in front of me, but that they're willing to be sexual in such open, honest, unpretentious, and unprotected ways. I've watched people show love for each other in ways that never happen in social gatherings, even among the best of friends. I've seen people with their masks off, their public personas completely dissolved. I've heard them unselfconsciously call each other and their body parts the most personal pet names. Each time people do this, they are trusting me to understand, honor, and honestly represent aspects of themselves that would be easy for an outsider to distort, manipulate, or misinterpret. I find this level of trust humbling, to say the least, and do my best to respond with respect for each person's precious individuality.

What started as a casual experiment with sexual photography has now become as central to my work of affirming and speaking honestly about sex as my writing has been for many years. I have photographed people ranging in age from 25 to 65, heavy as well as thin, disabled as well as able-bodied. I almost exclusively work with people who are in loving, long-term relationships, and photograph them in the familiarity of their own homes. I am always looking for new subjects -- people of all genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and sexual tastes. I feel fortunate to have found this work that is fun, exciting, creative, and performs a useful function in the world, and am eager to see where this path will lead from here.

For photo samples, see www.sexuality.org/l/davids/12-107-14.jpg, www.sexuality.org/l/davids/13-901-13.jpg, www.sexuality.org/l/davids/9-295-6.jpg, www.sexuality.org/l/davids/9-31-34.jpg David Steinberg, P.O. Box 2992, Santa Cruz, CA 95063 or 831.426.7082 or fax to 831.425.8825 or eronat@aol.com

© 2005 David Steinberg
 

Other Sexuality Issues, Books, Resources

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The sexual embrace can only be compared with music and with prayer. - Havelock Ellis



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