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;
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
columns are available at the Society for Human Sexuality's
"David Steinberg Archives": www.sexuality.org/davids.html
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 techniquean 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 artistsphotographers, perhaps, foremost among themwant 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 anotherone 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 genrework 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 allchildren as well as adults, fundamentalists as well as unabashed hedonists, villagers in third-world countries as well as big-city cosmopolitansat 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 societya 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 peoplepeople 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 asidewelcomes and honors, specifically, the pleasures of the bodywelcomes 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 seclusionto 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 anothera 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 impactthat 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 possibleboth 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 natureswhat gives them pleasure, what arouses them, what brings them joy and personal fulfillmentare 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 discomfortas 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
"The Gender Frontier," photographs and text by Mariette Pathy Allen, with essays by Grady Turner, Riki Wilchins, Jamison Green, and Milton Diamond, in English and German, Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg, 2003, 168 pages, ISBN 3-936636-04-4, $36.
The closet is neither plush nor womblike
Mariette Pathy Allen has been photographing gender outlaws since 1978, when she befriended a group of crossdressers who happened to be staying in her hotel. Her first book, "Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them," is a thoughtful, stereotype-busting collection of portraits that offer rare insight into the reality of who crossdressers really are, what motivates them to lead their lives as they do, and how those decisions affect their most intimate relationships with others.
Allen's new book, "The Gender Frontier," extends that perspective and insight from crossdressers to transsexuals -- the wider, rapidly-growing community of people who are increasingly asserting their right and desire to define gender for themselves -- and who, as a result, profoundly call into question the traditional notion that gender is a polar issue -- male or female -- defined at birth by the shape and nature of a person's genitals.
What distinguishes Allen's photography from so many other images of people who fall outside conventional notions of male-female polarity is the depth of her understanding of, and identification with, the people she is photographing. For 25 years, Allen has immersed herself in the transgender world -- attending transgender conventions and gatherings, participating in protests and lobbying efforts around transgender issues -- developing close friendships with dozens of transgender individuals along the way. Wherever Allen has gone, her camera has gone with her -- recording, documenting, probing everything from mass public action to intimate personal involvements. Over time, she has come to be trusted and welcomed by the transgender community as a true friend and fellow-traveler -- someone who is not only sympathetic to the issues of transgender equality, but who also understands that the issues raised by transgender people are important for non-transgender people too. As a result of that trust, Allen is able to photograph her friends and subjects at a level of intimacy and honesty not available to someone who comes to transgender issues as an outsider.
Because she refuses to see her transgender subjects as people fundamentally different from herself, Allen's photographs challenge the reflexive urge of non-transgender people to draw cut-and-dried lines between Us and Them, Self and Other. Because she sees breaking down rigid notions of gender as an important personal and political dynamic for everyone, Allen's photography pushes non-transgender people to see that the people who define their gender in unconventional ways are fundamentally people very much like the rest of us, rather than people who are somehow alien souls.
Overcoming a sense of separation between people living outside social acceptability and people who stay within the boundaries of social norms and privilege is no small feat when the subject in question is gender variation. Traditional notions of gender powerfully color how we order, classify, and make sense out of ourselves and the world around us. It's hardly surprising that most of us therefore hold on to our notions of gender order and classification tightly, rigidly, and that we easily diminish individuals who fall outside the realm of gender respectability from people to phenomena, from first-class citizens to freaks, from members of the human family to strange visitors from some great beyond. We may treat these outsiders with deference rather than hostility, with curiosity rather than disdain, but most of us tend to see people who we can't easily classify as men or women as outsiders nevertheless.
Perhaps the most remarkable quality of the photos in "The Gender Frontier" is that they work so effectively to kick us out of these divisive, dismissive habits. Allen's ability to relate to her subjects as true friends, intimates, and fellow-travelers on the road of life is transmitted by her photographs to viewers who may be far less familiar with this growing community of gender pioneers. Her camera consistently incorporates the respect with which Allen sees her subjects, her appreciation of their fundamental humanity, and her identification with their particular struggle to overcome widespread fear and misunderstanding. Her photographs offer her inclusive, affectionate vision to us -- inviting us to come inside the illuminating, and in many ways transformative, possibilities that are created when we leave traditional notions of gender and gender immutability behind.
When we look at the photos in "The Gender Frontier," we are vividly aware that the people in these images do not conform to the fixed notions of man and woman, male and female, that are the staples of our daily diet of gender confirmation and reassurance. As we turn the pages, we are gradually but powerfully inundated with images -- sometimes striking, sometimes quite mundane -- of people we cannot easily identify, classify, sort, and file into the well-worn categories of our severely limited gender vocabulary. And yet, on another level, we cannot help but notice that these uncategorizable photographic subjects are simply people pursuing the same joys, suffering many of the same frustrations, asking for the same basic satisfactions from their lives as everyone else.
Cas, a female-to-male transsexual who has had to endure the refusal of most of his family to accept his transsexuality, plays affectionately with his infant grandchild while his daughter smiles her appreciation and love. Marla, a painter, sculptor, and writer who used to be an undercover narcotics agent named Mike, paints with her perhaps-10-year-old daughter, both of their attentions riveted to the canvas. Maxwell and Corissa, both transgender, share an affectionate kiss in a suds-filled bathtub.
Each photo is a testament to the possibility of experiencing life's most basic joys, even if one dares to violate some of society's most basic expectations and dictates. Each photo affirms the universality of certain human experiences, no matter how atypical a person's sense of self may be.
Other photos in "The Gender Frontier" document experiences, struggles, and issues that are specific to the transgender community -- often issues of fighting against injustice and inequality. Robert Eads says farewell to hundreds of fellow transsexuals two months before dying of ovarian cancer that twenty doctors and three hospitals refused to treat because Robert did not fit into their notions of male and female. A transgender woman dissolves into tears while speaking at the memorial for her friend, Amanda Milan, a male-to-female transsexual viciously murdered in New York while a line of cab drivers watched and cheered. A series of photos follow Tonye's transition to Tony, her shift from female to male, including vivid images of both Tonye's double mastectomy and Tony's phalloplasty (penis construction).
People whose natures call up other people's fears and biases have to deal with issues that more conventionally-oriented individuals are privileged to ignore. But the issues that each transgender person must face in deciding to honor their internal sense of gender are issues that other people must deal with as well, albeit in substantially less wrenching ways. How much do any of us give up aspects of who we are in order to accommodate the expectations and comfort needs of the people around us? How much do we limit our sense of self and of life to avoid potential hostility, condemnation, or even disapproval of our friends and family? How much do we insist, explicitly or implicitly, that the people around us fulfill our detailed expectations of them, lest they force us to examine uncomfortable issues and feelings within ourselves?
These are the sorts of questions that Mariette Pathy Allen raises with "The Gender Frontier." One section of the book, devoted to political activism around transgender issues, documents the growing movements to extend equal rights to transgender people, and to protest the extreme violence that transgender people so often encounter. The other three sections of the book -- dealing with youth, portraits, and more extensive narratives of selected individuals -- focus on more personal expositions of what it means to live one's life outside traditional gender definitions.
There was a slogan during the political activism of the 1960s and 70s, affirming that "the personal is political" -- that all the details of how people lead their personal lives have political content and political consequence. Nowhere is this more true than around questions of sex and gender, where what should properly be the most individual and personal of choices often subjects individuals to fierce social and political punishment, ranging anywhere from social disapproval to active discrimination to arrest to physical violence.
Mariette Pathy Allen has long been campaigning with her
camera for understanding, acceptance, and personal growth
around the questions of gender, gender diffusion, and gender
fluidity. "The Gender Frontier" presents a sampling of her
voluminous work on these issues in book form for the first
time. It is a look into the heart of the gender matrix well
It's no easy thing to capture the subtlety and complexity of s/m play in a photograph.
There are, to be sure, thousands of fetish photos and dozens of fetish photography books that seem (or claim) to have something to do with s/m -- displaying glamorous (mostly) women (mostly), clad in photogenic leather, latex, vinyl, and metal, adopting a variety of iconic poses and attitudes collected from the grand archive of stock fashion photos that have appeared in mainstream media over the last decade or two.
But these images and books, while appropriating the superficial paraphernalia and iconography of s/m in order to sell everything from clothes to cars to beer to newspapers, and also to feed the stylized sexual fantasies of viewers who have little knowledge of (or genuine interest in) sadomasochism, have precious little to do with the emotional and sexual reality that forms the basis of real BDSM play.
Few photographers have chosen (or dared) to tackle the complex task of getting something genuine about intimate s/m interaction on film. Michael Rosen's groundbreaking book, "Sexual Magic: The S/M Photographs," published in 1986 when s/m chic had barely begun to make its impact on the national media, is one noteworthy exception. Rosen's complex, grainy images of people whose involvement with s/m is deep and essential -- certainly neither a sexy little game nor a fashion statement -- offered the first extensive artful photographic vision in book form of the real interpersonal dynamics that lie at the core of s/m.
Now Barbara Nitke, a talented New York fine art photographer adds her own powerfully truthful portrayal of what she provocatively calls "a romantic view of sadomasochism" with the release of "Kiss of Fire," a brilliant first volume of her thoughtful, beautiful, transportive s/m imagery.
Nitke has been photographing the s/m scene passionately since 1994. She moved into New York's s/m world cautiously, shepherded by friends who wanted to introduce her to a world they thought would interest her photographically. She felt captivated by the depth of the personal connections she saw in people engaged in s/m play at meetings and play parties sponsored by The Eulenspiegel Society, New York's oldest s/m support, education, and social organization.
"For many months," she writes in her introduction to "Kiss of Fire," "I attended meetings without ever bringing a camera. I knew I wanted to take pictures, but I couldn't define what it was that so fascinated me. Eventually I realized that while the mechanics of sadomasochism and the other various activities and rituals were interesting, they were not my particular focus. I was drawn to the lovers. I couldn't help watching them together at parties, flying on their endorphins, lost in each other. I wanted to capture the bond between them, and also the intense energy of ritual, passionate SM. I wanted to photograph deep intimacy and trust, the two main concepts which underlie most SM practices. Gradually I got up the courage to ask some of the couples if they would allow me to photograph them. And gradually they began to agree."
Communicating the reality of s/m interaction is challenging, in part because so much of what happens in s/m runs directly counter to everything we've been taught about sex, intimacy, love, and pleasure. Tenderness experienced through whipping? Personal empowerment through submission? Intimacy through abandonment? Pleasure through pain? What strange ideas these are to people who have no personal experience with s/m, and never witnessed others in the throes of a transformative s/m scene. And yet all of these dynamics are all utterly familiar, powerfully important, and quite matter-of-factly real to anyone who has made s/m play a significant part of his or her personal and sexual life.
As one skillful and perceptive pro domme in New York once observed to me during an interview: "S/m is like the stained glass windows of a church: From the outside they don't look like much, but when you're inside, they're beautiful. But you can't know that unless you go in. It's hard to explain to someone on the outside what s/m is like because it looks so different from the outside from what it really is."
It is difficult for any photograph, or any series of photographs -- even a skillfully rendered photographic collection of the sort that appears in "Kiss of Fire" -- to convey to a viewer who has not personally entered the s/m world, the multi-layered physical sensations and the rich interpersonal dynamics that are at the heart of s/m, that draw people so powerfully to s/m. Even when a photographer of great sensitivity and skill -- and Barbara Nitke is certainly one such -- emphatically rejects the emotionally cold, glamour-ridden fetish images of mainstream media and advertising, even when a photographer directs his or her attention to the important s/m interactions of real, non-glamorous s/m devotees, the first impression that will strike any casual or careless viewer of an s/m photograph is still likely to be precisely the opposite of what's really going on.
Where a photo is showing love, an inattentive viewer may see cruelty. Where intimacy and attention are the heart of the matter, a closed-minded viewer may only see abuse. Where the liberation of trusting surrender is being depicted, a viewer projecting his or her own personal material may see nothing more than pathetic powerlessness. The more significant, more complex, more interesting, and certainly more compelling emotional realities often lie below the surface of an s/m photograph, requiring more than a moment's glance, and more than a fearfully dismissive eye, to be perceived.
Speaking truthfully and mysteriously about the emotional and sexual dynamics of s/m is precisely the complicated task that Barbara Nitke undertakes in "Kiss of Fire" -- for the benefit of s/m innocents and s/m enthusiasts alike. The subtitle of her book, "a romantic view of sadomasochism," throws down the gauntlet of confronting common misconceptions about s/m in no uncertain terms. Romance in sadomasochism? Let the uninitiated be warned: Whatever stereotyping thoughts about s/m you may have in your head from years of exposure to mainstream media foolishness are about to be challenged by the images in this book. Prepare for the unexpected, and be ready to take time to absorb these images in depth if you want to expose yourself to the powerful emotional forces and enigmas they contain. To those who live inside the church, Nitke brings a parallel, though entirely different core message: Here are photographs that you can trust to understand, appreciate, celebrate, and confirm the radiance of light as seen through beautiful, carefully constructed windows of multi-colored glass.
Nitke's photographs, taken with infrared film "because it renders skin in an otherworldly white tone" and has a graininess to "enhance the [photos'] romantic effect," address a broad range of emotional facets common in s/m play. There is power, intensity, intimacy, tenderness, unconventional beauty, and even humor here -- all bearing witness to the rich connections that animate the variously kinky sexual play of her subjects.
In "Antonia in Heaven," we watch as a mistress focuses her precise attention on the exact spot where her flashing cane meets the exposed, clothespinned skin of her subject's bare butt, the pursed lips of the woman wielding the cane showing every bit as much intensity as the open-mouthed shout of the woman receiving the blow.
In "Neville and Sarah," a man watches his partner's face with the complete attention demanded by the fact that his hand is pressed firmly into her throat, completely controlling when and whether she will breathe again.
In a series of three photographs, "April and Monica at the Hotel 17," a cross-dressed man first flogs, then spanks, then lovingly embraces and envelops the body and energy of his ecstatic partner.
In "Madame and mine," a delicately small-boned woman cradles the head of her bound and gagged lover against her nude body, looking down into his streaming eyes with exquisite tenderness and love.
In "Horse Farm," a man and woman engage in "pony play" -- him riding on her back in an open field while directing her with the bit she holds in her mouth -- while both of them are questioningly observed by a more conventional horse that stands only a foot or two away, appearing to wonder what on earth these strange humans are up to.
The 61 photos in "Kiss of Fire" present a stunning, complex and uncompromisingly truthful panorama of s/m sexual play and interaction. Nitke's supplemental notes about the photographs at the end of the book -- telling some of the stories of what was happening behind-the-scenes and why, give readers an opportunity for further perspective and understanding of the images.
This is a book for all who would move beyond misconceptions and stereotypes to gain an understanding of a sexual preference and lifestyle all too commonly vilified and subjected to personal, legal, and political attack -- and also a treasure for those who have made s/m play a significant part of their lives and are hungry for artful recognition and reflection.
[Autographed copies of "Kiss of Fire," as well as
photo galleries, biographical information, and background on
her work, are available from Barbara Nitke at her website,
At 5 p.m. on Wednesday, May 5, three undercover vice squad officers walked into San Francisco's the nearly empty New Century lap-dancing theater and were, they say, all openly and unapologetically solicited for sex almost before their eyes had adjusted to the darkness. On May 18, an identical scenario unfolded at the Market Street Cinema. Nine dancers and three club managers were arrested during the two raids. The dancers were charged with prostitution, the managers with "keeping a house of ill repute."
It's not clear why, after years of turning a blind eye to long-standing sexual activity in the clubs, the vice squad decided to raid the theaters. The timing was especially odd given that San Francisco Police Chief Heather Fong and Vice Squad Lt. Joe Dutto had recently met with District Attorney Kamala Harris and agreed to postpone police action at the clubs until issues related to "abuse of the dancers, police misconduct during [past] arrests, and selective enforcement" could be addressed, according to a press release from the DA's Office.
San Francisco Chronicle columnists Philip Matier and Andrew Ross suggest the vice squad may have dumped the politically delicate prostitution issue into Harris' lap to get back at her for not seeking the death sentence for an alleged cop killer in a recent, widely publicized murder case. Veteran sex-work activist Carol Leigh thinks the raids were prompted by an article, five months earlier, in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, that described sexual activity in the clubs, including allegations by some dancers that they were subject to "coercion and assault" in the clubs' private booths. Vice inspector Rich McNaughton says police wanted to check the prosecutorial resolve of the Newsom-Harris administration around sex-work issues. "Not knowing what the new D.A. was going to do with these cases, we felt we had to test the waters," he says.
Whatever the police motivation, Harris set all political delicacy aside when she announced, a month after the raids, that she had no intention of prosecuting any of the people who had been arrested. "Prostitution and regulatory violations at the clubs raise complex issues involving worker safety, exploitation of women, equity, and fair notice," she said in a statement dismissing the arrests. Until she had time to examine these issues more carefully, she said, she was not about to invest her office's time or money on anything as inconsequential as lap dancing. She announced the formation of an "Adult Clubs Working Group," co-chaired by her office and the office of the city attorney, to examine issues related to the lap-dancing clubs and "develop enforcement options" for the future.
While Harris is not going so far as to publicly support decriminalization of prostitution in San Francisco, she has said for the record that 1) her primary concern about the lap-dancing theaters is the safety of the women who work there, not the sexual nature of their work, and 2) she intends to "prioritize murders, rapes, and narcotics crimes higher than whether people are paying for consensual sex in the theaters' private booths."
Twenty-five years after nude dancers first came down from the stage to sit with amazed customers at San Franciscos Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre, hundreds of lap-dancing clubs comprise a network of entertainment and commerce that is a significant part of the sexual culture of every major American city, and many minor ones as well. The tenor of lap-dancing clubs varies from elegant to sleazy; working conditions run the gamut from pleasant to abominable; income for dancers can be anything from extravagant to minimal. Lap-dance privacy within the clubs goes from nonexistent to near-complete, and the degree of sexual contact slides from none to playful wriggling to surreptitious touching to full sexuality -- depending on local laws, law enforcement priorities, club policies, individual dancer preferences, even time of day.
People in other parts of the country laugh at San Franciscans for thinking they're the most evolved sexual citizens on the planet, but San Francisco has a long history of leading the nation in matters of sex, sex work, and sexual openness. Kamala Harris' decision to refocus the concerns of law enforcement -- from moral indignation over lap dancing to the protection of lap dancers -- has all but decriminalized prostitution that happens in a private booth at a strip club, rather than on the street. The decision reflects a largely unpublicized consensus among politicians, neighborhood groups, strip club owners, dancers, and customers on the value of private sexual entertainment to San Francisco. The decision also has the potential to influence the policies of other cities as they craft their own responses to this latest addition to the American sex-entertainment palette.
Lap dancing came to San Francisco in 1980 when Jim and Artie Mitchell decided to have dancers at their O'Farrell Theatre sit, nude, on the laps of guys in the audience, for tips. The innovation put a whole new face on sexual entertainment in the city. Suddenly, for a $1 tip, guys in the audience could sit with, roll around with, and (to some ill-defined extent) touch the nude bodies of their revered fantasy objects. The "fourth wall" of theater -- the imaginary barrier behind which an audience separates itself from the action of a play -- had been torn down. Fantasy and reality were one.
The Mitchell brothers didn't invent lap dancing. That distinction goes to New York's Melody Theater, which pioneered the idea of strip shows with audience participation, both on- and offstage, during the 1970s. But when the Mitchell brothers brought lap dancing to their extravagant San Francisco sex-show palace, the idea took off as it never had in New York.
It wasn't long before the Market Street Cinema copied the O'Farrell's new form, followed by many of the city's other strip clubs. As is so often the case, the rest of the country was alert to what was happening sexually in San Francisco. Within a decade, lap dancing had established itself from coast to coast as a new, often predominant, form of sexual entertainment.
As substantial tips for lap dances supplanted wages and stage tips as the core of dancers' income, San Francisco club owners realized they could stop paying dancers wages -- and proceeded to do just that. "Our dancers work entirely for tips," announcers proclaimed over club loudspeakers, encouraging the audience to fill the salary gap by being generous with the women wriggling on patrons' laps. What else was transpiring between customers and dancers varied widely -- from club to club, dancer to dancer, seat location to seat location, and mayoral administration to mayoral administration.
In the early 1990s, the clubs began charging dancers "stage fees" -- fees dancers paid the clubs for each shift they worked. At first the fees were minimal -- $10 or $15 for an eight-hour shift. There was grumbling about the clubs taking a cut of tips, but over time dancers adjusted to the new policies.
In 1993, however, when some clubs hiked stage fees to $25 per shift, dancer resistance grew strident and organized. One group of women -- led by Dawn Passar, a fine art photographer and tirelessly energetic dancer at the Market Street Cinema -- formed the Exotic Dancers Alliance and began to file protests with the San Francisco Labor Commission. Dancers, the Alliance argued, were employees, not independent contractors as club owners claimed. As employees, they insisted, they were entitled to hourly wages, and to the basic protections of California labor laws -- laws that prohibit employers from harassing workers, firing workers without cause, charging workers for the "right to work," or taking a share of workers' tips.
The Labor Commission ruled in the dancers' favor in late 1995. Clubs were ordered to pay dancers wages, and to stop charging stage fees. Dancer Carla Williams was awarded $52,600 for back wages, stage fees, and penalties.
Dancers in other parts of the country began filing claims with their own labor commissions. Court rulings in Oregon, Alaska, and Texas all affirmed that dancers were indeed employees rather than independent contractors. Dancers who sued for return of stage fees and back wages almost universally won their cases.
In San Francisco, meanwhile, Ellen Vickery and Jennifer Bryce, two ex-dancers at the O'Farrell Theatre, pursued a class-action suit against the theater in the name of more than 500 ex-dancers, eventually winning a monumental $2.85 million judgment.
A big change was in the wind. "There is definitely a trend favoring employee status over contractor status," admitted attorney Nanci Clarence, who represented the Mitchell brothers in the Vickery suit. "Any club without awareness of the legal landscape is wearing blinders."
At the beginning of 1996, three factors converged, completely changing the nature of San Francisco lap dancing. First, the Labor Commission ruling forced the Market Street Cinema to begin dealing with dancers as bona fide employees. Second, San Francisco's flamboyant new mayor, Willie Brown, and radical new district attorney, Terence Hallinan, took office, bringing a decidedly more sex-positive and sex-work-positive perspective to City Hall. Finally, neighborhood groups in downtown San Francisco -- aware that the city's Task Force on Prostitution was about to issue a report urging the city to "immediately stop enforcing and prosecuting misdemeanor and felony [state prostitution] laws" -- undertook a vigorous campaign to protest prostitution on the streets.
It's anyone's guess how important each of these factors was in what happened next, but in January 1996, the owners of the Market Street Cinema redesigned their club, constructing a number of private booths -- small rooms with chairs and upholstered platforms, protected from prying eyes by dim lighting and curtains -- while raising the fees they collected from dancers from $25 to $120 per shift.
In an interview, Habib Caruba, a Market Street Cinema owner, argued that the new fees were not a share of dancers' tips but the club's share of lap dances sold by dancers on commission. Nevertheless, he noted ominously, dancers whose "commission sales" delivered less than $120 a shift to the club would face review, suspension, and potential loss of their jobs.
The new rationale for collecting fees from dancers was eventually ruled just as illegal as stage fees, but by then the Exotic Dancers Alliance had become moribund, dancer protest had receded, and the new arrangement -- raised fees, private booths, and all -- had become accepted protocol citywide.
By installing private booths, the Market Street Cinema simultaneously increased its take from dancers, penalized dancers (dancers alleged) for their victory at the Labor Commission, provided a way for dancers who were willing to be more sexual with customers to earn enough to pay the inflated fees, and moved a portion of the city's sex work indoors and out of the range of neighborhood complaints.
Other clubs followed the Cinema's lead, creating private spaces of varying forms and raising fees charged to dancers to as much as $360 per shift. The private areas at the O'Farrell Theatre had comfortable couches, curtains, and lights to announce which spaces were occupied. The cubicles at Centerfolds contained nothing but a chair and were not curtained at all.
Perhaps not coincidentally, as the booths came into use, the vice squad stopped checking clubs for illegal sexual activity. Perhaps also not coincidentally, there was, according to San Francisco prostitute-rights activists, a noticeable increase in police activity against prostitutes working the streets.
How much of this arrangement was a deal among club owners, city officials, and police? How much of it came about by tacit understanding? How much of it was pure coincidence? Willie Brown's prior legal representation of Market Street Cinema then-co-owner Sam Conti raises at least some hypothetical eyebrows. Whatever the political mechanism, a new era of sexual entertainment and sexual commerce had been inaugurated for the City and County of San Francisco.
This new system -- while working to the clear benefit of club owners, neighborhood groups, and sex workers interested in doing business inside the clubs -- also had (and still has) its detractors. Dancers who found themselves at clubs with private booths, but who did not want to engage in sex with customers, were angry at having to pay huge new stage fees. Many felt they had to choose between working at clubs without private booths and dropping out of the lap-dancing/stripping scene entirely. Others were angry that their victory in overturning the independent contractor artifice had been used against them.
Since 1996, activist, ex-dancer, and organizer Daisy Anarchy has been the principal voice of these dancers' discontent. For eight years, Anarchy -- mother of an 13-year-old daughter and fiery campaigner for women's and prostitutes' rights -- has vociferously protested both the increased stage fees and the sexual activity that takes place in clubs with private booths. Her position is a delicate one: protesting sexual activity in the clubs while simultaneously supporting prostitution more generally as a legitimate sexual activity worthy of decriminalization.
Anarchy walks this ideological tightrope by focusing on the illegality of the augmented stage fees, which, she says, pressure women into prostitution; on building-code regulations she says are violated by the private booths; and on the danger of physical assault and harassment, which, she claims, exists for women when they are alone with customers in booths. Anarchy says that several dancers have filed police reports alleging coercion and assault in the booths.
D.A. spokeswoman Debbie Mesloh confirms that some reports of coercion and assault were filed years ago, when Anarchy was still working in the clubs. But current dancers vigorously deny that the booths are unsafe, and SFPD vice inspector McNaughton says he has no knowledge of any report of rape or assault at the clubs being filed with police in recent years.
Many dancers and other sex workers in San Francisco's vocal and politically organized sex-work community strongly disagree with Anarchy's objections to private booths and to sexual activity in the clubs. When Anarchy went so far as to advocate police intervention to arrest club owenrs for "pimping,", she alienated sex workers who felt, nearly unanimously, that police action would only result in harassment and prosecution of dancers without doing anything about the stage fees. Indeed, that is precisely what happened in the recent club raids, which Anarchy herself condemned.
"I've known Daisy for many years, and I know she means well," says sex-work activist Carol Leigh, "but it's upsetting when we have people coming up with repressive strategies to deal with these issues. Instead of 'not in my back yard,' we have strippers saying 'not in my strip club.' Daisy wants to return stripping to the old days, but we can't roll back the clock on what has become part of the evolution of sex work in our culture.
"I'd like to see dancers speak for themselves about what they want in the clubs. Most strippers I talk to do not want to see the private booths closed. The city should enforce existing labor regulations and empower strippers to come up with their own recommendations of how to improve their working conditions."
Terrance Alan is a queer activist, president of San Francisco's Late Night Coalition, and past chairman of the San Francisco Entertainment Commission. He is also the landlord of a lap-dancing club in downtown San Francisco. Alan complains that Anarchy's portrayal of lap-dancing clubs as places where women are forced into prostitution is grossly inaccurate. "These women are more like athletes at the top of their game than helpless victims," he says.
Alan feels that a stripper caucus within his Late Night Coalition could provide an effective political voice for dancer concerns. "Strippers are saying they have a legitimate part in the entertainment industry. The question is how the city can design a policy to protect public health and safety in adult entertainment venues without discriminating against that activity. If safety is our primary concern, it's not clear there's even a problem that needs to be fixed. Eliminating private rooms is not the answer. There are enclosed anterooms at Davies Symphony Hall and the Opera House. There are private rooms in restaurants and in convention hotels.
"The Late Night Coalition believes in civil liberties and the rights of adults to choose their entertainment. If the D.A. feels the evidence in these cases does not rise to the level of a prosecutable offense, then that activity is supported by the LNC.
"This is, after all, the milieu that has made San Francisco what it is for over 100 years."
Nancy Banks is the main organizer of a group of dancers alternately known as Success to Retire Into Prosperity (STRIP) and the Strippers Society of San Francisco (SSSF) -- a group that claims to be "the real voice of current active dancers in San Francisco," one of whose main purposes is "to stop Daisy Anarchy." Banks says her group has more than 100 members from most of the strip and lap-dancing clubs in the city. In addition to providing a forum for dancers to discuss work issues and counter Anarchy politically, Banks says, group meetings have brought speakers to talk to dancers about investment options, real estate, 401(k) retirement plans, group health insurance, and child-care arrangements responsive to the unusual schedule needs and social stigma attached to working as a stripper.
"I've seen lots of beautiful girls come into the industry and not utilize the money they make to have a powerful position in their lives, and so end up feeling defeated. As sex workers you have so many stigmas attached to you that you don't feel like you are capable of doing good things with your money. We want to work with dancers to effectively use what we do every day for our future."
Banks says that conditions have changed since 1996, that hostility between managers and dancers is "history," and that most dancers who currently work in clubs with private booths accept the sexual nature of work in those clubs and the stage fees. She feels the fees are legitimate, given the benefits that clubs provide dancers -- both those who do sex work and those who do not.
"We're not on the streets," she says. "The managers run the clubs, make sure we have customers. We're provided with an enclosed area, private booths, a safe work environment, security guards, panic buttons, and managers who are willing to work with us on areas of disagreement." She says current managers generally support and cooperate with dancers, settle disagreements between customers and dancers in a businesslike way, and are conscious of dancers' economic issues -- scheduling limited numbers of dancers during slow daytime work shifts, for example.
Banks denies there is physical danger for dancers in private booths. "It's not like being in a hotel room with doors and locks. We have panic buttons that light up in the manager's office when we push them. One time, I hit the panic button by mistake, and within seconds there were four security guards and a manager at my booth to find out what was wrong. Once guys are in the private rooms, they're in our space, our office. If we're not comfortable with something, we just walk out of the room."
Since the recent police raids, Banks has met with Kamala Harris and with representatives of the City Attorney's Office, the Police Department, and the Department of Building Inspection. It was a meeting set up by the District Attorney's Office, says D.A. spokeswoman Debbie Mesloh. Banks says Harris was respectful of dancers' concerns and invited input from dancers on conditions in the clubs.
Harris has also met with Daisy Anarchy, according to Mesloh. A meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women to hear testimony from dancers and others "regarding labor and safety conditions of exotic dancers in San Francisco" is scheduled for Sept. 22.
"One of the top priorities for Kamala when she took office was the exploitation of women," says Mesloh. "Is she going to prosecute sex between consenting adults in the clubs? No. But if there's exploitation in the clubs, she wants to address it. She also wants to place the issue of prostitution in context, addressing not just the prostitutes, but also johns, pimps, and club owners."
Two issues that remain unaddressed by both police and the District Attorney's Office are the continued collection of illegal stage fees by virtually all strip and lap-dancing clubs in the city, and the failure of the clubs to pay dancers wages, despite repeated rulings by the San Francisco Labor Commission, San Francisco Superior Court, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission requiring such pay.
Mesloh acknowledges the illegality of the current situation, which she says is under review by the district attorney. In the meantime, she says, dancers have the option of bringing civil suits or class-action suits against the clubs.
While dancers who bring suit for back wages and stage fees almost always win their cases, few dancers take the clubs to court. The main reason for this, according to dancers, is the acute social stigma associated with stripping, lap dancing, or any form of sex-related work.
Gennifer Hirano, who holds what she calls a "moderate stripper perspective," feels that police intervention in lap-dancing clubs is wrong, no matter how much sexual activity is going on. "I was horrified that women were arrested for prostitution at the clubs," she says. "It always feels like an invasion when institutionalized authority is brought in."
At 27, Hirano has worked at the Crazy Horse, New Century, and Boys Toys theaters. She recently left the clubs to set up an independent outcall stripping service. Hirano is also a writer, photographer, and filmmaker. Her bitingly funny short film, 1-900-ASIANPRINCESS -- the story of an outcall stripper who turns the tables on three obnoxious and potentially abusive customers -- was a hit at the third San Francisco Sex Worker Film Festival last year.
When she left the strip-club scene, Hirano became one of the few dancers to sue her past employers to retrieve back wages and stage fees. She negotiated a settlement of $18,000 in back fees from the Crazy Horse Theater, and an additional $1,200 settlement for three shifts she worked at Boys Toys. She plans to use her settlement money to attend graduate school. "It's like a tax refund," she says, "money I paid out that then got refunded to me."
Hirano, who did not engage in sexual activity when she was working at the clubs, confesses that she initially had negative feelings about dancers who did sex work there. "I didn't want to have anything to do with any woman who was doing more than dance. I didn't understand why you would do that, when you can just sit on a guy's lap, touch his hair, and make good money. I used to think all sex workers were dysfunctional, that the best thing was for everyone to get out of sex work as soon as possible, that the more sex work you did, the more fucked up you were inside. I saw sex work as an addiction. 'Am I always going to be naked? Is this the only way I can make money?' I understand it differently now. Everyone has their own limits and boundaries, and they're all valid.
"I had to address my internalized stigma when I decided to go to the Labor Commission to get back my stage fees. Why would you think, as a stripper, that you could get justice? But the Labor Commission is used to these suits. They don't treat you as anything less than if you were working in a garment factory. They're not judgmental. They don't initiate enforcement, but they're responsive to dancers when they bring in their complaints.
"We have internalized so much social stigma associated with sex work, even as strippers. Once I realized where all this anger and hatred was coming from, I became proud of myself instead of hating myself. Sex work is a wonderful way to survive. It's all about asserting control and power. Women have always known how to use their bodies for survival.
"Learning how to marry a rich man is nothing more than nuclear-family-model sex work."
The face and form of sexual entertainment and sex work evolve over time, not unlike nonsexual cultural expressions, shaped by changing social and economic conditions, shifting mores, and the creative ingenuity of opportunistic entrepreneurs and the broad range of people who choose work that puts their bodies on the line for sexual arousal or fulfillment.
True to its tradition, San Francisco has for the last 25 years been in the vanguard of the particular sexual form called lap dancing -- by introducing lap dancing to national consciousness, by developing physical environments that allowed the blending of lap dancing with sexual interaction between dancers and customers, and, most recently, with a district attorney's bold redirection of official concern about this sex-entertainment hybrid from questions of moral imposition and indignation to more practical matters relating to the health, safety, and working conditions of sex workers.
How this will play out over time -- in San Francisco, and in the rest of the country as well -- is far from settled. The local political reactions to Harris' decision not to prosecute lap-dancing arrests have yet to emerge.
Vice inspector McNaughton says that police will continue to enforce prostitution laws in lap-dancing venues. Harris' new Adult Clubs Working Group has yet to make its recommendations. A poll of San Franciscans by the David Binder Research Group, commissioned by the Sex Worker Outreach Project last month, showed "overwhelming support" for decriminalization of prostitution in the city, according to Project coordinator Robyn Few.
Just as Gavin Newsom's decision to give same-sex marriage
the blessing of City Hall catapulted public awareness of
that issue to a broad new plateau, so has Kamala Harris'
stance regarding arrests for sexual activity in lap-dancing
clubs dramatically shifted the framework for public
discussion of sex work in San Francisco. Whatever happens
next will send legal, cultural, and political shock waves
far beyond the boundaries of the sexually adventurous City
by the Bay.
Perhaps the walls of the sex ghetto are starting to break down, at least a little. Aperture, the highly respected fine art photography publisher, has just published "Love & Lust," a groundbreaking book of images by Life/Time/New York Times Magazine photojournalist Donna Ferrato.
There are two remarkable things about "Love & Lust," aside from the specifics of Ferrato's photography. The first is that Aperture, one of the best known of the generally sex-shunning fine art photography publishers, would issue a book that is primarily a collection of sexual and sex-related photographs, some of them quite graphic. (Of the book's 125 photographs, only about 35 are not about sexual desire in some form. Furthermore, the sexual photos are mostly about distinctly unconventional sex -- the annual Lifestyles gatherings of thousands of swingers; Plato's Retreat, New York's famous, now-defunct sexual playspace; and the s/m world of The Eulenspiegel Society, also in New York.)
The second surprise is that, although "Love & Lust" is an unapologetic celebration of broad and diverse sexuality, it is, nevertheless, not essentially a sex book because it's theme and subject are much broader than sex alone.
Melissa Harris, the editor at Aperture who sequenced and provided much of the vision behind "Love & Lust," speaks warmly of the book as an affirmation of "our right to our bodies, our right to our own sexuality." But, when I praise Aperture for publishing a book of sexual photography, she quickly insists that "Love & Lust" is not a book of sexual photography at all, and certainly not a political statement about sex. Aperture is not about political statements, Harris asserts. "We always start with the artist or the work," she says, not with politics. "The questions we ask about an artist's work are: 'Is it showing me something I don't already know? Is it showing me a mood I've never experienced? Is it going to wake me up to the world in a particular way? The great thing about art is that it can take you somewhere else, allow for that moment of transcendence."
This particular book project did indeed begin with its photographer, Donna Ferrato, whose celebrated documentation of domestic violence, "Living with the Enemy," was published by Aperture in 1991. Harris had long been excited about the possibility of publishing more of Ferrato's work, and was particularly eager to publish Ferrato's photodocumentation of the swinger subculture, a world that Ferrato has been participating in and photographing for 25 years.
When Harris began to sequence Ferrato's photographs of people at Plato's Retreat and the Lifestyles conventions, however, she realized that a collection that was exclusively photos of swingers would be "something of a one-note book." She decided that a book about "the whole spectrum of love and lust would be much more interesting, more textured." And so the concept of "Love & Lust" was expanded to include photographs that would address love and lust together, as two interconnected aspects of vibrant, joyful life.
What a simple, yet radical, idea -- that a book unafraid to show photos of hard cocks, bare pussies, fucking, fellatio, cunnilingus, masturbation, group sex, public sex, gay sex, s/m sex, even animal sex -- could place that directly sexual material in a context that went beyond sex to celebrate passionate life more broadly, passionate life that does not separate love from lust but wraps the two together in one life-affirming, boundary-annihilating package.
What a radical, sensible idea -- that a book with a graphic image of four men simultaneously pleasuring one woman could also have an image of a young girl eating breakfast while riding on her father's shoulders; that a book with an image of five hundred couples intimately massaging one another could also have an image of a nude young child sensuously nursing and playing with nipple of his nude mother; that a book with an image of a masked man suspended upside down while his alligator-clipped penis is slapped and a man with a hard-on watches from a nearby cage could also have an image of a young boy delightedly fondling the long blond hair of his younger sister; that a book with a photo of man licking the pussy of his vinyl-clad wife in a hotel elevator could also have an image of a girl lovingly embracing her dying great-grandmother -- that all of these photos had a common message -- about the power of loving, physical connection, including but not limited to the power of sexual desire and sexual fulfillment.
American attitudes about sex are so supercharged -- so saturated with morality, guilt, fascination, titillation, attraction, and repulsion -- that most of us have become incapable of relating to sex in anything like the ways we relate to other important aspects of human existence and interaction. All the usual ways of talking and thinking about life, relationship, and human emotion tend to get thrown out the window whenever the topic of sex comes up. Sex, we have repeatedly been told, implicitly and explicitly, is a special case, different somehow from everything else in life, something that must be lifted out of every-day existence so that it can be dealt with uniquely and in isolation.
Because our culture demands that sex be treated so differently from the rest of life, most of us have learned to bifurcate our existence into two parts: the regular (presumptively non-sexual) world, and the (confused and presumptively dangerous) world of sex. We see around us regular movies and sex movies (created, distributed, and evaluated in very different ways, by very different people), regular magazines and sex magazines, regular entertainment and sexual entertainment, regular book publishers and sex publishers, regular product distributors and sex distributors, regular photographs and sex photographs, regular photographers and sex photographers.
Regardless of category, any project or endeavor that directly and unapologetically embraces sex is taken out of mainstream circulation and (although often no longer banned outright) relegated to the nether worlds of the margins, the fringes, the back rooms, the quasi-underground, the ubiquitous but carefully circumscribed sex ghetto -- where entirely different attitudes, judgments, legal restrictions, and behavioral norms apply.
This entire system of sex segregation is challenged when a publisher of Aperture's stature releases a book like "Love & Lust." By lending its imprimatur to such an unapologetically sexual body of work, Aperture, intentionally or unintentionally, takes a big step toward legitimizing non-exploitive, respectful, visionary, fine art sexual photography -- and a stride toward tearing down the strict segregation of sexual from non-sexual artistic work. By mixing graphic photos of explicitly sexual activities with photos more diffuse in their sexual energy, and by interweaving all these sexually-charged photos with distinctly non-sexual images of physical love and affection, "Love & Lust" insists that sex does not exist in a vacuum, that sex springs from roots that blur the sex/no-sex dichotomy, that it is a fundamental distortion to isolate sexual issues, sexual feelings, sexual activities, sexual books, sexual photographs, from their "non-sexual" counterparts.
The photos in "Love & Lust" are a record not only of Donna Ferrato's perspective on the worlds of love and lust around her, but also of her very personal 30-year journey to rediscover and redefine both love and lust for herself -- after, she says frankly, "failing to be a faithful wife." In her introduction to "Love & Lust," Ferrato speaks, interestingly, less about her photography than about her expanding understanding of love and sexual desire through her progressive exploration of one sexual subculture after another -- most significantly the world of the Lifestyles swingers conventions.
Every year at Lifestyles, thousands of openly non-monogamous people (couples for the most part) come together for a gala four-day weekend of sex-related workshops, masquerade balls, sex parties, sexual art exhibits -- group sexual encounters of all sorts. With the endorsement and support of the conference organizers, Ferrato was able to photograph this joyous outpouring of sexual abundance year after year, assembling a vast collection of images that captured not only the exuberant sexual energy of her subjects, but also her own delight and amazement with the sexual world she had stumbled upon.
"I don't see swingers as freakish people," Ferrato says. "These people are loving examples, higher examples of human beings on the planet earth, people who are not trying to oppress somebody else, who are not leading double lives," who are open about their sexual feelings and desires. "I believe in love," she explains. "The whole idea [of this book] is that love and sex should be fun -- not intellectual, quantitative, or judgmental. I believe that the best way to be truly content and excited and looking forward to each day is by admitting that we are sexual people, people who need each other."
And also, as her photos implicitly declare, by having the freedom to act on those sexual feelings and desires, even when they violate some of society's most fundamental sexual taboos. "Healthy lust," she writes in her introduction," in whatever form it takes, is central to a healthy and vigorous psyche. Experimentation, passion, fun, are everyone's right.... It is crucial that each of us allow ourselves to understand the scope of our sexuality, and learn to trust our instincts." Monogamy, she believes, is unnatural, not to mention unbearably restrictive. "When you have more than two people, unexpected things happen. As a photographer, I'm drawn to the unexpected."
The photos in "Love & Lust" cover a broad range -- young people and old, fat and thin, various combinations of genders, public scenes, private encounters. The largest group of images come from Ferrato's wanderings at Lifestyles over the years. They accurately capture the freewheeling, pansexual explorative core of Lifestyles sexuality, as well as the predominant Lifestyle ethos of fun experienced from a position of some emotional distance. The bottom line at Lifestyles, as throughout most of swinger culture, is permission rather than intimacy, experimentation rather than profound interpersonal connection, and these are the predominant characteristics of Ferrato's photos of swingers as well. Two women give men blow jobs as several other people wander about the room, smiling and drinking beer. A man fucks a woman in a hanging swing while a bevy of other people walk by unnoticing. A naked woman emerges smiling, hands above her head, having just rubbed her body down a long, tight double line of equally naked touch enthusiasts.
Ferrato's photos of couples embracing in public, on the other hand, are rich with intimate connection, as are her less numerous images of couples photographed in the privacy of their homes. A young couple kisses passionately against an ancient wall in Venice as a wizened nun passes by, looking skeptically at the camera. A teenage girl wraps herself luxuriously around her boyfriend who looks up at her with a touching mix of uncertainty and fear. Two men gaze at each other with quiet love, curled up together in bed with their pet poodle.
Most of Ferrato's photos are not genitally explicit, though some are. More often than not (especially in her photos of group sex), we are shown neither genitals nor faces. It's not as if Ferrato is unwilling or afraid to show genital sex (any more than she's unwilling to show faces). But often, it seems, what matters most to her is neither genitals nor faces, but the more general exuberance of sexual desire unbridled and left alone to find its own way home. It's what's happening -- the sexual combinations and circumstances outside the box of familiar expectations -- more than the nuances of how these things are happening that most often captures Ferrato's interest and her camera.
True to the combined personal-documentary nature of her love-lust journey, Ferrato bravely includes several images of herself -- photographing her family at home, posing nude but for garter and one white glove facing the camera, gripping her husband's hair tightly as he buries his face between her legs. Indeed, much of the impact and integrity of Ferrato's photography derives from her refusal to separate herself from her photographic subjects, her refusal to observe from the safety of personal distance. Rather, she defines herself as part of the scene she is photographing, as a participant in what she's recording -- and this personal involvement is palpable in her images, whether she has joined the sexual action physically (as, she tells us, she sometimes does), or limits her participation to her work with the camera. By not imagining her subjects as "other," Ferrato achieves a distinctive respect and honesty of representation in her images. She becomes a participant-observer rather than a voyeur, an appreciator rather than a categorizer, a celebrant rather than an anthropologist.
It is Ferrato's stated goal to normalize, rather than
sensationalize, the sexuality she photographs, even when
that sexuality is distinctly unconventional in nature. "I'm
not trying to be shocking, to be the first on the block to
show anything," she explains. "I don't want to scare
anybody. I really don't. I want to be as mainstream as
possible." More than anything else, it is the truthfulness
and sincerity of this perspective that makes "Love &
Lust" a significant contribution to the growing body of fine
art sexual photography.
Masturbation is usually a private thing.
And orgasm, that moment when everything spins so delightfully and totally out of control -- your mind, your body, your face -- well, that's private, too, something you only want the most intimate and trusted of other people to see.
But now, on a sunny Sunday morning, I'm driving to San Francisco for the purpose of masturbating in front of three other people and having my orgasm recorded on videotape for (potentially) all the world to see.
Part of my orgasm, that is. The plan is to videotape my face, only my face, close up and personal, as they say -- all the way through arousal and climax.
It was all Joani Blank's idea. Joani is the marvelously creative, innovative founder of San Francisco's famous Good Vibrations sex emporium. She had decided to make a video -- "Orgasm! The Faces of Ecstasy" -- that would show a wide variety of people having orgasms, by themselves (sex toys and vibrators permitted). What Joani wanted to record was not people's bodies, not their genitals, but just their faces. We concentrate too much on genitals and intercourse when we think of sex, Joani has long complained. Pornography, she notes, is positively obsessed with genitals, much to its detriment.
She wanted to offer an alternative -- an alternative sex video, an alternative sex vision, an alternative attitude about sex altogether. In 1996 she had made a nine-minute video of people's faces during orgasm, which was received with great enthusiasm by friends and professional colleagues alike. Now she wanted to expand that pilot, with proper video equipment and lighting, and with people talking about how they felt about sex, orgasm, and masturbation, in addition to the footage of their sexual excitement and release.
She had called one day to ask if I wanted to be part of her project -- to be interviewed and videotaped by herself, and by Jack Hafferkamp and Marianna Beck, the editors of recently-deceased Libido magazine, while I masturbated until I came. After about a quarter-second of careful thought, I jumped on board.
I completely agree with Joani about the general sexual obsession with genitals and intercourse, as if there were nothing else that matters about sex, that counts as real sex. I mean, genitals are important, of course, and intercourse, too. But so much of what I value most about sex gets lost if genitals and intercourse are all you think about.
And faces! There is so much going on, so much to see, in people's faces during sex. I have, for the last four years, made a project of taking fine art photographs of couples being sexual. I photograph plenty of genitals and plenty of p-v penetration, but I find that I focus most on people's faces and hands. So much of what is going on in sex gets expressed in faces and hands -- the subtleties as well as the more obvious heat and passion.
The idea of a video that showed nothing more than the ecstatic, twisted, confused, amazed, nervous, vulnerable faces of people at the height of sexual excitement was intriguing to me. And, yes, I'm something of an exhibitionist too, so I was delighted to sign up as one of what would become 22 subjects, aged 22-68.
Unfortunately, all that interest and conceptual excitement feels like something from the very distant past as I negotiate traffic on Interstate 280 at 9:30 in the morning and wonder what in the world I've gotten myself into. I've dutifully refrained from sex for a couple of days, but I'm not feeling the least bit sexy or sexual. Whatever prompted me to agree to a 10 a.m. time slot? And how am I going to get myself out of an utterly mundane frame of mind so I can jack off with proper enthusiasm and offer the cameras a wonderfully passionate picture of my self-induced sexual excitement?
It helps to remember that Joani, Jack, and Marianna are all close and longtime friends, serious documentarians who, I know, will not portray my sexuality in some stupid, trivial, or sensational way. It helps to remember -- as I emphasize so strongly to the couples I photograph -- that this isn't some kind of grand performance, that I don't have to produce some preordained image of sexual heat, that I don't have to prove anything to anyone.
It does not help that the place Joani, Jack, and Marianna have chosen for their videotaping is a huge, empty, art gallery space sans art, totally devoid of human presence, visual aesthetics, or even any soft surfaces except for a forlorn-looking futon set under two spotlights in the middle of the vast floorspace, looking more like an interrogation site than an invitation to erotic pleasure.
Fortunately, before jumping into any kind of sex, I am going to be interviewed, which just might give me a chance to get used to the physical space, to the cameras, to Joani, Jack, and Marianna, and to being out of the car. I'm placed on a stool against a blank white wall, and Joani asks me a series of questions while Jack and Marianna film my responses, peering out from behind big cameras on tripods.
Why do I want to be in this video? What do I think the significance of this video will be? Who do I especially hope will see this video? Who do I especially hope will not see this video? Is there something political about making this video?
When Joani asks me to fake an orgasm for the cameras, it brings me up short. I've never faked an orgasm in my life and don't have the slightest idea where to begin. I try to make some appropriate faces and sounds but feel so utterly ridiculous that I have to stop.
"I really don't think I can do this," I say, finally, embarrassed at my embarrassment.
"That's ok, you don't have to," Joani offers quickly, to my tremendous relief.
Then it's time to go over to the interrogation futon. I take off my clothes and lie down, a little colder than comfortable. I'll warm up soon enough, I tell myself hopefully. Jack and Marianna position their cameras around me. Marianna is to my right, a few feet away. Jack is on my left, much closer, the camera practically on top of my face.
"The one thing we ask," he says in his soft, comforting voice, "is that you keep your eyes open as much as possible and look directly at the camera." I nod. When I look directly at the camera I see a miniature of myself reflected in the lens. Not helpful.
Someone asks if I want lube. I decline. The cameras go on. "Whenever you're ready," Jack suggests.
"Ok," I say.
There's no music, no incense, no sexual or sensual input coming from the outside. It all has to come from me. Just what is the sexual desire I'm expressing here? The only desire I feel is the desire to produce something useful for the video. That and the desire not to make a fool of myself. What does that mean? I want to be genuine, but I also seem to want something more -- to be seen as sexy, attractive, desirable. I want the picture of my desire to itself be desirable. Interesting, but not helpful.
Too much thinking, I realize.
I start to touch myself. Fortunately, touch has its own way of generating desire and of getting my mind to shut up. Out of the desire void I begin to feel genuinely aroused, in waves that come and go. I still feel pretty distracted and self-conscious. With my eyes open I don't have the option of getting lost in an appealing fantasy. This is going to be about me, Joani, Jack, and Marianna making a video in a big empty room at 848 Divisadero. Reality video.
"This may take a while," I announce, apologetically.
"That's fine," says Jack. "Take your time."
I feel myself working, trying to accomplish the task of turning myself on. I imagine, with some dismay, how that must look to the camera. Indeed, I can see, in miniature, how I look in my camera lens reflection. I look like I'm working much too hard. I breathe deeper, encourage myself to relax, to really take my time. Gradually the pleasurable feelings take over from the need to deliver a product. I get more and more deeply turned on. Jack reminds me to keep my eyes open, to look directly at his camera, at my little face staring back at me from his lens. When I come I'm aware that my head is jerking around a lot, through the big release and a series of aftershocks, all of which sweep remarkably strongly through my body. I manage to keep my eyes open through al of it, I think. And then I burst out laughing at the whole thing -- the absurdity of the situation, the build up and release of tension, the ego confusions, the simplicity and the complexity of physical sexual pleasure.
* * * * *
Something like a year goes by. Occasionally I hear from Joani or Jack or Marianna about how the editing is going. They have over 40 hours of tape to edit down to less than an hour. They are blown away with what they've gotten on tape and working hard to create a video that does justice to the heart and soul of what these 22 people have given them. There are the usual hundreds of unforeseen production problems, crises, and delays -- and then some.
Eventually I get an email from Joani that it's all done -- edited, remixed, boxed, and ready to go. There will be a release party at Club Mighty in San Francisco. I invite everyone I know and make my way to the city for the big event.
Some 250 people show up, far exceeding anyone's expectations. The mood is joyous, celebratory, friendly, congratulatory -- sexy in the understated, somewhat-overly-conscious way of the Bay Area's unique pan-sex-exploration/writers/artists/photographers/publishers/activists subculture.
I feel excited, and surprisingly nervous. It's not as if I haven't had my sexuality out in public before, but there's something about this particular situation that makes me feel particularly vulnerable, particularly exposed. Something about the combination of orgasm and masturbation. I'm glad Susie is there to hold my hand, and glad when I run into more than a few close and more distant friends.
The room quiets down. Joani, Jack, and Marianna offer thanks and introductions, and then the video comes on -- projected in triplicate on huge scrims above everyone's heads. The talk and the ecstatic faces have been interwoven into a powerful flow. The orgasm sequences, in particular, are collectively amazing. As viewers, we're inches away from each person's face as they go through arousal and dissolution. It's a physical closeness usually reserved for lovers, so we all become, in a sense, each subject's lover for a minute or two, participating in their sexual excitement and culmination. The eye contact that was so difficult to maintain makes the intimate connection between subject and viewer unmistakable and inescapable. I am deeply moved by this recurring intimacy, by how beautiful each person is in this state of vulnerability, and by the honor of being permitted to witness such unfiltered, soulful, revealing pictures of one person after another.
Then it's my turn on the screen. I relive the embarrassing tension, the softening, the release, the manic head twitching, all redeemed by the final laughter which, even in my state of nervous self-criticism, I can see in a positive way. Some people laugh at my laughter; a few applaud. I feel seen and validated. I've just had sex with all these people, I think to myself. I smile and relax.
There's something to be said for telling the truth about who we are sexually, and a lot to be said for letting other people see our more vulnerable sexual sides. Maybe truthfulness, pleasure, and joy can win out over anger, fear, and guilt -- even in these strange and confusing times. Faces of Ecstasy is certainly a step in that direction.
"Orgasm! The Faces of Ecstasy" is available in DVD or VHS
from Libido Films (www.facesofecstasy.com,
800-495-1988), $34.95 plus $4 postage and handling.
When I first read about Gavin Newsom throwing open the doors of San Francisco's County Clerk Office to lesbians and gays, a rush of adrenaline swept over my body. It was a sensation both familiar and foreign, a feeling I remembered like an old friend I hadn't seen in a long, long time. It was the exhilaration of watching someone get fed up with something just plain wrong, step outside the confines of business as usual, and say, "I'm going to do something about this, even if it means not playing by the rules."
It wasn't just the shock of Newsom's gesture that set my body buzzing. It was the way 83-year-old Del Martin looked embracing Phyllis Lyon, her partner of 51 years; the photo of the long line of people wrapping around San Francisco City Hall like an archetypal snake; the exuberant joy that flooded the faces of couple after couple in news pictures; the glee, the celebration, the obvious sheer power of energy set free after years, often decades, of confinement.
Volunteers were staffing everything from the Clerk's windows to police security as San Francisco's marriage office stayed open through the long holiday weekend. People were flying to San Francisco from around the country and around the world. People in the rainy streets were sharing flowers, coffee, umbrellas, blankets, laughter, and community. There was the unmistakable taste of hope and possibility, strength, and collective -- well -- pride, as they say, in the air.
It was intoxicating, even vicariously. "This is powerful. This is going to spread," I muttered out loud.
That's when I knew why the excitement in my body felt so familiar. It felt like one of those historical moments when something clicks, when time and energy and frustration and opportunity come together to move a large group of people to action, all at the same time. It felt like a time when people stop feeling hopeless, when the possibility of change moves people to do things they would ordinarily not even consider.
It felt like a movement.
A lot has happened since February 12, but it still feels like a movement.
On February 1, 1960, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair, Jr., and David Richmond, four freshmen at North Carolina's Agricultural and Technical College, walked into the F. W. Woolworth store in downtown Greensboro, sat down at the "Whites Only" lunch counter, and tried to order something to eat. When they were refused service, instead of leaving or moving to the stand-up counter reserved for "Coloreds" they remained seated at the counter. They stayed there until the store closed.
The next day, together with other A&T students, they came back to same lunch counter, and requested service again. Again they were denied, and again they stayed seated in the places reserved for whites until closing time. On the third day, more students returned. On the fourth there were still more, including three white women from a school nearby. On day five, over 300 people requested service and the sit-in spread to a second lunch counter down the street. Police arrested 45 students and charged them with trespassing, but that only increased the students' determination. A boycott was organized of all the segregated lunch counters in Greensboro. Businesses began to feel the economic pinch. Word of the sit-ins spread beyond Greensboro, and students in other cities began sit-ins of their own.
In July 1960, the stores in Greensboro gave in and desegregated their lunch counters. McCain, McNeil, Blair and Richmond walked into Woolworth's and were served food and drink. A new form of protest had been born that would become a mainstay of the civil rights movement, a vehicle that gave people throughout the South a powerful, nonviolent way to work effectively for change.
The four Greensboro freshmen who decided to sit-in at Woolworth's had no idea that what they were about to do would change history. McCain has said he expected only to be arrested, beaten, or worse. But they had decided that "enough is enough," that they needed to do something beyond acquiescing to all the injustice around them. Their quiet, deliberate, understated act of civil disobedience launched a grassroots movement that permanently changed the politics of race in the U.S.
Gavin Newsom probably had no more idea than the Greensboro freshmen that his gesture of support for lesbians and gays -- a response, he says, to Bush's reference to a Constitutional Amendment in his State of the Union address -- would set the whole country on its ear. But it seems that the outrage Newsom felt at Bush's remarks was shared by many, and not just by lesbians and gays. When Bush reacted to the rebellion in San Francisco by throwing the Constitutional Amendment issue into the political ring, the anger and frustration that had been brewing under the surface for roughly half the country came boiling to the surface. A national revolt was set in motion. Enough is enough. Finally.
It's been several months since Gavin Newsom's act of municipal disobedience. A gesture that could easily have faded into thin air has taken root in the news, and in people's consciousness everywhere. As I write this, Multnomah County, Ore., and Ithaca, N.Y., continue to issue marriage licenses to all couples requesting them, regardless of sexual orientation. More than 2,350 licenses have been issued in Portland to date. Benton County, Ore., will follow suit on March 24. Seattle, San Jose, and Kofi Annan at the United Nations have issued proclamations recognizing same-sex marriages for employees seeking marriage benefits.
City and county clerks in San Francisco, Sandoval County, N.M., New Paltz, N.Y., and Asbury Park, N.J., have all performed their own acts of municipal disobedience, issuing marriage licenses to lesbians and gays until ordered by courts or state attorneys general to cease and desist. San Francisco issued 4,037 licenses to same-sex couples before the California Supreme Court intervened.
The exuberance and empowerment that has shot through gay and lesbian communities from coast to coast has been monumental, and will not disappear or be forgotten, even when there are specific, local setbacks. Images of distinctly normal-looking lesbian and gay couples, gloriously in love, hugging and kissing and celebrating marriages they know may be overthrown, fill the nation's magazines and airwaves, humanizing the whole gay marriage issues, even to traditionalists. (There's something compelling to everyone about being in the presence of people who are obviously in love.) Rosie O'Donnell, California Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, and folksinger Ronnie Gilbert fuse the personal and political by tying the knot to public acclaim. A Google web search for "gay marriage," now comes up with "about 3,170,000" online references.
The previously loyal Log Cabin Republicans, largest group of gay Republicans in the nation, announces a $1 million ad campaign openly attacking the Bush administration. A Republican state representative in Michigan breaks with his party to vote his conscience, helping to defeat a proposed amendment to the Michigan constitution that would have banned gay marriage. Attempts to ban gay marriage in six other states (Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, and Oklahoma) are also defeated.
John Kerry draws applause from a predominantly African-American audience in Mississippi when he waxes eloquent on gay rights, drawing the parallel between Matthew Shepard "crucified on a fence in Wyoming only because he was gay" and James Byrd "dragged behind a truck down in Texas by chains... only because he's [African-American]."
There's no telling, of course, where things will go from here, especially with the cease and desist order from the California Supreme Court, and preliminary passage of a gay marriage ban in Massachusetts. Not all civil rights movements succeed, and the revolt, to date, speaks for only half the nation, at most. The county commissioners in Multnomah County who voted to permit gay marriages have received death threats. At least 15 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin) are considering constitutional amendments to prohibit gay marriage.
"I don't know of anything that disgusts me more than seeing two women get married on television, where one is dressed like a man and has a haircut like a man," State Senator Robert L. Venables, of Delaware, said last week.
"It could be anything once you say marriage is something other than what it is," Brooklyn (N.Y.) Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio agreed. "Why can't we have marriages between people and pets? I mean, pets really love their masters. Why can't we have a marriage so they could inherit their money? Marriage should only be between a man and a woman."
But times do change -- not smoothly, easily, or without temporary reversals. -- and the excitement and momentum for change generated by the events of the last month is very much alive and well.
In 1958, 96% of white Americans disapproved of interracial marriage. In 1997, 77% approved. "Connections and alliances [that are] so unnatural that God and nature seem to forbid them, should be prohibited by positive law, and be subject to no evasion," said Virginia Supreme Court Justice Christian in 1877, upholding that state's anti-miscegenation law. In 1912, Georgia Representative Seaborn Roddenberry proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to "exterminate [the] debasing, ultrademoralizing, un-American and inhuman leprosy" of interracial marriage, "the slavery of white women to black beasts."
A new Washington Post/ABC poll says that 53% of Americans oppose amending the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage (8% more than a month ago), and 52% disapprove of how George Bush is handling this issue. A CNN/Gallup poll shows that, although 61% of the people still oppose gay marriage, 54% now support gay civil unions, compared to only 40% as recently as last July, and 45% in February. Gay civil unions, considered radical as recently as John Dean's campaign for the Democratic nomination, is now even endorsed by some outspoken Christian conservatives as an acceptable alternative to gay marriage.
"Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the state has become lawless or corrupt," Mahatma Gandhi once said. "The moment we cease to support the government, it dies a natural death."
Gandhi, of course, was something of a dreamer. On the
other hand, he did throw the British out of India.
Oh you who must leave everything that you cannot control
It begins with your family, but soon it comes around to your soul
Well I've been where you're hanging, I think I can see how you're pinned:
When you're not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you've sinned.
-- Leonard Cohen
There is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in. -- also Leonard Cohen
Whenever I telephone my 83-year-old father, we start with a verbal ritual, decades old.
"Hi, dad. It's David," I begin. "How are you?"
"Everything's under control," he answers, as predictably as the morning sunrise.
"Everything's under control" is my dad's way of saying that he is good, that things are basically right with the world, that disaster and disruption -- the potential consequences of being out of control -- have successfully been held at bay for another day, another week, another month. A product of the Great Depression and the gender expectations of his time, my dad spent most of his years making sure that his life, and the lives of the people closest to him, stayed under control. His lifelong vocation was selling life insurance -- a service, he believed, that helped other people keep their lives under control, too. My father has been quite successful at keeping life under control, and I grew up taking the safety and predictability of my father's realized control dream pretty much for granted. It's an upbringing I now think of as both a blessing and a curse.
As I write this, we are three months into the year 3 P.N.E. (Post-Nine-Eleven), the third year of what the neocons have proudly (and perhaps presciently) designated the New American Century. The depth of the fear and insecurity that have been planted in the national psyche by Osama bin Laden's challenge to our previous national sense of invincibility will not be fully understood for years, for decades, perhaps ever. But it's already clear that American consciousness has been decisively rearranged in a way that affects everything from how we vote, to what we drive, to where we live, to when and whether we marry or divorce, to how we raise our kids, to how we walk, to how we think about sex -- both the specifics of our literal sex lives and, more metaphorically, how we signify and evaluate sex in the world around us.
Control is in. Being in control is in. Even being controlled is in. Sales of the mobile tanks we call SUVs are booming. The other day, before I could cash a check that had been written to me, I had to plant my fingerprint on it so that my mark could be registered in the growing national fingerprint database. UPS, which used to leave packages on my secluded small-town porch, even when a signature was technically required, now insists that I be present to sign off on every parcel sent to me. The woman in front of me at the airport, removing her shoes to be dusted for explosive residues after waiting in line for 45 minutes, told the officious young TSA guard how happy she was to submit to the new national ritual of rigorous travel protection. "Thank you for saying that, ma'am," the stern-faced screener responded with surprising emotion. "Your safety is what this is all about."
People will do a lot -- and put up with a lot -- to feel safe, to feel secure, to feel that life is reasonably predictable, to feel that they know more or less what's coming next, what lies around that approaching blind curve in the road. It doesn't matter that, for all the wasted time, inconvenience, intrusion, and security pageantry, passenger screening at airports is so patently ineffective that people still board planes with undetected guns, knives, bullets, and nail clippers. It doesn't matter that every day we stay in Iraq inspires dozens of angry young men to plot a future terrorist attack against the U.S. It doesn't matter that people with guns are three times more likely to be killed or injured than people without them, independent of race, age, or economic demographics. What people desperately want in these confused times is not real safety but the impression of safety, and even seemingly transparent illusions of safety seem to be quite effective in allaying the underlying sense of panic that rushes like a mighty river just below the surface of daily American life-as-usual.
The advocates of regulation tell us that the way to safety is through increased control -- control over the details of daily life, control over who gets to do what (and when, and where), control over what we know (or what someone knows) about the backgrounds, thoughts, activities, buying habits, reading habits, thinking habits of the people around us -- not to mention control over what happens and who's in charge of things in more and more places around the globe.
Confused and frightened, Americans are investing more trust in the ministers of control than they have at any other time in recent history. Week after week we hear of people gladly, almost gleefully, submitting to degrees of regulation and intrusion that would have been utterly unthinkable as recently as September 10, 2001. It's not surprising, I suppose, but it is profoundly discouraging nevertheless. It's true that in situations of real and concrete danger, the ability to assert control, specifically and effectively, can spell the difference between life and death, success and failure, happiness and tragedy. But there's a difference between concrete, focused ways of affecting what happens to us and the vague, uncertain, and generally ineffective instruments and symbols of control that are now being propagated and embraced at every turn.
As unfashionable and untimely as it may be, I want to make a case for the importance of not being in control -- the importance of relinquishing control, the magic that comes from willfully and intentionally spiraling out of control. I'm thinking generally about the importance of spontaneity and mystery in our lives, but also, more specifically, about sex, and about what is, to me, one of the most important aspects of sex.
Sex -- the deeper kind of sex, the kind of sex that reaches down into your bones, into your root, into your primal psyche -- is, at its heart, exactly the opposite of the impulse to be in control of ourselves and of everything around us. The core power of sex -- the essential opportunity that the gift of sex offers us, physically, emotionally, and archetypally -- is the opportunity to lose control, to drop the reins and the puppet strings, to give ourselves over to something bigger and much more powerful than ourselves, bigger and more powerful than our conscious intents and manipulations, bigger and more powerful than our rational egos.
The impish god Eros knocks on our door to suggest the possibility of relating to the world not as essentially threatening and dangerous but as primordially magical and wondrous. The essential life force of Eros invites us to experience the freedom and exhilaration of going wildly and wonderfully out of control -- maybe during a few seconds of orgasm, maybe in sex for a much longer time than that, maybe, beyond sex, as a fundamental way of life. Eros calls us to experience the security that comes from discovering that, if we allow ourselves to step off the edge of the manageable universe, the World As We Know It will be waiting patiently and reliably for us when we return -- essentially unchanged, undisturbed, solid and comforting and reassuring as ever.
One of the core lessons of sex -- one of the core realities we rehearse each time we experience sex in a deeply releasing, satisfying way -- is that when we let go of the compulsion to constantly control ourselves and the world around us, the result can be bliss not disaster, pleasure not pain, joy not misery.
We need this lesson. We need this lesson more than ever during these times of danger and uncertainty. We need this lesson because in times such as these it would be easy to forget that, despite real uncertainty and loss, despite frustration and disappointment, despite cruelty and injustice, there is still profound delight to be found in loving, passionate existence, embraced and celebrated, complete with all its confusion and chaos. These days, we especially need to remember that it is an exciting and energizing life force that swirls around us minute after minute, day after day, searching for cracks in our increasingly dense layers of armor through which it can enter -- not to destroy us but to brighten and enrich who we are.
Every time we protect ourselves, we pay a price. Every time we defend ourselves, we sacrifice some degree of being open and welcoming of life. Sure, protection and defense are necessary sometimes, but they're never free. And defending ourselves excessively, unnecessarily, or misguidedly, only leaves us feeling less alive, less fulfilled, more miserable, more confused, and as a result more frightened than ever.
It's no accident that the people who most want to use the fear and uncertainty of these times to impose draconian control over everything we do are also the people who are the most frightened of sex and all that it represents. The people who see the devil at work when teenagers rub their bodies together at the senior prom are the same people who see the devil at work when Arabs protest U.S. policies in the Middle East. It's not that sex is a panacea -- some kind of uncomplicated, all-encompassing balm that can take away the real dilemmas of these threatened and threatening times. But the power of sexual abandon can reassure us that there are positive and life-affirming alternatives to compulsive control as we struggle to make our peace with ongoing uncertainty and turmoil. And the experience of letting go of control through sex can give us the strength and grounding to accept and even celebrate uncertainty and mystery as fundamental aspects of life fully lived.
"I want this," poet Lenore Kandel says of powerful sex in her typically wise "Love-Lust Poem." "I want our bodies sleek with sweat, whispering, biting, sucking. I want the way it wraps around us and pulls us incredibly together. I want to come and come and come with your arms holding me tight against you. I want you to explode that hot spurt of pleasure inside me, and I want to lie there with you, smelling the good smell of fuck that's all over us, and you kiss me with that aching sweetness, and there is no end to love."
© 2007 David Steinberg
The sexual embrace can only be compared with music and with prayer. - Havelock Ellis
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