On reading poems from Donika Kelly’s ‘Bestiary’ in jail.

On reading poems from Donika Kelly’s ‘Bestiary’ in jail.

This post briefly touches on sexual assault and child abuse.

Many of the men in jail have struggled with interpersonal relationships.

After reading Bruce Weigl’s “The Impossible,” a poem about being sexually assaulted as a child, somebody stayed after class to ask if there were resources to help somebody recover from that sort of experience.  The next week, he brought a two-page account of his own abuse.

After reading Ai’s “Child Beater,” many men proffered their own horror stories.  Sometimes they offered excuses for their parents: “My mom, she had me when she was thirteen, I guess what you’d call it now would be ‘statutory rape.’  So she didn’t know what to do with us.  But there were plenty of times, I’d be mouthing off, she’d tie my arms to rafters in the basement with an extension cord, and … “

Seriously, you don’t need to hear the rest of that story.  Nor the conversation (we’ve read “Child Beater” about once a year) when the men discussed which objects they’d been hit with.  They appraised concussions and trauma with the nuance of oenophiles.

Consider this gorgeous poem by Mouse:

 

THAT CAT

– Mouse

 

We had this cat

Small gray and frantic

Always knocking over my mother’s lamps

 

Me and my sister can’t sit on my mother’s furniture

But that cat can

My mother would whoop my ass for her lamps

Knocked over and broken

 

One day my mom bought me a dollar sign belt

Made of leather and metal

I put that belt to use every time I

Got my own ass whooped

 

We humans evolved to hunt.  By nature, we are a rather violent species.  But these cycles – people’s crummy childhoods; institutional violence during schooling and incarceration – amplify aggression.  Our world “nurtures” many into malice.

If you ask people in jail why they’re in, almost everybody will say that they were busted for drugs or alcohol.  But if you look at bookings, or hear from somebody what sort of case he’s fighting, about half the time it’s domestic violence.

So we’ve been reading poems from Donika Kelly’s Bestiary, a charming volume that uses abundant animal imagery to elucidate human relationships.  The men need a safe space to discuss love and romance.  Obviously, a dingy classroom inside a jail is not the ideal place, but this is what we’ve got.

image (5)

Kelly’s “Bower” opens with:

 

Consider the bowerbird and his obsession

of blue,

 

… then catalogs some of the strange objects that a male bowerbird might use to construct his pleasure dome.  They are artists, meticulously arraying flowers, berries, beetles, even colorful bits of plastic, striving to create an arch sufficiently beautiful that a visiting female will feel inclined to mate.

Among tropical birds with female mate choice, most males will remain celibate.  They try to woo each visitor, but fail.  Usually one single male – he of the most impressive aerial gymnastics (among manakins) or he of the most impressive bower – will be chosen by every female in an area.  Because the males don’t actually raise their young (their contribution ends after the ten or twenty seconds needed to copulate), any given male will have more than enough time for everyone who wants him.

Every male bowerbird devotes his life to the craft, but most of their creations will be deemed insufficiently beautiful.

 

And

how the female finds him,

lacking.  All that blue for nothing.

best

I love the irony of this ending.  This bird’s bower has failed.  The bits of blue that he collected were not sufficient to rouse anyone’s interest in him as a mate.

But life will generally seem pointless if we focus only on goals.  Most bowerbirds won’t mate; Sisyphus will never get that boulder up; you and I will die.    This poem is heartbreaking unless we imagine that the bowerbird takes some pleasure in the very act of creation.

(The natural world is not known for its kindness, but in this case it probably is – because every male bowerbird feels compelled to build these structures, it’s likely that their artistic endeavors feed their brains with dopamine.)

Indeed, most poems that we humans write will go unread.  Even for published poets, it’s probably rare that their words woo a future mate.  But even if Kelly’s own creation did not bring her love (and, based on what little I know about the publishing industry, it almost certainly did not bring her great fortune), it’s clear that all that effort was not for naught.

She made something beautiful.  Sometimes, that alone has to be enough.

At another class, we read Kelly’s “What Gay Porn Has Done for Me.”

Thanks to the internet, many people learn about sexuality from pornography.  One flaw with this “education” is that even when the female actors mime pleasure, they do so while gazing outward.

 

Kelly writes:

 

Call it comfort, or truth, how they look,

not at the camera, as women do,

but at one another.

 

In generic heterosexual pornography, there is a distance.  There is no “relationship” shown between the actors – they’re not even looking at one another.  Instead, the female actor is expected to gaze at a camera, and the (likely male) consumer is gazing at a computer or telephone screen to make some simulacrum of eye contact.

 

Each body is a body on display,

and one I am meant to see and desire.

 

Generic heterosexual pornography seems to objectify the actors much more than gay pornography because the focus is on a performer’s body more than the romantic acts depicted.  Because so much of this pornography is consumed by a homophobic audience, male bodies are depicted minimally – usually only a single organ within the frame – which prevents couples from being shown.

The pleasure offered isn’t quite voyeurism, pretending to watch another pair make love.  It’s fantasy, the chance to imagine being the bearer of the male genitalia.  But this fantasy, independent a fantasy of conversation and mutual seduction, makes others’ bodies seem a thing to be used, not a carriage for the partner’s personality.

 

I am learning

 

what to do with my face,

and I come on anything I like.

 

To desire, and to be desired, need not be degrading for anyone involved.  This is a hard lesson to square with the sort of “sex education” that I received in school, which was sufficiently Christian that sex was presented as both desirable and bad.  If a person thinks that he or she is wicked for wanting, it’ll be hard to discuss what each person wants.

There’s no way to pretend “I’m a good person who just got carried away!” if you make a sober, premeditated, consensual decision to do something bad.

Of course, sexuality isn’t bad.  But many people still posture as thought it is.  When these people feel (totally natural!) desire, they’re forced to create dangerous situations that might excuse their subsequent behavior.

Which, because of those excuse-enabling contortions, often winds up being bad.

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On Daniel Handler’s “All the Dirty Parts”

On Daniel Handler’s “All the Dirty Parts”

Heartbreak smells the same in any language.

During my second year of graduate school, my advisor wanted me to do an organic synthesis using cyanide.  I’ve long since forgotten what we were trying to make.  All I remember is that I promptly said:

“Almonds.  The official scent of unrequited love.”

“Oh, you can smell it?” my advisor asked.  “That’s good.  Some people can’t.  You’ll be much less likely to die.”

41Bn22qtn6LI actually, I had no idea whether I could smell it.  Still don’t, since my advisor fired me before I got around to that synthesis.  I was just riffing on the opening to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (translated by Edith Grossman):

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.

It doesn’t matter whether you call it heartbreak or desengano amoroso or any other name – it’s going to hurt.

*

Kids needs to learn about heartbreak.  They will feel sorrow.  Especially while they’re in high school, tugged by turbulent emotions but inept in so many ways … like conversation, like forbearance, like patience.

I know I was miserable during high school.  And, yes, the wellspring of my misery was my own incompetence.

Reading more would have helped.  Engaging fiction bolsters emotional maturity.  When we empathize with characters in books, we might skip some of their suffering – we can’t learn without making mistakes, but fictional characters can make mistakes for us.

And so we expect high schoolers to read stories of heartbreak, things like Ethan Frome, Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby … novels in which intense emotions are described in school-appropriate language.

This is heartbreak.  Learn it well, young person.  You too will hurt.

*

proust_yuc7utMarcel Proust wrote a scene for In Search of Lost Time (translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff) in which his narrator tumbles in the park with his first love, grasping after a letter she is holding.

and we wrestled, locked together.  I tried to pull her toward me; she resisted; her cheeks, inflamed by the effort, were as red and round as two cherries; she laughed as though I was tickling her; I held her gripped between my legs like a young tree that I was trying to climb; and, in the middle of my gymnastics, when I was already out of breath from the muscular exercise and the heat of the game, I felt, as it were a few drops of sweat wrung from me by the effort, my pleasure express itself in a form I could not even pause for a moment to analyze; immediately I snatched the letter from her.  Whereupon Gilberte said, good-naturedly:

You know, if you like, we might go on wrestling for a little longer.”

At that moment, Marcel, the character, was no longer interested in wrestling.  He’d rubbed his pelvis against her body enough to climax in his pants.  Now he “wished only to sit quietly by her side.”  It would be a few hours, perhaps, before he desired her again.

He felt joy that afternoon.

But then, months later, that same joy stabs him.  Their relationship has ended.  Marcel fancies himself indifferent.  Then, one day, he sees her walking alongside someone else – suddenly he is in pain.  The memories of his own happy times with her swell unbidden:

The accident comes from the side to which one was not paying attention, from inside, the heart.  Giberte’s words: “If you like, we might go on wrestling,” horrified me.  I imagined her behaving like that, at home perhaps, in the linen closet, with the young man whom I had seen escorting her along the avenue des Champs-Elysees.

He loved that she loved him.  He hates that she might now love another the same way.

And that, kids, is what life is like.

*

But … how many high schoolers will sit down and read In Search of Lost Time?  I certainly didn’t.  Proust’s words would help, but they don’t reach young people.

I did, however, read certain paragraphs from John Fowles’s The Magus again and again at night.

all-the-dirty-partsAnd so Daniel Handler has written All the Dirty Parts.  When he was growing up and making his first forays into the “grown up” section of the library, Handler gravitated toward books with racy scenes.  Which is why his heartbreak novel is full of them.

Heartbreak hurts in the chaste language of Ethan Frome … but it hurts just as much in the ribald language of All the Dirty Parts.

You found it right away.

They always say guys can never find it, that it’s hard to find.  The clitoris is not hard to find.  I mean, it’s not like sometimes it’s behind her heel or in your desk drawer.  Go to where you think it is and root around and you will for sure know when you’re right.  And porn helps.  Find a shaved girl saying “lick my clit” and where he licks, that’s the clit.  It’s educational.

Or, on the same page:

I’m seventeen now, and no real girl has really told me to ejaculate on her face.  Maybe it’ll never happen, I told [my friend] Alec.  We’ve watched a couple blowjobs together, or not together but at the same time, me in my room and he in his, always slightly weird.

Pornography lied to us.

I’m writing my congressman.

OK but let’s watch another one first.

The protagonist of Holder’s All the Dirty Parts is a pornography-obsessed high schooler who proffers graphic descriptions of his conquests.  But he too has a heart.  And when he meets someone more callous than he is, he is doomed.

Officially together?

She repeats this in the tone of what’s-the-problem-officer.  I already thought it might not work, to ask her.

OK.

Do we need a permit?  Do I have to pay for the whole year up front?

I was just asking.

Can we just, play it as it goes along, by ear?

And, like a sock to the stomach, I get how every previous girl felt looking and asking that question, officially, at me.

They’re in high school.  Their relationship won’t last forever.  Which she knows.

So should he, since she is treating him the same way that he has treated everyone else.

And then, like Marcel, the protagonist of All the Dirty Parts will feel crushed remembering their embraces … knowing that now she is now sharing them with someone else.  Worse, by the time he loses her, he has behaved so badly that he has no one to talk to.  He sits alone in his room and ruminates:

I wasn’t just a fuck to them, any of them probably, is what I’m seeing.  For every girl I thought I was uncomplicated sex, it wasn’t.  Put it this way: if you can’t see the complication, you’re probably it.

And the book ends beautifully, with a pearl of wisdom, some words to live by delivered deus-ex-machina-style by an adult.

When you are older –

That’s the only part of the advice I hear.  But, Dad, I’m not.

*

I’m sorry, dude.  It does hurt.

And, yes, I’m sorry for all the high-schoolers out there, and the kids who aren’t in high school yet but are gonna be: it will hurt.  There might not be anyone you feel like you can talk to.

At least Daniel Handler wrote a book for you.

On the future of sex (& Emily Witt’s ‘Future Sex’).

On the future of sex (& Emily Witt’s ‘Future Sex’).

During our freshman year of college, I was in a long-distance relationship with a young woman who accompanied her self-pleasure by looking at pictures of Rodin’s sculpture.  Our own physical intimacy had progressed no farther than kissing whilst stripped to our skivvies, so Rodin’s art was appropriately titillating.  He depicted situations more intense than anything she’d experienced, but not so explicitly as to make the mystery seem gross or threatening.  There is no softer focus than smooth swells of marble.

Paris - Musée Rodin: L'Eternelle Idole

Leopold Bloom from James Joyce’s Ulysses has significantly more sexual experience than did my collegiate romantic partner, but he lived in a different world, less saturated by erotically-charged imagery than our own.  Feeling frisky at the sight of a young lady’s full-coverage undergarments, he decides to masturbate in a public park.  Which seems shockingly bold & innocent, simultaneously, that he would do such a thing then and there, but also that underthings far less risque than modern outerwear would compel him to such behavior:

And [Gerty, the young lady whose frillies have Bloom feeling all hot and bothered] saw a long Roman candle going up over the trees up, up, and, in the tense hush, they were all breathless with excitement as it went higher and higher and she had to lean back more and more to look up after it, high, high, almost out of sight, and her face was suffused with a divine, an entrancing blush from straining back and he could see her other things too, nainsook knickers, the fabric that caresses the skin, better than those other pettiwidth, the green, four and eleven, on account of being white and she let him and she saw that he saw and then it went so high it went out of sight a moment and she was trembling in every limb from being bent so far back he had a full view high up above her knee no-one ever not even on the swing or wading and she wasn’t ashamed and he wasn’t either to look in that immodest way like that because he couldn’t resist the sight of the wondrous revealment half offered like those skirt-dancers behaving so immodest before gentlemen looking and he kept on looking, looking.  She would fain have cried to him chokingly, held out her snowy slender arms to him to come, to feel his lips laid on her white brow the cry of a young girl’s love, a little strangled cry, wrung from her, that cry that has rung through the ages.  And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lively!  O so soft, sweet, soft!

Ulysses was published in the early 1900s, and passages like this one seemed shockingly pornographic.  But by 1973, when Kurt Vonnegut published Breakfast of Champions, the idea that a man would be inspired to masturbate to pictures of women in lingerie, as opposed to fully unclothed, seemed somehow suspect.  Kilgore Trout, a mostly-unheralded writer who was unexpectedly invited to an arts festival, purchases a soft-core men’s magazine that one of his own stories was printed in:

When he bought the magazine, the cashier supposed Trout was drunk or feeble-minded.  All he was getting, the cashier thought, was pictures of women in their underpants.

. . .

I hope you enjoy it,” said the cashier to Trout.  He meant that he hoped Trout would find some pictures he could masturbate to, since that was the only point of all the books and magazines.

Now, however, even the purchase of men’s magazines featuring full nudity or explicit displays of sexuality might seem old-fashioned.  The editors of Playboy, having realized that they could never compete with the plentiful imagery of nude women available instantaneously – and seemingly gratis, since consumers are paying by subjecting their eyeballs to advertisements & their search histories to statistical scrutiny – decided that their magazine would print only racy images of clothed women.

And the sort of pornography that contemporary viewers are enticed by?

In Future Sex, Emily Witt describes her experience attending contemporary pornographic film shoots, but these filmings were sufficiently violent that I won’t describe them, felt queasy reading about them, and strongly wish that they did not exist.  This despite perceiving myself to be a pro-pornography feminist and agreeing with Elen Willis, whose views Witt pithily summarizes by writing that:

Willis criticized the attempts of anti-porn feminists to distinguish between “pornography” (bad for women) and “erotica” (good for women).  She wrote that the binary tended to devolve into “What turns me on is erotic; what turns you on is pornographic.”

I accept that different people consider different sorts of pictures, literature, and film to be titillating, but I dislike the existence of art that blends violence and sexuality.  Many of the men in our poetry classes in the jail have difficulty separating various strong emotions – which I am sympathetic to, since the trauma they’ve experienced give them very good reasons to feel as though these neural wires are crossed – but also means that they have to work hard to separate loving and violent impulses.  They can do it, I’m sure.  Our brains are plastic, and people of any age can learn.  But our world’s saturation with violence makes it harder.

Consider this: by analyzing internet search terms (that data so many of us blithely give away), researchers can predict epidemiological outbreaks in real-time.  I believe this works with flu symptoms, domestic violence, even potential clusters of suicide.  But the search term “rape” is useless for this sort of epidemiological analysis, since so many people typing this word into their browsers are searching for pornography.

It hurts the world to convey that this is reasonable to find titillating.

Or there’s the fact – elided almost entirely by Witt, who mentions only that she eschewed “chaturbate” channels that seemed to originate from a brothel in Colombia – that violent pornography is still filmed using kidnapped women, described by Lydia Cacho in her book Slavery, Inc. (and which description has subsequently led to numerous attempts to murder her).

Thankfully, the company that Witt observed includes brief interviews after each shoot to demonstrate that participation was consensual, but the violence still squiggs me out.  I’m totally fine with pornographic films depicting adult-looking adults engaged in a wide variety of consensual activity, but I hate the normalization of violence.

Although the progression, over time, toward the most extreme depictions of sexuality allowable by a nation’s laws is totally expected.  Despite their plethora of nerve endings, human genitalia aren’t very complicated – even if you include nerve endings throughout a person’s body, there are only so many signals that could be conveyed during sex.  And if all you wanted was to optimally stimulate the physical nerve endings, interpersonal contact could never compete with the pleasures afforded by a vibrator or electrode-lined bodysuit.

(Some goofy trivia, offered up as an apology that this essay has been so bleak so far: human males lack a penis bone, likely because they evolved to be bad at sex.  Males belonging to related species – particularly those in which females have more control over whom they copulate with – have these bones, allowing tumescence and sexual activity to go on longer.  By offering a better ride, males increase their chance of propagation.  Whereas the evolutionary precursors to human males were lazy lovers: if you’re an optimist, you might think that this is explained by their traditional face-to-face mating style, ensuring that women form emotional bonds with specific partners, or if you’re a pessimist / realist, you might think that human males, gorilla-like, employ brutal oppression rather than sexual prowess to keep their partners faithful.)

(Actually, was that any less bleak than what came earlier?  Ooops!  Back to your regularly scheduled essay!)

Most of the pleasure of sexuality occurs in the mind, by stimulating our emotions and imagination.  That’s why we’ve failed to proceed to a future of satiation by Woody Allen’s Sleeper-style machines.  The thought that another human is willing to share certain experiences with you excites the mind.

In a world where Leopold Bloom so rarely espied women’s thighs, Gerty’s undergarments could push him over the edge.  In a world of Playboy and Penthouse, Kilgore Trout could be thought feeble-minded for a similar interest in scoping women’s skivvies.  And in our world, young men must want to see pre-pubescent-looking women degraded and abused, else why would so many companies go to such expense to produce that content?

I found the other chapters of Witt’s Future Sex to be far easier to read.  She is writing about the contemporary sexual mores of the wealthy Bay-Area employees of Facebook and Google.  She sets the tone of the book early, describing an older man in line with her at the airport:

He seemed like the sort of man who would pronounce himself a minimalist and say that everything he bought was selected for its extraordinary craftmanship and beautiful design.  But [his] computer bag was a cheap thing with netting and buckles that said GOOGLE on it.  The person in front of him in line wore a Google doodle T-shirt with Bert and Ernie where the Os would be.  In front of him was a Google backpack.

Until I left San Francisco, it never went away.  It was embroidered on breast pockets, illustrated with themes of America’s cities, emblazoned on stainless-steel water bottles, on fleece jackets, on baseball caps, but not on the private buses that transported workers to their campus in Mountain View, where they ate raw goji-berry discs from their snack room and walked around swathed, priestlike, in Google mantles, with Google wimples and Google mitres, seeking orientation on Google Maps, googling strangers and Google-chatting with friends, as I did with mine, dozens of times a day, which made the recurrence of the logo feel like a monopolist taunt.

This extreme focus on the sexuality of tech company employees is humorous, especially to somebody who recently moved away from Menlo Park.  Her characters are clever, and used that cleverness to become rich, but mistake cleverness for being intelligent or wise.  Their collective mindset is so insular that they remain blithely ignorant of most human experience.

For instance, Witt devotes a chapter titled “Polyamory” to a long description of one pair of her friends’ non-monogamous relationships, including this musing from one of the males involved:

He saw [“hyperbolic optimism”] in the “nontrivial” number of his co-workers who genuinely believed there was a reasonable chance they would live forever, who read the works of Ray Kurzweil and made plans for the singularity.  He saw it in his friends, who saw no reason not to try going beyond sexual traditions that had governed societal behavior for thousands of years.  Few people, he noticed, bothered with the question of whether one would really want to live forever.

Sometimes mocking Bay Area people feels a little cheap, since they often are simply naive, having been totally sheltered from reality throughout their rubber-stamped lives, but many act so outrageously entitled (& indeed are often extremely wealthy) that I don’t feel bad about a little ribbing.  I personally would not want to share a world with a cadre of such internally-motivated people granted eternal life.  And the idea that a single set of sexual traditions have “governed societal behavior for thousands of years” is misguided.

In Sanskrit mythology, an elderly king might ask his favorite traveling monk to spend the night frolicking with his (the king’s) wife in order to produce an heir – since the pair will have copulated with the king’s consent, he accepts the child as his own.  In the BBC documentary Human Planet, we see footage of a Wodaabe “Gerewol,” a fertility ritual during which both married men and women are permitted remorseless flings.  One of the most forlorn shots in the documentary depicts a woman consoling her husband, braiding his hair, after he failed to lure a sexual conquest during his decorated bird-like Gerewol dance.  And despite their kapu system of stringent social control, pre-Christian Hawaiians generally approved of non-monogamous sexuality as long as none of the relations were conducted in secret.

More tellingly, Witt includes a chapter describing a trip she and several friends took to Burning Man.  An artist friend of mine, a writer who composed a much-loved guide to creating beauty despite depression, attended Burning Man in the 1990s and said it was the first time in her life she felt at home.  The people there had the same interests as her: DIY culture, extreme frugality to allow plenty of time for art, environmentalism, and social advocacy.

Witt also thinks that the people attending Burning Man have the same interests as her, but these interests differ slightly from my friend’s:

I wanted to go to Burning Man because I saw the great festival in the desert as the epicenter of the three things that interested me most in 2013: sexual experimentation, psychedelic drugs, and futurism.  But everyone said Burning Man was over, that it was spoiled.  It was inundated with rich tech people who defied the festival’s precious tenet of radical self-reliance by their overreliance on paid staff.

. . .

I would decide for myself.  I rented an RV with six other people, a group organized by a friend in San Francisco.  I think if someone were to draw a portrait of the people who were “ruining Burning Man,” it would have looked like us.

Do-it-yourself, artistic, activist, maker culture … or sexual experimentation and psychedelic drugs?  I mean, don’t get me wrong, sex & drugs are fun and all… but I know which world I’d choose.

On Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex.

peggyPeggy Orenstein claims in the acknowledgements of her new book that she is “difficult to be around.”  I don’t believe her.  Her tone throughout Girls & Sex is charming.  She covers topics that could make a reader squirm, but she so consistently sounds like your witty & understanding best friend that the whole book flows easily.

Maybe she was denigrating herself in the acknowledgements because she puts her best self into her writing (she did qualify that “difficult to be around” with “while I am engrossed in book writing”), but I suspect she’s just being humble.  She couldn’t have drawn such honest & trusting material from her interviewees if it was true.

cinderella ate my daughterAnd I’ll have to read Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter next.  Just the other day my own daughter picked out a dress to wear and announced she was a princess — it took a five-minute conversation to convince her that it might be more fun to roar around as a DINOSAUR PRINCESS! than to waif it up as the regular humanoid kind.

Throughout Girls & Sex, Orenstein discusses problems with the way young people, especially females, learn about & engage in sexuality.  She had many conversations with young women about what they were doing, and why.  What she was most surprised by is how badly these women wanted to talk with an adult.

Instead of adult conversation, these young women usually relied upon the internet.

Orenstein is not against the idea of pornography.  Explicit depictions of human sexuality could be a positive influence on people’s lives.  But the young people she spoke with have found adult conversations about sexuality to be very inaccessible, and pop pornography, with its narrow focus on female performance over pleasure, to be all too readily available.

unnamedPornographic actors don’t behave the way they do because it’s most fun.  Their goal is to create a product that holds visual appeal for consumers.  Pornographic actor and animal activist Zara Whites described this in an interview: “With women — who I really love to make love with — in the movies I don’t enjoy it as much because when you’re giving head you have to keep your head at an angle so the camera can see what you’re doing”  (quotation from the bio at zarawhites dot com, unlinked because of unpleasant & decidedly NSFW images at the top of the page — somewhat exemplary of the problems with pop pornography). The actors purposefully put themselves into uncomfortable positions for the benefit of the camera.

This leads to physical contortion.  Sex that proceeds wordlessly.  Acts that matter more than people.  Mechanical pistoning of parts between semi-anonymous bodies shaven & stylized to evoke children (super-upsetting, this last aspect.  In a world rife with child abuse, entertainment designed to normalize the sexualization of children is not okay).

If the only venue for young people to “educate” themselves about sex is pop pornography, they’ll wind up with a very distorted outlook.

Meat_Loaf
Meat Loaf.  Not that I hold him to blame.

Unfortunately, most teens in the United States don’t have other opportunities to learn.  My school taught “sex ed” yearly, starting when I was in fifth grade.  I was taught that “the underwear zone” is dangerous unless you’re married.  In eighth grade sex ed, our gym teacher (later fired for making lewd remarks to & leering at his female students) had us watch & write an essay about Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” music video.  I think my essay said sex was dangerous because you might have to marry someone you don’t like.

Not until my junior year of college was I given advice that wasn’t garbage.  A friend lent me Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart, and, oddly enough, this book taught me most of what I’d need to know.

The protagonist describes an incident from his college days when a woman he met on the train invited him to share her hotel room:

haruki murakamiI was nervous the first time we made love, which made things awkward.  I apologized to her.

“Aren’t we polite!” she said.  “No need to apologize for every little thing.”

After her shower she throw on a bathrobe, grabbed two cold beers from the fridge, and handed one to me.

“Are you a good driver?” she asked.

“I just got my license, so I wouldn’t say so.  Just average.”

She smiled.  “Same with me.  I think I’m pretty good, but my friends don’t agree.  Which makes me average, too, I suppose.  You must know a few people who think they’re great drivers, right?”

“Yeah, I guess I do.”

“And there must be some who aren’t very good.”

I nodded.  She took a quiet sip of beer and gave it some thought.

. . .

“OK, consider this.  Say you’re going to go on a long trip with someone by car.  And the two of you will take turns driving.  Which type of person would you choose?  One who’s a good driver but inattentive, or an attentive person who’s not such a good driver?”

“Probably the second one,” I said.

“Me too,” she replied.  “What we have here is very similar.  Good or bad, nimble or clumsy — those aren’t important.  What’s important is being attentive.  Staying calm, being alert to things around you.”

“Alert?” I asked.

She just smiled and didn’t say anything.

A while later we made love a second time, and this time it was a smooth, congenial ride.  Being alert — I think I was starting to get it.  For the first time I saw how a woman reacts in the throes of passion.

. . .

I was still young, certain that this kind of thrilling event happened all the time.  Later in life I realized how wrong I was.

As it happens, Orenstein sat in on a sexual education class in northern California where the students were given this same advice.  The instructor, Charis Denison, told them,

“There’s this useful thing around consent: Any good lover is a good listener.  And a bad listener is at best a bad lover and at worst a rapist.”

Blunt.  But true.  In Orenstein’s words,

There was no denying it: [Denison] was explaining how to have sex.  It was the worst nightmare of conservative policy makers realized.  Yet this is exactly the kind of discussion that, if Holland is any indication, is needed to combat pop porn culture, reduce regret, and improve teens’ satisfaction when they do choose to have sex (whenever that may be).

Giving young people access to real sexual education is an important step towards a better world.  But institutional policies won’t change everything.  As a parent, I thought that Orenstein’s analysis of the statistical differences between first sexual experience in the United States and Holland was the most valuable section of the book (seriously — if you’re a parent, pick up a copy and read her seventh chapter right away, “What If We Told Them the Truth”).

The most important thing I learned from Girls & Sex is: talk to your kids.  About everything.  Discuss what you want, explain why your household has the rules it does, and be willing to change your mind.  In Orenstein’s words:

It’s not just about sex, though — according to [sociologist Amy] Schalet, there’s a fundamental difference in [the U.S. versus Holland’s] conceptions of how teenagers become adults.  American parents consider adolescents to be innately rebellious, in thrall to their “raging hormones”.  We respond by cracking down on them, setting stringent limits, forbidding or restricting any behavior that might lead to sex or substance use.  We end up with a self-fulfilling prophecy: teens assert independence by breaking rules, rupturing their relationships with parents, separating from the family.  Sex, which typically involves sneaking around or straight-up lying, becomes a vehicle through which to do that.

Dutch teens, on the other hand, remain closely connected to parents, growing up in an atmosphere of gezelligheid, a word most Americans can’t even pronounce, but which Schalet translates loosely as “cozy togetherness.”  Parents and teens are expected to discuss the children’s psychological and emotional development, including their burgeoning sexual drives.

As individuals, we can’t fix everything.  Assault on campus?  It won’t vanish.  There are calculating serial offenders.  But even their actions are enabled by the inebriated hookup culture we’ve fueled with sex ed classes that teach people to be ashamed of desire.

We can make things better, though.  Especially as parents.  The way forward is clear.

We have to talk.  More importantly, we have to listen.

On reading Playboy from the 1970s.

On reading Playboy from the 1970s.

 A few years ago, the Kinsey Institute culled their library of some of its lesser pornography.  A friend of mine stopped by their clearance sale, although perhaps “sale” is not quite the right word.  He said they’d set out many tables and crates full of pornography and encouraged anyone who stopped by to take as much as they could carry.  He picked up a stack of Playboy for himself and a slender volume of sex mythology for me.

His newfound collection of Playboys included a smattering from each decade, chosen seemingly at random except for his birth month (Feb 1986) and the issue featuring “Lena,” the standard Matlab test image (Nov 1972), shown here.  (Her face contains zero intracellular transport vesicles — I know, because I wrote an algorithm to check.)

The old Playboys — the ones from the sixties and seventies — were actually pretty good magazines.  They had fiction from serious writers like Nabokov and Updike, fescennine illustrated poetry from Shel Silverstein, long interviews from activists like Joan Baez, Jesse Jackson, Muhammad Ali, Jean Paul Sartre, and photo spreads directed by Salvador Dali.

And the editorial content was rife with predictions that, for instance, marijuana legalization was right around the corner.  “Within five years…” they claimed.  Well, things didn’t turn out quite how they expected.  Even now, harmless people languish in prison in Colorado, doing time for marijuana possession.

Yes, Playboy was a pornographic magazine.  There were photographs of naked women.  But not as many as I’d expected based on what I’d heard growing up.  The vast bulk of every issue was plain text.  And, importantly, the naked women in those photographs were generally woman-shaped, with all the trappings of post-pubescence, as opposed to hairless too-thin figurines like autopsy-table aliens.

(Although, no offense intended to those of you who are naturally shaped that way.  I, too, am jut-boned rib-count thin, although my body is also hairy like a hobbit, hirsute foot-tops and all.  Still, you, too, dear slender reader, deserve to be loved, and I hope whomever you find gradually adapts until his or her ideal matches your image.

PB_CHAMPAGNE-AND-C_2790596kMy contention is just that aesthetic taste is not inborn, and amongst a population need not be monolithic.  Left to their own devices, most humans would show a preference for symmetry and for people who resemble others who’ve been nice to them in the past.  Whereas modern advertising culture is designed to imprint the same desires on the majority of adolescent minds.

Certainly people who are shaped like the modern pornographic ideal — which seems vaguely reminiscent of X-Files Greys except with porcelain skin, long blonde hair, and the top-heaviness starting some 18 inches lower than for a species selected for massive brains — should also be considered beautiful by those whom they treat kindly.  But given the infrequency with which that physique occurs naturally, it seems unhelpful for entire generations of males to be pre-programmed to seek that form.)

There were problems with the magazine, sure.  It was good that the naked women in their photographs looked like human adults, which seems like a good minimum standard for pornographic magazines to live up to, but early Playboy still propagated a very narrow ideal of beauty.  Many of their photospreads, especially in their barely-distinct-from-paid-advertising fashion sections, juxtaposed near-naked women with fully-clothed men, conveying unsettling ideas about power dynamics between the genders.  Which was made worse by some of the cartoons: workplace sexual harassment was a common theme and was always presented as either harmless fun or, worse, a side benefit of women’s entrance into the workforce.

But Playboys from the sixties and seventies were a far sight better than more recent offerings.  By the nineties, the articles were worse, content the magazine’s “readers” would probably skip over, and far more of the pages were taken up by naked photographs.  By the nineties, most of the women shown were underfed, with surgically-modified balloon breasts, airbrushed smooth skin, and prepubescent hairlessness.

And yet, while I was reading Mark Leibovich’s recent New York Times article (“Donald Trump Is Not Going Anywhere”), I came across this line:

Trump motioned to the gallery of magazine covers on the wall next to him, which included an issue of Playboy from 1990 (“And that’s when it was really Playboy”)

By 1990, the readable magazine that paired pornography with serious content was dead.  So it’s unclear what Trump would mean by claiming that it was “really Playboy” then.

CQEgFUhW8AAAP6V-640x479Maybe you think it’s silly that I’d expect any of Trump’s claims to have a logical basis.  But I think there’s a very real chance that the man will win the U.S. presidency.  He’s boorish, racist, misogynistic, jingoistic, narcissistic.  He has extremely crass taste judging by the gaudy buildings he’s emblazoned with his name (not to mention all the other low-quality overpriced products).  He’s obsessed with celebrity and celebrities in the worst way (also from Leibovich’s article — why would anyone be impressed that Bobby Knight support him?  Knight is also a knuckleheaded bully who reaped a fortune creating nothing of value).  His only credentials are his ability to arrest attention on television and his financial prowess, although the repeated bankruptcies and clear cronyism cast a pall over the latter.

All of which means he seems perfect for America.  He embodies the national id of large swaths of our population so well, the United States as represented by grocery-store-checkout-aisle magazines.  Plus, whatever else there is to say about the man, he does have a semblance of integrity.  When he spouts off asinine trash, it doesn’t seem as though he’s regurgitating a prepackaged focus-grouped speech penned by a marketing team.  Given what we’re used to from politicians, that impresses a lot of people.  It impresses me, and I think he’s a horrible human being.

His ideas are stupid — Playboy from 1990? — but he came up with those stupid ideas himself.

And, right, getting back to when I think the magazine was really Playboy, I was surprised that my favorite feature, flipping through them, were the advertisements.  It’s interesting to see the difference in aspirations and expectations for young people between the 1970s and now.

dude with prospects and a car

There’s not really a contemporary magazine that’s a cultural equivalent to what Playboy was then, but I’d say Rolling Stone comes closest.  Each issue of Rolling Stone has a huge amount of fluff, but their one or two real news articles are often quite good.  And, the millennial-targeted advertisements in Rolling Stone?  They’re for video games, sneakers, TV shows, vaporizers.  Far cheaper than the house and car and incipient family intimated by ads from Playboy in the 1970s.  Is that lifestyle still within reach of the majority of today’s young magazine readers?

Flipping through an issue, there were also advertisements for guns, cars, cameras, wine… (Paul Masson is telling me that his wine tastes good, but should I trust those eyes?).

gun ad

scary guy selling wine

…and my personal favorite: cigarettes.  Here’s a choice cigarette advertisement for you.  “Golden Lights.  You really know you’re smoking.”

cigarette ad

Um, sure.  That man probably knows he’s smoking.  But he looks miserable!  Does he want to really know he’s smoking?

That sort of advertisement is probably strongly correlated with when Playboy “was really Playboy.”  There were warnings on cigarette ads, but the big companies were still trying to maintain the whole “They’re not that addictive!  They’re not going to kill you!” charade.  And yet their advertisements could depict the sheer misery of smoking.

You don’t get that anymore.  Now vaping ads are all cool graphics and happy people and it’s clear how easy gobbling your nicotine would be.  Which I understand, from a seller’s perspective.  You want your product to seem desirable.  But for me, someone who is interested in the magazine as a cultural artifact, it’s more fun to see cigarette ads that show their models suffering.

**************************

POSTSCRIPT: In the time between when I wrote this and when it was posted, Playboy made an announcement about their incipient editorial changes. Soon their photographs of naked women will not depict nipples or genitalia — to my mind, a fairly minor change, but other people have different opinions about which parts of the human body should be shown.

Still, the announcement was made after Trump’s declaration that 1990 was when Playboy was really Playboy. So, unless the dude has insider information about contemporary pornographic publishing, that’s not what he was talking about.

On child pornography & an odd coincidence in timing.

Reading about the prosecution of a well-known fast food spokesperson has felt unnerving to me.  In part because it’s always sad to hear about the type of activity he was convicted of.  And in part because that particular well-known fast food spokesperson is featured in my (unpublished) book & is described in dialogue as being in possession of “this, like, absolutely monstrous pornography collection.”

Which seems like it would’ve been a totally reasonable detail to include if the book had been published earlier, but I’m worried that it’ll be distracting now.  Even though it’s now more verifiably accurate.

I’d vacillated on using his real name — in one draft from 2013 those passages instead discuss a spokesperson named Garret who works for a fictional chain called Treats — but later that same year decided the connection to the real world was sufficiently important, and my information sufficiently accurate, that I should include the public figure.  Especially because publicity itself was a minor theme of those passages.  Myths come from somewhere, after all, and publicity is the first step toward myth-making.  It’s interesting to look at the sort of actions that lead to publicity in the modern world versus the long-departed eras traditionally featured in epics.  It seems unlikely that Homer would’ve versified over a man who had lost a lot of weight by eating food prepared by the same cook for every meal.

And the discussion of pornography is important for my work — my original impetus for the project was as a framework to write about violence against women.  Providing an alternate perspective from Bolano’s masterful 2666, for instance.  And hoping that, by making the story more accessible than his was (the police blotter portion of his book is pretty hard to get through for a lot of people), I could expand the audience for those ideas.

I subscribe to the school of feminism that believes pornography itself, i.e. explicit depictions of human sexuality, is okay — but there is plenty of pornography that is not.  The biggest issue is that pornography and sex do not seem to be substitute goods.  You might think they would be, that either would result in satiation and so people would not seek both, but most research I’ve seen suggests that pornography increases people’s desire to experience the depicted acts.  With smiling footage between consenting adults, that’s fine.  It’d be nice if more pornography depicted conversation — I don’t know of any wherein the actors ask “What do you want to do next?” or “Is this okay?” or the like… instead the actors mostly groan or shout Saxon-derived language about what should go where and how — but, still, if the participants look happy and the depicted acts are gentle, I don’t think there’s a problem.

But despite being a gung-ho free speech liberal, I really dislike the existence of violent pornography… and child pornography even more so.  Even if pornography is simply stylized to look childish but used all consenting of-age actors I think it’s inappropriate.  Our world is already rife with abuse.  Anything that might increase demand for that sort of activity seems pretty evil.

Which I tried to express in my book… but now I’m worried I’ll have to rework those passages.