Thursday, March 31, 2011

Review: It Gets Better, by Dan Savage and Terry Miller

It Gets Better
by Dan Savage and Terry Miller, ed.
Dutton, 2011

Last Tuesday, March 22, was the release date of the It Gets Better Project book and I was at the TriBeCa Barnes & Noble to see Dan Savage, Terry Miller and a few other contributors read from it. The project is probably the greatest thing Dan Savage has ever done. That's saying a lot, but I think it's the truth. It isn't the funniest, and wittiest or the most complicated but I think that Dan has gone from saving people's sex lives to saving their lives, period.

After the reading, I stood in line to get two copies of the book signed. When I got to the front of the line I told Terry and Dan that one copy was just for me, but the other copy was for a high school student I met a few years ago. I spent a year as an assistant ESL teacher in a high school and, during a tutoring session, my best student came out to me. At the time he was just out to his parents. No one in the school knew. I'm still not sure why he picked me to be the person he told. I may have, at one point, displayed a certain openness towards homosexuality and polyamory in a general way. He also may have seen me reading a novel by Jean Genet and gleaned that I was an ally from that. But I think the reason he told me is that I had no reason to care whether he was gay, one way or another. I was the low-risk option -- not really his peer, nor really his teacher (as an assistant teacher, I wasn't even empowered to give grades). For awhile, I was the only person he had to talk to about gay issues. We stayed in touch after I moved on. He still isn't completely out to his friends (and I worry about him sometimes), but some sort of progress is being made -- last summer he came to visit me in New York and we had a drink in the Stonewall Inn. After I finished telling Terry and Dan the story, Dan shook my hand and thanked me for being there for a gay kid at such an important moment. I was really proud at that moment (Dan Savage shook my hand!) but I also felt like I didn't deserve to be proud. I didn't really do that much. It isn't that hard to be there for someone when they need you.

The It Gets Better Project is all about being there for gay kids who have nothing else. The book (which is mostly transcripts of the It Gets Better videos that have been popping up on YouTube since last summer) aims to do that. It contains 103 versions of what is essentially the same story: The writer had a tough time as a kid in high school. They were harassed mercilessly, maybe by their own parents, maybe even to the point of considering suicide. But once they got out of high school they were able to find a community of people who accepted them and build a life for themselves better than anything they'd ever dreamed of. Some of the letter writers are famous (Barack Obama, Gene Robinson, Ellen, Michael Cunningham, Alison Bechdel, David Sedaris, Perez Hilton), some are just ordinary lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer people. There's an essay in Spanish, and one in Arabic. There are cartoons. The evidence being offered is anecdotal but as the same story is repeated over and over again it takes on a certain statistical quality. When every story ends the same way, it becomes easier to believe that yours will too.

My only criticism of the book (and it hardly qualifies) is that, in text form, many of the messages aren't quite as powerful as they are on video. But whatever is lost by the individual messages is more than made up for by having so many of them packaged together. And it is undeniable that this message needs to be out there in as many different forms as possible, taking advantage of many different media. This book can go places the Internet videos can't, and vice versa. If the recent gay teen suicides have taught us anything it is that this message needs to be out there in as many forms as possible.

Friday, March 25, 2011

I'll Buy Some...

You know those awful Axe body spray ads where the guy is mobbed by cheerleaders (or whatever) that can't control themselves? Those ads suck. They should have been like this.

Via Tiny Nibbles

Thursday, March 24, 2011

"I Have Sex" Videos

I've been seeing a series of these videos popping up around the Internet supporting Planned Parenthood. A number of different universities are making their own. They're great videos and they put faces with the victims of the cuts Republicans plan to make Planned Parenthood.

I just want to say that it is very important (duh) to protect Planned Parenthood from Republican attack -- to protect Republican interests as much as our own. As usual, the GOP isn't thinking, it's just reacting. I know a key part of their base is against abortion, but Planned Parenthood is not allowed to use the $75 million it receives from the government on abortion because it's already illegal to use federal money to fund abortion. Instead, it uses that money to provide women and men with sex ed information and birth control, which studies have shown helps prevent abortion.

Now, I believe in a woman's right to choose. I think it's disgusting that we live in a world where women in South Dakota who want to get an abortion are now required by law to go see conservative Christian groups who will try to talk them out of it -- with no exception made for rape victims. But I think it's undeniable that abortion is a controversial procedure that falls in an ethical gray area. I don't think I'm the only pro-choice person who says the less abortions the better. Well, the best way to get less abortions is to give more federal money to Planned Parenthood -- money they're not allowed to spend on abortions and will have to spend providing birth control and sex ed services.

My message to Republicans would be, you can oppose AT MOST one of the following things: (1) abortion; (2) birth control; (3) single mothers. And if you're going to oppose any of them, you had better start supporting the hell out of the other two.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Five Fun Links #2

1. A Lutheran minister tries to codify the ethics of Dan Savage and puts his finger on a few places where the sex columnists ethics fall a little short.

2. Worst threesome EVER in season 2, episode 3 of Awkward Embraces.

3. It's hard to give kids good sex ed without getting shot down as porn...

4. A dirty Wii game (sort of).

5. My new favorite NSFW blog, at its new digs on Tumblr.

BONUS LINK! This fan fic crossover between Oglaf and the Old Spice Guy was suggested by ladyofthelog on last Sunday's links post. (On a personal note: I DON'T UNDERSTAND FAN FIC!!!)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Stacks - The Other Side of Desire

The Other Side of Desire
by Daniel Bergner
Ecco, 2009

This book presents four true profiles of people who have sexual desires that are considered unusual. The first is Jacob, who is a Midwestern businessman with a severe foot fetish. He can’t derive sexual pleasure from anything besides a woman’s feet but he is ashamed of his fetish, can’t conceive of admitting it to his wife, and has fallen into the hands of a quack psychiatrist who has treated him with chemical castration. This hasn’t knocked out the fetish however, and he occasionally considers suicide for relief. The second profile is of the Baroness, a designer who creates latex clothing in her East Village boutique, staffed entirely by her submissives. The Baroness is a sadist who is in a vanilla and sexually monogamous marriage but does extreme BDSM play with others on the side and is a fixture in the NYC kink community. She is very well adjusted in her alternative lifestyle and sees her sadism as a service she provides to help masochists discover themselves. The third profile is of Roy, a man with apparently normal sexual appetites who suddenly discovered an attraction to young girls and was arrested for making a pass at his step-daughter’s friend. This chapter goes into recent research into the causes of pedophilia and points out that a great many men have a desire for the young but know better than to act on it. The fourth profile is of Laura and Ron Parisi. She becomes a double amputee after being hit by a car. He is an advertising photographer who has both an emotional and physical attraction to disabled women and is making a photo series of them based partly on the work of surrealist artist Hans Bellmer. The two meet during this project and end up getting married.

One criticism I've heard of this book from members of sexual minorities is that it's written for vanilla people who want to satisfy their curiosity. This is true, as far as it goes, but I don't think it's a strike against the book. Berger treats his subjects with compassion and tries valiantly to help outsiders understand their unusual sexual tastes. He never sensationalizes (although to book cover does with the subtitle, "four journeys into the far realms of lust and longing"). We never get the impression that he's the emcee at a freak show. His sympathy for Jacob, the foot fetishist, is clear, as is his hostility to the psychiatrist who is making Jacob's life so miserable by feeding his shame. The Baroness also comes off well, and I think any reader that didn't come to the book hostile to BDSM will respect her for her ability to create a community around herself (not to mention to maintain her marriage to a vanilla man). And Berger is at his best during the portion of the book about Ron, the amputee fetishist. As I read Berger's poetic descriptions of Bellmer's strange artwork and Ron's photography, I actually felt my perceptions changing and started to see a strange beauty in something I might have normally considered unsightly.

The third section, about Roy, the pedophile, is the most disturbing part of the book, and it's where I have the most trouble affixing my stamp of approval. Pedophilia is such a taboo and the act of abusing children or teens is such a disgusting one that it is difficult to look at pedophiles as tortured, pitiable men. Berger's writing is strong enough that it makes the reader feel this way, on occasion. It's an extremely uncomfortable feeling to have. It's difficult not to feel that even a hint of pity for a pedophile, even one who suffers silently and never abuses a child, makes us complicit in their evil behavior. Berger's ability to make us feel something for them to a testament to his writing. However, unlike the new perspective he offered me in the amputee section, I'm not sure I want to thank him for the new insight in this case. This is one area where I would sort of prefer to keep my mind closed and impermeable.

I've heard kinky folk criticize this book because they're being lumped in with pedophiles and I would wager that foot and amputee fetishists feel the way (I'm not acquainted with any). I sympathize with that. To compare their consensual and harmless behavior with the sexual exploitation of children is to conflate transgressive behavior with something that is unethical and wrong. And yet Berger may have a point. All through pedophile section he is trying to tell us that pedophiles aren't that unusual, and that the main difference between normal men and men like Roy, who attempt to have sex with young girls, isn't so much the lack of attraction to a girl below the age of consent as the willingness to act on these feelings. After all, hasn't Roy been able to sustain regular, vanilla, heterosexual relationships? Didn't his aberrant behavior surface only after years of apparently normal sexuality? Even he was unaware that he had any particular inclination towards the young. Berger seems to be leading us towards the conclusion that Roy, out of all of the book's subjects, is the most normal.

Whether or not you enjoy this book is going to depend on your reaction to the pedophilia section. Do you enjoy being challenged with these sort of ideas? Are you okay with being made extremely uncomfortable by some of the conclusions they lead you to? Do you want to reexamine your beliefs on this subject? If the answer is yes, there's no question that you'll love this book. If not, steer clear of the third section and you'll be on safe -- and less challenging -- territory. The book will be pleasant and won't create any strong reaction. For my part, as uncomfortable as it was I was glad I read it. Frequently the ideas that are the least comfortable are the ones most worth thinking about.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Five Fun Links

1. Violet Blue gave a talk at SXSW called "Sexual Survival for Geeks." Listen to the podcast of the talk here, read Violet's account on her blog, and read MSNBC's coverage (!) here.

2. Oglaf: A hilarious, dirty, online comic. NSFW!

3. A mom writes about raising an effeminate son.

4. Everybody's doin' it in da butt!

5. An ode to the hickory switch.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Slow Erosion of the Obscenity Laws

Recently I've started doing some research about literary obscenity trials surrounding for the project I've hinted at in previous posts. Actually I spent the day Saturday at the New York Public Library going through newspapers on microfilm as well as a few out of print books. It turned out to be a mostly fruitless day and it left me in an unaccountably foul mood. Towards the end I really began to understand what the problem was -- I think the fight against America's obscenity laws is far from the finest hour of lovers of free speech and open sexuality.

The history of obscenity trials is a slow march towards permissiveness, emphasis on the word slow. Obscenity in the United States was defined by the R. v. Hicklin (a British legal precedent that was applied in the US) and the infamous Comstock Laws of 1873 as any piece of literature that, in whole or in part, could cause lascivious thoughts in its readers. Anthony Comstock's definition of obscenity was comprehensive: it included any writing at all about sex, sex education, abortion or birth control methods and sex toys. He removed all such information from libraries and he used his vast power as New York's Postal Inspector to make sure no such information could be circulated through the mail. Eventually, this Victorian purity was challenged by people such as birth control educator Margaret Sanger, and eventually was dealt a major blow in United States v. One Book Called Ulysses which lifted the ban on Joyce's masterpiece and set a precedent that a literary work couldn't be declared obscene based on certain passages and needed to be considered on the whole. This kicked off a number of clarifying obscenity trials (Roth v. United States and others involving Lady Chatterly's Lover, Tropic of Cancer and Howl, to name a few) and culminating in the Supreme Court lifting the ban on John Cleland's 1750 erotic novel Fanny Hill in Memoirs v. Massachusetts, in the process declaring that only books "utterly without redeeming social importance" could be declared obscene. In 1973 Miller v. Texas established the current standards, which made for a shifting threshold of obscenity based on community standards.

So what problem could I possibly have with this admittedly slow trend in the right direction. Ultimately, all of these arguments are about what is obscene and what isn't, and it's a bit sickening to watch one book defending its freedom of expression by drawing a distinction between themselves and books that are really obscene. The argument completely buys into the idea that censorship of sexually explicit material is all right and throws many other people who's freedom of expression has been curtailed under the bus. And, yes, I know that laws change gradually and a lot of the practice of law is about making the argument that is practical rather than the argument that is ethical or right. That, more than anything, is probably what contributes to my feeling that the law is a dirty, shameful business all around.

I understand why things had to unfold the way they did. If lawyers for Ulysses had chosen not to argue that Ulysses should be decriminalized because it had artistic merit, and had instead argued that all sexual content should be protected by freedom of speech (including gay, sadomasochistic erotic novels, for example) a 1933 judge would have laughed them out of the courtroom and the Comstock Laws would still be in effect. I'm not saying that anyone should have done anything differently. I'm just saying that such a calculating and cowardly strategy doesn't deserve to be celebrated quite so much. We eventually got where we needed to go but a lot of innocent writers, artists, publishers and merchants had to go to jail in the meantime.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Please Master, by Allen Ginsberg

I was just thumbing at random through my copy of the Complete Poems of Allen Ginsberg, and I happened across a poem called "Please Master." With that title, I had to read it. And let me just say, as a straight guy who isn't usually that into gay erotica -- that poem is FUCKING HOT!

Here's how it starts:
Please master can I touch your cheek
please master can I kneel at your feet
please master can I loosen your blue pants
please master can I gaze at your golden haired belly
please master can I gently take down your shorts
please master can I have your thighs bare to my eyes
please master can I take off your clothes below your chair
please master can I kiss your ankles and soul
please master can I touch lips to your muscle hairless thigh
please master can I lay my ear pressed to your stomach
please master can I wrap my arms around your white ass (...)

Read the whole thing, if you dare...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Nerds in BDSM

Since it is practically the definition of Geeky Sex, here's a link to Mistress Matisse's article in The Stranger about why the BDSM community is ruled by nerds.

Why are nerds so omnipresent in the BDSM scene? Because being a nerd—especially if one participates in nerd culture around things like comic books, science fiction/fantasy, RPGing, etc.—is excellent training for becoming an active member of the BDSM community. The young nerd, shunned by the elite, perforce becomes accustomed to hanging around other nerds and social outcasts of all types. Nerds thus develop a high tolerance for socially nonconforming people and come to feel that such individuals are, by definition, nicer and more interesting than the Cool Kids. They embrace being weird, in other words.

Plenty of non-nerds like BDSM—in private. But they're unwilling to make the cultural leap into a stigmatized social group. I've seen non-nerds who I knew were as kinky as Caligula walk into a BDSM party, look around, think "Oh no, these people are way too weird," and leave. But when the grown-up nerd goes to his first BDSM social gathering, what does he see? People wearing unusual costumes, calling themselves made-up names and titles, having conversations rife with obscure jargon. Why, it's just like a Star Trek convention! So the nerd takes it in stride.

Anyone who has ever spent any time around the BDSM community will recognize that what Matisse is saying is true -- I've been to munches where there's more talk about video games than kink. But interestingly I find myself agreeing with the first paragraph quoted here, but disagreeing with the second one.

It takes a strong degree of exhibitionism to do a scene in a BDSM party and I think that exhibitionism can exist -- or not -- within the nerd group or within the Cool Kid group. Let me piggy back on Matisse's Star Trek convention comparison. I'm a Trekkie and I'm interested in kink, but I feel out of place at both Star Trek conventions and BDSM parties. This isn't because I don't like nerds (ask my friends, if you can tear them away from Buffy) but because I don't feel a lot of inclination to do either activity in a large group of people. I'd rather confine my Star Trek watching to a small group of friends, and I'd rather explore kink with a small group of lovers. If I do go to some kind of nerdy event (the last one was New York Comic Con in early 2009) I don't dress up. When I go to a BDSM party (the last one was TES's Back to School Party, also in 2009) I find the most private spot I can to play -- and end up a bit uncomfortable anyway.

Not that I think Matisse is wrong about her theory. It's just incomplete. (And, giving her the benefit of the doubt, she has word limit in her column.) I think the social structure of the BDSM community is more welcoming to nerds. But I think there are also other dynamics in effect explain the large number of kinky nerds -- nerds are more likely to explore interests that aren't mainstream, the technicality of BDSM might appeal to them, and they might need to look further than cool kids for a sense of sexual agency and power. But, nerd or cool kid, it takes a certain kind of personality to want to explore your sexuality publicly. Some of us are more comfortable doing the big stuff in private.