Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Swimming Against a Tidal Wave

Every once in a while I hear a criticism of sex-positive blogs (like this one) -- that they present a rosy view of sexuality, and never deal with the negative sides of sex like rape, like rape, sexually transmitted disease, human trafficking, etc. I think about this a lot, because it certainly isn't responsible to act like sex is fun and amazing for everyone, everywhere, always. There's a dark side to this subject. You can't deny it.

Now, I've always been able to duck these criticisms because I don't feel like I'm required to present a balanced view of my subject. I don't claim to be a "sex-pert," a sex educator, or an authority of any kind on the subject. I'm just an enthusiast. I like to explore the subject of sexuality -- and when something makes me geek out (and isn't too private to share with strangers on the Internet) I write about it. This blog isn't meant to be a definitive work on the subject. I'm just an enthusiast.

But when sex-positive people are criticized for not dealing with the dark side of sex, it really rubs me the wrong way. I got thinking about it again recently after the cast of the Sex Is Fun podcast had difficulty expressing why they shied away from darker topics, and I think I finally figued out why this criticism bothers me so much. People are quick to criticize a sex-positive blogger, podcaster or expert for not giving equal time to darker topics, but nobody expects equal time for sex-positive topics from sex-negative experts.

Sex is presented a number of ways in our culture. It's presented as fantasy by TV, movies, advertisements, fashion models, and porn. It's presented as sin by religion. It's presented as disease by doctors, STI awareness campaigns, and abstinence educators. It's presented as politics by women's rights activists, fundamentalists and marriage equality crusaders. It's presented as crime by police, newspapers, television, and some feminist movements. It's presented as humor by everyone from stand-up comics to your friends at the bar. Some of these six ways of talking about sex are important, some of them are fun, and some of them are pure bullshit. But none of them are really about enjoying love and sex, or embracing them as a force for good in our lives.

Compared to these six ways of talking about sex, the sex-positive message is tiny and marginalized. These five approaches are what you get from every mainstream media outlet. Sex-positive commentators are struggling to be heard on blogs, podcasts, small presses and free alternative papers. For those of us who are trying to present sex in a positive light, it's okay to take the darker side of the topics as rote. It's okay to overcompensate in favor of the positive message. It's okay if Violet Blue or Susie Bright don't spend all day talking about human trafficking -- Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has more than got that stuff covered. There's not much for The Stranger to say that every major media outlet in America hasn't already said.

Sex-positive writers are swimming against a tidal wave of negative messages about sex, yet they're the ones who are expected to give equal time the negative side of sex? Why not ask Dr. Phil to give equal time to the positive side of sexuality? Sex-positive writers haven't got the time. There are too few of them and they're fighting an uphill battle to elevate the discourse about sexuality. That's the reason, for instance, that you will hardly ever see a bad review on this blog -- I could write ten bad reviews a day of things I felt portrayed sexuality badly and still never scratch the surface. Rather than become an increasingly bitter blogger, I've decided I'm only going to write good reviews of things that deserve recognition for some welcome sex-positivity. The only exception I've made in three years was for something I felt was passing itself off as sex-positive when it really wasn't.

Here's the size of it: sex-positive outlets have enough work to do countering negative messages. The don't have time to send them, no matter how valid they may be. It's very important that people talk about sex as a vector for disease, or in the context of sex crimes -- but plenty of people are already doing that. On the other hand, very few people are talking about healthy, happy sex -- you know, the kind of sex most people are having. And that's too bad. Because the when healthy, happy sex is ignored, when it isn't spoken of, when it is repressed, when it is locked behind millions of bedroom doors and made invisible, that's when all the negative stuff can perpetuate itself. A culture with a healthy attitude about sex wouldn't have half the problems we do.

So, to all you bloggers, podcasters, writers, actors, web series directors, here's a request from me and my fellow enthusiasts -- keep it positive!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sunday Comics: Batwoman: Elegy

Batwoman: Elegy
written by Greg Rucka, illustrated by J. H. Williams III
DC Comics, 2010

Last week I reviewed a rather obscure comic in a foreign language so I thought I might review something a little more mainstream this week, and you can't get much more mainstream than the family of superheroes that surrounds Batman. Batwoman is a recent addition to this family, vaguely based on a character that hasn't been seen since the early 1960s, yet very, very different. The most glaring difference? Batwoman is an out and proud lesbian.

Batwoman: Elegy collects the first six issues of Batwoman's adventures -- they were first printed about two years ago as Detective Comics #864-#870. There are two stories in the book. The first introduces Batwoman in the present day, and introduces a nemesis with a big connection to her past. The second story flashes back to Kate's youth, and we see what drove her to become a superhero.

Batwoman's sexuality is a big part of the buzz surrounding her character, and since this is a blog about sexuality, that's what I'm going to be writing about here. But while the fact that her alter ego, Kate Kane, occasionally finds time to date women is not the central part of the comic book. Batwoman is a superhero crime fighter first. She's cut from the same cloth as Batman, but while the Dark Knight fights psychopaths and gangsters, Batwoman has her own niche battling a coven of witches and magicians that are part of a relgion of crime. The addition of magical creatures to the noir world of Gotham City is weird and creepy, but it works. The contrast in genres is driven home by the fact that Batwoman is an ex-Marine who, with intel help from her Marine colonel father, has a very nuts-and-bolts, military approach to battling magic.

With all of this going on, Kate Kane doesn't have much time to date. There seems to be a romance with a Gotham police detective simmering on the back burner, but not much has happened in that subplot so far. Where Kate's sexuality is really important is at a key moment in her origin. Like Bruce Wayne (Batman), Kate Kane lost family members to violence at a young age, but lacking a billionaire playboy's perogative for eccentricity, her first thought isn't to strike terror into criminals by dressing as a flying rodent -- instead, she follows in her father's footsteps and joins the Marine Corp. Kate becomes a model cadet, even becomes friends with Dan Choi, future leader of protests against Don't Ask Don't Tell. Choi's cameo is apt, because Kate soon finds herself accused of fraternizing with another woman. It's Kate's word against her accuser's -- all she has to do to keep the career she wants more than anything is lie. Her commanding officer invites her to do so, ready to look the other way. But she's a Marine, and Marines are nothing without honor, so she tells the truth in spite of the consequences.

For a major comic book company to introduce a prominent lesbian character to headline one of their longest running, most important series (the "DC" in "DC Comics" stands for Detective Comics) is cool enough. But for them to forego a bunch of scene of Kate making out with women and instead make the injustice of DADT part of Batwoman's origin story is pretty damn incredible for a company that needs to sell comics in Alabama and Utah, not just New York and California. For many years the plight of gay soldiers was almost invisible -- many people don't have gay friends, and most people don't have friends in the military, so the problem was more abstract than marriage equality. When you read this story you can feel the heartbreak of having your selfless desire to serve your country rejected because of bigotry. Batman's origin is a bit far-fetched, but you believe that someone like Batwoman, with her deep sense of honor and her desire to serve, would turn to vigilanteism as a last resort.

For those who read this trade paperback and like it, there are several uncollected Batwoman issues that continue the story, and you can find them in the back issue boxes in your local comic book store -- Detective Comics #871-873, and Batwoman #0, which lead into a new, ongoing Batwoman series that began last month as part of the company-wide relaunch. It promises to be one of the best series DC publishes, and if you have any inclination towards monthly comic books you should buy it!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Book Review: Secret Historian

Secret Historian
by Justin Spring
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010

Recently I've been doing some research about the history of alternative sexuality in the 20th century. If that sounds like a pretty wide-ranging subject, it is, but I have a project in mind that's still a twinkle in my eye and I'm sort of feeling my way towards it. Anyway, each time I'm in a bookstore I've been combing through their sexuality and LGBT sections looking for anything that's vaguely historical. At one recent trip to a Barnes & Noble, I saw the book Secret Historian and thought... who the hell is Sam Steward. So I bought The Gay Metropolis instead and didn't give it another thought.

Until a few weeks later, when I was once again looking for books online. In the meantime, I had read an essay by Steward in Leatherfolk, a book about San Francisco's gay leather scene which includes a history section. Steward's essay covered the 1940s, the earliest period in the history section. It describes how he met Alfred Kinsey and became an unofficial contributor to Kinsey's research. Steward was set up on a play date with a gay sadist so that Kinsey could film a movie of them, all in the name of science. It was an amazing true story, and when I ran across Secret Historian again in my online search I was thrilled to learn more. I didn't know what I was getting into.

Secret Historian is 414 pages long, and it's an honest 414 pages. There's no big print or wide margins here. It is a thick, exhaustive description of Steward's life. Occasionally it might be a little too detailed, but most of the time it was utterly absorbing. Steward led an amazing, compartmentalized life which he recording in meticulous detail, as if he knew it would be interesting to posterity. He grew up in a repressed Ohio Methodist, but was already experimenting with gay sex before he left high school, including a tryst with silent movie star Rudolph Valentino. Steward's literary aspirations took him to Paris, where he was befriended by Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas, and became the lover of Thorton Wilder. Back in the States he taught English at Loyola College in Chicago, struggled with alcoholism rooted in his conflicted attitude about his sexuality, and kept meticulous records of his sex life, including a tryst with a young Rock Hudson in a department store elevator and a fetish for the sailors training at the Great Lakes naval station. These adventures, together with Steward's collecting of gay paraphernalia and his involvement with BDSM culture, attracted the interest of Alfred Kinsey, and Steward became an unofficial collaborator in Kinsey's groundbreaking study of human sexuality. Steward eventually became a tattoo artist, under the alias Phil Sparrow, at Navy Pier to have an excuse to interact with sailors and found it much more lucrative than teaching. In his middle years, he developed a close friendship many prominent gay men of his era, including Julien Green, George Platt Lynes and Glenway Wescott, but his attempt to get on Jean Genet's good side were never successful, and Steward's translations of his novels were unsuccessful. In the mid-'60s Steward relocated his tattoo shop to Oakland, California, where be became the unofficial tattoo artist of Sonny Barger and to Oakland Hell's Angels. He also began writing a beloved series of erotica novels, creating the literary alter ego Phil Andros, a young hustler on the make.

The only criticism I can make of this book is that it's a little bit too detailed. At times its tales of endless hookups gets a bit monotonous. But the book is well worth reading for the vivid description of the many worlds Steward traveled in his life -- the literary salons of 1930s Paris, the quiet desperation of a closeted academic, the seedy subculture of tattoos and motorcycle gangs, the middle aged writer of pulp erotica, and a lonely old age as a respected elder in San Francisco's gay liberation and the AIDS epidemic. It's an incredible life.

In the end, Sam Steward seems to become the prototypical gay man of his generation. Its a rather tragic life, all told. Steward accepts his homosexuality more than many -- he never marries or makes any pretense of heterosexuality -- but all the same he never manages to find enduring love, and seldom even achieves the fleeting kind. He seems to live his life with the assumption that this sort of relationship is unavailable to him, and that is the tragedy that many generations of gay men forced to live in the closet had to live. Nonetheless, there's hope in the fact that the tragedy didn't overwhelm Steward -- while lacking love, he still lived an extraordinary life, one that Justin Spring has set down in great detail in this book, and which we are all privileged to be able to read about, and remember.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tim Gunn on Female Star Trek and Superhero Costumes

In the first episode of their web series, Crazy Sexy Geeks, Tim Gunn, Jennifer Ewing, and Newsarama "Agent of STYLE" Alan Kistler, discuss the style and practicality of female costumes in Classic Star Trek and in comic books. (Geeky Sex doesn't get any geekier than this, friends!)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sunday Comics: Premières Fois

I'm spending the weekend at New York Comic Con and perhaps I'll discover something new to write about in one of these weekly comic book review, in the future. But today I'm brushing the dust off of a graphic novel that I discovered while on vacation in France a year and a half ago. I stopped by the wonderful comic book store Album, located in Paris at the intersection of Rue Saint-Jacques and Boulevard Saint-Germain and, out of curiosity, I checked in the basement for some of the tasteful, European comic book erotica I'm always hearing about. I found a few good examples, so this probably isn't going to be the only foreign comic I'm going to write about...

Premières Fois
written by Sibylline, with various illustrators
Delcourt, 2008

Premières Fois is French for "first times," and that's exactly what this book presents -- ten short comics, about five to ten pages each, following various female protagonists through their first time engaging in various different sexual experience. The experiences are first vaginal sex, first role playing fantasy, first drunken hook-up, first threesome, first trip to a sex club, first submission scene, first pegging, and first sex while watching porn.

The stand out story in the collection is a story about a sex doll. All of the other stories in the book are narrated by the woman in the experience -- this one is narrated by the doll herself. The result is hugely disturbing. In a comic book illustration there is no way to tell the difference between a woman and a realistic sex doll, so what we have here is a story narrated by a woman with a strangely blank expression. She arrives strapped into a crate, lives in a closet, is only taken out by her lover for his own pleasure, and is eventually forgotten when the man begins a relationship with a woman he seems to treat no better. The title of the story, "Nulle," completes the word -- it's most direct translation into English is "nothing" or "null," but it also has a connotation of worthlessness.

The other stories are quite a bit more fun. The best ones are enormously entertaining to read and pretty damn hot -- a well delivered spanking, sleazy bathroom sex between strangers that turn out of be a roll playing married couple, a first vibrator, a woman trying on her new strap-on before pegging her boyfriend for the first time. The more middle of the road ones treat their subjects about how you expect, verging on cliché, but they're charmingly told. Only two of the stories seemed a little unrealistic to me -- the couple visiting a sex club for the first time seemed a bit idealized, and the threesome scene was narrated by a "unicorn" (the mythical hot bi girl who responds to classified ads from couples looking for no-strings-attached threesomes). The second one seemed particularly like a missed opportunity, because there are so few good depictions of the laborious process of setting up a threesome.

The illustrations in this story are all black-and-white pen and ink drawings, but the similarity ends there. Some of the drawings are cute and cartoony, some are sexy. Some are contained within panels, some have more organic page layouts. The art in the story "X-Rated," illustrated by Dave McKean (yes, that's the guy who did the cover art for Sandman) draws heavily from cubism. "Soumission," the story about a submissive encounter, is drawn by Cyril Pedrosa in a rough style that is both ugly and beautiful in the same time, very appropriate for the subject matter. One thing that is consistent throughout the book is that the characters have realistic proportions for attractive young people, which is a welcome change from the tiny waists and torpedo breasts in a lot of erotic comics.

Finally, a note about the language... Unfortunately, Premières Fois isn't available in English as far as I can tell, and a long ago year of barely remembered high school French is not going to get you through this book. That being said, it isn't that difficult to understand, so if you have any French proficiency you should be able to follow it, even if you can't understand the occasional slang expression. If you're looking for the opportunity to practice your French, there are worse ways to do it!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Five Fun Links #7

1) Check out this awesome Tumblr of vintage erotica images. (Barely NSFW.)

2) Just in time for Halloween, brings us the top ten porn spoofs of horror movies!

3) In the wake of 100 Year Starship symposium, blogger Thomas Roche speculates about sex in space. (Some NSFW ad banners on page.)

4) French left-wing daily Liberation profiles "le polyamour."

5) Former Sex Is Fun frontman Kidder Kaper hilariously describes his family's trip to a county fair. (Okay, so this doesn't have anything to do with sex, but it's pretty funny.)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Sunday Comics: Introduction & Optic Nerve #12

First, a word of introduction. I've been trying to think of new ways of breathing life into this blog and it occurred to me that there are a lot of sexy comics out there -- and a lot of them are on my bookshelf. And since comics and Sundays go together, a new feature was born -- the almost weekly sexy comic book review!

I'm going to review a bunch of different comics, ranging from pornographic to artistic to pornographic to foreign. I suppose my review of Scalped #36 & 37, my post about Aunt May's love life, and my recent comments about superhero sex in the DC Comics relaunch also fall in this category, retroactively. I'm going to choose them based on what I'm interested in -- sex scenes will be less important than thoughtful sexual subject matter. Some comics you can expect to see reviewed soon are Alan Moore's Lost Girls and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home.

But for my first review I'm going to do something more recent: a short, poignant story that came out just a few weeks ago, and that took me by surprise -- and a very pleasant surprise it was, too. Sometimes sexy comics, like love, find you when you're least expecting it.

Optic Nerve #12
written and illustrated by Adrian Tomine
Drawn & Quarterly, 2011

This issue contains two stories and it's the second one, "Amber Sweet," that is getting it a review here. The story is a simple one. A young college student notices linger glances, secretive whispers and lewd comments when she walks by, and is surprised to learn that she looks just like an Internet porn star named Amber Sweet. Little by little, her life is disrupted by the coincidence -- she drops out of school, moves, and breaks up with boyfriends, all because of Amber. Then, one day, she's sitting in a café and Amber walks in. The story is about an afternoon that they spend hanging out.

Tomine is an enormously subtle writer and artist who puts a world of meaning into every word and every line. His stories are simple and beautiful and sad. Like all of Tomine's work, this vignette has a melancholy feel to it, and an ending that's less like the ending of a story and more like an ending in real life -- that is to say, a partial resolution that doesn't necessarily make it all worth while. Amber is a good person who destroys the protagonist's life through no fault of her own. The protagonist seems to know, in her anger, that Amber isn't to blame. She never expresses who is to blame. A society that worships and shames sexually powerful women in the same breath?

That seems to be what Tomine is saying, but he lets us arrive at that idea ourselves. To Tomine, this is a story. It is not a tract, and he doesn't have an agenda. Reading it, I felt connected and disconnected from it all at once, which is how I think Tomine's characters feel about the world they inhabit as well. The ability to transmit a feeling of ennui to his readers through his extremely poignant but oddly empty writing, and his extremely well drafted but oddly sterile illustrations, is probably the reason Tomine enjoys such a large following.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

SlutWalk NYC

This weekend I participated in SlutWalk NYC, my hometown's version of the feminist protest that has been sweeping North America and the world. It began, as I understand, in Toronto earlier this year when an ignorant cop made the latest in a long line of comments about a rape victim's provocative clothing. Feminists marched in Toronto in their slinkiest garments to drive home the very obvious fact that just because a woman is perceived to be a slut doesn't justify rape.

I don't own a red dress, so I went in boy-slut clothes -- jeans and a leather vest, like the cover of a gay pulp erotica novel. (I'm also considering this as a Halloween costume, we'll see...) We marched from Union Square, down Broadway, crosstown on St. Mark's Place, down Second Avenue, then took 3rd Street back to Lafayette and returned to Union Square for a rally -- which was sadly rained out, though only after some delightful performances by girl punk bands and at least one very powerful poetry reading.

There's been a lot of debate about whether SlutWalk is a legitimately empowering feminist protest, or whether it perpetuates a sexualized image of women that our culture would be better off without. I think SlutWalk is a great event and I'd like to see it continue for a long time. First of all, it's one of the few feminist protests out there that actually stands in solidarity with sexual women. I understand why feminism wants to move away from sexy images of women that encourages objectification, but when feminists shun women who dress in provocative ways and embrace their sexual power they are essentially saying that those women don't deserve respect, even from other women, which plays into the idea that they are the "kind of girl" who it's all right to rape. Secondly, the image of SlutWalk is a fantastic one -- angry, proud women taking a stand against rape in skimpy outfits is a fabulous contrast. The casual male passerby will definitely get an eyefull, but the image he sees will be sexy, empowered women who are angry about sexual violence and insisting on respect. Events like this steal sexy imagery from the realm of male fantasy and connect it to real women. It has often been said that rape prevention education needs to stop focusing on teaching women how not to get raped and start focusing on teaching men not to rape women. SlutWalk successfully does that, and I hope it will continue for years to come.