Comes Naturally #143 (December 11, 2003):
A Different America

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Spectator Magazine -- December 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003 David Steinberg


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
P.O. Box 2992
Santa Cruz, CA 95063
(831) 426-7082
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