COMES NATURALLY #17
Spectator Magazine - February 4, 1994
(c) David Steinberg
How the Sexual Frontier Moves into the Mainstream: Playboy and Piercing; Philadelphia and Homophobia; Tales of the City and Gay Kissing; The Latest SEXART Salon
Playboy Discovers Piercing
Charles Gatewood is amazed. He shows his new book, Charles Gatewood Photographs: The Body and Beyond, to editors at HarperCollins/San Francisco and no one so much as bats an eye. Photos of piercings and tattoos, of what used to be edge people doing edge things. Nice pictures, say the HarperCollins editors.
Charles is used to being a renegade; he is baffled by the acceptance. Even his most controversial image -- a hand holding a dead foetus with a heart tattooed on its chest -- doesn't blow people away like it used to. "When I show this to people now," Gatewood complains, "they just say, 'Cool.'" What's the world coming to?
I talk with Jim Petersen, Playboy Advisor for the past 20 years, about what's considered radical, what not, these days, and about how that definition has changed since they heydays of the 1970s. The way he keeps track of these things is by watching the letters that come in to his column. Now, for example, he has started to get quantities of letters asking about trimming, shaping, and shaving pubic hair. People want to know if other people really do this, if it's ok, what to watch out for if you do it yourself. The first three questions about any new sex-related fetish (in order of importance?): Is it fashionable? Is it bizarre? Is it safe?
He's deciding what he wants to say about pubic shaving in his column. I encourage him to interpret the vogue as fascination with the beauty and wonder of femalia in all their variegated magnificence, rather than (say) one more attempt by men to infantilize women. I admit to him, however, that I may just be projecting my own utter fascination with cunts, how they look, how they feel, how they smell, how they taste, how they move, how they balloon inside when you lightly touch that place where.... Sorry, I do tend to get carried away. (You see, Big Roop, I am a "pussy boy" after all....)
Jim tells me to check out Playboy's February issue. Seems that Playboy has discovered piercing. "Guess what," I say to Helen, my partner, "Playboy has a photo of someone who's been pierced!" With thoughts of a Playboy model wearing metal, we find a copy of the magazine to see what's going on. "Ouch!" yells the cover come-on, "The First Word in Body Piercing."
First word? It's been 13 years since the publication of a slew of piercing photos in Gatewood's Forbidden Photographs, five years since Re-Search magazine's definitive Modern Primitives issue, a year since the release of Gatewood's Primitives. But we know what Playboy means: first word among us regular sorts of folks. Sort of like Columbus discovering America. We're not talking about the emergence of piercing, but the expansion of piercing into polite society. Which is, methinks, not insignificant.
Helen and I try to guess what sort of piercing Playboy will choose to show. I think it will be a nipple ring rather than anything cuntic. Helen is more skeptical. "Too radical," she insists. "It'll be a navel. A demure, nicely stylish navel ring."
We turn to the contents page. The article is called "A Ring in Her Navel." Helen laughs and pokes me in the ribs. She's always right about these things. We look expectantly for the photos, but come up empty-handed. There aren't any photos, just one of those surreal Playboy illustrations, this one of a woman lying on her side with a large gold ring through her entire torso, from her navel to the middle of her lower back.
Well it just goes to show that it's a long way from San Francisco to Chicago and a long way from the sexual/body/gender exploration subculture to mainstream America. For better or worse, Playboy is pretty damn close to the center of the American mainstream, no matter what Donald Wildmon may think. Which makes it worth noting, even without photos, that Playboy has chosen to include piercing in the realm of its imaginable universe.
The article by Vicki Glembocki, a young woman from Penn State University, is partly a report on the piercing scene in a small, rural Pennsylvania college town, partly an account of her experience having her own navel pierced. All in all, it's a decent enough first-level story -- moderately researched (she knows to quote Re-Search and Fakir Musafar, though not Gatewood), generally respectful of both the people who get pierced (although a little heavy on the psychosis factor) and the people who do the piercing, amusingly written and, in the end, even reasonably insightful.
Glembocki, it seems, has been spending her free time at State College's Forbidden Fruit Body Piercing Salon because she has gotten intrigued with piercing and has decided to write her senior thesis on the subject. (We take it that she is studying sociology, rather than anatomy or surgery.) She makes a spur-of-the-moment decision to put a ring through her very own navel hood when another woman, due to be pierced for the camera of a Philadelphia Inquirer photographer, fails to show.
In the process of being pierced and then having her body seen throughout Pennsylvania, Glembocki discovers, much to her surprise, that the piercing has radically changed her feeling about her body. All of a sudden she wants to show her midriff off every chance she gets: to friends, to friends of friends, to strangers in a bar, to all the world. She is not worried about how flat her tummy is or isn't. "This has been the first time in my life I haven't wanted to hide under bulky sweaters and baggy jeans," she writes. Instead of feeling "trapped by body image, by 5'10" supermodels, by bodybuilding or aerobics, by implants and liposuction, by tanning beds or Slim-Fast," she says, "by piercing my navel I've taken back my body. I've learned to be proud of something I had always dreamed of changing." Nice message.
The lord giveth and the lord taketh away. Playboy, which monthly exalts the perfect tit job and the flattest tummies, also publishes this account of a woman freeing herself from the burden of having to have the perfect body. Such are the ironies of controlling the halls of power. It reminds me of when Abbie Hoffman was published by Random House. If there's money to made from rebellion, let it be made by those against whom the rebellion is taking place.
But I don't want to get snide here. Playboy is no larger a contributor to the bulimia epidemic than Revlon or Columbia Pictures. And they're telling several million of the young and curious that piercing can be a transformative adventure and that shaved pussies look and feel absolutely mahvelous, and not just to the boys. Somebody's got to carry news from the frontiers back to the heartland. I really do see this as a significant aspect of the process of cultural/sexual progress.
Three Baby Steps Forward on Homophobia; Don't Forget to Say "May I"
I went to see Philadelphia on opening night and I will stick this more or less straight boy's neck in a noose by saying that I think this is a useful, if flawed, film -- more part of the solution than part of the problem when it comes to homophobia. First some disclaimers: This is, all in all, a pretty mediocre film -- predictable, crippled by corn, a simple-minded plot, setting up the good good guys against the bad bad guys, and requiring levels of disbelief that are all but impossible to suspend. People like Larry Kramer who have criticized Philadelphia for its severely truncated depictions of homosexuality are of course right on. (The only gay physical affection we get to see is when Andy and Miguel dance together rather flatly, and when Miguel tenderly kisses the fingers of Andy's hand). Director Jonathan Demme plays it most conservatively when it comes to confronting his presumably mainstream heterosexual audience.
But Philadelphia is not a film for gays. It is not even a film about gays or about AIDS. It is a film by and for straight people about straight people and their fear and loathing of gays, their fear and loathing of AIDS. It is a film about homophobia and PWA-phobia, and just as well. Demme, clearly, doesn't have anything significant to say about gays: the gay characters in Philadelphia are consistently hollow and unbelievable. But his straight characters carry a real punch when they are dealing what it means to be straight and to have to wrestle with the homophobic feelings familiar to every straight person in this culture.
Denzel Washington is effective as Joe Miller, a nasty, father-and-family homophobe who gradually shifts his point of view as he works with and gets to know Andy Beckett, his gay client. Miller's initial disgust with gays is undiluted and uncomfortably eloquent, as is his violent reaction to being come on to by a brother who mistakes him for gay.
Having established his gay-loathing credentials, Miller's halting, reluctant shift in attitude has real potential to say something useful to the vast homophobic majority -- at least to those who are open-minded enough to even get in the front door. To its credit, the film draws a clear parallel between discrimination against blacks and discrimination against people with AIDS. (It is Miller's identification, as a black man, with Beckett -- when Beckett is being urged our of public view by an embarrassed librarian -- that motivates Miller to represent Beckett at all.) It also highlights an impassioned, if contextually absurd, plea for tolerance of sexual diversity, and will give millions of viewers a first chance to wrap their sensitivities around the powerfully graphic image of a body covered with KS lesions.
That Miller's transformation is so partial and so uncertain makes it all the more believable and accessible. He never gets to the point of really being comfortable with Beckett, his world, or his illness; he just gets to the point that he can identify with Andy a little -- as one subject of discrimination to another, as one human being to another. Miller does not have a grand revelation that leads him to see the error of his ways; he simply finds himself caring for this one gay man despite himself. And it's that subversive, unintentional caring that gives Miller just enough respite from his fear and horror to let him touch Andy without immediately running for physical and emotional soap and water afterwards.
Meanwhile, on the Television Front...
Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, six hours of somewhat kitsch 70s nostalgia aired nationwide on PBS, works to push back the sexual discomfort/what-is-radical/what-is-acceptable frontier at a point much further up the line. It took Maupin 11 years to find a producer he wanted to work with, largely because he was unwilling to treat the representation of gay sexuality any differently from that of straights. If his straight characters got to kiss, Maupin wanted his gay characters to get to kiss as well. And kiss they did, very yummy indeed, so get used to it, all you discomfited people everywhere. Maupin is no Jonathan Demme, and television is another whole world from film -- a hundred times more far-reaching and a hundred times more conservative. (Several years ago, when two men were shown just sitting in bed together on thirtysomething, sponsors hit the roof. Remember?)
It goes without saying that Maupin is a hundred times more radical than Demme. Does that make Maupin a hundred times more useful than Demme in the struggle for acceptance and celebration of all sexualities? I'm not so sure. The way I see it, we need people who are amazingly and uncompromisingly outrageous (as individuals, as organizers, and as artists), but we also need people who are less confrontative and who are therefore able to reach different audiences in different ways. We need people to carve entirely new territory, and other people to take the ground that gets broken on the frontier and make that territory familiar and eventually comfortable to the folks who seldom venture outside the village.
Ending the war in Vietnam required both the Allard Lowensteins and the David Harrises -- the respectful protesters and the rioters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The civil rights movement needed the Martin Luther Kings as well as the Huey Newtons and the Stokely Carmichaels -- the nonviolent marches as well as the riots in Newark, Watts, and D.C. Cultural change, particularly sex cultural change, is a complex, multi-layered process that proceeds unbearably slowly even while it races ahead faster than ever before in history. It takes place simultaneously on hundreds of different levels, all of which count.
I suppose you wouldn't know it from this column, but the fact is that my heart and my guts, my loyalty and my sense of communion, all still lie solidly with the people on the frontier. Those who shepherd the incorporation of radical ideas into mainstream culture, after all, get to enjoy all the comforts of home -- the financial rewards, the respectability, the social acceptance -- while those on the edge must have the courage to suffer the almost unbearable weight of being castigated, vilified, trivialized, exoticized, and exploited for other people's entertainment and material benefit, not to mention being left to die while the nation puruses what it considers more important concerns.
But even in the midst of all that inequity, with all the resentment that this sort of injustice rightly inspires, it seems worth acknowledging the complex and paradoxical nature of social change, and working to avoid overdefining the feeling of division between the We's and the They's. That, I guess, is where all these liberal-sounding words are coming from.
Which leaves me with just one more thought: If I believe all this as much as I'm saying I do, why do I feel now like I need to take a shower?
Be It Ever So Humble...
Must be time to come home to Paraphilopolis by the Bay, our blessedly unadulterated hotbed of sexual radicalism, hedonism, godlessness, and perversity. While the snails of American sexual change inch their way toward whatever, it is always a great relief to return to where we get to explore the outer boundaries of sexual possibility and elaboration, relatively free from the tedious constraints of mid-America's antisexual quandries.
Not that I think we live in utopia or anything that blindly naive. But whatever injustices we face here at home, at least the interfaces here between the allowed and the unallowed, the accepted and the disdained, the culturally permissible and the culturally suppressed, make for more interesting conflict. As my old friend, Tom Hunter, once said in a song about people living in communes, "if we haven't solved all the problems yet, at least we've come up with a whole new set."
I'm not looking for utopia any more, just for a context where the problems and frustrations of being who I am stay interesting. Pushing up against people's sexual restraints and confusions (my own and those of other people) is all right with me, as long as the issues don't become stagnant, the confrontations grow repetitive.
So it was wonderful, last month, to see Mark Chester back in the role of sex art impresario that he plays so well, co-producing (with Michael Rosen) the Third Annual Robert Chesley Memorial SEXART Salon at his Folsom Street home and gallery. Once again, Mark organized a delightful gathering of the faithless pansexual faithful, complete with a broad spectrum of provocative sexual art, live performance, and crowded rooms buzzing with interesting, interested, sex-celebrating company.
The artwork and photography were from Mark's and Michael's personal collections, including work by Joel-Peter Witkin, Duane Michals, Eiko Hosoe, George Dureau, Tom Millea, Kim Stringfellow, Dennis Bell, Bradley Braverman, Dirk Dykstra, Olaf, Freddie Niem, Jill Posener, David Lebe, Fakir Musafar and John Diehl.
Performancewise, Spectator columnist Carol Queen had everyone in stitches with an off-the-wall description of the utter perversity of her Santa's post-Christmas orgy, with humans, elves, and reindeer pulling out all the stops -- looks, age, gender, and species unimportant. Henry Mach's performance piece, describing his work as a writer in a sleazy porn factory (where he could turn out a full-length porn novel in a matter of hours), was equally entertaining. Watch for him performing this at other places around town. Readings and performances by Greg Taylor, Noni Howard, Karen Mendelssohn, Jack Fertig, and others provided collective testimony to the creative potential of a cross-fertilizing community of sexual exuberants.
For those who felt inspired, there were naked bodies to paint, and blindfolded, leather-bound forms, tied from ceiling to floor (under faux mistletoe, no less) to be whacked or fondled at will. It was, as Mark and Michael's announcement proclaimed, "as close to a Christmas party as two Jews can get" or, more significantly, as two unapologetic perverts can get. At the time of year when America pays homage to tradition, family, and what it considers to be of value, it is good to have our own burgeoning traditions, values, and sense of greater family to celebrate.
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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