COMES NATURALLY #28
Spectator Magazine - December 16, 1994
(c) David Steinberg
Bits and Pieces: The End of the Sprinkle Salon; Satan and the Children; Teenage Morality in Iran; FTM Media Mania; A Sexy and a Not-So-Sexy Movie
Requiem for the Sprinkle Salon
After 14 years of being one of the major focal points of sexual exploration in this country (14 years whose collected experiences would boggle the mind of just about anyone), the Lexington Avenue home, studio, and general base of operations for photographer, performance artist, and multifaceted pleasure activist Annie Sprinkle has become just another New York apartment for rent.
The Sprinkle Salon is dead. Long live the Sprinkle Salon.
Since 1980, Annie's modest, unairconditioned 11th-floor apartment has been a well-established eros-inspired inn standing at the intersection of the many diverse paths that crisscross the eclectic wilds of New York's erotic underground. At this way-station in the sexual desert we call America, many a weary erotic traveler has found comfort and lodging, caring and intelligent companionship, the camaraderie of other explorers of the erotic wilderness -- travelers of all stripes, shapes, and sizes except conventional. You could call the Sprinkle Salon a stop on the erotic underground railroad, an oasis of predictably unpredictable crazy sexual sanity in an alien world.
If these now-bare walls could talk, what tales they could tell! There was what Annie describes as the first multiple-person piercing party involving more than gay men, when Annie offered Fakir Musafar a place to first conduct his now-well-known ritual body alterations. There were the meetings of PONY (Prostitutes of New York), New York's radical prostitutes' union ("look for the Union Labia") working for decriminalization of prostitution while providing information, cooperation, and support for sex workers on and off the street. For five years, before anyone else knew of such things, there were support groups for female-to-male transsexuals.
It was at the Salon that Annie and Jwala originated and led their Sluts and Goddesses workshops for women, where people could find themselves Drag King for a Day, where friends gathered to honor and praise erotic writer and explorer Marco Vassi, where countless tantra classes and s/m parties took place. The Salon was location for a dozen different porn movies, not to mention hundreds of Annie's own photographic shoots.
It was, in Annie's words, a "vortex of erotic activity, a haven for wayward women of all sorts, particularly wounded sex workers." MONK magazine captured the spirit of the place when it called the Sprinkle Salon "a 1990's version of [Andy] Warhol's Factory, an outrageous creative powerhouse, blending art and sexuality."
"The ladies you see gracing the pages of Hustler, Adam, or On Our Backs will invariably find their way here. And you know that friendly, hairy, rather macho-looking man sitting next to you? Well, one year ago, HE was a SHE. And the man with glasses, who could pass for an English college professor at most major universities, might just lift his shirt at any minute and reveal the dozen or so silver ringlets that hang from his drooping nipples. The stripper in the corner named Blondie is a Hassidic Jew. Another is a devout Catholic who claims that the Virgin Mary told her to strip. And the red-headed stripper posing for her portfolio? Her eyes look tired not because she's been working late but because she's been studying for the Bar Exam. She just graduated from NYU School of Law."
"From Danny the Wonder Pony, who acts out a lifelong fetish and gets paid good money giving women erotic horse rides on his saddle and stirruped body, to the diminutive Cora de Ridder, the darling of Dutch telephone sex, if you hang around the Salon long enough you're bound to see them all. Enough tit and titillation to fill beauty parlor gossip in St. Paul, Minnesota, for many years to come."
Why did Annie move after all this time? "I've changed so much over the years," she says, "that I felt my environment should change too. There were so many ghosts in that place; I felt it was time to get away, to take a little step back, dig deep inside, and see what's next for me. A lot of what I have been saying for many years has been very much integrated into society, and that raises the question of what's needed now. What does it mean to be an erotic pioneer in the 1990's? That's what I'm thinking about."
While she sorts out new directions for her erotic creativity, Annie is of course busy with a variety of current projects. In February she will release Annie Sprinkle's Post-Modern Pin-Ups," an innovative deck of oversize "pleasure activist playing cards" that she has put together with Virginia publisher Katharine Gates and illustrator Steve Cerio. The "deluxe oversized plastic-coated" deck of cards pictures "54 of the hippest and hottest women of the sex-positive grrl scene," including Lydia Lunch, Candida Royalle, Lily Burana, our own Kat Sunlove and Carol Queen, Linda Montano, Debi Sundahl, Linda Serbu, and of course Annie herself as the Queen of Diamonds. "Erotic and funny yet not completely hard-core," says Annie's press release, "the images emphasize safer sex and are intended for both a male and female audience."
Annie plans to recreate the Sprinkle Salon in a new location -- "bigger, more elegant, more sensuous than ever." She has fantasies of "an erotic pleasure palace for women -- a post-modern whorehouse, sex club, and sex-healing space for women." Meanwhile, she says, the home of the Sprinkle phenomenon is up for rent. Know anybody in New York who would want to lease a piece of sexual history? Seems like someone should keep the Salon in the family. One thing's for certain: Whoever moves into 90 Lexington Avenue, apartment 11F, is going to inherit 14 years of accumulated sexual-alchemical vibration. I'll bet they're visited by some interesting dreams.
The Emperor's New Satanic Cult Abuse
Someone has finally done an extensive investigation of the Satanic sexual abuse epidemic. I mean by that the epidemic of accusations that there is in this country and elsewhere an extensive, organized, ominous network of evil Satanic cults that is fomenting the widespread ritual sexual abuse of children.
Guess what? Out of no fewer than 12,264 allegations of group cult sexual abuse, investigators found not a single case where there was any evidence to substantiate the charge.
The massive study, conducted by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect and directed by Dr. Gail Goodman of UC Davis, corroborates the findings of earlier, more limited investigations by police and crime commissions in Michigan, Virginia, Utah, and Great Britain. Investigators surveyed some 6,910 psychiatrists, psychologists and clinical social workers, as well as 4,655 district attorneys, police departments, and social work agencies, according to The New York Times. They did find a few individual molesters who claimed some kind of connection to the Prince of Darkness. But organized ritual abuse? Not even one substantiation. As Goodman notes archly, "if there is anyone out there with solid evidence of satanic cult abuse of children, we would like to know about it."
This is reminiscent of the recurring bugaboo about so-called snuff films -- porn films allegedly depicting an actual murder in a sexual context. Many years ago Al Goldstein of Screw magazine offered a substantial reward -- $10,000 if I remember correctly -- to anyone who could produce any such film. To date: no takers. Not that this has silenced the likes of Catharine MacKinnon, who continues to refer to snuff films as if they exist. I don't suppose the Goodman study will quiet the hawkers of the Satanic ritual abuse panic either.
The other day, my partner and I watched a TV rerun of Rosemary's Baby, Roman Polanski's 1968 film in which a Satanic cult steals Rosemary's newborn baby to worship him as the son of Satan. There it was, clear as day: the birth of a national phenomenon out of the mental imaginings of one rather strange film director, a virus loosed on the public to multiply for twenty years, transcend the fiction-fact barrier, and permanently alter the national psychosexual/political consciousness. Thank you, Roman!
Just what we need: reality defined by the existence of collectively shared fantasy. Thanks to television and homogeneous national film distribution we can all share the same subconscious subtext since we're all processing the same invented psychological imagery. Once we all begin to imagine the same things at the same time, damned (pardon the expression) if they don't begin to feel damned real. I mean, if 12,000 different people from all over the country are reporting the very same horrible sorts of circumstances -- down to the same graphic details -- there must be something going on, right? Wrong. But the fear persists. At this very minute hundreds of thousands of alarmed parents are wondering how to protect their children from Satanic cults that don't exist, that never existed.
Now if you want to really give yourself a cold chill on how twisted collective distortion of reality can become, check out a book called The Devil in Massachusetts. It's a detailed historical account of the collective adolescent sexual hysteria that mushroomed into the Salem witch trials and cost dozens of good people their lives. Was it Winston Churchill who said that "those who know nothing of history are doomed to repeat history's mistakes?"
On the Other Hand, Things Could Be Worse...
In Iran, according to an article in The New York Times, the ongoing worldwide conflict between the irresistible force of adolescent sexuality and the immovable object of the defenders of antisexual moral purity has definitely moved into the realm of the surreal. Iran, in case you haven't heard, literally has a morality militia, the Bassij, people who take on the job (among others) of eradicating immoral behavior among those of blooming sexual desire.
"It is a dirty, lonely job," says one morality cop, Mehdi Nazemi, in The Times, "but we must be ready to die for God. Girls in baseball caps, covered with makeup, coming up here without proper head scarves. And the boys use words I can't repeat and strip off their shirts."
The good news is that, once again, the nascent life force that is sex seems to be winning out over the death wish of puritanical repression. According to Times reporter Chris Hedges, the teens' commitment to finding ways to flirt outstrips even the moralistic verve of the fundamentalist enforcers. By walking for miles along remote paths in local parks, the teenagers get beyond the limits of where the Bassij literally jump out of the bushes to surprise and interrupt those of immoral proclivities.
Keep in mind that the overthrow of the dreaded Iranian Shah Rezi Pahlavi was almost as much a reaction to his Western-influenced immorality (particularly the lifting of strict limitations on women's dress and behavior promoted by his quite Western wife) as it was to his repressive secret police. The moral (whoops!) of the story is that, when it comes to sex, one theocracy looks pretty much like another, and there's something of the smell of burning witches and detained Iranian teenagers in the air these days. If you're wondering how it can be that the Republicans now control Congress and the California legislature, consider that the single most significant new element on the electoral scene in 1994 as compared to 1992 is that the Christian Right has been doing a lot of nuts-and-bolts grassroots organizing in Congressional district after school district all this time. Forget about voting your pocketbook; it's time to vote your libido....
What's with the sudden upsurge of mainstream media fascination with female-to-male transsexuals?
In July, no less a mainstream mainstay than the veritable New Yorker ran a long, detailed, basically informative and respectful piece on FTM transsexuals, "The Body Lies," by Amy Bloom. And now, in its November issue, hip Details joins in with "Becoming a Man" by Emily Yoffe. Like s/m, like piercing, like tattooing, female-to-male transgender surgery seems to be capturing the imagination of the American mainstream.
Perhaps this is nothing more than reverential obeisance to the everexpanding, seemingly miraculous power of Western medical technology. On the other hand, maybe it expresses a deeper fascination with the idea of gender mutability itself. Does media attention to the possibilities of female-to-male gender transformation imply real public acceptance of the concept of gender by choice? Or is it simply a very American, sensationalistic approach-avoidance fascination with yet another new form of supposed "weirdness?"
In America, anything goes as long as it sells. I have a hard time thinking that Details cares about the revolutionary potential of gender flexibility beyond its ability to sell a few more magazines. Once The Crying Game surprised everyone with its critical acclaim and box office success, its hardly surprising that the more imaginative media want to mine this accidentally exposed vein of public fascination. If you want acceptance and change around a new lifestyle, sexual or otherwise, demonstrate that it provides a new market that can generate profit for somebody somewhere. Sex is everywhere in the media because sex sells. It's as simple as that. But confusion and fear also sell -- sell political candidates as well as products. The capitalist imperative doesn't necessarily favor the pursuit of truth and beauty.
For me the bottom-line worry is about soul. How to use the media to widen people's consciousness -- I'm thinking particularly about sexual matters here -- without losing the heart of the matter, again and again, to the essential soullessness of media profit mania. How to intersect with real media power without being reduced to idiotic simplifications of who we really are and what we're about.
In the old days, the wisdom of the adepts was reserved for selected initiates, those who had taken sufficient time and energy to build a context for understanding the forces they were proposing to engage. Now everyone has instant access to everything -- from guns to sex to psychedelics -- whether they create context and understanding to contain their experience or not. Not surprisingly, the spinouts are at least as common as the enlightenments. This is, after all, democracy: rule by all the people, not by just the elite. Who can argue with that? And yet there is this uneasiness in me that won't go away....
I'm starting to sound uncomfortably like the Iranian morality patrol. How did I get here from where I began, which was talking about the media's interest in gender questioning? God knows, I'm as fascinated and titillated and genuinely interested and weirded out by the notion of fluid gender as anyone else. (I happen to be particularly taken with Kate Bornstein's perspective that goes one step beyond the possibility of changing gender to letting go of the need for gender identity entirely.)
It's the question of soul that won't stop bothering me: how to hold onto our souls while we're immersed in a culture that seems determined to destroy soul at all cost.
[I don't know, officer. I found him here in front of the computer, naked and babbling incoherently. The last part of what he had written was even more bizarre than what I left on the screen. I didn't think he would have wanted anyone to see it, so I erased it before I called you. I couldn't bear to see him make a fool of himself -- well, more than he has already. He seemed like a decent enough sort of person before he, you know.... I hope you'll take him someplace where he'll be taken care of with a little kindness. I don't think he meant anybody any harm.]
Movie Watch: Sexual Surprises and Disappointments
I went to see Interview with the Vampire, hoping for an even more hemoerotic film than Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula. It is my sad duty to tell you that aside from its many other faults, Interview with the Vampire is in no way a blood-sexy film.
Aside from one or two sensuous images early in this long, meandering tale, Interview with the Vampire is remarkable only in how it manages to completely exclude the rich eroticism of Anne Rice's moist prose. There is little if any real seduction of any kind, and the bloodsucking scenes themselves, rather than being sensuous, present a simple, swift, go-forthe -throat viciousness that seems out to deny that there could be any erotic connection whatsoever in the lure of the vampire. (Big sigh!)
On the other hand, The Advocate is a delightful surprise of a discourse on the pleasures and foibles of unapologetic sexuality during the time of the Plague. This lushly filmed, underrated little British gem tells the story of a medieval public defender who leaves the urban excitement of Paris for the French countryside, seeking a simple life of working with what he imagines to be down-to-earth, goodhearted peasants. Expecting an undemanding job of minor legal affairs, he finds himself instead involved in cases involving alleged witchcraft, adultery, and murdered children, not to mention animals gone wild. (Animals were prosecuted with the same vigor and procedure as people in medieval France.)
Interestingly, almost all of the cases (based on actual case histories) involve sex in one way or another, so the film becomes a vehicle for looking at the issues that arise in a culture where open pursuit of sexuality is taken for granted and appreciated in the most unpuritanical of ways. In this context, although sex leads to a wide variety of inevitable complications and legal wrangles, it is never sex itself that is suspect or on trial, only the question of how to manage its nuances and consequences. The openly accepted lustiness of all people -- women as well as men -- provides a delightfully erotic background and a vivid contrast to antisexual times such as ours. At the same time, the various characters in the film (errant priest, indulgent lord, itinerant Moors, flirtatious lady of the court, spy for the Inquisition) provide opportunities for the film to explore a variety of issues as they pertain to sexual matters, particularly religious hypocrisy, racism, and the absurd intersection between real life, a bizarre legal system, and the superstitious assumptions of people ruled by fear of what they cannot understand.
[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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