COMES NATURALLY #29
Spectator Magazine - January 13, 1995
(c) David Steinberg
Mother Jones Rejects Michael Rosen as Pornographic; Berkeley Almost Does the Same to Good Vibrations; Federal Express Takes a Stand for Sexual Tolerance
"Too Close to Pornography to Have in Our Magazine"
It's not news, of course, that sex is a touchy subject out there in the confusion of America, but sometimes the sexual resistance comes from the damnedest places.
Thus it comes to pass that the very correct and most self-congratulating journal of progressive politics, Mother Jones, has refused an ad for two of Michael Rosen's highly proclaimed, artful books of sexual photography: Sexual Magic and Sexual Art. Leah Tracy, advertising manager at Mother Jones, terms the ad "too close to pornography to have in our magazine."
When Michael puts together an ad for his books, he generally includes a provocative photo to get the reader's eye and draw attention to the text. He is used to having to choose the photo carefully, to meet the criteria of various advertising departments. But in this case of the Mother Jones ad, there wasn't anything as potentially objectionable as a controversial photo. Nothing but naked copy.
The ad that Mother Jones has rejected as pornographic is this:
RADICAL SEX PHOTOS: These books begin where Madonna stops. High quality, fine art photographs of individuals and couples of all genders and persuasions. Sexual Magic: High energy, impressionistic photos of actual hot (and consensual) S/M sex scenes - not models. Sexual Art: Xrated, but not pornography. Transgressive images of explicit sex, featuring non-standard penetration. Can sexually explicit images be art? Just published.
Now maybe I've lost perspective hanging out on the sex radical fringe, but I really don't see what in this paragraph so offends the good people at the Foundation for National Progress, mother of Mother Jones. Michael has advertised in the magazine several times before, mentioning S/M, erotic piercing, tattoos, and gender play without encountering objection. Is it the description of his new book, Sexual Art, that takes the text over Mother Jones's edge? Does the phrase "transgressive images of explicit sex" makes Michael's book (or his ad) pornographic? "Non-standard penetration?" "X-rated?" Or is it that Mother Jones is revising its advertising criteria in a more conservative direction as we move into the Gingrich era? Michael isn't sure and isn't sure he wants to spend the time to find out. He feels like he has more important things to do with his time than dicker with the magazine over the wording of an ad.
Similarly worded ads for Michael's books, including an eye-catching photograph, have appeared without editorial intervention in such magazines as Libido and in Future Sex, although, in their mail order catalog, Future Sex did cover the penis in Michael's photo with a black rectangle, without his approval or consent.
No one wants to get into trouble with the authorities, not about sex anyway. It's an old story that people and organizations who consider themselves politically progressive tend to have remarkably conservative politics when it comes to sexual matters, at least in this country. This has been true of both the traditional (Marxist) left, and the New Left of the 60's and 70's, within and beyond the feminist movement.
Of the various incarnations of left politics, only the Greens seem to have any consciousness of sexual openness, diversity, and pleasure as radical issues in their own right. It was a group of Greens, for example, that arranged the use of the lush facilities of the European Parliament for the Second World Whores' Congress in Brussels in 1986 (complete with simultaneous translation of sessions into seven languages). And it is the Greens who have raised the issues of decriminalization and destigmatization of prostitution before the European Parliament.
Michael Rosen's dead end with Mother Jones, discouraging as it may be, is not without precedent. Good Vibrations has had numerous ads refused by Ms. magazine, where the word "vibrator" is too controversial for advertising copy. The word "penis" is prohibited from ads in the Village Voice, even though penises can be both mentioned and shown in articles in the same paper.
Spectator itself is the product of this oil-and-water division between sex radicals and radicals of more traditional stripes. In the 60's, the Berkeley Barb was the granddaddy of West Coast underground newspapers, a mixture of the radical politics that grew out of the Free Speech Movement, and the open sexuality with roots in the Haight-Ashbury, the hippies, and the Sexual Freedom League. When the good siblings of the moral left grew uncomfortable with the idea of their journal being largely financed by personals ads and ads for sexual services, Spectator was born and the two weeklies went their separate ways. The Barb, an important and long-standing voice of radical political change, was dead within a year. Spectator -- well, what a long, strange trip it's been. Here we are publishing issue number 850, with talk of radical politics, explicit sex, transgressive images, non-standard penetration, vibrators, and penises all under one roof.
"Adult" or "Not Adult," That Is the Question
Good Vibrations has stumbled into its own version of the conflict between supposedly progressive politics and openness about sex in its attempt to open a second retail store in Berkeley. Expecting to open their new store routinely on December 15th -- in time for at least part of the Christmas rush, Good Vibrations was hit with a sudden and unexpected suspension of their use permit three days before the debut, when a neighborhood resident complained to Berkeley Councilwoman Mary Wainwright.
It seems that the good city of Berkeley has an ordinance dating from 1978 prohibiting "adult oriented" businesses from operating within 300 feet of a residence or 600 feet of a church, which is to say just about anywhere in town outside a strictly industrial district. It would most definitely exile Good Vibrations from their 2504 San Pablo Avenue location -- if Good Vibrations is in fact an adult oriented business. According to the Berkeley ordinance, a store is adult oriented if it primarily appeals to prurient interests, sexual titillations, appetites, curiosity, or fantasies. (Guess there are no Victoria's Secrets stores in Berkeley....)
When Councilwoman Wainwright objected that Good Vibrations was in violation of the ordinance, zoning administrator Vivian Kahn suspended Good Vibrations's use permit, pending further research into the subject. This was a mere three days before the store's widely publicized and anticipated opening. (Good Vibes had mailed 14,000 announcements and discount coupons to Bay Area people on its mailing list and done substantial advertising in local papers.) Frantic attempts by Good Vibrations staff to provide additional information to the zoning department, including a meeting the day before the opening, went nowhere. Good Vibrations was told that it could not get its permit reinstated immediately.
That's when Good Vibrations put the word out to the community at large, and the community -- customers, friends, supporters, their landlord, even the mainstream press -- responded royally. A petition in support of the store was signed by hundreds of people who came to the Thursday opening, only to find the store unable to open for business. Letters of support came in from Berkeley city council members Carla Woodworth, Linda Maio, and Dona Spring, as well as from Berkeley mayor Shirley Dean. Woodworth was particularly supportive, organizing her own campaign to get the use permit immediately reinstated.
Friendly publicity in the Friday editions of the Oakland Tribune ("Adult-business law gives shop bad vibes") and the San Francisco Examiner ("Berkeley balks at Good Vibrations -- S.F. sex shop for women encounters resistance to expansion plans") was also helpful. Authorities who thought they had some sleazy characters by the tail found that they had stepped into the turf of the widely respected and admired, much as when the Feds and the San Francisco police busted internationally-known photographer Jock Sturges as a supposed child pornographer. Late Friday afternoon, December 16th, Good Vibrations was granted a temporary use permit, allowing the store to operate while final determination is made about the nature of the business, presumably some time in January.
Now, what is a progressive political entity like the City of Berkeley to do? Everyone loves the women of Good Vibrations but nobody wants to open Berkeley to those "yucky" sorts of men's sex stores that are not hard to find in San Francisco or Hayward.
Short of repealing the law, the issue revolves around how the various products sold at Good Vibrations are classified. Adult or not adult, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler to sensuously stroke thy partner with the softness of a feather or to fiercely strike her with the sharpness of a whip; whether to oil his body for comfort or for arousal; whether to vibrate for relaxation or for orgasm. Thus shall it be decided whether Good Vibrations be a positive addition to the commonweal of progress or a blight upon the town.
If the "adult" material is in the majority -- more specifically, if it takes up more than 50% of the space in the store -- Good Vibrations will be classified as "primarily adult oriented" and banned. If the adult material is in the minority, Good Vibrations will be sanctified and approved. This means cataloguing all the material to be sold in the store, measuring cubic inches of space, and making a case for which products encourage prurience and which do not.
From Good Vibrations's point of view, all their educational and sexual
self-help books fall into the "not adult" classification, as do such ambiguous body products as massage oils, lube, safer sex supplies, and plug-in vibrating massagers. As admittedly "adult" products they list such items as dildoes, harnesses, restraints, battery-operated vibrators, and books of explicitly erotic content.
Will Good Vibrations have to censor itself to keep what it calls its adult material under 50% of the total store? Not really say Good Vibrations staff members, although meeting the terms of the ordinance may affect the way products are arranged and displayed in the store. "If we have a table of gift items and we want it to count as 'not adult' space, we may have to keep certain items separate."
Of course it's a good thing that Good Vibrations has such a wellestablished store of respectability to draw on in situations like this. A "sex shop for women," as the Examiner headline described Good Vibes, gets all sorts of appreciation that the more lurid sex shops for men must do without. Good Vibrations spokespeople have been quick to dissociate themselves from anything that might be considered disreputable. "We have made a deliberate effort to avoid the sort of furtive, shameful, sleazy atmosphere of the sex shops that cater to men," Laura Miller says in the Examiner. "We are kind of like Crate and Barrel... down to earth, plain-spoken, but wholesome."
Tanya Schevita, a sympathetic Examiner reporter, notes that "there are no flashing neon signs or pictures or nude women blanketing the windows of the Good Vibrations store. Instead," she says, "picture windows light up the large airy room."
Good Vibrations has taken care over its 17-year history to affirm sex in a refreshingly direct, matter-of-fact, aesthetic way. This was the whole purpose when founder Joani Blank first opened her doors in a small storefront on San Francisco's 22nd Street: to provide a place where people could purchase quality sex-related products without feeling embarrassed or sleazy in the process. She particularly wanted to provide a place that would be appealing and unintimidating to women. As a result of its particular vision of wholesome sexuality, Good Vibrations can depend on a level of public and political support that other, less "tasteful," sex-related businesses simply do not enjoy.
There is no question that Good Vibrations provides an important and unique perspective on the marketing of sex-related materials. But there is something about this uptown/downtown dichotomy that I also find troublesome. Do those of us whose sexual aesthetics allow us to pass as more respectable get to make our way in the world and turn our backs on our brother and sister sexual entrepreneurs whose more controversial interests make them more vulnerable to public outcry? Do we really want to distance ourselves from the other retailers, publishers, artists, activists, and just plain sexual folk to avoid association with their more controversial existences?
In the introduction to her recently published book of essays, Public Sex, Pat Califia puts it this way:
"Being a sex radical means being defiant as well as deviant. It means... questioning the way our society assigns privilege based on adherence to its moral codes, and in fact makes every sexual choice a matter of morality. If you believe that these inequities can be addressed only through extreme social change, then you qualify as a sex radical, even if you prefer to get off in the missionary position and still believe that there are only two genders."
I agree with Califia strongly, even though my own work falls rather solidly into the "tasteful" camp. My book, Erotic by Nature, was designed to be the Good Vibrations of sexual publishing. I felt there was a need to broaden the spectrum of sexual material available beyond the lurid and the titillating, even as Joani Blank felt there was a need for an aesthetic sex product emporium. Those of us who seem to comprise the new breed of sexual entrepreneurs -- politically conscious, intelligent, diversely tolerant, truly honoring of women, men, and sex (or so we like to think) -- whether we open stores, publish books and magazines, create sexual art and performance, or create fetishwear that doesn't fall apart on second wearing -- force mainstream folk to question their automatic association of sexual explicitness with the lurid tone of the conventional porn marketplace. We bust stereotypes. Hopefully, we begin to clear space for people to simply feel good about themselves sexually instead of playing out the naughty adolescent so much of the time.
But what about the more lurid material? What about, for example, Spectator's unique blend of intelligence, sexual sanity, and unapologetic, in-your-face sexual attitude and imagery? What about the person who wants to open a less politically respectable sex shop in a city like Berkeley? To what extent are we all, as sexual outcasts, in this fight together, and to what extent do we fracture our ties to each other in the process of defending ourselves against the attacks of one form or another of the sex police? To what extent to we allow ourselves to establish our own legitimacy by distancing ourselves from sexual outlaws more controversial than ourselves?
There's certainly no point in Good Vibrations looking for trouble by portraying itself as just another porn shop, which it most definitely is not. But the fuss over the opening of the new store provides an opportunity for Good Vibrations to use the legitimacy and respect that it has garnered over the years to question why Berkeley has a law limiting sex-affirming businesses like Good Vibrations in the first place. Maybe it's time, when the flaws of this law are embarrassingly apparent, to encourage supporters of Good Vibrations, on and off the City Council, to get this law off the books entirely.
"There Will Be No Incidents About This Whatsoever"
Happily, not all the stories out there in the world are troublesome ones. Take the story of Paige Dunlap and Federal Express, for example.
Paige is a 49-year-old male-to-female transsexual who lives in Southern California. From the time she was a very young child, Paige knew she was really a woman. Her parents, on the other hand, were determined that she would become a regular boy like all the other regular boys. When she wanted to play with girls, they beat her. When she continued identifying as a female, they sent her to military school to toughen her up. Still identifying as a woman, she joined the Air Force and became a B-52 pilot, flying a total of 187 missions during the Vietnam War. Thirteen missions short of completing her tour, she was shot down by a missile over North Vietnam. She was a prisoner of war for 20 months, tortured for 89 days. All in all, Paige spent 28 years as a man in the U.S. Air Force and Air Force Reserves. Last May she underwent male-tofemale transitional surgery. Called up from the Air Force Reserves to serve in Operation Desert Storm she arrived as a woman ready to serve her country. The Air Force was not interested.
In April 1993, before her reconstructive surgery, Paige applied for a job as a Pilot in Command for Federal Express. At this time she already had a female appearance and had legally changed her name. On her application she listed her 12,000 hours of flying experience, 90% of which was with the military. She did not mention that she was a transsexual, and no one asked.
A short time later, she got a call from Federal Express, inquiring about a discrepancy in her application. Her flying hours and social security number checked out exactly as she had presented them, but the name associated with her military records was not Paige Dunlap. Paige explained that she was a transsexual and had legally changed her name, but that since she had not gotten permission from the military for the name change, the Air Force refused to acknowledge her current identity.
"No problem, no problem at all," the Fed Ex representative told her. "We just couldn't match your flying hours with your name." She was offered the job on the spot. Not only that, but Federal Express went so far as to issue a memo which it distributed to all the hubs that Paige would be flying through in her new job. The memo informed all relevant people that Paige was a transsexual and insisted that she receive every courtesy and respect that would be extended to any other pilot in her position. "There will be no incidents about this whatsoever," the memo emphasized. Anyone acting otherwise would be subject to immediate disciplinary action.
In fact, during her employment with Federal Express, Paige has experienced only one minor problem with another Fed Ex employee, a matter that she was able to resolve without resorting to any form of higher authority. The only significant harassment she has experienced involved employees of a hotel where Federal Express staff were staying during a layover. Informed of the incident, Federal Express complained strongly to the hotel, insisting that if the hotel wanted to continue to receive Fed Ex's substantial business they had better straighten up their act. The hotel dutifully complied.
When I was told this story, I was amazed that a major corporation would take such measures to insure fair and equal treatment for a transsexual employee, but Paige says that Federal Express is truly committed to fair treatment of all its employees. She knows of four other openly transsexuals who work for Federal Express without stigma or problem. "The company hires many known openly gay people," she says. "It hires the handicapped, and hires many deaf people as well. They employ lots of deaf people on the ramp [loading and unloading planes] because everyone has to wear ear muffs [sound suppressors] and uses sign language anyway. These are jobs where there is a real noise hazard, so using deaf people there makes good sense. Fed Ex believes in putting people in places where they fit. Their attitude is, 'We don't care what you are as long as you're a breathing human being and you do the job.'"
Paige says that, realistically, Federal Express is as interested in protecting themselves as they are in protecting her. "They went out of their way to insure that their process flowed smoothly with me being involved with it. They protected themselves from disruption. Everything was up front. No innuendoes, no comments behind people's backs, no less starting pay because I was a woman or because I was a transsexual. Their attitude was, 'It's part of life, now deal with it.'"
Now is this progressive sex/gender politics or what? Forgive my sentimentality, but this is my idea of a Christmas story to warm a cynic's cold heart. Somewhere out there are people who are committed to treating issues like gender change and sexual orientation with simple, sensible tolerance -- no bullshit, no messing around, a courageous combination of good politics and good business. We are so used to boycotting and protesting corporations that take offensive antisexual stances; it's good to be able to draw attention to a major corporation that deserves special praise and respect for its active intervention for sexual diversity and acceptance.
Pass the word and keep the faith in 1995.
[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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