COMES NATURALLY #31
Spectator Magazine - March 10, 1995
(c) David Steinberg
Erotic Transformations; Blood Rituals; Mistress Kat's Fantasy Ball
Of Blood, Fear, Pleasure, and Danger
Last June I wrote a column about my very tentative fascination with the erotic aspects of blood. I felt very exposed to be writing about blood in this way. I imagined people who read this column would start moving to the other side of a room if I came in. Blood erotic? You've got to be kidding. This time, Steinberg, you've gone too far. To my pleasure and relief, the actual feedback I got on the column was actually quite positive. Several people called to say that they appreciated my viscous thoughts. Some were people who were themselves erotically intrigued with blood and were glad to have confirmation of their feelings from someone else. Others enjoyed the invitation to think about blood in a way that had never occurred to them before. All in all I discovered, as one does so often in revealing a secret desire, that I was not nearly as alone and outcast as I had imagined.
Far from it. During the nine months since I wrote that column, blood seems in fact to have become something of a national erotic phenomenon. It looks like I was feeling the pulse (sorry...) of something much larger than a purely personal whim. Not that everyone in Des Moines is incorporating blood into their daily sex lives, but references to erotic attraction to blood do keep showing up in mainstream culture.
Dracula and vampire images and references are suddenly quite the rage. There are films like Interview with the Vampire, and books like Roderick Anscombe's psychological novel The Secret Life of Laszlo Count Dracula. You can almost smell the general erotic fascination with blood, the urge to be swept away into bloodiness, to dip into the heat, the warmth, the robust thickness, the ruby cabernet muskiness -- you get the picture. When I saw Interview with the Vampire (a big disappointment as a hemoerotic turn-on, by the way), the audience reaction to even the slightest erotic tremor was positively palpable.
What is going on? How is it that people seem to be drawn to the erotic potential of blood in this Age of AIDS, when sexual blood play has the possibility of being so dangerous? So true, so reasonable. But as someone once said, small things like reason can be put in a jar. What does reason know about the matters of desire?
Isn't it precisely the sense of the dangerous and the forbidden that so often motivates erotic fascination? When a society uses social rules to severely suppress sex, sex becomes associated with the breaking of rules, and rule-breaking becomes sexy in itself. Besides, sex and eroticism are by their nature anti-rational and therefore dangerous to the sort of containment and control that reason wants to impose on the world. In a rational society such as ours, that fears the loss of control that sex represents, sex and eroticism become vehicles we can use to help us address and master things that we fear, whether those things start out being sexual or not. Enclosing danger, or the potential for danger, within the realm of the erotic, can perform a form of erotic/sexual transformation that converts the toxic to the lifegiving, the (potentially) destructive to that which can be nurturing and healing.
This sort of sexual alchemy is familiar to many people who play with the psychological nuances of sadomasochism. It is possible, for example, by conscious intent, to shift from the sensation of pain (Ouch! I don't like that!) to a sensory context that has nothing to do with pain at all -- perhaps to an experience of pleasure, perhaps to an experience of heat, perhaps to an experience of feeling totally separate from cognitive interpretation or definition of any kind. When someone is being paddled, or flogged, or whipped within the context of an s/m scene, they may be experiencing pain, but more likely they are experiencing sensations of pleasure, even if pleasure is not what we generally might expect to feel at such a moment.
I remember an incident when I was a freshman in college. It was my very first day of class, a chemistry lab. The very first task in the lab manual was to make a rinse bottle to use for washing out chemical apparatus in the experiments that would follow. I was to take a length of glass tubing and insert it through a thick rubber stopper. What I didn't realize was that I was supposed to wet the tube first so it would slip easily through the rubber. Trying to push dry tube through the dry stopper, I managed to shatter the tube and ram it deep into my palm.
Being a would-be grown-up in a new social context, and being of the male persuasion to boot, I was determined not to cry out with the pain that multiplied my embarrassment at my clunkiness. Silently, I went to the heavy-set man who doled out lab equipment and showed him my gashed, bleeding palm. Without a word, he reached for a bottle of iodine and proceeded to liberally douse my wound with the liquid. The burning pain that swept over me was so strong that I thought I would scream or pass out, but a second later (with no conscious intent on my part) the raging sensation in my palm shifted from intense pain to intense heat -- a beautiful warm glow that emanated from the center of my hand halfway up my arm.
I looked down at my hand in amazement. It was as if there was a sensual sunset radiating from my hand. It felt ecstatic, beautifully and marvelously ecstatic. I wandered back to my lab stool in a euphoric glow. Some kind of switch had been thrown in my brain, and searing pain had become blissful pleasure. I had eroticized the pain and it had become something other than pain. It was a metaphor I would never forget.
The same kind of erotic transformation applies to emotional experience. One way to handle painful emotions is to eroticize them and people frequently do this, whether they are conscious of what they are doing or not, even as infants. This is why some of the most unexpected things show up as erotic stimuli for many people. Some people do this consciously through s/m play. Many more do it undeliberately in the course of their daily lives.
I know of a number of people, for example, who have dealt with the experience of being hit as children by enclosing their experience in the context of the erotic. Some of these people, as adults, have been able to include that intensely eroticized experience in their sexual consciousness and play, opening the door to some extremely powerful, hot, and even emotionally healing experiences of concentrated sexual pleasure. It is a matter of taking something of which we are afraid, erotically transforming it, and thus triumphing over the pain and the fear.
And isn't this a marvelous possibility: to derive pleasure from our hurt, excitement from our fear? And isn't this, in fact, what underlies much of the current erotic intrigue with blood? We are all aware that violent blood imagery is everywhere -- on tv, in film, and all too often in the very real streets. Toxic blood is on everyone's mind as well, as our culture struggles to orient to the reality of AIDS, and even exaggerates the reality of AIDS as an expression of its inherent fear of sex itself. Not surprisingly an urge arises -- in the collective unconscious, you might say -- to move closer to the source of this mushrooming blood fear, to test its boundaries, to bless it with erotic significance, transform it, and implode its power.
Enter Dracula. Enter fascination with the vampire. Enter the desire for erotic blood play.
Blood Night at Hangar 18
Now, as I tried to make clear in my column last June, my personal erotic take on blood is pretty embryonic. Yes, I'm intrigued, and yes, I've played a little with reveling in menstrual blood as part of sex play, and yes, I've taken something of a step in going public with what I feel. But I am well aware that I am distinctly a novice when it comes to erotic blood play. What's a curious, relatively uninitiated boy like me to do?
Fortunately for me, I live near San Francisco. Fortunately for me also, I number among my friends photographer Charles Gatewood. Talking with me one day about my erotic interest in blood, Charles mentioned a number of his acquaintances who have taken their blood fascination much further down the road than I have. Gatewood is well aware of the spiritual/erotic/transformative possibilities of sensual/sexual blood play. Recently his work has focused on documenting some fascinating and outrageous explorations of hemoeroticism. I was delighted and intrigued, but hardly surprised. Charles has been photographing the cutting edges of transgressive people and subcultures for some thirty years, ranging from piercing and tattooing (he was photographing body art and modification long before anyone had much heard of any such thing) to Mardi Gras, gatherings of naturists, and bikers' conventions. His books of mind-stretching photographs (Sidetripping; Forbidden Photographs; Primitives; and the recent Charles Gatewood Photographs) have established him as the leading photodocumentarian of the modern primitive movement.
What we have in San Francisco (I am learning from Charles and others), that the blood-fascinated people watching Interview with the Vampire in Des Moines sadly have to do without, is nothing less than an emerging hemoerotic subculture. As with any erotic or sexual exploration of an unconventional nature, it helps to not go it alone. There are, after all, ideas and visions to share with others, experiences and visions of others to learn from.
I got my first taste of developing hemoerotic culture when I went to an evening of blood-related erotic performance and video that Gatewood organized late one rainy January night at Hangar 18. Blood Night, as Gatewood dubbed his event, brought together some fifty blood-curious souls. Two of Gatewood's recent videos, Blood Bath and True Blood, were shown, along with a third video, 29 Cuts, produced by Dragon and Zea Mangan. There was also an erotic blood ritual performed by Zea and Dragon, a couple from Santa Barbara, and a performance piece featuring Simone Third Arm.
The three videos documented, each in its own style, various possibilities of combining blood, sensuality, and eroticism. None was for the faint of heart. In Gatewood's two videos, three people (all of whom had tested HIV negative, Gatewood informs me) draw each others' blood into syringes, spray each other, pass blood from mouth to mouth, in a visually powerful and emotionally confronting ritual of blood celebration. 29 Cuts documents a different sort of erotic ritual involving elaborate cuttings and blood play that would be unnerving were it not for the unquestionably ecstatic radiance of both the woman who was being cut and the man who was performing the ritual upon her.
The part of the evening that affected me most strongly, though, was a magically entrancing ritual enacted for the group by Dragon and Zea as a celebration of their 10th anniversary of being together. Against a backdrop of pulsing music and writhing free-form dance, Zea bound Dragon to a cross, and then transformed his shaved head into a crown of thorns by inserting 33 temporary piercings (hypodermic needles) vertically around the circumference of his head. Each needle took Dragon further into an ecstatic place. Having transformed Dragon into a veritable Christ figure, Zea removed the needles one by one and, as Dragon's blood slowly emerged in a stunning ring of small dark rivulets, she aroused him with her body (although he was already quite clearly aroused), raised the front of her long dress, thrust him inside her, fucked and sucked him, until he came. Capturing Dragon's semen in a small goblet, she mixed it a little of his blood, gave it to him to taste, tasted it herself. Throughout the hour-long event, Dragon's ecstatic state was unmistakable and radiantly beautiful. Witnessing the process of his/their transformation catapulted everyone in the room into something other than regular day-to-day reality. And the experience of being in a public place with this combination of sex, theatre, and art performed its own transformation as well
Does this sound just too bizarre? Maybe it's the sort of experience that you have to have been present for to understand, but I was, as you can probably tell, deeply moved. Some part of me wanted to run away and hide, but the larger part of me was fascinated. There was something about the tension between my fascination and my repulsion, something about moving past the reflex to associate blood with violence, something about the combining of blood and eros, something about the simple visual aesthetic of the red lines slowly extending over Dragon's face and body, something about moving out of the daily realm of the profane into the magical realm of the sacred, that was marvelously healing and freeing.
Whatever you may think of this, what's clear is that there are people taking their erotic interest in blood quite seriously, both in terms of their personal experience and in terms of using that experience as a basis for creating art for others to experience as well. One thing that seems certain to me is that there will be more of this to come in the months and years ahead.
[Charles Gatewood's latest video, Erotic Blood Rituals is available from Flash Productions. Write to Flash at PO Box 410052, San Francisco 94141 for more information and for a catalog of Gatewood's books and videos.]
Fabulous at Fifty
As you can probably tell from the photos elsewhere in this issue of Spectator, Mistress Kat's Fabulous at Fifty Fantasy Ball, February 18th at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall, was a roaring success of a bash. Over 500 celebrants joined in the evening of song, drama, performance, dance and appreciation of Spectator publisher Kat Sunlove for her decades of devotion to the causes of sexual liberation and full sexual expression, and for her wonderful energy, spirit and heart as one of this planet's wonderful human beings. The party, a benefit for Californians Against Censorship Together (Cal-ACT), Feminists for Free Expression, and COYOTE, the San Francisco prostitutes' rights advocate, was a financial success as well, grossing nearly $20,000 in ticket sales.
Dozens of notables from the nationwide community of sex advocates appeared on stage during the evening's full program of light-hearted fun and entertainment. There were comedy monologues by Gloria Leonard and Mimi=Freed, songs by Candida Royalle and Mistress Kat, homage to the sacred whore by Cosi Fabian and Veronica Vera and to the profane whore by Scarlot Harlot, performance pieces by Annie Sprinkle and Carol Queen, strip teases by Juliet "Aunt Peg" Anderson and Nina Hartley, an elaborate fashion show of erotic creations from Stormy Leather and Romantasy, a birthday spanking of Nina Hartley and a flogging of yours truly, both by Kat. Bobby Lilly of Cal-ACT, Rachel Hickerson of FFE, and founder Margo St. James of COYOTE spoke briefly of the work of their respective organizations, reminding the crowd of revelers that we need to work hard and remain politically vigilant as the national political climate turns increasingly repressive if we are to preserve the sexual free space we now enjoy.
For me, the high points of the program were a ritual performance by Cleo DuBois, Tora Kane, and X, during which Cleo transforms X from a woman in drag to a beautiful bird by attaching rows of feathered clothespins to her arms, breasts, and back -- and then removing them; and Layne Winklebleck's moving poem of loving celebration to Kat, his longtime partner, co-worker, love, lover, and soulmate, "Am I Lucky or What?" That and discovering that, aside from all her other talents, Kat Sunlove (or was it Mistress Kat?) is one hell of a fine torch singer. Her opening songs, "Fantasy" and "Deprivation Turns Him On" were rivetingly sexy and entertaining.
If there was any single theme to the evening it was celebrating the fact that women at 50 and 40 and 65 (fashion show model Maggi Rubenstein took the mike to proudly announce her age) can be at least as vibrant, sexy, outrageous, and just plain sexually alive as any of the sweet young things that capture so much of the nation's attention as porn stars and sexual entertainers. Collected in one room were dozens of sexual performers and activists, most of them women, each of whom has been working for decades to create a culture of sexual freedom and affirmation within a larger culture that seems bent on destroying free sexual pleasure, especially for women, every chance it gets. Dancers who are 25 may be seen as over the hill by the patrons of the O'Farrell Theatre, but two doors down the street, Mistress Kat's Fabulous at Fifty Fantasy Ball had a different point of view, and hundreds of Bay Areans were happy to join in the spirit of the affair.
That such a sexually outrageous and affirming event was staged at the historic Great American Music Hall was in itself a significant statement, bringing sexual celebration and entertainment into a respected and elegant mainstream venue. It was a kick to be circulating among the many wildly bedecked perverts and party-goers surrounded by the baroque decor of the Music Hall, to have the name of the event proudly emblazoned on the theatre's marquee, to see the event included among the happenings at the Music Hall in their weekly ads in the Chronicle's pink section. (Did you know, by the way, that GAMH was built in 1906 as a classy post-earthquake bordello? Looking around at the rococo balconies and ceiling, it was fun to imagine the gentlemen and painted ladies of an earlier era filling the hall with their own version of sexual celebration.) The management and staff of the Music Hall were both marvelously professional and completely enthusiastic in their support of the event. The only restriction imposed on the event by the house was the legal requirement ( given their liquor license) that there be no total nudity in the show.
Congress may have gone Republican, and the antisexual crusaders may be gearing up to storm the ramparts of sin cities such as ours, but here in the enclave we call San Francisco, sexual joy and life are alive and well.
[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 email@example.com. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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