COMES NATURALLY #32
Spectator Magazine - April 7, 1995
(c) David Steinberg
Cupido Under Fire; Cyborgasm2: The Edge of the Bed
Porn Politics, Norwegian Style
Ralph Ginzburg learned a difficult lesson in the politics of porn, back in 1966, when he was sentenced to five years in prison for engaging in the most artful erotic publishing venture of that time, Eros magazine. Eros was a distinctly classy, if irreverent erotic magazine, "devoted to the joys of love and sex." It was an elegant, hardcover quarterly; subscriptions were $25 a year, a lot of money in 1966. It was incredibly tame by today's standards, and even by the standards of 1966. The most controversial photos were some elegant nudes of Marilyn Monroe by photographer Bert Stern, and a portfolio of beautiful color photos of a black man and a white woman embracing and kissing. Eros published the work of such well-known pornographers as Rembrandt, Picasso, Dali, Michelangelo, Rubens, Titian, Ray Bradbury, William Shakespeare, and D. H. Lawrence.
The response was so positive that 150,000 people subscribed. Four issues were published before Ginzburg was charged with obscenity, prosecuted, and convicted.
The hard lesson Ginzburg learned was that it's ok to publish erotic material that knows its place -- loosely speaking, the gutter -- but if you try to erotic material that claims some kind of social legitimacy, you're in deep trouble.
Now, it seems, Cupido magazine, the wonderfully sexy, intelligent, artful, and progressive Norwegian erotic magazine that (sadly) has no real parallel in this country, is coming up against some of the same sort of controversy. Cupido editor Terje Gammelsrud recently found himself called to appear before the Norwegian police, answering questions about the age of a woman model in a photograph by Ralph Steinmeier. In the photograph, a near silhouette, a woman kneels before a man, holding his erect cock in her hand, about to take it into her mouth. Because of the lack of detail in the photo, the woman's age is unclear. As a matter of fact, she was 19 at the time the photograph was taken (well above the Norwegian age of consent of 16). The man in the photo is her husband.
Now, I can't claim to be totally objective about Cupido, since I work for them. I'm their U.S. photo representative. I have the delightful job of helping to supply them with the kind of beautiful, moving, imaginative erotic and sexual imagery they publish each month. I've also become good friends with the editors there -- chief editor Terje Gammelsrud, and past editors Olav Andre' Manum and Hanne Grasmo -- over the seven years we've known each other.
But my warm feelings about Cupido are more than just personal bias. Everyone I know feels the same way I do about this magazine: that it is beautiful, unique, a venture founded on real heart, social consciousness, and sex-positive vision. What's more, Cupido is a magazine that treats the people who work for and with it with honesty, real integrity, and respect -- as rare a find in the world of sex magazine publishing as Cupido's erotic quality and artfulness.
Well, strange as it might seem (though I suppose, sadly, that it's really not so strange at all), not everybody in the world loves Cupido for these admirable characteristics. For some years, a group of Norwegian Marxist-Leninist feminists has been troubled by Cupido in much the same way that the U.S. Justice Department was once concerned with Eros. Precisely because Cupido is intelligent, because it is artfully conceived and produced, and because it has therefore gained wide popularity and respect (Cupido's circulation is 60,000 in a country of 4.3 million people -- equivalent to a U.S. circulation of 3,000,000), these women have criticized Cupido as the most dangerous pornography of all. According to editor/publisher Gammelsrud, they have missed no opportunity to raise trouble for the magazine, all part of the good fight against pornography, prostitution, and the degradation of women, of course. Perhaps they believe that sexual depiction in a patriarchal culture is necessarily equivalent to the sexual objectification of women. Telling me the story of his troubles, Terje wearily refers to these women as "sentimentalists."
Even these women, however, have come to respect Cupido's sex-friendly and specifically woman-friendly perspective. After years of criticism, they recently decided that Cupido is not the enemy of women's progress after all. A small group of dissidents, however -- eight or ten women, according to Terje -- still stalks the magazine, calling to the attention of the authorities anything Cupido does that they consider questionable. It is this group, Terje believes, that is the source of the uproar about the Steinmeier photograph.
Now, sexual politics in Norway are a good deal more civilized than they are in this country, but the antisexual underpinnings of Norway's staunchly Calvinist culture are strong nevertheless. Called in for questioning about the Steinmeier photograph, Terje initially treated the incident as an annoyance, confident that once the authorities were shown the breadth and quality of Steinmeier's work, and were made aware of the age and circumstance of the model, there would be no further problem. Unfortunately, the matter has not been so simple.
Generally speaking, Norwegian law is clearer than U.S. law as to what is permitted and what is prohibited in terms of publication of sexual images. Norwegian obscenity standards have nothing to do with subjectively determined criteria, such as whether or not an image has redeeming artistic merit, or whether it violates vague and changing local community standards. Photos showing sexual penetration are against the law. So are photos showing actual oral-genital contact, sex with animals, or sex with children under the age of 16.
Aside from that, you can publish what you want. Erections are fine. Bodily fluids are fine. Hands on cocks and cunts are fine. Hot sexual energy is fine. Men with men is fine; women with women is fine. What you see is what you get. A photograph of a woman's mouth an inch away from a man's erect penis is legal; if her mouth touches the penis, no dice. Norwegian obscenity law basically lets publishers know where they stand. How different this is from U.S. obscenity law, which is designed to keep sex publishers perennially guessing. Wouldn't it be nice if we could have such clear guidelines in this country?
There is, however, one grey area in Norwegian obscenity law, and that is precisely the area that Terje and Cupido find themselves tangling with the Norwegian authorities. Originally the police were claiming that the woman in the photograph was under 16. They even called in a doctor to testify that the model looked underage to him. (Step right up folks! If I can't guess your age within 18 months you win a kewpie doll! Step right up!) When Cupido demonstrated that the woman was in fact 19 when the photo was taken, the police changed their tack to claiming that Steinmeier's use of detail-obscuring silhouette was for the purpose of making the model look younger than she was. In Norway, you see, it is illegal to publish erotic photos, even if the models are older than 16, if the intent of the photo is to make them appear as if they are under 16. Try arguing about something as subtle as artistic intent in a court of law!
At this point, the matter is pending in the early stages. Meanwhile, of course, it hangs over Terje's head as the proceedings drag on month after month, as legal matters do the world over. Fortunately for Cupido, there is the huge body of stunningly beautiful, unimpeachably artistic work by Steinmeier to give credence to Cupido's insistence that using underage youthfulness as a sexual come-on is simply not what Steinmeier does. The repeated appearance of Steinmeier's work in the intelligent and far-from-sleazy U.S. erotic quarterly Libido (including the offending photograph itself), should also help attest to the quality and aesthetic integrity of Steinmeier's work.
Nonetheless, trumpeting the invective "underage" inevitably sends a chill through any publisher's bones, and serves as a reminder to all of us of how easy it is to taint even the most conscientious of sex publishers with unethical intent. As Terje says, "If the authorities decide to bring charges in this case I could plead guilty, pay a fine, and be done with the matter. But then, of course, I would officially be labeled a criminal, and I am not a criminal."
Daughter of Cyborgasm
Cyborgasm is back. Lisa Palac and Ron Gompertz's initial venture into the realm of audio turn-on was so popular that no lesser producer than Time Warner Audio Books signed them up for the sequels, and the first return volume is now out and available for your sexual pleasure and listening enjoyment.
As I said in my review of the original Cyborgasm CD, I find intimate audio an interesting concept. So many possibilities to play with, especially once you put the headphones on and the sound comes inside your head. We all know how delicious the sound is that a performer makes when s/he has his or her mouth right on top of the mike, breathing and whispering so subtly that you'd have to be inches away for it to mean anything at all in unamplified reality -- the sound nonetheless projected outward in concert settings, projected hundreds of feet into the cavernous spaces of huge auditoriums, ironically reaching as many as tens of thousands of witnessing strangers. Thousands of people inches away from the most intimate and personal of sounds: an exhibitionist's fantasy; a voyeur's delight.
This breathy closeness, this unexpected and incongruous instant connection with the intimate stranger, is precisely what Palac and Gompertz explore so thoroughly with their Cyborgasm discs. An audience of thousands, but also an audience of just one person at a time, lying comfortably somewhere with headphones and senses tuned, bringing the sound up close, bringing the sound inside.
Whether it's listening in as lovers talk intimately and personally to each other, being talked to directly as if we are one of the lovers ourselves, or being breathfully told a story of some sexual encounter, Cyborgasm's sound offers listeners the sense of physical closeness and immediacy usually reserved for the most private of moments with a lover. If listening in on that kind of privacy turns you on, Cyborgasm may well be a medium for you.
Ideally, of course, an audio sex scene would start with some kind of hot, imaginative circumstance, add some skillful writing to translate the sexual heat from concept to words and sounds, and then have talented actors transport the script across that tricky suspension of disbelief into a sustainable sense of engaging sexual pulsation. Ideally, a video sex scene would have these elements as well. As we know so well from the experience of watching sex videos, however, the world we live in is far from ideal when it comes to sexual matters. Even mainstream Hollywood only occasionally manages such multiple transformations. When you step outside the world of multimillion-dollar budgets, and step across the line of sexual respectability as well, you've got your work cut out for you.
It's within that kind of awareness that I found myself enjoying The Edge of the Bed: Cyborgasm 2, even though I can't really say that this CD knocked me for any kind of erotic loop. Sometimes I liked the premise of a cut, only to be less than thrilled with the verbal delivery. Sometimes it was the language seemed clumsy or forced. Nonetheless, for all the flaws, there is something compelling about the imagination and the open erotic desire that rolls just beneath the surface for most of this disc, and when the various elements simultaneously click into place, some moments of delightfully sexy magic result.
Perhaps part of my ambivalence about The Edge of the Bed has to do with it not affecting me as strongly as the original Cyborgasm disc. None of the cuts on The Edge of the Bed grabbed me as powerfully as Susie Bright's Circus Whore or Jon Bailiff's Dirty Fare on Cyborgasm 1. While the sound editing is more professional, the use of specific audio techniques more developed, and the erotic impact of the music more effective than before, there was a delightfully dark nastiness on the first Cyborgasm disc that I missed on this sequel, perhaps the result of pleasing the marketing moguls at Time Warner. Nevertheless, there were definitely times when all else dropped away and I was left simply swimming in the erotic soup, just me and the headphones floating in a sea of seductive voices and compelling moans that seemed to emerge from the center of my head, from the right, from the left, from somewhere just across the room.
Laura Albert and Jeffrey Kaos', Vicious Panties -- a tale of a woman who discovers her boyfriend dressed in her panties and proceeds to pull him, kicking and creaming, through his own fantasy -- is playful, hot, believable, even a little nasty. Dennis Matthews' Mardi Gras and Lisa Palac's own Puppy, while slipping into exaggeration more than a couple times, both have real sexual juice, the feel of being with a lover who has real sexual magic even if s/he might be trying just a little too hard. Daddy Don't Go's Down is, for me, the most sexually compelling cut, combining music, rhythmic talk, and rich sexual innuendo in a powerful mix that went beyond storytelling to something more visceral, more primal. Josh Kornbluth's stunningly honest, funny, vulnerable, and innocently sexy Inside Marcie's Bedroom, not really a piece intended specifically as a turn-on, brings real literary depth to the collection. I find Kornbluth's easy, magical movement into the subtleties of sexual/sensual wonder as deeply moving as any rendition of more explicitly prurient material. And Kornbluth's extended imitation -- dare I say enactment? -- of a woman moving into and through orgasm is one of the great dramatic nuggets of all time.
I was pleased that Palac thought to include a piece like Kornbluth's, taking The Edge of the Bed beyond the heart-thumping world of the breathy turn-on. Their inclusion of cuts that move even further outside the realm of the specifically erotic, however, is unfortunately more distracting than broadening. Voice Farm's The Housewife and the Businessman and Dueling Hoosiers by Jana Goerlitz and Rebecca Klinger, two pieces that would be delightfully amusing in another context, seem out of place in this particular program.
The combining of verbal sexual description with sexually evocative music is one of the strongest successes of The Edge of the Bed. Joe Gore's dark, moody accompaniments add powerful, non-verbal sexual charge to each of the cuts on which he appears. And the sexually charged musical magic of Daddy Don't Go is a bonus discovery itself worth the price of the disc.
Intimate audio sex still has a long way to go, but Cyborgasm and The Edge of the Bed are strong first steps in what may well develop into a fascinating new form of erotic entertainment. There are so many possibilities presented by the new medium, most significantly the chance to go far beyond the form of linear, literary narrative. For my money, the more imaginative freedom the better, as long as the material stays within the cast magical transformation of the erotic circle. There could be more sounds; fewer words. Language that speaks directly to the right (intuitive, somatic, feminine) brain, that allows the left (rational, conceptual, masculine) brain to go to sleep for a while, for the boys as well as the girls. (Leave the multisyllables and clever references at the door -- they take too much cognitive attention to decipher.) There could be collages of wordless sounds, or of sounds mixed with non-sentence-bound words, phrases, and images; recordings of real-time sounds of people being sexual (and not bothering to sportscast what's going on); the sound of a sex party when several audible scenes happen in the same room at the same time; foreground/background mixes that make it impossible for the brain to make rational "sense" out of what is being heard.
Of course, ideas are cheap, and it's oh so easy to sit on the sidelines and say "Why don't you do this; why don't you do that!" As both a writer and an editor I know full well how hard it is to create imaginative erotic material, and I know equally well that what thrills one person to the bottom of his or her coccyx will stimulate nothing more than a yawn or a smirk in someone else. As Palac accurately says in her liner notes, when it comes to erotic material, "everybody whines 'I could do better than that!' but few people do anything at all."
Palac and Gompertz have, in their own words, gotten off their critical asses and taken a shot -- two shots, now -- at doing something new. For their courage and their innovation, they deserve our deep appreciation and respect. The possibilities of what they are initiating are just beginning to be revealed.
[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.]
If you're new to this site, we recommend you visit its home page for a better sense of all it has to offer.