COMES NATURALLY #37
Spectator Magazine - August 25, 1995
(c) David Steinberg
Coast-to-Coast Cross-Fertilization; S/m Chic; Newt Gingrich, Cyberslut
'Til New York Doth Come to San Francisco
Maybe it's just my imagination, but it seems like there's been quite an infusion of New York people and energy into the San Francisco sexual scene of late. First Screw magazine writer David Aaron Clark switched coasts, settled into the Mission, and became the fourth columnist in the Spectator weekly rotation -- along with myself, Carol Queen, and Richard Pacheco. If you've missed David's first three Spectator columns, you should start paying better attention. His particular wit, intelligence, and literate perspective on things outrageous is a welcome addition to everyone's favorite sex weekly.
I had the pleasure of sitting in while David was interviewed by Tuppy Owens, publisher of the annual Sex Maniac's Diary. Tuppy was in from London as part of her cross-country tour, gathering material for a book on the sex art revival of the 90s, and listening to her and David talk gave me an opportunity to hear his thoughts on all sorts of things. The comment that stands out most clearly in my mind had to do with the ways various chroniclers report on the s/m scene. David was saying that he hates the way people outside the scene write about it because, as misunderstanding outsiders, they always get it wrong, which is obvious enough. But he also was annoyed with people inside the scene because they tend to take it all so very seriously. "I mean if you're going to put on a leather hood, cinch your waist down to 16" and have somebody whip you, you'd better have a sense of humor about what you're doing or you're going to begin to confirm the stereotype outsiders have of how strange people in the scene are supposed to be." In other words, David has some sense of perspective....
David is a dedicated novelist (three s/m-oriented novels in print) who upgraded Screw's coverage of the New York dungeon scene by actually visiting the various s/m houses and reporting on them truthfully and respectfully. It's good to have David's no-bullshit, bottom-line New York eye commenting on local people and happenings, and comparing here with there. What was it he said in his introductory Spectator column? "When people here say, 'Have a nice day,' they really mean, 'Fuck you.' In New York, it's the opposite." How often that's true!
Of course, New Yorkers get great mileage out of making fun of San Francisco, and San Franciscans do the same about New York. It keeps the talk shows and the stand-up comedians stocked with material. As a repatriated New Yorker, still affectionate toward his roots, I enjoy the taunting in both directions. During the height of the Cold War, I felt this way about the Americans and the Russians, too. They were each very skilled at pointing out the foibles of the other, and terrible about having any perspective on what was going on at home. Maybe you've got to be one step outside an experience to have enough perspective to see what's really going on.
Another significant transplanted New Yorker come to town recently is photographer Eric Kroll, who just staged a dramatic book signing for his popular book of photographs, Fetish Girls, at Good Vibrations. Well, it wasn't exactly a book signing; it was more of an installation -- a New York style event. Kroll had several glamorous women on hand for the occasion, dressed in fetching fetish gear that ranged from a full-body rubber catsuit to long dresses with cinched waists and ankles that had the women in them shuffling in the most minuscule of steps -- all the while a tv overhead played various of his fetish videos. Why settle for words when you can have theater?
I particularly enjoyed the model who was physically installed into a four-shelved white bookcase, copies of Kroll's book tucked around and between her legs. Also the woman sitting cross-legged in a rubber catsuit, with a condomed strap-on, and 12" pink heels (no, she couldn't walk in them) that perfectly matched her pink hair -- maintaining a look of perfectly disdainful distance for the entire evening.
It was so very unlike Good Vibrations, this emphasis on glamour and image, and more than a little disorienting -- not to say discomfiting -- to many who were there. I wondered if the staff of Good Vibrations was uncomfortable with Kroll's emphasis on traditional beauty and glamour. "Not at all," he says. "They totally understood what was going on and were totally open to it. They helped decorate the people. I bought them flowers the next day."
I asked Eric how he felt about using traditional notions of women in his installation, and in his photography. "I don't distinguish the girlie stuff from my art," he replied. "Getting the juices going is as valid and highly evolved a purpose as trying to stimulate some abstract thought somewhere. If your dick or your twat is stirred, then I've done it. Hopefully you're laughing at the same time about the irony of the human condition and the sexual matter."
Whatever you may think of the traditional icons of glamour, there's definitely something to be said for the inventive and imaginative mind. I for one enjoyed the sense of theatrical transformation that was at the heart of the evening -- something that I think of as very much a New York perspective. I don't believe Eric ever got around to anything as linear as talking about his book, or even to signing the copies that people bought that night.
Eric, by the way, is very much set up here in town, where he is marketing not only his book, but also his videos, his new CD-ROM, his fetish gear, and his massive collection of fetish photos. He has over 5000 of his own prints, as well as prints by Bunny Yeager (of Bettie Page), Peter Basch, Phillip O. Stearns, and many others. If you're into 50's-style cheesecake, he's definitely the person to see.
"I'm trying to create a salon of glamour and sexuality that's not in the Tenderloin somewhere, a place that's well-lit, that you can go to in the daytime. I'm a fetish photographer who is obsessed with women in foundation garments. I search the vintage stores for girdles, corsets, full fashion stockings. I hound the contemporary makers of fetish wear for extreme high heels and rubber wear. I photograph women smoking, bathing while in underwear, and in public and in rubber. My videos reflect the same obsessions. For the past several years, I've kept a video camera rolling during my photo shoots. The model forgets. I forget. But the camera keeps rolling, a voyeur's wet dream."
People interested in Eric's catalogues should contact Eric Kroll Photographs Ltd. at P.O. Box 642176, San Francisco, CA 94164; (415) 931- 3203. You can also visit his studio and go through his photos and fetishwear in person, but only for a $100 minimum purchase.
S/M Parlors in the Mainstream
I've written a number of times about how quickly s/m is being adopted by mainstream culture, but even I was surprised to see the elaborate spread that the San Francisco Examiner gave to professional s/m dungeons on the front page of its Lifestyle section, July 31. The article by Examiner staff writer Julian Guthrie was boldly entitled "Slaves to the Business" and featured a full-page photo of Fantasy Makers's Mistress Natasha that was almost identical to the cover photo on the July 7th issue of Spectator (except that the Examiner photo was somewhat more revealing). Surprisingly, it gave quite a respectful perspective on the local dungeon scene, with repeated emphasis on safety, consensuality, mutual respect, and good clean fun.
Therapist and Spectator contributing writer Bill Henkin was quoted extensively, as were other intelligent commentators like Jay Wiseman ("the number of people in the Bay area who are doing some form of SM play is enormous") and Isadora Alman ("it's the ultimate in safe sex"). Everybody quoted was essentially s/m-friendly, from therapists to clients to mistresses. The general impression you got from the piece was that s/m was an interesting, exotic, popular new form of sex play, and that all sorts of perfectly regular people visited and worked in s/m dungeons, playing out sexual fantasies that were presented more as imaginative than weird. Cross-dressing, foot worship, humiliation, restraint, spanking, fisting, cutting, and being beaten at chess all were mentioned. Even the SFPD and San Francisco's chief medical examiner, Dr. Boyd Stephens, were presented as being favorably disposed to the kinds of non-sexual s/m play that is so widely available from local professionals. Inspector Michael Curran of the SFPD vice squad went so far as to put down closed-minded people in more conservative climes by noting with obvious pride that "what is tolerated in San Francisco will not be tolerated in Dump Truck, Iowa," concluding with libertarian abandon that "it's between consenting adults.... Different strokes for different folks."
Seems like we're moving beyond simple acceptance of s/m almost to the point of proclaiming a kind of s/m-chic. Something along the lines of what happened when Victoria's Secret took wearing sexy lingerie uptown. Can it be that s/m is moving from the realm of slimy perversion into being most definitely hip and fashionable, the kind of thing that everybody who's anybody really has to experiment with at some point in their lives? Next thing you know, Miss Manners will be giving advice on whether it's rude to cancel an appointment with your mistress at the last minute, or whether referring a friend to your dungeon of choice is appropriate conversation for the dinner table or something that should be reserved for more privacy later in the evening.
As the rest of the country slides toward the Preservation of Decency, what the Examiner dubs "the sexually adventurous Bay Area, home to professional dungeons and dominatrixes, private parties and erotic boutiques" once again moves to the beat of a different drummer.
Defending the Internet
Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don't criticize what you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin'.
Please get out of the new one if you can't lend your hand For the times they are a-changin'.
-- Bob Dylan, 1963
The people in places like Dump Truck, Iowa may not have access to the many sexual resources of Baghdad by the Bay. But thanks, first, to Madonna and now, more significantly, to the Internet and popular online services like America Online, CompuServe, and Prodigy, they are not nearly as isolated in their access to sexual material and thinking as they used to be. As they used to be not very long ago at all. Call it cultural imperialism, but the sexual multiplicity of "adventurous" cities is finding its way into the American heartland as inevitably as running water, electricity, telephones, television, and home computers. Predictably, the world of home computers has become the latest venue of the never-ending battle between truth, justice, and the American Way.
The current conflict between the sexually adventurous and the sexually protective is focused on the Telecommunications Competition and Deregulation Act of 1995, an omnibus piece of Congressional legislation primarily concerned with the economic than the sexual issues associated with telecommunications. For the most part, this is legislation governing how tv networks, phone companies, and other electronic providers will divide the immense profits to be made from providing various forms of telecommunications to intrigued and insatiable Americans like you and me. It's the first major re-write of this legislation in 60 years, and a lot has changed about telecommunications since the 1930's. However, as presidential election time comes rolling around, and as Bob Dole jockeys for position with Phil Gramm for the hearts and minds of the Christian Right, the issue of telecommunications regulation provides an exquisite opportunity for antisexual crusaders to whip sexual fear into a new level of panic.
I wrote about these issues in this column three months ago, when the first sexually prohibitionist legislation relating to the Internet, the so-called Communications Decency Act, was still before the Judiciary Committee of the Senate. This broad-brush legislation, designed to prohibit the transmission of all "indecent, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or obscene" material on the net, was added to the Senate's Telecommunications Reform Bill by an overwhelming vote of 84-16, despite some effective counter-lobbying efforts by Internet free speech advocates such as Voters Telecommunications Watch and the Center for Democracy and Technology. California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer both voted for CDA.
The fear network appeared to be in full swing. Newspapers were suddenly full of stories of teenagers supposedly lured into sexual liaisons by adults in cyberspace chatrooms. No child, no computer, was safe. The juggernaut moved from the Senate to the House of Representatives, and then the most unexpected of things happened: House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- not your favorite civil libertarian -- came out in vocal opposition to the bill, labeling it overbroad and censorious. Everyone on the Right, Left, and Center was nothing less than shocked. What was the Good Speaker saying? One columnist in Philadelphia, Howard Altman, went so far as to suggest that the Newt must himself be some sort of cyberslut.
"I am closing my eyes," Altman fantasized. "I am seeing a vision of Newt Gingrich sitting at his desk in the Capitol Building. It is late at night. He is all alone. He is having mad, passionate sex. Not with himself. With someone else at a computer terminal, who calls herself Wicked Wanda and is entwined with Newt, thanks to the wonders of cyberspace.... I can think of few reasons why Gingrich would risk the wrath of the Right by opposing the Decency Act except this one."
I like this vision. Gingrich is just the sort of two-faced opportunist to have a cyberskeleton in his closet, and enough of a modernist to be into computers. My only problem is that it's hard to imagine where he would find the time for online sex, but if other big shot pols have time for lurid affairs, there's no reason why Newt couldn't spend a few hours here and there unwinding to a bright screen in a darkened room.
Whatever the explanation, after Gingrich's unabashed condemnation, opposition in the House to CDA's restrictions grew to such an extent that on August 4th the House attached the progressive Cox-Wyden Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act to the Telecommunications Bill by the overwhelming margin of 420-4.
The Cox-Wyden bill -- named for Senators Chris Cox (R-California) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), not for its sexual expansiveness -- is "something like the anti-Communications Decency Act," according to Voter Telecommunications Watch. "Its ideals promote smaller 'off your back' government, less business regulation, stronger parental control, and free speech." Congressmen Cox and Wyden say that the intent of their bill is to "clean up the Internet while preserving the efficiency and open access of the worldwide computer network." Acknowledging that there is a real potential problem with children gaining access to inappropriate sexual material through the net, Cox-Wyden proposes using parental control blocking mechanisms rather than new obscenity law to deal with the problem.
Cox-Wyden prohibits the Federal Communications Commission from regulating online speech. It absolves online service providers and operators of online bulletin boards from liability regarding material that passes through their networks, as long as these providers make good faith efforts to screen content (which is technically all but impossible) or, more significantly, provide parents with screening software to limit use of these services by children.
Aside from Newt Gingrich's surprise support, the major turnaround between Senate and House considerations of Internet censorship has been the mobilization of an effective petitioning campaign by the net itself. For the first time since the Republicans took over mass market funding appeals in the 80s, the technological advantage is in the hands of the progressives. VTW notes in its latest BillWatch news update that it "released an alert asking the net to call their Representatives about supporting parental control as the best method of monitoring children's access to material on the Internet. You responded in spades. We're still digging out of the email.... 420 Reps went on record saying they had thought about the issue and supported a method of monitoring children's access to the net without endangering free speech. Many of them did so because you called and told them that's what you wanted.... Every one of you that called, wrote, faxed, or drove to DC to speak to your rep should be very proud of yourself. You have made an impact and affected the way that politicians think about this issue. Democracy does behave as designed sometimes, and we hope your enthusiasm about this motivates you to vote in the next election."
Remember that when Senators and Congressmen vote about regulating the Internet, the great majority of them have only the most shadowy of notions about what the Internet is, who uses it, how it works, and what's available on it. They might as well be voting on the best of way of limiting the spread of Ebola virus. When Senator Exon produced an overwhelming volume of graphic offensive images downloaded from the net and effectively shocked the other Senators into a sense of moral panic, no one understood the difference between material available for purchase from porn marketeers and the kind of material that anybody's son or daughter might come across accidentally while netsurfing, or be sent by a potential predator or molester. When the Supreme Court eventually addresses this issue as it must, it will be an even more aged and computer-illiterate club evaluating a medium that is basically the turf of young people.
This is one of the issues that the protective adults of America seem to find the most frightening about the Internet: that their children understand and move freely in a world they can barely comprehend, let alone control. First it was rock 'n' roll; now it's the Internet. In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee -- dubbed "Cyberporn: The Scope of the Problem, the State of the Technology, and the Need for Congressional Action" -- this issue of the children being way more savvy than the parents was raised again and again. "Children today have grown up with the computer, and I can safely say they are more computer literate than the majority of their parents," worries one mother of two from Maryland. "Children are usually more adept than adults at operating computers," echoes Dee Jepsen, Executive Director of the anticyperporn group called "Enough is Enough."
Given the culture gap between most older people and a youth-oriented technology and marketplace that is accelerating every week, it is not surprising that there is much fear and ignorance available to be exploited by the Radical Right. What VTW and other Internet free speech advocates are trying to accomplish, apparently with real success, is to offer information to lawmakers so that they can begin to separate genuine concerns from inflated paranoias.
"HR1978 [Cox-Wyden] had been available and well-discussed for weeks. A free demonstration of the 'parental control' software discussed in HR1978 was done in mid-July for Congress by members of the Interactive Working Group. Every effort was made by sponsors Cox and Wyden to ensure that supporting votes were well-educated votes on this issue." The net defenders seem to be working under Martin Luther King's praiseworthy dictum, "the truth will make you free." for once, reason and clarity triumphed over ignorance and fear.
Despite the happy turn of events, however, the cyberporn issue is far from settled. First of all the House bill, in addition to Cox-Wyden, includes directly contradictory language (introduced at the last minute without debate, according to VTW) that would censor the net after all, along the lines of Robert Dole's pending Protection of Children from Computer Pornography Act. It remains to be seen whether the Cox-Wyden provisions, the Dole language, or the Draconian Communications Decency Act will come out of the House-Senate conference on the telecommunications bill. (VTW says it is "optimistic about our odds in this process.") Furthermore, President Clinton is threatening to veto the entire bill in any case, because he considers it overly lenient with regard to the regulation of telecommunications monopolies.
For people who would like to keep up to date on these issues, there are a number of online resources available. To get on the distribution list for BillWatch, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org with "subscribe vtwannounce Firstname Lastname" in the subject line. To receive the latest version of BillWatch, email email@example.com with "send billwatch" in the subject line. And of course you can always e-mail me.
[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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