COMES NATURALLY #38
Spectator Magazine - September 22, 1995 (c) David Steinberg
Where Sex and Religion Meet; The Child Protection Restoration and Penalties Enforcement Act of 1990; Dillsberry, U.S.A.; Sexart 4
St. Matthew's Passion
I recently stumbled across two different bumper stickers that I at first took to be statements of pro-sexual exuberance, only to realize a moment later that both were, in fact, not intended to be sexual at all but were rather statements of born-again religiosity. It's not the first time that I've been struck with the overlap of sex and religion.
The first bumper sticker offered the rather simple statement, "Happiness Is Coming," something I couldn't agree with more as a sexual declaration. My first reaction was a bit of amazement that I seemed to be driving behind a person who was ready to make a public proclamation of a feeling that was both unquestionably universal and uncontroversial, and yet somehow radical when put out into the world as public, unapologetic celebration. Turning to a more familiar bumper sticker format, I wondered what it would be like to ride around declaring to all the world "I'd Rather Be Coming," essentially the same unimpeachable feeling, and yet one that is not to be seen or stated in polite company and which, so far at least, I must say I've never seen on a bumper.
I was, of course, disappointed when I realized a second later that "Happiness Is Coming" was probably not intended as sexual commentary at all but was rather a much more banal affirmation of impending salvation, or (even worse) some kind of New Age optimism on the order of "all's well with the world; have a nice day; don't worry, be happy."
The second roadway announcement, significantly more passionate and intriguing, if also technically sexist, cautioned: "In Case of Rapture, This Car Will Be Unmanned." Am I strange for reflexively wondering whether this driver was warning me and all the other vehicles nearby that s/he was not unfamiliar with exquisite blow jobs at 65 miles an hour, which might result in some momentary aberrations of normal driving protocol? Ok, so I am strange -- must you sexualize everything, David? -- but once again I come away liking my take on this phrase more than its intended meaning, which I take to have something to do with being overtaken by some form of religious ecstasy.
In any case, these two apparently random statements from the universe -- I really don't understand why things like this keep happening to me -- got me to musing, as I have many times before, on the similarities between religion and sex. I have always believed that one important reason that religious establishments all over the world (as opposed to mystic cults) are so strongly and predictably antisexual is that sex and religion are really in a competitive relationship with each other, being the two most widespread avenues for achieving transcendental (some would say divine) enlightenment.
Now I will be the first to confess that my understanding of transcendent religious experience is distinctly primitive. The closest thing that I had to religious training as a child would have to be filed under the dubious heading of Secular Judaism, which is to say that I was as rigorously taught to be unreligious as most other people were taught to believe in God in one specific form or another.
On the other hand, I have had more than a little experience with what might be thought of as transformational sex -- sex that goes beyond simply feeling good, firing as many simultaneous neurons as possible, and in general working one's way toward the goal of orgasmic release. This is not to say that I don't enjoy a good, strong, full-body orgasm as much as the next person, but sex in its more powerful moments definitely takes me beyond feeling good into dimensions of ego loss, cognitive dissolution, interpersonal merging, and metaphysical realization as well. It's possible, I suppose, that I use sex as a convoluted way of finding God, having been denied more straightforward access, but in any case I very much believe that there is something about the kinds of transformation that can take place at times of deep sexual surrender that is much akin to what people talk of as religious experience. And I know that I'm not the only person who has experienced this, having found my own experience confirmed in the writings of people as diverse as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and any number of Catholic mystics over the centuries.
And there it is, say I: the essential rub between religion and sex. (Well, ok, not the essential rub, but one essential rub.) Once people discover that sex offers them immediate, personal access to whatever you want to call it -- God, the goddess, the realm of the gods and goddesses, or That Which Is Essentially Nameless -- access to transpersonal, transcendent, spiritually awakening connection with some pretty ultimate aspects of realities -- it throws the reason for the existence of the whole religion industry into question. Why spend billions of dollars on maintaining churches and church hierarchies when one can find God often enough in the blissed/blessed arms of one's lover? If people got themselves free of sexual guilt and resistance they might just choose to do away with the middle(wo)man of the enlightenment process we call the church. Of course it's also a basic principle of organizational structure that the first thing an established bureaucracy does is to arrange its continued existence -- as Pat Buchanan and all the anti-government conservatives are so good at noticing -- so it's no surprise that the various religion establishments the world set themselves with great seriousness to the common task of making sure that regular people don't find out that the Holy Grail is right there in bed with them every night. Q.E.D.
(And yes, I am being somewhat tongue in cheek with this, but it is something to think about, don't you think?)
Keeping the World Safe for Children
In case you didn't notice, the world of sexual publishing -- more specifically, the world that involves publication of sexually explicit pictures -- was radically altered on June 26th of this year, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a piece of Congressional legislation called The Child Protection Restoration and Penalties Act.
I don't know why you should or would have noticed, since even I -- a proud publisher of one genre of sexually explicit photography (have I mentioned by book of erotic and sexual photography, Erotic by Nature, in this column lately?) had no idea of this change in the publishing scene until a few weeks ago when I got a frantic phone call from a sexual photographer whose work I represent. For some reason, this significant case has received almost no publicity as it has found its way along the Federal appeals process for seven long years.
Here's the background brief: In 1988 Congress enacted The Child Protection and Obscenity Enforcement Act, an omnibus bill with numerous provisions, including draconian labeling and record keeping sections which District Court Judge George H. Revercomb found unconstitutional in 1989, effectively nullifying that portion of the law.
According to the District Court, the bill imposed an unreasonable burden of verification on both producers and distributors of sexual books and videos. This ruling was covered by the press, and everyone from the American Booksellers Association to the American Library Association to the adult film industry breathed a major sigh of relief, as if this was the end of the story. Actually, however, this was only the first step of the process.
In 1990, Congress rewrote the record keeping part of the 1988 law as The Child Protection Restoration and Penalties Enforcement Act of 1990. The new version backed off from the points Judge Revercomb had called unconstitutional, salvaging what remained, supposedly out of concern with the alleged use of people under the age of 18 in the creation of sexually explicit photos and videos. Incidentally, the bill was the first piece of significant Federal legislation derived from the recommendations of the Meese Commission on pornography. It mandates that all producers of sexually explicit imagery keep detailed records verifying the ages of all people used as models and actors in such work. It also holds all distributors of sexually explicit images -- book stores, video outlets, libraries, etc. -- responsible for monitoring the ages of the models of all material passing through their hands.
Shortly after the 1990 act was passed, it faced court challenges as well. On June 26th, after it had wound it's way through the courts for five years, the Supreme Court found the revised record keeping provisions constitutional and the bill became law.
What this means is that from now on photographers and videomakers who do sexually explicit work have to keep on file detailed verification of the ages of all the people who appear in their work. The images in question are narrowly defined -- photographs rather than drawings or words, and only images that depict "actual [rather than simulated] sexually explicit conduct." According to Attorneys Bruce Ennis and Ann Kappler who argued the case before the Supreme Court (on behalf of plaintiffs that included the American Library Association, the Foundation for Free Expression of the American Booksellers Association, and Penthouse magazine), sexually explicit conduct means photographs of "sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal, whether between persons or the same or opposite sex; bestiality; masturbation; and sadistic or masochistic abuse [sic]."
Producers of sexually explicit images as defined by the law must announce, next to the copyrights in their books or videos, that they have proof-of-age verification on file (a "government-issued photo ID") for all actors or models. They must state who has this verification in their possession and where the verification is kept. Producers of imagery not subject to the recordkeeping must include a statement in their books or videos as to why they are exempt -- either because the material is not sexually explicit as defined by the law, or because the images were produced before July 3, 1995. If a bookstore, video outlet, or whatever distributes a book or video that does not have a statement of this sort, they are presumed to have knowledgefully violated the law, which is a felony.
Now it appears, at least for the moment, that the recordkeeping provisions of this bill are not going to be applied retroactively -- that is, to photographs and video images made before July 3, 1995 (the date of effect of the Supreme Court ruling). The Clinton Administration seems to be content with monitoring sexual imagery produced from this time forward, rather than trying to suppress material that has been made in the past. This is significant because applying the law retroactively would effectively make it illegal to publish any photographs taken before this year. Photographers keep model releases which give them the right to publish and reproduce photos they take. These releases generally include an affirmation by the models that they are over 18. But few photographers have on file the proof of age required by the new law. And given that hardly any photographers would be able to locate their models of yesteryear, their archives of sexual photography would essentially become unpublishable. No more books of the wonderful photos of Ron Raffaelli or Annie Sprinkle. No more old photos of Betty Page in bondage. You get the idea.
We have entered a new era with regard to the regulation of sexual material, where the rules are being defined not by the religious zealots of the Reagan-Bush era, but by the somewhat more rationally motivated administrators of the Clinton Justice Department. The current rationale runs something like this: We don't have anything against the production of sexually explicit imagery between consenting adults. What we are concerned about is the involvement of children in the production of sexual material. We will define our targets relatively narrowly and clearly, but within those limitations, age documentation is a legitimate vehicle to protect the sexual welfare of children who could be subjected to pressure and abuse by adults who want to use them for their own sexual purposes.
I, for one, do not believe that there is a vast network of kiddie porn producers of the kind that is frequently alleged by the press and by politicians up and down the power structure who love to tell horror stories while they go on record preserving the sexual ignorance of children. I do not believe that hundreds of kids are, at this moment, being seduced into predatory meetings with pedophiles through the Internet/America Online/Prodigy/CompuServe chat rooms, no matter what stories hit the press the week the Communications Decency Act was being considered in the Senate, only to be reframed later, on the back pages of course, once the surge of generated hysteria had been safely codified in legislation. There are, of course, a few twisted individuals of every stripe somewhere. But the magnification of this into a problem of national importance, as if there were an army of predatory adults comprising a kiddie porn industry, is another example of how legitimate sexual concerns can so easily be fanned and exploited by erotophobes advancing their own virulently antisexual agendas.
It is probably a simple electoral truth that no elected official who intends to be around for more than one term can afford to ignore the mushrooming concern about the sexuality of children. During the hearings on proposed censorship of the Internet, even the most vocal proponents of the progressive Cox-Wyden provisions of the Telecommunications Reform Bill made a point of acknowledging the potential misuse of sexual material on the net. What they argued was that there are better ways of taking care of the sexual health of children than broadbrush censorship and prohibition.
Indeed, this is the point. Exaggerated fear of the ways that childhood and sexuality overlap actually increases the danger of sexual harm to children rather than diminishing it. In the United States, for example, where children are denied access to open and shame-free sexual discussion and information, sexual molesters of children typically act dozens or hundreds of times before they are exposed and caught because the children are simply too terrified of speaking of sexual matters to tell relevant adults what has happened to them. In Holland, by contrast, where unembarrassed sexual information and discussion is widely available to children, molesters are typically apprehended after only a few incidents because the children aren't afraid to let adults know what has happened to them.
Maybe, in these times of exaggerated fear and confusion, it's not so terrible to require photographers to verify the ages of the people they do sexual work with, especially given the relatively limited scope of the Clinton Administration's current concern. However, the provisions of this bill are problematic in other ways. Models who work with sexual photographers often need to preserve a certain level of anonymity, or at least circumspection, given the social stigma attached to such work. More than a few photographers I have spoke to are reluctant to keep the names and addresses of their models on file, subject to governmental review, because they are afraid that this information will be used to harass models intentionally. (When the sexualities involved are less conventional -- as with gay, lesbian, or s/m photography -- the concerns about potential harassment are of course much stronger.)
And once a door of this sort is opened, there is no telling what will come next. Whether the cautious interpretation of the Clinton Administration would change if, say, a Republican were to be elected President in 1996 is anyone's guess. We all know the kinds of people a Republican President would be beholden to for political support, and what these people are working for is not simply the protection of children from sexual exploitation but the general suppression of all but the most circumscribed forms of sexual expression.
If you are one of those people who believe that the electoral process is so bankrupt that it's best not to participate in it at all, I suggest you think again. As bad as things are, they could be a whole lot worse. And they will get a whole lot worse if the reactionaries continue to vote and build grass-roots political bases while the progressives recede into the political woodwork.
If you're looking for an amusing evening of farce poking fun at the foibles of the new Puritans and their fascination/horror with matters erotic, check out Dillsberry, U.S.A., a new comedy by Ellen Boscov, at the Marsh Theater in San Francisco through October 1. This delightful anti-morality play tells the story of Dillsberry, the ultimate American 50s town of theoretically unspoiled innocence ("free from crime, war and plastic bikinis"). The town's perfect facade is shattered when the ghost of the Puritanical mayor's slut-and-proud wife begins to shower the town with a barrage of lingerie from the clouds. Matters get more complex when the mayor and the ghost of his wife do battle for the heart and clit of their coming-of-age-at-25 perfectly pure daughter.
The story line is ultimately predictable, but the play sparkles with over-the-top camp playfulness, winning lines, and even occasional moments of true heart. Karen Pruis steals the show as daughter Alissa, blending wide-eyed innocence and emerging passion with perfect timing and exquisite attention to gesture. Timothy Ackerman is wonderfully charming and alive as Devil, the boy-about-town who offers Alissa the apple of desire, and Boscov herself turns in a winning performance as the mother's ghost, alternatively ohmigosh and sincere.
I won't go into a lot of detail about Mark I. Chester's latest and greatest show of sexual art (mostly photography) since Greta Christina did such a fine job of reporting on the show in the last issue of Spectator, but I do want to remind everyone that the show is available for viewing on weekends (1-6 pm; $2 donation) through October 1st, at Mark's studio, 1229 Folsom Street, between 8th and 9th Streets, right smack in the middle of this weekend's Folsom Street Fair. We are blessed to have the most consistently intelligent and provocative curator of sexual imagery right here in our own town. Check out his latest show while work of this sort can still be legally shown.
[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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