Comes Naturally #64 (October 17, 1997):
Sexual Performance Art and Community: Two Gatherings of the Tribe; In Memory of Don Crane

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Spectator Magazine - October 17, 1997
(c) David Steinberg. All rights reserved.

Sexual Performance Art and Community: Two Gatherings of the Tribe; In Memory of Don Crane

A Benefit for Cuir Underground

There were two consecutive evenings of sexual performance and celebration last week, the kinds of events that make sexual San Francisco the unique cultural climate that it is. If you weren't at one or both, I want you to know that you really missed something because events like these will come around again and next time you might even decide to go.

The smaller event, in numbers and hoopla, was a benefit for Cuir Underground -- the scampy, free monthly/bimonthly edited by Liz Highleyman, that has been serving up interesting, conscious, smart "s/m for the masses" on a shoestring nonbudget for the last three years. It was a Wednesday night gathering of maybe a hundred or so of the faithful at 848 Divisadero. Nothing fancy, just a bunch of people reading a gaggle of sexually celebratory stuff representing a wide variety of inclinations and persuasions, poetry and prose ranging from fuck-you anger to good-natured humor. Maybe it's just a reflection of the fact that I've been too preoccupied to go to many cultural events lately, but it seems to me that the material people around town are turning out is just getting better and better all the time.

Brian Whittey's Christmas tale was hilarious and right on the money. Thomas Roche's over-the-top, 40's-noir tale of Madame Crusher's house of pain brought down the house. Carol Queen's tale of working at the Lusty Lady's Private Pleasures booth was a joy. Hank Hyena read a delightfully campy tale about an attention-starved male nipple who's owner simply did not understand how much pleasure he was denying that part of his body. His nipple costume was also a hoot. Joshua and Thea Hillman read poems of sexual celebration and identity. Horehound Stillpoint's story depicting love as a wolf was all heat and steam. David Clark's sneak-preview excerpt from the soon-to-be-released True Blood took the event out to the edge. And Michelle Tea's whore's tale shone for its humor and its straightforward honesty.

What made the readings so delightful was not really their sexual heat (although there was plenty of that), but rather their insight, inventiveness, humor, and simple truthfulness. Stories and poems that are funny because they're real, interesting because they strike familiar chords. And significant, over and above everything else, because they let us affirm once again, individually and collectively, how exhilarating it is to pursue the reality of the sexual desires and inclinations that inevitably lead us in a thousand diverse and generally unpredictable directions.

Whores and Other Feminists

The big bash of the week came the following night. Jill Nagle, editor of the wonderful anthology, Whores and Other Feminists, decided to throw a grand publication party for that groundbreaking collection of writings by and about sex workers at San Francisco's venerable Great American Music Hall. (For Jen Durbin's review of Whores and Other Feminists, check out the September 26 issue of Spectator.) The party was at once a celebration and a fund-raiser, raising money for Jill (whose accumulated debt while pulling Whores and Other Feminists together was substantial) and for both the Prostitute's Education Project and the Smith-Ryan House for Women.

What a delight to see "WHORES AND OTHER FEMINISTS -- BOOK RELEASE PARTY" proudly mounted on the Great American Music Hall marquee for all to see! Aside from being an eye-opening collection of writings, Whores and Other Feminists is right up there in the running for provocative book title of the year, and it warmed my heart to know that thousands of people on the street had seen those words during the course of the day. Some, certainly, must have taken a moment to ponder the sadly unfamiliar juxtaposition of the loaded term, "whore," with the oh-so-much more socially accepted concept, "feminist."

The Great American Music Hall is better known as a home for folk music than for sexual performance art, but the building has its own history as a place for sexual entertainment, serving as a combination restaurant and bordello from the time it opened in 1907 well into the Depression years -- a fact uncovered when Spectator published Kat Sunlove held her elaborate fiftieth birthday party celebration there.

A good time was had by all that February day in 1995, the Music Hall staff proved sex-friendly and cooperative, and so now here we were again -- the gathered extended tribe of sex advocates and explorers, writers and publishers, dancers and singers, analysts and philosophers, seekers and sought, gawkers and gawkees, thoughtful and thoughtless, profound and profane -- assembled under the plush baroque ceiling and between the ornately mirrored walls to remember and celebrate who we were and what we knew despite the fact that we were, and might always be, heathen pariahs to the world outside.

I love these times when we gather as a tribe to proclaim the feelings and perspective we share, our common belief and commitment, our increasingly uppity insistence on being taken seriously and treated with fundamental respect. This is the uphill battle of the whore's rights movement, a battle that working prostitutes are fighting on behalf of all sexual and gender renegades.

In a sex-fearing and sex-suppressing world, anyone who dares speak up for the essentially positive nature of sexual expression in all its diverse and creative forms is inevitably seen as a whore. Whatever scorn, ostracism, misunderstanding, brutality, and general ill-will is funneled upon those women and men who literally and explicitly sell sexual services will also, without fail, be visited upon the rest of us sexual deviants and outlaws, albeit generally in ways that are a good deal less extreme and blatant. And, in a world that denies women full independence, respect, and empowerment, the symbol and stigma of the whore is used to control all women who would dare to take control of their bodies and their sexuality for their own power and pleasure, or to operate outside the financial limitations of 62-cents-on-the-dollar male-controlled work.

And so we gathered, three or four hundred of us -- some for the fundraising pre-show reception, most for the main program itself. And, again, what a remarkable evening of sexual entertainment it proved to be. Funny, satirical, sexy, poignant, and barbed throughout with references to the political realities of the day: the recently heightened harassment of both street prostitutes and in-call escorts in San Francisco; the groundbreaking union contract for dancers and other workers at the Lusty Lady Theater; the grievances and concerns of women of color in the sex industry; the ongoing campaign for the decriminalization of prostitution altogether.

Scarlot Harlot sang "Don't Cry for Me, San Francisco," a topical anthem of the latest struggles of San Francisco sex work politics. Cosi Fabian delivered a lilting paean to the tradition of Lilith, the first woman, before Eve, who would not lie beneath Adam and was therefore cast out of Eden to cavort with demons. Dalila Jasmin and Red Jordan Arobateau enacted a loving tongue-in-cheek dance duet that put traditional belly dance in the context of woman-to-woman seduction and adoration. Carol Queen told another Lusty Lady Pleasure booth story, this one a poignant tale of shy and quirky desire.

Annie Sprinkle, now a Bay Area homegirl, offered an ode to the rich sexuality of the woman's body as it moves beyond the bloom of youth. Nina Hartley played delightfully with a lush, oversized, satin pussy puppet (and also with a man in the audience who was completely beside himself to have the opportunity to participate in her act). And Jade Blue Eclipse once again took erotic dance to a new plane of artistic and sensual inspiration, mixing movement, milk, blood, and passion in a visually stunning liquid outpouring of primal desire.

Between acts, the evening was kept buoyantly alive by the hilarious, insightful, and thoroughly entertaining commentary of Emcee Julia Query, as fine a movement political comedian and satirist as we've seen lately, in the grand tradition of Lenny Bruce, Paul Krassner, and Dick Gregory.

Don Crane, Erologician, 1947-1997

Don Crane, sexual philosopher and self-proclaimed erologician, up and died, out of the blue, on September 19th. Driving home to Oakland from Redwood City, he apparently had a heart attack, managed to pull his car to the side of the freeway, and died. Just like that. He was 49.

You could say fairly enough that Don was a loyal and devoted footsoldier of the sexual revolution. He wrote about sexual matters some -- an interminably long tract he called Erologos, dissecting the ways that the spirit of eros is disemboweled by the unrelenting demands of the rational paradigm, and occasional reviews for Spectator. He thought about sexual matters much more, with a fascination bordering on obsession that was either wonderfully elaborate or pathologically perverse, depending on your frame of reference. He could discuss the nuances of a particular porn video scene with the kind of reverence and attention to detail more commonly reserved for the likes of Shakespeare and Tolstoy.

After a long time of basically being out of work and generally broke, he was glad to score a job working in the trenches of the sex world, at a porn outlet in Oakland. He suffered the indignities of serving what he saw as a clientele more interested in jacking off mindlessly to any old porn footage than appreciating the subtleties of the evolving art of sexual portrayal on film. He would regale the rest of us at our monthly Spectator "salons" with tales of the latest characters to come through the store. (The story I remember best was the one about the old man who got so carried away jacking off in one of the video booths that he forgot to put his pants back on when he came out.) He admired the many black women who, he said, came into the store and bought their videos and toys without shame or embarrassment. He shook his head disapprovingly at the guys who came back day after day, going through stacks of porn videos as quickly as Necco wafers.

The Spectator salons were themselves one of Don's gift to the rest of us, at least in part. He had taken to coming by the Spectator office often, getting into philosophical talks about sex and porn with Layne as often as not. Don was definitely one of the sexual philosophers, as was/is Layne. Don had stumbled on my then-new book The Erotic Impulse and, from the introductions I wrote there, he recognized me as another of that strange breed. He wanted a chance for people who thought complicatedly about sex to get together and talk to each other. Before long the gatherings started to happen. They've been happening once a month ever since, for some three years now -- people getting together to talk and think, to share news and views. We became a fixture at the back room of Carrara's, the friendly, somewhat upscale eatery on Powell Street, around the corner from the Spectator office, recently closed. Don was always there, listening as much as talking, delighting in the opportunity to be around like-minded souls, gathering food for thought.

He was a devoted fan of my writing, and his appreciation helped keep me going during times when I wondered whether anything I wrote made any difference to anyone anyway. When we first met he shook my hand with such earnestness that I felt, somewhat uncomfortably, he was truly excited just to be in the same room with me. He awarded me his special button -- only a few of which exist in the world, he noted emphatically -- conferring on me the official title of "Erologician," his highest praise.

Don's reverence and devotion to people around him whose work or spirit he appreciated were object lessons in unrestrained affection. Most of all he was devoted to Juliet Anderson -- Aunt Peg of porn film fame -- another frequent participant in the salons. Over the years he became her faithful friend, companion, and virtual servant, delighted to have the opportunity to be part of her world, part of her life. He was driving home from spending two days with her when he died, and it was she who first found out what had happened to him.

I don't know the details of Don's sex life outside his mind. He was there when we organized a sex party for photographer Craig Morey, who had been commissioned to do a group sex photo layout for Future Sex magazine. As I remember, Don watched rather than played, but was nevertheless utterly delighted just to be there, face glowing, taking in all the goings on. It would certainly be possible to see him as a fundamentally sad and unrealized person, but I think he was genuinely happy to be moving along his particular and certainly peculiar sexual path in the company, and with the encouragement, of a core of wellwishing, appreciative, creative friends.

Above all, Don was a true and generous soul, honest and loving, who dared to be his unique self, sexually and otherwise, and who did what he could to encourage others to do the same. It warms me to know that my existence made his life richer than it would otherwise have been, and to remember that his existence did the same for me. I guess, in the end, that's why I keep doing things like sit here making up words in the middle of the night anyway.

Thanks, Don, for sharing the path.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see 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 Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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