Wednesday, January 17, 2007

We've moved

Hey folks. We're now at man-ifesto.com. (Clever URL, no?)

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A Brokeback thought, sorta

I recently got into an argument that got me thinking about how much is still unknown, even in the elite/enlightened/feminized/latte-sipping circles in which we move, about the complexities of "straight" sexuality and "gay" sex. The argument I had was about the inclination, or lack thereof, of straight men to have sex with other men if they find themselves in an all-male society for an extended length of time. My position, reduced to its essentials, was that all other things being equal, most men would go for it because other-induced friction is often preferable to self-induced friction. Not all men, but many men need non-masturbatory sex enough that were they to they find themselves in your average all-male society—the navy, prison, a pirate ship, an English boarding school-- they're going to conclude that having sex with another man is a reasonable, pleasurable thing to do.

"All other things being equal," of course, includes the stigma attached to homosexual sex by many, or most, cultures in recorded history, and I wasn't suggesting that such stigmas are small things. They're determinitive, in fact, for the majority of people the majority of the time. I was just saying that my general sense was that if you look at the totality of what we know of all-male societies and what we know of societies, like ancient Athens, where male-male sex was in fact a norm even though there were women around, it suggests that the aversion to, or repulsion from, same-sex sex is predominantly cultural rather than natural.

The two guys I was talking to disagreed, to greater or lesser degrees. One of them was made so visibly nervous by the argument, in fact, that he had to walk away. That wasn't so much what interested me, since I've been around long enough to know that for some men even the hint that they could under any circumstances fool around with another guy is profoundly threatening. What interested me was what the other guy said, which was that he actually could imagine having sex with an exceptionally good looking man (he mentioned Brad Pitt), but that otherwise he just wasn’t interested and so, if he found himself in prison, he would choose to remain chaste, insofar as he had a choice, unless he found an exceptionally good looking man to bonk.

My initial instinct was that he wasn’t really making sense, that he was more just looking for a way to acknowledge something about the mutability of sexuality without owning up to the possibility that he might find it pleasurable to have run on the mill sex with another man. I said as much to him.

“But wait,” he said, “what if we turned it around? What if you were stuck in a prison with a whole lot of really unattractive women, women who you would never try to seduce if you were on the outside. You couldn’t even imagine yourself fantasizing about these women, and the idea of sex with them, on the outside, would be vaguely repulsive. So do you think you would, if locked up with them, end up having sex with them? Or maybe just the best-looking one? ‘Cause that’s what Brad Pitt is to me, the best possible looking individual in a basically unattractive set.”

My answer, at the time, was that if I were surrounded by enough sex, and immersed in a society where the standards for attractiveness were different enough, I’d probably find myself attracted to a variety of people. The truth is, however, that I didn’t really know. And then I realized there’s a lot I don’t know. For instance, we all talk about the Kinsey Scale, and how there’s a continuum and all that, but is that true? And if it is, can the most purely heterosexual men and women still enjoy sex with someone of their own sex if the mood is right and they’re given some erotic narrative that works for them? What was the male-male sex like for the men of ancient Athens who weren’t predominantly into men?

The first proto-sexual experience I can remember having I had with another boy; we were 11 or 12. “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang was playing on the radio, and at the chorus, when they sang “it’s time to come together; it’s up to you, what’s your pleasure?” we would dance toward each other and grind our crotches together. I didn’t orgasm, but I knew it felt good, though I didn’t connect it to “sex” in any sense for many, many years. That was also the last even remotely “homosexual” encounter I’ve had in my life, and though I don’t regret that, it certainly makes me wonder whether if I’d been just a bit more adventurous I could have happily supplemented my women-oriented sex life, which was pretty pathetic for most of my life, with the occasional trip to Brokeback Mountain.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

I Second That Emotion

(posted by Dan)

I just wanted to second Irrelephant's "Bravo" with one of my own. It's really a wonderful essay. And "Close," for all of our thousands (millions?) of readers who might be interested, is an excellent story. I don't think either of them is perfectly polished (though "Close" is closer), but then again neither is anything I've ever written, and they have a charge to them--in that they're actually compelling to read--that's pretty rare. There are a lot of writers out there who can write finely polished prose, but not so many who have anything interesting to say with their elegant sentences. You can't really teach that, you have to live it.

I also have many interesting things to say, naturally, and I apologize for not saying so many of them in the past two weeks. I'll try to get back into form.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Peep Show, Part Five (of five)

(posted by Jamie)

It’s the Saturday of the show, and I feel awful, my stomach tied in a knot. In the afternoon I stop by the Lusty Lady, hoping to relieve my anxiety over reading a story about jerking off to strippers by jerking off to strippers. Sass isn’t here, and I’m not turned on by any of the other women, so I go into a video booth and watch porn, jumping from channel to channel: women’s bodies, a mouth on a cock, cum spurting onto artificially enhanced breasts. I have to pull hard and fast to get there, but eventually I have a weak, twitchy orgasm. My anxiety is lessened somewhat, but also compounded by guilt and shame.

I go home and shower, put on a pair of old cords and my favorite vintage button-down shirt — a simple, nonconfrontational outfit — and head over to the theater with both “Close” and the “nice” poems under my arm, just in case.

A big crowd is already filling all the chairs and spilling out almost into the hallway. The audience is more mixed than I’d expected: maybe 65 percent women, maybe 30 percent of them with some degree of leather, chains, piercings, or elaborate tattooing. And then there are my friends and neighbors, my little support group. Most of them have no idea what I’ll be reading either, and I worry about their reaction, too. I say hi to G., who tells me I’m scheduled to read at the end of the first half. I’ll be great, she says. (Oh, how I hate when people say that.) She tells me to relax and gives me a big hug, and I just want to melt into her embrace and disappear. I haven’t told her what I’m reading, and I begin to imagine her fury and embarrassment when she hears it, perhaps even my ritual hanging-in-effigy to close out the evening.

The readers who go on before me include a very young, beautiful, gay Asian man and a lesbian poet who is not only leather-clad and angry, but palsied and in a wheelchair to boot. The boisterous crowd is loudly supportive of both of them. And then G. introduces me.

As I step onstage, the audience gives me what I hear as a decidedly lukewarm welcome. I feel big and male and straight and ungainly. The blood begins its mad rush to my face, as if I need to be red to be seen. I arrange my papers on the music stand, adjust the mike, look around the room, mumble a hello, give a spastic laugh, and take a deep breath.

“This is a short story called ‘Close,’ ” I say. My amplified voice sounds very loud. “It’s . . .” I stifle the urge to explain or apologize up front. “It’s the journal of a museum guard named Henry.”

I take a deep breath and look around the room, searching for friendly faces. Then, just as I’m about to look down again, I see her. Unfathomably, in the back left corner of the room, leaning against the wall, is none other than . . . Sass. I look down, blink twice in what feels like slow motion, and think, Hey, I just imagined I saw Sassafras in the audience. How wacky is that? I look up again. She’s still there. I did not imagine it. She can’t possibly be here, and yet there she is, looking right at me — I mean, of course she’s looking right at me. Where else would she be looking?

Her presence is actually not all that improbable. San Francisco is like a small town within its artistic communities. In fact, I know several women — one a writer, one a dancer, one a budding academic — who have done stints at the Lusty Lady. The Lusty Lady has always been an offbeat, radicalized strip club (it’s the first of its kind to be worker-owned) and, accordingly, it attracts intellectual, artsy employees, including women who just want to try stripping to see what it’s like.
S
o to run into a stripper in my life outside the Lusty Lady is not so unlikely. But to see Sass in the audience when I’m about to read “Close” for the first time is no less than breathtaking. She is my perfect erotic dancer, my dream — and nightmare — audience member. As much as I’ve always wanted to be seen by strippers, I never imagined this. Here she is a real person, wearing clothes, perhaps even a writer like me. But also not so much like me at all, more like the women in front of whom I’m so petrified to read my story.

For a moment I hold my breath and ride that fine masochistic edge between exquisite pleasure and almost unbearable discomfort. I begin to wonder if there’s enough blood in my legs to hold me up. I am petrified, thrilled, nauseated. I think to myself, Don’t lock your knees. I remember marching in a Columbus Day parade as a kid, standing and waiting for hours in a hot woolen uniform, and being told: Don’t lock your knees. That’s when you pass out. So I bend my knees a little, look down at my pages, and begin to read:

April. The weather is getting warmer. The other day I was walking home after my stop off, and I looked through the window of the old office building on West 52nd they’ve gutted and are turning into a Sure-Guard Storage. They finally installed the shiny corrugated lockers. I looked through the window and just happened to be right in front of number 1354, which is also the last four digits of my Social Security number. This may mean something. Or not. Sometimes these coincidences mean things.

I look up from time to time at the listening faces. I don’t look toward the back left corner. A page or so in, I pause, take a sip of water, slip out of Henry’s edgy persona, and smile as if to say, Hey, everybody, don’t forget: that’s Henry; I’m Jamie. I think of the clichéd advice offered to nervous public speakers — imagine the audience naked — and I almost laugh out loud. I’m feeling more naked than I imagine Sass has ever felt in front of me.

About two pages in I get to the tough stuff: “After work, I stop at Babeland.” I feel as if I’m about to freeze up — or throw up — but I manage to keep reading:

Today Nadja is there. I feed the machine an extra bill and give her five bucks through the window even though it only costs three to touch. I tell her “high” and she kneels down so I can reach her. I hold one breast gently with my left hand and jerk off with my right. I like how heavy it is. The breast. I like that she kneels so we’re at eye level. I like to feel the weight, the warmth. . . . Sometimes she holds my face in her hands and calls me “baby.” I know it’s an act but still it feels good. “Baby,” she says, “my sweet baby.” I always forget to bring tissues.

The audience laughs at the “tissues” line, and I’m starting to feel a rush. I’m becoming Henry, slipping deeper inside his clipped, anxious voice. The final pages go by with a kind of rich, elastic slowness that I’ve never experienced before, onstage or off.

At the end of “Close,” Henry accomplishes something monumental for him: he spends an afternoon with a woman without a plexiglass wall between them. I feel as if I’ve broken down some barriers of my own as I read his story: I’ve done something difficult and monumental for me, and done it as clearly and honestly as I can. I notice my pulse slowing, my sweat cooling me. The story ends, and I say thank you.

There’s a pause, then a roar as the audience begins to whoop and whistle and clap. My applause probably isn’t any longer or louder than any other reader’s, but to me it feels like absolute thunder. I say thank you again and step offstage.

G. announces the intermission, and several people, among them a couple of the women I was so afraid of offending, come up to tell me how much they liked the story. A tough and talented writer tells me she’s “heard a lot of crap on that subject” but that my piece was “really pretty OK,” which I’m later told is high praise coming from her. And G. gives me another hug and, with a proud grin, tells me I did a great job.

Suddenly I remember that back left corner. I wheel around and look for Sass, but she’s not there. I scan the room like Rocky, punch-drunk and reeling, searching for Adrian after the big fight. And then, over by the door, I spot a familiar face, and the woman I know only as Sassafras gives me that sweet, sly smile, turns, and is gone.

(to read "Peep Show" in its entirety, go here)
(to read "Close," go here)

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

I can use ellipses to make funnies

(posted by Dan)

I was browsing through my virtual desktop today and I happened upon an image that I created, years ago, for a never-lived website—or "sitecom" as we called it—that I began to create with some friends and acquaintances during the most frenzied months of the dot-com boom. I’m pasting it here as evidence that I was once able to do some mildly clever things in the realm of graphic design, and because it has to do with masculinity in an extremely superficial sense (in that the book it uses to make its jokes is on the subject), and because this blog is the closest I’ll ever come to having a legitimate excuse to show it to someone. It's now or never, and I choose now.


Saturday, February 04, 2006

Peep Show, Part Four

(posted by Jamie)

The day before the dreaded Saturday benefit reading, I had my little passel of sensitive-male poems ready to go, but an unwelcome thought was edging its way into my brain: that I should read “Close,” my museum-guard story, instead. I fought the impulse with all my might, couldn’t believe I was even considering it. But I also wanted to read the best work I had, and despite my fears, the story was, in a sense, absolutely appropriate for the sexually radical and politically engaged audience I envisioned. That night I asked my wife whether I should read it.
Digression: Yes, I was married during my Lusty Lady period. My wife not only knew about and accepted my visits, but encouraged them and got off on my descriptions of that world and the porn in my collection. Now my ex, she has always identified with men and masculinity. Her father is a strong, silent heart surgeon. Her four brothers are all great athletes, quietly brilliant types who build beautiful, solid things with their hands. In many ways my ex tried to be — and in many ways succeeded in becoming — the fifth boy in her family.

So I, who never really learned the manly arts of plumbing and carpentry, was married to a woman who was a professional carpenter, painter, and contractor to supplement a markedly less lucrative career as a dancer and choreographer. When we redid our floors, she wouldn’t let me handle the big, unwieldy belt sander, nor would she let me touch a paintbrush when she painted our apartment, although she was kind enough (or patronizing enough, you make the call) to let me sand a couple of walls — after which she touched up my work.

She desired, in an ideal lover, someone bigger, stronger, and tougher than she, to make her feel more feminine. I met the physical requirements, barely. My pervy predilections were my most masculine feature, and offset my more wifely qualities, such as making sure she paid her parking tickets and brushed her teeth and made it to doctor appointments and returned phone calls. She painted the walls, but I arranged the furniture and hung the art just so.

When I asked my wife whether I should read “Close” at the benefit, she replied that she didn’t see why not. I tried to explain exactly why not: i.e., that they’ll fucking hate me, that’s why not. She still didn’t see it. “It’s a great story, she said. “Read it. What’s the worst that can happen?”
I reiterated: the worst that can happen is that they will hate me.

“And then what?”

“And then what? They’ll hate me, that’s what, and I don’t want to be hated.”

“They won’t hate you,” she replied. But then, she loved me. What did she know?

I asked another friend and got pretty much the same response. Just letting the friend read the story had been petrifying. Why was I even thinking about reading it in public? I kept saying to myself, No way, but I was starting to think, Yes way. I’m going to read that story, and it will be great. The audience is going to love it, and radical lesbians will begin to understand men in a new way, and their understanding and eventual forgiveness will allow men to grow to better appreciate and respect women, and a movement will rise, misogyny will die, and peace and love will reign supreme on earth.

Maybe I was getting a little ahead of myself. But clearly I had decided to read “Close” at the show.

That night, I slept horribly, and I awoke agitated and filled with second thoughts.

Once, I was jerking off while watching a dancer who had always pointedly ignored me. She just plain didn’t like me. Usually this ruins it for me, but her body was incredible — long and lean and strong, with smooth olive skin, small breasts, and tiny, button nipples. And sure, her aloofness was sexy too. For some reason she deigned to dance for me that day, with just the perfect hint of disdain in her eyes.

I must have stopped stroking myself for a moment and put my hand up by the window (I’m left-handed), because she noticed my wedding ring and dryly said, “Why don’t you go home and fuck your wife?”

“I will,” I replied, more angry than embarrassed. What’s your point? I wanted to say. They’re two completely different things. I’m not coming here instead of fucking my wife. But there was no way to have a discussion through the thick plexiglass about the difference between sex with one’s spouse and masturbating while looking at a sex worker. And of course the disgusted dancer would have had no interest in any such conversation.

Rather than leave chastened, I fed the machine more quarters and kept jerking away, almost frantically. As frustrated and angry as I was, I got off, looking at her ass swaying haughtily, almost mockingly, to the beat. It was the only time in my life I can remember coming in anger.

Friday, February 03, 2006

One Good Plug Deserves Another

(posted by Jamie)
In this week's Valley Advocate, Dan continues our deification of Charles Barkley, man, tying Charles' easy "balls-out" masculinity to the Democratic Party's recent emasculation, both at the hands of the Republicans, and by its own doing:

"In a culture of straight white men who have profound anxieties about their place in our increasingly feminized, colorized, hispanicized and homosexualized culture, the macho posing of the GOP is understandably appealing. . . . At this moment in the history of the fragile male ego, that's more reassuring than the fumblings of Al Gore and John Kerry, who, perhaps because they know more than their counterparts do about being a man, are much less effective at playing a man." (italics by Jamie)

To learn more about Oppenheimer balls-out liberalism, and how Sir Charles can help the Dems find their mojo, go here!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Jamie's too modest

(posted by Dan)

Just so's you all know, that image from Jamie's recent post is from Flesh for Fantasy, an anthology in which he not only published an essay (guess which one) but was commended for doing so by Publisher's Weekly. The PW review said:
The editors of this anthology—all academics who have worked as exotic dancers— start out slowly and save their best for last. In other words, readers should skip the long-winded introduction and head straight for the entertaining account of how Miss Mary Ann and her co-workers at San Francisco's Lusty Lady formed the Exotic Dancer's Alliance: the descriptions of the lawyers hired by the club's management in an attempt to bust the union are priceless. Jamie Berger's description of his peep-show going (and the guilt induced by his politically correct upbringing) is also a don't-miss read in the section called "Flirtation," which explores club life from the patron's perspective. Respect for dancers and the customers who understand what they are—and aren't—buying when they enter a club or peep show booth is evident throughout.

The Humming Is Real

(posted by Dan)

I may respond, in another post, to other aspects of Jamie's latest installment of Peep Show, but first I’d like to assert the plausibility of the idea that there was, in fact, a genuine connection of sorts between Jamie and Sass, and that the humming she did for him (humming is meant literally here; read the post) was something special she did for him, and it was done as a genuine expression, at the very least, of compassion or kindness or camaraderie.

I’m making a point of this because I’ve had the argument, many times with many different people, about whether there can exist between a sex worker and her* client any kind of genuine affection, and I’ve always insisted that there can be. That’s not to say that the lust is reciprocated (though on occasion I imagine it is), or that the affection that the ladies have is anywhere near as deep or precious as that experienced by their devoted clients, but rather that just because what’s happening is, at its most elemental level, an economic transaction doesn’t mean it’s only an economic transaction.

To offer an imperfect analogy, the waitress at the Waffle House is flirty or friendly with her patrons primarily because it’s her job to be like that, but secondarily because she derives satisfaction from friendly/flirty interaction with other people in the world. We’re social beings, and we like to be liked and to like in return. I don’t fool myself into thinking that what’s going on at a peep show, or in a strip club, is as uncomplicated as what’s happening at the Waffle House, or that the feelings of the sex workers for their clients don’t include, at various times, hatred, contempt, disgust, boredom, etc. But it must be true that some of the time, some of the women have warm feelings for their client. Wouldn’t it be strange if it were otherwise?

I don’t know why the point is so important to me, but maybe it’s just because the notion that such affection is impossible is to me a particularly egregious example of the way that doctrinaire ideology can interfere with our ability to see the world clearly. To say that peep shows, for instance, involve exploitation, is inarguably true. But to stop any discussion of the interraction between peep show patron and worker right there (men who go to peep shows are bad; women who strip are exploited; QED) is to avoid probing, as it were, the moral/psychological questions that such interractions raise.

I also suspect that my disproportionately intense feelings on the subject point to something unresolved going on in my head (or in my loins). It’s nothing so direct as in Jamie’s case. He goes to peep shows, and so it’s important to him, for obvious reasons, to understand why that is, and to look for some affirmation of, or absolution for, his experience, and by extension of his objectifying of women. As he writes:
It allows me to feel that, as improbable as this may sound, once in the bluest of blue moons a dancer may actually, conceivably enjoy our wordless interaction. Part of me wants to believe that if I can make even the tiniest connection with a woman in this most wretchedly sexist and commodified environment, I can somehow be forgiven for my eternal objectifying and wanton lust.

But I’m not a regular visitor to peep shows, or strip clubs, or prostitutes. My problem, I think, has less to do with shame about my sexual desire and the things I’ve done or places to which I’ve gone to gratify it than it does with my inability to embrace or experience that desire in its rawest form.

That inability, of course, probably has everything to do with the feeling that it’s wrong to desire women in such an animal, objectifying way, but I experience the shame less as a concrete psychological fact—a burden I need to carry around as a result of the dirty, naughty things I’ve done—than as an elusive but still impenetrable barrier to the connection I’d like to have to my desire.** I don’t need to expiate my sins of lust, I think, so much as I need to liberate myself to lust purely in the first place (and then, maybe, I can worry about expiation). So maybe I’m having the argument about sex workers and their clients, to get back to the main point, because I’m trying to convince myself that it’s okay to desire women in a purely sexual way because they wouldn’t hate me for doing so.

I don’t entirely know if that makes sense, but it’s a start, and this is a blog, so that’s okay.

* Yes, I know that there are male sex workers as well, and if any of you are out there you should feel free to enter the conversation, and to be offended that by writing about sex workers as if they’re naturally women I’m failing to dignify your personhood, but for now it’s easier for me to write as if sex workers are women and their clients are men.

** In case you were wondering, I actually have a very distinct visual image of this troubled relationship between me and my desire. My desire is a like a ball of electricity hovering somewhere in the core of me, and what I’m trying, but failing to do, is tap into that well of vitality, and create a network of conduits of lighting that course out from the ball of desire to all the points of my body. I have a feeling that that image (or metaphor, or whatever it is) bears a similarity to the Indian idea of chakras, but I’m sure I got it from all the fantasy novels I’ve read in which the hero has some magical potential but is unable, until some traumatic, catalytic event, to tap into it. The fantasy novels, however, may have gotten it from the Indians.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Peep Show, Part Three

(posted by Jamie)
I’ve never liked fancy strip clubs. I go to peep shows not to relax or to talk to women because I can’t comfortably talk to them elsewhere. I go first and foremost to get off, and that just doesn’t happen at expensive “gentlemen’s” clubs, at least not without a whole lot more money than I’ve got to spend. The fancy clubs are all about tips, and I’ve never had the cash for that, either. Plus, if a man tips at a fancy club, a dancer will dance for him and talk to him even if she’s repulsed by him — he’s a paying customer, after all — and the inherent artificiality of that transaction is more than my suspension of disbelief can handle.

At contemporary peeps, unlike the Times Square shows of my youth, there’s no tipping, and no touching the dancers. And while it’s still an undoubtedly commercial interaction, the balance of power is a little more to my liking. I’m a sort of captive in my little cage-like booth: the dancer can choose to come over to my window or not, and once there she’s not bound or influenced by money; she can stay and dance for me until I’m done, or she can just walk away. It allows me to feel that, as improbable as this may sound, once in the bluest of blue moons a dancer may actually, conceivably enjoy our wordless interaction. Part of me wants to believe that if I can make even the tiniest connection with a woman in this most wretchedly sexist and commodified environment, I can somehow be forgiven for my eternal objectifying and wanton lust. Eye contact from a stripper can be sexually satisfying, and even spiritually fulfilling, in a way that cannot be duplicated outside that unique controlled space.

On the floor of the peep-show booth: Other men’s semen, with its eerily clean, bleachy smell. Tissues. Quarters that men have dropped and weren’t about to pick up. Condoms, some from couples who have sex in the booths, but also, I think, from men who jerk off into them. (Which just seems depressing; why would anyone jerk off into a condom?)

Once, there was a semen-stained twenty-dollar bill down in the muck, and I concocted a story for how it got there: I imagined a khakied yuppie, laughing nervously at the way-too-real-looking women on the other side of the glass. (This is a quarter peep show, after all, not Larry Flynt’s posh Hustler Club next door.) He laughs because it’s too much to handle otherwise. I pictured him jerking off even though the dancers don’t even vaguely resemble Pamela Anderson. (Dude, I’m here, why the hell not?) Then after he’s done, he realizes he has nothing to clean himself up with, and, again chuckling, he pulls out a bill, which chafes a bit, but does the job well enough that he can stick his dick back in his Dockers. He laughs a third time as he imagines some poor little immigrant who won’t be able to resist picking up the gooey twenty: his cum on another man’s hands.

This story gives me solace: I’m not nearly so bad as my imagined yuppie, I think, tugging at my own member, looking back up through the thick glass at a fine, round ass, a pair of swaying hips. I’m a very different kind of man, indeed. I’m more like the women I’m jerking off to than I am like him. And then, just as I’m about to let go, I think, Hey, did I drop that bill?

In the months leading up to the benefit at which I was to read my work, I had been frequenting San Francisco’s famed Lusty Lady club two or three times a week. I had my own “Nadja,” a stripper whose stage name was Sassafras. I knew her schedule and planned my visits accordingly. She was small, maybe five-three, with auburn hair down to her shoulders, full breasts, a freckled, catlike face, and smoldering cat eyes that were somehow simultaneously sultry and kind. But it wasn’t so much the way she looked that did it for me — peep shows are filled with women I find physically attractive. It was the way she looked at me that made her perfect.

As soon as I shut the door and slipped my first quarter into the slot, she would come right over, say a soft, smiling hello, and begin to dance for me. Eventually she would kneel down, to be at my eye level, and just look at me and hold her breasts in her hands and faintly hum. Through the glass, I could never make out what she was humming, just that it wasn’t the Jane’s Addiction or Prince song playing through the PA. I was never sure if she knew I could hear her, but the humming was just the sweetest, sexiest thing to me. And best of all, she looked at me as if she were actually seeing me, as if she inherently knew and was happy to give me what I needed: acceptance, forgiveness, release. I had found my ideal confessor.

One day I went to the Lusty Lady, and Sass (as I liked to think of her; “Sassafras” didn’t remotely do her justice) was dancing at another window. I found myself enjoying watching her dance for another man, without her knowing I was there. It’s kind of ridiculous to feel voyeuristic at a peep show, but that’s the way it felt, as if I were actually peeping. From time to time I could see the man’s face through the window. He was a small, elderly Asian man, and he craned his neck to look up at her, his eyes wide. Then she turned her back to him and faced me, and when I saw her face, I could tell she wasn’t humming. Soon the other man left, and Sass came over with her usual warm, mischievous smile. This time she didn’t dance for me at all, just immediately got down on her knees, brought her face right up to the window and started to sway and hum and hum and hum.

The names of radical feminists like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin were familiar to me even as a preteen from eavesdropping on my mom’s women’s group. Sitting at the top of the stairs in my pajamas, I learned that thousands of years of patriarchy, with its literal and metaphorical sexual slavery, had done women an incalculable injustice. I also learned that men started wars and were the source of violence, greed, hate, murder, rape, and just about everything else that’s awful in the world.

The seventies was a hyperbolic time for the women’s movement, and while I now know that my mother didn’t intend to teach me that men were evil, per se, that was the lesson I absorbed. I came to think of penetration as an inherently violent act. As I grew older, I began to see myself as oppressor-by-default and — though it may seem melodramatic and hyperpolitically correct today — my penis as a weapon of that oppression. Let me tell you, it put a real crimp in my enjoyment of sex (not to mention my performance), but it added immensely to the rush (and, afterward, the shame) of indulging in pornography and strippers.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

More Manly Books


I found an interview at Salon.com with Neil Chethik, author of the new book VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think About Their Marriages, Their Wives, Sex, Housework, and Commitment. It includes this q&a:
That was one of the main themes of your book -- that there is male style of loving and a female style, and that over the last 50 years the male approach has been disparaged or devalued, at least in the context of home life and marriage. What is the male style and why is has it been devalued?

The male style is less oriented towards words and more towards action, less oriented towards face-to-face interactions than side by side. In my own marriage, for instance, there was a long time when my wife was quite disturbed that I wasn't affectionate toward her in the ways she wanted me to be. She wanted more touching, kissing and saying "I love you." Those things didn't come easily to me. But over the course of 15 years she's come to recognize that when I leave her a note or spend hours working to make our backyard a refuge, that's my way of doing those things. At the same time, I've recognized that she needs those direct expressions and I've made an effort to meet her halfway.

The interview isn't fantastic, but the writer sounds thoughtful. And the book cover is neat.

Sam Brownback, Tear-Streaked Crusader

(posted by Dan)

This is a good profile of Kansas senator, and conservative Christian gladiator, Sam Brownback. It's of interest, for our purposes, because of this passage about Brownback and Chuck Colson (Watergate evildoer turned Christian right powerbroker) and their mode of muscular, emotional Christian masculinity.
"I have seen him weep," growls Colson, anointing Brownback with his highest praise. Such are the new American crusaders: tear-streaked strong men huddling together to talk about their feelings before they march forth, their sentimental faith sharpened and their man-feelings hardened into "natural law." They are God's promise keepers, His defenders of marriage, His knights of the fetal citizen. They are the select few who embody the paradoxical love promised by Christ when he declares -- in Matthew 10:34 -- "I did not come to bring peace, but a sword."

I know that I'm supposed to be an advocate of men being expressive and all, but this is sort of disturbing. I'll have to further investigate my soul to figure out whether my creeped-outedness is legitimate or whether it's evidence that I'm just a big old hypocrite, praising expressivity when it's in the service of, or in alignment with, political objectives I find palatable and condemning it when it's not.

p.s. The profile, by the way, is by Jeff Sharlet, co-founder of KillingtheBuddha.com, which is the hipster religion website par excellence (you didn't think there could be such a thing as a hipster religion website, but since the internet came into being, everything that's possible under the sun has its incarnation in a website).

p.p.s. Hat tip Andrew Sullivan for the link, which is apparently what you're supposed to say/do when you link to an article that you found out about through the site you've just hat tipped.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Forgive Me, Charles

(posted by Dan)

I spoke too soon about Charles' Republicanism. I found this passage, from a review of Barkley's recent book of interviews on race, at outsports.com, a gay-oriented sports website.
In a conversation with writer Marita Golden, Barkley (a former Republican who supported Bush in 2000 but switched party allegiance in 2004) relates, “I almost got into a fistfight with two preachers during a meeting about support for John Kerry before the 2004 presidential elections. They asked me, ‘Do you support homosexuality?” I said the issue here isn’t homosexuality, it’s more important than that, and only God can judge people. I told them that’s what scares me about the religious agenda it this country …Of all the issues people have and need to have addressed by the black church, when did attacking homosexuality go to the top of them?”

So Charles can change, and if Charles can change, maybe I can change, and you can change, and we can all change (the reference here, I should note because it's probably not remotely accurately paraphrased, is to Rocky's speech at the end of Rocky IV, after he won over the Russian fans while beating Ivan Drago).

UPDATE: The exact quote, taken from the indispensable imdb.com, is as follows, and enjoy with me the pleasure of Rocky "addressing the Soviet Union."

[Addressing the Soviet Union]
Rocky: I guess what I'm trying to say is, if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change.

The Shame and the Fear

(posted by Dan)

I’m going to try, perhaps ill-advisedly, to link together a few of the themes we’ve been discussing under the general rubric* of shame and fear.

I don’t remember her exact words, but the thing Norah Vincent said in her Colbert Report appearance that most struck me was about how surprised she was, after spending months masquerading as a man, at how vulnerable she found the men with whom she interacted, and how inhibited they seemed by the narrowness of their (our) anxieties about masculinity. I don’t know the exact vector at which the truth of our vulnerability intersects with the power that shame and fear have over us (men), but it definitely intersects all over the place.

We’re ashamed of doing the things that seem too vulgar or bestial, like going to peep shows and touching the women therein. We’re afraid of not being macho enough to rise to the macho-making opportunity with the flair of, say, an Antonio Davis. We’re afraid of appearing pussy-whipped in front of our friends, but also ashamed of being too explicit in our love/affection for our friends (I don’t know a single guy who says “I love you” when parting from his friends; most women I know say it without hesitation). We’re ashamed of listening to Jim Rome—who’s undoubtedly an asshole, and at the same time frustratingly compelling—and we’re afraid that because we don’t put our idiotic macho maleness out there as brashly as Jim Rome does that we’re somehow existing in a state of diminished vitality.

The Barkley Moment Jamie had—and oh how I wish I could have heard it too!—was so powerful, I imagine, because his confidence presented such a such stark contrast to the constipated cliches that come out of the mouths of most athletes and sports commentators and dudes who wish they were athletes and sports commentators. We all know that Barkley can be a schmuck frequently, but he ends up being so likable because he’s clearly his own shmuck. I’m happy to forgive him a lot—I’m pretty sure he’s a Republican, for instance—because a straight/black/male/athlete who’s able to speak affectionately and easily of his gay friends, and of gayness in general, is a precious commodity.

This all gets rather complicated when we acknowledge, as I think we should, that idiotic macho male culture is as blustery and exaggerated as it is, and as attractive as it is, largely because there are authentic (and yes, I know that’s a dangerous word) impulses that are being expressed, albeit in a perverted way.

Men—pretty much all men—are worried that they don’t know exactly how to be men in a culture in which it’s no longer taken for granted that men are and should be the primary holders of power and bearers of responsibility. I mean, it’s a good thing, in sum, that it’s not a given that we’re the wielders of power in society, but there’s no question that we men, even somehow those of us who never had it, miss the unquestioned presumption of power. (I assume that women would miss it too, if they’d ever had it and then lost it; power's pleasant.) And then there’s the matter of responsibility, and here we get back to the shame and fear thing. We’re afraid that we’re failing to properly discharge our manly responsibility. What is our manly responsibility? Most people, and I definitely include myself in this, feel better with some sense of what their cultural role is supposed to be. But what now are the expecations? What are my responsibilities? What are the rules? (I never get tired of asking that last question, by the way. I think it’s appropriate to so many of our anxieties. What are the rules? What are the rules? etc.)

To get back to the sports thing, I have a distinct memory of how meaningful it was to me, in high school, to be as good a wrestler as I was. It had to do with physical confidence, and the general pleasure of being good at something, and the excellence within an all-male society. It also had to do, I’m sure, with being really good at something which 99% of women couldn’t best me at. I miss all that, and compulsively challenging women to arm-wrestling matches doesn’t really compensate for its absence (though it does ease the sting). Within my high school society, wrestling was something that men did, and it happened to be something that I did well.

Glory days.

* I still remember the first time that I heard the word “rubric”; it was used by my senior year English teacher, and I immediately found it a hilarious-sounding word, and said so repeatedly, much to his consternation. I still find it hilarious, though it’s hard to say exactly why. It has something to do with its family resemblance to “prick,” or the name “Ruprecht,” or it has something to do with some sexual or excretory linguistic essence that undergirds all of the above.

Charles Barkley, Enlightened Male

(posted by Jamie)

And speaking of arenas - that transition from previous post courtesy of a miserable year I spent doing stand-up in the late 90s, btw - here's a sporting note. Last week, a professional basketball player, Antonio Davis of the New York Knicks, strode into the stands during a game because he thought his wife was being accosted by an unruly fan. It caused quite a stir, in large part because of last year's melee between players and fans at a Pistons-Pacers game, but it interested me for a few reasons.

I have a masochistic sports-talk-radio habit while driving, and said radio is the first, last, and in-between bastion of all that's rotten with American masculinity and idiotic macho male posturing (Am I making it clear how I feel here?). Every host and guest and callers ranted for days about how a man's gotta protect his woman, etc., and how Davis shouldn't be penalized too heavily for the infraction, and I don't totally disagree, exept with how gendered it all was - peeps gotta stand up for their peeps, sure. The macho-fest, while annoying, was expected, but what wasn't was one refreshing viewpoint I heard in the midst of it all on another topic entirely.

Charles Barkley, the retired NBA superstar and outspoken (in and of itself a wonderful thing, as athletes, and - as the esteemed Daniel Oppenheimer puts it - "especially black male athletes, tend to be punished for being outspoken.") TV commentator, for better and worse, was asked to weigh in on the Davis issue. Barkley offered his two cents, which were suprisingly evenhanded - Davis broke a rule, he should be punished, it was understandable that he did it, what's the big deal?) and then two odd things happened.

First, the hosts, two of the least macho and most intelligent men in sports broadcasting (although that's not such a compliment), Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann, moving on to other topics, asked Barkley (without snickering!) if he'd seen "Brokeback Mountain," and if so, what he thought of it. Barkley led off and concluded his response by saying, best as I can remember, "I have a lot of gay friends, and I love them dearly, and God bless them." No, really, I swear it, that's what he said. It's the only time sports-talk radio has nearly brought me to tears. A jock saying he has "a lot of gay friends"? Unheard of. "I love them dearly." Unthinkable! And, "God bless them," well that's just beautiful in so many ways I don't know where to begin - I pray that Pat Robertson was listening.

Barkley went on to say that, his love and blessings for his gay friends notwithstanding, he's a fan of the screwball comedy and the kung fu flick, and had no real interest in a romance or a western, and less so in a gay one. If it was a gay martial arts flick or a gay "40 Year Old Virgin," well that might be a different story. But back to the athlete-going-into-the-stands issue. I couldnt' help but wonder, listening to man after man rave about protecting his woman (you could have substituted "Dodge Ram Hemi Pick-up" for woman), what their responses would've been if it were a female athlete charging into the stands to protect her man, or, dare I suggest, her woman.

Some day I'll begin to touch on the women's-sports bashing that goes on in sports radio, especially by insuffereble (and yet, sometimes I inexplicably choose to suffer him) Jim Rome, but for now, I'd rather just think of Charles Barkley, comfortable in his masulinity, hanging out with his gay friends watching a crossdressed Jackie Chan in Crouching Brokeback, Hidden Mountain, and leave it at that.

Man Like Me

(posted by Jamie)

As quickly as I can, I'm gonna git me a copy Nora Vincent's Self-Made Man, reviewed on the cover of last Sunday's NYT Book Review; it promises to be an especially interesting new title for our purposes. It's a memoir of a woman's going undercover as a man, and it, obviously deals with buckets o' masculinity issues. The book's been getting ton's of press, and Vincent's been all over the media, most recently on the Colbert Report, where she charmed the pants of Mr. C (and, okay, maybe yours truly as well, a little bit). I mention it now, rather than waiting until I read it, because, while Dan and I are starting off by more narrowly discussing our straight-male sexuality issues with masculinity, I want to note that we'll also be branching out into all sorts of other arenas besides just the dirty stuff.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Peep Show, Part Two

(posted by Jamie)

I discovered Times Square in its LIVE! NUDE! GIRLS! heyday late one night in my freshman year of college after a punk-rock show at Roseland Ballroom. I was walking through midtown with my jaded New Yorker friends (I was a recent arrival from upstate, still wide-eyed, just beginning to discover big-city splendors) when we passed by the peep shows on 42nd Street. I was riveted. Of course, there was no way I was going to admit, let alone indulge, my fascination in my friends’ company; it would’ve been uncool on so many levels. But after that night, at least once a week, I took a subway trip downtown and spent several guilty, anxious hours lurking outside peep show after peep show in the late autumn cold, furtively glancing at the windows and wanting badly to go inside, but always chickening out and heading back uptown to my safe college haven. What was I so afraid of? I can’t say exactly. That I’d be “sinning”? That I’d get caught? That I’d suddenly be sucked into a vortex of scantily clad women who’d scorn me and lure me into giving them all my work-study money only to disappoint me in the end? Something along those lines.

Finally one night I had a couple of beers, got up my nerve, and walked into Show World on the corner of 42nd Street and 8th Avenue, the least seedy, most legit-looking of the porn-and-peeps emporiums. I remember fluorescent lights and magazines that showed actual penetration on their covers. It had the grotesque allure of a street fight or a car wreck. A flashing, multicolored arrow that read Live Show pointed upstairs.

I didn’t go upstairs that first day, but I did soon after, to the little peep-show windows like the ones in my story “Close.” That first incursion was both unsatisfying and achingly thrilling. I practically sprinted away afterward, repeating to myself, I’m a pig. I’m a bad, bad person. I will never, ever do that again. I’m a pig. I’m a bad, bad person — my secular-humanist Hail Mary.
I’ve been going back to peep shows more or less regularly ever since, for ten years in New York and another twelve in San Francisco. As the panic and shame faded (but of course never entirely disappeared, especially the shame), I slowly learned how to get what I wanted and needed from that world. The kind of peep-show performer I craved was hard to find. She had to be someone I found physically attractive, of course, but more important, she had to look me in the eye and appear to see me, to willingly accept my gaze, my confession.

The peep-show scenes in “Close” are meant to show how unhappy Henry is in his isolation, how badly he needs human contact, which he finally finds with a young museum patron. Though he evokes sympathy, Henry remains an objectifying, straight white male who jerks off daily to peep-show strippers. “Close” is the memoir of a man who could easily (if rashly) be labeled a misogynist, but who is meant to be seen as a pariah, a freak, the kind of person for whom porn and strippers serve a clearly ameliorative purpose. Henry’s interactions with Nadja lack any of the mortifying ambiguity of his other interactions with women, or people in general. He pays her; she gives him what he needs.

To this day, I have never caught my father checking out a woman. I’ve always known, somehow, that this isn’t from a lack of desire on his part, but rather an abundance of principle: it’s something you just don’t do. One time an attractive young woman working behind a shop counter was extremely friendly, even flirtatious with my dad (who bears a strong resemblance to Paul Newman), and, after we left the store, he said, “What a bright young woman.” The message, as I interpreted it, was that a woman had to be intelligent or interesting in some other nonphysical way for a man to like her, and only after she’d been well appreciated as a fellow human being could she be — maybe, someday — physically desired. Never objectified, of course, but desired. Though I don’t think my father overtly tried to teach me this lesson, I learned it nonetheless.

I never imagined that my dad would ever let himself think, let alone say, Wow, those are some sexy eyes, or, heaven forbid, What a rack on that broad. Part of me is proud of him and wants to follow his example. Another part likes to believe that he can leer and fantasize with the best of us, or perhaps the worst of us. Most importantly, with me.

Back in my peep-show youth, at New York’s seedier venues, the small booth windows were glassless, and patrons were strongly encouraged to reach through and touch the dancers for a small fee. These women didn’t actually dance. They sat naked in chairs on the stage, looking preternaturally bored, barely able to muster the energy to mumble, “Tipping, honey?” in accents that ranged from the Bronx to Prague. If you said yes, she’d come over to your window. (The windows of several different booths would all open to the same raised stage.) “Up or down?” she’d ask. It cost more for down. At first I didn’t want to touch at all — hell, I didn’t even want to touch the booth’s doorknob — but the only way to get a stripper (they didn’t actually strip either; they were naked from the start) to come over to your window was to tip, and if you wanted to tip but not touch, well, that was considered weird.

At first I found the experience repulsive and dirty — some of the dancers would even wipe themselves with wetnaps after each customer — but I kept going back. It was another acquired taste, and I acquired it. I always went for “up,” so the woman would kneel down to my level, where I could hold a breast and, more important, look at her face. If I was lucky, she might look back.

Mini response to Dan re strictures

(posted by Jamie)
. . . before I post chapter two of "Peep Show." Actually first a very brief response to Dan's comments, then a brief digression. Not to bore everyone to tears by metasizing this here blog by responding to Dan's every response to my responses, but I feel I should note that my parents didn't have a printed list of feminist-based strictures, it was just assumed, or perhaps I inferred, that certain words/images were off limits, although the prohibition against the word "suck" was indeed a spoken one.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Feminist Family and Its Discontents

(posted by Dan)

I suppose I should begin by providing a brief psychosexual biography because a.) it doesn’t seem fair to drop the autobiographical burden entirely on Jamie, and b.) we’re both the products of feminist, liberal households, which have their own not-always-so-obvious psychosexual pathologies.

My parents were not quite as ideologically consistent or insistent as it sounds as if Jamie's were. They didn’t police our use of the word “sucks,” for instance, and their attitude towards pornography was pretty tolerant (I was caught at school, in 6th grade, with some nudie mags, and though my parents promised the school that I would be harshly disciplined, their advice to me, after we got home, was just to make sure that I didn’t bring the magazines into school anymore).

What characterized our house was an intellectual openness about sex and sexuality that was belied by my parents’ aversion to sexualizing anything or anyone--including each other--in our presence. My father, like Jamie's, never leered at women and never made lewd comments to or around us. My mother disapproved of women who dressed too provocatively, and very much disapproved of mothers who dressed their daughters too sexy; she never said anything so academic as “they’re objectifying themselves for the male gaze,” but it’s certainly what she meant when she talked about these things, and when I got to the classes in college in which we talked about such things, I felt pretty well-schooled in some aspects of what I'm pretty sure is called first-wave feminism.

Above all, my parents didn’t sexualize us. They didn’t treat us as sexual objects, and though I’m mostly grateful for that, sometimes I suspect that if I was sexualized just a slight bit more I would have gotten a lot more poon* in high school and college. Which is to say that my response to all this non-sexualization was to become someone who was pretty uncomfortable with the seeking and the having of sex at the same time that I was moderately comfortable talking about it. I wanted it, of course, but I was also scared of it, and managed to consciously and unconsciously avoid quite a few opportunities to get "the sex" much earlier, and much more frequently, than I did.

There was, for instance, the very cute girl at the hippie-ish, Unitarian-ish summer camp who confessed, during a game of Truth or Dare--a day or two before the session-ending, get-yer-freak-on, “no curfew night”-- not only that she liked me but that she had already spent some time at, and presumably was willing to return to, “third base.” My response, later that day, was to tell her that, though I liked her, I really wanted to spend my last night with my friends. Ack! My fear (of appearing inexperienced with her, of exposing my precious bodily fluids, of failing to slide into third base with the proper suavity, etc.) was greater than my desire, and so I missed out on summer camp nookie, which is, as we all know, one of the best kinds of nookie.

I could go on—the girl during my summer internship in Atlanta, for instance, who came to my hotel room at midnight to "say goodnight" who I didn't make a move one because it didn’t occur to me, until a few minutes after she was gone, that maybe she wasn’t just interested in saying goodnight**—but I’d rather not. It’s too painful even now.

I’m not sure where that leaves us in our discussion other than to agree that the explicit sexual politics of a family always condition, but never determine, how the kids’ sexuality will evolve, and that the whole thing often plays out in counterintuitive ways (maybe not so counterintuitive if you're Sigmund Freud, but counterintuitive to most people). This point is not a new one, but it tends to be made more often about politically conservative people who try too hard to repress their sexuality only to see it burst out in destructive or exagerrated ways—preachers who cheat on their wives, priests who abuse children, etc. It’s less often pointed out, I think, that there are plenty of liberal families in which an intellectual openness about the topic of sex co-habits comfortably with a prudishness and reserve about the actual thing.

*My ladyfriend, who’s been reading over my shoulder as I write this, wants me to acknowledge that I didn't get any poon at all in high school, but I believe that if we construe poon broadly, so as to include blowjobs, than I did get a wee bit of poon in high school, though no intercourse.

**The reason I was so dense, in this case, was less a matter of fear than a matter of race. It didn’t occur to me that a good-looking but otherwise pretty nebbishy Jewish guy from the northeast, like me, might be sexually attractive to a working class black chick from Georgia who’d never even been friends with, much less fooled around with, a white guy before. But race and masculinity is a subject for another day...

Peep Show, Part One

(posted by Jamie)

“I understand that sex should be peaceful and good and loving, but what about the things that turn me on and are repellent at the same time?”
- Lisa Palac, The Edge of the Bed

“The men [who frequent peep shows] don’t know it, but they are secretly coming to church. They are seeking absolution, acceptance, compassion, kindness, and caring from a willing, friendly woman — if she is pretty, so much the better. They believe themselves to be fundamentally unlovable because of their sexuality. . . . Granting these men acceptance and understanding instead of disgust and ridicule is the single most profound aspect of sex work.”
- Nina Hartley, “Bodhisattvas Among Us,” Tricks and Treats: Sex Workers Write
about Their Clients

In the fall of 1997, my friend G. asked me to read my work at a benefit for a San Francisco alternative performance space. G. is a radical queer woman. I am a heterosexual white man. I hemmed and hawed and tried to duck her invitation. I said I was busy, that I hadn’t written anything in ages. I even told her I just plain didn’t want to do it, but she wasn’t buying my excuses. The truth is I was not eager to be the token straight white male in the show. It’s not that I’m uncomfortable in the radical queer world. (OK, maybe I’m a little uncomfortable.) I just have absolutely no interest in stepping up in front of that community and proudly representing the patriarchy.

With about a month to go before the event, though, I acquiesced. All too quickly it was the week of the show. My name was on the flier, and I had no idea what I would read. Instead of writing something, I spent much of my time trying to think of a plausible excuse to bail out: Broken limb? Dead relative? Laryngitis?

As the date drew near I anxiously sifted through old grad-school poems, pulling out some “nice” ones: about my mother and a snowstorm, about a fondly remembered ex-girlfriend, about a long nighttime drive filled with hopeful thoughts of the future. Hey, leather-clad lesbians like mothers and ex-girlfriends and hopeful thoughts of the future, right?

In the back of my mind, though, nudging at me, was a new piece of writing that I had been working on. It was a short story called “Close,” and it was the first fiction I’d written that I actually liked; it was also the worst possible piece for this particular show.“Close” is the journal of a museum guard named Henry, a mulletted, unkempt, oily-faced junior-college dropout in his early forties. Socially inept and utterly isolated, Henry divides his time between home, work, and a Times Square peep-show joint, where he’s fallen in love with a curvy Slav whose stage name is Nadja. The story includes several scenes of Henry participating in the only form of intimacy he knows: masturbating while awkwardly touching Nadja’s breasts through the eye-level porthole of the peep-show booth.

I imagined I’d have a hard time reading “Close” out loud anywhere — much less to an audience of hardcore dykes — for fear of offending people and revealing way too much personal knowledge about strippers and peep shows, the sort of knowledge that can only be learned firsthand.

I grew up the only child of two academics, a feminist English professor and a moral philosopher. Together we formed a left-of-liberal family unit whose values included strong stances against racism, sexism, homophobia, and social injustice. Though the Berger family values were ethical guidelines, not moralistic strictures, they engendered as much guilt and shame as Catholic doctrine. My parents made no explicit rules prohibiting drinking, drugs, and swearing. (Well, words that were offensive to various oppressed groups were forbidden. And the word sucks was also a no-no, I think because it debased the sucker, as in “cocksucker,” who is by inference a woman or a gay man. But fuck was acceptable in moderation — in fact, I’m pretty sure I first heard the word from Mom.) Civil liberties concerns aside, though, both my parents, were certainly against pornography. So, naturally, I found it incredibly enticing.

After a brief preadolescent obsession with forbidden toy guns — I traded some prized Matchbox cars for a couple of heavy, metallic toy pistols — I quickly moved on to the glossy pages of Playboy and Penthouse. Soon I made the jump to the grittier, nastier Hustler and Club. I stole my first Hustler from Tom Denton’s house one night in eighth grade. Denton was a gentle giant, a star football lineman who effortlessly tossed opponents about without malice — it was just what you did. Then the game would end, and he’d become his big harmless stoner self again. The Dentons’ liquor cabinet was always fully stocked and free for the raiding. A bong sat out on the rec-room ping-pong table. And, most exciting to me, Tom left porn just lying around in the open.

One night I snuck a Hustler into the secret zipper pocket of my parka. I still have the cover of that magazine somewhere, with its picture of a devilish blonde in shiny red leather, head thrown back and to the side, mouth forming an o. The look in her eyes is not soft-focus come-hither but straight-up lust. The image, a thrilling combination of the combative and the submissive, contradicted everything I’d been taught. This woman was objectified and loving it. She was horny. She didn’t want to be tenderly made love to. She wanted — no, she needed to be taken, to be fucked, and fucked hard. This was so wrong, so confusing — and so damn hot. The images inside the magazine evoked similar contradictory feelings, exciting and disturbing at once. In my first, furtive jerk-off sessions to the photographs I focused on the soft smoothness of breasts and bellies, legs and asses, averting my gaze from the pink, fleshy, wetness. Learning to like pictures of women’s genitalia was like learning to like the taste of booze. The pictures in Hustler burned like bourbon. I started with little sips.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Provisional Intro, version 1.3 (or is it 3.0?)

(posted by Dan and Jamie)

Masculinity and its Discontents (MAID) is the blog of two men, Jamie Berger and Daniel Oppenheimer, who want to discuss what it means to be a man in America in the early years of the 21st century. It’s our thesis (because behind every good man there’s a good thesis) that men, particularly “straight” men, aren’t nearly honest enough with themselves or open enough with each other about all the many-splendored things that constitute, condition, enliven and afflict male consciousness.

Men rarely talk about “these things” (ie sex, sexism, lust, love, porn, the list really does go on) candidly, and certainly not candidly and publicly. Instead, when in comes to matters of gender/sex/masculinity, we take refuge either in:
  1. misogynistic backslapping (not to mention butt-patting)
  2. a suffocating, supposedly enlightened perspective inside of which we censor ourselves for fear of being or being seen as sexist, misogynistic or objectifying.
  3. a semi-disaffected cynicism in which we put quotation marks around “misogynistic” and “objectifying” as if they’re hackneyed terms no longer worthy of serious consideration. (These men may backslap and catcall with the best of ‘em, but, they will assure you, it’s in a purely post-postmodern way – they are commenting on commenting on backslapping).

MAID’s foundational text is “Peep Show,” a personal essay in which Jamie, who (like Dan) is proud (if sometimes confused) to have been raised in a feminist household, muses on his shame about/enjoyment of/obsession with peep shows and other forms of “adult” entertainment. The essay is important because it’s about a man and his sexuality, but also because it’s about politics, morality, insecurity, guilt, repression, family and commerce, and how all those things inflect and confuse and upset each other and the human beings who experience them.

Jamie writes: “At contemporary peeps, unlike the seedier Times Square shows of my youth, there’s no tipping, and no touching the dancers. And while the dancer-watcher/wanker dialogue is still an undoubtedly commercial interaction, the balance of power is a little more to my liking. I’m a sort of captive in my little cage-like booth: the dancer can choose to come over to my window or not, and once there she’s not bound or influenced by money; she can stay and dance for me until I’m done, or she can just walk away. It allows me to feel that, as improbable as this may sound, once in the bluest of blue moons a dancer may actually, conceivably enjoy our wordless interaction. Part of me wants to believe that if I can make even the tiniest connection with a woman in this most wretchedly sexist and commodified environment, I can somehow be understood by this naked stranger, and even forgiven for my eternal objectifying and wanton lust.”

We’re trying to open things up a bit, start a long-stifled discussion, or a least join one that men have avoided joining, and to have and offer some fun while doing it; we also believe that the moment of the confessional (not to say confessing) male writer is upon us, and we aim to exploit that moment! As eager to exploit as we are, however, we will struggle oh so mightily to keep our memoirish entries as factually and emotionally true as our memories will allow (unlike so many writers and editors of “creative nonfiction” today). That’s a promise from us.

Brief Bios

Jamie Berger is in the process of acquiring his MFA in fiction at UMASS Amherst and has also been a monologuist, dancer, bartender, library drone, critic and journalist. He’s the founder of the now defunct Sportsgeekmagazine.com and the editor of the forthcoming Bo's Arts, an art book dedicated to the wonders of his dog Bo. A shrink once told him that confronting and writing about his lust versus his and his mother’s feminism was “his life’s work.” He’s written for, among others, the San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeneys.net, The Sun Magazine, The Chicago Reader, and West Coast Performer. His website can be found here.

Daniel Oppenheimer is a staff writer at the Valley Advocate , a former high school wrestling champion, and a graduate of the MFA writing program at Columbia University. He’s written for The Hartford Courant, Christian Century, the History News Network and TomPaine.com and has an essay about his hometown of Springfield, Mass. forthcoming in New England Watershed. He feels as if he’s written a great deal about masculinity, but most of it was in “On Wrestling,” his almost entirely unpublished Master’s Thesis. He’s definitely published essays on other interesting subjects, however, such as this, this, this and this.