Reactions to Madonna's "Sex"; Vanity Fair's Hot Ads; Danielle Willis at Climate Theatre; Mark I. Chester's Sexart Salons
I'm trying to resist, but I can't sit here putting a column together, not this week, without saying something about Madonna, about Madonna's book Sex (Madonna Sex as it says on the mylar wrapper).
Madonna Sex is an important book, don't let anyone tell you different. It's imaginative, adventuresome and aesthetic, as well as outrageous -- and it puts radical sexual fantasy up for discussion in mainstream America as never before. I'll get to talk about the book in detail in a review next week, but something has to be said right now about the response -- no, the reaction -- to this book in the media. It's all so damn predictable that I suppose I should be inured by now, but I am, once again, amazed to see how consistently stupid, blind, presumptuous, adolescent, and catty mass culture becomes when it has to deal with someone who wants to say something real about sex.
Anyone who wants to say something truthful and undiluted about sex is, by definition, unconventional. Anyone who wants to reveal something about who they really are sexually has to be willing to shock the sensibilities of all the people out there who never tell the truth about sex, to themselves or to anyone else. "Nice" people have a whole list of silly little codified ways they allow themselves (and each other and, if they had their way, the rest of us) to look at sex, to think about sex, to talk about sex. Locker room humor is allowed and encouraged, as are makeup room titillation, the National Enquirer, People magazine reports on the dalliances of celebrities, talk show masturbation (the under-the-table kind) about how BIZARRE and STRANGE and UNUSUAL and WEIRD some adorable-horrible-omigosh perverts are. Also allowed in post-sexual-revolution America is the sedate and sensible sexual advice of the likes of Dr. Ruth and Abby Van Buren, focused for the most part on how to avoid the many lurking DISASTERS that lie about two inches under the supposedly blinding glare of raw pleasure if and when we dare give our any-but-most-conventional sexual desires just a little bit of breathing room.
The message of accepted and acceptable sexual discourse is monotonous and monolithic: sex is fascinating and awful, compelling and dangerous, universal and bizarre. Please also check cross-references under disease, insanity, obsession, sin.
But every now and then somebody comes along with something to say about sex that cannot be easily strapped into these straitjackets of confusion and fear. Something that's disarmingly truthful and personal, human and real, straightforward and complex. Guess what, boys and girls: The truth about sex (anyone's truth about sex) is inherently shocking to people who are determined never to tell the truth about sex, never to know about anyone's sexual reality other than their own. It is indeed unusual and therefore shocking for someone to talk or write or create photo images about sex that are unapologetically strong and complex. It's shocking to walk into a brightly-lit room when you've been wandering around in the dark for your whole existence -- just take a look at the face of any baby being born.
What's more, the particular slants on sex of those writers and photographers whose particularly quirky/courageous personalities lead them to expose their sexual realities to the cold winds of public scrutiny often go beyond the limitations of conventional sexual discourse. We are not used to seeing the psychosexual stirrings of someone different from ourselves. And lord knows, when we get down into the inner workings of sexual desire, we turn out to be very unique and very different from each other indeed, universal themes notwithstanding.
So somebody -- in this case, Madonna -- comes along who talks about sex in a way that breaks the social codes, and the entirety of mass culture from the New York Times to USA Today, from PBS to Geraldo, spasms into shock.
It's like when all the aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins fall silent at Thanksgiving or Passover when Aunt Sadie arrives in a red dress, dragging along that no-good new husband of hers, the one who has her laughing all the time and acting like she's 25 again, a woman of her age! Well, ok, I suppose this is not news. And Madonna knows what she's going to be up against as surely as Aunt Sadie does. And Madonna, like Aunt Sadie, knows that as long as you're going to be vilified for being sexual, you may as well get off on being a renegade. I will wear the red dress to the family gathering if I want to. I will put the s/m photos in the book right up front, if that's where they belong.
But the final blow, the one that really gets me the most, is when the sex pundits, the good people turn it all around and want us to believe that it's Madonna's fault that they're shocked at her unapologetic sexuality. They want us to dismiss her, telling us that all she's doing is trying to shock us, you know, for the money, for the attention, for the disgusting rudeness of it all. "Just trying to press people's buttons," says Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. "In your face, raunchy, dirty, too much sex to make it erotic," says Suzan Bibisi of the Los Angeles Daily News. "Silly, pathetic, distasteful, offensive, rather dreary tripe," says Deirdre Donahue in USA Today. Even Pat Holt of the San Francisco Chronicle, the one reviewer to give Madonna even a little credibility, comes around to dismissing the book as "amateurish," "narcissistic," disrespectful of Linda Lovelace, and even environmentally unsound.
It's like when we say that gay men are flaunting their homosexuality, shoving themselves in our faces, when they have the nerve to kiss or hug or look lovingly into each other's eyes on a public street. Or when we condemn teenagers for shocking us good adults when they so "brazenly" act and dress and dance out the miracle of their blossoming sexuality -- what parents, teachers, and guidance counselors almost universally trivialize as "raging hormones." Or when we say that women are just asking for it (rape or sexual harassment) when they act, dress, walk, or talk in a way that celebrates that they are indeed real live sexual beings. Or when we whisper to each other how terrible it is that Aunt Sadie is always out to upset the entire family.
Whenever somebody says, "Here I am in all my sexual glory, here sex is with all its magnificent turmoil," the entire culture -- left, right, and center -- joins together to cast the blasphemer from the temple. It happened to D. H. Lawrence when he told his truth about sex. It happened to Henry Miller when he told his truth about sex. And it's happening now to Madonna as she tells us, more directly than ever before, her truth about sex.
I'm not asking anyone to agree with or to endorse Madonna's particular sexual hot spots. What sex is about for Madonna is likely to be quite different from what sex is about for me, or for you. What sex meant to Henry Miller, growing up in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn and knocking around the low-rent studios of pre-war Paris, was certainly different from what sex means to me, fifty years later. But there's something inspiring and very personally confirming whenever anyone tells their truth about sex, no matter how quirky or narcissistic or mother-driven or even misogynist that truth might be.
Because Henry Miller wrote about his wonderfully vibrant, vagabond, chaotic life, because he left the sex in when everyone else was carving it out, because he didn't make sex/life pretty or sensible or what we now call politically correct, because his writing eventually was published and even more eventually became available in this country, because through him the flower of sexual truth popped up one more time through one of the cracks in the concrete laid over the earth by the Grand Civilizers -- because of all this, this particular adolescing boy, trying to how to hold onto his sex/life spirit while drowning in the deathliness of 1958-America, got to trust a little more of what he was feeling -- in his body, in his heart, in his skin, in his cock -- even when everything and everyone around him was telling him he was crazy.
It's probably not an exaggeration to say that Henry Miller saved my life, back then. I went from Tropic of Cancer to Miller's letters to Lawrence Durrell, to anything autobiographical about Miller that I could find. This lusty, lively, exuberance-uber-alles man was my erotic inspiration, my hope, my evidence that it was possible to coalesce one's existence, one's identity, around the core life energy we so narrowly call "sex." And if Miller did this for me, he did it for thousands of others too, even as the other sexual writers and artists do it, one by one, even as Madonna is now doing it, not for a handful of people who find their way to obscure bookstores, but for the millions who pass through the large chain bookstores and watch MTV. Her particular message is different from Miller's or Lawrence's or Marco Vassi's or Susie Bright's or mine, but the more basic message is all the same: Sex is. Love it. Embrace it. Empower yourself with it. Don't let anyone take it away from you. Don't let anyone tell you it's not important.
Subversive? You bet. And Madonna doesn't have to spend 25 years in limbo, as Miller did before he become legal. The Most Famous Woman in the World is in a position to be a sexual revolutionary and be mainstream. Smart, female, sexual, savvy, and beyond Their control. Maybe there's going to be a New World Order after all....
Vanity Fair's Hot Ads
Trying to keep up to date on Madonna before the mylar hit the shelves, I had my eyes opened to Vanity Fair. I think I've been cloistered away writing for too long. Who needs porn magazines when Vanity Fair's got Helmut Newton and Calvin Klein? A beautiful young woman sitting provocatively on her aging father's lap with her crotch exposed, while her near-naked mother watches, spread-eagled against the window? Move over Robert Mapplethorpe....
Danielle Willis at Climate Theatre
Those of us who have the good fortune or the good sense to live in the Bay Area should thank our lucky stars at least once a week because we happen to have around us the most vibrant culture of sex-related art -- photography, theatre, painting, literature, you name it -- anywhere in the country, probably anywhere in the world. This is beyond an individual here, an event there -- this is a culture, a pan-sexual subculture (which is what brought The Rev. Larry Lea to town to purge the heretics, whores, and hobgoblins a couple of Halloweens ago).
I had the pleasure of going to see Danielle Willis's one-woman show at Climate Theatre, "Breakfast in the Flesh District," part of the Solo Mio Festival. "Breakfast in the Flesh District" is a collection of Danielle's provocative writing, well organized, choreographed, and directed by Cintra Wilson. Danielle's poems, prosepoems, and stories are unexpurgated, in your face, life and life only, ain't it amazingwonderful -horrible-funny-sad-exhilarating-depressing, ain't it most of all the TRUTH though. There are rants and rants, most of which I frankly find indulgent and boring, but there's something about Danielle's wit and intelligence that makes her a pleasure to listen to and, in this particular incarnation, a pleasure to watch as well. And she should bust up, once and for all, the notion that sex workers are nothing but mindless, pathetic, desperate lost souls. Her show has been extended indefinitely as the Friday/Saturday night late show at Climate (415-626-9196), so see her while you can.
Mark I. Chester's Sexart Salons
Art gatherings of a more specifically sexual nature have been happening with some regularity over the past year, thanks to the unflagging efforts of Mark I. Chester. Mark has put together an increasingly amazing series of "SEXART Salons" that have grown from a small, informal gathering in his home last February to become regular events around town with a growing and very devoted following.
The salons began as opportunities for writers, dancers, visual and performance artists to "explore the wide range and diversity of sexual art. We are bringing together sexually explicit materials that deal with sex, sexuality, and eroticism in a direct yet sex-positive manner. Evenings may include readings of prose, poetry, theater, performance art, slide shows of sexual art, and anything else that hits the crossroads of sex, art, and theater."
Initially the only way to attend a salon was to perform something yourself, but soon participants were encouraged rather than required to contribute publicly to the gathering. The initial open-stage format of the salons produced a series of unpredictable, sometimes magnificent, sometimes ludicrous, sometimes confusing, sometimes polished, sometimes amateur, always honest, always personal, always surprising series of afternoons and evenings. The salons have featured people who are well known around town (Pat Califia, Carol Queen, Jack Davis, Lily Braindrop, Joseph Bean, Frank Moore, Rainbeau, Ruven Hannah, Greta Christina) as well as people who are less well known or even entirely new to public performance. There have been readings of poems and short stories, spoken remembrances, improvisational dances, presentations of portfolios of photographs and drawings, demonstration whippings, ritual cuttings, on-stage phone sex and much, much more.
Mark has a wonderfully inviting, enabling, encouraging presence as the emcee of the salons, creating permission for even the most shy to offer their creations to what has been a uniformly appreciative and generously accepting audience. The emphasis is on imagination and personal honesty rather than polished professionalism, although much of the material that has been performed at the salons would hold its own in any theatre or magazine, if sex itself were not such a taboo subject. The Salons are most significant, I think, because they provide a forum -- dare I say an institution -- that encourages rather than exiles specifically sexual creative work. And the bringing together of people from a broad spectrum of Bay Area sexual subcultures into a mixed-gender, mixedpreference, mixed-medium stew is significant in itself. We are truly blessed to have this on-going forum for sexual art, both as performers and as audience. The next SEXART Salon will be on Sunday, December 6th, at Eichelberger's Restaurant, 2742 17th Street, San Francisco. Doors open at 2:30, the salon starts at 3:00, and there is a buffet dinner from 5:00-6:00. Cost is $10, including the dinner. Reservations are advised. For reservations or more information, call Mark Chester at (415) 544-1136.