Three Collisions between Sexual Sanity and Sexual Fear: The Serious and Not-So-Serious Tales of Ron Raffaelli, Martin Keogh and Michael Rosen
The Strange Case of Ron Raffaelli
Photographer Ron Raffaelli, whose joyful, celebratory imagery has been on the cutting edge of sexual photography for over twenty years, has been arrested in Kern County, California, and charged, of all things, with sale and distribution of child pornography.
Perhaps you have run into Raffaelli's photography somewhere in your erotic/sexual wanderings. He is probably best known for one of his books, Rapture -- a delightful collection of 13 fantasy-based photo essays, originally published in 1975 by Grove Press, which has sold over 500,000 copies in ten printings and three or four separate editions. In addition to Rapture, there are three more obscure books of Raffaelli's work -- Desire, Temptations, and Passion -- all sadly out of print. I was delighted to be able to include 23 of his photos in Erotic by Nature, and several of his photo essays appeared in the early issues of Puritan (when Puritan could still be called an innovative magazine). At one time, he also directed dozens of sexually explicit films, known for their craft and honesty. A more recent Raffaelli project has been the production of a series of 3-D erotic slides -- currently available though hard to find. (For a brochure, send $3 to Raffaelli Studios, 190 W. Kern Street, Dept. SP, McFarland, CA 93250).
In the 1970s, when porn photographers were cropping up everywhere, Raffaelli's films and still photography were unique for their artfulness and for the genuine warmth and playfulness of the sex he liked to put on film. This was during the neolithic age of porn, long before the likes of Nina Hartley and Richard Pacheco, when porn sex took place almost exclusively between obviously bored or ridiculously exaggerating strangers, struggling to maintain erections and straight faces while trying to give the impression of being blown away by the hottest sex ever experienced in the history of the planet.
In contrast with the other pornographers of the time, Raffaelli was a man who truly cared about sex, whose work had more purpose than simply making him some money. Raffaelli had a mission of a sort: to help people get beyond some of their negative conditioning about sex and recapture some the innocence and vitality of the natural sexual urge before it gets polluted by puritanical moralism.
Thus, in the preface to Desire, Raffaelli quotes Walt Whitman:
"Sex contains all, bodies, souls, meanings, proofs, purities, delicacies, results, promulgations, songs, commands, health, pride..., all hopes, benefactions, bestowals, all the passions, loves, beauties, delights of the earth, these are contain'd in sex as parts of itself and justifications of itself. Without shame the man I like knows and avows the deliciousness of his sex. Without shame the woman I like knows and avows hers."
In Passion he says: "I want to show my subjects as having a child-like attitude about their sexuality, in which they experiment and tease and play with each other, and not one person using the other for sexual gratification."
In Erotic by Nature, he explains that the role of the erotic artist must be more than simply to entertain: "I must strike an innocent, longsilent chord in the viewer's imagination -- that part of us which unabashedly plays with our sexuality, experiments, laughs at our awkwardness, and celebrates every sensuous success."
Raffaelli's work was always a little out of place in the world of commercial pornography. Porn publishers and distributors tended to see it as having too much art and not enough raunch for an audience they presumed to be composed entirely of desperate losers. Nevertheless, Raffaelli remained determined to show real, joyful, even loving sex, paying attention to emotional realities that were simply ignored by other directors.
"I would always take the couple out to lunch before a shoot," Raffaelli explained to me when I first met him in 1985. "I wanted to see how they got along. If they didn't hit it off, if they didn't like each other, I would make some excuse, pay each of them a kill fee, and cancel the shoot. I might use him another time, I might use her another time, but I wasn't going to use them together."
Seems obvious enough. Why film sex between two people who don't want to be sexual with each other? If all porn directors shared Raffaelli's sensibilities, who knows where pornography would be today? But that's another story. The reality of porn photography was usually closer to what Richard Pacheco once described to me as typical stage direction on a porn set: "You, bend over. You, fuck her."
On the morning of January 21st, 15 police officers showed up with a search warrant at Raffaelli's home and studio -- a converted movie theatre in a smaller than small town north of Bakersfield, where Raffaelli had moved to get away from the craziness of L.A. The sheriff had been given a tip (by someone whom Raffaelli describes as a psychopathic ex-mental patient) that Raffaelli was cultivating marijuana there. The police didn't find any marijuana cultivation, but in the search process they couldn't help but stumble into Raffaelli's massive archive of tens of thousands of sexual photographs, the accumulation of over twenty years' work. For eleven hours, Raffaelli says, the police turned his place upside down, dumping and kicking photos everywhere, creating such a mess that it took him three weeks to put his studio back together again.
Among the limitless numbers of photos, the deputies found one set of non-sexual photos, taken in the early 70s, of a young boy (maybe 11 years old) and a young woman (maybe 25) lying nude together, laughing, hugging, kissing, and playing. The cops were convinced that they had discovered one of those nastiest of all nasties, a dedicated child pornographer. (Remember when the San Francisco police and the Northern California anti-child pornography unit thought the same thing about Jock Sturges?)
The story behind these particular photos, Raffaelli is anxious to explain, was not sexual at all. Seems this boy had become something of a problem to his family and friends, taken to things like touching women's bodies furtively and trying to catch peeks of them naked in the bathroom. His parents decided that what he needed was some way to satisfy his curiosity about women's bodies without making a nuisance of himself.
A woman friend offered to get nude with the boy in an easy-going way, talk to him about her body and his, let him check out her body without being creepy about it, in the spirit of honoring the blooming curiosity of emerging adolescence. We're talking California counterculture here, vintage 1973.
The boy and the woman got together, laughed and talked and touched. Raffaelli photographed the whole thing in what he saw as a documentation of model, guilt-free, anti-repressive sex education. To this day, Raffaelli is amazed that these photos are seen as controversial. (The boy, Raffaelli swears, was transformed by the experience from a rebellious problem child to a "perfect gentleman," respectful of women to the point of reverence, taken to holding doors for them with great chivalry.)
As Raffaelli knows quite well, however, it is a long way from sexpositive innocence to the contortions of public policy and imposed morality. In 1994, any photos showing children nude are controversial, to say the least, not to mention photos of children and adults being nude together, not to mention nude children and adults being together and actually touching each other, innocence be damned.
Raffaelli has already been through one long legal uproar over these photos, in Los Angeles in 1979. Having found these photos in a similar search of his studio, Los Angeles prosecutors spent months searching for evidence that would expose Raffaelli as a child pornographer. When, after a year of stalling, all they could produce in court was this one set of photos, the judge promptly dismissed the case. Still, as Raffaelli remembers ruefully, the experience cost him three years of anguish and Valium, not to mention $12,000 in legal fees.
While Raffaelli sees the L.A. case as politically motivated, he sees his current run-in as being motivated by "pure stupidity and the selfrighteous outrage of pious moralists that someone dared to photograph children nude, someone who must be damned to hell, so we, as God's representatives, get to go after the son of a bitch."
When the sheriff realized that he couldn't charge Raffaelli with child pornography for having taken the pictures (double jeopardy after his L.A. acquittal, and well beyond the statute of limitations anyway), he charged Raffaelli instead with sale and distribution.
The claim was that Raffaelli had been uploading the images onto some kind of child pornography computer bulletin board. The fact that Raffaelli doesn't so much as own a modem, and that his 14-year-old Apple II Plus computer is completely incapable of the high resolution required for such an operation, was considered irrelevant. As Raffaelli puts it, "I'm being accused of racing my Model T Ford in the Indianapolis 500." Pleas to the sheriff's office to bring in experts to explain the limited capacity of an Apple Plus fell on deaf ears. "It's a case," says Raffaelli, "of people saying, 'My mind's made up; don't confuse me with the facts.'"
Raffaelli's computer was seized, along with all of his software. Raffaelli himself was held in "protective custody" for five days, until a friend was able to come up with $15,000 bail. He was transported 30 miles from jail to court in 34x weather, dressed only in pajamas, in a bus with no windows. By the time he got to court, Raffaelli (who turned 50 last September and has a health condition that makes him particularly sensitive to cold) says he was in hypothermic shock, shaking so badly that he couldn't even testify. Even then, only after his lawyer threatened to bring suit for prisoner maltreatment was he given so much as a jacket.
Even though Raffaelli was freed after five days, the police continued to hold his computer and computer-related material for an additional six weeks, until he finally won their release March 10th. His case goes back to court in Delano April 8th, when his attorney, Nancy Blanton, will file a motion to have the search warrant declared invalid. (According to Raffaelli, after the original tip, his studio was placed under infrared surveillance, looking for the distinct heat emissions that would be given off by grow lamps used to cultivate marijuana plants indoors. Lo and behold, there was no unusual heat. A check of Raffaelli's electric bill, likewise revealed no unusual power consumption. Given this information, Raffaelli says, the word of one psychopath was not the "reasonable cause" legally required for a valid search warrant to be issued.)
Whether the search warrant is nullified or not, Raffaelli is sure that his case will be dismissed, in the absence of "even a shred of evidence." But he's afraid that he will at first be convicted by the Delano "good-old-boys network," which means he will have to file an appeal, which could cost him something like $10,000 in legal fees. Nice country we live in....
Sex, Intimacy, and Culture Talk Too Much for UC Berkeley?
Closer to home, men's movement workshop organizer Martin Keogh has stumbled into his own lesson on how sticky simple things can get when they touch on the forbidden territory of sex.
For the past several years, Martin's enterprise, The Dancing Ground, has been the principal Bay Area producer of lectures and workshops of the rapidly burgeoning mythopoetic men's movement. When people like Robert Bly, or Michael Meade, or James Hillman come to this part of the world, it's usually Martin making it happen. In addition to evening and daylong events, Martin has also organized such extended gatherings as the annual Mendocino Men's Conference, and taught at Robert Bly's annual Conference on the Great Mother and the New Father.
Most recently, Martin has been organizing an exciting series of three evening and two day-long events, under the title, "Sex, Intimacy, and Culture." The series combines the innovative psychological perspectives of such freethinkers as James Hillman and Malidoma Some' with a specific focus on issues of sex, culture, and relationship. In addition to Hillman and Some' , the series features such well-known presenters as Susie Bright, Paul Krassner and Annie Sprinkle, as well as members of the Spectator family like Pat Califia, Carol Queen, and myself.
Personally, I was delighted to encourage Martin to bring together the "soulmaking" work of people like Hillman with the sexual focus of many of the other speakers. The so-called mythopoetic men's movement has done some remarkable thinking around issues of gender, but has been surprisingly reluctant to address sex (or homophobia) as an important issues in its own right. Conversely, to my mind the community of sexual explorers and thinkers often lacks some of the broad perspective that I have encountered and found provocative in the men's work.
I know Martin to be both a man of true heart and an organizer skilled in the nuts and bolts of publicity, logistics, and media smarts. While somewhat nervous about taking on the controversy that follows sexual discussion everywhere, he is also clearly excited to be moving into new circles of thinkers and into a new arena for his work.
As the logistical organizing took shape, Martin was delighted to obtain sponsorship for the series from the Beatrice M. Bain Research Group on Women and Gender and the Department of Women's Studies, both at UC Berkeley. Through them he was also able to get use of UC Berkeley's Wheeler Hall for the five events. Or so he thought.
Just a few weeks before the series begins (the first event is April 30th), and well after Martin has been encouraged to go ahead with over $10,000 of publicity for the events (42,000 brochures have been printed and have already been distributed throughout the wider Bay Area), the University has suddenly turned around and refused to allow the events to take place on campus. The reasons for this decision remain unclear, but when basic contractual decisions on a lecture series, decisions ordinarily made by the Business Office, are kicked upstairs to the Office of the Provost, one begins to smell the familiar odor of fear of sexual controversy.
Understand that the Sex, Intimacy, and Culture series is not about garish titillation. What makes the series so exciting is that it is bringing together some wonderfully insightful people to talk about some distinctly complex issues in sex cultural development. Jungian psychotherapist James Hillman is going to talk about such issues as "Why Does Aphrodite Drive Us Crazy with Pornography?;" West African sociologists Malidoma and Sobonfu Some' are going to talk about how in their culture sex is linked to the realm of the sacred; Pat Califia, Annie Sprinkle, Joseph Kramer and I are going to look at desire, fantasy, mystery, and transcendence; and Carol Queen is going to provide a context for people to talk honestly about their sexual histories.
Have we gotten to the point that the mere discussion of sex, no matter how intelligent, is too controversial to take place at a state-supported institution of higher learning? Makes my last column on antisexualism seem almost, well, prophetic....
Martin is moving forward undaunted, arranging new sites for the events. At this point, most, if not all, of the events will be at Berkeley's Julia Morgan Theatre. It's a logistical nightmare for Martin, but people who have brochures or see posters need not worry -- the Cal Performances box office has agreed to process all mail and phone ticket orders even though the presentations are being moved off-campus. (For information on the series, you can call Martin at (510) 236-2030.)
Completing a Trilogy via Michael Rosen
Sometimes antisexualism can be an outrage, sometimes a curiosity, sometimes just an amusement. Maybe it just depends on how close you are to what's coming down.
Michael Rosen called the other day, chuckling about a letter he had received from one P.W. Keohane, the warden of the federal prison at Lompoc. Seems a prisoner from Lompoc ordered copies of Michael's two books of photography, Sexual Magic and Sexual Portraits. Seems, too, that Warden Keohane is afraid that the presence of Michael's photographs inside the walls of Lompoc Prison would, in the good warden's words, "pose a threat to the orderly running and discipline of this institution."
Ah, the power of the pen (or, in this case, the camera)! According to Keohane, "every page [!] of both publications depict [sic] various types of bondage and/or sexual acts prohibited in this institution." Think about that: bondage being prohibited in prison. Now, that's what I call surreal! On the other hand, if schoolchildren are being taught the difference between good touch and bad touch, I suppose it's only one step further down the road to teach prisoners the difference between good bondage (what the state does to people as punishment) and bad bondage (what people do to each other for pleasure).
In any case, pursuant to Program Statement 5266.5, whatever that might be, the books are on their way back to Michael, the prisoners at Lompoc will have to conjure up their own images of bondage, order and discipline have been affirmed yet again, and (presumably) the potential of a Michael-Rosen-inspired Attica-at-Lompoc has been averted.
Good night, America. Sleep tight.
Spectator, April 1, 1994
Copyright © 1994 David Steinberg
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