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Comes Naturally #20

Comes Naturally issues: 1-25 / 26-50 / 51-75 / 76-100 / 101-125 / 126-150 / 151-175

Raffaelli Goes to Court; The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber; Changes at Future Sex

Raffaelli Update

The strange case of Ron Raffaelli, who was charged in Delano with sale and distribution of child pornography (see Comes Naturally, April 1), has begun to wend its way through the court system.

Raffaelli went to court April 8th. The good news was that the District Attorney had decided to drop the sale and distribution charge. The bad news was that he had decided to charge him instead with the lesser charge of possession of child pornography.

As I explained in my last column, Raffaelli had been initially charged with uploading pornographic images of children to computer bulletin boards that supposedly market kiddy porn images. This even though he didn't so much as own a modem, and his antique Apple Plus computer lacked anything near the sophistication needed for such an operation.

Apparently the prosecutors have realized that their initial charge was ludicrous, but still want to get Raffaelli for the crime of having taken photos of naked children. Raffaelli says quite directly that he has "lots" of photos of naked children, taken on several occasions during the countercultural explosion of the 1970s. In California, by the way, child pornography is legally defined as photos of nude children that have the specific purpose of sexually stimulating the viewer.

Raffaelli remains free on $15,000 bail. He goes back to court to be reindicted on April 21st. His attorney still hopes to get the charges against Raffaelli dismissed by challenging the search warrant as unconstitutionally broad and based on insufficient cause. Sheriff's deputies searched Raffaelli's home and studio on January 21st, based on a tip that he was growing marijuana. In the process, they found his 20- year archive of thousands of erotic and sexual photographs. They also found the (non-sexual) photos of children.

Maybe the (im)moral here goes something like this: if you're a "pornographer" (i.e., a sex photographer), you shouldn't spend any time with or near children, certainly not photograph them with their clothes off. Raffaelli has already been through the legal maze once on this issue, in Los Angeles during the 70s. Seems the L.A. cops had put his studio under surveillance because of his increasing acclaim as the best of the 70s pornsters. They noticed, of all things, families with children coming and going from the place. What could this mean? the boys from L.A. Blue asked themselves. Could it mean Ron Raffaelli was a man who had friends and acquaintances who had children, who felt there was no reason they should leave their kids at the door when they visited his studio? Nah. Sex photo studio = sleaze. Sleaze + children = major sleaze. Major sleaze = moral outrage, not to mention political opportunity.

So they got themselves a search warrant and raided his studio, finding nothing but the very set of photos that the cops in Delano found this January. They then spent a year searching for evidence of Raffaelli as child pornographer, finding nothing more. After many delays, the judge in the case finally lost patience and threw the case out of court.

Telling sex photographers they're not allowed to have normal-type interactions with kids (without risking years in court, legal expenses, and major anxiety) is like telling prostitutes that they can't have normal-type relationships with their boyfriends (or girlfriends). They can't, you know, not without legal complications. "Living off the proceeds of prostitution" is, after all, the legal definition of pimping, so anyone who goes to school, or paints, or finishes their first novel, while their partner pays the couple's bills by working as a prostitute can be arrested as a pimp. And that's even in countries where prostitution -- but usually not pimping -- is legal.

Even living with a prostitute, temporarily or permanently, without paying rent, can be called pimping -- free rent being a form of support. And this is not just a question of splitting theoretical hairs -- people really do get busted for stuff like this. One more difficulty in being a sex worker and trying to have a normal life. (For more on these sorts of issues, check out Gail Pheterson's eye-opening report of the Second World Whores' Congress, A Vindication of the Rights of Whores, Seal Press, 1989, $16.95.)

Sexart Goes Uptown -- or Does It?

The write-up in the Chronicle Datebook by Jesse Hamlin, got my attention. "If depravity, decadence, German Expressionism and just plain erotic fun excite your little gray cells, you may like The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber, an homage to the notorious Weimar-era naked dancer," he wrote. German Expressionism really isn't my thing, thank you just the same, but three out of four isn't bad, so I decided to check the show out. Besides, I was curious that the show was at Bimbo's, a relatively upscale milieu for sex culture, and being sponsored by the widely respected Goethe Institut. Linda Serbu's So You Wanna Be a Stripper was a breakthrough in honesty about what the world of lap dancing is all about. Danielle Willis's Breakfast in the Flesh District was equally provocative and mythshattering, as well as being brilliantly written and effectively staged. But these were South of Market shows in South of Market venues. Bimbo's? I had to go see.

The show itself, while elaborately and imaginatively produced, left me somewhat confused. It claims to be a celebration of Berber's provocative perversity, but most of the time it was more gossipy than celebratory. Master of Ceremonies Peter Stack asked the audience again and again to fairly rub its hands together at just how depraved and bizarre Berber had been. She showed up in public dressed only in a fur coat and jewelry, with her pet chimpanzee around her neck. She was addicted to cocaine, morphine, and alcohol. Her husband, inspirer, and nemesis was such a thief that both he and Berber were banished from Austria. She died, unromantically, of tuberculosis at 29.

Her life was, as the show emphasizes, a descent from high fashion, high society, and ballet, to death in the gutter. All of which we, the audience, are exhorted to applaud for some reason, in an evening that takes on the feel of a strange amalgam of the sexual decadence of postwar Berlin and implied sexual decadence of San Francisco in the 90s.

But the analogy between the current sexual explosion in San Francisco and Weimar Germany is a superficial and uncomfortable one. Germany in the 1920s, after all, was setting the stage for the rise of Hitler. I truly believe that what's happening here now represents quite a different phenomenon in sex cultural evolution.

Was Anita Berber a 1920s sexual revolutionary, using her upper-class standing to tweak bourgeois society on its anti-sexual biases? Or was she one more confused rich girl pursuing cheap thrills blindly via sex and drugs, until the emptiness of her pleasure search caught up with her, emotionally and physically? The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber doesn't seem sure, and from the information it presents about her life, we end up unsure as well.

Apparently Anita Berber had the courage to leave the rarified world of ballet and to try to bring some serious choreography to the underworld of nude dancing. Was this because she was committed to expressing herself sexually through her dance, or because she couldn't make it in classical ballet? Was her nude dancing artistic and erotic, or just rebellious? We don't know. If Anita Berber had something to say about sex, about pleasure, about decadence, I for one want to hear it. If all she had to say was shoot me up and fuck me, why make all the fuss about telling the world who she was?

As always, it's a thin line that separates true celebration of sex -- whether it's sexual practice, sexual performance, or sexual art -- from the kind of smarmy fascination with sex-as-bizarre-depravity that really derives from fear of sex. The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber swaggers back and forth across this line so obliviously that I found myself dizzy from all the zigging and zagging.

On the one hand there's narrator Peter Stack, lacing every line with hyperbolic inflection, and fairly begging us to fawn over his exaggerated stance of titillating mischievousness -- a stance wants to pass off as something darker, as if he's being truly evil. He describes Anita Berber as "the Michael Jackson of her time," as "Marilyn Monroe with the brain of Norman Mailer," as if he's letting us in on some profound secret filled with inner meaning. The Michael Jackson of her time? Maybe if Anita Berber was the William Burroughs of her time, it would be something to crow about. But Michael Jackson? What can we do with that but puff on our long cigarette holders, look at each other meaningfully with raised eyebrows, and marvel at the scandal of it all? Please.

On the other hand, the show is truly blessed with the deeply moving, imaginative, and deliciously sexual choreography of Marni Thomas, brought to sexual life beautifully by Jennifer Pieren ("Dancer Anita Berber") and Sheila Marie Gordon ("Poetic Anita Berber"). Pieren successfully takes the more traditional sexual dancing she customarily performs at the New Century Theatre beyond the stylized confines of that venue, showing how truly powerful and arousing sexually erotic dance can be when graced with a combination of imagination and real sexual heat. Gordon is equally powerful in a somewhat different medium, reciting Berber's dreamy, lunatic poetry while snaking her arms and half-naked torso in slow, sexy, sensual gestures that visually complement the words, allowing text and movement to build on each other and create a mystical world of delicious sexual charge.

If only the dance and poetry pieces could have been taken out of the vaudeville background, given center stage, and left alone to build their magic without the "aren't-we-naughty" interruptions! If Pieren, Gordon and Thomas collaborate on a show of erotic performance sometime in the future, we might well have something really beautiful and wonderful to witness.

When I was there, aside from the show on stage, there was the metashow of the audience, fascinating in its own right. It seemed as if all of hip San Francisco had turned out for the opening night of this four-show run, transcending the Bay Area's self-defined sex community to include sex-positive wannabes of all types and stripes. A semi-nude dancer in the entranceway moved provocatively to the music of a hurdy-gurdy. Dozens of young beauties in high fashion short skirts smoking Marlboro Golds in boxes and looking too cool for words. Upscale writers and artists with carefully trimmed beards looking into each others' eyes and talking with exaggerated gestures about very serious subjects. Men's faces that were at once excited and cool, expectant and a little guilty, unsure whether this was a sex show or not, and whether it was ok to want it to be. People from the German Embassy, slumming a little, perhaps, pretending that they were there for the Germanics, not the nudity. Anita Berber Cocktails (brandy and vermouth, I was told) recommended from the bar. Not a spare seat in the place. The air saturated with cigarette smoke and the humid expectation of unpredictable delights.

Sex sells, they say. Certainly in this town, sex culture sells -- to a public that is decidedly sex-curious, if not necessarily sex-dedicated. It seems that there are lots of people who want to check out anything that tries to combine sex and art, or sex and theatre -- whether it's a naughty show about Weimar Germany, a one-woman show about lap dancing, Mark Chester's Sexart salons, or a collection of writers of erotic fiction reading their stories from Susie Bright's Best American Erotica of 1993.

Personally, I want to encourage more sexart of all forms, even if I don't agree with the take of every piece. Whatever The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber lacked in vision, it made up for in festivity and imaginative production. And, if there was any doubt, the enthusiastic response and turnout should encourage whoever might want to take the next shot at producing a piece of erotic entertainment -- uptown, downtown, or anywhere in between.

Change of the Guard at Future Sex

For those who keep track of such things, Lisa Palac has resigned as editor of Future Sex magazine, turning the helm of this yet-embryonic new sex pub over to Lily Burana, aka Lily Braindrop. After two years at Future Sex, Lisa has decided that it's time to move on to other sex media, namely CD's and books.

Cyborgasm, the innovative erotic CD Palac produced with audio engineer Ron Gompertz, has been discovered by the moguls of Time-Warner Audio Books, and is about to hit book, record, and video stores around the country with a first TWAB pressing of 35,000 copies. What's more, TimeWarner has contracted with Palac and Gompertz for them to produce Cyborgasm 2 and Cyborgasm 3, so Palac seems to be undisputed queen of the world of audio turn-ons.

Perhaps this is because all the top execs at TWAB seem to be women these days and, let's face it, when it comes to mass culture erotica, women have taken the lead. Susie Bright's Best American Erotica of 1993 is up there on the best seller list every week, and books like hers have made (women-edited) erotic fiction the hottest new thing in publishing.

Lisa says she's had no problems with Time-Warner about the content of Cyborgasm, even with the decidedly controversial "Daddy's Girl" cut, with Spectator publisher Kat Sunlove's "Absolute Sadist," and with Susie Bright's deliciously twisted "Circus Whore." Looks like for the moment anyway there's a period of partial clearing in the world of erotic materials. It will be interesting to see how the Donald Wildmon's respond to audio erotica, somewhere between printed words and pictures in their impact, once they catch on to what's going down.

New Future Sex editor Lily Burana says she would like to broaden the magazine's focus, emphasizing technological developments in sexual possibility, but also focusing on passion, tolerance, and sexual diversity. She would like to see the magazine become more sexually explicit, include more male nudity, more couples, more people who are attractive in unconventional ways ("Why don't porn magazines ever have men with long hair?"), and photographs that are "genuinely hot" rather than carefully posed. She also wants to include more "how to" information that can help readers broaden their sexual worlds, starting with a bondage tutorial that, she says, will go beyond theory to definite hands-on information.

"I want to encourage readers to try something new, sexually, and in real time," says Ms. Lily. "I want to help readers get back into the sexuality of the body, despite AIDS, despite all the sexual fear that's going around."

Is the future of sex technological rather than physical? If that's the message Future Sex imparts, Burana says she will consider the magazine a failure. "People say the biggest sex organ is the mind," she laughs, "but I don't see anyone masturbating by sticking their fingers in their ears."

Future Sex which has a circulation of about 48,000 -- mostly on the West Coast -- hopes to expand to full national distribution in the months ahead. Taste of Latex, the cutting edge sex journal providing "entertainment for the sexually disenfranchised that Burana previously edited, will continue, although the new editor has yet to be chosen.

Spectator, April 19, 1994

Copyright © 1994 David Steinberg

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