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#TheSexRadicals, Part 6: Vladimir Solovyov and the Virtue of Lust

26 Aug
Vladimir Solovyov

Vladimir Solovyov

Each week this summer, I’ll be posting short essays on sexual thinkers (read the introduction to the series here) who have changed my perspective on sex, and who, I believe, could be instrumental in helping us remake Western sexual culture. It will include some bits about my own life, some history, and some controversial claims. Last week was a how-to on fighting shame with sex worker Amber Hollibuagh, and Edward Carpenter, progenitor of the queer movement.  The series also appears on RealitySandwich.com.

Lust Is the Teacher: Vladimir Solovyov’s Sexual Love

“There is only one power which can from within undermine egoism at the root, and really does undermine it, namely love, and chiefly sexual love…”

– Vladimir Solovyov (1853 – 1900)

First, I’ll tell you about a sweaty teenage summer by the beach. Eventually, this trip will lead me, and us, improbable as it sounds, to Russian mystic Vladimir Solovyov and his deep understanding of the body, of relationship, and of love. 

Stay with me in summer; we’ll get there.

I was thirteen or fourteen the first time I looked at a man, really looked at a man**. This was in Ocean City, Maryland. I’d like to tell you who I was then, but I have this strange feeling that I was not anybody.  I remember that I wore black t-shirts and listened to angry music. I remember that I’d been inspired to let my hair get a little longer in the front, and to write stories. The stories were violent, everything was violent. I liked to fight with my stepfather and my mom. They were taking my sister and I, along with my older stepbrother and his friend David, on a vacation.

I wanted to be independent, so I’d walk to the beach and on the boardwalk by myself. That summer, I watched girls and their boyfriends buy clumsy, oversized t-shirts and make out and play volleyball. I felt an envy for those girls, but didn’t understand.

I’d had brief and purely curious sexual experiences with other boys and girls my age at this point – but there was no understanding of the other person’s role. It could have been anyone or even object involved.  The person didn’t matter, as every morning I’d push myself into my mattress and consider the strange, warm feeling.

Waves up my chest and in my spine, a chill when I’d cum, a peaceful feeling afterward.

These were pieces of a great, weighty understanding. But they were awaiting some sort of permission to come together.

I walked from the apartment my sister, mother, stepfather and I were staying in over to my stepbrother’s and David’s place.

They were always welcoming and they seemed to me to be eternally happy, but they were probably drunk. The refrigerator hadshowerglassblog beer in it, there was beer on the kitchen counter, there were empty beer bottles in the garbage can, on the couch. It was one in the afternoon.  My stepbrother was in the bedroom. David was in his bathing suit, and announced that he was going to take a shower. His pecs were thick and quietly covered in sun-lightened hairs. He was tall and had a handsome smile, though I hadn’t yet really noticed all of that. No one was gay or straight because those ideas could not yet exist for me.

Before you think: They fucked me – They didn’t. Nobody touched anyone.

I sat on the couch, and after a moment, David called to me from the bathroom.

He said, “get me a towel.”

I picked up a towel, which was still wet from the beach. It was heavy in my hand, opposing with the slowness of its weight, my racing heart, which felt as if it were sparking, starting some sort of light.

When I opened the bathroom door, there must have been the sound of the shower and he must have said thank you and I must have put the towel somewhere like on the sink or over the side of the shower door but I can’t remember any of that. All I know is that I saw, through the frosted shower door glass, his form. I looked right at him. He wasn’t distinctly visible, the occluding glass stopped him from appearing, but he was there entirely. I looked at him. I saw his form, the color of his skin, his legs, what must have been his arms, his ass. There were no clear lines, there were shapes and color. I looked at him, and saw what was there. I felt inside of me something entirely new, the coalition of light and sound and this…feeling.

No time had lapsed, but it had seemed to me there wasn’t much to my life before that moment. I walked out and more than I had wanted a brother, more than I had wanted anything, I wanted to be pressed against that frosted glass from the other side and feel his form and weight behind me, under the hot water, and then I’d be kissing him or on my knees sucking his dick.

I have no idea about the rest of the trip.

After that moment, I began to think when I masturbated, and to imagine.  Instead of just the physical motion of jerking off, images began to appear in my head. My body had seized that minute in the bathroom, on the other side of glass, and imprinted it on me, changing me. There was new meaning to everything: suddenly, the world was full of men, and I’d look at them when I closed my eyes.  I’d look at them and remember them and they all became brothers, they all loved me. I’d imagine them touching me and make up stories for why. Before then, I’d only had this body which would sometimes evince a different sensation if I touched it in a certain way. But after that moment with David and the frosted shower door glass, the world became different: a world where the memories of men I looked at are seen by the way my body feels.

This is how we know the mind and body are in love. One creates a story, the other feels it.

Decades later, I encountered the work of Russian mystic, philosopher, and poet, Vladimir Solovyov.  His view of desire and what he called “sexual love” expressed this awakening in me, in words set down over a century and a half earlier.

Solovyov was born in Moscow in 1853, the direct and also distant descendant of intellectuals.  When he was just nine years old, he writes, he encountered the Holy Spirit (or Sophia, as Solovyov and Western Esotericists refer to Her).  Touched by this vision in church, where the walls fell away and only a single, glowing figure stood before him, radiating benevolence, Solovyov felt a flush of total love.

Instantly, golden azure filled the room,

And she shone before me once again —

But just Her face — Her face.

At that instant lasting bliss was born in me!

Once more my soul went blind to mundane matters.

A flush of radiant love, surging forth and then pulling away like an ending dream, or water turning back on itself at the shore: this is the image of Solovyov’s entire philosophy.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Vladimir Solvyov was a precocious student, and quickly grew to be a respected philosopher.  He took his work seriously, but not himself, casting self-deprecating humor over even his most profound experiences.  His intelligence and good nature caught on with the public.  By the time he was in his early twenties, he was publishing work, giving well-attended lectures, and was friends with Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Among his theorizing about the nature of knowledge and matter is a short and stunning book, The Meaning of Love.  Here, Solovyov writes about the primacy of love, and in particular, sexual love.

When the few people who write about Solovyov’s write about Solvyov, they tend to go to lengths to separate what he “really” meant by sexual love from what we’d think of as sexual love today.  Basically, they say, Solvyov doesn’t mean fucking; not the act of sex.  Instead, they tell us, he means the powerful attraction between two people of opposite sex. Well, okay, they’re the scholars; but it’s an odd gesture, since Solovyov’s work is so deeply suggestive of the sex act, of arousal, or attraction, desire, lust, that it seems irrelevant that he didn’t expressly state this.

The world, he wrote, is constantly fragmenting.  We experience separation, and this separation is real.  But the world is also a unity.

“Parts of the material world,” he writes, “do not exclude one another, but, on the contrary, aspire mutually to include one another and to mingle with each other” 

The world wants to find itself and merge with itself. That is longing and desire. That is why people seek to be inside one another.  It’s even why gravity draws us to the earth. But instead of understanding this longing as something useful or beautiful, we prefer to ignore it in favor of a totally sealed and cut-off version of ourselves. The solution to this dissonance? Sexual love.

“There is only one power,” he wrote, “which can from within undermine egoism at the root, and really does undermine it, namely love, and chiefly sexual love. The falsehood and evil of egoism consists in the exclusive acknowledgement of absolute significance for oneself and in the denial of it for others.”

Sexual love “forces us, with all our being, to acknowledge for another the same absolute central significance which, because of the power of our egoism, we are conscious of only in our own selves. Love is important not as one of our feelings, but as the transfer of all our interest in life from ourselves to another, as the shifting of the very centre of our personal life. This is characteristic of every kind of love, but predominantly of sexual love; it is distinguished from other kinds of love by greater intensity, by a more engrossing character, and by the possibility of a more complete overall reciprocity.”

In plainer language:  Love shows us that other people are real, significant, and important.  And the version of love that is desiring, attracting, drawn to an other, is the most powerful of all.  This love is not a state we can stay in, but a powerful teacher that arrives and departs quickly.  It shows us what is possible, and then disappears, leaving us to seek it again.

Unfortunately, our attitude to this teacher is flippant.  We describe it in unflattering terms: “just infatuation,” “only lust,” “shallow.”  We say, “I want something more.”  Neuroscientists wave it away with a magic wand: it’s merely chemical change.  Nothing special about that first glance, those first three months, maybe nothing special about that love stuff at all, just matter and motion.  And if someone acts on this initial attraction?  We might refer to her or him as a “slut” or “desperate.”  A contradiction, then: We love the initial feeling that seeing a new and beautiful person brings, but we don’t hold it in high regard.  It’s not the “real” thing.

When I saw my stepbrother’s friend, my body was wiser than the rest of me, it knew things that I didn’t.  Sexual love rose up as a feeling of wanting to go past the cloudy barrier and be with him.  I recognized, in my separateness, the unity of things, and in my subsequent fantasies, I brought us together, imaginatively.  These fantasies revealed to me that I was attracted to men, and opened up the possibility to recognize the unity I had with others.

This dance between unity and separateness is enacted whenever sexual love overtakes us.  The feeling of unity that lust brings isn’t shallow, it is the real thing.  Furthermore, when we’re attracted to someone initially, we will either overlook or ignore what might normally annoy us or scare us away.  The draw is so strong that we experience, in the other, an idealized human being.  This draw can be sustained and often is.  When we see someone we’re attracted to for a second or third time, when we first start dating or after we have sex, the draw stays there.  Anything that is annoying to us normally becomes endearing while this draw is sustained.  The body’s will, sexual love, makes us extremely kind.

What Solovyov (and our experience) teaches us is that, far from being shallow, lust is what teaches us the highest form of love.

RS

Rudolf Steiner

What if we took lust and desire seriously as a form of wisdom and meaning, not just chemical response?  What if, instead of measuring it up to other experiences, we reversed our ethic and held this infatuation stage up as the standard?  We would see then that it’s not that these initial feelings are false or fake, it’s that we don’t feel them enough.  In other words, we aren’t normally as forgiving, adoring, or drawn to other people as we are in the initial stages of attraction. What if we were?  When we stay with someone, we always seek to find our way back to that attraction.  The work of fulfilling our longing, of re-achieving our lust, is the work of love.  In this work, we wonder, what if we were as loving and forgiving in our lives as we were while we were initially infatuated? 

What if lust is a sort of faithfulness?  What if lust is the ideal of love and not the other way around?

This is a good place to stop. Lingering more in theory would be the antithesis of Solovyov’s lesson.  The lesson comes not to
stay, but to rush in, teach us, recede.

It is in the longing that we learn.

So instead of delving into Solovyov’s work more deeply, I end here with the words of philosopher, scientist, and occultist Rudolf Steiner (who was influenced by Solovyov).  It’s a meditation on seeing another human being.  Reflecting on it, Vladimir Solovyov’s work can come to life in us.  If we want it badly enough.

Create for yourself a new indomitable perception of faithfulness.

What is usually called faithfulness passes so quickly.

Let this be your faithfulness: You will experience moments, fleeting moments, with the other person.

The human being will appear to you then as if filled, irradiated, with the archetype of his/her spirit.

And then there may be, indeed will be, other moments, long periods of time when human beings are darkened.

At such times, you will learn to say to yourself, “The spirit makes me strong. I remember the archetype. I saw it once. No illusion, no deception shall rob me of it.”

Always struggle for the image that you saw.

This struggle is faithfulness.

Striving thus for faithfulness you shall be close to one another as if endowed with the protective powers of angels.

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Next up: The Perplexing Web of Psychoanalytic Sex

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Sources

Allen, Paul M.  Vladimir Soloviev: Russian Mystic.  Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2008.

Solovyov, Vladimir.  The Meaning of Love. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 1985.

Steiner, Rudolf.  Reverse Ritual : Spiritual Knowledge Is True CommunionGreat Barrington, MA: Anthroposophic Press, 2001.

Talbott, Steve. “Vladimir Solovyov on Sexual Love and Evolution.”  Web.

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**NOTE: Parts of this entry appeared previously on my blog, in a different form, here.

#TheSexRadicals, Part 5: Amber Hollibaugh & Edward Carpenter on Letting Go of Sexual Shame

19 Aug
AH

Amber Hollibaugh

Each week this summer, I’ll be posting short essays on sexual thinkers (read the introduction to the series here) who have changed my perspective on sex, and who, I believe, could be instrumental in helping us remake Western sexual culture. It will include some bits about my own life, some history, and some controversial claims. Last week was a tour through the sexual utopia of Charles Fourier.  The series also appears on RealitySandwich.com.

How To Fight Sexual Shame: Amber Hollibaugh, Edward Carpenter, and the Strength of Vulnerability

“Wherever you have a secret, that is where you are vulnerable.”

– Amber Hollibaugh (1946-present)

A story about shame.

My first two years of college were spent in a Western Pennsylvania town, huddled in the woods.  “It’s near Pittsburgh,” I’d say, though the truth was, it wasn’t near anything; Pittsburgh was an hour and a half drive away.  My sexuality had dawned on me just a few years before I got there, when I realized that I was attracted to men.  This was before the internet was cast, tangling everyone up, and there weren’t many options for us to find each other.  No apps, not much access to communicate with people like me, and the nearest gay bar was inaccessible, I was too young.

In Keith Hall on campus, there was a space for exception; a bathroom where men, students and townies and staff, would meet

for sex.  Our straight peers were engaging with sex openly; they were able to meet at bars, concerts, and through wanton looks across the green campus center.  Keith Hall was our only space.  Men would go into the stall together, or jerk off at the urinals.  When the door to the bathroom opened, everyone would stop; the secret world would rearrange itself and look like the one weT4A were supposed to be living in.  Who knows how these gathering places — and they exist everywhere, in mall bathrooms, at rest areas, in locker room saunas — take hold?  No one plans them; they show up out of the sheer force of need and will.

The gay and lesbian student group, which met once every few weeks, was like a negative image of Keith Hall.  It was sterile and still.  We sat on the thin industrial carpet of a dull room.  We were in a circle, talking to each other about gays in the military and marriage.  Keith Hall wasn’t an official topic at any meeting, but it was a constant source of anxiety and cause for ridicule.  Members would gossip about other members who they’d seen skulking around the bathroom for a blowjob, or about townie “trolls” who would linger on campus for sex.  Of course, I’d seen each and every one of the male members of the student group in Keith Hall at one point or another, and they no doubt had seen me.  No reason for why we shouldn’t meet there to have sex was given.  It was supposed to be self-evident.  I was silent. 

That is where shame comes from: it’s an agreement to silently betray yourself.

Where were we supposed to go?  In spite of the commonly held image of gay promiscuity, there wasn’t (and isn’t) easy access to sex for gay men for much of their lives.  In cities, sure, but not in the woods, not in the vast middle of the country, only at the edges.  Being a sexual minority, a still demonized sexual minority, a demonized sexual minority in a culture that demonizes sex itself, cut off access. 

If you need sex and don’t have access to it, too bad, we’re told. Our culture, and by extension the on-campus gay and lesbian group, shamed everyone who was defying that by having sex in a “non-sexual” space .  Suck it up.  Suffer.  If you do find it somewhere (anywhere), feel bad about it.  Don’t admit it.  Make others feel bad about it.

There was no way out of the trap.

Then I discovered Amber Hollibaugh.  She spoke at my school and I consumed her writing and perspective. 

MDDShe was a sex worker who grew up so poor that as a child, she slept in a dresser drawer.  Now she was a published author, a labor rights activist, a lecturer.  In her talk, she shared stories about waiting for her clients to fall asleep, and then looking through and committing to memory the titles and passages from the books on their shelves.  Her intellectualism and sexuality and labor politics were all tied together.  She is one of the most complete human beings I have ever encountered.

Whereas the gay and lesbian group I was part of was invested in notions of equality in terms of identity and discrimination, it couldn’t quite bring itself to talk about sex.  It severed, as the contemporary “gay rights” and “equality” movements continue to sever, sex and pleasure from identity.

“I come from a moment in time and a radical vision,” Hollibaugh said, “that never made marriage or the military my criteria of success.  I didn’t want us to have wars, I didn’t want us to have armies, and I didn’t want to register my relationship with the state.”  In other words, the queer movement that Hollibaugh came from was not concerned with equality by emulating the dominant state-supported culture.  Instead, it was concerned with the liberation of desire and pleasure (and so, her life-changing book of essays is aptly titled My Dangerous Desires), and in seeing the powerful radiating potential of that liberation.

“I don’t want a day,” she said, in reference to gay pride. “I want a revolution.”  At her lecture, in my heart, one had begun to occur.

She said, echoing Fourier, that access to consensual pleasure was a right, not a luxury.  In the most electrifying moment, she said, “Wherever you have a secret, that is where you are vulnerable.”

If you try to keep a secret, then someone exposing that secret could damage you. And you live in a state of fear and anxiety, and powerlessness.  In other words, a state of shame. It’s not the content of the secret so much, but the hiding of it that is so damaging.

I was holding on to so many secrets.  Every time I had sex, every time I found a place among the silence of where I lived to experience pleasure, I hid it away.  I didn’t tell anyone.  I was terrified of being exposed and ridiculed.  So I shamed myself.  I knew that almost everyone I had seen in the Keith Hall bathroom must feel the same way.

My interest in Hollibaugh led me to the radical queer underground which traced its roots back to, among others, Edward Carpenter. 

EC

Edward Carpenter

Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), a handsome man with pointed features, a student and lover of Walt Whitman’s, a poet and a philosopher.  Carpenter was a profoundly influential thinker in his time, but is largely unknown today.  His erasure is a familiar one: blot out from history the people that help us understand sex. Carpenter knew that sex was tied to power and tied to the sacred.  More importantly, he knew that how we greeted sex with our thinking and emotions was of more importance than the kind of sex we had, specifically, since sex was part of nature (and nature was part of divine creation). 

Religious thinkers and philosophers of his day (and ours) were popularizing the notion of shame as a guiding force: If you feel shame, it’s indicating that the action you’re taking is wrong.  For Carpenter and the movements that traced their way back to him, shame was a shadow.  It can’t actually guide you anywhere, it’s tacked to your heel, it’s the place the light hasn’t yet reached. To undo sexual shame, Carpenter advised, understand it’s not indicating a course of action.  Understand, also, that it’s not bonded to the sex act so much as the frantic cultural impulses surrounding the sex act.  It’s usually a feeling misdirected from somewhere else. Letting going of shame allows space for sex and pleasure themselves to guide you to your perspective on sex and pleasure.  When you do that, sex has a different feel. 

“The dissatisfaction which at times follows (sex),” Carpenter wrote, “is the same as follows on all pleasure which is sought, and which does not come unsought. The dissatisfaction is not in the nature of pleasure itself but in the nature of seeking.”

This good to keep in mind when you or someone you know says, “hook-ups feel shallow,” or “I want more than just sex.”  If you’re seeking something in a casual sexual encounter, you may find yourself still seeking after it’s done.  If, instead, you are open to seeing what the encounter can teach you, or even if you’re just willing to not dismiss the dissatisfaction as a negative feeling, something profound can happen each and every time. The experience of sex is never in and of itself shallow, a person’s perspective on their sexual experience, however, is a different matter.

My transformation was quick.  I stopped being silently ashamed about my experiences, and I started talking about them.

The UMASS Student Union Building

The UMASS Student Union Building

When I transferred to the University of Massachusetts, there was a Keith Hall equivalent, the Student Union Building.  There’s one on every campus.  Different school, same stigma.  Amherst was much more open to gay and lesbian sexuality than small-town Pennsylvania, but mostly because of the large lesbian population in the surrounding area.  There still weren’t many gay men, and there was a still tense hush amongst gay students about the cruising spots, including a rest area on the nearby highway and a bike path at night. I’d stop at the Student Union bathroom often, between classes, looking for sex. 

And I started telling my friends, gay and straight, about it. 

The straight men expressed an astonished envy: “You can get laid between classes?”  A butch lesbian friend exclaimed, “You’d be stupid if you didn’t go there!”  The gay men, though, were still sheepish.  But their sheepishness didn’t add any shame on my account, and because I was open about it, no one shamed the practice around me.  Reorganizing my thoughts about privacy and secrecy freed me. 

My sex, any aspect of it, is private.  Privacy means I can have whatever thoughts and feelings I want about it, and I can explore those on my own. 

But my sex life was no longer secret:  I wasn’t trying to hide it, and the value of it didn’t come from it being concealed.

I began to understand my own shame as a vestigial organ, something that developed in me but that wasn’t needed anymore.  So many different parts of my life were touched by this preexisting shame: shame in discovering I was attracted to men, shame around expressing sexual feelings, shame that I wasn’t pursuing the societally approved intimacy-within-a-monogamous-relationship.  It was impossible to avoid the shame by simply stopping one or another sexual behavior, it would show up somewhere else.  I’d have to deal with my inner world directly.

Wherever you have a secret, that is where you are vulnerable.  I learned instead, to move toward the vulnerability, instead of retreating from it.  By becoming vulnerable intentionally, through the effort of honesty and openness, we become strong.

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Next Up: The Russian Mystic in Love with Lust

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Sources

Hollibaugh, Amber. My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way HomeDurham: Duke University Press, 2000.

Amber L. Hollibaugh: The LGBTQ Movement’s Radical Vision (web): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fqNrCMG4tjI

Rowbotham, Sheila.  Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love.  Brooklyn: Verso, 2009.

#TheSexRadicals, Part 4: Charles Fourier’s Impossible Pleasure

11 Aug

Each week this summer, I’ll be posting short essays on sexual thinkers (read the introduction to the series here) who have changed my perspective on sex, and who, I believe, could be instrumental in helping us remake Western sexual culture. It will include some bits about my own life, some history, and some controversial claims. Last week I offered up my portrait of genius/madman/lover/fighter and sexologist, Wilhelm Reich.  The series also appears on RealitySandwich.com.

CF

Charles Fourier

Impossible Pleasure: Charles Fourier’s Queer Theories

“Often when we are merely enjoying ourselves, we are involved in political processes of the highest importance.”

– Charles Fourier (1772 – 1837)

There are eight billion people on the planet, which means there are eight billion different sexualities.  The closer we get to understanding this, the better our sexual understanding will be.  One problem many thinkers have with sex, no matter how spiritually enlightened, scientifically educated, or logically disciplined they are, is that they constantly slip into sexual prescription without realization of this perspective. 

To make matters worse, since sex is always, in one way or another, part of being human, many people with extremely limited sexual experience feel entitled to talk about it authoritatively.  Whenever a guru, psychologist, or scientist starts telling you about how you should run your sex life or view the sex lives of others, the first question you should ask is, “So how much sex have you had?”

You may, then, see them flounder a bit, exposing their inability to address a simple question.

Then push even more.  Even if they’re able to express a general okay-ness about having plenty of sex, don’t let them off the hook.  Openness to more sex is a good start, but not enough.  If it were, ancient Greeks and Romans would have had it made.  But their societies, though more sexually permissive, were still riddled with their own versions of sexual oppression.  It’s not freedom to have more sex that matters so much as the encouragement of freedom and compassion that greets sex in general.

So follow up your first question, if they answer, with some more: What gender, racial, cultural diversity demographic do their partners represent?

Is it limited or broad in scope?

What kinds of sexual acts exactly? 

You’ll quickly get a sense of where their sexual ideas are coming from, and also a sense how little they apply to you.

Sex is the teacher of sexuality.  Sex teaches us about itself (among other things), when we listen.  Since all of us are bound to have limited sexual experiences and to have our own unique set of desires, we would do well to understand that everyone has their own singular teacher in their sex lives.

That doesn’t mean we can’t come up with general understandings of sex.  But when we create a moral framework around general ideas, demanding they be equally applicable to everyone, we lose our way and find ourselves on the path to fundamentalism.  Any given sexual act may be healthy for one person and damaging in another, even though it appears to us to be the exact same act.  For instance, one person may enjoy being flogged during sex and experience it as a cathartic and orgasmic pleasure.  Another, engaging in the same act, may experience it as an unhealthy reenactment of trauma.

Here’s an example of sexual fundamentalism in an unlikely place: The new age/self help movement’s prescription of karezza.  Karezza (or coitus reservatus) is the practice of orgasmic self-control. The idea — rumored to originate in ancient wisdom but essentially fleshed out by Alice Stockham, a late 19th/early 20th Century gynecologist — is that sex should not be about the orgasm.  Sounds good enough; we often overemphasize orgasm in our current cultural understanding of sex.  But then comes  the dogmatic karezza leap: men should not ejaculate.  Orgasm can lead to a loss of “vital energy,” whatever that means, and ejaculation is the worst culprit.  

Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 12.39.31 AM

Typical fundamentalist moralizing masquerading as science.

Practicing karezza is certainly a worthwhile sexual experiment – understanding that sex is not simply gyrations leading to orgasm allows people to explore the other contours and feelings of sexual experience.  But many karezza practitioners make grand claims about its benefits, including its ability to improve mood, keep couples together, and lead to spiritual enlightenment.  This also isn’t so much of a problem; for some people karezza probably has contributed to these effects.  The real problem is when they commit the error of conflating possible effects for definite morals.  For many practitioners and authors, it’s not just that karezza can improve some people’s moods, it’s that orgasm will make you angry or frustrated.  It’s not just that a couple may find their bond strengthened by practicing karezza together, but that orgasm will drive them apart.  Suddenly, what was once a personal choice, up to the individual, becomes a grand statement about what kind of sex we all should be having. 

In spite of karezzean claims, the visual eroticization of ejaculation can be beneficial and create happiness.  The knowledge that your partner has had an orgasm (even if you haven’t) can bring a couple closer.  For some, having sex without orgasm is damaging and creates difficulty having healthy sexual relationships.  And of course, not all relationships should be sustained; sex and, yes, orgasm, is important for casual bonding where long-term commitment or deep bonding is inappropriate.

When arguments against the universal value of karezza show up, practitioners are apt to utilize all the phony pseudoscience they can muster (in a similar vein to phony sex-and-porn-addiction models and data). No surprise that many vocal defenders of the method are also anti-porn, strictly pro-monogamy, and homophobic.  Indeed, if you take into account the sexual-cultural value of ejaculation for gay men, karezza has a homophobic tendency to begin with.

I’m singling out karezza not because it’s inherently bad; it is beneficial for some people.  I’m singling it out because it’s an example of how simply being sex-being “okay” with sex does not mean you won’t demonize others.  Nor does claiming you are “sex positive” or talking about sex.  To see the teaching and human mystery of sex, we’ll have to do better than moral prescriptions dressed up as science or new age progress.

We’ll have to begin treating sex as a question of the individual.

Few people attempted this task in quite as much detail as social theorist and utopian thinker Charles Fourier.  Fourier was a sort of classical naturalist, but rather than naming plants and animals, he created a dizzying catalog of human behaviors, hopes, dreams, and above all, passions.  He was exhausted by passion.

Barthes-216x300

Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980)

His work is a frenzy of categorization and the invention of new terms, which led literary theorist Roland Barthes to lucidly dub him a “formulator.”

Fourier, like Wilhelm Reich over a century later, understood civilization wasn’t just filled with problems, but waiting to be totally remade.  Fourier believed that we’d been led astray by idiot philosophers, bamboozled into and stuck in a dead end corner of culture, with no room to move.  Guarding that corner, making sure no one could go anywhere, was the concept of the family, and especially the monogamous married couple.  Marriage, Fourier showed us, was what happened when two people merged to become one unhappy entropy.  Like the gay rights movement of the 1960s/1970s and the queer movement of today, Fourier saw the problems of monogamy and marriage as radiating out into society.

“Perpetual fidelity in love is contrary to human nature,” he wrote. “…marriage cannot offer a single chance of happiness which the couple could not find if they were completely free.”

Part of the problem was that marriage, even when it was a choice, was not a choice.  Culture compels us.  Fourier saw that women, in particular were so pressured to marry the right man, and that both were forever after bound to be faithful, even if they were unhappy.

Marriage was “reducing all women, without exception, to the chastity demanded of them, such that no women could make love before marriage, nor have any man after her marriage except her husband, with the result that, for the whole of his life, no man could have any woman except the housewife he had married.  What would men think about the prospect of being reduced, for their entire lifetime, to enjoying nobody save a wife whom they had stopped liking the day after their wedding?  Every single man would want to strangle the originator or discovery that threatened to abolish love affairs…”

And love affairs weren’t offering much solace either, since they were greeted with such taboo when discovered.

But Fourier’s deep contribution wasn’t his critique, it was his obsessively detailed solution.  He envisioned a world, a universe, even, centering on pleasure.  It was a world that was half-born, waiting for us to both discover its presence and to make it real.  In his vision, the planets are bisexual and make love to each other.  All the animals have a pleasurable purpose in the grand scheme of things.  The oceans taste like lemonade. 

The rhythmic crash of lemonade waves is what anyone knows of Fourier these days, if they know him at all.  It’s a point of absurdity used to dismiss him.  Oceans of lemonade? Ridiculous! But of course, ridiculous, grand ambition is his point. Read in the context of his work, oceans of lemonade still seems wistful, but not silly.  Fourier’s task was to envision. Envisioning was the imaginative first step to expanding our world.

“Our fault,” he wrote,  “is not, as has been believed, to desire overmuch, but to desire too little…”

Desire would drive us, if we let it, to imagine and create a new world.  Fourier’s imagination was a counterweight to the settling oppression of the day.  Don’t let any of it go, Fourier said, fight the probable with the impossible.  Imagine everything changing: changed for us, changed for pleasure.

In Fourier’s universe, the government would take a form that rendered it nearly unrecognizable by current thinking; it would be a

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One of many Fourier-inspired communities, or phalanxes, utopian mini-cultures founded on his ideas.

community that had the duty of promoting pleasure.  In other words, the organizing structures we live in would be there to give us what we need, not vice versa.  The state, whatever was left of it, anyway, would feel less like a boot on our necks and more like oral sex.  Except, of course, for those that enjoy the feeling of a boot on their necks.

Before leveling a psychological critique against Fourier — But do people know what they really want?  Maybe they want oppression?— you should know that he had an answer:  The more that pleasure is permitted, the less evil anyone will do.  Pleasure was a door to itself, or an unending clutch of nesting dolls.  Pleasure opened up to more pleasure.  And more pleasure.  And so forth.  Until the culture of repression fell away and all we were capable of was good.

Of particular interest, and why not?, was sexual pleasure.  There were other pleasures, to be sure, but they were all eroticized, as were whatever duties we had.  Work, for instance, would be communal, relational, and deeply sensual.  Is your job drudgery?  Well, make it pleasurable! Sexualize your strain and effort, and engage in it erotically with your co-workers!  This might sound like a capitalism gone wild, but remember that Fourier’s work was to envision the entire world: if pleasure led to more pleasure, and everyone and every aspect of life were included, we’re engaging with a vision far too vast to be compared with simplistic promises of “love what you do” capitalism.

Sexual pleasure was everywhere, and Fourier wanted us to discover it.  And not just one kind of sex.  He supported homosexual sex and many acts that were condemned in his time as perversions.  In fact, he constructed sexuality in a such a complex and complicated manner, that the Alfred Kinsey’s gay-straight scale seems offensively simplistic next to it.  Fourier knew that sex was so varied that it couldn’t be contained by one version of sex with one kind of partner.  “Sexual integrity brings the sexes closer to each other; if nothing is forbidden or suppressed anymore, there would be a bridging of sexual identities…”  Because Fourier truly cared about the individual nature of sexuality, all versions of sex need to be discovered.  It was a sentiment echoed almost a century later by magus Aleister Crowley, yet it is still not lived up to by Western culture:

“Every one should discover, by experience of every kind, the extent and intention of his own sexual Universe. He must be taught that all roads are equally royal, and that the only question for him is ‘Which road is mine?’ All details are equally likely to be of the essence of his personal plan, all equally ‘right’ in themselves, his own choice of the one as correct as, and independent of, his neighbor’s preference for the other. He must not be ashamed or afraid of being homosexual if he happens to be so at heart; he must not attempt to violate his own true nature because public opinion, or mediaeval morality, or religious prejudice would wish he were otherwise.”  (from Crowley’s The Book of the Law)

TOTFM

from Fourier’s ‘Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destinees generales’

Because sex is part of being human, access to healthy and consensual sexual experiences is a human right.  To this end, Charles Fourier wrote about a “sexual minimum.”  Everyone should be assured sexual satisfaction in their lives to avoid corruption of everyday life and relationships.  Since so many people are afraid of not getting laid, so much time and so many words are spent seeking sex.  A culture that worked to guarantee a sexual minimum would remove many of the problems that arise in desperate pursuit.  Relationships would be purified and clear.  Countries wouldn’t go to war in a state of frustrated tension.  Fourier suggested that the beautiful would have sex with the less beautiful, and that the less beautiful would be sexually honored for their beautiful features and traits. 

If this sounds alarming, and your thoughts turn to sexual slavery or decadent privilege or societally-imposed standards of beauty here, remember the lovemaking planets and oceans of lemonade.  Fourier’s impossible aim was that everyone would feel, think, and act in an unending tide of sexual freedom.  Whenever we stumble on a point Fourier makes, we are generally confusing his vision with its implementation.  We don’t have to think of him as perfect, but our attention in Fourier should be on what is imagined, not what is “practical.”  If we think his vision includes pain and suffering, not pleasure, we can (at least generally) be sure that we’re desiring too little, not dreaming big enough, and ultimately misinterpreting his vision.

“This is what is truly remarkable about Fourier,” wrote cultural critic McKenzie Wark, “the ability to imagine a relational pornography, where all social contacts are pleasurable and engage as many of the passions as possible.”

Today, we encounter — through online pornography — a wish that Fourier made, still in progress.  We can see all manner of sexual acts online, some more performative than others, but we rarely envision our world as being constituted of such a diverse tapestry of sex and sexuality.  Critics of online porn would do well to read Fourier and see potential instead of a moral problem.  Diverse sexual imagery is a visual stepping stone to a more sexually open culture that supports individual and diverse desire.  If we think in Fourier’s terms, we recognize that we have yet to attain the radical acceptance of pleasure that would allow us to be as sexually free as what we see on our computers.

It requires a tremendous capacity to imagine such a world.  All the pleasures, all the time.  All the passions.

Until we imagine it, it’s less than impossible, it’s non-existent, even in the imagination.  Fourier pushed the boundaries of what could be imagined and desired.  The impossible landscape of total pleasure is still impossibly distant and strange, but thanks to Fourier, we have at least have an impossible map.

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Next Up: How To Defeat Shame with Vulnerability

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Sources

Barthes, Roland.  Sade/Fourier/Loyola.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Fourier, Charles.  The Hierarchies of Cuckoldry and Bankruptcy. Cambridge: Wakefield Press,  2011.

Fourier, Charles.  The Theory of the Four Movements.  Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Wark, Mckenzie.  The Spectacle of Disintegration: Situationist Passages Out of the 20th CenturyNew York: Verso, 2013.

Larsen, Lars B.  Giraffe and Anti-Giraffe: Charles Fourier’s Artistic Thinking.” E-flux.  2011. Web.

#TheSexRadicals, Part 3: Wilhelm Reich’s Free Sex

4 Aug

Each week this summer, I’ll be posting short essays on sexual thinkers (read the introduction to the series here) who have changed my perspective on sex, and who, I believe, could be instrumental in helping us remake Western sexual culture. It will include some bits about my own life, some history, and some controversial claims. Last week was the man who fought slavery with sex, Paschal Beverly Randolph.  The series also appears on RealitySandwich.com

Wilhelm Reich

Wilhelm Reich

Stripping Off Our Armor: The Accumulating, Paradoxical Power of Wilhelm Reich

Civilization has not yet begun.”

– Wilhelm Reich (1897 – 1957)

To view Wilhelm Reich, sexologist and psychoanalyst, as our culture views him, move through his life backwards.  When he’s remembered today, he’s summed up and dismissed by his sad ending.  He’s thought of mostly as a madman, dying alone in prison, a fraud, discredited by the government. 

To view his life as one of his supporters, move through it from the beginning of his career to end; he was a protégé who worked tirelessly to help others, and was eventually driven mad by the mad world he lived in.

To really understand Reich, the narrative shouldn’t be backwards, forwards/  We should look instead at his ideas —whether they are true or false — the possibilities they create for us. Instead of taking a linear approach, we can take a sexual one.  Pain and pleasure, intertwined.  Thought and action.  Tension and release.  View Wilhelm Reich as a paradox:  A man who revealed a new, loving world to us in an angry language we still can’t understand.  A man whose work was officially dismissed as ludicrous but also taken seriously enough to merit governmental seizure and destruction when all his journals, books, and papers were burned by the FDA.

Here’s a lengthy quote from Reich’s book, The Murder of Christ: The Emotional Plague of Mankind, which, complete with shouting capital letters, shows him in all his glory: A profoundly clear thinker, ranting in a crazy tone, shocking us with truth and confusion all at once.

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“It IS possible to get out of a trap. However, in order to break out of a prison, one first must confess to being in a prison. The trap is man’s emotional structure, his character structure. There is little use in devising systems of thought about the nature of the trap if the only thing to do in order to get out of the trap is to know the trap and to find the exit. Everything else is utterly useless…

The first thing to do is to find the exit out of the trap.

The nature of the trap has no interest whatsoever beyond this one crucial point: WHERE IS THE EXIT OUT OF THE TRAP?

One can decorate a trap to make life more comfortable in it.

This is done by the Michelangelos and the Shakespeares and the Goethes. One can invent makeshift contraptions to secure longer life in the trap. This is done by the great scientists and physicians, the Meyers and the Pasteurs and the Flemings. One can devise great art in healing broken bones when one falls into the trap.

The crucial point still is and remains: to find the exit out of the trap…

The exit remains hidden. It is the greatest riddle of all. The most ridiculous as well as tragic thing is this:

THE EXIT IS CLEARLY VISIBLE TO ALL TRAPPED IN THE HOLE. YET NOBODY SEEMS TO SEE IT. EVERYBODY KNOWS WHERE THE EXIT IS. YET NOBODY SEEMS TO MAKE A MOVE TOWARD IT. MORE: WHOEVER MOVES TOWARD THE EXIT, OR WHOEVER POINTS TOWARD IT IS DECLARED CRAZY OR A CRIMINAL OR A SINNER TO BURN IN HELL.

It turns out that the trouble is not with the trap or even with finding the exit. The trouble is WITHIN THE TRAPPED ONES.

All this is, seen from outside the trap, incomprehensible to a simple mind. It is even somehow insane. Why don’t they see and move toward the clearly visible exit? As soon as they get close to the exit they start screaming and run away from it. As soon as anyone among them tries to get out, they kill him. Only a very few slip out of the trap in the dark night when everybody is asleep.”

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MOCReich was an Austrian-born student of Sigmund Freud’s; he was a promising figure in psychoanalysis who eventually departed from the circles that praised him.  Contrary to the common condemnation of psychoanalysis for its preoccupation with sex, Reich’s idea was that it didn’t focus on sex enough.

For Reich sex was it.

He allowed the mysteries of sexuality and sexual drives to lead him to a deep and frantic understanding of our culture.  It’s an understanding that shakes you away as you follow, and I can’t claim to understand it fully.  To read Reich is to allow yourself to live in inspiration rather than total clarity.  So here are four of his basic concepts, which intertwine and grow out of one another:

Character analysis, character armor, orgastic potency, and orgone energy.

With Reich’s concept of character analysis he worked to examine what people’s resistances to health and happiness were.  Why were they avoiding wholeness and integration? How did they excuse themselves into surviving — knowingly or unknowingly — in suffering?  Unlike the analysts before him, Reich sought to be more precise and less moralizing. What are the moments of your life, he wanted to know, that have led to your characteristic defensive behaviors? We have a torrent of emotions within us, awaiting expression, shamed into silence by our families, our cultures, our partners. The chilling effect of these outside forces turns our emotions into “frozen history.”

If this aspect of character analysis seems common, Reich’s theory of character armor and the corresponding concept of orgastic potency are still waiting to be embraced. Character armor was premised on the idea that the body is a sort of material reflection of the emotional state.  Or to use Simone de Beauvoir’s words, ”The body isn’t a thing, it’s a situation; it’s our grasp on the world and our sketch of our project.” Whenever someone has a defensive emotional gesture, it becomes bound up in our situations, our projects, our bodies, stuck like a choke. For instance, people with anxiety issues often have shallow breathing patterns or tense jaws. These knots in the body stop energetic flow and cause all sorts of health and mood problems that might seem unrelated to the initial characteristic defense.

If you’re flinching at the word “energetic,” you’ll want to know that Reich tried to flesh out what that meant.  As per much of his work, he both succeeded and failed.  His concept of “energy” was sexual energy, a refined version of the psychoanalytic idea of “libido.”  He believed sexual excitation underlies many of our motivations, but also that it is a continuation of the creation of life itself.  The same exuberant force that leads to life is what makes us happy and healthy.  Sex creates us, and our lives and motivations are living praise of that creative act.  Or our painful behavior is a contracted, angry refusal to acknowledge our sexual being-ness.

Reich understood culture as a giant sexual expression gagging on tangles of repression. The stored up sexual energy and frustration of a culture becomes oppressive.  The Nazis, for example (whom Reich later fled), opposed birth control, abortion, contraception, and homosexuality.  They were totally sexually repressed.  One of Reich’s revolutionary stances was to support sexual freedom, even if he was against a particular sexual practice.  It was a typically Reichian paradox.  For instance, he wasn’t thoughtful enough to allow homosexuality to be “healthy,” but he did fight against anti-gay stigmatization and legislation.

The taboo, he knew, was always more dangerous than the act. 

Modern day Reichians have carried on his work to explain how cultures co-create our character armor.  Sometimes they woefully misfire, like when they interpret Islamic cultures through the lens of naive American exceptionalism.  Other times they get it right, like when they note how class and gender inequality, as well as adverse environmental conditions create a positive feedback loop.  Sexual repression occurs as a result of poverty, which creates armored behavior, which creates more repression, and so on.   And certain environmental factors echo familial ones.  “…the emotional responses of a child to famine and starvation are similar to those stemming from maternal rejection or isolation-rearing factors which are known to have powerful disturbing effects upon later adult behavior,” writes neo-Reichian researcher James Dameo.

Reich was invested in individual responsibility, but was also a true pioneer in pointing out: It’s not you that’s fucked up, it’s culture.

Individuals are not merely selves – they are conglomerates of cultural pulses and counterpulses.  Or, as biologist and symbiosis expert Lynn Margulis once put it, “Identity is not an object; it is a process with addresses for all the different directions and dimensions in which it moves…”

How to dissolve the character armor?  Sex. 

To free up sexual excitation and dissolve character armor, one must be able to immerse him/herself in sex, and to have a liberating orgasm.  The orgasm was of primary importance to Reich, and “orgastic potency” was how fully you experienced it.  The orgasm was the event of release; all the stored of excitation left the body, resulting in total relaxation and harmony.  In essence, orgastic potency measures a person’s ability to surrender, relax, and release neuroses and psychoses.

Before we start shooting our celebratory confetti into the air, Reich was specific about the sorts of orgasm you could have.  Not all orgasms were equal.  You had to be thoughtful about your total immersion.  People who weren’t, as well as people who were merely intelligent about sex without really engaging in deep thought or practice of it, were, for Wilhelm Reich, merely sexually sophisticated, rather than sexually liberated. It’s a dichotomy that should haunt every sex-positive person to the core until they come to terms with it. That doesn’t mean accepting Reich’s terms for who is sophisticated versus liberated; take those or leave them. But it’s true that standard cultural sex education and good feelings about sex aren’t what separate the sex radicals from the openly horny.  Sexual liberation of ourselves and culture is a deep and unending work.

Reich developed a few methods to release stuck energy and increase orgastic potency.  Most prominent was vegetotherapy.  A patient lies on a table and breathes deeply and rhythmically to build up excitation and heighten emotion. The Reichian therapist sits close by, speaking gently.  Relax, relax, release your muscles. Often, a scream or a flood of tears erupt from the patient.

Many popular forms of alternative medicine, such as the Alexander Technique, bioenergetics, and Rolfing are new versions of vegetotherapy, seeking to thaw frozen histories. But if these techniques are known, their ties to Reich are often secret, severed, or ignored.

Then Reich discovered cosmic energy.  And that’s when the feds came.

paul laffolyReich’s idea of libidinous sexual energy began to morph, through the lens of his theories and studies, into a stranger principle of “orgone” energy.  Orgone energy was, “A subtle biophysical energy which permeates all living things.”  For Reich, orgone was the truth behind what people called God, a scientific principle to explain away mysticism. It was free-flowing and, because it was free, it could be used to help people undo character armor.  To this end, he created orgone “accumulators,” which would gather the energy and allow people who sat inside the boxes to absorb the benefits.  He also turned his accumulator inside out into a “cloudbuster,” a sort of rainmaking device which helped disperse atmospheric orgone energy knots.

People were sick.  Culture was sick. Even the sky was sick.  At the center, Wilhelm Reich was trying to heal everyone.  In the process, he absorbed their illnesses.

Most of Reich’s later work revolved around orgone energy, and much of it yielded provocative data.  But Reich’s  theories were too intangible and unintelligible.  Orgone energy was never clearly defined enough to communicate his research to many others, and unfortunately, Reich would publicly vent the frustration of being misunderstood again and again, isolating potential allies. When Albert Einstein visited Reich, for example, and stood in an accumulator, he noted that there was a temperature change in the box, but believed it could have been just a run-of-the-mill temperature gradient.  Many others had experienced this temperature change (including in boxes other than the ones Reich made and ones manufactured today), and Reich created controls against such normal gradients. But rather than absorb Einstein’s report as data, he repeatedly wrote to Einstein pressuring him to reassess his position. When Einstein didn’t respond, Reich called it a conspiracy and published a book about it. 

Reich wanted to help free us from a history of repressions, and by helping us, finally begin civilization. But what gets frozen in a man that tries to unfreeze history, and fails?

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Kate Bush as Peter Reich.  Donald Sutherland as Wilhelm Reich. In the video for Bush’s song about him, “Cloudbusting.”man that tries to unfreeze history, and fails?man that tries to unfreeze history, and fails?

We can still take up his lesson: Sex runs through culture like a hidden line of power, and where we don’t release it, where we don’t help each other come to our senses, we hurt ourselves and everyone else.

However we look at the paradoxical figure of Wilhelm Reich, we’re unsettled. 

Maybe Reich was so crazy that he created an entire theoretical world out of himself, a world now available to us for to think about, mull over, fear, delight in.  Or maybe he was so sane that he showed us we’re all crazy.

Kate Bush’s song, “Cloudbusting,” calls up Reich’s final days, from the viewpoint of his son.

On top of the world

Looking over the edge

You could see them coming

You looked too small

In their big black car

To be a threat to the men in power

Reich was a powerless threat to everyone in power. He’s still a threat.  The more we forget him, the more potent discovering him again becomes.

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Next week:  The Man Who Saw The World As An Orgy

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Sources

Boadella, David.  Wilhelm Reich: The Evolution of His Work.  London. Arkana. 1985.

DeMeo, James.  Saharasia: The 4000 BCE Origins of Child Abuse, Sex-Repression, Warfare and Social Violence, In the Deserts      of the Old World.  Ashland, OR: Natural Energy Works, 2011.

Reich, Wilhelm.  The Mass Psychology of Fascism.  New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980.

Reich, Wilhelm.  The Murder of Christ: The Emotional Plague of Mankind.  New York.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1953.

Wilson, Colin.  The Quest for Wilhelm Reich.  New York, Anchor, 1981.

#TheSexRadicals, Part 2: Paschal Beverly Randolph’s Anti-Slavery Sex Magick

28 Jul

Each week this summer, I’ll be posting short essays on sexual thinkers (read the introduction to the series here) who have changed my perspective on sex, and who, I believe, could be instrumental in helping us remake Western sexual culture. It will include some bits about my own life, some history, and some controversial claims. Last week was sexual freedom fighter and mystic, Ida Craddock.  The series also appears on RealitySandwich.com

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Paschal Beverly Randolph

Sex Is Liberation:  Paschal Beverley Randolph’s Divine Sexual Freedom

“…sex power is God power.”  

– Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825 – 1875)

If you want to understand why sexual freedom is so threatening to people and institutions in power, masturbation is a good place to start.

I’ll stick with the masturbation I’ve got decades of experience with: jerking off.  When a man masturbates, he closes his eyes and imagines sexual images.  Or he looks at representations of sex in porn, and alternates between seeing the porn and imagining himself as part of it, somehow.  While he’s interacting with what he’s imagining or watching, he also performs a single repetitive gesture: he moves his hand up and down his penis. The act of touching your own penis can be pleasurable in and of itself, but combine the physical and the imaginary for just a few moments and something more intense and mysterious happens. The images feel real, they feel present. They are real.  The body starts to do all sorts of things.  The brain releases endorphins.  A flush of pleasure rushes up and down the body.  After a just a few minutes, half the substance that creates life comes out.

The same is true for sex, but the imagination and action seeks out different contours: One body touches another body.  Here you feel your partner’s ankle touching yours, you feel yourself enveloping your partner, you close your eyes and feel a breath on your ear.  Your attention and awareness moves from spot to spot.  And the thoughts focus on affection, attention, the image of yourself and your partner as if you were floating above and watching.MIAPC

Sex isn’t ever merely physical and it’s certainly not a primal, instinctual mess; it’s a thinking-feeling-movement-activity.  It’s a waking dream, or a state of hyper-awake-ness.

This is why so many sex radicals are also occultists; sex is about consciousness, and however you might think of the occult, it’s undeniable that sex — from the first flush of arousal to the reeling afterimage of entanglement — is an altered state.  Crusaders for the legalization of drugs often call the government’s war on drugs a “war on consciousness.”  If we want to alter our own consciousness, they say, then we should have the right to. Let’s take a tip from this insightful rhetoric and go a little further when it comes to sex:

The war on sex is the oldest and most oppressive war on consciousness.

Sex and sexuality are intimately, totally, linked to our freedom of thought and expression.

That’s why so many repressive regimes are sex negative, jail sex workers and sexual minorities (especially homosexuals), and monitor sexual behavior.  It’s also why, if we want to change the world in a radical way, it’s important to look to sex for some answers. 

There’s radical about the notion that sex is a singular activity, special and dangerous.  That’s an ideal used by anti-sex activists and puritans who say that sex will corrupt the innocent, erode society, dement the clear and thoughtful. 

Paschal Beverly Randolph’s (1825-1875), powerful contribution was to redeem this notion and elevate it. Sex is, indeed, powerful.  But that’s precisely why it’s good for us to have it, experience it, and radiate our being out of it.  Sex accompanies us through life.  It’s not going away.  It awaits our understanding.

Randolph was charismatic, and from the one photo I’ve seen of him, he’s handsome; not a bad fellow to want to experience the power of sex with.  His parents were a wealthy Virginian and a slave from Madagascar.  He was friends with Abraham Lincoln and is rumored to be the only man of mixed race in Lincoln’s funeral procession (the records are inconclusive).  He taught slaves how to read and was a famed anti-slavery activist in his time.  He was also a prolific author, and helped people work through their perceived sexual dysfunctions. 

When he was in his twenties, the world was awash with spiritualism and religious reform.  Not long before Ida Craddock was defending the belly dancers and women’s right to bodily autonomy, Randolph claimed to channel echoes of mystics from the past:  Zoroaster, Pascal, and more.  His spiritual radicalism fueled his ideals.  As he became a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement, he was guided by knowledge he said had been handed to him by Egyptian miracle workers and Indian Brahmins.  Social change would take tremendous power — real magick — and figuring prominently, in his over a dozen books on the subject, was sex.

Whereas for Craddock, sex was a path to liberation, Randolph’s major contribution was this:

Sex is liberation.

Eulis! The History of Love: Its Wondrous Magic ,Chemistry, Rules, Laws, Modes, Moods and Rationale  by Paschal Beverly Randolph

Eulis! The History of Love: Its Wondrous Magic ,Chemistry, Rules, Laws, Modes, Moods and Rationale
by Paschal Beverly Randolph

The power of sex, he wrote, is the deepest and truest power, above politics and brute physical force.  It’s a bolt of occult strength, a branch of God.  Randolph theorized human beings to have a sort of electric-energetic power, putting two human beings together properly would create a complete circuit, which could unleash all sorts of positive effects.  The moment of orgasm, an altered state of consciousness for both partners, was a moment of rising into the Divine, and then returning with extraordinary results.  Sex could be tapped into to rejuvenate your skin, become a kinder person, sway your spouse, resist disease, become smarter, make money appear, and more. It could counteract and destroy oppressive circumstances, be they from marital, political, or actual enslavement.

Having sex was a prayer that could be answered with power, and it was a power that everyone had access to.

Well, not everyone, exactly.  And he didn’t mean just any sex.  It had to be sex between a man and an equal or “superior woman”, coupled with a ritualistic prayer at the moment of orgasm.  It had to be a “double crisis” that shook up the reality around both (heterosexual) participants.

Randolph was limited in his scope, but there was a shockwave within those limits.

This  investigation into and respect for sexual power utterly changed him and his many devotees.  Because sex was to be used to understand and improve the self, Randolph was an early defender of birth control, women’s rights, and one of the first people to champion the virtues of intense sexual lust.

“Sex power is god power,”  Randolph wrote.  Or, to put it in the words of sociologist Murray Davis, “Sex…is a reality-generating activity.”

Whatever you may think of God or the occult, Randolph’s message is still important and radical.  He told us that everyone had a right to pleasure and happiness and that our bodies’ ability to create pleasure out of themselves was proof of this.  Furthermore, we don’t need the State or corporations to provide us with pleasure or to sell the world of happiness to us. That is inherent in our bodies and our interactions with each other.  And to see this necessitates more bodily freedom for ourselves and others.

When we move beyond the garden variety notion that sex is powerful, to the much more radical understanding that sex is power available to everyone, we see the world differently.  Instead of slaves and masters, Randolph showed us a regenerated reality, where we are all living, breathing power centers, waiting to discover ourselves.

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Next up:  The Man Who Destroyed Clouds with Sex

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Sources:

Deveney, John P.  Paschal Beverly Randolph: A Nineteenth-Century Black American  Spiritualist, Rosicrucian, and Sex    MagicianAlbany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Urban, Hugh. Magia Sexualis: Sex, Magic, and Liberation in Modern Western EsotericismBerkeley: University of California     Press, 2006.

#TheSexRadicals, Part 1: Ida Craddock, the Sexual Freedom Fighter Who Married an Angel

23 Jul

Each week, I’ll be posting short essays on sexual thinkers (read the introduction to the series here) who have changed my perspective on sex, who, I believe, could be instrumental in helping us remake Western sexual culture. It will include some bits about my own life, some history, and some controversial claims. The series also appears on RealitySandwich.com

IC

Ida Craddock

Making Room for Sex: Ida Craddock and The Sacred Profane

“If you believe in Jesus, aspire to be in unison with His will from the moment the [sexual] ecstasy sets in…”

– Ida Craddock (1857-1902)

In 1893, Chicago was humming with an urgent darkness; it was a year of blood. The Mayor was assassinated by an angry and envious political hopeful. A serial killer, H.H. Holmes was stalking the streets of the city, claiming dozens of victims. And Columbus’s brutal arrival in the Americas was being commemorated by The World’s Fair. To stand at the edge of the Fair was to look from a dark room into light. Enter the Fair, and you could leave Chicago, even though you were still in it.

There were representations of buildings and cities from around the world to inspire architects and planners. The World’s Parliament of Religions, with representatives from Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Shintoism and more, shocked a new world-awareness into patrons.

The Fair’s Middle Eastern replica, “Cairo Street,” boasted what would seem like an embarrassment of orientalist romanticization today. But in the late 19th Century, the exhibit was alluring, a shiver of power. There was Middle Eastern architecture, the twisting strums of Arabic music playing, people smiling on top of camels.

And there were belly dancers.

In the Egyptian Theatre, women with exposed midriffs made waves of their bodies, turning and flowing to the music. Their arms gracefully ascended into the air then snaked their way back, closer to their bodies. The performances were a huge hit, drawing crowds and exaggerated news coverage. They also drew detractors, who, in a blended condemnation of Arab cultures and sexual expression, proclaimed the shows “demoralizing and disgusting.”

Anthony Comstock was among them, leading the public outcry. Comstock was head of the state-sponsored New York NYSFTSOVSociety for the Suppression of Vice. The globe of his bald head was held by a ring of facial hair that drooped from his cheeks like the slavering jowls of a St. Bernard. He was fond of bow ties. He was a serious person with a serious mission: destroy obscenity. The Society’s badge bore a proud picture of a man dropping books in a fire on one side and a baton-wielding police officer pushing some obscene chap into a cell by his neck. That would do it! These pagan belly dancers — savages! — would have to go into the fire along with all those books.

But while Comstock was raising protests, a defense appeared in the the newsprint pages of New York World. Instead of the dancing being the hip-thrusting of primitives, the defense read, it was a valuable tool in understanding sex, how to move during sex with your partner, the sacredness of sexuality. The defense was outrageous and pulsed with the newness of the Fair. In a time of blood and death, it was a rebirth. The author was Ida Craddock, a women’s rights advocate, stenography teacher, and spouse of an angel. Her mission, also serious, was nothing less than the reinstatement of sex to sacred stature. The world was changing. The moment to rethink sex was at hand.

Craddock was born in Philadelphia in 1857, and endured a puritanical childhood with a paranoid mother who would continue throughout life to be one of her staunchest enemies. Wherever Craddock walked, she encountered patriarchal and sex-phobic ideals forcefully gripping the culture She spent her time systematically prying the fingers back, sometimes successfully. When she was in her twenties, she clashed with the University of Pennsylvania, who refused to admit women into their liberal arts school. Later, frustrated with the limits of Protestantism, she became a Unitarian and called for “Free Thought” Sunday schools, where children would be taught all religious traditions, rather than just one.

VW

Victoria Woodhull

Like many radicals of the time, Craddock found freedom in spiritualism. Today, the occult and spirituality are often ridiculed by the Left, but they played a vital part in the formation of Leftist, feminist, and radical politics, not to mention social justice movements. For instance, Craddock’s eye was always on the oppression of women. Since religion was a key in oppressing women, many activists — including the first female presidential candidate, Victoria Woodhull — worked to create new models of religion to replace what was thought to be the phallocentric Christian one, in which the cross itself was seen as an oppressive phallic symbol. Craddock started out as a skeptic, even a debunker. But eventually, the currents of liberatory spiritualism made their way into her thinking, and she began to seek correspondence with the imagined and real world of spiritual entities. One of them was a seventeen year-old boy she’d known when she was younger. He was killed in an accident and now appeared to her as an angel named Soph. Why not marry an angel? After some loving correspondence with Soph, Craddock did, and reported her ecstatic sexual experiences with him in a language that strongly resembles the language of objectum sexuals, who fall in love with and make love to objects and landmarks. It’s a moving language of ecstasy – an encounter with a partner whose being-ness others can’t understand. The invisible breath of the angel so in love with you, that you’re the only one who can see him.

From her scholarly work, her relationship with Soph, her experience in activism, and her encounters with feminist allies, Ida Craddock enacted her strategy to empower people, particularly women. She started to educate — in-person and through pamphlets — women about their bodies so that they could experience intense sexual pleasure in their relationships rather than live in the dull un-erotic circumstances they’d found themselves in. Craddock’s message was that women had as much of a right to sexual pleasure as their husbands, and that this pleasure was a sacred right. Sex was a gift from God. Sexual pleasure was part of Jesus Christ’s message. Any other interpretation of religion was the love of God passed through a distorted lens. Craddock hoped that this religious foundation of sexual pleasure would create a door for the devout and sexually timid. And she also hoped it would protect her, via the Bill of Rights, from censorship.

But while Craddock had her hopes, Comstock had his very own Act. The Comstock Obscenity Act prevented any obscene information and material from being sent through the US mail. Obscene, as usual, was defined broadly enough to mean anything, including contraceptives, abortion info, sexual instruction, and more. Craddock’s advice was, indeed, explicit for the time – “perform the pelvic movements during the embrace, riding your husband’s organ gently,” she’d written in her publication, The Wedding Night, “up, down, sideways with a semi-rotary movement.” Her pamphlets were thwarted at every turn, forced into obscurity shortly after they hit the postal service. But as a “sexologist” (her self-chosen title) it was harder to stifle her message, since she offered in-person consultations with people in sexual need.

Craddock’s message: If sex and pleasure do not fit into your model of culture, well, then, redraw your model to make room for them. Like the Fair, the contours of your relationship with your partner and God were containers for sights unseen, new experiences, new ways to experience the world and yourself and be free.

Since our attitudes toward sex have been so distorted by people and institutions in power, all sexual revolutionaries of all eras absorb the prejudices and sexual shaming of their time. A lot was lost in Craddock’s religion-meets-sex approach. Even though she was well-versed in the religious history of sexual rituals and wanted women to be liberated from “sex slavery” (a term of her time that loosely approximates to patriarchy), she was so focused on religion that she often lost sight of sex. This is evident in her moral admonitions of oral sex, prostitution and more.

These limits in her thinking show up as sadness and confusion. In two separate cases, men, both interested in sex and love with other men, approached her. She wavered in a perplexed position. Would she find herself in strange alliance with Comstock’s laws, which prohibited depictions of or information about homosexual behavior (and would do so until 1958)? She struggled with whether or not this could be love and not just perversion. That she struggled at all was due in part to the influence of another sexual reformer of the time, Walt Whitman’s protege, Edward Carpenter. Carpenter wore black ties, had sharp features, enjoyed sex with other men, and corresponded with Gandhi. Craddock admired his brilliant and powerful writings about the collapse of civilization and the tenderness of love between men.

AC

Aleister Crowley

But Craddock was unable to undo all the currents of traditional repression. She managed on the one hand to be radical and on the other to be traditional; her focus didn’t stray far from heterosexual monogamy. But what she said you could do within a monogamous partnership was revolutionary. It was inspiring even the most radical thinkers. “Her learning is enormous,” wrote magus Aleister Crowley, in a review of Craddock’s Heavenly Bridegrooms, which he called, “one of the most remarkable human documents ever produced.”

Life as a radical can be lonely and beleaguered, even with an angel at your side. Craddock’s own mother conspired with authorities to have her admitted to a mental institution. The federal government seized her work. She was considered a witch, no small burden to bear at the time. For Comstock, her mother, and the judges at her various trials, it didn’t matter that Craddock’s message was intertwined with Christ. Her embrace of sexual pleasure meant that her angelic husband might as well have been a the devil whispering into her ear.

In 1902, she was sentenced to three months in prison. If she would admit she were insane, she knew, she could avoid prison time. But Craddock refused. When you have seen into the contracted heart of the world’s insanity, what can you do but plead you are sane?

She was released amongst cries of public support and then immediately arrested again, under the Comstock law. Comstock would not stop attacking Ida Craddock. Like the anti-prostitution and anti-porn bigots of today, who delight in attacking sex workers, this was where he found his pleasure.
Unwilling to be Comstock’s partner in pleasure any longer, Craddock went home, turned on the oven gas, and slit her wrists.

She left two letters. One was an open letter, condemning Comstock and the country’s sexual state of affairs. It was a plea to understand the damage being done to our world by obscenity laws, dead marriages, the oppression of women, sexual ignorance.

The second letter was to her mother, but its sentiments also ripple out into the waters of history, hoping to find all of us.

“I love you, dear mother; never forget that. And love cannot die; it is no dream, it is a reality.” Some day, she wrote, her work would be taken up by others and her mother would not be ashamed.

“Some day,” she wrote, “you’ll be proud of me.”

Western culture is still learning this lesson: that we have a right, a sacred right (whether we’re religious or not) to sexual pleasure. And if our worldview or our relationship doesn’t allow for it, we must recreate their boundaries.

Ida Craddock lay in her apartment, sealed off with these letters. There, she bled and breathed false air until she died.

*

Next up: The Sex Magician of the Civil War

*

Sources
Chappell, Vere. Sexual Outlaw, Erotic Mystic: The Essential Ida Craddock.
San Francisco: Weiser, 2010.

Schmidt, Leigh E. Heaven’s Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American
     Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman. New York: Basic, 2010.

IdaCraddock.com

#TheSexRadicals – A new blog series about sexual thinkers who can change our world.

20 Jul

IMG_1301 (1)Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting short essays on sexual thinkers who have changed my perspective on sex, who, I believe, could be instrumental in helping us remake Western sexual culture. It will include some bits about my own life, some history, and some controversial claims. The series also appears on RealitySandwich.com

The idea here is to cultivate new growth in our thinking about sex, by looking to people who have laid down some of the groundwork.  This first entry explains some of of current sexual climate, as well as my rationale for creating such an incomplete list, why names like Michel Foucault or Dr. Ruth don’t appear while others do. It explains why I stick primarily to Western thinkers, even though I draw heavily on non-Western thinkers for my perspectives as well.  Please comment with your own favorite Sex Radicals, I’d love to hear more.

**

The Sex Radicals: Seven Thinkers Who Can Revolutionize Sex in Our Culture

Introduction:  Who Should We Invite to the Orgy?

Sex is everyone’s own creation story, everyone’s personal Big Bang.

Before you looked at this website, before you got up this morning or the day or year before, before you read or said your first word, two people you’d never met — couldn’t have met, since you weren’t a you yet —went through a series of intimate or strained or casual or confused or loving series of movements and gestures that created you.

That means that your being, along with everyone else’s, is literally composed of sexual motion and desire, because the cells that split and aggregated to make your body were set into motion by sex.  When people have sex, the laws of biology and form pay attention.  Sex weaves itself in and out of our daily thoughts, the art we encounter, the feelings we have for each other.  Is it any surprise that we think about sex so often? 

But if sex is a fact of life, the fact of life that life springs from, why is our culture so screwed up about it?  Why is sex so legislated, one might say legislated against, misunderstood, and confusing, culturally?  There are hundreds of laws set up by the state, regulating sexual content, sexual behavior, sexual freedom.  And there are the unspoken laws, often just as constricting, in every relationship we have.  Sex shame in our lives and sex shaming in our cultural sphere are intimately tangled.  Instead of telling you the right way to put a condom on or how to please your lover, this series will examine the lives and theories of thinkers who were interested in pushing sex forward in some cultural way, in bringing what they’d learned from the mystery of sex to the cultural sphere to transform both.

The good news: 

Brilliant people have been working on improving our sexual culture for a long time.  If we want to have a more thoughtful sexual culture, a healthier one that respects sex and sexuality in its infinite forms, we have some powerful, radical thinkers to choose from.  These are people who have led the way, pushed the boundaries, cared enough about the darkened realm of sex to illuminate it for us.

The bad news:

You probably haven’t heard of many of these thinkers.  And you probably haven’t heard of many of them because the powers that be discredited them or provided them with unpleasant ends.

The other bad news:

WR

Wilhelm Reich

Everyone, even the radical researchers and thinkers in this series, absorbs the sexual prejudices, shames, and confusions of their time and place.  They might deftly avoid one bias and passionately speak out against it, all the while carrying around a whole host of others that they’re totally blind to.  Of course, I’m guilty of this too.  Since the current conception of sex is contaminated, getting new seeds requires, at first, growing crooked plants from polluted ground.  It’s going to take some time.

The other other bad news:

Some of the most important thinkers are kind of crazy.

This, in fact, is a large part of what makes them important. To come up with new possibilities for the world, you have to hang out in the impossible and the imagined quite a bit.  You have to say outlandish things to see if they’re true.  To stand outside the depressing weight of our reality requires deep and intense encounters with your own imagination and seeing things that others don’t see.

But who to invite to this orgy of sexual/cultural renewal?

To explain why I’ve chosen these thinkers and stuck mostly to our culture, a digression:

Christine Helliwell, anthropologist, lived in Borneo with the native people of the region, the Dayak.  One morning, she heard a group of elderly women laughing outside of her apartment.  She found them reenacting a scene from the night before: A man had snuck into a woman’s bedroom through the window, and the woman woke to find him gripping her shoulder. 

“Be quiet,” he said to her. 

The woman sat up in bed and pushed him away.  He fell back and when she started to yelling at him, he escaped back through the window with his sarong falling down.

But why were the Dayak women laughing about it, Helliwell wondered; the woman had almost been raped!  This community of Dayak had no word for “rape,” so Helliwell tried to explain, “He was trying to hurt you.” 

The woman’s reply stunned the anthropologist. 

“It’s only a penis,” she said.  “How can a penis hurt anyone?”

Indigenous people, as well as anthropologists like Christine Helliwell have been reporting deep cultural differences like this to us for years.  In the case of the Dayak community, sexual assault was so far removed from the understanding of sex and gender roles that it was inconceivable, laughable.

In central Africa, the Aka and Ngandu people have sex two to five times every night, and view sex as work, not recreation.  There’s also no known homosexuality among the Aka, belying the commonly held Western truth that homosexuality is universal and inborn.  There’s simply no word or concept for it.

In Tibet, some villagers practice fraternal polyandry – brothers will share the same wife.

Many Native American nations have traditions of Two Spirited people who express cultural gender fluidity, living with the other members of the community in one form, but understood as another.

But a list of indigenous sexual practices, or people from non-Western cultures who uproot the foundations of our understanding does not figure into the selection here. There are blog posts, books, internet videos and TV shows that highlight modern-day sexual differences between Western and indigenous cultures.  Usually, they have a check-out-these-wacky-natives feeling.  Instead of helping us question our own sexual ideas, these news-of-the-weird soundbytes reinforce our prejudices at the expense of indigenous people.  It’s cultural appropriation, because it ignores that the entire cultural context of that practice is different.

For example, it’s not uncommon to find non-indigenous LGBT activists evoking Two Spirit people as poster children for LGBT political/cultural messages, since same sex relationships and gender change are not (at least traditionally) frowned upon in cultures with Two Spirit people.  But while there are similarities, the differences are deep.  It’s not about “gay” or “straight” or “gender fluidity” as we understand it, since the multiple roles — such as iskwehkhan (“fake woman”), ayahkwew (“man dressed/living/accepted as a woman”), and more — are varied, nuanced and more complex than that.  They’re embedded in a different understanding of spirituality, cause and effect, communal connection, and more.  What’s more, these roles are often chosen for members of the community by elders.

Usually, at best, indigenous sex and relationship traditions are appropriated by well-meaning activists.  At worst, they’re dismissed as oddities or demonized as backwards. 

There’s a lot to learn from other cultures’ approaches to sex. In fact, some of the thinkers mentioned in this

Amber Hollibaugh

Amber Hollibaugh

series have learned quite a bit from other cultures…or have made the mistakes I’ve just outlined.  But learning can’t take the form of cultural cherry-picking.  Both brilliant individuals from Western culture and indigenous practices can be inspirational for us, but the former allows for a presumed understanding that the latter does not.  The list of who we can learn from and listen to when it comes to sex and culture cannot be complete without the voices of people from other cultures.  But this series is in no way meant to be complete. So to avoid appropriation and to create a reasonably understood framework of thinking, I’ve chosen Western thinkers.

So who should we turn to?  It can’t be just anyone.  The Marquis de Sade, for example, will have to stay in his Chateau; for all the sexual spelunking he did, he came up with too much grime to be desirable.  Recognizable faces like Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault or pop culture reformers like Gloria Steinem aren’t adequate for our current situation precisely because they’ve had their ideas permeate our culture in a such profound way, but we’re still here, needing more.

So the strategy: Seek out thinkers on the margins of Western cultural consciousness (particularly US, since that is my vantage point, which explains Jacques Lacan’s inclusion, even though he is popular in select Western countries) who are leaning all their intellectual weight against our boundaries.  Express their radical ideas in an unfortunately incomplete but hopefully useful and understandable form.  Recognize that these they all have flaws.  Think about how they could intersect with our lives, including my own, so that they’re not just distant or academic.

Edward Carpenter

Edward Carpenter

And most importantly, perhaps, consider their work not as dogma, not as something we cannot be critical of or question,but rather, as a challenge.  What happens to our sexual consciousness and culture if we confront these thinkers with our intellect but also sit with a listening ear and open mind?

Next up:  The sexologist who married an angel and defended women’s right to pleasure.

Sources

Helliwell, Christine.  “‘It’s Only a Penis’: Rape, Feminism, and Difference.”  Signs 25:3

(2000):  789-816.

Wade, Lisa.  “Is the Penis Dangerous?”  Jezebel.  October 9, 2013.  Web.

Zevallos, Zuleyka.  “Rethinking Gender and Sexuality: Case Study of the Native

American ‘Two Spirit’ People.”  The Other Sociologist.  September 9, 2013.  Web.

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