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Book-lust, or, I’m Reading A Book A Day and You Can Too

17 Nov


Book-lust used to plague me, because I didn’t know how to love it.


For years (almost two decades, now), I’ve had a dream of reading a book a day. Someone told me that Susan Sontag read a book a day (and later, I heard that Noam Chomsky did the same). I have no idea if that’s actually true, but the myth was almost overpowering. If she could read that much and write as much as she did and think as deeply as she did and direct plays, give talks, etc etc. Surely, I thought, it must be possible.

I’m sure the original idea was that reading a book a day would make me more like her.  As time passed, I realized that wasn’t necessarily a desirable goal, given some of the less pleasant contours of her life.  But her notion of living a serious life remained. I wanted to read a book a day, not to collect books, but to equal the commitment and artistry that was found in them.

But you know how the story goes:


Susan Sontag, in varying moods of bookishness.

I bought books and books thinking I’d read them, and they stacked up around me. Soon I had all those words waiting for me to live up to my promise. It started to feel like I was buying books to accuse myself of not reading them. That’s not necessarily an unpleasant feeling.  Going to bookstores (including the one I worked at for seven years), the pursuit of books, was a pleasure in and of itself. Bringing them home, having their colored spines show up on the shelf, feeling the promise, it was all good. It kept me in a constant state of arousal.


But the pursuit was a single pleasure, seeking a complimentary partner in reading that equaled it. I didn’t just want the books around me, I wanted them in me.

Instead of books, I carried the urge to read more of them in me for years. I enacted it too slowly. I’d read a book every two weeks, or, at best one or two a week. What would happen if, instead of lengthy considerations which took second stage to the rest of life, I immersed myself in constant conversation with an array of voices? What would happen to my thoughts if they were always active with style and challenge and whatever else was beautiful (or terrible, for that matter)?

Anyway, this is a longwinded introduction to a project I embarked on, of reading a book a day. I’m in week three.

If you’ve longed to do it, here’s how I’m pulling it off. I don’t know that these guidelines would work for you, but I think pieces of my plan might be helpful.

How To Read A Book A Day: Guidelines to Myself

  1. Pick the books for each week a few days before the week starts.
  2. Pick more than seven books, so that you have some leeway.
  3. In general, pick books that are no more than 200 pages in length.
  4. Have some quickly-read books on hand: Plays, poetry, very short books. Finally in desperate cases, books that you had previously started, approached the end of, but never finished
  5. If you want to read a longer book, or if you start a book and it appears that you won’t finish it before the end of the day, have one of the shorter books on hand. That way, you can read the part of the longer book and finish the shorter book. Then finish the longer or not-finished book on the following day.
  6. If you have to stay up to finish a book, break out the coffee and make it happen.
  7. Tell your loved ones. Ask them if they’d like to hang out somewhere and read with you. Or, if you really want to involve them (and they want to be involved!), read plays or poetry or short stories out loud with them.
  8. Understand that in the first few weeks, it’s going to take some time to adjust. That means you might fuck up your work schedule a bit, you might disappoint a few people with plans, etc. That should clear up as you get used to it.
  9. You can have one day off a week. Try to avoid taking a day off. But if it happens once, its okay.
  10. Don’t get caught up in whether or not this is a good or bad way to read books. You’ve done it the other way – slowly – for your entire life. You’re doing something new now.
  11. Go for at least a month, then check in with yourself.

Anyway, all that said, I’m in Week Three after having adhered to my guidelines for the first two weeks.

Here’s a list of the books I’ve read so far:



Intimacies by Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips. In Praise of Love by Alain Badiou. How I Became A Nun by César Aira. Outside Mullingar by John Patrick Shanley. The Joy of Revolution by Ken Knabb. Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz. Blue Yodel by Ansel Elkins.



True Deceiver by Tova Jansson. Song and Error by Averill CurdyThe Beach Beneath the Street by Mackenzie Wark. The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjöberg. Variations on the Body by MIchel Serres. Lobby Hero by Kenneth Lonergan. (missed one day)

I’ve got a lot to say about each book and also, about all the books and what it feels like to have them flow in and out of each other. But that will come out in my writing organically, I’m sure.

But one note here: Not only has the experience been tremendously energizing and enlivening to my thoughts, but I also experience the lack of anxiety. The urge to read a book a day is gone, and in its place is space and time. It might seem funny that spending hours every day reading should give me more time, but I feel the relief of a certain kind of pressure. Lust, in other words, has become, through following it faithfully, its virtuous self: chastity. Experience feels purified.

Okay. So. Let me know: Have you ever tried this? If so, what are your methods of going at it? If not, and you long to, what can you do to make it happen? What will you read?



#TheSexRadicals, Conclusion: Where are the sex radicals of today?

22 Sep

AASBEach week this summer, I’ve been posting short essays on sexual thinkers who have changed my perspective on sex, and who, I believe, could be instrumental in helping us remake Western sexual culture. All the figures were dead except one, Amber Hollibaugh, who I included because, in my life, she’s tied to the other thinker featured in that post, Edward Carpenter, in a way that I felt made both more illuminating.

The task at hand after the series was finished was to cap it off with a review of the sex radicals of today.  I thought it would be easy.  Instead, I found myself searching without much success and wandering around in a sort of cultural pessimism.

It’s not that there’s a shortage of people doing amazing sexual thinking. I know dozens of people who are doing essential and powerful work around sex.  I list some of them here in hopes that you will find and engage with their efforts.  People like:

sex and law scholar Eric Berkowitz

trauma and abuse researcher Susan Clancy

Middle East cultural critic and feminist rebel Mona Eltahawy

sex work journalist Melissa Gira Grant

trans rights activist/porn occultist Bailey Jay

critical theorist Roger Lancaster

writer and researcher into childhood sexuality Judith Levine

the dispeller of sex and porn addiction myths David Ley

cultural documentarian and sex worker advocate Maggie McNeill

sex-in-evolutionary thinker Christopher Ryan

The world would be worse off without any of these people’s vital efforts. And for all the tremendous amount of respect and

Wilhelm Reich

Wilhelm Reich

gratitude I have for them, I don’t find in them the big picture risk of someone like Wilhelm Reich, or the comprehensive theorizing of someone like Jacques Lacan. Nor anything like Ida Craddock‘s attempt to merge dimensions of science, pleasure, spirituality, and feminism into a usable practice of sensual liberation.

This isn’t a slight to any of the luminaries I’ve mentioned.  Rather, it’s a report on the state of the world, which has seemingly moved on from a renaissance of interdisciplinary thinking. Instead, thinkers tend to find a niche and gather information, to become experts.  This is, in some ways, a positive development.  After all, the sweeping generalizations of the modern era led to (and continue to lead) to colonialist wars, racism, classism, and more.

But the drive to discover the entire world in yourself, and to discover yourself spread out across the world your very being located everywhere, that does bring us something potent and radical.

Perhaps more to the point, that the current cultural impulse demands we sequester our work and not allow the free flow of other disciplines into our own is decidedly un-sexual.

My mentor, biologist Lynn Margulis, was an interdisciplinary radical if ever there was one.  She knew geology, chemistry, microbioogy, botany.  She could recite Emily Dickinson poems by heart, and at the end of her life published a book of fiction.  She went to school for philosophy and helped create the field of biogeochemistry, which studies how living beings interact with non-living beings in profound discursive loops.

Lynn and Me.

Lynn and Me.

“The people down the hall from my lab,” she told me, “have no idea what I’m doing.  And the people down the hall from them have no idea what they’re doing, and so on.  How is anyone supposed to know what ‘science’ is if scientists don’t talk to each other?”  That was in a single University of Massachusetts building.  Now what about that building and the humanities building?  And other campuses?  And people who don’t go to college or teach at a college and those that do?  The world is hopelessly fragmented and continues to harden into fine intractable points of view.  We don’t have disciplines any more so much as we do shards of thought.  We can’t help but harm ourselves with their edges, still jagged from when they were broken off from the whole.

Happily, there are deeply interdisciplinary thinkers that write and speak about sex. The founder of the Center for Sex and Culture Carol Queen, for example.  Science fiction writer and academic Samuel Delaney. Sex therapist and author Chris Donaghue.

I don’t mean these intellectuals are “better,” simply that they are doing the work of introducing disciplines and perspectives to SOTLother disciplines and perspectives.  They are bridges for disparate ways of thought.  These sorts of bridges are desperately needed.

And we need to do more than that, even.  We need to focus our efforts on more than just sex.  Sex is the teacher, and its lesson is not merely itself.

I’m guilty myself of every charge here, of course.  I’m guilty of limiting my scope and vision and action, and I’d like to do better.

A world that embraces true sexual freedom will need to be pluralistic, because sexuality is individual.  Unfortunately what our culture embraces, sexually, is pluralism’s opposite.

Fundamentalism is the default attitude of our culture when it comes to sex.

It’s an attitude composed of a psychotic certainty about what is sexually moral.  People and institutions in power may have set the stage for these fundamentalist attitudes, but everyone perpetuates them.  Whenever you slut-shame someone, whenever I reactively flinch at a friend’s sexual preference, whenever we unthinkingly let a sexual taboo go unchallenged, even if we are sex positive, we reinforce sexual fundamentalism.  The best way to combat fundamentalism is to cultivate in thinking, feeling and action, a true plurality. Sexually, you may engage with people you might not normally find attractive, try a new sexual act, question your patterns and boundaries.  But let’s move beyond sex here to get truly sexual.  We can read and investigate topics outside of our interests, allow ourselves to be uncomfortable.  Pull a book at random off the shelf at the library, force yourself through it, whatever it is.  We can speak to people outside our group, however we might define it.  Start a conversation with a stranger, and watch your thinking as you proceed.  Finally, we can believe in and hold lightly concepts that are counterintuitive to see how they feel.  Allow love for your enemies, whether they’re people or ideas.

When we view the world pluralistically, when we see many disciplines, the image of the leader dissipates and is replaced with and image of partners.

When Lacan observed the revolution in France in 1968, he said “What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a master.” He knew that what usually happens is that people replace one assembled invisible worldview with another.  There’s no desire in that.

So how can we change the landscape of sex without seeking new masters? 

I’m not sure, but my best shot is this:

Let sex teach you.  Be its student.  Then look to yourself, the world is there.

#TheSexRadicals, Part 7: Jacques Lacan on How to Want Wanting

9 Sep
Jacques Lacan

Jacques Lacan

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. The last installment was on Russian mystic Vladimir Solovyov’s and his virtuous concept of lust.  The series also appears on (heads up, Reality Sandwich was recently hacked and is putting the pieces back together. I’ll remove this message when the site is up and runnign again.)

Desire Is the Truth of It: Jacques Lacan and Wanting Wanting

“What does it matter how many lovers you have if none of them gives you the universe?”

– Jacques Lacan (1901-1981)

Let me use the cute and baffling koans of physics here to introduce you to French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

Neils Bohr, a physicist, once said, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.”  And Richard Feynman is also known to have weighed in on this:  “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

If you think you understand Lacan, you don’t understand Lacan.

This is good news.

The powerful shock of not understanding him awaits you.


Jacques Lacan, silverering hair above a furrowed brow.  A look of…bemusement? Acceptance?  What is that look that’s always on his face?  He was born in France, he practiced psychoanalysis.  He drew from Freud, yes, but also Salvador Dali and James Joyce, among others.  He was adamant that psychoanalysis should be considered science, but also deeply suspicious of science.  He gave powerful lectures and treated psychotic patients (patients are distinctly referred to as “analysands” in the language of psychoanalysis). He was and is constantly pinned down by detractors, supporters, and friends alike, all certain they understand him.  Unlike many of the other thinkers in this series, Lacan has enjoyed waves of popularity in the US, although he has never made a dent in the collective psyche. Currently in a resurgence at universities, he is clumsily spun into any narrative that anyone wants.  Right now, somewhere, there’s a student starting a sentence with “Jacques Lacan says…”  Art historian and feminist Camille Paglia has (correctly) cautioned against the overbroad — she might say “stupid” — theoretical misuses of Lacan’s work.  Lacan’s friend Noam Chomsky (incorrectly) labeled Lacan an unintelligible and performative “charlatan.” 

Instead of “charlatan,” Trickster will do. 

Like the Coyote or the Crow of some Native American spiritual traditions (and rather like a Warner Brothers cartoon character)

Lacan shows up, sees the mess of the world, and understands and lives through it. “Lacan is a great thinker of disorder,” says Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou.  Lacan’s work confuses us with its strange wording and schematics, not because he intends (like many who are influenced by him) to use jargon, but because he wants to keep his integrity intact.  “I don’t boast of making sense.  Not the contrary either,” he says; an amplification of Whitman’s famous line, “Do I contradict myself? Fine, I contradict myself.  I am vast, I contain multitudes.”  At the end of his life, Lacan works to dissemble his theories.  Again, like a cartoon character: disappearing into his own cape, or, as Badiou puts it, Lacan “undoes by himself the knot of his own existence.”

If it seems like I’ve been spending a lot of time qualifying Lacan’s difficulty, it’s not out of apology.  I’m highlighting a key tenet

The subject supposed to know.

The subject supposed to know.

of his work: the discomfort of not-knowing, and just how much frustration we feel when we can’t understand others or the world.  It’s intolerable, isn’t it?  We want to know what it is people think and want from us; our parents, our lovers, our therapists, our bosses, even the authors we read.  If we don’t get what an author is writing about, we say they’re “bullshit” or if we don’t get what a lover wants, we say he or she is “fickle” or “crazy.”  We dismiss what we don’t understand with a phony gesture of total understanding.

To counter this, I’m not invested in who is “correct” about Lacan (and that includes not worrying so much if I myself am “correct,” as certain readers will no doubt try to point out).  I don’t need to adopt him as a perfect hero by which to view the entire world, or, for our purposes, sex and culture. Lacan is not someone who is supposed to know everything.

Rather, his work is a living and dynamic system, hopelessly complex and obviously simple, like any living organism.  There it is, moving and breathing in front of you, and yet full of intricacies and secrets you’ll never quite unravel.  Indeed, to truly encounter it, one must move with it.  It is rather like poet and scientist Goethe’s quote about nature, that to grasp it, we must “become as flexible and mobile as nature herself.”  In this case, we must be as flexible as desire.


When it comes to desire, first things first.

Lacan, and indeed psychoanalysis in general, gives challenge to one of our most basic assumptions:  That we are beings of knowledge. In other words, we learn something, it changes our view, we grow and then we learn something else. Any bit of information becomes a little collectible object.  Get enough of them and suddenly your world advances.

Lacan counters this.  Knowledge isn’t the thing we think it is. In the words of critical theorist Todd McGowan, psychoanalysis conceives “of the subject as a subject of desire rather than as a subject of knowledge.”  In other words desire is what leads us. If true, this poses a major problem for political movements and social justice activists.  It means that their view of change is far too optimistic.  However focused social justice work is on the woes of the world, the implicit message is, If we could just get culture and economics all tidied up, then everything would be all right!  This would depend on knowledge being the center of humanity, not desire. If everyone just woke up to new knowledge and awareness of what was “really happening” in the world, the world would be better.

The counter-notion of psychoanalysis is that people don’t want to change, even if they say they do.  They don’t want to change because their destructive behavior — destructive to themselves and others — is giving them something that they desire.  And to make matters more complicated, in Lacan’s play on words, “There isn’t the slightest desire to know.”  Everyone’s world view hinges on keeping behaviors and excuses and explanations as they are.  Desiring and knowing are at odds with each other.

What’s more, desire isn’t what it seems.  Desire is an active organizing principle.  It exists before the object of desire.  Put simply, desire is happening in us all the time, arranging our personality, world view, and behavior. We experience our desire when it finds something to focus on.  It could be a new car or a big bicep or a word of approval.  When we get what we desire, we’re frustrated, because desire can’t be ameliorated.  You probably know someone who has gotten her dream job, only to find herself frustrated with it.  Or someone who keeps moving to new locations, believing that surely this will be the perfect place for him, only to find himself drawn again to a new perfect spot.  When it comes to sexual experiences, they may be pleasurable, but now think of how frustrating they are when we expect them to satisfy our desire for sexual experiences or to be a cosmic encounter where all we feel is love and transcendent ecstasy. 

In other words, once we get what we want, we can’t want it anymore. 

Or we see that it’s not really what we wanted after all.  Either way, disappointment, and we search again.

For Lacan, changing the world requires not just action, but changing, or discovering, or creating the self.  That work requires moving with the current of an individual’s desire.  “Current.”  Desire is a movement, not a thing.  So, like trying to see the rushing movement of water rather than the water itself (which, even when still, is nearly invisible), it takes an extraordinary capacity.  One must peer into his or her own unconscious, and this can almost never be done alone.  That is the function of psychoanalysis.

One technique for doing this work is paying attention to words. For Lacan, everyone’s unconscious is a language.  It’s not made up of English or whatever words we use on the surface – it’s a language of associations and images, connections and gravities. The words we use are a sort of indicator of what’s going on, signposts in an vast and unknowable landscape. Words point to images, associations, and more, that are not on the surface of understanding.  Thus, the famous “Freudian slip,” in which the analyst focuses on a word that comes out in error.  Lacanian analysts also focus on repeated words.  Why, for example, is an analysand always saying “forced” when he could be saying “coerced,” “pressured,” “pushed into?”), and words that sound similar.  When someone says again and again, “I just want to be heard by my partner!” and always find themselves unsatisfied by their tone deaf lover, are they perhaps saying, “I just want to be hurt?”

Everyone’s unconscious is totally individual, and so requires a different mapping.  When you read the word “cat” for example, why should you envision the cat you envision, and not the one I do?  What brought you to your image?  And what about all the associated feelings you have with it?  And how would you describe that image and those feelings? What words would you use for those?

You can imagine the implications here for all the words we use for sex, as well as the associative erotic images and feelings.

Part of why the images and feelings arise is because they’re structured by forces outside of us. When we want something, for example, it’s often because we’re thinking about what others want of us. We’re imagining these people, imagining them even if they’re standing in the room with us.  We’re puzzling out what their desires and demands are.  We want to know what they want from us.  For instance, we think: She wants me to appease her, so I’ll ask her if she wants me to get her anything from the store or He wants me to submit to him because he’s always angry, but I will never do what he wants! 

Lacan doesn’t stop his interrogation there, though.  He points out that we think people want this or that from us because we relate to the world through an even bigger Other.  We believe what we believe about what other people want based on the way that we think the world works.


Yes, complicated! 

For Lacan, every shade of thought, every gesture of behavior has its own distinct reality.  This is a great compliment he pays Uus: our lives aren’t day-to-day, but inexhaustible.  We might look at ourselves and motivations and think, not much to it!  But through Lacan’s understanding, a whole varied, textured, and layered portrait appears.  No wonder he was interested in Joyce, who, in Ulysses, revealed that a single ordinary day was also and always a mythic saga of consciousness.

We are beings of desire, not knowledge.

Desire is not a thing, but a gesture of being.

Our words give indications of our unconscious and our desire.

We don’t know why we use the words we do.

We want what we want because we’re thinking of what others want from us. 

And we’re thinking of others in a certain way because we’re imagining a them in relation to an even bigger Other.

What that means is that in a way, our unconscious isn’t some totally static object that’s somewhere inside our brain.  Instead, it’s something that happens to and through us.  In that frantic swirling chaos of happenings, what do we do?  We try to make sense of it.

The way we make sense of the world is our foundational illusion.  It’s paranoid.

Imagine the stereotypical image of the conspiracy theorist, sitting in his bedroom.  He’s sweaty, of course, he hasn’t left his house in awhile.  On his wall are all sorts of photos.  Between them, strings connecting one photo to the next, to the next.  When his phone rings, it’s because someone is after him.  Is it the government?  When he answers, it’s just a telemarketer.  But wait, he knows that the telemarketer is actually a secret agent posing as a telemarketer.  Next time, he won’t answer because he knows why they’re calling him.



This is how we all encounter the world.  The key differences between a non-paranoid person and a paranoid one are that the paranoid person’s ego is on the surface, evinced by all his behavior, rather than hiding; and also that someone who does not exhibit psychosis in a paranoid way simply exhibits less certainty in her convictions.  But the fact remains: All of us are always threading the dots, creating connective tissue, making correlations.

Paranoia is an x-ray of a “normal” person’s mind.

This is why Lacan is so important to understanding sex, because our ideas of sex – which are, after all, intimately connected to desire on every level – are delusional.  Our feelings about sex are totally attached to a nearly psychotic level of certainty.  What is more common about sexuality than claiming to know what it is we prefer?  We like what we like.  “I can’t control what I’m attracted to,” people say.  “I’m not into that.”  The contours of most people’s sexualities are fixed by what we think others want: The state, our parents, our lovers, the person we’re hitting on, who “society” tells us is attractive, and more.  Even people who are not certain about what they may or may not want sexually are often totally certain about what they could or could not do.

And when it comes to relationships, we are often at our most paranoid.  Not just when we look through a lover’s texts, convinced he or she is cheating on us, and finding ourselves unsatisfied when there isn’t any evidence of that, but in the desperate work of assessing. 

Here’s a sequence to explore that: I spend a Monday night one a date with a guy.  It’s interesting, though not passionate. I see him again Wednesday and we have sex, and then I see him again on Friday but he makes me angry.  Even though he’s made me angry, I decide to see him again anyway the next Tuesday.  All along, I’m in a perpetual quest to pin down the situation with words.  I think “where is this going?”  and “are we dating?” And eventually, “is he my boyfriend?”

Another way to expose these frameworks: when we go out to bars and events hoping to find “the One.”  That one special person. 

It’s a reenactment of P.D. Eastman’s children’s book Are You My Mother?, a title just waiting for psychoanalytic dissection.  In


it, a lost baby bird wanders around asking other animals and even objects if they are his mother.  In the book’s climax, the fledgling interrogates a steam shovel, which, though terrifying, reveals to him the ridiculousness of his question and lifts him back into his nest.

The person questing for meaning at the bar looks at everyone he meets, sizing them up.  Is this “the One?”  No.  What about this person?  No.  What about…?

No wonder the question of the One can haunt us long after we get into a relationship.  Did we choose properly?

We’re all performing this paranoid structure, it’s just that most of us don’t know we’re performing it.  The job of the analyst isn’t to “cure” the person of their ego structure and somehow make them totally authentic. Instead, Lacan wishes an adventure on the analysand: What happens when you drop the connections you’re making and start to regroup your fundamental fantasy about how the world works?

Far from the desexualized stereotype that some critics place on him, Lacan wanted people to experience the true movement and fluidity of their desire.

Lacan, perhaps unsatisfied.

Lacan, perhaps unsatisfied.

“There is no sexual relationship,” he stated. We don’t ever really encounter each other during sex because there’s so much regulating the interaction, particularly our ideas of sex/gender/man/woman.  By the time we get to the bedroom, it’s already too late to meet another human being.  “One can no more speak of ‘woman’ than of ‘man’ without …invalidating in advance any conceptualization,” declared French feminist writer Helene Cixous.  Lacan might agree and add, “Or speak of any sexual advance either.” In sex, we only meet each other, instead, as “partial objects.”  That is, we encounter whatever aspect it is that we can handle.  Objectification is not the same as dehumanization.  Indeed, for Lacan, it is an intrinsic part of the sexual process.  The question that needs to be answered isn’t “How do we not objectify?” but “Why would I want to do anything else?”  Desire will lead you to releasing all the false objects of desire that you think will please you.  Follow it, and you won’t ever see other people the same way again.

“The only thing,” Lacan stated, “of which one can be guilty is of having given ground relative to one’s desire.” 

He didn’t try to dissuade anyone from their desires (and as such was one of the first psychoanalysts to work with people who identified as homosexual without trying to change them).  What he wanted instead, was for people to confront what they swore up and down was “real,” because it was precisely what they were using to avoid what might be truer.  To put it in the words of theological writer GK Chesterton, “the vision is always solid and reliable. The vision is always a fact. It is the reality that is often a fraud.” 

The desire is the truth, if there is such a thing.


Next Up:  Sex Radicals Today



Badiou, Alain and Elisabeth Roudinesco.  Jacques Lacan, Past and Present: A DialogueNew York:  Columbia University Press, 2014.

Lacan, Jacques.  The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge (Encore).                        New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Lacan, Jacques.  Écrits:  The First Complete Edition in English. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.

McGowan, Todd.  Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis.                                                                 Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press, 2013.

Rogers, Annie.  The Unsayable: The Hidden Language of Trauma.  New York: Ballantine, 2007.

Zizek, Slavoj.  How To Read Lacan.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.  Entire site.  Web.


2 Sep

inbedMy blog series, The Sex Radicals returns next week with the penultimate entry.  Until then, I wanted to give everyone a heads up about what’s going on here in my ridiculous life.


Upcoming Events

I’ll be speaking at Catalyst Con West on Saturday September 12, with my closest colleague, Dr. Chris Donaghue.  Our talk, “The Limits of Sex Positivity,” will focus on the pitfalls of the sex positive perspective and community.  The sex positive movement has helped contribute to a healthier, better educated, and more open sexual culture. But with any cultural shift, new dangers are created. What are the limits, pitfalls, and problems of the sex positive movement? For more info on the talk, click here.TT

The same day at Catalyst Con, I’ll be recording a live podcast discussion with porn director and sex educator Tristan Taromino on her world-renowned radio show, Sex Out Loud.  Click here (and scroll down) for info.



Happily busy with podcasts, videos, interviews, etc.

A while back, I appeared on the Grimerica podcast, which focuses on science at the margins, the occult, and general weirdness.  This was my second appearance, and I was joined by the host of one of my other favorite podcasts, Skeptiko.  Alex Tsakiris and I talked about all sorts of stuff, and we don’t always agree (as usual with Alex and I), but it goes deep.  To listen to the discussion, click here.  If you like the discussion, there’s another one between Alex and I, on my blog, here.

Abby Martin

Abby Martin

I also appeared on Abby Martin’s new podcast, Media Roots RadioYou might remember my appearance on Abby’s radical journalism show Breaking the Set a few years back.  Or, if not, you might just know who she is and think she’s awesome.  You’re right.  Abby and I discuss the problems with gay marriage from a queer perspective, as well as bigotry masquerading as new atheism.  We also talk about the PEN America/Charlie Hebdo kerfuffle I was involved in a few months ago.  Abby just moved to New York to start her new show, The Empire Files.  When it airs, watch it.

In other podcast news, I also appeared on This Week in Blackness after Dark with host N’Jaila Rhee.  We spend the 45 minutes or so talking about the recent federal raid on the offices male escort service, Rentboy.  We also discuss all the issues of intersectionality (male privilege, homophobia, class issues, etc.) this raid raises.  Lots to chew on.

My series of sexual health videos for the LGBT Center in West Hollywood, produced by WeHo Life, are now out.

In the first video, I talk about cleaning yourself out in preparation for sex.  For some reason they wanted me to film that video in a public park, so, enjoy my frank public discussion of a generally private act.

I talk with Happy Endings star Stephen Guarino about open relationships and monogamy, and how to juggle both/either.  Quick tip: neither is in-and-of-itself easy.  Watch it here.

In another video in the series, I discuss how to create a sex positive community with stand-up comedian James Adomian.

James Adomian

James Adomian

Meaning, I discuss it with him.  Not, like, how to create a sex positive community with James himself.  Although, okay, sure, if he lives in your neighborhood, you might want to.

I loved shooting these videos because they allowed me to talk about sex and be goofy at the same time.  But not like “tee-hee, OMG it’s SEX” goofy, just like, “look, like is silly and we do this silly thing called sex when we’re alive.”

Also, they did a little opening credits animation thing where I’m the Superman of sex.  I like being a superhero.

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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

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.


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.


Next up: The Perplexing Web of Psychoanalytic Sex



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.


**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

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

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. 


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.


Next Up: The Russian Mystic in Love with Lust


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):

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


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.


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


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)


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.


Next Up: How To Defeat Shame with Vulnerability



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.


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