Romanian filmmaker Adina Pintilie’s debut feature Touch Me Not provides a beautiful, powerful, intense look into the world of sacred intimacy and sexual healing. Slowly and tenderly, the semi-documentary introduces us to a handful of characters bravely exploring their relationships with their bodies, seeking community and guidance to transcend the limitations of inhibition, physical disability, grief, trauma, and fear. A stony-faced middle-aged woman (Laura Benson) engages a series of sex workers in an effort to understand and perhaps emulate their manifest comfort with their bodies and their sexuality. She spends a fair amount of time at a hospital, looking in on her elderly invalid father, who we eventually come to understand harmed her physically early in life. She also stumbles across a touch workshop for people with disabilities and becomes fixated on a tall bald fellow (Tómas Lemarquis) whose relationship with another workshop participant (Christian Bayerlein, a quadriplegic — he refers to himself as “a wheeler with SMA [spinal muscular atrophy]” — with remarkable self-awareness and body-positivity) is central to the film. The filmmaker herself and the camera equipment appear prominently in the film, highlighting the delicacy and the vulnerability of everyone participating in one of the most extraordinary films about bodies and sex I’ve ever seen. The scenes with sex workers — a handsome tattooed call boy, a transgender prostitute, and an extremely gifted London-based sacred intimate named Seani Love — as well as a scene in a BDSM sex club could all have been handled sensationalistically or mockingly, but they’re not. I love films that take seriously and respectfully the quest for sexual healing, and I equally admire films that don’t overexplain everything that’s happening. Touch Me Not, which won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival last February, has a few more showings at the Museum of Modern Art through January 17. You can read the New York Times review (and watch the trailer) here.
The truth is that you never know what’s going to happen in your head when you start to masturbate. iI’s like that challenge in Masterchef where the chefs lift the lid on a mystery box and find they have to make dinner from a tub of gherkins, some glacé cherries, a jar of peanut butter and a couple of crayfish. Who knows what will come out in the end? The only certainty is that whatever does emerge in the privacy of your head shouldn’t be thrown in the bin. It might not win a TV show, but you should look on it as your own personal masterpiece.
–Stephanie Theobald, Sex Drive
I’m delighted and grateful that I continue to receive unsolicited positive feedback from strangers, clients, and colleagues whose lives have been affected by reading THE PARADOX OF PORN.
Psychedelic science and exploration, which is currently undergoing a renaissance (chronicled in Michael Pollan’s best-selling How To Change Your Mind), has long been dominated – like the rest of the world – by straight white men. Horizons, the annual “Perspectives on Psychedelics” conference held in New York City every October for the last 12 years, is no exception. This year, things changed, as the conference dealt with its own #MeToo situation. Neal Goldsmith, a key organizer and frequently MC for the conference, was removed from the board of Horizons Media in response to multiple reports of sexual misconduct. Founder and director Kevin Balktick really stepped up not only by putting in place a lengthy and explicit “Code of Conduct and Safer Space Policy” but also by exponentially increasing the presence of authorities in the field who were women and people of color, which made for a terrific conference (October 5-7 at Cooper Union), best of the three I’ve attended.
Saturday’s program, focusing on science and medicine, was hosted by Dr. Julie Holland, author of many books, including Ecstasy: The Complete Guide. Highlights of the first day, which culminated in the rock-star appearance of Michael Pollan, included Sophia Korb’s report on the latest research results on microdosing (based on 8000 people from 59 countries using 18 different substances) and Monnica Williams’s incisive talk “Race-Based Trauma: The Challenge and Promise of MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy.” Also useful: Peter Hendricks and Sara Lappan reporting on psilocybin to treat cocaine dependence and “New Findings on the Therapeutic Potential of Ayahuasca” by Brazilian neuroscientist Dráulio Barros de Araújo (below), who memorably proclaimed, “The placebo effect is a beautiful thing!”
Brazilian plant medicine specialist Bia Labate MC’d Sunday’s events, which centered on culture and philosophy. I had to leave early but got to hear two terrific presentations. Besides reading entertaining excerpts from The Wild Kindness: Between Sacred and Secular in the New Mushroom Underground, her queer psychedelic memoir, Bett Williams paid tribute to Kai Wingo, charismatic leader of a high-dose psilocybin Afro-futurist community in Cleveland, who sadly died in 2016 at the age of 43.
Event producer and human rights activist Annie Oak delivered a talk on “Building Risk Reduction and Community Safety Systems in Festival Environments” that was so clear, so sensible, and so visionary that one of the first questions from the audience was “Have you considered running for the Senate?” Oak, a member of the Women’s Visionary Council and founder of the Full Circle Teahouse, an alcohol-free chill space at Burning Man, tossed out one plain-spoken truth after another. “The majority of people who use these [psychedelic] substances will not use them in controlled settings… but rather (will be engaged in) ‘unsupervised self-experimentation’…Having women as leaders is automatically risk reduction…If you want to change the world, throw a better party.” Not a huge fan of social media, she pointed out that “Facebook is an insecure platform that sells your data.” And she shared, point by point, a list of “Safety Tips for Participating in Ceremonies that Use Psychoactive Substances” that the WVC created in 2014. You can find it online here – I encourage you to check it out and let me know what you think.
One big event of the summer season for me was the publication of my new book, THE PARADOX OF PORN: Notes on Gay Male Sexual Culture.
Based on my twenty years of experience as a sex therapist/educator and pleasure activist, this book-length essay explores the topic of pornography from a unique, specifically gay male perspective, surveying in depth what’s valuable and what’s problematic about the ubiquitous forms of erotic imagery we encounter on a daily basis.
My intention in writing the book is the same one that drives my professional practice: to encourage and support gay men in having more pleasurable and more satisfying sex. I would like to share more widely the questions, discoveries, curiosities, and wisdom that I encounter every day of my working life.
The book has been receiving some gratifying positive attention. Kirkus Reviews, which is aimed primarily at libraries and booksellers, called it “A relatable, timely analysis of pornography’s history and its effect on the mindset of the gay community.” The Bay Area Reporter said, “Given how pervasive porn is in the gay male world, it’s encouraging to read a thoughtful and clear-eyed analysis of how it impacts and shapes our sexual lives.” The Advocate published an excerpt from the book, and Edge Media interviewed me, calling the book “an enlightening and useful meditation on pornography.”
Some writers I admire have offered words of praise. Michael Bronski, author of A Queer History of the United States, said “The Paradox of Porn is the best book about pornography, the lives and imaginations of gay men, and state of erotic gay culture written to date.” Novelist Andrew Holleran called it “sane, helpful, and fascinating.” Journalist and commentator Jay Michaelson said, “Don Shewey’s book is wise, informed, and fearless. The Paradox of Porn busts through several closet doors and explodes taboos. A rich and rewarding read.”
I hope you’ll check it out for yourself and let me know what you think.
If you’re in New York on Saturday September 22, I invite you to join me in celebrating the publication of The Paradox of Porn at a book launch event called “Written on the Body/Queer*Sex*Life” at the Bureau of General Services Queer Division, the bookstore located in Room 210 at the LGBTQ Community Center, 208 W. 13th Street.
I will be appearing with my friend Ishmael Houston-Jones (above), the super-talented dancer-choreographer who has just published his terrific first book, FAT and other stories: some writing about sex. We will be reading from our work, answering deeply personal questions, and selling and signing copies of our books. I’ll also have a big box of vintage porn to give away. The event starts at 6:00 pm with an informal reception. The reading will begin at 6:30, and we will be done by 8:00. Please come!
If you can’t join us for the book launch, you always order my book online at Amazon or Barnes and Noble, though if you prefer to patronize independent booksellers, you can find one here and ask them to order the book for you if they don’t already stock it.
I traveled to Mexico City last month to attend the World Bufo Alvarius Congress (WBAC), bufo alvarius being the name of a toad species native to the Sonora Desert that secretes a substance that when dried and smoked creates a powerful psychedelic experience. When synthesized in a laboratory, the compound is known as 5meo-n-DMT, somewhat related to dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is produced by the human body and many plants and is the active ingredient in ayahuasca. The gathering in Mexico City July 27-29, 2018, was the first of its kind to assemble in one room a few hundred people who had all experienced this sacred medicine – “the indigenous peoples, the practitioners, the scientists, the anthropologists, and the psychonauts – the now-global toad family whose lives have been touched by this most powerful of entheogens,” as the website described the target audience. “Join us for three days of lectures, panel and group discussions, and films by the leading experts in this nascent field…to address the pressing issues of toad conservation, ethics, best practices, and sustainable alternatives, and to explore the limits of both our science and our spirituality. What’s more, it is also a much needed gathering to discuss the power and responsibility of using this unique compound, and to find ways in which we can grow as an educated and unified community.”
I attended the congress partly out of professional interest, since I’m engaged in a year-long training in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. But I suppose I also fall in the category of psychonaut, someone with a passionate curiosity to explore these medicines for the sake of spiritual growth and self-awareness.
My report on the gathering, “Romancing the Toad,” has just been published in the online magazine Reality Sandwich. There was a lot of useful information conveyed, and not a small amount of drama. You can read the complete account here. Check it out and let me know what you think.
White Crane Institute promotes the study of the role of Gay men, queer sexualities and gender variation and orientation in the evolution, psychology, sociology, and practice of spirituality, ritual, and religion. Gay Wisdom, a project that evolved out of the quarterly White Crane Journal, broadcasts a daily dose of history and life reflection for spiritually minded queer folks. You can sign up to receive these free emails here or join the Facebook page here. Gay Wisdom recently interviewed me about my new book, The Paradox of Porn: Notes on Gay Male Sexual Culture. The first chunk of the interview appears below; you can read the interview in full online here.
A White Crane/GayWisdom Interview with author Don Shewey by Paul Wirhun
Paul Wirhun: First of all, this is a great book and an important read. Has no one else really written as extensively on this subject? I particularly loved the lack of judgment in the tone throughout, and the observation about how personal the path is for one’s use of porn. I especially loved Sgt. Shewey’s discourse at the end of the book – might it possible to excerpt that and get it into other gay publications as a stand-alone essay? It might also draw more readers?!?
Don Shewey: Thanks, Paul, for your kind words. The only other book I’m aware of that specifically tackles gay men’s experience of pornography is a scholarly volume from 1996 called Hard to Imagine by Thomas Waugh. I haven’t read it. It’s expensive, $75, and not only hard to imagine but hard to find. It’s funny you should mention the idea of circulating my list of things-to-do as a stand-alone essay: I’ve just submitted it to The Advocate, which expressed interest in publishing an excerpt. So we’ll see.
Paul: I’m curious about the impetus for writing this – a long-term idea brewing? What prompted you to finally write it?
Don: I’m someone who has always enjoyed thinking and talking about sex in an open and unembarrassed way, maybe because I came of age during an enlightened period when feminism and gay liberation had a big impact on me and taught me to value the body and to know that “the personal is the political.”
Paul: Did it come from your therapy practice and what you were hearing from clients, or from a more personal cogitation?
Don: That background has served me well as a sex therapist. I’ve talked about the impact of pornography on gay men’s sex lives with clients for so many years that I finally decided it was time to write down some of the thoughts and perceptions I’ve been repeating in therapy sessions day after day after day.
Paul: Your humor throughout is very engaging and sets a relaxing tone. I’m glad that voice is included. Why do you think are we still so skittish to discuss porn? Is porn still in the closet? What do we admit by saying we use it; and what do we say about ourselves when we deny our use in public discourse, whether with friends/lovers/sex mates?
Don: I think many people have a hard time talking about sex at all. It’s so intimate and revealing. Many people live with shame about their desires, religious guilt, fear of other people’s judgments. It’s hard even for couples in established relationships to discuss the nitty-gritty details of sex.
There’s a prevailing myth that “talking about sex spoils it.” Even psychotherapists and physicians who are theoretically trained to deal with all aspects of human life get squeamish when it comes to talking about sex. There are some realms in which sex is accepted as healthy and positive, not to mention essential for life, but pornography always carries the air of the forbidden, the sleazy, which makes it extra-difficult to talk about in public or in private.
Paul: Do you think that there is a way to break through this “air of the forbidden, the sleazy” — which your book accomplishes – or do we remain stuck in this paradigm – and have to keep these conversations more private? Why must society keep our deepest desires ‘in the closet’ and labeled sleazy?
Don: We could say that the world might be a better place if everybody viewed all aspects of sexuality as acceptable, human, healthy, whatever, including homosexuality, masturbation, pornography, etc. There will always be people who do; there will probably always be people who don’t. Jungian analyst James Hillman might point out that sexual inhibitions are archetypal – they go with the territory of being human and there may be some evolutionary purpose for those inhibitions.
Paul: Some of the discourse with your clients really brought home for me two experiences: 1. How porn personally affected that person’s life/perspective of their own sex life, causing me to investigate my use of porn more mindfully (thank you!); and, 2. How each of us creates a story about the our own disjuncts in achieving personal erotic satisfaction, and how we get trapped in that story and view of ourselves; speak to the mirroring that happens in porn and how that affects our sense of selves and these narratives we cook up about ourselves and our sex lives, if you would?
Don: This is the essential paradox of porn, right? We’re drawn to it because there’s something we recognize about the heat, the lure of sex, the pleasure of looking at bodies engaged in sexy activity, the feelings the emerge in our own bodies looking at it. So, porn (erotic imagery of any kind) is a kind of mirror.
And at the same time, it is an edited medium, a product of technology, with its own memes and formulas and codes, and when you look at enough of it you start seeing porn as the template and you start copying what you see. For instance, I don’t think many people really like having someone ejaculate on their faces, but it’s such a mainstay of porn because it’s highly visual, so now guys think it’s perfectly acceptable, if not required. It’s an ongoing question – does porn reflect our tastes or create them?
To read the complete interview, see here.