BOOKS: review of Bett Williams’ THE WILD KINDNESS

I was so dazzled by Bett William’s “psilocybin memoir” The Wild Kindness that I wrote a long blog post about it. Then I decided to see if I could get it published somewhere online to increase the readership for this terrific book. Happily, it got accepted by the editors of a recently-launched online magazine called Lucid News, dedicated to “Psychedelics, Consciousness Technologies, and the Future of Wellness.” Check it out here and let me know what you think.

The house style for Lucid News eschews first-person commentary, and the editors thought my review overdid it with direct quotations. So I’m offering here some version of my original blog post, for extra-added incentive for you to check out this important piece of writing.

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When Bett Williams spoke in 2018 at Horizons, the annual “Psychedelics in Perspective” conference in New York City, she read a few tantalizing excerpts from her memoir-in-progress. Everything she talked about fell outside the discourse that I’d been engrossed in as a participant in California Institute for Integral Studies’s year-long training in psychedelics-assisted psychotherapy. Williams shared openly not only about her life in New Mexico as a queer aficionado of psilocybin mushrooms but also about being invited to visit an Afrofuturist psychonaut community in Cleveland and Detroit spearheaded by Kai Wingo and her mentor Master Kilindi Iyi, proponents of high-dose mushroom journeys for transformational purposes. Williams’ language and storytelling were compelling. And she exuded a low-key outside-the-box charisma in her Stetson hat and cowboy boots. I couldn’t wait to read her book, and now it’s here: The Wild Kindness: A Psilocybin Odyssey, published by Dottir Press.

The Wild Kindness does that thing that great books do – give the reader a peek into a world you would never otherwise have known. Come for the psychedelic trip tales, stay for the lesbian domestic drama. Tag along on excursions to other specialized communities (not only Kai Wingo’s but what remains of Maria Sabina’s ceremonial adherents in Oaxaca) and marvel at the author’s knowledge of and fierce respect for Indigenous populations. Enjoy the gender fluidity and mycelial meanderings of Williams’ prose, and relish her political commentary and her sharp critique of the mainstream psychedelic movement. It excited and stimulated me in a way that reminded me of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, another beautifully written and hard-to-categorize text that took mundane descriptions of a highly specific personal life as a springboard for deep dives into a surprising array of smart and evocative philosophical considerations.

Although she has explored psychedelics, especially mushrooms, with a scholarly thoroughness, Williams presents herself as an adventurer more than an academic. She and her partner Beth Hill maintain a center for arts and literature gatherings in New Mexico, and the two of them co-host a podcast called “No Cures, Only Alchemy.” Quotidian details from their daily life form a grounded throughline to the book, including a few hair-raising scenes from legal battles with a crazy ex-girlfriend.

She’s open about good and bad experiences tripping, and she casually offers perceptions that novice journeyers will eat up.

There’s nothing I can compare to the span of time between when a mushroom is ingested and when it starts to take effect. This is when we are the most vulnerable. It always feels like this part of the trip might be hugely important, like our attitude could make or break the entire night, but trying too hard can cause incredible anxiety. To fill this space with any sort of grandiose intent is just asking for the mushrooms to bitch-slap you.

            Just sit back and wait.

            This.

            All your tender hearts who have ever sat like this, sacred and excited, waiting for the entity to arrive. This is real courage.

She’s a serious student of plant medicine but not precious about it.

I personally had no shame in being allied with the tribe of stoners that crowd the Erowid experience vaults with tales of jumping into swimming pools with boots on, making bras out of luncheon meat, or reaching an epiphany while watching Broad City

But she’s not just a rah-rah psychedelic cheerleader.

You know what we all need more than psychedelic mushrooms? Clean water for everyone is what we need, and a good sense of humor, collective hard work, and an ability to chill and appreciate the moment, even when things are hard. Substances, no matter how powerful, can’t compare to basic awareness and an ethical worldview. It’s not the substance but how we employ the substance in service to an ethic that gets results.

Her pilgrimage to North Dakota to stand with the protectors of water rights during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016-17 inspired a long blog post (reprinted in the book) called “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being at Standing Rock,” containing stellar instructions for white people attending indigenous ceremony. The non-linear narrative reflects how the personal and the political intertwine especially in the ambivalent realm of social media.

Nothing speaks love and fixes things like going oceanic…Occupy was a brief moment in time when we could collectively set aside what divided us in favor of a utopian spirit that permeated our spaces. Then Occupy was defeated. The new reality was impossible student loans; call-out culture; Abilify and Adderall; trigger warnings; PTSD; GoFundMes; safe spaces; paying rent in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York; Tinder; and MFA or Die. It was years past the time when we found each other on personal blogs. Now anything we wrote on the internet just fed the monster that was Google and we couldn’t pretend otherwise. We said we would quit Facebook, but none of us ever did. No one was equipped to go oceanic anymore, not in real time, not in actual rooms.

After the Horizons conference, her flight home is cancelled so she decides to take a Greyhound bus back to New Mexico. Some mushrooms might have been consumed along the way. Somewhere in West Texas she gets into a conversation with five guys in a barber shop while getting her boots cleaned and shined. She’s steaming at Michael Pollan’s New York Times editorial fretting about too many people taking psilocybin without proper preparation.

Who exactly are these uptight people they say we need to educate? Not these men. Working-class people, who are often living at ground zero of the opiate epidemic, who are familiar with the drug culture of the military and the commerce of dealing, tend to be very smart about drugs. They can’t afford not to be. The population that is uptight about psychedelics, from my own experience – if I may be so vulgar as to use this label – are the liberal elite. They are acquaintances who give that Are you okay? look when I fill them in on what I’ve been up to. They are Michael Pollan, who preaches that we are not ready to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms because more studies need to be done and thus are potentially dangerous and should be used only in a clinical setting with a trained professional. They are Rick Doblin from MAPS (Multi-Disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), who knows better but keeps silent and allows this doctrine to persist because this is the lie upon which his lifelong project of corporate medicalization depends.

            Psychedelic plants and fungi have had their proving ground for thousands of years and the evidence of their effectiveness as a medicine already exists, noted in anthropological texts and artifacts, and more importantly, in living traditions all over the world. We know this already.

            How many capitalist projects actively depend on human beings forgetting what they already know and possess in order for it to be sold back to them for a price?

            What my heart says is this: The mushrooms don’t like it done that way.

She questions a lot of social norms emerging from the psychedelic renaissance with plain-spoken self-awareness and sophisticated analysis.

Psychonauts constantly emphasize the urgency of integrating the psychedelic experience. To not to so can be very dangerous, they warn. Up until this point, I thought they were talking about other, perhaps less mentally stable people. I had been eating mushrooms for over six years and I didn’t think I had a problem with integration. What did that word even mean, anyway?

            “Integrating is the process of just being alive, right?” Beth said. “You think, you talk to people, you make connections, what else is there to do? Who doesn’t do those things?”

            What if: We obsess over integration because we can’t deal with the fact we are taking Schedule 1 illegal drugs? Framing our drug use in the context of crisis and healing centers psychedelics as a medicine, rather than the crime that it also is.

            What if: Psychedelic integration is an excuse to wallow in our trip-traps, rather than put them away for a while, in order to get down to the business of living.

            What if: Psychedelic integration circles are the only way we know how to make friends with other people who do psychedelics.

            What if: Spending money on therapy and other healing modalities under the guise of psychedelic integration is how we make our realizations feel legitimate in a capitalist society?

I love books that travel intrepidly among the worlds of literature, pop culture, public life, and diaristic self-examination. Her admiration for Joan Didion shows up directly and indirectly. She offers reading lists and YouTube recommendations. She attends a concert by West Texas art icon Terry Allen and is so starstruck she can’t speak. When she meets Kathleen Harrison, psychedelic authority and ex-wife of Terrence McKenna, she at least summons the nerve to ask one question and not be crushed by the answer.

The Wild Kindness joins a growing bookshelf of smart, well-written personal accounts of psychedelic venturing, up there with James Oroc’s tryptamine Palace and Matthew Pallamary’s Spirit Matters. I predict that neuroatypical horny psychedelic queer fans are going to be carrying this book around as a cultural touchstone for years to come. (The pocket-sized paperback is perfectly designed for that purpose.) It’s a totally fun read that lots of people are going to enjoy.

BOOKS: Stephanie Theobald’s SEX DRIVE

Stephanie Theobald’s Sex Drive is a wild ride! Theobald, a fierce bisexual British novelist and broadcast journalist, took it upon herself to survey the contemporary landscape of female masturbation, figuratively and literally. She made a list of all the American female sexperts she could think of and then rented a car and drove across the country to meet them and harvest their wisdom while having adventures which she shares in great detail with her lucky readers.

She starts at the top by taking private instruction with Betty Dodson, author of Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving and widely considered “the godmother of masturbation,” and then works her way through an illustrious roster of pleasure activists. They include Regina Thomashauer, founder of Mama Gena’s School of Womanly Arts; Veronica Vera, former model for Robert Mapplethorpe and proprietor of Miss Vera’s Finishing School for Boys Who Want to Be Girls;

Barbara Carrellas, who teaches classes in Urban Tantra; Annie Sprinkle, the renowned pornstar-turned-sex-educator; best-selling author and columnist Susie Bright, aka Susie Sexpert; Nicole Daedone, the founder of the female-centered sex institute OneTaste and the author of Slow Sex: the art and craft of the female orgasm; and a Bay Area-based professional dominatrix named Raven. Theobald even flies to Little Rock to commune with Joycelyn Elders, the former Surgeon General of the United States who was hired by her fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton and then fired for advocating that children should be taught that masturbation is a normal part of human sexuality.

An excellent interviewer and a game participant-observer, Theobald creates vivid, accessible, frequently hilarious prose that makes her every bit the equal of “New Journalism” heavyweights Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson (not unlike the New York Times’ rising star Taffy Brodesser-Akner). She truly goes into this enterprise as a nervous student and extracts a bountiful supply of useful nuggets from her teachers. Curiously, given her vivacious personality, Theobald is plagued by physical inhibitions and shame about her pervy fantasies.

Naomi Wolf claims in her book Vagina that porn desensitizes the pussy, but maybe it’s rather that it shrinks the imagination. Because at some point, you have to ask yourself: Is this really my fantasy or am I becoming addicted to someone else’s dream world? …When I told Betty that I worried about having dirty thoughts, not just when I masturbated but also when I was having sex, she told me not to worry. “Fantasy focuses the mind,” she said. “The dirtier, the filthier, the better.”

Susie Bright allays some of Theobald’s fears, telling her, “I have really insane fantasies. Most of them are physically impossible and morally repugnant. But they’re in my head, so it’s like criticizing me for pretending I’m a princess or riding a dragon….we need a more nuanced psychological understanding of this. I mean, I don’t actually want to be ravaged by nuns and priests on the altar, but in my imagination it can make perfect sense.”

Theobald (above) gets some good instruction in edging from Barbara Carrellas and in eco-sexuality from Annie Sprinkle. The pro-dom Raven is more helpful addressing Theobald’s history of painful intercourse than the medical doctors she’d consulted.

It annoyed me when my vulvodynia doctors used to trot out the “What are your pain levels on a scale of one to ten?” line. They didn’t finesse the question by asking, “Is your pain burning, stabbing, aching, shooting, throbbing, electric?” But Raven goes even further. She says that certain types of extreme sensation — i.e., pain — can teach you to relax around fear or adversity in your life. Sometimes you just have to sit with your pain. Accept your pain — see where it takes you.

I think of myself as pretty knowledgeable about women’s sexual pleasure – as knowledgeable as a gay cismale sex therapist can be – but I learned a lot as vicarious companion on Theobald’s journey. I’d been under the impression that clitoral stimulation (by hand or vibrator) is pretty much the be-all and end-all in terms of generating female orgasms, that penetration was something women go along with because it’s pleasurable to men but not so much to them. I learned otherwise from Theobald’s account of Betty Dodson’s tutelage.

A dildo makes you feel like you are being taken. Penetration is a big deal. It’s easy just to do what Betty calls “clit stim,” when you’re masturbating, but adding a dildo will take things up a notch.

Subtitled “On the Road to a Pleasure Revolution,” Sex Drive works as a zesty memoir and a funky sex manual. Yet at heart it means to serve as a kind of manifesto, shining light on an aspect of sexuality that most women are not trained to prioritize. I’ll close this review with my favorite passage from the book, which speaks to almost anyone:

The truth is that you never know what’s going to happen in your head when you start to masturbate. It’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.

BOOKS: The Paradox of Porn

I’m delighted to announce the publication of my new book called 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.

Pornography is integral to gay male culture: obsessively consumed and almost never discussed, it is the shamefaced step-child of desire and the imagination.

Almost all gay men look at pornography almost every day, whether it’s commercial clips on XTube, handheld homemade videos on Tumblr blogs, or pic-swapping on hook-up apps. Yet we almost never talk about what we watch, what it means, what we like and don’t like. When porn is discussed publicly, it’s often addressed as a problem related to addiction, dysfunction, or exploitation. We nod our heads thoughtfully . . . and then go home and pleasure ourselves to whatever version of porn currently entertains us.

To understand the siren call of pornography, it’s important to consider both what’s valuable and what’s problematic about this alluring form of entertainment. In our heart of hearts, gay men know that pornography has played a special role in our sex lives. It has taught us what desire between two men looks like; it has helped us figure out what turns us on; it has supported us in not feeling so alone; it has gotten us through times of loneliness and isolation, disease and disconnection; and it has contributed to many pleasurable orgasms. At the same time, the images from porn that are now ubiquitous in our lives have shaped and often distorted our ideas about what sex is, what normal bodies look like, how people make connections, and how we feel about ourselves. It has been hugely liberating and hugely oppressive. And that’s the paradox of porn.

This is not a scholarly treatise but an informed, opinionated, open-ended, sometimes extremely graphic meditation on the topic of pornography and its impact on gay male sexual culture. The Paradox of Porn speaks to anyone who wants to explore and expand their understanding of the impact pornography has had in their lives.

Here’s what some eminent authors have said about the book:

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.” – Michael Bronski, author of A Queer History of the United States

“Sane, helpful, and fascinating.” – Andrew Holleran, author of Dancer from the Dance

“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.” –Jay Michaelson, author of God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality

“Frank, smart, and unafraid. Definitely a welcome addition to the conversation gay men should be having.” –Wayne Hoffman, author of Hard, Sweet Like Sugar, and An Older Man

You can read an interview with me about the book published by the online magazine Edge here.

The book is available for order online here. It’s being sold at independent bookstores in New York, San Francisco, and Seattle. Ask your local bookstore to order it for you.

BOOKS: The Cultural Encyclopedia of the Penis

10-2 penis encyclopedia
I was pleased today to receive my copy of The Cultural Encyclopedia of the Penis, a handsome hardcover reference book from Rowman & Littlefield edited by Michael Kimmel, a distinguished writer and authority on male sexuality, along with Christine Milrod and Amanda Kennedy. It’s an intelligent, serious but not overly scholarly volume with fewer illustrations than I would have imagined. The dozens of contributors include distinguished sexologists including Milton Diamond and my friend Winston Wilde, as well as Cynthia Albritton, aka Cynthia Plastercaster, famous L.A. groupie and member of The G.T.O.’s.

My subject was BODY ELECTRIC, and here’s my entry on that subject:

BODY ELECTRIC

In the realm of penis-pleasuring, “Body Electric” is code for a particular type of erotic massage. Invented by massage therapist and former Jesuit seminarian Joseph Kramer and first disseminated through a workshop for gay men called “Celebrating the Body Erotic,” Taoist erotic massage incorporates a wide variety of cock strokes intended to raise and circulate erotic energy around the body without the goal of ejaculation.

In 1984, Kramer founded a massage school in Oakland, California, that he named the Body Electric School after Walt Whitman’s famous ecstatic poem extolling the sacredness of the human body in all its forms and flavors. At the time, Kramer was on a mission to heal the split between sexuality and spirituality in his own life and to bring that healing to his tribe of gay men. With the onset of the AIDS epidemic, gay men had become terrified of touch and sex, and Kramer conceived a pleasurable way to share intensely erotic physical contact that involved no exchange of fluids and therefore constituted completely safe sex.

Synthesizing teachings from Stanislav Grof (on holotropic breathwork), Mantak Chia (on learning to separate orgasm from ejaculation), and tantra (on viewing sexuality as sacred energy), Kramer taught up to 40 workshops a year across the United States and Europe in 1988. He devised 30 different strokes for the “magic wand” that, unlike conventional masturbation, were designed not to facilitate ejaculation but to raise energy and extend pleasure indefinitely. He gave them playful, evocative names such as “Cock Shiatsu,” “Rock Around the Clock,” “Twist and Shout,” and “Hairy Palm Sunday.” Combined with steady, continuous, conscious breathing, a massage integrating these strokes culminated in a full-body contraction known as “The Big Draw,” which “squeezes the orgasmic energy you have generated into the core of your being where it shoots up through your heart and out the top of your head, connecting…with all other energies.” The combined flooding of breath and erotic energy can trigger a full-body orgasm. Some receivers hallucinate, weep, or have involuntary tremors that resemble grand mal seizures, while others simply feel pleasant tingling or peaceful calm.

Participants in Kramer’s workshops and week-long intensives gradually formed a community sharing a vocabulary and philosophy of sacred sexuality. In 1993 Kramer sold the Body Electric School, which continues to offer classes for groups of men and women in erotic touch as a healing practice.

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The Cultural Encyclopeida of the Penis is a pricey reference book — it lists for $85, which means it’s aimed more at schools and libraries than individuals — but you can order it from Barnes & Noble here. I’m reproducing the first page of the table of contents, as a teaser.

10-2 penis toc