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