Thirty years ago, someone whom I helped uncover hidden patches of desire and playfulness christened me with the title “pleasure activist.” I’d never heard the term before. I don’t know where he heard it or if he pulled it out of thin air. But I recognized myself in it and started including it in my professional bio. In the intervening years, the phrase has entered the culture to the extent that a young queer black-bodied woman from Detroit named adrienne maree brown can publish Pleasure Activism (2019), an entire volume of stories, essays, poems, lists, and interviews celebrating the pleasures of not only sex and intimacy but also drugs, dance, fashion, organizing, and social justice advocacy. I love that, among other personal treasures she imparts, amb has a posse of friends who refer to each other as “woes” because they are Working On Excellence.
Early on in the book, amb presents in passing a kind of manifesto:
Pleasure activists seek to understand and learn from the politics and power dynamics inside of everything that makes us feel good. This includes sex and the erotic, drugs, fashion, humor, passion work, connection, reading, cooking and/or eating, music and other arts, and so much more. Pleasure activists believe that by tapping into the potential goodness in each of us we can generate justice and liberation, growing a healing abundance where we have been socialized to believe only scarcity exists. Pleasure activism acts from an analysis that pleasure is a natural, safe, and liberated part of life – and that we can offer each other tools and education to make sure sex, desire, drugs, connection, and other pleasures aren’t life-threatening or harming but life-enriching. Pleasure activism includes work and life lived in the realms of satisfaction, joy, and erotic aliveness that bring about social and political change. Ultimately, pleasure activism is us learning to make justice and liberation the most pleasurable experiences we can have on this planet… Pleasure activism is not about generating or indulging in excess. I want to say this early and often, to myself and to you Sometimes when I bring up this work to people, I can see a bacchanalia unfold in their eyes, and it makes me feel tender. I think because most of us are so repressed, our fantasies go to extremes to counterbalance all that contained longing. Pleasure activism is about learning what it means to be satisfiable, to generate, from within and from between us, an abundance from which we can all have enough.
And she closes the book with this benediction:
Pleasure is the point. Feeling good is not frivolous, it is freedom. We can gift it to each other in a million ways: with authentic presence, abundant care, and honesty; with boundaries that keep us from overextending; with slower kisses; with foot massages in the evening; with baby hugs and elder hugs; with delicious food; with supported solitude and listening to our bodies, our shameless desire, and coordinated longing. Find the pleasure path for your life and follow it. Let it reverberate healing back into your ancestors’ wounds. Let it open you up and remind you that you are already whole. Let it shape a future where feeling good is the normal, primary experience of all beings.
As a longtime journalist and interviewer, I’ve always loved reading Q&As, so of course my favorite feature in the New York Times Book Review is the column called “By the Book.” And my favorite standard question that authors get asked is “What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from a book recently?”
For me, the answer right now would be learning from Paul B. Preciado’s An Apartment on Uranus: Chronicles of the Crossingabout the Silent University created by and for refugees in an occupied house in Athens. In the hall, they speak almost as many languages as there are people. A chain of translators explains the functioning of this university created in London in 2012 by the artist Ahmet Ögüt and set up since then in (among other places) Stockholm, Hamburg and Amman. The phrase “everyone has the right to teach” resounds a dozen times, in Urdu, Farsi, Arabic, French, Kurdish, English, Spanish, Greek. Thought of as an autonomous platform for exchange of knowledge between migrants, this university allows those who know something and those who want to learn it to meet, regardless of academic accreditation or institutional recognition of titles, language spoken, or processes of acquisition of residence or nationality. Someone says, “Ever since I asked for asylum, I’ve had nothing. The only thing I have is time, and during this time, I could learn and teach.” It’s during this seemingly dead time of administrative delay that the exiled artist Hiwa K learned to play classical guitar, taking classes with Paco Peña in England—the reply from the English government never arrived, but Hiwa K plays flamenco as if he were born in Córdoba. Here are some of the courses on offer at the Silent University: Iraqi history, Kurdish literature, Herodotus and the civilization of the Medes, the foundations of political asylum according to the 1951 convention, how to start up your own company, history of food as revealed in the visual arts, Arabic calligraphy… By having his status as political citizen denied, the migrant in exile is reduced to passivity and to “silence.” By acknowledging the migrant as subject of knowledge, the Silent University seeks to activate a new global citizenship.
That’s only one of numerous passages that leapt out at me from Preciado’s book, which is a collection of essays he wrote for the legendary left-wing French daily newspaper Libération and other European publications between 2013 and 2018. Preciado is a widely respected academic, philosopher, and cultural commentator whose 2008 book Testo Junkie (published in an English translation by Bruce Benderson in 2013) blew my mind. Like Testo Junkie, An Apartment in Uranus is a kind of intellectual memoir that takes the form of commenting with poetic incisiveness on everything that meets the author’s eagle-eyed gaze during a specific period of time – in this case, the time it took to acquire a legal name change to reflect Preciado’s correct gender identity.
Preciado draws on deep draughts of history and wide-ranging readings to produce astonishing outbursts of original thinking on a vast array of topics that Susan Sontag would admire and envy.
On the origins of transgender identity:
The German lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs…came up with the word “Uranian” [Urning] in 1864 to designate what he called relations of the “third sex.” … What does it mean to speak for those who have been refused access to reason and knowledge, for us who have been regarded as mentally ill? With what voice can we speak? Can the jaguar or the cyborg lend us their voices? To speak is to invent the language of the crossing, to project one’s voice into an interstellar expedition: to translate our difference into the language of the norm; while we continue, in secret, to practice a strange lingo that the law does not understand.
So Ulrichs was the first European citizen to declare publicly that he wanted to have an apartment on Uranus. He was the first mentally ill person, the first sexual criminal to stand up and denounce the categories that labeled him as sexually and criminally diseased.
On consumerism vs. citizenship:
We are not going to play the disciplinary state against the neoliberal market. Those two have already come to an agreement: in the new Europe, the market is the only government motivation, the State becomes a punitive arm whose sole function will be to recreate the fiction of national identity through security-inspired terror. We do not want to define ourselves either as cognitive workers or as pharmaco-pornographic consumers. We are not Facebook, or Shell, or Google, or Nestle, or Pfizer-Wyeth. We do not want to produce French goods any more than we want to produce British goods. We do not want to produce. We are the living decentralized network. We refuse a citizenship defined by our labor force or our reproductive force. We want a total citizenship defined by the sharing of technologies, fluids, seeds, water, knowledge…They say the new clean war will be carried out by drones. We want to make love with drones. Our insurrection is peace, total feeling. They say crisis. We say revolution.
Along the same lines, this hilarious analysis of Candy Crush:
The key to success for Candy Crush lies precisely in its defects: the childlike, inoffensive nature (there’s no violence or sex), the constant beginning-again (there are up to 410 levels), along with the absence of specific cultural content that could arouse acceptance or rejection. Chastity, idiocy and disinterestedness are the conditions for the globalization of dependence…The apps that can be downloaded from Facebook, Google Play or Apple Store are the new operators of subjectivity. We should be aware of the fact that when we download an app, we don’t install it simply on our mobile phone, but directly onto our cognitive apparatus. While René Schérer teaches us that pedagogical disciplines developed during modernity have served to set the masturbating hand to writing and working, we now understand that the new digital disciplines set the assembly-line hand that used to write and work to masturbate the screen of cognitive capitalism.
Speaking of masturbation, Preciado comes to the defense of sex work:
Making and selling weapons: work. Putting someone to death by applying capital punishment: work. Torturing an animal in a lab: work. Jacking off a penis by hand to provoke an ejaculation: crime! How can we comprehend that our democratic, neoliberal societies refuse to consider sexual services work? … The sex worker does not put her body on sale, but, like the chiropractor, the actor or the publicist, transforms her somatic, cognitive resources into a lively force of production. Like chiropractors, sex workers use their muscles, they give head with their mouths with the same precision that the chiropractor manipulates the client’s skeletal-muscular system. Like actors, sex workers’ practice stems from their ability to dramatize a scene of desire. Like publicists, sex workers’ work consists of creating specific forms of pleasure through communication and social relations. Like any work, sex work is the result of a cooperation between living subjects based on the production of symbols, language and emotions.
On the origins of queer theory:
Queer theory, a punk phrase invented by Teresa de Lauretis in 1990 (theory of the abnormal, knowledge of deviants, as if to say: a theory of madness created by the mad to denounce the horrors of the civilization of sanity), was the result not just of the feminist reading of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, but also of a “pragmatic turning point” in understanding the production of gender identities. In 1954, the linguist John Austin stated that there was a difference between constative and performative utterances. The former describe reality; the latter seek to transform it.
On being praised as courageous:
Today you are granting me the privilege of talking about “my” courage to be me after making me bear the burden of exclusion and shame throughout my entire childhood.
When I received this invitation to speak of the courage to be me, at first my ego purred as if it were being offered a full-page ad for which it would be both the product and the consumer. I saw myself already awarded a medal, a hero…then the memory of oppression attacked me and erased all complacency….
So keep your courage for yourselves. For your marriages and your divorces, your infidelities and your lies, your families, your maternity, your children and grandchildren. Keep the courage you need to maintain the norm. The cold blood to lend your bodies to the constant process of regulated repetition. Courage, like violence and silence, like force and order, is on your side. On the contrary, I claim today the legendary lack of courage of Virginia Woolf and Klaus Mann, of Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich, of Angela Davis and Fred Moten, of Kathy Acker and Annie Sprinkle, of June Jordan and Pedro Lemebel, of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Gregg Bordowitz, of Guillaume Dustan and Amelia Baggs, of Judith Butler and Dean Spade.
But since I love you, my courageous equals, I hope you will lack courage in turn. I hope you will no longer have the strength of reiterate the norm, no longer have the energy to fabricate identity, to lose faith in what your identity documents say about you. And once you’ve lost all courage, weary with joy, I hope you will invent other and unknown uses of your body. Because I love you, I desire you to be weak and contemptible. Because fragility, and not courage, is what brings about revolution.
On recognizing a body of scholars, artists and thinkers little-celebrated in the West:
I am going to Beirut to attend the inauguration of Home Works 7, a ten-day forum of cultural practices organized by Ashkal Alwan…Around the exhibition over 300 people gather every day in seminars, conferences, workshops or performances. Rasha Salti, Joana Hadjithomas, Khalil Joreige, Walid Raad, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Bassam El Baroni, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Ahmed Badry, Walid Sadek, Christine Tohme, Marwan Hamdan, Akram Zaatari, Ahmad Ghossein, Leen Hashem, Haytham el-Wardany, Ayman Nahle, Arjuna Neuman, Rabih Mroué, Manal Khader, Lina Majdalanie, Marwa Arsanios, Bouchra Ouizguen, Nahla Chahal…The artist renaissance of the Middle East.
School functions according to an essentialist anthropology. The idiot is an idiot, the queer is a queer. School is the most brutal and manipulative of the factories of heterosexuality.
On changing his legal name and gender identity:
I feel as I’ve embarked on a sort of epistemological astral journey, or in an experience at the threshold of semiotic-legal death. I am leaving the biopolitical and historical fiction that I was embodying—the femininity that the binary sex-gender system at the end of the twentieth century constructed in a Francoist society that relied on a medico-legal system for which the notion of trans-sexuality did not exist—and I am observing from the outside the physical destruction and administrative, legal construction of a new biopolitical fiction where my body is denied as well as acknowledged as “masculine.” There is coercion and agency. Subjection and distortion of the norm. I myself signed the authorization to destroy my birth certificate; I also signed the request to issue a new one. Like a monster who has learned how to speak, I am seated in the center of the baroque administrative machine that produces the truth of sex, and I am touching all its keys at once, until the system enters a blackout phase. I feel a certain dizziness.
On the faux-intimacy of videoconferencing:
We look at each other and I wonder where this gaze is, wonder how it is possible to look at each other when what the eyes see are not other eyes but eyes on a screen. I watch her as she looks at a map on her screen. It is impossible to say at what instant her eyes stop seeing me, at what instant she has replaced my image with another. Our screens look at each other. Our screens love each other. When that happens, we are properly speaking neither here nor there.
On psychedelics and evolution:
Terence McKenna, ethnobotanist and theoretician of the prematurely vanished rave culture, stated that we are monkeys whose neural cortex exploded after the accidental consumption of the hallucinogenic mushroom Psilocybe cubensis. If that were true, the time has undoubtedly come for us to take another dose.
On San Francisco:
Entering [the women’s sex-toy emporium] Good Vibrations with Annie Sprinkle is like entering a football museum with Lionel Messi. All the sex-toys seem to vibrate as she walks by…We arrive in San Francisco: the streets undulate like the backs of seals turned to the ocean, the stately modernist and Victorian houses mingle with others reminiscent of garages, barns and ranches. We pass through the Castro and see Harvey Milk’s house. This city is the city of the “Summer of Love,” the Compton riots, the place where gender dissidence became a political movement, the place people said had the most sex workers and gender activists per square foot. Annie Sprinkle tells me that San Francisco is “the clitoris of America,” the tiniest and most powerful organ in the country: 121 ultra-electrified square kilometers from which the silicon networks that connect the world emanate. Once there was gold fever; now it’s cybernetic fever. Sex and technology. Sun and dollars. Activism and neoliberalism. Innovation and control. Google, Adobe, Cisco, eBay, Facebook, Tesla, Twitter… 121 square kilometers that concentrate one-third of the risk-capital of the United States.
On what history teaches us about the inexhaustible creativity of human brutality:
History teaches us that the most absurd, most brutal thing has always been politically conceivable: it was possible in ancient Greece to build a democratic system (which we still admire today) that excluded women, children, slaves and foreigners; it was possible to exterminate the native populations of the Atlantic islands and the American continent; it was possible to construct the economic system of the plantation in which the white 15 per cent of the population subjected 85 per cent of the population captured in Africa to slavery; it was possible to settle in Algeria and call idiotic the population that was born there; it was possible to expel the Palestinians from their own homes; it was possible to say to women that if they did not give birth they did not exist; it was possible to build a wall in the middle of Berlin to divide the West from the East, the good from the bad; it was possible to convince people that sex is the work of the devil.
On strategies used to wipe out indigenous populations:
During the nineteenth century, over 40 million bison were killed in North America. These sublime, imposing herbivores were sacrificed neither for their meat nor for their skins. Their flesh rotted in the sun and only their ground-up bones were used as fertilizer for the new colonized lands. The bison massacre was thought up by the federal government, then carried out by the army and by thousands of anonymous colonists—anyone who owned a rifle—as a way to displace the native peoples by starving them to death, since their food and way of life depended entirely on the ritual buffalo hunt. Colonel Sheridan applied an old rule from the art of war: “Destroying the enemy’s resources is the most effective, certain way to finish him off.” By 1890 there remained only 750 bison, who found refuge in Yellowstone Park—which allowed the race to survive ’til today. In 1890, the native populations had been almost completely exterminated or enclosed in federally controlled reservations. No doubt to symbolically atone the sin of the genocide and compensate for a debt that can’t be repaid, a little while ago, President Obama made the bison the national mammal of the United States.
On public protests:
These days [September 2017], in Catalonia, what is surprising is the citizens’ co-operation with the organization of a process of peaceful insurrection. Opposing the law courts and the police station, thousands of people are gathering to speak and sing. A wave of metallic noises resounds through the streets at ten o’clock every night. In all cities “casserolades” are being organized (people bang on casseroles—pots—from their windows, or on tables, at outdoor cafés) to protest against the detention of the fourteen political prisoners. Leaning on the balcony of a building in the Gothic quarter, I’m getting a lesson in democratic culture given by a neighbor to a tourist. When the tourists sitting on the first-floor terrace complain that the noise from the demonstrations is disturbing them, the third-floor neighbor replies: “If the rights of the people who live here don’t interest you, what are you doing here? You should go find a pot in your kitchen and join us.”
Steeped in academic writing, Preciado periodically succumbs to prose so jargon-clotted as to become hilariously incomprehensible: “For the subaltern, speaking implies not simply resisting the violence of the hegemonic performative, but above all imagining dissident theaters where the production of a different performative force can be possible. Inventing a new scene of enunciation, as Jacques Rancière would say. Disidentifying oneself in order to reconstruct the subjectivity damaged by the dominant performative language.” But that happens rarely in this volume. All things considered, it’s most remarkable how lucidly and generously Preciado shares his nuanced perceptions.
On monuments and celebrations:
The most beautiful commemorations are those celebrated by invisible revolutions, the transformations without beginning-date or expiry date. Who celebrates the grass when it grows? The sky changing color? Who celebrates reading a book? Learning a new gesture? Who celebrates the last instant of happiness before a sudden death? We have to forget birthdays. We have to forget landmarks and let relics fall. To celebrate all our other possible births.
By the way, a PDF of the entire book is available (for the moment, anyway) online — click here.
I don’t read a lot of academic writing this intellectually challenging and yet aesthetically satisfying. Are there other authors this good I should know about?
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.
* * *
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.
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.
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.
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 Edgehere.
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.
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:
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.
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.