Luis Antonio Capurro is a friendly, enterprising young blogger and informal minister of culture to the gay male community in Lima, Peru. He recently interviewed me (by email) for his online magazine La Revista Diversa. Check it out here and let me know what you think.
I’m always fascinated by the differences between American and British newspapers, especially how they handle discussions of sex and depictions of nudity. The Guardian, the most progressive of London’s daily papers, recently published a feature about photographer Laura Dodsworth and her latest book Manhood, for which she photographed 100 men naked from the waist down and interviewed them about their penises. (The book is a sequel to Bare Reality, in which women talked about their breasts.)
In addition to talking to Dodsworth about her book, the Guardian published several excerpts of the interviews and every single one of the photographs. I can’t imagine any daily newspaper in the United States running pictures of 100 penises, can you? Above and beyond the initial titillation, the article (and the book) do a great public service by exploring a subject that men think about all the time but don’t talk about much at all, even to their closest friends and loved ones.
The men range in age from 20 to 92, and their bodies take many sizes, shapes, and colors. Unless you are an enthusiastic naturist and spend time on nude beaches or in other environments where naked bodies are the norm, you may not have seen very many penises in your life — outside of pornography, which almost exclusively features penises that are large, erect, and intimidating. In my experience, it’s almost always revelatory and healing for men (and women!) to see a large quantity of penises and realize how varied and individual they are. And the men in Dodsworth’s book talk very honestly and intimately about their private parts. Check out the excerpts online here and let me know what you think.
Does everybody know about Oh Joy Sex Toy? Erika Moen launched OJST in 2014 as a weekly web comic providing fun, accessible, easy-breezy adult sex education in the format of reviewing sex toys. At first Moen set out to sample whatever toys she came across on the market or that were sent to her as “promotional copies,” usually in the company of her GGG British-born husband Matthew Nolan. Based in Portland, Oregon, they self-published the first year’s series of comics in book form, and it was enough of a hit to persuade them to make it an annual publishing event. They’re up to Volume 4 now (the Kickstarter campaign is in full swing, which is basically a way to subsidize production by pre-ordering a copy of the book — hardcore fans can also buy signed prints, apparel, and other swag).
Over time they’ve invited guest artists to contribute strips that range from product reviews to more general ruminations on sex, sexual health, and the sex industry, writ large. Just scanning the list of topics in the OJST archive is both impressive and hilarious (curved penis! period sex! brain orgasm science! wax! how to survive your first dungeon party!). The tone is unapologetically sex-positive and un-snarky. Moen and her contributors are cheerleaders for sexual pleasure and exploration, and their enthusiastic and shameless approach goes a long way toward making virtually anything having to do with sex completely normal. Maybe not every household spends as much time and energy discussing butt toys, lube, kink, and sexual hygiene as these folks do. But spend a little time with it, and their effervescence is likely to rub off. And before you know it, you may find yourself checking out the comic sci-fi webcomic Oglaf, and then…look out, world!
Last fall RFD, the radical faerie quarterly reader-written journal, devoted a special issue to the topic of Substances. The magazine includes some extremely honest and searching writings looking at many different practices involving party drugs and sacred medicines. I continue to marvel and chuckle at the powerful, witty cover image created by managing editor Bambi Gauthier and art director Matt Bucy (above). I contributed a very personal essay about my own experience of using various mind-altering substances, what I’ve gained, and how closely I monitor the balance of recreational and ceremonial explorations, what’s excessive and what’s enough. The essay is titled “Pleasure, Anesthesia, and the Burden of Consciousness: Notes on Substances.”
Early on, I say:
I am at heart an epicurean. I believe that pleasure is the greatest good in life, and in my sacred intimate practice I’m a champion of healing through pleasure. I’m quite attached to the pleasures in my life: the four cups of strong black tea that fuel my day, the couple of glasses of wine or beer that are my treat at the end of the day, my robust sex life, my enjoyment of music, and the occasional toke that my stoner boyfriend has taught me to enjoy. At the same time, I’m aware that sometimes it’s hard to distinguish pleasure from anesthesia, and sometimes I wonder what pain or fear I might be medicating or numbing with the substances I routinely enjoy. I’m sure I’m a bit hypervigilant about this because my father’s alcoholism left a strong imprint on my life. But I like to believe that I remain in choice rather than compulsive about my pleasures, and I’ve noticed that when I diet to prepare for sacred medicine ceremonies, I get quite cranky about giving up tea and wine and still spend considerable energy thinking about and craving them. There are writing projects that are important to me that I’m trying to summon the energy and stamina and concentration to complete, and it’s unclear to me whether my use of substances helps or hinders that. The constant existential battle between Living a Good Life and Getting Things Done.
RFD has a fairly small readership, so after sharing the essay with a handful of friends, one of them suggested I approach Reality Sandwich, the online magazine created by Evolver Learning Lab, about republishing my piece. The editors there enthusiastically embraced the idea, so now it’s available to read in full. Check it out here and let me know what you think.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt offers a detailed summary of Lucretius’s provocative, far-reaching, influential epic poem from the first century B.C., De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), which is itself a digest for Roman audiences of the teachings of Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher. Epicurus certainly looms large in my own personal pantheon — his philosophy proclaims that the highest good in life is pleasure. Here’s a passage from The Swerve that speaks to the concerns of this blog…
The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion. The principal enemies of human happiness are inordinate desire –the fantasy of attaining something that exceeds what the finite mortal world allows – and gnawing fear. Even the dread plague, in Lucretius- account – and his work ends with a graphic account of a catastrophic plague epidemic in Athens – is most horrible not only for the suffering and death that it brings but also and still more for the “perturbation and panic” that it triggers.
It is perfectly reasonable to seek to avoid pain such avoidance is one of the pillars of his whole ethical system. But how is it possible to keep this natural aversion from turning into panic, panic that only leads to the triumph of suffering? And, more generally, why are humans so unhappy?
The answer, Lucretius (above) thought, had to do with the power of the imagination. Though they are finite and mortal, humans are gripped by illusions of the infinite – infinite pleasure and infinite pain. The fantasy of infinite pain helps to account for their proneness to religion: in the misguided belief that their souls are immortal and hence potentially subject to an eternity of suffering, humans imagine that they can somehow negotiate with the gods for a better outcome, an eternity of pleasure in paradise. The fantasy of infinite pleasure helps to account for their proneness to romantic love: in the misguided belief that their happiness depends upon the absolute possession of some single object of limitless desire, humans are seized by a feverish, unappeasable hunger and thirst that can only bring anguish instead of happiness.
Once again it is perfectly reasonable to seek sexual pleasure: that is, after all, one of the body’s natural joys. The mistake, Lucretius thought, was to confound this joy with a delusion, the frenzied craving to possess – at once to penetrate and to consume – what is in reality a dream. Of course, the absent lover is always only a mental image and in this sense akin to a dream. But Lucretius observed in passages of remarkable frankness that in the very act of sexual consummation lovers remain in the grip of confused longings that they cannot fulfill:
Even in the hour of possession the passion of the lovers fluctuates and wanders in uncertainty: they cannot decide what to enjoy first with their eyes and hands. They tightly squeeze the object of their desire and cause bodily pain, often driving their teeth into one another’s lips and crushing mouth against mouth.
The point of this passage – part of what W. B. Yeats called “the finest description of sexual intercourse ever written” – is not to urge a more decorous, tepid form of lovemaking. It is to take note of the element of unsated appetite that haunts even the fulfillment of desire. The insatiability of sexual appetite is, in Lucretius’ view, one of Venus’ cunning strategies; it helps to account for the fact that, after brief interludes, the same acts of love are performed again and again. And he understood too that these repeated acts are deeply pleasurable. But he remained troubled by the ruse, by the emotional suffering that comes in its wake, by the arousal of aggressive impulses, and, above all, by the sense that even the moment of ecstasy leaves something to be desired. In 1685, the great poet John Dryden brilliantly captured Lucretius’ remarkable vision:
…when the youthful pair more closely join,
When hands in hands they lock, and thighs in thighs they twine;
Just in the raging foam of full desire,
When both press on, both murmur, both expire,
They grip, they squeeze, their humid tongues they dart,
As each would force their way to th’others heart.
In vain; they only cruise about the coast.
For bodies cannot pierce, nor be in bodies lost,
As sure as they strive to be, when both engage
In that tumultuous momentary rage.
So tangled in the nets of love they lie,
Till man dissolves in that excess of joy.
Auckland-based artist Toby Morris created and produces the webcomic The Pencil Sword. His latest post speaks frankly about sex to young men and delivers what he describes as “two things I wish someone told me as a teenage boy.”
Here’s the first page:
Check out the rest of his comic here and let me know what you think.
In recent years, medical research into the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs has cautiously re-emerged after decades of being shut down by War on Drugs rhetoric. Major medical centers are now participating in multi-stage trials of MDMA (ecstasy) for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) for treating depression, cancer anxiety, and alcoholism. In South America, the Amazonian plant medicine ayahuasca has been used to manage a variety of ailments, especially alcohol and drug addiction.
Like a lot of people, I caught wind of this renewed research into psychedelics from reading an article by Michael Pollan called “The Trip Treatment” that was published in the New Yorker two years ago. Pollan noted:
Beginning in the nineteen-fifties, psychedelics had been used to treat a wide variety of conditions, including alcoholism and end-of-life anxiety…Between 1953 and 1973, the federal government spent four million dollars to fund a hundred and sixteen studies of LSD, involving more than seventeen hundred subjects…Psychedelics were tested on alcoholics, people struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder, depressives, autistic children, schizophrenics, terminal cancer patients, and convicts, as well as on perfectly healthy artists and scientists (to study creativity) and divinity students (to study spirituality)…
By the mid-nineteen-sixties, LSD had escaped from the laboratory and swept through the counterculture. In 1970, Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act and put most psychedelics on Schedule 1, prohibiting their use for any purpose. Research soon came to a halt, and what had been learned was all but erased from the field of psychiatry.
It’s taken decades for conditions to shift so that research into the therapeutic use of pyschedelics can pick up where it left off in 1970. The bulk of Pollan’s article focused on participants in clinical trials at several universities, including N.Y.U., in which psilocybin was being administered to cancer patients in an effort to relieve their anxiety and “existential distress.”
One of the researchers was quoted as saying that, under the influence of the hallucinogen, “individuals transcend their primary identification with their bodies and experience ego-free states . . . and return with a new perspective and profound acceptance.”
Naturally, as a sex therapist, I was intrigued to attend a presentation last December called “Reclaiming Ecstasy: An Exploration of the Therapeutic Use of Psychedelics and Sacred Plant Medicines in the Treatment of Sexual Trauma and Dysfunction” given by my friend and colleague Dee Dee Goldpaugh. The presentation took place as part of the Sexuality Speakers Series, hosted by Dulcinea Pitagora and Michael Aaron, creators of the AltSex NYC Conference.
In her talk, Goldpaugh laid out some basic pharmacological information about the two classes of psychedelics (the hallucinogens such as psilocybin, LSD, and ayahuasca/DMT and the empathogens such as mescaline, 2cb, and MDMA) and the difference between therapeutic use (pure substances in measured doses) and self-administration. She shared the distinction that clinicians make between big-T trauma (rape, incest, assault, molestation) and little-T trauma (being catcalled, medical exams, being belittled, punished for masturbation, boundaries not respected by caregivers). And she explained the numerous ways in which sexual abuse has lasting effects on those have been sexually abused: PTSD, depression, dissociation, substance abuse, distrust, dysfunction, shame, self-blame, body image issues, sexually transmitted infections.
Citing the work of Friedericke Meckel Fisher (Therapy With Substances) and Bessel van der Kolk (The Body Knows the Score), Goldpaugh then laid out some of the explorations researchers are conducting to use psychedelics to treat trauma, especially in the area of sexuality, intimacy, and relationships. MDMA, for instance, was first patented in 1914 and until it was outlawed in 1985 was used for couples therapy, among other things, because of its effectiveness in treating symptoms of PTSD and because it seemed to activate long-term memory and allow subjects to reprocess traumatic material safely. Because it induces pleasurable sensations, MDMA allows users to feel fully embodied, increases empathy, and reduces shame.
Psilocybin studies suggest that it increases openness and facilitates mystical experiences by helping the brain bypass habitual thinking. Goldpaugh proposed that psilocybin could be useful in sex therapy to reduce body anxiety and to be present with pleasure. Similarly, ayahuasca enables users to override old responses and write new stories of their own experience. Goldpaugh suggested that these substances have potential to enhance a spirituality often neglected in sex therapy. She gave examples of using guided visualizations with trauma survivors who experience intrusive images during sex, helping them identify non-sexual images they can connect to in an embodied way during sexual activity (including masturbation).
Goldpaugh was very upfront in saying that she doesn’t give psychedelics to her clients or refer them to “underground” practitioners who do. At the same time, she does advocate working to legalize the use of these medicines and to support further research through organizations such as MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies). Her website introduced me to the term “psychedelic integration therapy,” indicating that she helps clients process their experiences with psychedelics, as I have begun to do in my own work.
I consider Goldpaugh a kindred spirit in many ways, including how she describes a “psychedelic” approach to working with clients. This approach, she said, is based on strengths, not pathology; engages spirituality, “whatever that means for the client,” as an aspect of identity; embraces radical sex-positivity; sees all people as capable of change and growth; and views sexual pleasure as a sacred human right.