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.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: Grief

GRIEF

The playwright asked for the floor… But when McCraney talked, he didn’t talk about the play [Choir Boy] or the dialogue. Instead, he talked about grief. Casually, as though it were something that just came to his mind. He explained what it felt like to lose his mother at 22. He did not talk about how she died, and he hinted only a little at the complexity of their relationship; this address was not autobiographical. It was to do with emotions. McCraney described how grief lives in a person’s body, how it settles there. He explained its half-life, the unreliable nature of its decay. He talked about the phenomenon, when grieving a loved one, in which you begin to have memories of times after their death that you think they must have been present for. Remember when I won an Academy Award for my movie, and you were so proud? And then he talked about how things like that make you grieve their absence all over again, and how that grief catches you unawares, taking over your body when you least expect it. It sits in a small reservoir beneath your heart. It whispers to you at odd hours and yells at you in quiet ones.

–Carvell Wallace writing about Tarell Alvin McCraney in the New York Times

SEX IN THE CINEMA: “Touch Me Not”

Romanian filmmaker Adina Pintilie’s debut feature Touch Me Not provides a beautiful, powerful, intense look into the world of sacred intimacy and sexual healing. Slowly and tenderly, the semi-documentary introduces us to a handful of characters bravely exploring their relationships with their bodies, seeking community and guidance to transcend the limitations of inhibition, physical disability, grief, trauma, and fear. A stony-faced middle-aged woman (Laura Benson) engages a series of sex workers in an effort to understand and perhaps emulate their manifest comfort with their bodies and their sexuality. She spends a fair amount of time at a hospital, looking in on her elderly invalid father, who we eventually come to understand harmed her physically early in life. She also stumbles across a touch workshop for people with disabilities and becomes fixated on a tall bald fellow (Tómas Lemarquis) whose relationship with another workshop participant (Christian Bayerlein, a quadriplegic — he refers to himself as “a wheeler with SMA [spinal muscular atrophy]” — with remarkable self-awareness and body-positivity) is central to the film. The filmmaker herself and the camera equipment appear prominently in the film, highlighting the delicacy and the vulnerability of everyone participating in one of the most extraordinary films about bodies and sex I’ve ever seen. The scenes with sex workers — a handsome tattooed call boy, a transgender prostitute, and an extremely gifted London-based sacred intimate named Seani Love — as well as a scene in a BDSM sex club could all have been handled sensationalistically or mockingly, but they’re not.  I love films that take seriously and respectfully the quest for sexual healing, and I equally admire films that don’t overexplain everything that’s happening. Touch Me Not, which won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival last February, has a few more showings at the Museum of Modern Art through January 17. You can read the New York Times review (and watch the trailer) here.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Masturbation

MASTURBATION

The truth is that you never know what’s going to happen in your head when you start to masturbate. iI’s like that challenge in Masterchef where the chefs lift the lid on a mystery box and find they have to make dinner from a tub of gherkins, some glacé cherries, a jar of peanut butter and a couple of crayfish. Who knows what will come out in the end? The only certainty is that whatever does emerge in the privacy of your head shouldn’t be thrown in the bin. It might not win a TV show, but you should look on it as your own personal masterpiece.

–Stephanie Theobald, Sex Drive

EVENTS: 2018 Horizons Conference in New York City

Psychedelic science and exploration, which is currently undergoing a renaissance (chronicled in Michael Pollan’s best-selling How To Change Your Mind), has long been dominated – like the rest of the world – by straight white men. Horizons, the annual “Perspectives on Psychedelics” conference held in New York City every October for the last 12 years, is no exception. This year, things changed, as the conference dealt with its own #MeToo situation. Neal Goldsmith, a key organizer and frequently MC for the conference, was removed from the board of Horizons Media in response to multiple reports of sexual misconduct. Founder and director Kevin Balktick really stepped up not only by putting in place a lengthy and explicit “Code of Conduct and Safer Space Policy” but also by exponentially increasing the presence of authorities in the field who were women and people of color, which made for a terrific conference (October 5-7 at Cooper Union), best of the three I’ve attended.

Saturday’s program, focusing on science and medicine, was hosted by Dr. Julie Holland, author of many books, including Ecstasy: The Complete Guide. Highlights of the first day, which culminated in the rock-star appearance of Michael Pollan, included Sophia Korb’s report on the latest research results on microdosing (based on 8000 people from 59 countries using 18 different substances) and Monnica Williams’s incisive talk “Race-Based Trauma: The Challenge and Promise of MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy.” Also useful: Peter Hendricks and Sara Lappan reporting on psilocybin to treat cocaine dependence and “New Findings on the Therapeutic Potential of Ayahuasca” by Brazilian neuroscientist Dráulio Barros de Araújo (below), who memorably proclaimed, “The placebo effect is a beautiful thing!”

Brazilian plant medicine specialist Bia Labate MC’d Sunday’s events, which centered on culture and philosophy. I had to leave early but got to hear two terrific presentations. Besides reading entertaining excerpts from The Wild Kindness: Between Sacred and Secular in the New Mushroom Underground, her queer psychedelic memoir, Bett Williams paid tribute to Kai Wingo, charismatic leader of a high-dose psilocybin Afro-futurist community in Cleveland, who sadly died in 2016 at the age of 43.

Event producer and human rights activist Annie Oak delivered a talk on “Building Risk Reduction and Community Safety Systems in Festival Environments” that was so clear, so sensible, and so visionary that one of the first questions from the audience was “Have you considered running for the Senate?” Oak, a member of the Women’s Visionary Council and founder of the Full Circle Teahouse, an alcohol-free chill space at Burning Man, tossed out one plain-spoken truth after another. “The majority of people who use these [psychedelic] substances will not use them in controlled settings… but rather (will be engaged in) ‘unsupervised self-experimentation’…Having women as leaders is automatically risk reduction…If you want to change the world, throw a better party.” Not a huge fan of social media, she pointed out that “Facebook is an insecure platform that sells your data.” And she shared, point by point, a list of “Safety Tips for Participating in Ceremonies that Use Psychoactive Substances” that the WVC created in 2014. You can find it online here – I encourage you to check it out and let me know what you think.