Hurricane Katrina, and What Government Is For

Whenleveesbroke_1So I’m watching “When the Levee Broke,” the Spike Lee HBO documentary on Hurricane Katrina (which you all absolutely have to see, by the way), and what with that and the one-year anniversary, it seemed like a good time to say something I’ve been wanting to say for a while, about what government is — or what it should be, anyway — and about people who think government is a bad idea.

FirefighterHere’s what I think government is. Or rather, here’s what I think government should be, and what it actually is at least some of the time. I think government is/should be the structure with which a society pools some of its resources for projects and services that benefit that society, but are too big to be handled privately by individuals or small groups. And it is/should be the structure a society uses to decide how those pooled resources should be used.

ConstitutionThink roads. Sewers. Parks. Fire departments. Public health services. Law enforcement, even. God knows I have mixed feelings about law enforcement as it actually exists in our society — but as Ingrid pointed out recently, when there’s a Ted Bundy on the streets, you want there to be people whose job it is to catch them. It’s pretty much spelled out in the Preamble to the Constitution, actually: “…to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”

Katrina_1And think emergency services. For fuck’s sweet sake, think emergency services.

BushExcept we have a government — a federal government, anyway — that’s run by people who think government is a bad idea. We have a government run by people who think government should always be as small as possible, that taxes should always be as low as possible, that government is at best a necessary evil. (Or who say that’s what they think, anyway. I think they’re big fuckin’ hypocrites, but that’s a different rant.)

Katrina_peopleAnd when you see what happened a year ago in New Orleans, you see why government run by people who think government is a bad idea is a criminally bad idea.

Atom_1Because when you think about what government is — or what it should be — you realize that people who think government is a bad idea are essentially opposed to the idea of pooling resources. To oppose the very idea of government, to think of it as at best a necessary evil, is to believe in the philosophy of “Every man for himself.” It is to believe in the philosophy of “Screw you, Jack, I’ve got mine.” It is to believe that sharing is bad. It is to believe in the atomization of society, the breakdown of social responsibility into smaller and smaller units. To believe that government is a bad idea is to believe that society itself is a bad idea.

HalliburtonIt feels freaky to be defending the idea of government when I’m watching a documentary about its callous incompetence, its inhuman detachment, its colossal screw-up on every level. And it feels ultra-freaky to be defending the idea of government when we’re suffering through what may well go down as the worst Presidential administration in history. But in a way, that’s my point. I think that government should be run by people who think government is a good idea. People who think government is a good idea are looking for ways to make it run better. People who think government is a bad idea are cynically looking for ways they can use it to enrich themselves and their buddies.

Voting_boothThe big devil’s advocate question, of course, is why all those big social projects — roads, sewers, parks, fire departments, public health, law enforcement, etc. — can’t be handled privately, by business or charity? That brings me to the second part of my “what government should be” theory — namely, the structure a society uses to decide how its pooled resources should be used. The problem with big social projects being handled by the private sector is accountability. I want to have my roads maintained, my fires put out, my immunizations delivered — and my emergency services provided — by people I can vote for, and vote against. And I don’t want them handled by people whose top priority is not roads or fires or immunizations or emergency services, but profit. (If you want a top-notch example of why social services shouldn’t be delivered by the private sector, watch the part of the Spike Lee Katrina documentary that talks about how the insurance companies completely shafted Katrina victims.)

TaxesAre there problems with government? Fuck, yes. Massive ones. It needs to be fixed, and pronto. But it needs to be fixed by people who believe in it. So the next time someone’s running for office by promising to reduce government and cut taxes, think about whether that’s what you really want from your people in office. Because if there’s a better way for a society to pool its resources and decide how those resources should be used than a democratically elected government, I can’t think of it.

Tee Corinne, and my other mothers and fathers

Corinne_dreamsSomeone I never knew died on August 27, and I sat at my computer at work yesterday writing an obituary and trying not to cry.

Corinne_cuntIn case you’re not familiar with her, Tee Corinne was one of the earliest pioneers of the modern lesbian and women’s erotica movements — in photography, writing, and art. She’s probably best known for the “Cunt Coloring Book,” but I mostly knew her from her photography. She was one of the first women to create sexual images and writing for women, from a woman’s point of view, outside the male-driven porn machinery — and to do it publicly and shamelessly.

And by “one of the first,” I don’t mean she was doing it before it was cool. I mean she was doing it before it was being done. Her doing it is one of the things that made it possible for the rest of us to do it. She paved the way. She made a space.

I never met Tee Corinne. But she’s one of the people who made my life easier.

Corinne_intimaciesNo, strike that. She’s one of the people who made my life possible. I’m not a pioneer — I’m an early adapter, but I’m not a pioneer — and I know myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t have had the nerve to step into those woods if there hadn’t been Tee and people like her cutting through the brush and stamping out a trail first.

I feel bad that I never took the time to write her while she was alive and thank her. So I want to do that now — not just Tee, but all the people who’ve made talking about sex, and making art about sex, and providing/getting accurate information about sex, that much easier. I always get pissy when young sex writers/artists act like it’s always been this easy and don’t acknowledge the debt of gratitude they have towards the people who came before them. So I want to say thank you now.

Corinne_intricateI want to say thank you, not only to Tee Corinne, but to Joani Blank and Betty Dodson, to Pat Califia and Honey Lee Cottrell, to Felice Newman and Frederique Delacoste, to Priscilla Alexander and Scarlot Harlot, to Michael Rosen and Mark I. Chester, to Layne Wincklebleck and Kat Sunlove, to the founders of San Francisco Sex Information, to Nina Hartley and Annie Sprinkle, to Isadora Allman and Susie Bright. And I know there are more. I know I’m forgetting some people, and for that I apologize. If you think you should have been on this list, you probably should have.

To all of you I want to say: I am not an ungrateful child. I am more grateful than I could possibly say.

Spanking for Stagefright

Spank_3I don’t generally expect to get turned on by the New Yorker. But I just read this in the 8/26/06 issue, in John Lahr’s article about stagefright:

“(Carly) Simon has found that physical pain often trumps psychological terror. ‘If you have something that’s hurting you physically, the pain is the hierarchy,’ she said. To that end, she has been known to take the stage in tight boots, to jab her hand with clutched safety pins, and even, just before going on, to ask band members to spank her. At a celebration for President Bill Clinton’s fiftieth birthday, at Radio City Music Hall, in 1996, Simon, terrified of following Smokey Robinson, invited the entire horn section to let her have it. ‘They all took turns spanking me,’ she says. ‘During the last spank the curtain went up. The audience saw the aftermath, the sting on my face. I bet Olivier didn’t do that.’”

Horn_sectionSo does anyone else find this (a) totally hot, and (b) somewhat baffling? I mean, I get that stagefright is freaky-ass stuff, and I get that not everyone obsessively eroticizes spanking the way I do. But if I were suffering from severe stagefright and looking for some physical pain to snap me out of it, I’m not sure that “ask the entire horn section to spank me” would be the solution that would leap to mind.

I’ll have to remember it, though. The next time I do an erotica reading, I’ll have to insist on getting a spanking beforehand to cure my stagefright. Of course, I’ve never suffered from stagefright in my life… but that’ll be our little secret.

My Very Elegant Mother: The Great Pluto Controversy

PlutoIt’s official. In case you haven’t heard, Pluto is no longer a planet. The International Astronomical Union has agreed on a definition of “planet” — and Pluto no longer qualifies.

Damn. Only eight planets in the solar system. Freaky.

And I heartily approve. The whole “pro-Pluto” movement reeked of rank sentimentalism. We can’t just go around all willy-nilly calling things planets just because we’re fond of them.

But now we have a far more serious question on our hands: What’s going to be the new mnemonic? Like many of you, I learned at a very early age that my very elegant mother just sat upon nine porcupines. What’s she going to sit upon now? Ninjas? Nunchuks? Narwhales? Nixon? We need a new mnemonic, and we need it fast! Suggestions, people? We don’t have a moment to lose!

Hide and Seek: Dirty Found Magazine, issue #1

Dirty_found_1In my continuing attempt to keep this sex-writer’s blog at least marginally focused on sex, here’s another smut review I wrote for Adult Friend Finder magazine — my review of “Dirty Found” magazine. I do have a couple of rants-in-progress that I was hoping to finish this weekend, but with three parties plus picking up my mother-in-law at the airport, somehow having a life got in the way of writing about it. I promise to be out in the next few days with my rant about people who disrespect science while drooling over exciting techy toys. In the meantime, you’ll just have to settle for porn reviews. Enjoy!

Hide and Seek
by Greta Christina

Dirty Found Magazine, issue #1
Davy Rothbart & Jason Bitner, editors
http://www.foundmagazine.com/
$10.00

I can tell you this for certain: it’s not like any other dirty magazine you’ve seen.

Found_1Here’s what it is. Have you ever heard of Found Magazine? It’s a magazine of “found” art and writing: love letters, to-do lists, snapshots, doodles, diaries, etc. People find stuff on buses, in garage sales, at cafe tables, even just on the street or in the trash — and they send them in to the magazine, which publishes them. It’s a cool thing, a fascinating glimpse into other people’s secret hearts and minds.

Dirty Found is the same thing, but… well, dirty. The letters, the photos, the drawings, the to-do lists, the email printouts… all of them have to do with sex. The photos found tucked into used books show people proudly displaying their naked or half-naked bodies. The drawings found on the street depict naked people, explicit sex, bizarre erotic scenarios. The journal found in the trash pile gives meticulously explicit details about the journal writer’s wildly kinky sex life — and the extreme sex fantasies that even she’s scared of.

Dirty_found_4In a way, it’s like a magazine of amateur porn: like letters written to dirty magazines, or photos published with adult personal ads. But unlike amateur porn, the stuff in Dirty Found wasn’t meant for public consumption. It’s not about what writers or artists or photographers think their audience will find hot. It’s about what ordinary people personally and privately think is hot. It doesn’t show the sex lives people deliberately show to the public — it shows the sex lives people meant to keep to themselves and their lovers. (There’s arguably an ethical problem with making this material public; but the magazine does make an effort to conceal people’s identities, with names blacked out in the writing and bars over the eyes in the photos. Anyway, if people wanted this stuff kept private, they probably shouldn’t have left it lying around.)

So like I said, this is definitely not your grandfather’s porno mag. It’s much more personal than that, more intimate. Dirty Found is like a secret spy camera in a motel room, like being a fly on the wall in dozens of bedrooms at once. It’s a peek through a keyhole at the dirty freaky things people do but never tell anyone about; it’s the naughty, nasty, voyeuristic thrill of seeing things you aren’t supposed to see.

At the same time, it’s unbelievably sweet and touching. The photos especially: the people in them look so pleased with themselves, so proud of their bare asses or their sexy underwear or just their cocks and cunts. And it’s so ferociously personal. Seeing these pictures and reading these notes, you almost feel like you’re the one they were meant for. It’s as if you’re the naughty secret lover these folks were thinking of when they scribbled their fantasies in a notebook, like you’re the giggling, dirty-minded boyfriend or girlfriend who snapped the picture when they took off their clothes and spread their legs for the camera.

Dirty_found_3_bedAnd the variety is staggering. There are love notes about sexy moonlit walks, and love notes about vibrators and jacking off. There’s a carefully typed story about watching a neighbor girl undress, and hastily scrawled notes about doing meth and getting gang-banged. There are drawings of women being pissed on, and of medieval gay orgies, and of schoolgirls fucking themselves with high-voltage vibrators. And there are photos. Oh, my God, are there photos. There are photos of naked girls with their legs spread, and of guys in bondage getting enemas; girls on all fours and guys with their hands in their pants; close-ups of hard-ons and close-ups of feet; women in lingerie and men in lingerie; and photo after photo of plain old ordinary happy naked people, in beds or on sofas or God knows where.

My personal favorite is the journal. Several pages of this one journal are reproduced in Dirty Found, the journal of a writer/performance artist/dirty dirty girl that someone found in some New York trash. The journal describes this woman’s kinky sexual adventures with her lover and her fantasies about him, adventures and fantasies that would put many a smut writer to shame. She writes about ordered to dress up like a slut and display her ass, being ordered to lick his asshole and beg to get fucked. She writes about pissing on her lover, and getting pissed on by him, and fucking him with an enema nozzle before she delivers the enema. She writes about the freaky shit fantasies they talk about while they’re fucking, and the even more freaky shit fantasies that she thinks about when she masturbates. (She draws, too, so some of these stories come with illustrations.)

But this is a journal, not a smutty novel… so not everything in it goes right. For instance: She describes a moment where her lover began to beat her bare ass with a belt; but he hit her too high, it was unpleasant and un-erotic, and she made him stop. Now, in a smutty story, this could be jarring, the sort of thing that jolts you out of the fantasy and back into the yucky real world. But here, the real world is the whole point, and the mis-strokes and awkward bits just make the image even more real, more immediate — and therefore, a whole lot more hot. I love what a shameless pervert this woman is, how intense she is about her dirtiness and how much she enjoys it. And I like her style — her journal is unpolished but quite well-written, probably the best-written thing in the whole magazine.

Dirty_found_2_drawingWhich leads me to my next point, and a bit of fair warning. The smut in Dirty Found isn’t professional, and as a result… well, it isn’t professional. The writing is badly spelled and often rather trite; most of the drawings are kind of cheesy; the photos are poorly lit, and the people in them are pretty average-looking for the most part, and their sexy poses are often awkward and less than entirely flattering. I’m not saying this as a criticism — if it were all super-professional and well-made, the magazine wouldn’t be what it is. I just want you to know what to expect. Don’t get Dirty Found expecting slick stories of perfect fantasies, or beautifully lit photos of exquisite models. Get it expecting a sweet, sloppy, vivid, unsettling, funny, tacky, and utterly true picture of what’s going on inside other people’s libidos.

Going Wild: A Feminist’s Defense of the “Girls Gone Wild” Girls

Ggw_doggy_styleIn case you haven’t read this already, Joe Francis, the guy who runs the “Girls Gone Wild” empire, has been revealed by the L.A. Times to be a crazy, abusive, profoundly fucked-up asshole. I don’t actually have a lot to add on that particular topic apart from “Damn, what a crazy, abusive, profoundly fucked-up asshole.” Actually, the phrase “crazy, abusive, profoundly fucked-up asshole” would seem to be an understatement.

EverythingsexBut I do feel somewhat compelled to comment. I wrote a fairly lavish think piece about the “Girls Gone Wild” videos for the big Disinformation anthology Everything You Know About Sex Is Wrong (you can read it on my website if you like), and since then, I feel like I’ve become the Feminist Sex Writer Who Thinks The “Girls Gone Wild” Videos Are At Least Somewhat Defensible. So whenever the topic of these videos comes up, I feel like I need to chime in.

What I want to talk about now is not the people who run the “Girls Gone Wild” empire, but the “Girls Gone Wild” videos themselves — and the women who perform in the videos.

And more specifically, I want to talk about what’s being said about the women in the videos.

Ariel_levyThe writing I’ve seen about Girls Gone Wild is largely taking two directions. One is pity/concern for the poor exploited girls who are being taken advantage of when they’re too excited/too young/too drunk to know what they’re doing. The other is pity/contempt for the vulgar idiot girls who are squandering their feminist heritage by pulling their shirts up on camera… and are ruining things for the rest of us.

And I have much the same problem with both. I think there’s more than a whiff of patronization, and elitism even, in both attitudes.

Ggw_girls_who_like_girlsLet me talk about the first one first. In the strict Marxist sense, of course the women in GGW are being exploited. They’re being paid a disproportionately low amount for their labor — they’re getting paid in T-shirts and Mardi Gras beads, so duh — and someone else is getting rich off that labor. But I’ve seen a few of these videos, and it sure looks to me like most of these girls know what they’re doing and very much want to be doing it. They like the attention; they get off on exhibitionism; they enjoy feeling sexy and wild; they like having an excuse to do dirty things they wouldn’t ordinarily do.

Will they regret it later? Maybe. Some of them almost certainly will. But you know, a lot of us have done things in our youths that we now regret and can’t take back. (My entire first relationship leaps to mind.) Making dumb choices that you regret is part of being young. It’s the flip side of risk-taking and adventure.

TequilaAs to the women being too drunk to consent goes, I’m not seeing it. I’ve seen tipsiness in the GGW videos, high spirits, probably even some impaired judgement — but not blackout drunkenness, not drunkenness that would obliterate consent. I could be wrong, I’m not there on the streets of Spring Break with a Breathalyzer and a lie detector test (those don’t work, anyway)… but it sure looks to me like, hammered though many of them are, most of these girls know what they’re doing and know what they want.

Which brings me to my second point: the “they’re squandering their feminist heritage” argument.

This is the one that really bugs me. It’s as if sexual liberation is only for those of us with the right sex-positive feminist credentials — not for yahoo sorority girls who want to pull their shirts up on camera. Like they don’t deserve to have sexual choices, because they’ll make the wrong ones.

UlyssesBut we all deserve sexual liberation. We all deserve the freedom to make sexual choices — even dumb ones or crass ones. As someone whose name I can’t remember once said, not all censorship battles can be about Ulysses. (Does anyone know the source for that quote, btw? I couldn’t find it.) And the battle for sexual liberation and the right to sexual expression can’t always be about brilliant sex-themed performance art, or beautiful ecstatic lovemaking in loving long-term relationships. Sometimes it’s about college girls at big drunken parties pulling their shirts off for the video cameras. That’s the whole point of feminist sexual liberation — we don’t get to go around scolding other women for their consenting sexual choices. (Not on moral or political grounds, anyway. On aesthetic grounds… that’s another story.)

Nina_hartleyI’ve seen arguments that the problem with GGW isn’t the girls whipping their tops off for the camera — it’s the people behind the camera, the crassness of the videos and the company and the grotesqueness of the main man behind them. It’s not liberated or empowering if you’re whipping your top off for exploitative assholes, or so goes the argument. But while I’m certainly not going to defend the motives of the GGW empire (especially not now), I still think we should support the sexual agency of the wild girls themselves. Do you think every single porn movie that Annie Sprinkle or Nina Hartley ever made was a delicate work of artistic beauty and profound insight, made by sensitive feminists, with the profits going to rape crisis centers and saving the rainforest? I sure don’t. I’m sure that at least some of their movies were silly and dumb, and that the profits from at least some of them went to pay for the sports cars and coke habits of nitwit Silicone Valley porn producers. That doesn’t negate Nina and Annie’s sexual agency and power.

Guys_gone_wildAnd I think a lot of the “won’t somebody please think of the children?” hysteria about the women in the GGW videos is just flat-out sexist. The same company that makes the “Girls Gone Wild” videos also makes “Guys Gone Wild” videos as well… and I think it’s extremely interesting that nobody, not one person that I’ve heard or read on this subject, has gotten upset about the poor stupid young college boys with low self-esteem who got drunk and let themselves be manipulated into flashing their asses and dicks on camera, and who are going to feel violated and ashamed the next morning and will regret it for the rest of their lives. It’s apparently just young women who are incapable of making their own sexual decisions and living with the consequences.

Ggw_bad_girlsSo here is my plea. Can we please, please, try not to extend our excoriation of Joe Francis to an excoriation of the women who’ve performed in his videos?

Can we please treat them like adults, and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they do what they do because they want to do it?

Can we please at least try to remember that other people like different sexual things from what we like… and not jump to the conclusion that if someone is doing something sexual that we wouldn’t enjoy, therefore they don’t enjoy it either, and therefore they’re only doing it out of manipulation, desperation, coercion, drunkenness, low self-esteem, cultural brainwashing, etc.?

Annie_sprinkle_1Because when we treat the Girls Gone Wild with patronizing pity and contempt, when we stop respecting them and their sexual agency, it’s a small step to disrespecting Nina Hartley and Tristan Taormino and Annie Sprinkle and Carol Queen and all the other great exhibitionists of the world. And it’s a small step from there to disrespecting every woman — and every man — who makes unpopular sexual choices.

For Better or Worse: “Taboo: Forbidden Fantasies for Couples”

TabooIn an attempt to inject some more sex into what is ostensibly a sex writer’s blog, I’m going to start posting some of my smut-and-sex-toy reviews here. Don’t worry — I’m not abandoning the rants and musings about skepticism and politics and music and weird dreams and Harry Potter and stuff. But since I am primarily known as a sex writer, I thought some of you might want to read some of my thoughts about, you know, sex.

This review originally ran in Adult Friend Finder magazine, where I’ve been writing for about a year and a half now. I’ve done a lot of good work for them, but this is one of my favorites. It uses a dirty book review as a jumping-off point to think about the anatomy of a dirty story, and how porn fiction works — or doesn’t. Enjoy!

For Better or Worse
by Greta Christina

Taboo: Forbidden Fantasies for Couples
edited by Violet Blue
Cleis Press, $14.95

OceanI realize that calling an erotica anthology uneven is like calling the ocean wet. It’s practically built into the definition of the thing. When you have a couple dozen or more stories by a couple dozen or more writers, you’re going to have ups and downs, higher points and less high points. And in an erotica collection, you’re naturally going to have stories that turn you on and ones that don’t, stories that cater to your favorite delectable desires and stories that cater to other people’s weird-ass kinks (or their totally boring ones).

But while all erotica anthologies are uneven, some are more uneven than others. Some hit a consistently high note, ranging from damn good to fucking great; others wobble about in the range from mediocre to pretty decent. And some, like Taboo, are all over the damn map, with stories that send you flying… and stories that make you wonder why even the writer cared.

Sweet_lifeTaboo was put together by the editor of the Sweet Life anthologies, and it’s in a similar vein: stories about (and for) committed long-term heterosexual couples acting out fantasies and exploring new sexual possibilities, aimed at a couples’ audience and meant to both arouse and inspire. But Taboo has an important twist. While the fantasies in the Sweet Life books are on the gentle, not-very-threatening side — first-time spankings, three-ways, dildos, and the like — the stories in Taboo are kinkier, edgier, more extreme. Taboo has public sex, public kink, medical scenes, rape scenes, gender-fuck, sex with strangers, sex with guns, and heaps upon heaps of heavy-duty hard-core dominance, submission, and sadomasochism. It’s all about couples consensually exploring fantasies together — but there’s a huge variety in the fantasies and fetishes that the couples in the stories are exploring.

And there’s a huge variety in the quality of those stories. Taboo is so interestingly uneven that you could almost use it in a writing class, an object lesson in what makes porn fiction work — and what doesn’t.

SpeculumLesson 1: You can’t write a good porn story by just describing a series of physical events. Really effective porn gets inside the characters’ heads and bodies, makes the reader feel what they’re feeling. “After Hours” by Dante Davidson does this exquisitely. One of the better and more twisted stories in Taboo, it describes a medical scene between a doctor and a nurse, a gynecological exam with a sexual edge that gradually crosses the line from nasty, forbidden thoughts to nasty, forbidden deeds. Davidson does a remarkable job of conveying how the doctor feels, the line he walks between detached professionalism and intense arousal and invasion — so much so that it takes a while to figure out that this is actually a consensual, planned-out scene between an established couple. And Davidson doesn’t just get you inside the doctor’s head — he gets you inside the nurse’s as well, conveying not just the man’s excitement but his awareness of the woman’s as well.

CucumberOn the other very disappointing hand, we have “Forbidden Fruit” by Pearl Jones. This is a prime example of the “series of physical events” theory of porn writing. In it, a couple has a series of sexual encounters involving fruits and vegetables. The woman masturbates with a cucumber, and later on her husband fucks her with a cucumber, and then they go to the grocery store and buy more sexy fruits and vegetables, and then he goes down on her with the cucumber inside her, and then they eat raspberries off each other’s bodies, and then she cuts a hole in a melon so he can fuck it, and then… and it goes on like this. Jones gives detailed descriptions of each act, occasionally even describing the couple’s physical sensations… with no sense at all of what it means to them, what it is about fucking their produce that they find naughty or sexy or special, how it all feels to them emotionally as well as physically. Admittedly, the “sex with food” thing doesn’t do much for me (and frankly, I’m hard-pressed to see what’s so all-fired taboo about it). But I’m not particularly into the medical fetish, either; yet “After Hours” got me inside that fantasy — and made me feel exactly what was hot about it.

Which leads me to Lesson 2: A porn story should be… well, a story. At the risk of sounding pretentious, it should have a narrative arc: it doesn’t have to have a lot of non-sexual plot, or indeed any, but the characters should be in one place at the beginning of the story, someplace else at the end of it. You can get away with a series of disjointed sexual images in video porn, since it’s such a visual medium; but unless it’s written by an exceptionally good experimental writer, a porn story has to unfold, with some suspense about where things are going. This isn’t just a literary nicety — it makes the porn hotter, making it easier to identify with the characters, and giving it a sexual tension right along with the dramatic tension.

James_deanFor an excellent example, take “James Dean, One Thousand Bucks, and a Long Summer Night” by Emilie Paris. “James Dean” starts out as a fairly standard (albeit unusually well-rendered) fantasy about a couple picking up a street hustler for a voyeuristic three-way. But as the story unfolds, the wife changes her mind about what she wants — and takes charge of the scene, directing it into an area she and her husband hadn’t anticipated or even agreed on. The moment when the wife takes control and shifts the fantasy from the standard “man watching his wife fuck another man” to the rather less commonly-seen “newly dominant wife watching her straight husband get fucked by another man” is a moment that’s both unnerving and fiercely exciting. The story gets across the essence of what makes taboos hot — not simply breaking society’s rules and boundaries, but breaking your own, with the excitement of genuinely unfamiliar territory that might actually change your life while it’s getting you off.

And of course, any good narrative has to have conflict. This may be the lesson Taboo was in the greatest need of. Far too many of its stories gloss right over the hard parts: couples venture into three-ways with never a blink of jealousy or insecurity, and try freaky new fetishes with pure eagerness and no hint of anxiety or doubt.

BabysittersI could once again cite “Forbidden Fruit”: a twelve-page story, packed with multiple sex acts, in which absolutely nothing happens. It’s a near-perfect example of how the lack of development or conflict makes for truly boring smut. (I’m sorry to keep harping on this one story; it was just so pointless and rambling and dull that it actually stood out, making me wonder what on earth it was doing in an erotica anthology with obvious aspirations to quality.) But I don’t want to keep hammering on this one poor sad piece of supposed erotica. And I actually have a better example of bad conflict-less porn: “Sometimes It’s Better to Give,” a “couple fucks their babysitter” story by Bryn Haniver. It’s a fun fantasy (or it could be), loaded with potentially hot taboo elements: the depraved older couple seducing the innocent girl, the wicked employers taking advantage of their employee, the moment when the young woman’s surprise and resistance turn to curiosity and lust, etc. etc. But the author goes to an absurd effort to de-fang the nastier parts and make it all safe and nice. The babysitter’s actually their ex-babysitter, a horny and flirtatious college girl with loads of sexual experimenting already under her belt, and when the couple propositions her, she says yes with barely a blink of an eye. The author didn’t let her be shocked or reluctant or even surprised, not even for one paragraph. As a result, there’s no suspense, no conflict — and no tension, sexual or otherwise. And it’s not even remotely plausible.

Dark_alleyAdmittedly, I have a personal bias towards smut fiction that’s plausible. It’s hard to lose myself in a sex fantasy if I’m picking holes in the backstory or thinking, “There’s no way she would do that.” But my desire for porn with real conflict and problems isn’t just about believability. It’s about sexual tension, the heat created by personal friction. As a marvelous counter-example, there’s “Dinner Out” by Erin Sanders, one of the best, scariest rape fantasies I’ve read. It works because it lets the rape be both terrifying and safe. It’s clear to both the reader and the “victim” that this is a couple acting out a rape fantasy and not a real rape — and yet it lets the victim feel panic and helplessness, violation and pain. And it doesn’t shy away from the tension in her own feelings, the unsettling and exciting disconnect between feeling violated by a stranger and feeling cared for by a loving partner. There’s also “In the Back of Raquel” by P.S. Haven, an entirely different “couple tries a voyeuristic three way” story that lets the scene be imperfect, that explores and even revels in its weirdness and jealousy and competitiveness — and that finds the fierce, driven, urgent intensity at the heart of the weirdness, the almost-angry tension that makes the story both arousing and believable.

Exam_tableAnd while we’re on the subject of plausibility, we have our final lesson: respect for the fetish or fantasy. The two medical-play stories in Taboo are perfect examples of what I mean. I’ve already talked about “After Hours,” (the perverse and lovely doctor/nurse medical exam fantasy) and how it made the gradual unfolding of the story feel like exquisitely tantalizing foreplay. But the story also works because it lets the characters get into their roles and act as if they were real. Their nasty thoughts and feelings are clearly there from the beginning, but they act like doctor and patient for a good long while, keeping the reader in suspense and sticking within the fantasy’s boundaries until almost the end. It lets you believe these dirty dirty things could really be happening, in a real medical exam — and this lets you have the fantasy, lets you crawl inside it and feel it down to your blood vessels.

Nurse_bootIn contrast, we have “Medical Attention” by Skye Black. In this one, the medical attention doesn’t get to be clinical and detached even for a minute before it becomes blatantly and explicitly sexual. It has no patience, doesn’t let you believe that this could really be happening even for a paragraph: it jumps to the sex right away, giving you the barest taste of the fantasy — and almost immediately smashing it to pieces.

Okay. All this babbling about the anatomy of a porn story is all very well and good. But it’s not helping you decide whether to buy the damn book or not. What’s my final verdict? Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Taboo_1On the whole, I’d say thumbs up. While Taboo is seriously uneven, enough of the stories are good to make the book worthwhile — and several of the stories are better than just good. If you like porn that’s about taboo sex and edge play, do check it out. And if you’re intrigued and inspired by the idea of acting out edgy taboo sex fantasies in solid long-term relationships, then this is your baby. Just be prepared: you’re going to have to do some skimming. Even more than you usually would with a porn fiction anthology.

P.S. You can buy Taboo at Powell’s.

Bending and Bottoms: Erotic Reading by Greta and Others, Thursday 8/17

Threekinds“She loved being bent over. More than any fiddling that might precede it, more than any fumbling sex act that might follow. The moment of being bent over was like a sex act to Dallas, like foreplay and climax blended into one swooning, too-short moment. A hand on her neck, pressing gently but firmly downward, felt like a tongue on her clit; a voice in her ear, telling her calmly and reasonably to bend over and pull down her pants, felt like a cock in her cunt.”

Want to hear more? Come hear me read it in person! The Inside Story Time reading series is having an evening devoted to the topic of Bottoms, which they’re describing as “a literary exploration of the theme of sexual submission.” I’ll be reading from my erotic novella Bending (excerpted oh-so-briefly above), which was published in Susie Bright’s three-novella collection Three Kinds of Asking For It. Other readers at the event include Carol Queen, Stephen Elliott, and players to be named later.

Greta_in_top_hatSo why should you come? Well, at the risk of sounding appallingly arrogant, I’m a really good live reader. I love doing it — I’ve never understood the “fear of public speaking” thing, to me it’s like eating bon-bons and getting a neck massage — and I do it extremely well. Dirty stories especially. And this novella, “Bending,” is easily one of the best things I’ve ever written. It’s smart, it’s funny, it takes its subject seriously, and it’s unspeakably filthy. I love it, and I love reading it aloud. (And it’s been a while since I’ve given a reading from it, so I’m no longer sick of it.) Here are a few of the nicer blurbs, about “Bending” in particular and “Three Kinds of Asking For It” as a whole:

Kirkus_cover“Greta Christina’s ‘Bending’… is a surprisingly moving odyssey of exhaustiveness and exhaustion.” -Kirkus Reviews

Annie_sprinkle“A smart and delicious trio of erotic novellas — a must-read in bed with towel near by. I’ve been a long-time fan of Greta Christina’s writing, and here she is at her very best — and in excellent company. I was inspired, and perspired.” -Annie Sprinkle, Ph.D.

Sarah_silverman“The perfect book for intellectual sex freaks… Even the ones I thought were disgusting aroused me wildly.” -Sarah Silverman

Cleo_dubois“‘Bending’ is amazing. Kept me from sleeping. Truly brilliant.” -Cleo DuBois

Pwcover“Who needs a beach for this summer treat? Bright’s imprimatur guarantees heat sufficient to melt an ice floe.” -Publisher’s Weekly

M_christian“This is not a good book, or even a great book, but rather is an excellent book. The writers here have managed the near-impossible by presenting stories that are not just touching, amusing, amazing, evocative or poignant but also powerfully erotic. I cannot recommend it too highly!” -M. Christian

Alan_ball“Intense, unjudgmental, hilarious and wise.” -Alan Ball (yes, that Alan Ball, creator of “Six Feet Under” and writer of “American Beauty”)

The “Bottoms” reading will be on Thursday, August 17, from 7 to 9 pm, at the Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell Street in the Hayes Valley district of San Francisco. $3-$10 sliding scale. If you can’t come, you can read a more extensive excerpt from the novella on my Website. Plus, of course, you can buy the book at Powell’s.

And if you can make it to the reading, please say hi afterwards — I’d love to meet my blog readers. Hope to see you there!

Oh, The Believer and the Skeptic Should be Friends…

OklahomaQuick question: Am I a total geek here? Will any other than me get the “Oklahoma” reference?

Ever since I wrote the “Transcendental Skeptic” piece on this blog, I’ve been thinking a lot about the skeptic/spiritual believer question. Questions, I should say. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the question of how agnostics/atheists/skeptics and religious/spiritual believers can get along — and why, sometimes, we really can’t.

I have friends — extremely dear and close friends — who have religious or spiritual beliefs, in some cases strongly held ones. And this is not a problem, either for me or (as far as I know) for them. I don’t feel superior to these folks, and I don’t pity them. I don’t happen to agree with them — but so what? I don’t agree with a lot of people about a lot of things. I don’t even agree with myself all the time. Not agreeing with someone doesn’t mean I can’t connect with them.

In a few cases I even think they’re flat-out mistaken — but again, so what? I’m sure people in my life think I’m flat-out mistaken, about this topic or any number of others. And I’m sure that, in some cases, they’re right. I would be shocked beyond measure to find that I wasn’t mistaken about anything. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter that much. It doesn’t feel like an insurmountable barrier, or even like much of a barrier at all.

Berlin_wallBut why is that? I mean, at least on the surface, the skeptical and the spiritual outlook would seem to represent seriously different values, fundamentally different ways of looking at the universe and our place in it — a difference that would seem to be irrevocable.

And yet, I don’t think it is. Not to me, anyway. Not always.

Why?

And why is it that sometimes the difference really is insurmountable?

MlkPart of it, for me, is that I care more about what people do than what they think. A good example is a friend of mine, whose Christianity is a big part of what drives her to do progressive grass-roots political work. A whole hell of a lot more work than I do, I feel compelled to point out. And of course, you have all the obvious examples from history: Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, the Quakers in the underground railroad, etc. If people’s faith inspires them to do good in the world — and if their idea of “good” resonates with mine — then I don’t care very much why they do it, as long as they’re not doing it as part of a sinister plan for indoctrination or world domination or something.

There’s something else, though. Something both less utilitarian and more fundamental, something that does have to do with values and motivations.

Here’s what it is. I think there’s a profound difference between having a religious or spiritual faith that you hold despite there not being substantial evidence supporting it — and having a religious or spiritual faith that you hold despite the existence of substantial evidence that actually contradicts it.

And the former is something I can strongly identify with — while the latter is something that I just can’t.

MicroscopeSee, science is different from life. In science, you don’t advocate theories that you don’t have any evidence for — or at least, you try like hell not to. In science, substantial evidence that’s carefully gathered, rigorously and double-blind tested, peer-reviewed, independently replicated, all that good stuff… that’s the name of the game. That’s what makes science special and cool: the fact that it takes the time — immense amounts of time, usually — to test its hunches thoroughly and see if they’re right. It often starts with hunches, with imagination and irrational inspirations, but it doesn’t rely on them.

But in life, you do that all the time. You have to. In life, you have to make decisions based on insufficient evidence, or even no evidence at all except your gut feeling. Big decisions, even. Especially if you’re going to have any kind of interesting and fulfilling life. You have to take risks and chances; you have to make leaps of faith.

WeddingI do, anyway. And while those leaps and chances have sometimes been disastrously wrong — the first several years of my romantic life leap to mind — much more often than not they’ve been right, and they’ve gotten more right as I’ve gotten older. The impulse to pick my college major based on two weeks of classes with an inspiring teacher; the impulse to quit a job I loathed despite having no other job prospects lined up; the impulse to call Ingrid ten days after we started going out to tell her that I loved her… I could go on for pages about life-changing decisions I’ve made, and important conclusions I’ve come to, based on little or no evidence other than a moment of calm, powerful clarity in which some inner voice spoke with confidence and certainty.

So the fact that some people have decided that Yes there is a God of some sort, or Yes there is an immortal soul of some sort, or Yes there is some sort of metaphysical energy permeating the physical world, despite not having solid evidence to support that hunch… that’s something I can identify with. I don’t agree with them about that particular hunch, but the fact that they’re making major life decisions based on a hunch isn’t alien to me.

But hanging on to a religious or spiritual belief despite actual compelling evidence that contradicts it — that’s profoundly different.

Jerry_falwellTo hold on to a belief — religious or otherwise — that flies in the face of reality speaks of a special sort of arrogance. It says that you think the inside of your head is more interesting, more important, even more real, than the vast, mysterious, unimaginably complex immensity of reality itself. It’s an approach to life that puts your own opinions and beliefs on one side of a scale, and the universe on the other side — and sees your own opinions and beliefs as carrying the greater weight. (Creationism is the classic example, of course, although there are examples from the groovy alternative-spirituality end of the faith spectrum as well.)

And this is just baffling to me. I mean, even if you do believe in a God who created the universe, wouldn’t that make you respect and revere that universe more, and want to understand exactly what it is and how it works, as clearly as you could? Wouldn’t you think that God knew what He/She was doing — and when faced with hard evidence of how His/Her creation works, wouldn’t your religious humility and awe force you to revise your view of the world to better reflect His/Hers?

Faith that’s unsupported one way or the other by reality is one thing. Faith that flat-out denies reality is something else entirely. And it’s that kind of faith that reflects an approach to life that I find fundamentally and insurmountably different from mine.

It’s not that I can’t identify with it at all. The tendency to ignore reality when it contradicts your beliefs is probably a universal human trait, and it’s certainly something I’ve done more than once in my life, and will almost certainly do again.

But it’s not the foundation of my belief system. And I don’t think I’m right to do it. In fact, when I am doing it, I almost always feel a squirming in my belly, and an awkward foot-shuffling in my head, that tell me I’m being a jerk. And most of the time, after a certain amount of wrestling between my conscience and my opinionated stubbornness, I eventually let go of my old belief, and either revise it or abandon it to let the new evidence in.

Quakers_support_gay_marriageAnd this willingness to revise your beliefs is key. The spiritual people I feel connected with — the ones whose beliefs don’t actually contradict real-world evidence, even though they’re not supported by it — are flexible about those beliefs, and willing to modify them as their experience grows. They’re willing to acknowledge that their faith is just that — faith, not objective truth — and they’re willing to admit that they might be mistaken. “To turn and to turn, it will be our delight/Till by turning, turning, we come ’round right,” and all that. And as a result, they’re accepting and supportive of people with different spiritual beliefs — and of people with no spiritual beliefs at all.

Which brings me back around to my first point — namely, the fact that I care more about how people act than how they think. See, the reality-deniers don’t just think like close-minded assholes. They act like close-minded assholes. The kind of faith — religious or otherwise — that denies reality is what makes the Catholic Church deal with its child-molesting clergy crisis by drumming out gay priests… when the evidence shows that most child molesters are straight, and that gay people overwhelmingly do not molest children. It’s the kind of faith that makes people oppose sex education in schools because they believe it’ll make kids have sex earlier… when the evidence shows the exact opposite. (You knew I’d get sex in here somehow, didn’t you?) It’s the kind of faith that makes the Bush administration pursue a military/foreign policy that runs counter to the evidence and counsel provided by their own military and intelligence advisors, and continue to pursue it in the face of overwhelming evidence that it’s not working… because that evidence contradicts their own unshakable belief in their own righteousness.

BubbleIt’s the faith of life in the bubble.

And that is the insurmountable obstacle, the fundamental difference in values. To some extent, we all live in bubbles, the solipsistic bubbles of our own consciousness and experience. We all frame our observations and experiences with our beliefs and values. We all give more weight to facts that support our opinions, and less weight to facts that contradict it. But when someone consistently responds to solid real-world evidence that contradicts their beliefs by denying the evidence and clinging harder to their belief — and when they firmly believe that this is the right and moral thing to do — that represents a way of looking at the universe and your place in it that I simply can’t be tolerant of. And I don’t think I should be.

But that’s not a difference of spiritual versus skeptical. There are true-believer reality-deniers in the secular world, and flexible, open-minded people in the spiritual one. So when I find myself getting enraged at radical religious extremists — around the world and of every stripe, Christian and Muslim and Jewish and New Age and everything — who are trying to hammer a huge, messy world into a tiny square hole, I remind myself that this isn’t religious intolerance. It’s not the religion I’m intolerant of. It’s the rejection of reality — scientific, political, or simply human.

White House Caught Unaware By Sun Rising In the East

Fidel_castro

(AP) — The White House and Congress, caught unaware by Fidel Castro’s illness, prepared Wednesday for a possible showdown in Cuba as lawmakers drafted legislation that would pay millions of dollars to dissidents who fight for democratic change.

???

The handover was a surprise to the White House and Congress, one senator said.

?????

“The president’s comment was that everybody was caught by surprise, and we’ll have to wait and see” what U.S. action is necessary, said Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, who discussed the developments with President Bush on Tuesday.

?!?!?!?!?

I don’t even want to talk about this legislation. I just want to say this: The Bush administration didn’t know that Fidel Castro was 79 years old, and therefore likely to get seriously ill? They weren’t prepared for this possibility, and were caught by surprise when it happened? They didn’t have a plan — even a cockamamie one — for what to do in the event that Castro got sick or died?

We are so completely fucked. I don’t even want to think about it.