Shortbus — my complete review

Shortbus1_1So Adult Friend Finder magazine has given me permission to run my review of “Shortbus” (the original, unedited version) here on my blog now, without waiting the usual 90 days. So here it is. Enjoy!

The Holy Grail Is Filled With Lube
by Greta Christina

Shortbus. Starring Raphael Barker, Lindsay Beamish, Justin Bond, Jay Brannan, Paul Dawson, PJ DeBoy, Peter Stickles, and Sook-Yin Lee. Original music by Yo La Tengo. Written by John Cameron Mitchell, in conjunction with the cast. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell. 102 minutes. Unrated. Opens October 4 in New York, October 6 in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Shortbus10John Cameron Mitchell has done it.

He’s cracked the code. He’s found the Grail. Best known until now as the director/co-writer/star of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” John Cameron Mitchell has done the thing that it seemed was going to be done in the ’70s but never quite happened; the thing that those of us who care about sex and movies have been hoping for decades would happen but never really expected to see.

Shortbus9He’s made a movie — a regular, non-porno, arthouse-circuit, movie-type movie — with real sex. Explicit, non-faked, “actors actually doing it” sex. Lots of it, not just a scene or two. And he’s made it good. The smart, funny, engaging, “stay up ’til two in the morning talking about it” kind of good. Serious, top-notch, deserving of many awards good.

And now nobody else can ever again say that it can’t be done.

Shortbus5“Shortbus” is unquestionably about sex. I mean, come on — the working title was “The Sex Film Project.” But it’s not about sex in the way that, say, “Debbie Does Dallas” is about sex. It’s about sex in the way that “The Godfather” is about the Mafia, the way “Babette’s Feast” is about food. Sex is the hook, the peg to hang the ideas on. It isn’t so much about sex as it is about what sex means, how people use it, what place it has in our lives. It isn’t so much about sex as it is about the problem of intimacy — the problem of how to connect with other people without losing yourself.

Shortbus14It digs into that question through seven main characters, who intertwine and intersect at a New York sex club/art salon called Shortbus. There’s Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a couples’ counselor/sex therapist, who’s never had an orgasm and fakes it dramatically with her husband. There’s Rob (Raphael Barker), Sofia’s sensitive and supportive husband, who has no job or direction — or indeed life — of his own. There’s Jamie (PJ DeBoy), a former TV child star with an unsettling attachment to his old TV catch phrase, who can’t let go of his former fame and who wants more than anything to “love everyone in the world.” There’s James (Paul Dawson), Jamie’s lover, a former hustler, who’s obsessively filming his life for the lover he’s getting increasingly detached from. There’s Ceth, pronounced Seth (Jay Brannan), a dishy young model in constant search of a husband, who hooks up with Jamie and James — and leaps giddily to the assumption that the two of them are the husband for him. There’s Caleb (Peter Stickles), a quietly creepy freelance proofreader who stalks/spies on Jamie and James and has become scarily obsessed with their relationship. And there’s Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a professional dominatrix and amateur artist, a woman with perceptive and profound insight into other people’s lives and problems — and an equally profound inability to connect with those people in a way that’s anything other than confrontational.

Shortbus11And right from the beginning, you see these people’s characters — and their neuroses — sketched out in their sex lives. Sofia and Rob, who look like a perfect couple from a Gap commercial, start the movie having wild porn-star sex in every position in the Kama Sutra, followed by a smug little post-coital chat about how great their life is. (Sofia actually says, “I feel sorry for couples who don’t have what we have.”) But we soon find out that Sofia’s not getting off and is faking it so Rob won’t leave her… and a bit later on, we learn that Rob isn’t getting the one thing he needs to wake him up sexually and make him feel connected. James starts the movie masturbating into his mouth on camera, for the film he’s making for Jamie… but when Jamie comes home and wants to make love, James turns him away. Meanwhile, Caleb is watching James jerk off — actually, he’s watching James filming himself jerking off — through a telephoto camera lens from a neighboring building. Ceth starts his stretch of the movie using a hand-held electronic dating-service device to try to meet guys… while he’s at the Shortbus sex club and art salon, surrounded by amazing people of all genders and preferences. And Severin is half-heartedly whipping the ass of a smug trust-fund hipster who keeps pressing her with nosy questions that seem profound and probing on the surface but are actually glib and meaningless.

Now, the thing that strikes you right off the bat about the sex in “Shortbus” isn’t just what a natural facet of the characters it is. What strikes you about the sex in “Shortbus” is how natural it is, period — how authentic it feels, how much it looks like real human sex.

Shortbus13I mean, if you’ve heard anything about this film, you’ve heard that it’s the Real Sex movie. And even if you’ve seen a lot of porn, you might expect to be somewhat startled by that, either shocked or titillated or both. But the very explicitness of the sex actually makes it less jarring. In most non-porn movies, when you see someone naked, it’s so fleeting — and so out-of-place — that you can’t help but be jolted out of the narrative while you stare at their goodies. But in “Shortbus,” the nudity and the sex are so upfront, so un-selfconscious, and such a fluid part of the story, that you almost immediately stop being surprised by it. The sex in “Shortbus” doesn’t push you away from the characters, to drool over them from a voyeuristic distance — it draws you in, to identify with the characters and care about them.

Shortbus3_2And I think because of this, the sex doesn’t get used as a symbol of the characters and their strengths or flaws. In most movies, good sex and bad sex are handed out like lollipops or spankings — rewards or punishments for being the right or wrong kind of person. But in “Shortbus,” bad sex isn’t a finger-wagging punishment for being neurotic and troubled. It’s just one aspect of a neurotic and troubled life. The sex isn’t a consequence of these people’s lives. It’s part of their lives. It isn’t separate.

Shortbus6There are so many examples of this, and I could gas on at great length about every single one. But my favorite is the remote control vibrator. After going to the Shortbus sex club on her own, Sofia brings Rob along — along with a remote control vibrating egg, the egg portion of which she tucks into her panties, and the control portion of which she hands to her husband. The idea is that they’ll wander around the party on their own, but when he wants to connect with her, he can give her a little remote control buzz, and she’ll feel it and know that it’s his touch.

But Rob is distracted and uncomfortable at the party, and he sticks the remote in his back pocket and pretty much forgets about it. He does set it off, several times — but he does it by accident, without even knowing he’s doing it, leaning against a door or flopping down on a sofa. Eventually he loses the remote… and it gets picked up by someone else at the party, who tries to flip channels on the TV with it.

Shortbus15So Sofia keeps thinking that Rob is sending her happy little sexy “I love you” messages by remote control… but in fact, he’s not. He’s in his own little world, and isn’t really thinking about her at all. And the buzzes keep going off at exactly the wrong moment, interrupting connections and conversations that Sofia’s having with other people, turning moments of genuine intimacy into awkward erotic faux pas. Once Sofia discovers that Rob has lost the remote, every shred of her therapy-speak “own your own feelings” relationship style gets blown into shrapnel. She flies into a rage — probably the most honest and direct communication she’s had with Rob in ages — and smashes the egg into pieces.

In other words, the device that’s meant to create a loving and sexy connection between them winds up just being sexual static — the illusion of a connection without a real connection — that gets in the way of any closeness they might have with other people, without fostering any intimacy between the two of them.

Kind of like their marriage.

Shortbus7That may sound depressing and grim. But “Shortbus” is anything but. It’s a serious movie, yes, and at times it’s fucking tragic. But it’s also funny and clever, touching and sexy, engaging and sweet. And it’s hopeful. This is actually one of the things I like best about the movie — it’s positive about sex, without being deluded about it. It doesn’t pretend that good people will always be rewarded with happy sex; it doesn’t pretend that all sexual problems are easily solved with the right toy or technique or even the right partner; it doesn’t pretend that sex will save the world. It acknowledges how complicated sex is, how wrong it can go, how badly it can hurt when it goes wrong. It sees all that — and it still sees sex as joyful, and necessary, and worth trying to do right. It sees sex as an essential form of human connection — and it sees human connection as worth doing, maybe the only thing worth doing, even when it’s difficult and frustrating and doesn’t go right.

Shortbus8I could go on an on. This could easily have been a five-thousand word movie review, and I’d still have felt like I had more to say. I could talk about the recurring theme of documentation and self-documentation: how everyone in the movie is filming and photographing themselves and each other, so busy trying to connect through art and technology that they wind up making themselves distant and self-conscious. (Like having your primary form of connection with the world involve sitting at a computer by yourself at two in the morning telling everyone what to think, just for example…)

I could talk about how non-simplistic that theme is, how the movie isn’t just a heavy-handed ironic screed about the isolation of the modern world. I could talk about how the tools people use to connect in the movie do sometimes help them connect, even when they’re crossing their wires… and how the crossed wires sometimes turn into real connections.

Shortbus12I could talk about how, unlike almost every other movie ever made about love and sex, “Shortbus” doesn’t view every dissolved relationship as an unredeemed tragedy. I could talk about how rare it is for a movie to acknowledge that some relationships make people unhappy — even good people who are trying their best — and that sometimes a break-up is the beginning of a happy ending.

I could talk about the fact that all the jobs the main characters have — actor, model, sex worker, proofreader, therapist — are all jobs that are about communication and connection… and yet are also about keeping a leash on self-expression, molding the face you present into something other people need.

Shortbus4I could talk at great length about the repeated theme of boundaries and boundariless-ness: the delicate balance between too much distance and not enough, the question of how to keep reasonable boundaries without building impenetrable walls, and how to let the world penetrate you without losing your own skin.

I could talk at very great length about how fluid sexual identity is in the movie, and how naturally people from different sexual identity groups connect and interact. The lesbians and gay men and straight people all have their little worlds; but this is a modern American city, and these worlds all overlap, and these people all know each other. This is actually one of the most striking things about “Shortbus,” and it’s a little depressing to realize how unusual it is. There’s no Gay Best Friend in an otherwise totally straight movie; there’s not the One Lesbian Couple at the party, or the Tranny Comic Relief who shows up for five minutes to be laughed at and disappear. There’s just gay men and lesbians and straight folks and bi folks and transfolk, and they all know each other and like each other and irritate each other and get tangled in each other’s lives. You know — like real life, in any major city anywhere in the Western world.

Shortbus2_1I could talk about the fact that, for once in my goddamn life as a movie viewer, I didn’t feel insulted by the depiction of sadomasochists. I could talk about how sadomasochism isn’t used as a sign of evil or craziness or misery in “Shortbus,” but is shown as just another way to be sexual, with its own special pleasures and complications, and as much potential for trouble and joy as any other way.

I could talk about how the movie seems much longer than it is — not because it’s dull or sloppy, but because there’s so much going on. The movie is so rich, with so much nuance and complexity and detail, that it doesn’t seem possible that it all got packed into just 102 minutes.

Shortbus16And I could talk about the places where the movie doesn’t quite work — the false notes, the plot turns that feel forced, the character developments that don’t seem plausible. There are undoubtedly a few of these: the therapist who smacks her client in the face and then spills out the details of her fucked-up sex life; the clients who then invite her to the sex club; the voyeur/stalker who turns out to be just another caring guy who needs love and connection. The dead body in the Jacuzzi that nobody notices until they bump into it. That sort of thing. “Shortbus” is not a perfect movie, and I like and respect it too much to pretend that it is.

Shortbus17Because this is much better than a perfect movie. This is a great movie. This is a true movie. This is a unique movie. And this is an important movie. This is a movie about sex that’s explicit, not just in the standard sense of the word, but in every sense. It tells the truth about sex, as clearly and precisely and honestly as it can.

And that, all by itself, makes it invaluable.

Shortbus: The Holy Grail Is Filled With Lube

Shortbus1John Cameron Mitchell has done it.

He’s cracked the code. He’s found the Grail. Best known until now as the director/co-writer/star of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” John Cameron Mitchell has done the thing that it seemed was going to be done in the ’70s but never quite happened; the thing that those of us who care about sex and movies have been hoping for decades would happen but never really expected to see.

Shortbus2He’s made a movie — a regular, non-porno, arthouse-circuit, movie-type movie — with real sex. Explicit, non-faked, “actors actually doing it” sex. Lots of it, not just a scene or two. And he’s made it good. The smart, funny, engaging, “stay up ’til two in the morning talking about it” kind of good. Serious, top-notch, deserving of many awards good.

And now nobody else can ever again say that it can’t be done.

Shortbus3Thus begins my review of “Shortbus” — a movie I’m tremendously excited about — which just got posted to the Adult Friend Finder magazine. Lately I’ve been putting my Adult Friend Finder reviews in their entirety here on my blog — but my contract with AFF says I have to wait 60 days to do that, and since the movie opens this weekend, I thought y’all would want to read it now. I’m not ecstatic with the editing on it, and I’ll almost certainly post the original version in its entirety here at some point… but in the meantime I’ll tell you that you absolutely cannot miss this movie. If you care about sex and movies, you have to make seeing it a high priority. And I’ll leave you with how I closed my review:

Shortbus_4This is much better than a perfect movie. This is a great movie. This is a true movie. This is a unique movie. And this is an important movie. This is a movie about sex that’s explicit, not just in the standard sense of the word, but in every sense. It tells the truth about sex, as clearly and precisely and honestly as it can.

And that, all by itself, makes it invaluable.

Sixteen Candles: The Rep. Foley Scandal

Mark_foleyWell, the main thing I was going to say about the Rep. Foley teenage boy dirty text message argle-bargle, Susie Bright has already said, and better than I would have. The upshot: Congress just abolished habeas corpus and legitimized torture, and the story got buried with the department store ads (the SF Chronicle put it on Page 3). But a gay teenage sex scandal in Congress — that’s the lead story everywhere, our top story tonight, front page above the fold, and probably will be for days. (Except for the Chron. The headline story in today’s Chron was the Michelin guide giving three stars to only one Bay Area restaurant in its new Bay Area guide. You kind of have to love the Chron sometimes. Foley did make Page 1 — just not above the fold.)

So here, instead, is the other thing I want to say about the Foley scandal.

*****

SixteenI was sixteen when I first had sex. (According to how I defined it at the time, anyway.) I had it with an adult, a man in his thirties. More than once, in fact: the affair lasted roughly a month and a half.

And while I don’t think the guy covered himself with glory, I also don’t feel that I was molested. My memories of the experience aren’t stellar, but they fall into the “stupid decision/learning experience” category — not the “invasive violation/abuse of power” category. I think the guy was a schmuck, but I don’t think he was a predator, and I don’t think he was a pedophile.

CongressBefore you flip out and hit the comment button, let me be very clear — I’m not trying to defend Foley. There’s a lot of stuff Foley did that the guy I’m talking about didn’t do. As far as I know, the guy I fucked didn’t make a habit of going for teenagers on a regular basis. He wasn’t aggressive or forward about pursuing teenagers, including me. He wasn’t taking advantage of political power and status to pursue teenagers — he didn’t really have any to speak of. And, of course, he didn’t head up a Congressional caucus on protecting teenagers from people like him. Foley is a Grade A asshole, and I’m watching his fall with shameless, gleeful Schadenfreude. As Molly Ivins once said, Mama may have raised a mean child, but she didn’t raise no hypocrites.

JusticeAnd let me be very clear as well — I support the idea of age of consent laws. They’re never going to be perfect — no matter where you draw it, there are always going to be people under the line who are ready for sex, and people over the line who aren’t — but I get that that’s what laws are like. I do think age of consent laws need to be tinkered with (I personally support a three-tiered system, in which under a certain age you’re off-limits, between certain ages it’s only okay with people close to your age, and over a certain age you’re fair game), but I think the basic idea is sound.

BritneyMy point is this. When we talk about the Foley scandal, I think we need to be extremely careful about we’re getting irate about. I don’t want to reflexively join in the hysterical chorus about pedophilia and molestation and “won’t somebody please think of the children?” There’s a big difference between having a thing for 16-year-olds and having a thing for, say, 12-year-olds. Having a thing for 16-year-olds makes you a chicken-hawk — but it doesn’t make you a pedophile. (If it did, everyone who watched the Britney Spears naughty-schoolgirl video with lust in their heart is a pedophile.) In particular, lots of gay men had their first sexual experience as teenagers, with older men — and lots of those teenagers had warm, positive feelings about the experience, and continue to have those good feelings into adulthood. A good case could be made that adults having sex with 16-year-olds should be against the law, and a good case could certainly be made that it’s creepy and fucked-up — but it doesn’t make you an evil despoiler of innocent children.

No, what makes Foley evil is the hypocrisy. What makes Foley evil is that he made political hash out of Scary Disgusting Sexual Predators On The Internet Who Are Trying To Seduce Your Children… while he was using the Internet to try to seduce teenage boys.

And what makes his Republican compatriots evil — more evil than Foley, I would argue — is that they apparently knew about the Foley thing and covered it up… while they’ve been busy frothing at the mouth about those awful liberals who supposedly want to protect criminals and terrorists.

By, you know, granting them habeas corpus and stuff.

Sublimely Ridiculous: Mark Morris’s “King Arthur”

Dealy_boppersKing Arthur
Mark Morris Dance Company
Cal Performances, Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley, 9/30/06

I am, rather uncharacteristically, speechless.

Not that that’s going to stop me.

I guess I should start by saying that it’s magnificent. Much of what I’m about to say is going to make it sound ditzy and dumb, so I should make it clear from the outset that it’s neither. It’s extremely goofy; it’s utterly shameless; it will do absolutely anything to get attention or admiration or cheap laughs. But it’s not ditzy, and it’s not dumb. It’s one of the most splendid performances of any kind I’ve seen all year.

King_arthurIt’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — in which King Arthur never makes an appeareance. (His hat is often on stage, though.)

Union_jackIt’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — in which all the parts with story and narrative have been expunged, leaving behind a series of songs on the topics of (a) how we should all have lots of sex while we’re young, because life is short and soon it’ll be too late, and (b) how fabulously terrific England is.

Top_hatIt’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — featuring cheap tinsel curtains, sequined top hats, gym shoes with flashing red lights, and rhythmic-gymnastic ribbon routines. Among other things. Among many, many other things.

Dealy_boppers_2It’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — in which a magical spirit is costumed in a blue cardigan, costume-shop butterfly wings, and a set of silver sparkly dealy-boppers.

OrgyIt’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — in which women and men partner indiscriminately, and you often aren’t sure which is which anyway.

BoxersIt’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — in which the naked river spirits dress in an astonishing variety of silly underwear, from pantaloons to boxer shorts.

TreeIt’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — in which the sets have no ornamentation or facade of any kind. Moving platforms are black with big yellow X’s; moving staircases are bare metal; trees are blatantly artificial and set in big wooden blocks; and the snow in the winter scene is generated by a perforated roll-up shade filled with fake snow, being operated center stage by one of the dancers.

MimeIt’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — in which, in defiance of absolutely every rule about setting dance to vocal music, the song lyrics are broadly and literally mimed by the dance movements. Not just once or twice, but over and over again.

MaypoleNow, if this were being done by college dance majors or a local avante-garde theater company, it would be pretentious and laughable. But this is the Mark Morris Dance Company, and they completely get away with it. They get away with it because they know their shit. They get away with it because they dance with genius and discipline. Every movement, even the goofiest — especially the goofiest — is flawless, fluid and controlled, powerful and graceful. They did a schottische — a fun but lumbering dance that always makes me feel like I’m wearing ten-pound boots — and made it look weightless and lithe… while still, somehow, preserving the dance’s essential dorkiness. They did a Maypole dance that made Ingrid afraid to ever get near a Maypole again for fear of being unworthy (while, at the same time, she was busily stealing ideas).

Mirror_mazeAnd every moment of it is just flat-out beautiful. Sometimes it’s simply and straightforwardly beautiful — the sumptuous and romantic partner/mirror duet between the two women springs to my always libidinous mind. And some of it is dazzlingly beautiful while at the same time being goofy and ridiculous — most notably the ensemble piece that frantically weaves and dashes through a constantly moving set of free-standing mirrored doors, looking for all the world like twenty cheesy stage magicians in a fun house mirror maze, all competing for attention.

Mark_morrisIn the end, I think that’s what capped it for me. Mark Morris and his dancers have every shred of the discipline and devotion required by high art — with absolutely none of its stuffiness and self-importance, and none of its sense that That Simply Isn’t Done, Dear. Morris clearly believes that high art and low entertainment not only aren’t contradictory, but are actually complimentary, even symbiotic. And so the gasps of epiphany and the cheap laughs don’t alternate or compete — they come together, a simultaneous orgasm of aesthetic delight.

It fuckin’ rocks, dude.

King Arthur continues at Zellerbach until Oct. 7.

Domesticity and Degeneracy

Note: This post include descriptions of my personal sex life. If you don’t want to read that, please don’t read the rest of the post.

SpankingSo on Saturday, Ingrid and I went to the “Perverts Put Out” erotic reading, where I read my “college girl gets spanked by her professor” story… which turned out to be one of the gentler stories in a program that included humiliating gang-bangs and Brady Bunch porn and burly ex-Marines in pink rhumba panties. It’s been a while since the last “Perverts Put Out,” and every one of the readers was in rare form.

Afterwards… well, I’m not going to tell you exactly what we did when we got home last night, but I will tell you that it’s now Sunday night and I’m still sore.

Crock_potAnd today, we woke up surrounded by cats, and we had breakfast and read the Sunday paper at our favorite local diner, and we went to the stationery store and the grocery store and the cheese store, and we made chicken stock and vegetarian chili while we wrote our last few much-belated wedding-gift thank-you notes and watched the Simpsons.

White_picket_fenceI’m not sure why I’m telling you all this… except it’s gotten me thinking about degeneracy and domesticity. I think people often assume that the one precludes the other. We tend to assume that when you make sybartic sensual pleasure a priority in your life, you have to accept instability and chaos as part of the package. And we tend to assume that when you settle down with a partner and a mortgage and a Sisyphian list of household chores, you have to accept that boredom and predictability are the natural result.

But I don’t think that’s true.

I think you can have both. I know you can have both. I’ve had both, just in the last 48 hours.

BookersWhat I do think is that when you try to have both, you don’t get to have either one to the most lavish extent that you might. Marriage and a mortgage has definitely put a dent in (not to say virtually eliminated) my slutty, casual-sex catting around. I just don’t have time. And making sure that we have sex and dancing and and parties and good food and good liquor and porn writing and reasonably frequent cultural outings in our life does mean that our home life is rather more chaotic than one might like, with piles of junk all over the living room and a chore list that’s just getting longer and nowhere near enough sleep. The domesticity isn’t as domestic — and the degeneracy isn’t as degenerate — as I might have hoped for in a perfect world.

Yin_yangBut that’s okay. I refuse to accept that the pursuit of loving domesticity means boredom and quiet desperation, and I refuse to accept that the pursuit of sensual pleasure means restlessness and instability. And I adamantly refuse to accept that the two things are incompatible and that I have to choose one. I do, however, accept that the pursuit of both means compromise. I can have it all, as long as I accept that none of it will be perfect.

Perverts Put Out returns — and I’m reading!

GretaCome hear me read dirty stories — along with faboo sex writers Simon Sheppard, Carol Queen, Kirk Read, Charlie Anders, horehound stillpoint, and Lori Selke — when Perverts Put Out returns to San Francisco! Perverts Put Out was a long-running sex-writer forum/salon thing, which ended prematurely when host Bill Brent inexplicably decided to do what he wanted with his life and moved to Hawaii. But now Simon Sheppard and Carol Queen are reviving it as a benefit for the Center for Sex and Culture — and they very kindly invited me to be one of the readers at its debut!

Perverts Put Out always had a great and hilarious variety of sex writing — fiction, non-fiction, poetry, queer and straight, kinky and somewhat less kinky — and the return engagement promises to keep that tradition alive. I’m thrilled that it’s back, and I’d be going even if I weren’t reading. It’ll be on Saturday, September 23, starting at 7:30 pm, at CounterPULSE!, 1310 Mission St. (that’s at Mission and 9th, near Civic Center BART) in San Francisco. Admission is a $5-$15 sliding scale to benefit the Center for Sex and Culture, but no-one will be turned away for lack of funds.

I’d give you a taste of what I’m going to be reading, but I haven’t decided yet. Probably the story about the college girl getting spanked by her professor, but I might change my mind…

Are We Having Sex Now or What?

My apologies to my RSS people who get this twice. Something screwed up with my FeedBlitz feed, so I’m posting it a second time. Enjoy!

SevenWhen I first started having sex with other people, I used to like to count them. I wanted to keep track of how many there had been. It was a source of some kind of pride, or identity anyway, to know how many people I’d had sex with in my lifetime. So, in my mind, Len was number one, Chris was number two, that slimy awful little heavy metal barbiturate addict whose name I can’t remember was number three, Alan was number four, and so on. It got to the point where, when I’d start having sex with a new person for the first time, when his cock first entered my cunt (I was only having sex with men at the time), what would flash through my head wouldn’t be “Oh baby baby your cock feels so good inside me,” or “What the hell am I doing with this creep,” or “This is boring I wonder what’s on TV.” What flashed through my head was: “Seven!”

FourDoing this had some interesting results. I’d look for patterns in the numbers. I had a theory for a while that every fourth lover turned out to be really great in bed, and would ponder what the cosmic significance of this phenomenon might be. Sometimes I’d try to determine what kind of person I was by how many people I’d had sex with. At 18, I’d had sex with ten different people; did that make me normal, repressed, a total slut, a free-spirited bohemian, or what? Not that I compared my numbers with anyone else’s — I didn’t. It was my own exclusive structure, a game I played in the privacy of my own head.

Big_numbersThen the numbers started getting a little larger, as numbers tend to do, and keeping track became more difficult. I’d remember that the last one was Seventeen and so this one must be Eighteen, but then I’d start having doubts about whether I’d been keeping score accurately or not. I’d lie awake at night thinking to myself, well, there was Brad, and there was that guy on my birthday, and there was David, and…no, wait, I forgot that guy I got drunk with at the social my first week at college…so that’s seven, eight, nine…and by two in the morning I’d finally have it figured out. But there was always a nagging suspicion that maybe I’d missed someone, some dreadful tacky little scumball that I was trying to forget about having invited inside my body. And, as much as I maybe wanted to forget about the sleazy little scumball, I wanted more to get that number right.

BackrubIt kept getting harder, though. I began to question what counted as sex and what didn’t. There was that time with Gene, for instance. I was pissed off at my boyfriend David for cheating on me. It was a major crisis, and Gene and I were friends and he’d been trying to get at me for weeks and I hadn’t exactly been discouraging him. So I went to see him that night to gripe about David. He was very sympathetic of course, and he gave me a backrub, and we talked and touched and confided and hugged, and then we started kissing, and then we snuggled up a little closer, and then we started fondling each other, you know, and then all heck broke loose, and we rolled around on the bed groping and rubbing and grabbing and smooching and pushing and pressing and squeezing. He never did actually get it in. He wanted to, and I wanted to too, but I had this thing about being faithful to my boyfriend, so I kept saying No you can’t do that, Yes that feels so good, No wait that’s too much, Yes yes don’t stop, No stop that’s enough. We never even got our clothes off. Jesus Christ, though, it was some night. One of the best, really. But for a long time I didn’t count it as one of the times I’d had sex. He never got inside, so it didn’t count.

MartyrLater, months and years later, when I lay awake at night putting my list together, I’d start to wonder: Why doesn’t Gene count? Does he not count because he never got inside? Or does he not count because I had to preserve my moral edge over David, my status as the patient, ever-faithful, cheated-on, martyred girlfriend, and if what I did with Gene counts, then I don’t get to feel wounded and superior?

Years later, I did end up fucking Gene and I felt a profound relief because, at last, he definitely had a number, and I knew for sure that he did in fact count.

LesbianThen I started having sex with women, and boy howdy, did that ever shoot holes in the system. I’d always made my list of sex partners by defining sex as penile-vaginal intercourse. You know, fucking. It’s a pretty simple distinction, a straightforward binary system. Did it go in or didn’t it? Yes or no? One or zero? On or off? Granted, it’s a pretty arbitrary definition; but it’s the customary one, with an ancient and respected tradition behind it, and when I was just screwing men, there was no really compelling reason to question it.

HitachiBut with women… well, first of all there’s no penis, so right from the start the tracking system is defective. And then, there are so many ways women can have sex with each other, touching and licking and grinding and fingering and fisting — with dildoes or vibrators or vegetables or whatever happens to be lying around the house, or with nothing at all except human bodies. Of course, that’s true with sex between women and men as well. But between women, no one method has a centuries-old tradition of being the one that counts. Even when we do fuck each other there’s no dick, so you don’t get that feeling of This Is What’s Important We Are Now Having Sex, objectively speaking, and all that other stuff is just foreplay or afterplay. So when I started having sex with women, the binary system had to go, in favor of a more inclusive definition.

OneWhich meant, of course, that my list of how many people I’d had sex with was completely trashed. In order to maintain it I’d have had to go back and reconstruct the whole thing and include all those people I’d necked with and gone down on and dry-humped and played touchy-feely games with. Even the question of who filled the all-important Number One slot, something I’d never had any doubts about before, would have to be re-evaluated. By this time I’d kind of lost interest in the list anyway. Reconstructing it would be more trouble than it was worth. But the crucial question remained: What counts as having sex with someone?

Question_markIt was important for me to know. I mean, you have to know what qualifies as sex, because when you have sex with someone your relationship changes. Right? Right? It’s not that sex itself has to change things all that much. But knowing you’ve had sex, being conscious of a sexual connection, standing around making polite conversation with someone thinking to yourself, “I’ve had sex with this person,” that’s what always changes things. Or so I believed. And if having sex with a friend can confuse or change the friendship, think of how bizarre things can get when you’re not sure whether you’ve had sex with them or not.

Dividing_lineThe problem was, as I kept doing more different kinds of sexual things, the line between Sex and Not-sex kept getting more hazy and indistinct. As I brought more into my sexual experience, things were showing up on the dividing line demanding my attention. It wasn’t just that the territory I labeled “sex” was expanding. The line itself had swollen, dilated, been transformed into a vast grey region. It had become less like a border and more like a demilitarized zone.

JugglingWhich is a strange place to live. Not a bad place, you understand, just strange. It feels like juggling, or watchmaking, or playing the piano — anything that demands complete concentrated awareness and attention. It feels like cognitive dissonance, only pleasant. It feels like waking up from a very compelling and realistic bad dream. It feels the way you feel when you realize that everything you know is wrong, and a bloody good thing too, ‘cuz it was painful and stupid and really fucked you up.

ExplorerBut for me, living in a question naturally leads to searching for an answer. I can’t simply shrug, throw up my hands, and say, “Damned if I know.” I have to explore the unknown frontiers, even if I don’t bring back any secret treasure. So even if it’s incomplete or provisional, I do want to find some sort of definition of what is and isn’t sex.

OrgasmI know when I’m feeling sexual. I’m feeling sexual if my pussy’s wet, my nipples are hard, my palms are clammy, my brain is fogged, my skin is tingly and super-sensitive, my butt muscles clench, my heartbeat speeds up, I have an orgasm (that’s the real giveaway), and so on. But feeling sexual with someone isn’t the same as having sex with them. Good Lord, if I called it sex every time I was attracted to someone who returned the favor I’d be even more bewildered than I am now. Even being sexual with someone isn’t the same as having sex with them. I’ve danced and flirted with too many people, given and received too many sexy would-be-seductive backrubs, to believe otherwise.

Brain_1I have friends who say if you thought of it as sex when you were doing it, then it was. That’s an interesting idea. It’s certainly helped me construct a coherent sexual history without being a revisionist swine and redefining my past according to current definitions. But it really just begs the question. It’s fine to say that sex is whatever I think it is; but then what do I think it is? What if, when I was doing it, I was wondering whether it counted?

ArousalPerhaps having sex with someone is the conscious, consenting, mutually acknowledged pursuit of shared sexual pleasure. Not a bad definition. If you are turning each other on and you say so and you keep doing it, then it’s sex. It’s broad enough to encompass a lot of sexual behavior beyond genital contact/orgasm; it’s distinct enough to not include every instance of sexual awareness or arousal; and it contains the elements I feel are vital — acknowledgement, consent, reciprocity, and the pursuit of pleasure. But what about the situation where one person consents to sex without really enjoying it? Lots of people (myself included) have had sexual interactions that we didn’t find satisfying or didn’t really want, and unless they were actually forced on us against our will, I think most of us would still classify them as sex.

Two_brainsMaybe if both of you (or all of you) think of it as sex, then it’s sex whether you’re having fun or not. That clears up the problem of sex that’s consented to but not wished for or enjoyed. Unfortunately, it begs the question again, only worse: Now you have to mesh different people’s vague and inarticulate notions of what is and isn’t sex and find the place where they overlap. Too messy.

Bad_sexHow about sex as the conscious, consenting, mutually acknowledged pursuit of sexual pleasure of at least one of the people involved. That’s better. It has all the key components, and it includes the situation where one of the people involved is doing it for a reason other than sexual pleasure — status, reassurance, money, the satisfaction and pleasure of someone they love, etc. But what if neither of you is enjoying it, if you’re both doing it because you think the other one wants to? Ugh.

IntercourseI’m having a bit of trouble here. Even the conventional standby — sex equals intercourse — has a serious flaw; it includes rape, which is something I emphatically refuse to accept. As far as I’m concerned, if there’s no consent, it ain’t sex. But I feel that’s about the only place in this whole quagmire where I have a grip. The longer I think about the subject, the more questions I come up with. At what point in an encounter does it become sexual? If an interaction that begins non-sexually turns into sex, was it sex all along? What about sex with someone who’s asleep? Can you have a situation where one person is having sex and the other isn’t? It seems that no matter what definition I come up with, I can think of some real-life experience that calls it into question.

Sex_partiesFor instance: A couple of years ago, I attended (well, hosted) an all-girl sex party. Out of the twelve other women there, there were only a few with whom I got seriously physically nasty. The rest I kissed or hugged or talked dirty with or just smiled at, or watched while they did seriously physically nasty things with each other. If we’d been alone, I’d probably say that what I’d done with most of the women there didn’t count as having sex. But the experience, which was hot and sweet and silly and very special, had been created by all of us, and although I only really got down with a few, I felt that I’d been sexual with all of the women there. Now, whenever I meet one of the women from that party, I always ask myself: Have we had sex?

FloggerFor instance: When I was first experimenting with sadomasochism, I got together with a really hot woman. We were negotiating about what we were going to do, what would and wouldn’t be ok, and she said she wasn’t sure she wanted to have sex. Now we’d been explicitly planning all kinds of fun and games — spanking, bondage, obedience — which I strongly identified as sexual activity. In her mind, though, “sex” meant direct genital contact, and she didn’t necessarily want to do that with me. Playing with her turned out to be a tremendously erotic experience, arousing and stimulating and almost unbearably satisfying. But we spent the whole night without even touching each other’s genitals. And the fact that our definitions were so different made me wonder: Was it sex?

Lusty_ladyFor instance: I worked for a few months as a nude dancer at a peep show. In case you’ve never been to a peep show, it works like this: The customer goes into this tiny dingy black box, kind of like a phone booth, and they put in quarters, and a metal plate goes up, and they look through a window at a little room/stage where naked women are dancing. One time, a guy came into one of the booths and started watching me and masturbating. I came over and squatted in front of him and started masturbating as well, and we grinned at each other and watched each other and masturbated, and we both had a fabulous time. (I couldn’t believe I was being paid to masturbate — tough job, but somebody has to do it…) After he left, I thought to myself: Did we just have sex?

QuarterI mean, if it had been someone I knew, and if there had been no glass and no quarters, there’d be no question in my mind. Sitting two feet apart from someone, watching each other masturbate? Yup, I’d call that sex all right. But this was different, because it was a stranger, and because of the glass, and because of the quarters. Was it sex?

I still don’t have an answer.

Copyright 1992 Greta Christina. Originally published in The Erotic Impulse, edited by David Steinberg, Tarcher Press.

Erotic_impulseA lot of you may have read this already. This is probably my best-known, most influential, and most widely-read piece of writing. It’s been reprinted numerous times (including a butchered version that appeared in Ms. Magazine with the references to kinds of sex they don’t approve of taken out), and it gets studied and assigned in several college and university courses. (Google “Greta Christina” + “Are we having sex” if you don’t believe me.) But Susie Bright suggested that I put it on my blog as well as my Website, since this is where a lot of people are finding me these days. And I think she’s right — I always tell people that if you were just going to read one piece of my writing, this is the one to read (this or Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God), and I try to make it as widely available as I can.

Queer Contra dance for everybody, Sunday at Ashkenaz!

Contra4“Square dancing just got fierce.” -San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Contra1If you’ve heard me yak on about this Queer Contra dance thing I’m helping organize in the Bay Area, and you’re curious and want to check it out, our first dance of the new season is this Sunday at Ashkenaz in Berkeley, from 6 to 9. And before you ask– the dance is aimed at queer folk, but we genuinely welcome anybody of any sexual orientation.

Contra2And also before you ask — you absolutely do not have to have any dance experience whatsoever to join in our dance. We are very beginner-friendly; all the dances are taught and called; and there are always lots of beginners at our dances, so you’ll be in good company. (All ages are welcome, and we don’t serve hooch.)

Contra3If you haven’t heard me yak on about contra dancing, here’s a little more about it. Contra is a boisterous, flirtatious, energetic dance form that’s related to both American and English country dancing. (Try to imagine a Jane Austen hoedown.) It’s danced in a set of two parallel lines; each couple progresses up and down the set, so everyone gets a chance to dance with everyone else, making it friendly and social. (You don’t need to come with a partner — lots of people come to the dances alone, and we switch partners quite promiscuously throughout the evening.) The music is lively and bouncy, similar to both old-time American and traditional Scots-Irish, and we always dance to live music. The SF Queer Contra is “gender-free,” which means anyone can dance with anyone regardless of gender, and anyone can take the “lead” or “follow” position in any dance.

Contra6_1And it’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys. (I’ve always wondered about that phrase, by the way. A barrel of monkeys doesn’t actually seem like that much fun to me.) It’s joyous and boingy, flirty and friendly, goofy and exhilarating, and I always leave the dance with a gigantic grin on my face.

Contra5You can visit our Website for more info about who we are, or to get a feel for the dance by looking at more photos. (If you visit our Website, don’t be fooled by our out-of-date calendar — we know, we’re working on it, it’ll be updated soon.) And again, our next dance will be at Ashkenaz in Berkeley, which is at 1317 San Pablo Avenue (near Gilman St.), from 6 to 9 pm. If you’re a newcomer, it’s good to get there early if you can, to get more of the teaching. Admission is 10 bucks on a “pay what you can” sliding scale, and nobody is ever turned away for lack of funds. Drop me a note if you have any questions. Hope to see you there!

Juggling to Abbey Road

This is just cool. It doesn’t have anything to do with anything: it’s just cool. It’s this guy, Chris Bliss, doing a choreographed juggling routine to the “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” sequence at the end of Abbey Road. And it’s just neat. It’s one of those things, like the Thorax Cake, that makes me happy to be part of the human race. I haven’t been feeling very happy about being part of the human race lately, so this was a welcome shot in the arm. Enjoy! (BTW, you really have to have your sound turned on to get the effect, so don’t watch this at work unless your boss is either really cool or not around.)