Tag Archives: censorship

Conner Habib + Abby Martin! AGAINST EVERYONE WITH CONNER HABIB Episode 2!

26 Jun

 

 

Welcome to the second episode of AGAINST EVERYONE with CONNER HABIB!

I’m so excited to have Abby Martin on the show! Abby is a radical political journalist, and host of Empire Files. She’s also an artist and activist.
Together, we talk how to sift through media and find trustworthy voices, politics, imperialism, Palestinian rights, and how to live in the intensities of our world.
Here’s a breakdown of the episode:
  • How Abby & I are CLEARLY Russian agents: 1:45
  • The Jill Stein Problem: 7:10
  • The longing for a politician we can believe in, no matter what he or she says: 10:00
  • The moment the scales fell from Abby’s eyes: 11:30
  • How conspiracies form when world views are shattered: 14:00
  • The exploitation of Seth Rich’s death: 16:00
  • Why gathering the evidence for a conspiracy is not enough: 18:35
  • La La Land as the expression of US anxieties: 21:30
  • Israel as a concentration of world issues and moral compass: 25:15
  • Media misrepresentation: 38:00
  • The difference between Chris Hedges’s despicable views on porn
    versus Noam Chomsky’s dumb but responsible ones: 40:30
  • Thinking original thoughts and Wittgenstein’s struggle: 46:00
  • Stumbling your way toward better politics: 53:25

Please support the show by SIGNING UP HERE. You get downloadable audio of every ep, access to Conner’s book club, extra episodes, and more
For SHOW NOTES with links there to some of the books, movies, and people I mention in this episode. CLICK HERE for all that.

Please share and use #AEWCH when you do!

Love,

CH

#TheSexRadicals, Part 3: Wilhelm Reich’s Free Sex

4 Aug

Each week this summer, I’ll be posting short essays on sexual thinkers (read the introduction to the series here) who have changed my perspective on sex, and who, I believe, could be instrumental in helping us remake Western sexual culture. It will include some bits about my own life, some history, and some controversial claims. Last week was the man who fought slavery with sex, Paschal Beverly Randolph.  The series also appears on RealitySandwich.com

Wilhelm Reich

Wilhelm Reich

Stripping Off Our Armor: The Accumulating, Paradoxical Power of Wilhelm Reich

Civilization has not yet begun.”

– Wilhelm Reich (1897 – 1957)

To view Wilhelm Reich, sexologist and psychoanalyst, as our culture views him, move through his life backwards.  When he’s remembered today, he’s summed up and dismissed by his sad ending.  He’s thought of mostly as a madman, dying alone in prison, a fraud, discredited by the government. 

To view his life as one of his supporters, move through it from the beginning of his career to end; he was a protégé who worked tirelessly to help others, and was eventually driven mad by the mad world he lived in.

To really understand Reich, the narrative shouldn’t be backwards, forwards/  We should look instead at his ideas —whether they are true or false — the possibilities they create for us. Instead of taking a linear approach, we can take a sexual one.  Pain and pleasure, intertwined.  Thought and action.  Tension and release.  View Wilhelm Reich as a paradox:  A man who revealed a new, loving world to us in an angry language we still can’t understand.  A man whose work was officially dismissed as ludicrous but also taken seriously enough to merit governmental seizure and destruction when all his journals, books, and papers were burned by the FDA.

Here’s a lengthy quote from Reich’s book, The Murder of Christ: The Emotional Plague of Mankind, which, complete with shouting capital letters, shows him in all his glory: A profoundly clear thinker, ranting in a crazy tone, shocking us with truth and confusion all at once.

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“It IS possible to get out of a trap. However, in order to break out of a prison, one first must confess to being in a prison. The trap is man’s emotional structure, his character structure. There is little use in devising systems of thought about the nature of the trap if the only thing to do in order to get out of the trap is to know the trap and to find the exit. Everything else is utterly useless…

The first thing to do is to find the exit out of the trap.

The nature of the trap has no interest whatsoever beyond this one crucial point: WHERE IS THE EXIT OUT OF THE TRAP?

One can decorate a trap to make life more comfortable in it.

This is done by the Michelangelos and the Shakespeares and the Goethes. One can invent makeshift contraptions to secure longer life in the trap. This is done by the great scientists and physicians, the Meyers and the Pasteurs and the Flemings. One can devise great art in healing broken bones when one falls into the trap.

The crucial point still is and remains: to find the exit out of the trap…

The exit remains hidden. It is the greatest riddle of all. The most ridiculous as well as tragic thing is this:

THE EXIT IS CLEARLY VISIBLE TO ALL TRAPPED IN THE HOLE. YET NOBODY SEEMS TO SEE IT. EVERYBODY KNOWS WHERE THE EXIT IS. YET NOBODY SEEMS TO MAKE A MOVE TOWARD IT. MORE: WHOEVER MOVES TOWARD THE EXIT, OR WHOEVER POINTS TOWARD IT IS DECLARED CRAZY OR A CRIMINAL OR A SINNER TO BURN IN HELL.

It turns out that the trouble is not with the trap or even with finding the exit. The trouble is WITHIN THE TRAPPED ONES.

All this is, seen from outside the trap, incomprehensible to a simple mind. It is even somehow insane. Why don’t they see and move toward the clearly visible exit? As soon as they get close to the exit they start screaming and run away from it. As soon as anyone among them tries to get out, they kill him. Only a very few slip out of the trap in the dark night when everybody is asleep.”

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MOCReich was an Austrian-born student of Sigmund Freud’s; he was a promising figure in psychoanalysis who eventually departed from the circles that praised him.  Contrary to the common condemnation of psychoanalysis for its preoccupation with sex, Reich’s idea was that it didn’t focus on sex enough.

For Reich sex was it.

He allowed the mysteries of sexuality and sexual drives to lead him to a deep and frantic understanding of our culture.  It’s an understanding that shakes you away as you follow, and I can’t claim to understand it fully.  To read Reich is to allow yourself to live in inspiration rather than total clarity.  So here are four of his basic concepts, which intertwine and grow out of one another:

Character analysis, character armor, orgastic potency, and orgone energy.

With Reich’s concept of character analysis he worked to examine what people’s resistances to health and happiness were.  Why were they avoiding wholeness and integration? How did they excuse themselves into surviving — knowingly or unknowingly — in suffering?  Unlike the analysts before him, Reich sought to be more precise and less moralizing. What are the moments of your life, he wanted to know, that have led to your characteristic defensive behaviors? We have a torrent of emotions within us, awaiting expression, shamed into silence by our families, our cultures, our partners. The chilling effect of these outside forces turns our emotions into “frozen history.”

If this aspect of character analysis seems common, Reich’s theory of character armor and the corresponding concept of orgastic potency are still waiting to be embraced. Character armor was premised on the idea that the body is a sort of material reflection of the emotional state.  Or to use Simone de Beauvoir’s words, ”The body isn’t a thing, it’s a situation; it’s our grasp on the world and our sketch of our project.” Whenever someone has a defensive emotional gesture, it becomes bound up in our situations, our projects, our bodies, stuck like a choke. For instance, people with anxiety issues often have shallow breathing patterns or tense jaws. These knots in the body stop energetic flow and cause all sorts of health and mood problems that might seem unrelated to the initial characteristic defense.

If you’re flinching at the word “energetic,” you’ll want to know that Reich tried to flesh out what that meant.  As per much of his work, he both succeeded and failed.  His concept of “energy” was sexual energy, a refined version of the psychoanalytic idea of “libido.”  He believed sexual excitation underlies many of our motivations, but also that it is a continuation of the creation of life itself.  The same exuberant force that leads to life is what makes us happy and healthy.  Sex creates us, and our lives and motivations are living praise of that creative act.  Or our painful behavior is a contracted, angry refusal to acknowledge our sexual being-ness.

Reich understood culture as a giant sexual expression gagging on tangles of repression. The stored up sexual energy and frustration of a culture becomes oppressive.  The Nazis, for example (whom Reich later fled), opposed birth control, abortion, contraception, and homosexuality.  They were totally sexually repressed.  One of Reich’s revolutionary stances was to support sexual freedom, even if he was against a particular sexual practice.  It was a typically Reichian paradox.  For instance, he wasn’t thoughtful enough to allow homosexuality to be “healthy,” but he did fight against anti-gay stigmatization and legislation.

The taboo, he knew, was always more dangerous than the act. 

Modern day Reichians have carried on his work to explain how cultures co-create our character armor.  Sometimes they woefully misfire, like when they interpret Islamic cultures through the lens of naive American exceptionalism.  Other times they get it right, like when they note how class and gender inequality, as well as adverse environmental conditions create a positive feedback loop.  Sexual repression occurs as a result of poverty, which creates armored behavior, which creates more repression, and so on.   And certain environmental factors echo familial ones.  “…the emotional responses of a child to famine and starvation are similar to those stemming from maternal rejection or isolation-rearing factors which are known to have powerful disturbing effects upon later adult behavior,” writes neo-Reichian researcher James Dameo.

Reich was invested in individual responsibility, but was also a true pioneer in pointing out: It’s not you that’s fucked up, it’s culture.

Individuals are not merely selves – they are conglomerates of cultural pulses and counterpulses.  Or, as biologist and symbiosis expert Lynn Margulis once put it, “Identity is not an object; it is a process with addresses for all the different directions and dimensions in which it moves…”

How to dissolve the character armor?  Sex. 

To free up sexual excitation and dissolve character armor, one must be able to immerse him/herself in sex, and to have a liberating orgasm.  The orgasm was of primary importance to Reich, and “orgastic potency” was how fully you experienced it.  The orgasm was the event of release; all the stored of excitation left the body, resulting in total relaxation and harmony.  In essence, orgastic potency measures a person’s ability to surrender, relax, and release neuroses and psychoses.

Before we start shooting our celebratory confetti into the air, Reich was specific about the sorts of orgasm you could have.  Not all orgasms were equal.  You had to be thoughtful about your total immersion.  People who weren’t, as well as people who were merely intelligent about sex without really engaging in deep thought or practice of it, were, for Wilhelm Reich, merely sexually sophisticated, rather than sexually liberated. It’s a dichotomy that should haunt every sex-positive person to the core until they come to terms with it. That doesn’t mean accepting Reich’s terms for who is sophisticated versus liberated; take those or leave them. But it’s true that standard cultural sex education and good feelings about sex aren’t what separate the sex radicals from the openly horny.  Sexual liberation of ourselves and culture is a deep and unending work.

Reich developed a few methods to release stuck energy and increase orgastic potency.  Most prominent was vegetotherapy.  A patient lies on a table and breathes deeply and rhythmically to build up excitation and heighten emotion. The Reichian therapist sits close by, speaking gently.  Relax, relax, release your muscles. Often, a scream or a flood of tears erupt from the patient.

Many popular forms of alternative medicine, such as the Alexander Technique, bioenergetics, and Rolfing are new versions of vegetotherapy, seeking to thaw frozen histories. But if these techniques are known, their ties to Reich are often secret, severed, or ignored.

Then Reich discovered cosmic energy.  And that’s when the feds came.

paul laffolyReich’s idea of libidinous sexual energy began to morph, through the lens of his theories and studies, into a stranger principle of “orgone” energy.  Orgone energy was, “A subtle biophysical energy which permeates all living things.”  For Reich, orgone was the truth behind what people called God, a scientific principle to explain away mysticism. It was free-flowing and, because it was free, it could be used to help people undo character armor.  To this end, he created orgone “accumulators,” which would gather the energy and allow people who sat inside the boxes to absorb the benefits.  He also turned his accumulator inside out into a “cloudbuster,” a sort of rainmaking device which helped disperse atmospheric orgone energy knots.

People were sick.  Culture was sick. Even the sky was sick.  At the center, Wilhelm Reich was trying to heal everyone.  In the process, he absorbed their illnesses.

Most of Reich’s later work revolved around orgone energy, and much of it yielded provocative data.  But Reich’s  theories were too intangible and unintelligible.  Orgone energy was never clearly defined enough to communicate his research to many others, and unfortunately, Reich would publicly vent the frustration of being misunderstood again and again, isolating potential allies. When Albert Einstein visited Reich, for example, and stood in an accumulator, he noted that there was a temperature change in the box, but believed it could have been just a run-of-the-mill temperature gradient.  Many others had experienced this temperature change (including in boxes other than the ones Reich made and ones manufactured today), and Reich created controls against such normal gradients. But rather than absorb Einstein’s report as data, he repeatedly wrote to Einstein pressuring him to reassess his position. When Einstein didn’t respond, Reich called it a conspiracy and published a book about it. 

Reich wanted to help free us from a history of repressions, and by helping us, finally begin civilization. But what gets frozen in a man that tries to unfreeze history, and fails?

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Kate Bush as Peter Reich.  Donald Sutherland as Wilhelm Reich. In the video for Bush’s song about him, “Cloudbusting.”man that tries to unfreeze history, and fails?man that tries to unfreeze history, and fails?

We can still take up his lesson: Sex runs through culture like a hidden line of power, and where we don’t release it, where we don’t help each other come to our senses, we hurt ourselves and everyone else.

However we look at the paradoxical figure of Wilhelm Reich, we’re unsettled. 

Maybe Reich was so crazy that he created an entire theoretical world out of himself, a world now available to us for to think about, mull over, fear, delight in.  Or maybe he was so sane that he showed us we’re all crazy.

Kate Bush’s song, “Cloudbusting,” calls up Reich’s final days, from the viewpoint of his son.

On top of the world

Looking over the edge

You could see them coming

You looked too small

In their big black car

To be a threat to the men in power

Reich was a powerless threat to everyone in power. He’s still a threat.  The more we forget him, the more potent discovering him again becomes.

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Next week:  The Man Who Saw The World As An Orgy

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Sources

Boadella, David.  Wilhelm Reich: The Evolution of His Work.  London. Arkana. 1985.

DeMeo, James.  Saharasia: The 4000 BCE Origins of Child Abuse, Sex-Repression, Warfare and Social Violence, In the Deserts      of the Old World.  Ashland, OR: Natural Energy Works, 2011.

Reich, Wilhelm.  The Mass Psychology of Fascism.  New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980.

Reich, Wilhelm.  The Murder of Christ: The Emotional Plague of Mankind.  New York.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1953.

Wilson, Colin.  The Quest for Wilhelm Reich.  New York, Anchor, 1981.

#TheSexRadicals, Part 1: Ida Craddock, the Sexual Freedom Fighter Who Married an Angel

23 Jul

Each week, I’ll be posting short essays on sexual thinkers (read the introduction to the series here) who have changed my perspective on sex, who, I believe, could be instrumental in helping us remake Western sexual culture. It will include some bits about my own life, some history, and some controversial claims. The series also appears on RealitySandwich.com

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Ida Craddock

Making Room for Sex: Ida Craddock and The Sacred Profane

“If you believe in Jesus, aspire to be in unison with His will from the moment the [sexual] ecstasy sets in…”

– Ida Craddock (1857-1902)

In 1893, Chicago was humming with an urgent darkness; it was a year of blood. The Mayor was assassinated by an angry and envious political hopeful. A serial killer, H.H. Holmes was stalking the streets of the city, claiming dozens of victims. And Columbus’s brutal arrival in the Americas was being commemorated by The World’s Fair. To stand at the edge of the Fair was to look from a dark room into light. Enter the Fair, and you could leave Chicago, even though you were still in it.

There were representations of buildings and cities from around the world to inspire architects and planners. The World’s Parliament of Religions, with representatives from Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Shintoism and more, shocked a new world-awareness into patrons.

The Fair’s Middle Eastern replica, “Cairo Street,” boasted what would seem like an embarrassment of orientalist romanticization today. But in the late 19th Century, the exhibit was alluring, a shiver of power. There was Middle Eastern architecture, the twisting strums of Arabic music playing, people smiling on top of camels.

And there were belly dancers.

In the Egyptian Theatre, women with exposed midriffs made waves of their bodies, turning and flowing to the music. Their arms gracefully ascended into the air then snaked their way back, closer to their bodies. The performances were a huge hit, drawing crowds and exaggerated news coverage. They also drew detractors, who, in a blended condemnation of Arab cultures and sexual expression, proclaimed the shows “demoralizing and disgusting.”

Anthony Comstock was among them, leading the public outcry. Comstock was head of the state-sponsored New York NYSFTSOVSociety for the Suppression of Vice. The globe of his bald head was held by a ring of facial hair that drooped from his cheeks like the slavering jowls of a St. Bernard. He was fond of bow ties. He was a serious person with a serious mission: destroy obscenity. The Society’s badge bore a proud picture of a man dropping books in a fire on one side and a baton-wielding police officer pushing some obscene chap into a cell by his neck. That would do it! These pagan belly dancers — savages! — would have to go into the fire along with all those books.

But while Comstock was raising protests, a defense appeared in the the newsprint pages of New York World. Instead of the dancing being the hip-thrusting of primitives, the defense read, it was a valuable tool in understanding sex, how to move during sex with your partner, the sacredness of sexuality. The defense was outrageous and pulsed with the newness of the Fair. In a time of blood and death, it was a rebirth. The author was Ida Craddock, a women’s rights advocate, stenography teacher, and spouse of an angel. Her mission, also serious, was nothing less than the reinstatement of sex to sacred stature. The world was changing. The moment to rethink sex was at hand.

Craddock was born in Philadelphia in 1857, and endured a puritanical childhood with a paranoid mother who would continue throughout life to be one of her staunchest enemies. Wherever Craddock walked, she encountered patriarchal and sex-phobic ideals forcefully gripping the culture She spent her time systematically prying the fingers back, sometimes successfully. When she was in her twenties, she clashed with the University of Pennsylvania, who refused to admit women into their liberal arts school. Later, frustrated with the limits of Protestantism, she became a Unitarian and called for “Free Thought” Sunday schools, where children would be taught all religious traditions, rather than just one.

VW

Victoria Woodhull

Like many radicals of the time, Craddock found freedom in spiritualism. Today, the occult and spirituality are often ridiculed by the Left, but they played a vital part in the formation of Leftist, feminist, and radical politics, not to mention social justice movements. For instance, Craddock’s eye was always on the oppression of women. Since religion was a key in oppressing women, many activists — including the first female presidential candidate, Victoria Woodhull — worked to create new models of religion to replace what was thought to be the phallocentric Christian one, in which the cross itself was seen as an oppressive phallic symbol. Craddock started out as a skeptic, even a debunker. But eventually, the currents of liberatory spiritualism made their way into her thinking, and she began to seek correspondence with the imagined and real world of spiritual entities. One of them was a seventeen year-old boy she’d known when she was younger. He was killed in an accident and now appeared to her as an angel named Soph. Why not marry an angel? After some loving correspondence with Soph, Craddock did, and reported her ecstatic sexual experiences with him in a language that strongly resembles the language of objectum sexuals, who fall in love with and make love to objects and landmarks. It’s a moving language of ecstasy – an encounter with a partner whose being-ness others can’t understand. The invisible breath of the angel so in love with you, that you’re the only one who can see him.

From her scholarly work, her relationship with Soph, her experience in activism, and her encounters with feminist allies, Ida Craddock enacted her strategy to empower people, particularly women. She started to educate — in-person and through pamphlets — women about their bodies so that they could experience intense sexual pleasure in their relationships rather than live in the dull un-erotic circumstances they’d found themselves in. Craddock’s message was that women had as much of a right to sexual pleasure as their husbands, and that this pleasure was a sacred right. Sex was a gift from God. Sexual pleasure was part of Jesus Christ’s message. Any other interpretation of religion was the love of God passed through a distorted lens. Craddock hoped that this religious foundation of sexual pleasure would create a door for the devout and sexually timid. And she also hoped it would protect her, via the Bill of Rights, from censorship.

But while Craddock had her hopes, Comstock had his very own Act. The Comstock Obscenity Act prevented any obscene information and material from being sent through the US mail. Obscene, as usual, was defined broadly enough to mean anything, including contraceptives, abortion info, sexual instruction, and more. Craddock’s advice was, indeed, explicit for the time – “perform the pelvic movements during the embrace, riding your husband’s organ gently,” she’d written in her publication, The Wedding Night, “up, down, sideways with a semi-rotary movement.” Her pamphlets were thwarted at every turn, forced into obscurity shortly after they hit the postal service. But as a “sexologist” (her self-chosen title) it was harder to stifle her message, since she offered in-person consultations with people in sexual need.

Craddock’s message: If sex and pleasure do not fit into your model of culture, well, then, redraw your model to make room for them. Like the Fair, the contours of your relationship with your partner and God were containers for sights unseen, new experiences, new ways to experience the world and yourself and be free.

Since our attitudes toward sex have been so distorted by people and institutions in power, all sexual revolutionaries of all eras absorb the prejudices and sexual shaming of their time. A lot was lost in Craddock’s religion-meets-sex approach. Even though she was well-versed in the religious history of sexual rituals and wanted women to be liberated from “sex slavery” (a term of her time that loosely approximates to patriarchy), she was so focused on religion that she often lost sight of sex. This is evident in her moral admonitions of oral sex, prostitution and more.

These limits in her thinking show up as sadness and confusion. In two separate cases, men, both interested in sex and love with other men, approached her. She wavered in a perplexed position. Would she find herself in strange alliance with Comstock’s laws, which prohibited depictions of or information about homosexual behavior (and would do so until 1958)? She struggled with whether or not this could be love and not just perversion. That she struggled at all was due in part to the influence of another sexual reformer of the time, Walt Whitman’s protege, Edward Carpenter. Carpenter wore black ties, had sharp features, enjoyed sex with other men, and corresponded with Gandhi. Craddock admired his brilliant and powerful writings about the collapse of civilization and the tenderness of love between men.

AC

Aleister Crowley

But Craddock was unable to undo all the currents of traditional repression. She managed on the one hand to be radical and on the other to be traditional; her focus didn’t stray far from heterosexual monogamy. But what she said you could do within a monogamous partnership was revolutionary. It was inspiring even the most radical thinkers. “Her learning is enormous,” wrote magus Aleister Crowley, in a review of Craddock’s Heavenly Bridegrooms, which he called, “one of the most remarkable human documents ever produced.”

Life as a radical can be lonely and beleaguered, even with an angel at your side. Craddock’s own mother conspired with authorities to have her admitted to a mental institution. The federal government seized her work. She was considered a witch, no small burden to bear at the time. For Comstock, her mother, and the judges at her various trials, it didn’t matter that Craddock’s message was intertwined with Christ. Her embrace of sexual pleasure meant that her angelic husband might as well have been a the devil whispering into her ear.

In 1902, she was sentenced to three months in prison. If she would admit she were insane, she knew, she could avoid prison time. But Craddock refused. When you have seen into the contracted heart of the world’s insanity, what can you do but plead you are sane?

She was released amongst cries of public support and then immediately arrested again, under the Comstock law. Comstock would not stop attacking Ida Craddock. Like the anti-prostitution and anti-porn bigots of today, who delight in attacking sex workers, this was where he found his pleasure.
Unwilling to be Comstock’s partner in pleasure any longer, Craddock went home, turned on the oven gas, and slit her wrists.

She left two letters. One was an open letter, condemning Comstock and the country’s sexual state of affairs. It was a plea to understand the damage being done to our world by obscenity laws, dead marriages, the oppression of women, sexual ignorance.

The second letter was to her mother, but its sentiments also ripple out into the waters of history, hoping to find all of us.

“I love you, dear mother; never forget that. And love cannot die; it is no dream, it is a reality.” Some day, she wrote, her work would be taken up by others and her mother would not be ashamed.

“Some day,” she wrote, “you’ll be proud of me.”

Western culture is still learning this lesson: that we have a right, a sacred right (whether we’re religious or not) to sexual pleasure. And if our worldview or our relationship doesn’t allow for it, we must recreate their boundaries.

Ida Craddock lay in her apartment, sealed off with these letters. There, she bled and breathed false air until she died.

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Next up: The Sex Magician of the Civil War

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Sources
Chappell, Vere. Sexual Outlaw, Erotic Mystic: The Essential Ida Craddock.
San Francisco: Weiser, 2010.

Schmidt, Leigh E. Heaven’s Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American
     Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman. New York: Basic, 2010.

IdaCraddock.com

#TheSexRadicals – A new blog series about sexual thinkers who can change our world.

20 Jul

IMG_1301 (1)Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting short essays on sexual thinkers who have changed my perspective on sex, who, I believe, could be instrumental in helping us remake Western sexual culture. It will include some bits about my own life, some history, and some controversial claims. The series also appears on RealitySandwich.com

The idea here is to cultivate new growth in our thinking about sex, by looking to people who have laid down some of the groundwork.  This first entry explains some of of current sexual climate, as well as my rationale for creating such an incomplete list, why names like Michel Foucault or Dr. Ruth don’t appear while others do. It explains why I stick primarily to Western thinkers, even though I draw heavily on non-Western thinkers for my perspectives as well.  Please comment with your own favorite Sex Radicals, I’d love to hear more.

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The Sex Radicals: Seven Thinkers Who Can Revolutionize Sex in Our Culture

Introduction:  Who Should We Invite to the Orgy?

Sex is everyone’s own creation story, everyone’s personal Big Bang.

Before you looked at this website, before you got up this morning or the day or year before, before you read or said your first word, two people you’d never met — couldn’t have met, since you weren’t a you yet —went through a series of intimate or strained or casual or confused or loving series of movements and gestures that created you.

That means that your being, along with everyone else’s, is literally composed of sexual motion and desire, because the cells that split and aggregated to make your body were set into motion by sex.  When people have sex, the laws of biology and form pay attention.  Sex weaves itself in and out of our daily thoughts, the art we encounter, the feelings we have for each other.  Is it any surprise that we think about sex so often? 

But if sex is a fact of life, the fact of life that life springs from, why is our culture so screwed up about it?  Why is sex so legislated, one might say legislated against, misunderstood, and confusing, culturally?  There are hundreds of laws set up by the state, regulating sexual content, sexual behavior, sexual freedom.  And there are the unspoken laws, often just as constricting, in every relationship we have.  Sex shame in our lives and sex shaming in our cultural sphere are intimately tangled.  Instead of telling you the right way to put a condom on or how to please your lover, this series will examine the lives and theories of thinkers who were interested in pushing sex forward in some cultural way, in bringing what they’d learned from the mystery of sex to the cultural sphere to transform both.

The good news: 

Brilliant people have been working on improving our sexual culture for a long time.  If we want to have a more thoughtful sexual culture, a healthier one that respects sex and sexuality in its infinite forms, we have some powerful, radical thinkers to choose from.  These are people who have led the way, pushed the boundaries, cared enough about the darkened realm of sex to illuminate it for us.

The bad news:

You probably haven’t heard of many of these thinkers.  And you probably haven’t heard of many of them because the powers that be discredited them or provided them with unpleasant ends.

The other bad news:

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Wilhelm Reich

Everyone, even the radical researchers and thinkers in this series, absorbs the sexual prejudices, shames, and confusions of their time and place.  They might deftly avoid one bias and passionately speak out against it, all the while carrying around a whole host of others that they’re totally blind to.  Of course, I’m guilty of this too.  Since the current conception of sex is contaminated, getting new seeds requires, at first, growing crooked plants from polluted ground.  It’s going to take some time.

The other other bad news:

Some of the most important thinkers are kind of crazy.

This, in fact, is a large part of what makes them important. To come up with new possibilities for the world, you have to hang out in the impossible and the imagined quite a bit.  You have to say outlandish things to see if they’re true.  To stand outside the depressing weight of our reality requires deep and intense encounters with your own imagination and seeing things that others don’t see.

But who to invite to this orgy of sexual/cultural renewal?

To explain why I’ve chosen these thinkers and stuck mostly to our culture, a digression:

Christine Helliwell, anthropologist, lived in Borneo with the native people of the region, the Dayak.  One morning, she heard a group of elderly women laughing outside of her apartment.  She found them reenacting a scene from the night before: A man had snuck into a woman’s bedroom through the window, and the woman woke to find him gripping her shoulder. 

“Be quiet,” he said to her. 

The woman sat up in bed and pushed him away.  He fell back and when she started to yelling at him, he escaped back through the window with his sarong falling down.

But why were the Dayak women laughing about it, Helliwell wondered; the woman had almost been raped!  This community of Dayak had no word for “rape,” so Helliwell tried to explain, “He was trying to hurt you.” 

The woman’s reply stunned the anthropologist. 

“It’s only a penis,” she said.  “How can a penis hurt anyone?”

Indigenous people, as well as anthropologists like Christine Helliwell have been reporting deep cultural differences like this to us for years.  In the case of the Dayak community, sexual assault was so far removed from the understanding of sex and gender roles that it was inconceivable, laughable.

In central Africa, the Aka and Ngandu people have sex two to five times every night, and view sex as work, not recreation.  There’s also no known homosexuality among the Aka, belying the commonly held Western truth that homosexuality is universal and inborn.  There’s simply no word or concept for it.

In Tibet, some villagers practice fraternal polyandry – brothers will share the same wife.

Many Native American nations have traditions of Two Spirited people who express cultural gender fluidity, living with the other members of the community in one form, but understood as another.

But a list of indigenous sexual practices, or people from non-Western cultures who uproot the foundations of our understanding does not figure into the selection here. There are blog posts, books, internet videos and TV shows that highlight modern-day sexual differences between Western and indigenous cultures.  Usually, they have a check-out-these-wacky-natives feeling.  Instead of helping us question our own sexual ideas, these news-of-the-weird soundbytes reinforce our prejudices at the expense of indigenous people.  It’s cultural appropriation, because it ignores that the entire cultural context of that practice is different.

For example, it’s not uncommon to find non-indigenous LGBT activists evoking Two Spirit people as poster children for LGBT political/cultural messages, since same sex relationships and gender change are not (at least traditionally) frowned upon in cultures with Two Spirit people.  But while there are similarities, the differences are deep.  It’s not about “gay” or “straight” or “gender fluidity” as we understand it, since the multiple roles — such as iskwehkhan (“fake woman”), ayahkwew (“man dressed/living/accepted as a woman”), and more — are varied, nuanced and more complex than that.  They’re embedded in a different understanding of spirituality, cause and effect, communal connection, and more.  What’s more, these roles are often chosen for members of the community by elders.

Usually, at best, indigenous sex and relationship traditions are appropriated by well-meaning activists.  At worst, they’re dismissed as oddities or demonized as backwards. 

There’s a lot to learn from other cultures’ approaches to sex. In fact, some of the thinkers mentioned in this

Amber Hollibaugh

Amber Hollibaugh

series have learned quite a bit from other cultures…or have made the mistakes I’ve just outlined.  But learning can’t take the form of cultural cherry-picking.  Both brilliant individuals from Western culture and indigenous practices can be inspirational for us, but the former allows for a presumed understanding that the latter does not.  The list of who we can learn from and listen to when it comes to sex and culture cannot be complete without the voices of people from other cultures.  But this series is in no way meant to be complete. So to avoid appropriation and to create a reasonably understood framework of thinking, I’ve chosen Western thinkers.

So who should we turn to?  It can’t be just anyone.  The Marquis de Sade, for example, will have to stay in his Chateau; for all the sexual spelunking he did, he came up with too much grime to be desirable.  Recognizable faces like Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault or pop culture reformers like Gloria Steinem aren’t adequate for our current situation precisely because they’ve had their ideas permeate our culture in a such profound way, but we’re still here, needing more.

So the strategy: Seek out thinkers on the margins of Western cultural consciousness (particularly US, since that is my vantage point, which explains Jacques Lacan’s inclusion, even though he is popular in select Western countries) who are leaning all their intellectual weight against our boundaries.  Express their radical ideas in an unfortunately incomplete but hopefully useful and understandable form.  Recognize that these they all have flaws.  Think about how they could intersect with our lives, including my own, so that they’re not just distant or academic.

Edward Carpenter

Edward Carpenter

And most importantly, perhaps, consider their work not as dogma, not as something we cannot be critical of or question,but rather, as a challenge.  What happens to our sexual consciousness and culture if we confront these thinkers with our intellect but also sit with a listening ear and open mind?

Next up:  The sexologist who married an angel and defended women’s right to pleasure.

Sources

Helliwell, Christine.  “‘It’s Only a Penis’: Rape, Feminism, and Difference.”  Signs 25:3

(2000):  789-816.

Wade, Lisa.  “Is the Penis Dangerous?”  Jezebel.  October 9, 2013.  Web.

Zevallos, Zuleyka.  “Rethinking Gender and Sexuality: Case Study of the Native

American ‘Two Spirit’ People.”  The Other Sociologist.  September 9, 2013.  Web.

They’re Not Here To Help: How Anti-Sex Work Activists Use the Tactics of Homophobes, Racists, and Islamophobes

24 Jun

bwMy latest essay, “If You’re Against Sex Work, You’re A Bigot” is up at The Stranger as part of their queer issue.  It’s the first (and hopefully only) fuck-you piece I’ve ever written.  The essay compares the tactics of anti-sex work activists (I refer to them more accurately as “anti-sex bigots” in the essay)  with the tactics of racists, homophobes, Islamophobes, and misogynists.  It’s a pretty one-to-one comparison, and that they are in fact basically bigots was a sentiment that concretized over the writing of the essay.

I don’t generally like writing from a place of anger, but the overwhelming weight of discrimination and stigma, not to mention misguided legislation and confused conversations, that sex workers face every day inspires a lot of, well, rage in me.  I wanted to give sex workers and allies a toolbox to dismantle the anti-sex activists’ work.  Too often, we find ourselves enmeshed in debate with them, defending ourselves against phony facts, fabricated statistics, shallow ideologies, and more.  Really what we should see is they have nothing to their arguments but hatred.  So rather than respond, the essay urges readers to dismiss, protest, shun, and shutdown.  They don’t deserve debate anymore than the KKK, skinheads, or the Westboro Baptist Church.

Here are some excerpts, and you can read the whole essay by clicking here.

*

I should start an essay like this by telling you about how great sex workers are, how important sex workers’ rights are. I should “create sympathy in the reader” for anyone who takes their clothes off and performs sexuality. I should show you porn stars saving cats stuck in trees, sex workers volunteering at soup kitchens, strippers just trying to make it work for their families.

I should tell you about how it feels to deal with anti-sex-work stigma every day.

But this essay isn’t about us.

It’s about the demand to prove we’re worth sympathy. It’s about how if that sympathy shows up, it’s wrapped up in deliberate misunderstandings. It’s about the people who make the demand. It’s about how “Show us your humanity!” is more belittling and damaging than “Show us your tits!”

It’s about the people we should no longer respond to with anything other than protest or dismissal.

In other words, it’s about bigotry. It’s about bigots.

*

I’ll refer to anti-sex-work and anti-porn campaigners here for clarity and honesty as “anti-sex bigots.” When that word gets tiring, I’ll call them “anti-sex activists.”

Why? Because sex is what makes sex work so special for them. Sex makes this line of work a singular profession, mystically distinguished from other jobs. But their analyses and understandings of sex lack depth. There is no substance to their arguments. Their tactics are strung together not with understanding or data, but with hate. Their bigotry is visceral, and their goals are clear:

1. Distort and destroy consent.

2. Create a framework of good vs. evil.

3. Cherry-pick voices.

4. Play the victim while holding the power.

5. Create apocalyptic urgency.

This list might sound like an exaggeration to outsiders. To sex workers, it’s exhaustingly and overwhelmingly familiar.

*

Wait a second, wait a second, I can hear the fumbling voices of protest. Stop talking about bigotry. I mean, after all, we’re not talking about race, right? We’re not talking about something people can’t change. That’s what makes speech against those groups hate speech. Sex workers, well, they…

What? Were you finally going to say we choose our careers?

*

Does this rant from an anti-sex activist sound familiar?

“The insistence that there’s nothing unusual in ‘work’ that involves male strangers penetrating your body and ejaculating inside of you goes right along with the ‘sex positivity’ popular with young Leftists. Women are likely to sustain injury (vaginal tearing) during heterosexual intercourse if we are not genuinely aroused (rather than performing for an audience); we are more likely to contract infections and diseases than our male partners; we are more likely to be harmed by male sexual partners (who are almost always larger and stronger than we are); and we are 100% more likely than our male partners to face unwanted pregnancy.” —Anti-sex bigot (5)

Compare that to this, from a video called “Medical Dangers of Anal Sex” posted by Christofer L, an antigay Christian You-Tuber:

“Let’s look at some simple biological truths… The rectum… [is designed] strictly for the removal of waste, moving it outward away from the body. This is why the blood vessels in the rectum break when a phallic object goes against the natural flow of movement by its muscles. Believe it or not, this causes rectal/anal damage. Many sexual experts and medical personnel discourage anal sex because of the danger… Safe sex? Mechanical damage to the rectum will happen regardless of the safe-sex measures.”

Same gesture, same hate, same simplifications.

*

What’s more dehumanizing: showing your butt cheeks to an audience or having someone tell you that you don’t blackoutexist?

We need a varied, active, and dynamic picture of sex workers, not a muffled, stunted one. I started porn after going to grad school for writing and biology and being a college English instructor. I know plenty of porn performers with other jobs: meteorology, fashion design, dairy farming, law, freelance writing, directing, nursing, nonprofit organizing. Those are just off the top of my head. Yes, there are porn performers who—like many writers, actors, etc.—have no other job and are struggling. And there are other sex workers working out of various causes of necessity. The point isn’t that doing sex work out of need doesn’t exist. Nor is the point that we have to absolutely love sex work to do it. Not everyone loves their job, and sex workers should not be singled out and forced to simply because of the “sex” in their work. The point is, your picture of who sex workers are must be multifaceted. It’s a picture that’s ineluctably complex, yet anti-sex activists want us to hear one voice and will symbolically kill the rest of us to achieve the effect.

*

“Pornography Is What the End of the World Looks Like,” reads the title of one anti-porn rant.

Whose world is ending?

What world are they talking about?

Like almost everyone who wants to save the world, anti-sex bigots have to fabricate a fake world that’s being destroyed first. KKK members fabricate the idea of a pure white race that’s being destroyed, fundamentalist Christians fabricate pure heterosexuality corrupted by gays, US warmongers fabricate pure democracy threatened by Muslims, and so on.

The end is near! Anti-sex activists create a world in danger from sex work, though our world without sex work never existed. To make sure the end is always near, they shift the goalposts. It’s not the porn, goes one argument, it’s the distribution!

The 1965 anticommunist, antigay, anti-porn video Perversion for Profit states:

“Pornography and sex deviation have always been with mankind. This is true. But now consider another fact… High-speed presses, rapid transportation, mass distribution all have combined to put the vilest obscenities in the reach of every man, woman, and child in the country.”

In 2015, an anti-sex activist proclaimed with the certainty she was saying something new when she said that “porn 15 years ago is basically Playboy andPenthouse, which as sexist as it was… those are the good old days. Today pornography has shifted rapidly, and it’s shifted because of the internet… [the internet has made porn] affordable, accessible, and anonymous…” (9)

We must act urgently! To save our neuropathways from online porn! To save young men’s desires! To save women! To save anyone we want to control!

All—yes, all—of the adverse conditions sex workers face are created or exacerbated by anti-sex bigots who directly harm sex workers or indirectly harm them by silencing them, spreading misinformation, blocking paths to sexual health education, and cultivating stigma.

“We’re here to save you!” sounds promising, until the statement is completed honestly: “We’re here to save you… from the damaging conditions we’ve created and continue to perpetuate.”

*
read the whole essay

I Signed the PEN Dissent Letter (or: I Refuse the “Support Our Troops” Version of Free Speech)

3 May

LetterA recent controversy has erupted over 204 PEN members — including myself, Joyce Oates, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Kamlia Shamsie Teju Cole, and more — disassociating themselves from PEN’s decision to award French magazine Charlie Hebdo with the Freedom of Expression Courage AwardThe situation has been framed again and again by other writers, so I won’t restate it here.  For a good introduction — when there were six rather than 204 of us — click here. And for the full text of the letter, click the image to the left.

I wish to address, for those familiar with the situation, why I support the letter.  I would like, also, to express what sort of reassessment took place in light of the response to the dissenters.  I also wish to address how all of us, myself included, are responsible for deepening our understanding of freedom of speech and expression, rather than condoning a “support our troops” version of it.

*

I signed the letter with a sense of relief.

It came from an anonymous sender and echoed statements I’d thought but not voiced.  It was a challenge I may not have taken up on my own.    

Will you sign this?  Do you agree?  Will you disassociate yourself from the award?

Here was a small group of writers who felt compelled to say something about the Freedom of Expression Courage Award confusion.  These were writers I knew and respected.  Some of them are among my favorites.

I am not one of the widely celebrated writers on the list.  I, like many of the 204 signatories, am not a household name.  I am not wealthy or luxuriously free to sign petitions.  I someone doing my best to sort through information to understand the truth.  Like most of us, I often fall short in this task.

One of the ways I look for truth is through the act of writing. 

That is to say: I write mostly because it helps me understand and feel more compassion for others.  Truth and compassion intertwine, are dependent on one another.

I replied to the email quickly: Yes. 

The list of supporters grew.  Though each signatory issued support for the same letter, we all, no doubt, have different takes on it, and inwardly emphasize different aspects.  And though we are all members of PEN, we all have different feelings about freedom of speech.  This controversy should, if nothing else, make clear that there is no monolithic view of what, exactly, PEN membership means, nor that there is a single version of freedom of speech among PEN members.

That said, below is how I read the letter, why I supported, and continue to support it.

First, it is important to state: the letter is a letter of disassociation. 

It is not a letter, as some critics have stated, to revoke the award or to end the ceremony.  I did not wish to be part of the honoring of Charlie Hebdo.  I would not have signed a letter that demanded shutting down the ceremony.  This may be how some interpret the letter.  That is not in the content of the letter.  There may be other PEN members who signed the letter because they wanted the award ceremony canceled.  That was not my feeling.  Instead, I simply wanted to say, I am not a part of this award.

The cartoons in Charlie Hebdo appeared racist to me.  They appeared Islamophobic.  They appeared anti-Arab. They appeared cruel.  I do not speak or read French.  I do not know much about French culture.  They appeared racist, Islamophobic, anti-Arab, and cruel nevertheless. 

When the letter was made public, some bloggers and authors wanted the signatories to know: these cartoons are not racist.  They are not Islamophobic, they are not anti-Arab.  They are, instead, complex cartoons embedded in a French context I could not possibly understand.  I don’t know how these bloggers could claim to understand this counter-truth without themselves understanding French culture, but I paused.  Perhaps they were right.

Then there was an anti-racism organization in France – a “leading anti-racism” organization, I was told – stating Charlie Hebdo was itself anti-racist.  Short, translated blurbs from the organization circulated.  Again, these were mostly circulated by non-French-speaking people not embedded in French culture.  This was touted as proof that I and the other signatories were fools, or worse.  It didn’t matter that many of the circulators had not heard of the organization – SOS Racisme – until the PEN controversy.  The statements held the puzzling but irrefutable might of a magic bullet.

I was confused.  On the one hand, I was supposed to not trust what I saw of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, because I didn’t understand French culture.  On the other, I was expected to completely understand the complexities of this organization, SOS Racisme.  Many of the bloggers likely understood both no better or worse than I.  I looked up what I could.  I communicated with French-speaking people.  I discovered that SOS Racisme itself holds a contentious position and has been criticized by French leftists and French Muslims for some of its actions and policies.  I also was told that Charlie Hebdo is racist by French people. 

I was left, therefore, in a more complicated version of where I started.

So I tried to imagine analogues.  For SOS Racisme, I imagined the HRC, a gay and lesbian rights group in the US that has a rocky relationship with many marginalized people. They have neglected trans people, they have paired with conservatives, they have divided a progressive cause, and pushed a largely mainstreamed and too-cute version of “gay rights.”  I’ll bet many people in non-English-speaking countries think the HRC represents all queer people.  They do not.  They do not represent radical values.  Perhaps this is a false analogy.

For Charlie Hebdo, I wanted to recognize the limits of my knowledge and assume, for the time being, that they are not, in fact, a directly racist publication.  I tried to imagine their US counterpart: TV shows like Family Guy or South Park.  These shows are irreverent, offensive, silly, angry, harsh.  Sometimes they make me laugh. They use racism to make fun of racists.  I’m not sure it’s a worthwhile trade-off.  They attack religion, not just religious institutional hypocrisy. They are the subject of debate amongst American leftists.  Again, perhaps this is a false analogy.  I am trying my best to understand.

No matter what else is said about Charlie Hebdo, it is true that secularism is used as a weapon against deeply held religious identity.  Secularism is being used strategically – by Charlie Hebdo in total lockstep with many members of the French government – to “banalize” Islam. No one, whether disassociating from the award or defending the magazine, questions this.   No one at Charlie Hebdo can deny this: “banalize” is a quote from one of its murdered staff.  That should be kept in mind. 

I do not mean to ban dissections or critiques of religion.  I and my many communities – queer, sex worker, Arab – are frequently attacked by certain religious institutions and people.

Charlie Hebdo does not just attack power, but identity.  Whether or not this is “racism” is murky.  But we can see clearly: demanding what many find sacred be turned into profane, be “banalized,” is not an attack on power, it is an attack on identity.  In the case of Charlie Hebdo, it is – as the letter indicates – an attack on the identities of marginalized people.  Perhaps because I am not French, I fail to understand? 

The struggle for a more secular world does not need to be imperialist.  But if you replace “kill the marginalized person” with “kill the marginalized identity” then it surely is.

Perhaps, then, it is not a surprise that the PEN member who most supported Charlie Hebdo for the award also supports liberation wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, a combination of kill the person and kill the identity.

When the criticisms of signatories came, we were attacked, Charlie Hebdo-style. 

We were called “pussies” and “stupid” and “pro-terrorist.”

“The struggle between the two worlds can permit no compromises,” said Mussolini.

“Either you are with us, or you’re with the terrorists,” said George W. Bush.

Now we are being told the same thing by “leftist” writers who care about “freedom.”

There is no room for human beings or disagreement in a clash of mystified, archetypal ideologies.  There is no room, either, to dissent, even in plain language.

“Us” in the case of this letter means the “free” world, filled with “free” speech.  “Terrorists” were, well, everyone else.  We the signatories were with the terrorists, apparently.  How dare we not share a total (totalitarian?) unified vision — defined by people other than ourselves — of free speech?

I am not used to being told I am with terrorists or that I don’t embrace free speech. 

If I am with the terrorists, if I don’t embrace and support free speech I can’t imagine how.  I have been verbally and physically attacked and threatened by many forms of extremism: anti-gay extremism, anti-Arab extremism, and most often these days, anti-sex work extremism.

As a porn performer for nearly eight years, I have, like most porn performers, risked discrimination, stigma, ridicule, travel restrictions, and threats for doing what I do.  These are risks taken on by all porn performers either intentionally in the name of free speech or as an unexpected consequence of bearing the burden of free speech. 

I portray a sort of expression that many refuse to even acknowledge as expression. 

There is no PEN award for sex workers.  Even “enlightened” and “literary” people, even staunch leftists condemn porn performers. They say we are brainwashed.  They say we are stupid.  They say we are making the world a worse place.  I don’t have space to discredit the arguments here, but it should be obvious that the sex worker community carries quite a heavy burden of free speech, especially free speech about sex and sexuality.  Perhaps, in shouldering that burden, we even help lighten it for others.

The Charlie Hebdo cartoons, whether blatantly or ironically racist, are sex-negative.  They use sex as the punchline to attack power.  This demeans sex in a way that pornography, which actually portrays the sexual act, never can or will.  Porn, particularly bad porn, might make sex simplistic, but it does not sacrifice sex to destroy people.

There is a long tradition of jokingly using sexual imagery to attack people in power. Have I ever laughed at it?  Yes.  Does Charlie Hebdo occasionally contain sex-positive cartoons? Sure.

Do I think it balances the its sex negativity out with sex positivity, or that its expressions of sex as a punchline deserves a PEN award for courage?  No.

This was not in the letter.  I did not feel it necessary to add it, but it played into my decision to sign the statement.

I do not think, as has been suggested, that Charlie Hebdo should be banned.  Thankfully, that idea is not in the letter I signed.  There is a call in the letter for responsibility in the way we treat each other and interact with one another.  There is a call to notice all human suffering and all violence.

In one critique of anti-dissenters, a writer boldly declared that leftists should aspire to be blasphemous.  It is unclear to me whether or not anyone who is not religious can actually blaspheme.  For if to blaspheme is to rail against a God that does not exist or to vulgarize things that have no sacred value, then it is to accomplish nothing.  Either we are atheists with nothing the blaspheme, or we are religious and wish to be kind in the eyes of God.  In any case, I don’t think we should aspire to be blasphemous.

The people who walked into the offices of Charlie Hebdo and shot the staff members were, certainly, blasphemous to the faith of Islam.  Blasphemous by murdering, blasphemous by demanding non-Muslims follow the tenants of (an extremist version of) Islam, and blasphemous in saying there was no room to critique Islam.

Crying for blasphemy when you do not believe in the God you’re insulting is a child’s game.  It is merely a cry for defiance.  Defiance has its values, but I do not think it is courage. I would not try to find allies amongst those who aspire to be blasphemous. Instead I seek to find them amongst the people who aspire to be compassionate.

If we are going to dismantle power, I do not think that we do a good job by aspiring to blasphemy and drawing holy figures with their asses up in the air. That does not strike me as effective.  It strikes me as imagination-less and lazy.

I also don’t think we do a good job dismantling power by creating cartoons so exaggerated in caricature that those who don’t understand every intricacy of context will think the cartoons are racist.

There is an insistence that these cartoons are not racist.  And yet many experience them that way.  Shall we demand they discard their fear, their anxiety?  Maybe we should demand they authenticate their pain to us before we take them seriously?  Shall we call them stupid pussies as the bombs rain on them and the guns are turned on them?  Perhaps they are terrorists for misunderstanding foreign caricatures that portray them with big noses and wild eyes.

Perhaps when someone I don’t know calls me a sand nigger, I should give them the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe they were critiquing the people that call me a sand nigger.  I will do my best to assess the situation. 

Have I ever slipped into angry critiques that might have been misconstrued, taken out of context, or had unintended effects?  Yes.  Do I think that should be celebrated or honored?  No.

I feel a great sadness for the loss of life at Charlie Hebdo.  I can only attempt — and I will fail in my attempt — to imagine the fear, the terror they felt as they were attacked.  I appreciated the outpouring of grief and support that followed the shootings.

I noticed, also, how it was used by people in power to make whatever point they wanted, to demean whomever they pleased.  And I noticed that the outpouring of grief turned into attacks on Muslims and Arabs afterward. 

That does not mean we should not grieve.

I do not want to be associated with the rewarding of Charlie Hebdo.  That does not mean in any way that I wish to be associated with the censoring of it.  It does not mean I cannot appreciate satire.  It does not mean I celebrate violence, either. 

I understand my perspective is limited by my circumstance and who I am.  It is, perhaps, because of these limits that I want to disassociate myself from the conflict. I am unable to fully understand.  So I must go forward with what I know. 

I know I am not interested in the trap of a “Support Our Troops” version of free speech, one that cannot be discussed. It’s one that reduces human beings and suffering — whether experienced by the staff of Charlie Hebdo by Muslims and Arabs in the context the letter describes — to an unquestionable ideology.

I know that I prefer to walk away from that version of free speech and help support, or, if need be, create a better one, one that is truly free.  In the meantime, many are losing site of people, preferring the ideologies instead. 

This is happening on all sides. 

To achieve that one must first destroy love and compassion. This is why the attacks on dissenters become controlling and intimidating, insulting.  The attacks become compulsive.  They become “for us or against us.”  In other words, they become battle cries.  A shouting monologue that leaves no room for real people may be absolute speech, but there’s not much that is “free” about it.

*

Thank you to the writers who signed the letter, and also to those who voiced disagreement with the dissenters in a caring and thoughtful way.  Thanks, also, to PEN, whose work cannot be summarized by this one event, work that I, as a member, will continue to support and try my best to improve.

Further reading:

On the complexities of anti-Muslim sentiments and Charlie Hebdo in France.

Suzanne Nossel, who advanced Charlie Hebdo’s for the award, and military intervention.

Noam Chomsky on the hypocrisy of Je Suis Charlie outrage.

*

Update: the final number of signatories when the letter was turned over to PEN on May 5 was 242.

Censoring Sex

1 Apr

booksCensoring Sex Week 

or

What To Do When Your School Cancels Your Sex-Related Event

or

Corning, One Year Later

The Back Story

A year ago,  I was invited to speak at Corning Community College by EQUAL, the on-campus LGBTQI group, headed Brandon Griewank, a student at CCC .  The talk was part of the college’s Sex Week – which was meant to foster clear communication around and cultivate awareness about sex positivity and sexuality in students’ lives.  

A week before the talk the school’s president, Katherine Douglas, as well as other administrators decided to cancel the talk.  Why?  Because I’m a porn actor.  The thing is, she’d already signed off on the event.  The posters were made, and the ink was on the contract.  Here’s some info on all the amazing (and terrible) shit that happened, as well as some tips for students encountering similar problems setting up sex-related events for their schools.

The Hidden Back Story

It was actually much worse than a canceled talk. Students reported being intimidated by members of the administration, and were told not to contact the press.  Allegedly, Dean of Student Development, Don Heins, told Griewank that he wasn’t allowed to host the talk anywhere else in town, and even went to other venues to make sure they weren’t hosting it.  

“I hope you are grasping that this issue is bigger than you and bigger than EQUAL, right?” Heins reportedly said to students.  

This was the same person who had emailed Griewank just a few weeks earlier, “This line-up (of Sex Week) shows a lot of effort on your part to provide education to the students and the rest of the community.  Congratulations to you and the Equal membership for this work.”  But after the president had canceled the event, the tone had decidedly changed.

Brandon Giewank had an “absolutely intimidating conversation,” Griewank said. “He told me I wasn’t allowed to speak to the press, told me I wasn’t allowed to help Conner. He told me this in a closed room, there was no advisor to EQUAL there, and it wasn’t scheduled, so I had no time to prepare.”  Other students reported to me that Heins had had “diversity issues” in the past, particularly with LGBT students, and had complained about diversity training.

The Pressfunny

Of course, Griewank and I went to the press, and it became a national news story.  Buzzfeed was the first to report on it , and I wrote a follow-up to the article: an essay about how pornography often intertwines positively with the lives of LGBT people, particularly in small towns like Corning.

Soon, the story was all over the place.  The Huffington Post, the local papers, MSNBC, Inside Higher Ed, and more.  Here’s the story via Corning’s local NBC news station (This link is NSFW – it links to a porn blog, but that’s the only place the video is still up)

The Talk

Since the contract – along with my cancelation policy – was already signed, I received payment in the mail.  In a conversation with an administrator, it was clear that this was shutup money – as in, take the money and disappear.  (In a conversation with a student, Heins reportedly demanded to know: “Is (Conner) still coming to Corning? He would have no reason to come to Corning if not for the college’s money and we do not support that. Is he coming?’) 

I flew to Corning anyway. On the date the talk was scheduled, I presented it at the local library instead, to what was undoubtably a much larger crowd than would have shown for the original talk.  The audience was made up of students, parents, local residents, and professors,  I was told many faculty members were afraid to show up because of pressure from administrators.

We spent the evening talking to each other about pornography.  What were the audience member’s experiences with it?  What were their definitions, their questions and reservations about it?

The Fallout

When I got back, news of further intimidation and coercion by the administration began to filter in: First, a student who’d interviewed me for a campus publication emailed me, telling me: 

“Something is going on with the Administration, we aren’t even able to get an article out because even our  advisor, who was one of the biggest advocate for you, is now all hush hush and tight lipped about it all and the other members and I think the administration and the president may be responsible. I’m not even able to write anything up without getting in trouble.”

Then, even more troubling news:  Members of Equal told me they’d been targeted by a tenured professor in the Communications/Humanities department, Christine Atkins.  She was, they reported, hanging up flyers around campus defaming the student group.

Here are excerpts from the letter, entitled THE TRUTH ABOUT SEX WEEK (if you want the whole thing, you can enlarge the image):

Atkins“(EQUAL has) alienated an OPENLY LESBIAN FEMINIST FACULTY member (me) simply because she supported the president’s decision…My support of Dr. Douglas was based on my thoughts as a feminist and a woman…

(EQUAL has) ignored and silenced other gay voices, namely that of lesbian feminists, who since the Second-Wave of the Feminist Movement have argued that the pornography industry demeans women, men, and children and leads to rape and aggression, mostly against women and children.

…the origins of Sex Week, to my understanding, were about promoting healthy sexuality for all persons, whetehr gay, straight, bisexual, or other.  After weeks of thinking about the defintion of what ‘healthy sexuality’ actually is, I still find indefensible (as in…without a shadow of a doubt) the participation in an industry that degrades and dehumanizes individuals and is also part of a capitalistic system that oppresses and lulls the masses. – Dr. Christine E. Atkins (former Adviser to EQUAL)”

The letter was signed former adviser because the students in EQUAL had voted her out.

“EQUAL tried to schedule meetings to talk to her,” one of the students told me, “and our emails went unanswered for something like 14 days. When she did finally respond (regarding Sex Week and my event) she chose not to meet with us. It was then that EQUAL voted to remove her… partly for not having our back, partly because her schedule never permits her to be present at meetings and we worried she wasn’t fairly representing the views of the students, being that she was never present to HEAR the views of the students, and finally because she refused to MEET with us.”

The content of Christine Atkins’s letter is typical anti-sex rhetoric and anti-sex worker hate speech, masquerading as feminism.  There’s no real ideology behind it, and the arguments crumble under the slightest scrutiny (you can read my dismantling of some of these arguments here  and here).  And of course, plenty of women, including quite a few openly lesbian feminists, attended the talk.  The truly disturbing thing about the letter, is, as reported by the students, that a tenured professors was hanging up flyers that attacked students.  She also reportedly posted to similar comments to the EQUAL facebook page.

Even after the entire ordeal, LGBT students were allegedly being targeted and bullied by faculty.  “It was difficult walking around campus and having teachers that supported me for years distance themselves,” Griewank told me.  He said he and other EQUAL members felt isolated; not just by the administrators that opposed the talk, but by some who supported it but didn’t want negative attention drawn to themselves.

Thankfully it was late in the school year, and the members of EQUAL now felt more solidarity with each other than ever.  “When the community turned out to support the talk, we felt supported as students and felt solidarity as members of EQUAL.”  Classes were about to wind up into a flurry of finals and then wind down into graduation.  The flyers started to disappear, the advisers that did stand by the students were presented with Adviser of the Year awards by the Student Association.  Don Heins resigned (or was fired, it’s not totally clear).  People kept talking about the event, and Griewank and many other members of EQUAL matriculated.

The Problem

Why write about this now?SWUT

I left Corning feeling like the talk was one of the best things I’d ever done.  Not because I was feeling smug about my performance, but because I’d facilitated a discussion that was being strangled by people in power.  It’s one thing for people in power to not like sex positivity or pornography; it’s another thing all together for them to not allow any public discourse on it.  The students and community members turned out to disentangle those knots of silence.

Those knots are being retied and tightened all the time.  Schools have fought students’ rights to discuss pornography,  screen it for study, and to create sex positive events. In Knoxville just a few months ago, Representatives and Senators tried to draft bills to halt Sex Week at University of Tennessee, and in 2013, funding for the event was cut just days before it was set to start (it went on anyway with private funding and was a well-attended success).

The Advice

I talked to Brandon Giewank about his experiences with our event in Corning, wondering if he had any advice for student organizers. His tips were:

Know your mission statement:  “What kept driving me forward was that our intent was never to be controversial or to talk about sex just to be shocking,” he said, expressing the clarity of EQUAL’s intention for Sex Week.  “Know what your underlying message is, so you can respond when you meet resistance.” 

Reach out for off-campus support: During the controversy, Griewank also sought off-campus support, including the ACLU, who sent a letter to college administrators on behalf of EQUAL.  “When you’re going through something like that, you can feel like you’re in a bubble.  It’s really important to seek support outside the campus.”  Also, ““people on campus need a paycheck,” Griewank says.  It’s a reminder that off-campus help is important for expertise, but also because faculty and staff at the school may fear marginalization, particularly if the school is in a small community.

Leave a paper trail:  Griewank encouraged written exchanges between himself, other students, and administrators.  He also wrote down as much as he could remember about any conversations he had with Heins and the president.  His detailed records helped him secure assistance from the ACLU, and with statements he gave to the press.  They also protected him legally.

Don’t get into a clash of egos:  If a school cancels your sex-related event, “It’s not you against them, it’s a bigger issue.  That’s the same with any issue worth fighting for.”  This was important for me to remember as a speaker, too.  I was upset that people in power were denying students a chance to communicate about sex and pornography in a safe space, but publicly insulting the administration would have only drummed up sympathy for them.  The real issue – dismantling sex-negativity and creating a healthier sexual attitude in student communities, was more important.

It’s pretty obvious that college students are interested in sex and pornography.  What’s not so obvious is the forces that are lined up against discussion.  This is part of a larger problem in academia – that schools often refuse (either implicitly or through displays of power) to engage in students’ actual concerns or lives.  And when it comes to sex, it’s an even larger cultural issue.  Sex is supposed to somehow be separate from the rest of life.  But it’s not – it’s continuously woven into our thoughts, feelings, and actions.  Discussions about sex are urgently needed to heal the segregating wound constantly inflicted by people and institutions in power.  Sex needs to be incorporated back into the anatomy of everyday life.

If you’d like me to speak at your school or organization:

check out my lecturer fact sheet and contact me at connerhabib at gmail dot com.